There are other pictures, fuller pictures, pictures of her youth, and pictures of her middle age. But this is the image I cling to. The physical size of the thing feels right. Small and boxy. Portable. An image you could approximate with a few brush strokes— three ascending circles, four perpendicular lines. The geometry makes it easy to recall, even when the physical isn’t available. The high contrast helps too— opposing triangles of light and dark space. No colors to muddle. Just highlights and shadows and the texture that seeps through in between.
Toothy Mark and full-cheeked Carole. Portia between. Mark, my father, taking up the fore. Too coy to give us a full smile. He still won’t. Now, though, he smiles with closed lips. I like the gap here, between thick bottom lip and stretched-thin upper. That tooth hanging down like the stalactites he would come to study as a Doctor of Rocks. Portia never knew my father as a PhD. But she liked climbing rocks. Not the technical sticky-shoe stuff, but the mountain air, the granite.
Carole can’t climb, but she’s coy, like my father. She smiles but won’t stare the camera down straight. Side eyes. She rests her big, soft kid face against Portia’s delicate adult one. Silky hair, simply cut. Wool scarf, hugged close. Tiny little Princetonian: the daughter of an orchestra conductor and a professor. He’s notably absent, the Great Albert Sonnenfeld, speaker of romance languages and author of anthologies on Flaubert, Proust, Baudelaire etc. It’s not as if he’s obscured behind the camera. It’s a photo booth shot— there’s the curtain to the rear and the cropped square frame. He’s not present. Rarely was. Too busy thinking important things or dining with important people or whisking away various mistresses (as is the French tradition). Carole clings close to Portia.
I can’t tell what she’s wearing— an oatmeal turtleneck, maybe. Mark in his black tie and heavy wool overcoat seems dressed for an evening at the theater. If it had been the symphony, Portia would have stuck to black, a simple ensemble that shrunk her into the shadows of string instruments. That uniform allowed the cream of her long fingers to take center stage, sweeping down and across and stopping on a quiver between songs. Her face would have moved from soft and gazing to something sharper and more hawkish. Her lips would have been pursed and hidden her natural dental symmetry. Her hair would still have been down. Those choppy bangs enough to keep stray follicles from interfering with Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
My sister’s middle name is Maxine: my father always wanted to name his son Max after Maurice Sendak’s little tyrant prince. He got two twin girls instead. Maxine would have to do. My middle name is Portia. It gives off sexy, elegant, strong Shakespearean woman vibes. I lucked out. I like the name for its balance of spice and stoicism. And because sonically it works with my first name, Alexa. Alexa Portia. A pairing, a continuation. Not disjointed like some maiden-name-cum-middle-names or expected like Rose or Marie.
I like it most for the line that it draws between this picture and me. Portia and me. I could have been Maxine. But I’m not; I’m Portia. And I see her in the cartilage of my nose and my cheekbones that curve up towards amandine eyes. I sight her artistry as the root of my impulse towards creative production— she played the cello and I never could but I like to create. I seek her out when I’m confused by my father’s coldness. Confused over how he does not see the line between his life and mine, between his mother’s cancer and my mother’s, between his affair and his father’s affairs. Over how he does not see our shared terroir. Terroir: a French word (he knows it, a Francophile, like his father, and a wine collector). It means the collected set of environmental contexts that affect the profile of a grape.
I cling to this scrap because it draws lines, connects shapes. It creates topographies and reinforces terroirs. I let it— I let her, Portia— redeem my father, when I cannot.
“Tiny but great”— that’s the name of the PDF with the photo. I wonder if my father named it or someone else. I suspect the latter. My father would’ve put an underscore between each word. He’s the type to send electronic calendar invites to join him for dinner. “7pm Bistro Vendôme,” I click “accept.”