Portraits

Your father never so much as washed a plate
in his whole life
, my mother once said to me.
I have to concede that this is true, thinking back

on our lives in the old green bungalow that used to be
the summer house of one of the presidents— I forget
which one. The story was that when we arrived

to take possession, his portrait (not my father’s,
the president’s) hung in a grimy hallway until
it was taken down and everything could be mopped

and dusted and things set in their place. I don’t know
where the painting went, because I never saw it again.
In fact I cannot remember registering any

of its details. As for my father, though he was
fastidious about his appearance, he never sat
for any formal portrait. In high school, for an art

project I tried to capture their likenesses on canvas,
working from a photograph— my smiling mother
on the left, wearing coral lipstick

and her best pearls; my father on the right,
in a suit with a fine houndstooth check. I worked
to find some faithfulness to the picture,

and must have succeeded: he said he did not like
the way the corners of his mouth were set, as if
to make him look so unforgiving; nor the too

somber cast of his brow. The oils still pliable,
I did my best to lift and soften. I knew, after all,
from watching: how much it cost to inhabit the face

he mustered daily for that world of encounter
with others we barely, really, knew— The men in silk
ties wrapped in a haze of cigarette smoke, their women

a frothy coterie. It was a time when we
were supposed to know our place in the world,
the kinds of work we’d be allowed to do.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Wage.

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