It was an eightieth birthday present from my niece. How obtuse, I thought. Why in the world would I want a portrait of myself. I said as much but she brushed me off.
On the bright side, it was a way of escaping Norton House for a few hours. What a miserable place it was; beige corridors, shuffling ghosts, the musty tang of urine soaked with disinfectant. I’m not trying to be rude – after all I lived there for a reason – but it got too much for me sometimes.
The artist was plump with milky skin and copper hair that fell in exuberant curls across her shoulders. “Pleased to meet you Miss Hammond. My name’s Jessica.” She stretched out a hand and helped me into her house.
“Please call me Lucille.”
“Okey dokey. This way Lucille.” She led me into a studio with warm pine floors and muted sunlight. “Have you sat for a portrait before?”
“Nope. This is a gift from my niece. Waste of money if you ask me.”
Jessica smiled as she settled me in a chair and stowed my walking stick. “I’ll take some photos first and then we can decide the best way to paint you.”
It was awful seeing my face on her computer screen – deep crevasses and lumps of skin, bunches and creases, faded eyes with red rims and flat white hair. “Terrible!” I proclaimed. “Don’t waste your skills on me, Jessica.”
She laughed. “Let’s sit and have some tea. I like to know something about the people I paint. It helps me put feeling into their portraits.”
She brought in a tray with floral china and warm gingerbread and I weakened. “Sure smells good.”
A few minutes later, she arranged herself opposite me. “Tell me about your life, Lucille.”
I sighed. “I feel like a battery chicken - all cooped up in my little space, waiting to die. Limited movement, limited interaction, heaps of frustration. Most of the residents have given up.”
“Have you given up, Lucille?”
“In some ways.” I stretched stiff fingers out, joints swollen with arthritis. “I worked as a missionary in Africa until I was 76. I wish God had taken me home then. At least I was still useful. Now I feel like I’m in a twilight zone; old and decrepit and a nuisance to those around me.”
Jessica was a good listener and before I knew it, an hour had gone. “I’ve really spilled my guts.” I said shaking my head.
“It’s just what I needed.” she assured me, helping me out to the taxi. “How about I do an unconventional portrait for you?”
I liked the sound of that. “One in the eye for my niece.”
I visited twice a week for a month and finally the portrait was done.
“Come in, Lucille.” Jessica looked radiant, hair bouncing across her shoulders in turbulent copper waves. “We’ll have tea first.”
I knew she was teasing me. “Portrait first, tea second.” I instructed, creaking across the strip floor to the covered easel.
She laughed. “You win. Sit down and I’ll bring it over.”
I was eager to see what she’d produced and leaned back, adjusting my spectacles. “I’m ready.”
She carried it over and swept the cloth off as though challenging a bull. “You’ll have to look closely.”
I leaned forward and stared into my face. Jessica was skilful, no doubt about that. She’d captured my expression perfectly while softening the age spots and bunches and sags.
As she said it, forms emerged from the painting. The buttons on my blouse were smiling brown faces – the children from my village. The fabric was a landscape – the rolling cornfields of Africa and brilliant blue skies, and the pendant around my neck was a cross. For a long moment I couldn’t say a thing.
“Look at the frame, Lucille.”
It was broad, painted brown with a gold pattern running through the centre.
Words appeared from the gold lines as Jessica lifted the portrait and slowly swivelled it around. “Well done, Lucille, good and faithful servant. With love, Father God.”
At that moment, the portrait ceased to be a caricature of old age. Instead it became a glimpse of eternity; a flash of pure sunlight. Jessica smiled as she handed me a tissue. “God is still with you, Lucille. He’ll be there every step of the way, loving and supporting you until it’s time to take you home.”
“Amen.” I whispered. “And amen.”
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