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Portrait of Father
by Jan Simpson
Some say we never really know another person, that we really have only our perceptions of another while the real person remains a mystery, perhaps even to himself. At no time does this seem truer than after a person's death when perceptions are all that remains. It's a truth that came home to me vividly after my father's death.
My father's office called my mother soon after he died to say they had decided to name one of their conference rooms in his memory. He had been prominent in their firm and they wanted to have a portrait of him to hang in the room. So we sat down, my mother, my brother, my sister and I, and began sorting through boxes and trunks, looking for pictures of him that could be used by the portrait artist.
Curiously, there weren't many. He'd never been fussy about having his picture taken, especially in his later years when he was crippled with arthritis. We finally came up with a handful, ranging from his Air Force picture when he was in his late twenties to a snapshot of him at age 60, sitting, cane in hand, in a lawn chair in the yard.
My brother's artist friend volunteered to do the portrait. We gathered in great anticipation when it was finished and my brother brought it for us to see. It was hideous. The artist started from my father's picture as an old man and tried to shave a few years off him. Dorian Grey's portrait looked better.
So I, the youngest daughter, piped up and suggested that he try again, this time starting with my father's Air Force picture and making it a little older.
A month later the portrait arrived. Everyone stared at it for a long time. My sister, always a very black and white person, announced as soon as she saw it that she didn't like it; it wasn't him. My mother agreed that it looked like his Air Force picture but said she just couldn't remember my father back that far anymore. My brother liked it well enough but he said he really didn't have an eye for these things. He never got along well with Dad so I think he felt that disqualified him.
The firm didn't like the portrait either. The secretaries all remembered him as the wizened old man shuffling to his office. Even his partner of 30 years preferred to remember him that way. So they retained their own artist and commissioned another portrait, the portrait of an old man.
I have the original portrait. It sits on the floor in my office. It's the father I remember from my childhood, the one who suited up and strode out the door every morning to tame dragons when I was small, the one who threw me up in the air, rode me on his shoulders, my first love.
Mind you, I haven't hung it on the wall. It stands on the floor in my office. While I love having him with me while I work, I wouldn't want him getting the impression he's in charge here.
Copyright © 1998 Jan M. Simpson