Wandering through Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, I discovered an unframed oil painting of a young girl about the age of six or seven. She was on the ground, leaning against a wooden table leg at one of the booths selling vintage ephemera collected from God knows where. I picked up the portrait, took in her cornflower blue eyes, the cascade of shoulder-length blond hair, her peach complexion and rosy-coloured cheeks kissed by fresh air and sunshine. Portrayed from the waist up, she wore a long sleeved t-shirt, cheerful stripes of clementine orange and sky blue against a cream-coloured background. Inscribed near the bottom right-hand corner of the portrait was a signature, Jodain. Whether the name belonged to artist or subject is anyone’s guess.
The portrait had a few dings, and an aged patina but I didn’t mind. Somehow the imperfections made the canvas all the more beautiful. The vendors, a mother and son duo, offered me a deal for the painting. I gave it some thought but declined. The next day I was flying home so it didn’t seem like a practical purchase.
I returned the painting to where I found it and walked away, feeling like I’d somehow abandoned her.
The rest of the afternoon, I wandered through stalls stuffed with racks of old clothing, tables burdened with boxes of old photographs, costume jewelry, and mismatched china. After purchasing a pair of antique Black Americana salt and pepper shakers, I decided to head back to the hotel. I ventured as far as the exit before I turned around and headed back for Jodain’s painting.
Once home, I unpacked my suitcase stuffed with clothing, souvenirs from MOMA, cheesy “I love NYC” t-shirts and layers of tissue paper, revealing the portrait of a girl, lost or discarded.
“So, what do you guys think?” I asked my daughters.
“She looks kind of creepy,” said the youngest.
“Look. Her eyes follow you when you move,” said her sister, walking back and forth.
“Well, I like her,” I said.
“Why would you want a painting of someone who’s not even related to us hanging on the wall?” one of my daughters asked.
“I had to bring her home,” I said. “She was calling out to me. I just couldn’t leave her behind.”
I hung the portrait above the mid-century modern credenza in my dining-room. Company liked to test the theory that her gaze seemed to follow you as you moved. Which it did, especially after a few glasses of wine. It seemed an odd choice to some that I would hang a portrait of a stranger in such a place of prominence.
I never knew how to explain that she wasn’t a stranger, not entirely.
I wore a cotton dress, a party dress, my favourite dress when I was four, and I accompanied my parents, downtown, to Eaton’s department store. The dress was twirly skirt and princess girly; fabric a soft swirl of colours, an impressionist pattern of Autumn leaves in shades of cream and bright copper penny, teal and Tiffany blue. Cinched by ribbon at the waist and tied with a starched tidy bow in back, the skirt flared atop crinoline that rustled as I walked, skipped, hopped across Eaton’s main floor, past the cosmetic and jewelry counters, handbags and scarves, the bronze statue of Timothy Eaton that stood sentinel next to the elevators.
Standing between my mother and father, we rode the rattling elevator up to the floor that held perhaps housewares and gadgets, bits and bobs, but definitely a stage, a small wooden stage constructed for the occasion. After all, it wasn’t every day that working-class parents had the opportunity to commission their child’s portrait.
My father lifted me in the air, set me on a stool placed front and centre.
“Sit still,” my mother said, fussing with my hair, brunette ringlets that grazed my caramel-coloured shoulders revealed through peephole cut-outs.
“Be good,” she added, not that I needed any reminder having been raised by parents who believed the adage, “children should be seen and not heard.”
My parents left, stood next to the artist positioned in front of his easel as he arranged a Fall palette of pastel crayons.
A curious crowd of shoppers gathered. Made comments.
“Oh how sweet.”
“She’s so well-behaved.”
“Will you just look at those ringlet curls.”
My parents smiled, pleased by my stellar performance, their mixed-race child’s reception by strangers. Perhaps it bolstered their shaky decision to be together—a black man and a white woman married in the sixties—if I gained approval, maybe their union would as well.
Statue still, I felt not pride but shame, being an object on display. I felt fear in the face of their pale faces, so closely resembling those of the white angry mobs broadcast nightly on television; adults fuelled by hate, hurling curses, clubs, bricks towards African-American children as they marched alongside Dr. King, in search of freedom.
For years, my portrait hung in the living room of my childhood home, in the dining-room when our family moved from working to middle-class neighbourhoods. I’ve no idea what my brothers thought, there being no gilt-framed masterpiece of them decorating the walls. For me, I resented that portrait, the pedestal of impossible perfection my parents expected me to live up to—the object of their affectations—a daughter forever seen through their lens and not heard.
During the years of estrangement from my family, I fantasized about claiming my portrait. I thought having it in my possession would symbolize my emancipation; no longer would my parents possess any part of me, of that frightened little girl in a party dress.
After my mother died, I inherited the portrait by default. My brothers didn’t want it, and my father had no claim, being out of the picture longer than I was. But it wasn’t the Hallmark moment, rescue fantasy I’d envisioned. I couldn’t bring myself to hang the piece in my home. The image trapped in time represented too much pain and vulnerability. I didn’t want it, or her, anywhere near me.