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  • Family Portrait, and: Mary
  • Jesse Lee Kercheval (bio)

Family Portrait

My eight-year-old daughter Maude spotted the photograph. She was flopped belly down on the living room rug flipping through one of my husband Anders's innumerable photography books, when she saw it. "Look," she said to me. "It's Gram and Grandpa's house."

"What, Sweetie?" I said. I'd been channel surfing through the day's disasters, skipping from twenty-four-hour news channel to twenty-four-hour news channel with the mute on, trying to catch up on the news without Maude actually seeing bodies being carried from the scene of the latest earthquake or plane crash or shooting rampage. It wasn't easy.

"Gram and Grampa Dahl's house," Maude said again, a little louder for her old mother. She turned the book around so I could see.

I clicked the remote, waited for the tv to go black, then I bent down and looked, expecting to see some farmhouse in New England or Scotland that looked liked the Dahl family home. But there it was-Anders's parents' house, circa 1870. The farmhouse's square stone walls, arched windows, and double chimney all looked just as they had the week before when we'd gone to visit Anders's parents. The only difference was the yard. Last week inhabited by only an iron deer and two yard elves, in this photograph the entire Dahl family of a hundred and thirty years ago was posed to have their picture taken. I counted at least two-dozen people from white-robed babies to an old man who was the spitting image of Santa Claus.

More than people had been turned out of the house to pose for the photographer. The furniture was all out on the lawn too. Everything in the parlor and dining room had been emptied onto the rough, uneven expanse of the grass. The big mahogany table was set for coffee with the family's best linen and silver. I got down on the floor next to Maude to look more closely at the picture. [End Page 87] I recognized the big horsehair couch I'd sat on last week, watching the Weather Channel with Anders's mother, my feet braced to keep from slipping off the slick upholstery and onto the floor. I picked out the claw foot parlor table and matching chairs, even the mirrored coat stand and twisted iron fern stand Anders's mother kept in the hall. Only the large ornate wicker chair was a stranger. The rest of the furniture still lived in the house.

"Hey, Maude," I said, touching one corner of the picture. "There's the big trunk your granddad let you use as a treasure chest." Our basset Ginger wandered into the room and came over for a look, wondering what we were so excited about.

"Wow, that's Gram's rocker," Maude said, pointing to the back of a chair that held one of the mothers, babe in her lap. We all peered at the picture, our rumps high in the air. "Why is everything out in the yard?" Maude asked.

"Good question," I said.

"That's what people did then, Alice," Anders answered. He had come into the room and now joined us on the carpet. "When you wanted to show the folks back in Norway all the wonderful things you owned in the New World, you got a passing photographer to take a picture like this. The glass plates they used then took a lot of light-no way to take a shot like this in a dark, formal parlor. So you picked a good sunny day and out everything came." Anders taught photography at the university.

"Who are all those people?" Maude asked.

"Dahls," Anders said. "But I'll be damned if I know which ones. We'll have to take it with us and ask Dad next time. I think I remember seeing a copy of this in one of the trunks in the lumber room-not in this kind of shape though. This must be a new print from the negative. Look at that detail." He pointed at the...


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