An Old Photograph, One Slightly Out of Focus”
By P. Keith Boran
Once, when Ira was quite small, his grandfather presented him with a gift – a photograph of him among the Cherokee Indians he traded with. “What do you think of it,” he had asked, “pictures of these people are so very rare, that I knew I must have one, despite their silly superstitions. That’s why I had your father take a quick snap shot whilst he pretended to clean the darn thing!” And along with the candid admission, his grandfather laughed himself red. He kept slapping Ira’s thigh with his hand while periodically wiping a tear from his bloated brow, not seeming to notice, or care, that the photograph was slightly out of focus.
But young Ira didn’t quite understand the gift. “Why such reckless abandon with another’s beliefs,” he had thought to himself, “for it’s the most arrogant trait of a man in business.” So, Ira decided against the profession, choosing to become a painter instead, one willing to ignore most pressing matters for his beloved art. But Ira found the market unsatisfactory. For one to make money with a canvas and brush, one must be educated in the craft, and thus meet the approval of someone in possession of a token gallery. And since reputations are made upon finding anything first in the world of art, these owners live to boast of their acquisitions, their discoveries, their genius. But unfortunately, Ira had yet to make a lasting impression upon this crowd, leaving him to wallow in his failure, a topic his family frequently dwelled upon.
One day when Ira was lying upon his floor, bemoaning the state of his misunderstood art, he received an urgent telegram.
Apparently, his grandfather had passed suddenly in the night, but “take comfort,” or so the note had so blatantly implied, for he had gone quietly without any lingering pain to speak of. It was a proper death for a distinguished gentleman, Ira admitted, but when compared with his struggle to become a famous artist, the matter felt anticlimactic.
After the funeral, his will was read aloud, the only known family function so well attended in all these years. But business is business, after all, even when your competitors are blood relatives. And when Ira’s father was confirmed as the sole beneficiary of the estate, Ira soon returned to his art, seeking solace with a brush, and a canvas. He embroidered its body with the immense grief he had never felt, having left such a large estate with nothing but his name. That is, until a box arrived bearing his father’s postmark. And within its four walls, Ira found a single object – a framed copy of the famed photograph, the exact one his grandfather had given him as a gift so many years before.
Ira held the old photograph for some time, examining the details he knew by heart, remembering his childlike fascination with his grandfather, the family’s ungenerous benefactor. And that’s when an idea struck Ira, leaving him with a sudden compulsion to paint the image in one long setting. It would be a final salute to his grandfather, and a thank you for the funds Ira had used to attend the expensive, four year, liberal arts university, the very one that promised to provide him the tools needed to succeed in life. So, Ira threw his latest piece to the floor, electing to use a canvas white and pure, one left untouched by another’s brush.
He painted the setting first, mixing his oils to create the wooded tones of green and brown. Soon, trees bloomed upon the canvas, leaving a backdrop no viewer could see white through. Next, the campground was outlined. And with a little yellow, brown, and white, several tents began to take form. Their borders were left slightly undefined and out of focus, for Ira intended to bestow clarity upon his grandfather alone.
And with the photograph’s background recreated on canvas, Ira began the intricate strokes that would define the Cherokees and his grandfather, bringing them to life once more. And despite his speed, Ira’s work took him well into the night, until he was left with one last piece to finish – his grandfather.
And as he worked, all the dormant memories in his mind began to unravel, allowing him the opportunity to relive his spotty childhood. Birthdays, holidays, and vacations all came back to Ira, helping him visualize his grandfather with more definition, more detail. And when he had finished, he saw his grandfather’s face in focus, and chose to remember him fondly.
But after a smidge more detail about the eyes, Ira was convinced his grandfather had never loved him as a grandson, or a friend. He was but one object amongst the many his grandfather had owned. And even if his grandfather had considered him rare, Ira would never be more than a trinket made to carry on the family’s name, its legacy. For Ira came at the telling of a joke, one told to validate his grandfather’s need of him at all. And Ira’s father was, as he had always been, most willing to oblige his father’s every whim.
Bio: P. Keith Boran teaches writing at the University of Mississippi, where he's happy to be married to his best friend.