Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"The Portraits"

One of the first stories I ever wrote to tell to adults is called "The Portraits." It's a strange story about the two portraits we had when I was a child. One is the portrait of my ancestor Sarah Vischer Schuyler Hoyle, the other of my great-grandfather on the other side of the family, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, the Episcopal bishop.

I've been telling this story since about 1989. I love bringing the characters to life, showing the expressions of these two portraits, and of myself as a kid. I can't quite say it's a ghost story, but it is odd, with unexpected twists in a couple of places.

I tell this story to adults and older kids. Sometimes kids (and occasionally adults) ask me if it's true. I remind them that all my stories start with a seed of truth. I used to say that truth is immutable and facts are flexible, but kids were highly dissatisfied with that answer. From time to time I turn the question back and ask them what they think. Is it true?

For the past few years, I've had the portrait of Sarah in my house. She's a dour looking old lady, with a face that is clearly related to mine. I hesitate to say that the nose runs in the family, but you know what I mean. The portrait was probably painted by an itinerant painter, who had the form prepared in advance (on a bedsheet, it turns out, not canvas) and just filled in the face.

When I first brought her home, I tried putting her on the main wall in my living room, but the darkness of the portrait was like a big black hole. Too scary. I shifted her to a smaller wall, with a lamp nearby. Much better. The only problem is that this wall is directly opposite my bedroom, and my bed is right inside the door. If I keep the door open, she watches me as I sleep. Unsettling. I close the door almost all the way, so the cat can still come and go.

A couple of weeks ago, I got up in the night and had the hingepin fall out of the door. The door then clunked off its hinge. This had happened several times, always in the night. Each time, I grumbled, hoisted the door back, pushed the pin back in, complained to myself about the silliness of having a hingepin on the bottom so it would fall out, and went back to bed, promising myself to fix it in the light of day. This time, I decided to take care of it. There I was at 3 a.m., screwdriver in hand, undoing the entire hinge and resetting it right side up, muscling the door back into place, all under the watchful eyes of Sarah Vischer Schuyler Hoyle and the cat.

She was a resourceful woman herself. As I say in the story, "She took her second husband to court when he tried to cheat her out of money her first husband had left her. She lost that case, but in our family, it was always called a landmark case." I think she might have been pleased that I did this minor repair on my own, even if it was in the middle of the night.


F. Schuyler Howe said...

As she was watching you fix the door, she permitted herself a slight smile at your resourcefulness and perseverance, but that was when your back was turned. Ask me how I know.

PriscillaHowe said...

How do you know?

Anonymous said...

You spell her maiden name Visscher.

Aunt Nonny evidently has a portrait of Mrs. Hoyle, too.... or did. They tossed their carefully-packed belongings around when "storing" them, and that portrait got messed up, with rents in it - probably by this time, it's gone.

Gwyn said...

Hmmm, this has a ring of otherworldliness to it. Surely she smiled, though.

PriscillaHowe said...

Yup, she did smile. You have to look at her from the proper angle to see the smile, but it's there.