Sunday, November 11, 2007

Of Guest Rooms and Family Portraits

Remember the scary old sepia print portraits that hang on the bedroom walls of old bedrooms, the sort that stare at you relentlessly in the dark when you're a small child asleep at an older relative's house?

My father's father was a preacher, and though we visited rarely, when we did, their home's decor always fascinated me. Their house had many things ours didn't, a separate library, namely, where Granddaddy would study behind a large desk situated in front of a wall of bookcases, all lined with biblical texts and sets of commentaries, shelves crowded with exotic carved figurines from his many travels. I always wanted a retreat just like his, with a green-shaded desk lamp, the smell of volumes and volumes of books, the leather chair, and motes of dust dancing in the half-light. Perhaps it's from him I inherited my love of books, of solitary reading, of searching out word meanings and other treasures in biblical texts. At least that's what I love to think...

There was also a sitting room situated near the front of the house, a place where Grandmother had a little iron cart filled with her collection of African violets, windows that had drapes and sheers, wallpapered walls with large oil paintings, sofas with crocheted doily antimacassars on the arms and backs, porcelain trinkets, and antique glass lamps with colored spherical double globes.

And always, there was the ticking of grandfather loved collecting every sort. Time had a way of always passing, and Granddaddy was informed of its progress at every quarter, half, and full hour. There were wall clocks, grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, mantel clocks, serious desk clocks and fanciful porcelain clocks. Clocks of every style. Handcarved clocks, handheld clocks, metal ones, Art Deco ones, clocks embedded in elaborate or not-so-elaborate statues. There were no battery-powered clocks...they were all the hand-wound sort. Many clocks had an elaborate system of weights and pulls, and Grandaddy knew their secrets, and that they must be balanced on a completely flat surface to keep accurate time. Their tones were all different -- some slow and mellow as an old cello, some marking the hour in a rapid, tinging falsetto. That's one of my favorite memories of their home -- the ticking and chiming clocks, the slightly unfamiliar scent of someone else's house mingled with the fragrance of my Grandmother's kitchen.

It was in her kitchen I first learned the difference between storebought and REAL homemade bread. Grandmother made all her meals from scratch. It wasn't just was just the way things were done. And she did them well!

It wasn't often we enjoyed an overnight visit there, but when we did, we slept in the guest room. Proudly displayed on the walls were more paintings, but the most prominent hung in direct view of the bed always...two pastel portraits drawn of my eldest first cousins, Alan and Laura, when they were only a little older than toddlers. The portraits were quite large, nicely framed, and were Grandmother's pride and joy...likely a family gift to her in years past.

In the daytime, the portraits were just that...lifelike images in charcoal and pastel. But by night....when huddled under the bedcovers and with only the benefit of a slice of illumination coming in through the door "cracked open," they took on eerie dimensions. I'm no great fan of portraits in guestrooms. THESE portraits were downright chilling in the dark. They. Looked. At. You. No. Matter. Where. You. Were. While the clocks ticked. And ticked. And ticked.

You could hide UNDER the extra pillow UNDER the extra blanket. But you could not escape the cousins' pale gaze, at least until the welcome moment that wonderful dinner you'd just eaten, and the full day of exploring--and intermittent "behaving"-- you'd just had, worked their magic and you found yourself soundly asleep.

Most family portraits I've noticed from the early 20th century are of rather serious-faced folks. Not a lot of smiling took place in those formal shots, for whatever reason. Maybe, as it's been explained to me before, it was seen as saucy or inappropriate to smile for them. Or maybe it was because of the strain of corralling everyone in their clean Sunday best and getting them to sit still long enough for those older cameras to do their thing without flinching and blurring the photos. Or maybe it was because women were a bit grumpier in corsets and men in wool suits? Heh heh...

At any rate, my sis recently found a photo from the other side of our family tree...this photo of my maternal grandpa's sister and her friend. And it's an oldie! I just love it :) Obviously, my family is the entirely serious sort ;-)

I think it was taken somewhere in the vicinity of 1910 or thereabouts. All my forbears were originally country folk, hardworking, and family-oriented. They all came from big families, with loads of brothers and sisters, and family reunions were a noisy confusion of all their descendants.

Whenever they got together, Family was discussed...the marriages, fall-outs, intrigues...and of course the laundry list of physical ailments. But most of all there was laughter...and often singing. Both sides of my family had strong traditions and grass-roots connections to their families and their faith. All were protestant christians of a denomination with very scaled-down beliefs, even to the omission of instrumental music from their hymns. So they sang. And since you pretty much had no other way to play a hymn other than to sing it, 'most everybody had had enough practice to be pretty good at it, or at least to read music. So when gatherings happened, so did the singing...and sitting there as a child in the midst of it, warmed by soft laps and good food while everyone sings, all's right with the world and God. It's another of my favorite memories.

I posted this picture of Aunt Lois taken when she was a young girl. (She's the one on the left, sticking out her tongue, ha! ) I love that it shows her laughing! She ended up being a matriarch of my maternal grandpa's side of the family, only survived by one remaining sister, Aunt Bunny. Aunt Lois had a crackle of a laugh, a deep kindness about her, a no-nonsense demeanor, and a steely resolve. She was a strong woman. I love most that she, like her siblings, could laugh. She aged into what could be called "a handsome woman"... regal and yet down-home. She had impeccable manners, and no false "airs." She had opinions. She was nobody's doormat, and her husband and children adored her. She never forgot a birthday, no matter how remotely-related you were on the family tree, and made handmade items to send for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. She passed away, after a full and long life, adored.

I've been sent a few pictures here and there in the past few years...some of my childhood, some of my grandparents'. There are no scary portraits among them...they are all unexpected windows into the moments of their lives long before I came along. A picture of my Grandma and Grandpa grinning underneath a huge oak tree, before they were even married...two co-conspirators. A picture of Grandpa dressed up, playing the dandy in his early twenties, leaning on a Model T and foot on its running board. In them I see the younger version of my Grandparents ...having fun, full of mischief, laughing, unposed, loving, joking. It's not so different than the older version I knew, only with younger faces and different surroundings.

If I ever have a guest room set up, these will be the portraits I hang. They may not stare a person down in the darkness of night, but if their eyes do follow, they're filled with a conspiratorial twinkle, perhaps a wink. The ticking of the clock may remind of how quickly time passes, and maybe sleep will come accompanied by the memory of long-forgotten songs.

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