Portraits in the Attic
by Sara Rubin
My grandfather’s elegant old Victorian home in St. Marys Pennsylvania had been sold and was scheduled to be demolished. Since I was an Art (and Biology) Major in college at the time, my Aunt Mary asked me if I would like to look at the many picture frames stored in the attic of the house before it was torn down.
I was not too enthused, having seen some of the frames she was talking about. They were very ornate molded gold-gilded heavy frames and did not fit at all with the spare rather austere look of the modernist “Form Follows Function” and “Less is more” aesthetic of my training.
But at her urging I did go down to the by-then empty old house one Saturday afternoon; this had never my home, we never lived there, and it always felt a bit foreign to me. My grandparents had collected odd furnishings for it, like the rough horse hair couch in the parlor and the weird anatomical-looking polished cypress knees displayed on dining room shelves.
Opening the heavy front door, and passing by the mounted elks’ heads and coat-hook hooves in the entranceway, I trod up two floors to the attic.
The dry old attic odor and the meager amount of light filtering in made it clear that living people were not often here, and though my aunt had invited me, I felt uneasy.
Sitting there on the wooden plank floor, alone in the upstairs of this deserted house, I realized that my discomfort was compounded by the fact that the picture frames Aunt Mary had been referring to were all displaying portraits, formal poses of people long dead! They were large pieces, maybe 20 x 26”, and there were many of them, 20 or more, randomly stacked upright at one end of the room. So in addition to the eeriness of the attic itself there were the faces of unsmiling strangers staring out at me.
The gaudy frames unfortunately held no interest for me then, but the technique behind the portraits was intriguing. They were obviously large photographs, but weak because they had been enlarged so much, and so had been enhanced with charcoal and chalk to make the darks darker and the highlights brighter. They were an amalgamation of photography and drawing, a curious “hybrid” method. But in the upper room that day my interest in the method began to take a backseat to the images of the people themselves.
As I looked, one at a time, with the dust motes floating through the sunlight coming in the one slatted window on the wall behind, those pictures became living things. The images came alive!
I never knew any of those people, they died before I was born, but they were all somehow related to me. Some of the portraits had names on them, “Charles Francis Kronenwetter” or such. They were all real individuals who had lived here in this small town but even my father would not have known them all; in a real sense though each one was still living that day, staring out at me from bright highlighted eyes.
But even stranger, as I sat there and looked, was that at the side of my vision I would catch a glimpse of relatives alive right now, in my day and time; of Chuck, my cousin and childhood friend who was just a year younger than me, and there, on the right, my peripheral vision caught Teddy, Chuck’s older brother living in Pittsburgh now. When I focused on the images themselves of course, they were not of Chuck or Teddy, but some ancestor before them.
The surreal appearances went on… There in the wings flashed Aunt Mary, and there, at the left corner, that man, clad in his 1870s high collared shirt and suit, was our grandfather!
These weren’t exact images, more fleeting impressions, like smells, but definitely recognizable as living relatives.
This continued until my head was spinning, but I had become less uneasy. I had gotten a sense that the deceased people in the pictures were not ominous strangers, but family, even prefigures of us, and I realized how intimately we are all linked!
And indeed more than linked. Those flashing images told me that, in real way, they are us and we are them, that all of us are just different manifestations of the same Idea.
Each of us is born, steps into the stream for a period, and then steps out. It is as if we are all simply taking a turn at living…But the Idea in the stream continues on.
Now of course it might be that each family has its own individual tributary stream, its members having physical resemblances to each other, unique to them, and talents and interests and predilections, as we often discover.
But the water in every family’s stream is made up of the same elements, and all the streams eventually merge.
I will always be grateful to my aunt for her urging me to go up to the attic, and to the ancestors themselves who were waiting in their gold guilt frames, for what I learned that Saturday afternoon:
We are born, step into the stream, live, and step out.
But through all the streams, the rivers, and the oceans, the Idea flows on.
Sara Rubin is a local artist and environmental conservationist who has had a family pottery business for years in Brighton, NY. Though her husband and she continue making and selling their pottery, she has also begun to write about the people and animals and places that make up her world.
(Sara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com)