The quiet power of a family portrait
An old photograph of my grandmother's family helped connect five generations of women across time and distance.
"Mommy, if you had to live on a desert island, what would you bring with you? Besides me and daddy."
My 7-year-old daughter, Audrey, asked me this question the other day. I'm an avid reader and a writer by profession, so I told her that I'd bring as many books as I could carry.
"What would you bring, honey?" I asked. She answered in a voice filled with grade-school confidence: "I would bring the picture of your family that you love so much."
The picture hangs in our dining room. It is one of those odd concave and elliptical portraits of an old-fashioned family that looks straight ahead solemnly in fixed stares. Audrey has walked right past it a thousand times without a single comment. So I was surprised to learn that she had registered just how precious that turn-of-the-century picture is to me. And it is.
Three women of varying ages stand stiffly next to their spouses. My great-grandmother, her mother, and her mother's mother have my eyes. Eyes full of hope and not a small amount of fear. Or is it excitement? They'll soon be leaving their village town in France – everything they've ever known – to begin a life in the United States.
As a small child and probably about my daughter's age now, I sat on the daybed with my grandmother as she told their stories to me in an English punctuated with French. "Voilà ma mère. Here is my mother. She was so beautiful; I loved her so much."
There, in a small country house in southern Indiana, I understood the quiet yet awe-inspiring power of family history.
We were as far from France as we could be, and those three women had died long ago. But now here they were, with us, looking deep into our hearts.
Five generations of women could not be separated – not by geography, not by death. Five generations of hope, of love, of willingness to seek a better life for ourselves and for those we love.
Right when most young adults begin to grow apart from their grandparents, I was drawn to mine.
As the first woman in my family to go to college, I found comfort in my grandmother's stories of brave journeys to unknown places and a hopeful future. And where doubts remained during those difficult university years, I could always find strength in those eyes, hers and theirs.
Now I don't know whether I chose to major in French – and eventually become a French professor – because I wanted so badly to hear my muses speak. Or perhaps, it was that I wanted to find the right words to tell them "Thank You." Merci, mes mères.
I explained to my daughter that I couldn't take the picture to our desert island; I needed to keep it safe for her.
"You see," I explained, "my grand-mère didn't have any daughters, just my dad – your grandpa – and my uncle. So before she died, she gave the picture to me. I am to give it to you, and you will give it to your daughter, and she will give it to her daughter."
Audrey smiled knowingly. She shares my eyes, my grandmothers' eyes. I catch her now from time to time, gazing quietly and in deep reflection at the portrait. May she and my grandchildren to come draw as much strength as I have from these women – and the ties that continue to bind us together.