This One Takes the Cake!

Digging deep and scraping through early memories in order to write childhood stories, I inevitably come face-to-face with that one particular, unforgettable portrait moment. The one I remember so well that I have the picture framed and sitting on my dresser to this day.

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Kathy at Three

I was three. Mama’s plan came crashing down on top of my head, like a bunch of acorns falling out of an oak tree. Like what happened to Chicken Little, who ran around berserk yelling,”The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

“I want a picture of you dressed in your play clothes,” Mama said. “Like I see you every day.”

A salesman from Olan Mills had come around the neighborhood selling portrait sittings, and Mama bought a package deal. The time came for us to go downtown to the studio in the hotel so I could get my picture taken. The hotel was the only building in Cleveland with more than two stories. It was across from the train depot and next to the pool hall, which was a sleezy place to have to walk by. It had a screen door, but you couldn’t see inside because it was so dark. My friend Richard from across the street and his mother were going with us.

It was bad enough to have to get dressed up in the middle of the day, but I didn’t get dressed up. I got dressed down, because Mama made me. She made me wear corduroy pants, a striped pullover tee-shirt, and suspenders. Suspenders, for goodness sakes! Suspenders with ponies and cowboy hats on them. I had short straight hair with bangs, and I looked like a boy, plain and simple.

I cried from the moment Mama’s words pinged my crown like acorns — kerplunk! kerplunk! — and I didn’t stop crying until we left the hotel, walked through the fog coming out of the pool hall, and drove past the depot and over the bayou and past the courthouse. After I stopped crying, I sulked for a while.

The resulting picture showed a cameo, from the top waistband of my pants to the top of my head. The photographer waved around enough toys to get my lips to curve upward a bit. The photo was a black-and-white, but Mama had taken a photography class at Delta State and learned how to color pictures. She had her own processing fluids and her own little tubes of paint. On this one, she lightly colored my hair yellow, my eyes blue, and my lips pink. She left the rest sienna.

My face was swollen. The curl of the eyebrow shows lots of crying had been going on. And if you look closely at the bottom lash of the right eye, a tear glistens.

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