Friday, April 25, 2014

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I put this picture up on Facebook yesterday morning to amuse my cousins. It's me and my sister, Liz, posing in our "formals" so that our mother could take a picture of our beautifulness for posterity. I blew it up a little when I scanned it in, and now I can see a number of things about this snapshot that aren’t immediately apparent in the little Kodachrome print.

First of all, my sister did not have a green neck. This effect is caused by a big thumbprint. When they tell you not to touch the front of a photograph it's for a good reason; skin oils, over the years, will spoil the colors. It’s my father’s thumbprint, I guess. Toward the end he forgot stuff, like how you’re not supposed to touch the front of a photograph. I found the picture in a pile of snapshots amongst his things.

The picture would have been taken in 1957, when I was a freshman at Douglass and my sister was a sophomore at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. I was home for the holidays, as you can see by the red ribbon in the background with all the Christmas cards pinned to it. My parents had many friends, my father many business associates, so they always got enough Christmas cards every year to go all around the living room archway.

Of whatever living room. During the years we spent in Arlington we had to move every year, because we rented houses from colonels who were posted to places like Panama for a year and then wanted their houses back. I’m looking at these bookshelves and thinking, yes, I know the books, all right, but I can’t remember ever seeing those shelves. What was our house like that year? Brick, I suppose. They were all brick in Arlington. I can’t remember the street address.

The elements of decoration I know well. We carried them from town to town every four years when I was growing up. They gave a comforting sameness to our different houses. The Currier and Ives picture is “Beauty Awake.” On the other wall, out of the frame, would be “Beauty Asleep,” a mirror image of the first one but with the eyes closed. My mother collected Currier and Ives pictures and other Victoriana, which she picked up at auctions in Illinois and New Jersey.

The chair I’m perching on is the famous Governor General’s Chair, a family piece of Canadiana dating back to the visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to Kingston, Ontario, where my great-great-grandfather was a big cheese, possibly the mayor. It was made by convicts, they say, for a ceremonial meeting between the prince and the Canadian head of state. How my forebear got hold of it, or what became of the prince’s special chair with the three feathers, are matters shrouded in mystery. The fuschia upholstery may have been original or it may have been commissioned by my great-aunt Ethel. I know my grandmother didn’t have the money to have that thing recovered. My mother did, though, and I did, so it’s been reupholstered twice since the fuschia brocade. Note the beaver carved across the top. No, it is not a rat.

The last and most bitter item I want to mention is my dress. My mother dragged me to Woodward and Lothrop to buy some clothes for college the summer before I went off to Douglass. I had never been to a prom and had never had a prom dress, unlike my sister, whose pretty yellow dress in this picture was bought to wear to an actual prom. In fact, I’d never been on a date. If I had had the choice of how to spend the money my mother paid for this wretched dress I would have bought a chic black-and-white tweed suit and got a lot more wear out of it. But my poor mother had dreams about how I would go off to college and finally meet someone who would be attracted to me, hopefully a boy, for as it happens she had begun to secretly fear that I was a (shudder) lesbian. Which I wasn’t, although the concept is much less threatening today than it was in 1957. So she dressed me as her heterosexual dream daughter.

I wore the dress once. Twice, if you count putting it on for this photograph.

Having the dress, I felt impelled to invite someone to the Douglass Christmas Ball. There was a fellow I was kind of sweet on. I called him at the fraternity house and asked him to go to the dance with me (cold sober, would you believe; it took all I was worth to sound nonchalant). A few years later we were married, fulfilling my mother’s dearest wish, at least until it all went south. But if it weren’t for that stinkin’ dress—!

© 2014 Kate Gallison


  1. What a great story! I was peering at the chair because I'm currently reading a bio of Edward VII. Though there are many interesting things in the book, I read it thanking the Fates that I was not born female in the 19th century

    1. The companion piece, the Prince of Wales' Chair, had a square back with button-tufted upholstery and three feathers carved on the top. We had a picture of it at one time. I've often wondered what branch of the family it went down in. The Governor General's chair is, like, entailed, and must be passed down from the eldest to the eldest. John gets it next. I don't know how to break it to him.

  2. As beautiful as you were (and ARE), it seems very strange that you were not assailed with invitations by boys. No surprise whatsoever that the first boy you looked at wanted to marry you. He might have been a jerk about a lot of things, but he was right about that.

    1. Boys were afraid of me. I know that now, though in those days I thought it was just that they found me unattractive. I was sarcastic, brainy, cold, and shy. Also I wore glasses and had braces on my teeth. I could have worked harder to put them at ease, but the truth is I was more afraid of them than they were of me.

  3. I had a dress that looked just like yours! For my freshman year at Randolph-Macon . As I'm multi years older than you, the style wore well! tjs