I am a throwaway child and a throwaway adult. I wish I had been loved, but I was not. I might as well have been an orphan.
There’s nothing quite like a death in the family to bring out everyone’s worst sides, and if you’re the most hated, scapegoated person in your family, there’s nothing like a death in the family to drive home just how devalued and disliked you really are.
My father loved me once. I’m not sure my mother ever did, but I’m pretty sure my dad did. In spite of being an abusive drunk who was often AWOL and really a pretty terrible father, I felt in my bones that he loved me and was proud of me.
When I was 6 years old, we were in Chicago visiting relatives. It was summertime and very sunny and hot. We somehow wound up in Olde Town, the bohemian section of Chicago, where all the artists and beatniks and proto-hippies lived. This wasn’t an area social-climbers like my parents would have been caught dead in under normal circumstances, but here we were. We stopped to watch an street artist drawing someone’s portrait in pastels. He was fast and expressive and his large pastel-stained hand moved across the rough greyish paper like a thing filled with magic.
The artist was someone my parents would not approve of in their own circles. First of all, he was black, very black. I hadn’t encountered many black people in my life and I remember marveling at the man’s dark brown skin and how smooth and chocolatey it looked, like a Hershey bar. I stood there staring wide-eyed, the way young children do. I was probably scolded for doing that, but I’m not sure. The man also had long dreadlocks–long before they became fashionable. I’d never seen hair like that before. His clothes were wild and colorful, and he wore lots of big African jewelry. I couldn’t believe this was actually a person. He was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen.
His warm dark brown eyes were kind. When he smiled, I felt blinded by the whiteness of his teeth against his dark skin. I smiled back shyly. My mother wanted to leave, but the man had finished his pastel drawing of a woman ahead of us and my father was already handing him a five dollar bill to draw a portrait of me. I couldn’t believe my luck to be this magic man’s model! I couldn’t wait to see what wonders would emerge from his long brown fingers. I knew he would make me look so pretty, like he made the lady ahead of me look prettier than she really was.
I sat for what seemed like an hour but was probably only 15 minutes. I could hear the man’s rough fingers making scratchy sounds across the rough grey-white paper he used. He worked intently, as if nothing else in the world mattered except this picture of me he was making. Every so often he looked up from his portrait and studied my face, eyebrows scrunched together. Then he’d nod to himself and go back to drawing. I sat there in the mid-day Chicago heat, in a yellow cotton dress with white trim, not even noticing how wet my hairline was becoming from the sweat. My eyes were watering a little from the sweat droplets that occasionally made their way into them.
When he was finished, my parents saw the portrait first. They looked pleased and my father motioned for me to come over and have a look too.
“You captured her essence,” my father said. This was when he still loved me for who I was. He turned back to the artist and handed him another five. “You did a wonderful job so I think you deserve a little extra,” he said.
We took the portrait home and for years, it hung in the living room. When we had a mantel, it went over that. My parents, especially my father, loved that portrait and he always showed it off to everyone. He liked the sadness he thought the artist captured in my eyes, even though it was probably just my sweat dripping in them, because I actually felt happy that day. He always asked me if I remembered the day I sat for that artist, and I always said yes. It’s one of my fondest memories.
I haven’t seen the portrait since the early 1980’s. The last time I saw it was at my father’s new house shortly after he remarried the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. It was propped in a corner of his study, along with some other paintings that hadn’t been hung up and probably never would be.
Yesterday, I remembered the portrait, and emailed my stepmother about it. I told her how much it meant to me and explained it was one of the few things that connected me to my childhood and to my father. I have very few pictures of myself and I already know a whole box of them was already thrown away by my mother, during one of her obsessive cleanings. Family photos never had much meaning to her. I never thought my father would do the same.
I received an email back saying that she had never seen the portrait and didn’t think they had anything that fit the description, because she knew everything in that house and what was stored away. She said she would look, but didn’t think she had it. I know it wasn’t given to my mother or I would have been told that. My mother would never have kept something like that around anyway.
I’m not sure, but I think it got thrown or given away. Probably thrown away. My family is like that. They throw away paintings, and they throw away children. They are treacherous betrayers. Of course they would not have thought to ask me if I might have wanted it, since what I wanted never mattered.
That a portrait of me that my father once loved and probably threw away (or allowed his wife to throw away) was shattering to me. I’ve been crying since last night about it. It seems like a small, silly thing, but it isn’t. It’s a huge deal. A huge fucking deal. It drove home just how little I matter, how little I ever mattered. A pastel portrait of the child-me drawn with such love and passion by a kind-hearted artist a very long time ago is gone forever. I won’t ever see it again or be able to pass it on to my own children. Because it was just trash, and trash doesn’t matter.