Jemmy Paints My Portrait
(monologue spoken by Anna McNeil Whistler)
I had other things to do. It’s not as if my life was empty. Meeting and managing and persuading patrons of Jemmy’s genius was my full time job. I’m not complaining. He is my life, all I have left after influenza took his father and his two brothers.
When Jemmy settled in London he needed me to manage his career. I enjoyed it. Enjoyed too his wild and sometimes disreputable friends, flamboyant, brilliant, dressed in their velvet waistcoats and yellow kid gloves. Jemmy followed their fashion and, oh, my, he was beautiful. He had the wild curly hair from the McNeil side of the family. Except for his moustache he looked like a cherub in a rococo painting.
He had an Idea with a capital I. Get rid of all the soft colours and billowy blue skies, the delicate young female flesh–it wasn’t women he was attracted to, after all–forget about the melon breasts and delicate pink nipples. He would paint a symphony of gray and black. No, I didn’t really have time to pose for him. But he was my darling Jemmy so I stood, straight and still and serious in that awful black dress and lace bonnet. It certainly wasn’t my most becoming gown, I only kept it for wakes and funerals. But he wanted black.
My feet hurt, my back hurt, I was a martyr for his art. I couldn’t stop the sighs, even a groan now and then, just to let him know what a burden and imposition it was to pose like a corpse in rigor mortise standing instead of lying in the comfort of a pillowed casket. Finally he went into the dining room and came back with a straight-backed chair. “All right, you can sit and be comfortable if you’ll stop the dramatics,” he said.
“A footstool would be a help,” I said.
“Oh, a footstool, too? I’ll get one. But no pillows. This is serious painting.”
“I know,” I said, “Gray and deep shadowless black. And white–my lace bonnet.”
So I sat and he painted. I turned my head away. Nothing is more boring than watching a painter dab and squint and chew his lips and wrinkle his brow, pick his nose. I closed my eyes to settle into my own thoughts, the gray and white and black of the Russian winter when I buried his father and his brothers and took this one beloved child back to Lowell, Massachusetts to make a life for us. My life a symphony in gray and black … and Jemmy’s sparkling blue eyes and his sweet smile and kiss on the forehead when he said, “Thank you, Mother. This painting will make us both famous.”
“God forbid,” I said. “I don’t want the world thinking that’s what I looked like.”
June Calender retired to Cape Cod after a 25+ year career in NYC as an off-off-Broadway playwright. Now she writes poetry, fiction, essays, and creative nonfiction. She teaches writing skills at the Academy for Lifelong Learning at Cape Cod Community College and edits their annual anthology.
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