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Sarah Beth Childers: Portraits within Portraits

A family held together by a photo frame.

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Image from Flickr user castgen

By Sarah Beth Childers

Before my twenty-two-year-old brother Joshua died, I skimmed the suicide stories in the checkout-line magazines with a reverent cringe of horror. The stories featured a family photo: a mom with a red perm, a dad in an oxford shirt, no tie, a teenage daughter with braces, a purebred dog in a leather collar, a gilt-framed portrait of a skinny, freckled boy. The mom cradled the portrait, a brave smile on her face. He’s still with us, the family photo said. Maybe he has shrunk to 8X10 inches, but he’s still part of our family.

Now, when I wait in line with my Cheerios, most sad magazine photos still make me shudder. Bloody-faced African AIDS victims, houses smashed to soggy splinters by hurricanes, a soldier who saved his buddy from a landmine, leaving behind an eye and his nose. But when I see a woman clutching a picture of a boy who jumped seventy-five feet into a creek, I want to empty the magazine rack onto the floor. The magazine editors might pat my shoulder. You poor thing. You see your brother’s hazel eyes in the frame.

When the skinny boy in your family kills himself, you don’t need a framed portrait to complete a family picture. Just stare at any photo. You’ll see him.

But that’s not it. I know better now. Those portraits within portraits are editors’ lies, manipulations to sell more magazines. When the skinny boy in your family kills himself, you don’t need a framed portrait to complete a family picture. Just stare at any photo. You’ll see him.

Our childhood home in Huntington, West Virginia. Christmas 2012. Three grown sisters huddle on the futon with drooping smiles, trying to care enough to unwrap the presents in our hands. We aren’t looking at the Christmas tree: we’d see Joshua’s red stocking, that “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament with a bald plastic boy, and something dumb Joshua made out of a milkweed pod. Joshua has been dead for four months, but there he sits in our Christmas morning photo. He crouches, plaid flannel knees pulled to his chest, in the empty space on the futon. The space we leave empty without thinking because our brother sits there. Joshua has a present in his hands, but he tore it right open. He tossed the red and green wrapping onto the family room rug, topping the rumpled mountain at his feet. He reads the back of his new Werner Herzog DVD with his lips in a half-smile, eyebrows raised. He knows the camera is on him. Later, he’ll look back at this picture and chuckle at himself: such paltry excitement on his face when he’s about to watch the best film of his life.

Jerry’s Pay Lake in South Point, Ohio. May 2013. My sister Jennifer and I stand next to our dad on the shore of a tiny bulldozer-made lake, trying to remember how to fish. My dad holds a bamboo pole like it’s part of his right arm, but his daughters look ready to drop their metal poles into the water. So much fishing line, a dismembered worm, a sharp hook: a disgusting and dangerous puzzle. But it’s a perfect spring day, a day Daddy and Joshua would have gone fishing, so we rooted under the house for tackle. It had to be a pay lake—my fishing license has been expired for a decade—and Joshua preferred pay lakes anyway. Long ago, my dad fished for calm with his brothers: young men on a riverbank at sunrise. It didn’t matter if any fish showed up. But Joshua liked to dip his line in the water and pull out a fat farm-raised catfish, so my dad joined the sweaty pay lake crowd. In the picture, Jennifer’s face looks uncertain, eyes squinted in the sun, but her line has floated to the middle of the lake. Her red-and-white bobber dances on the water. Something in her tan, muscular hands remembers when she fished as a tiny girl, chattering on the riverbank next to her daddy. My hands can’t remember, so I’ve given up casting and unrolled enough silvery thread to dangle my bait above the water’s surface. Maybe low enough that a fish can jump and grab it. Across the lake, an elderly man laughs in his wheelchair at that silly girl with her blonde ponytail and shorts. The lake’s so small I can hear him snorting. There’s Joshua in the photo. He stands beside me, guffawing along with the old man. Then my brother stops laughing and touches my arm. “Sarbef, let’s go get a hot dog.”

We feel chased by the jeans and hoodies, the T-shirts stamped with videogame villains and soft drink logos from the 1970s.

JC Penney in Barboursville, West Virginia. Late December 2012. Sarah Beth, Jennifer, and Rebecca on the strip of linoleum in the JC Penney Guys department. We have to make it through the Guys department to get to everything else, and the picture is blurry because we’re running. We feel chased by the jeans and hoodies, the T-shirts stamped with videogame villains and soft drink logos from the 1970s. The posters of male models in their early twenties, aggressively stylish and alive. An hour ago, Jennifer announced she needed a knitted hat with lion ears and whiskers, and ten minutes later, we piled into the car. A lion hat sounded like a mission. We felt trapped in the space between our first Christmas without Joshua and 2013, the first New Year he wouldn’t see. But now there’s fifty feet of hoodies and conversation-starter t-shirts between us and the hats. Joshua lurks in the Guys department, combing the racks, inspecting the pattern on a dressy-looking shirt. He needs clothes that fit his life as a call center worker and a future director of groundbreaking art films. A precise combination of the ultimate hipster and the khakis and button downs our mother bought him when he was six.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 premiere in Fairmont, West Virginia. November 2012. Jennifer, Rebecca, and I beam in our hand-painted t-shirts, our hands gripping each other’s shoulders. Our t-shirts are pink, purple, turquoise, the most feminine colors available, and we’ve coated them furiously with glitter. Since sometime after midnight on August 30, this has been a family of three sisters, not three sisters and a brother. Sisters can have fun without a boy. But in the top right corner, Joshua hovers with a smirk. A smirk that means our movie is crap.

The table has a sixth chair. We’ve buried it like a body: five coats, three purses, two novels. But Joshua shows up anyway.

Arby’s in Morgantown, West Virginia. October 2012. My parents, Jennifer, Rebecca, and I sit at a fast-food table, squeezing brown sauce out of little foil packets. My parents have driven all the way across West Virginia to visit their daughters. That drive was too far when there were six living people in our family, but now they do it once a month. No one felt hungry when they got here, but we remembered people eat, so we decided on Arby’s. Five roast beef sandwiches, three Dr. Peppers and two Sierra Mists, five orders of curly fries. The table has a sixth chair. We’ve buried it like a body: five coats, three purses, two novels. But Joshua shows up anyway. He dumps our pile on the floor and sits down with a Pepsi and a sandwich. I know he can’t be happy. He can’t handle confining spaces: cars, classrooms, tables at restaurants. His idea of meal out is a stroll through a city, a hot dog in one hand and a cigarette in the other. For a minute, Joshua chews his roast beef, and then we all start annoying him. The way Rebecca hums between sentences. The way Jennifer slouches in her seat. The way I mention my ex-boyfriend again or shake quietly about my dead little brother. A tangible stress cloud forms around the table, and my brother’s eyes don’t look like my brother’s eyes. Desperate to recall Joshua from wherever he goes when he’s angry, my sisters and I try telling jokes. We remind him of when he was little, what he said whenever we drove past an Arby’s. “Oh,” he wailed, “it gives me gas.”

My house in Richmond, Indiana. March 2015. Peggotty, my two-year-old Boston Terrier, sleeps on my bed, curled on the largest quilt I’ve ever finished. I outlined plum and red triangles in a bright white muslin, even though I knew Peggotty would stain the white strips with her paws. Joshua didn’t like most dogs, but I know he’d like her, this quivery girl who speaks with her eyes. I stroke the empty space in the picture next to my dog’s back and long legs. My brother has stretched out just there. Joshua drove up to visit me, and after we talked a while, he needed a nap.

Sarah Beth Childers is the author of the memoir-in-essays Shake Terribly the Earth (Race, Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia) (Ohio University Press, 2013). Her essays have also appeared in such places as Brevity, The Tusculum Review, Wigleaf, and Gravel. She teaches and writes in Richmond, Indiana, with her Boston Terrier and her cat.

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