Debbie Hagan

Portrait in Red

So cute, writes my sister in a note she attaches to this picture.

I gaze at the girl squinting into the sun, flashing a half-smile. Is she Heidi? Gretl von Trapp? No, no, it’s me dressed up like a fairy tale character with my white-blonde hair tightly curled, a simple smile (not too big or goofy), and an outfit picked out for this day: red sweater, white blouse, Peter Pan collar, red tartan pleated skirt, white anklets trimmed in lace, and new saddle oxfords. And that hat! Look at the way it rises over my heart-shaped face. Like a crown!

The red and white hat with its big puffy balls takes me back to my mother, about 1960, sitting in the corner of our living room, in her big pink rocker, her head bowed over flying crochet hooks, red and white yarns twisting back and forth. I hear the racing electric guitar riff from the Bonanza theme song as Ben Cartwright, Little Joe, Hoss, and Adam ride their horses into our living room. It’s my mother’s favorite show, but she doesn’t look up, determined to finish this hat and matching mittens before the snow melts.

Did she really think a crocheted hat and gloves with their loops and air holes would keep me warm through Iowa’s blustery winters? No. I believe she had something else in mind.

My mother, as a young girl, loved taking pictures. She used a Brownie box camera, immortalizing her friends and family in long, narrow, black and white photos. 

A few years after my birth, my father bought a German Leica from his brother, who had bought it from one of his Korean Army buddies. It was one of the first 35 mm cameras available to the general public and used color film. However, the camera’s curious knobs and dials adjusting shutter speed and the lens opening, baffled my parents. Yet, my mother wanted to try. 

When my mother wasn’t crocheting, she was reading a Kodak pamphlet that offered a few photography tips: Keep the sun to your back. Use Ektachrome film for neutral tone and stable colors. Choose a color theme.

This last line surely made my mother’s green eyes brightened. Red…that would be the theme. I had a red skirt, red sweater, and a red hat…almost. How perfect it would be if I stood, all dressed in red, in front of our new red Chevrolet Impala. 

On the first Spring-like day, Mom trotted me outside in my red outfit. My chest swelled when she asked me to stand in front of the red Chevy. When the sun’s rays hit the chrome on the cat-eye fins, I felt sure the car was winking at me. You go girl!

My mother crouched under the birch tree, raised the camera, poised her finger over the shutter release, and then I heard the crash of the side door and my father stomping down the stairs. I cannot recall his exact words, but they went something like this: This is my car. I worked hard to pay for it. I should be the one getting my picture taken!  

He scared me with his herky-jerky motions, his hands balled into fists, his dark eyes narrow and  lips pressed into a hard line. I wanted to run, but Mom had worked hard for this, and somehow I had to get through this. 

When I looked at my mother, I saw fear in her eyes, her lips puckered as if she wanted to tell me something. When our eyes met, I knew she was whispering an apology.

My father shuffled up beside me…not dressed in red, but gray neutrals that blended with the house siding and concrete.

Then, as if he had just entered a high fashion magazine shoot, he turned his body sideways, jutted his left foot forward, twisted his body, then leaned back.

Mom pressed the shutter.

Sixty years later, my sister sends me this picture. After staring at it a long time, I notice something I’d never seen before. The girl’s tiny white hand drifts up, like a dove…searching…for her father. A thought must have occurred to her, they should be holding hands, the way fathers and daughter normally do.

Yet, the shutter clicks with the hand hanging in space, unable to connect with the father who’s too busy modeling, shoving his hand deep into his trousers, leaning…leaning away from the girl.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity literary magazine. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including Harvard Review, Boston Globe, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Some of her essays have appeared in anthologies, including Dime Story and Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.