A Small Revenge:
Moving My
Great-Grandmother's Portrait

By Kathy L. Coogan 

 

I stand in front of the two portraits, Windex and paper towel in one hand, dust rag and aerosol Pledge in the other.  An antiquarian would shudder at the modern chemistry these gilded frames have endured in the last thirty years. Perhaps the golden patina has suffered some but my taste leans more toward the darkened and weathered than the glittery and golden, so I spritz and polish away. 

The frames are gilded, the real thing, dated 1906, a fact which failed to resonate until recently.  But doing the arithmetic as I mindlessly dusted, I realized that they have passed the century mark.  A hundred years these portraits have hung on my family’s walls, passing from grandmother, to aunt to mother to me.  Always in this formation: him looking straight ahead on the left, her facing him always on the right.  I stand back, and for the first time look, really look at them, and see them as something more than beautiful objects to be dusted. 

She is my mother’s mother’s mother. She glances toward her right and holds the pose, a pale young woman in profile tinted rose.  Her dark hair is piled high and softly tumbles down, curls mingling with the black lace draping her plump shoulders.  Her dark brows arch above her hooded eyes, the space between still unlined by five buried newborn sons.  Her left ear bears a dangling sparkling stone later sold in the Depression I was told.  Her profile faces, always faces him. 

Her husband stares face front from the other gilded frame, a diamond tiepin stubbornly misplaced on his lapel.  To him she was betrothed at seventeen, him age forty-eight, her father he could have been.  His stern eyes look away from hers which forever fall on him, symbolic of their life, I now presume.  

A thought occurs to me in a woman’s whispered voice.  I turn back to her and stare into her face.  I glance back into his coal-black eyes and wonder at the price she paid to wear the jewels bestowed by him.  Defiantly, I lift her portrait from the wall and wipe it clean.  His I merely lift and then replace but on the hook to my right where she had been displayed.  I hang her portrait on the left hook on the wall.  One hundred years is enough; her back will be to him as long as she remains.