Panhandling: Portrait Parade
A family tradition haunting a younger generation
What’s the deal with you people?” My husband was dragging another portrait across our Brazilian cherry floor. I was one of those people he was referring to.
“No boxes—and you can’t put them in the garage. It’s too hot. Or the storage locker. They’ll get ruined,” I said.
“Then where? Please, tell me. where do you want the things?” he asked.
“Stop saying things, they’re people. I don’t know!”
And here I pretend to know everything.
Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, onto the face of my sweet 5-year-old as she grinned from the portrait. I grabbed a paper towel and wiped perspiration off the angelic lips of her curved smile.
He pulled another portrait off the wall, mumbling under his breath.
“I heard that,” I said.
We were moving. Which, by the way, is right up there with death and divorce. It’s their ugly cousin, and that’s a damn fact.
I mean, seriously, you knew the house would sell, right, Prissy? OK, maybe I did. But I darn sure didn’t know what it meant.
For sale − sold = chaos + exhaustion + stress.
Somehow that formula never seeded inside my fairytale brain. I pictured myself sliding from one house to the next, just waking up and strolling into the foreign kitchen with a morning yawn stretched across my face. Fresh flowers spilling from the bright yellow vase would be my focal point as the scent of fresh-brewed coffee welcomed me. Delusional—that’s the word you’re looking for.
I married a Midwesterner. He was a lifetime bachelor until I snagged him at 51. He was also a minimalist. I kid you not, the man could live inside a toothpaste box and be happy. He flat-out is not accustomed to Southern traditions or our
idiosyncrasies. I’ve been told we have a few.
I read an interview with Matthew Norman, author of We’re All Damaged. In it, he wrote, “I tend to see the world through a humor lens. I use it as a defense mechanism. That may be a personality flaw, but it makes me the writer I am.”
Humor is the very fuel that feeds my heart. It makes the unbearable more bearable. I happen to think it’s better for the complexion and aging process. All those stretched smiles may add a few extra lines. Big deal—it’s good for the heart. A fair trade, if you ask me.
I’ll be honest, though. Selling, packing and moving showed me no humor. I was ensconced in a nest of boxes—sorting, discarding and whining. The packers and movers were circling around me like squirrels on meth. Then right in the middle of crazy I was slapped by ridiculous. It was that very thing that my husband had complained so much about: p-o-r-t-r-a-i-t-s!
When I was very young, I remember my mother saying , “I have to go to Jacksonville to sit.” She would leave our house in Lake City and drive 100 miles. It would be almost bedtime when she came home. I was left wondering why she had to go so far just to sit down. We had chairs. That portrait she spent months sitting for ended up on our living room wall. It hung for decades, along with some other portraits. Those being my sisters and me, painted by Leon Loard, an artist from Montgomery. And seeing myself in a portrait at 11 years old proves I was once flat chested.
Later, as we grew older, my mother captured our changing faces—this time as teenagers. More portraits were hung.
The cream-colored walls of our French-styled living room and dining room were filled with old-world portraits of the females who lived on Montgomery Drive.
Time marched on, as it tends to do. I married and birthed two daughters. And, like my mother, I wanted those same Old World–style paintings of my own daughters. Mothers and daughters have a thing.
I located the same Montgomery artist who’d painted my sisters and me. I urged him to come to Tallahassee and paint my daughter Garrett’s portrait. In exchange for his travel, I agreed to contract four of my friends to have their children’s portraits painted as well. He agreed and offered to pay a commission for my efforts. It was the beginning of our 15-year business. I procured three oil paintings in my consulting arrangement with Leon Loard: both of my daughters at 5 years old (20 by 30 inches) and the three of us snuggled together (30 by 40). The paintings are all wrapped up in ornate, hand-gilded gold leaf frames. And that jewel makes the suckers even larger.
It was somewhere in the middle of my Old World interest that I discovered a watercolorist residing in Maine. I longed to introduce her lovely work to a Florida clientele—just as I had with my Montgomery partner. I contacted her and asked that she send me a small sample portrait.
“Just send me a picture, and I’ll paint you,” she offered.
Holy wow! I hung up, ran to the door and hollered outside toward the backyard.
“Girls, come inside—now.” They were about 5 and 8 years old then, scurrying around in calico bonnets, toting tin pails and playing Little House on the Prairie.
I searched my closet for something to wear for my sample shot. I reached for a fancy dress I’d worn on New Year’s Eve a few months earlier. I slipped off my nightgown and pulled the dress over my head. Garrett and Sara came in, unbrushed hair falling from beneath the old fading bonnets. Whining accompanied them.
“Garrett, can you zip mommy up, please?” I bent down so she could reach the back of my dress. They watched as I slid my feet inside black high heels. I wobbled to the formal living room. I never even bothered to put on a bra or panties. No one would know.
“Say cheese,” Garrett said. She pointed the camera from across the room as I sat erect on the pink chintz sofa. Her tiny finger clicked the shutter button on the Kodak camera.
I had the image developed the next day, then mailed it to the stranger I hoped to represent.
When the sample arrived—ugh—we had a huge problem. I mean that literally. It was gargantuan: 41 by 48 inches. I needed a dolly just to get it inside the double front doors. And I’d asked for a small sample. I didn’t expect a ballroom-size painting of me based on a photo taken by an 8-year-old dressed like Laura Ingalls.
Afterwards, the only client I ever tried to commission for the watercolorist in Maine was my mother. And hers came even bigger, a life-size 40-by-60. But, I believe in second, well, third chances. So I commissioned a painting of my daughters with their black tea cup poodle, Puddles. “Please, not real big, okay?” It arrived: 30-by-40. Lovely as her art was, the word small just was not in her vocabulary.
Sadly, my beloved mother died last year. But, as always, humor lurked in the shadows and found me. I inherited her portraits – the life-size and the one she sat for in Jacksonville.
The portrait parade has now been passed down to the next generation. My daughter has portraits of her two daughters stair-stepping the wall. The oldest one was painted by her cousin, Katie Campbell, who also designed the cover of my two books. And the younger daughter’s portrait was painted by me. I know. Ridiculous.
One day my granddaughters may ask, “What the heck were you thinking, Mama?” Or, they may follow the same Southern cycle of crazy.
That move is behind us. We rented a house while we build the new home of our dreams. Wait, that must mean it’s not behind you, Prissy. All the while, the plethora of portraits lie horizontally on racked shelves awaiting their final resting place. Well, not all of them. I lobbied my daughter to house the two portraits of my mother until we move again.
Neither one of my daughters, Garrett or Sarah Britton, will take the portraits of themselves. The very ones that started this whole mess, the ones I commissioned when they were children. As for the portraits of me, nobody wants them. Including me. Not the one of me as a little girl or the Kodak-clicked watercolor. Face it, nobody wants anybody. That’s our tragic comedy. I see a television series somewhere.