He’s a little boy, barely four years old, staring out of a portrait in pastels. Sitting erect on a stool, visible from the waist up, he wears a brown ball cap, perched slightly askew on his head. Coppery hair curls from under the cap, atop his ears and above his forehead. A brown woolen vest, sleeveless, covers what appears to be a white tee-shirt. His bare arms, somewhat chubby, end where his hands are clasped together in his lap.
His eyes—large, brown, quizzical—seem to follow the viewer from side to side, never wavering. His full lips are pursed, and his cheeks are round and pink.
He is as frightened as he can ever remember being.
Invisible to the viewer of the portrait, but arrayed in front of the little boy on his perch, is a vast crowd of Christmas shoppers, some smiling, others pointing, all watching. In front of them, mere feet from the boy, sits the artist, a woman who posed him while his mother and grandmother watched. It is she who turns his cap sideways, removes his tie, tucks the collars of his dress shirt under his vest—much to the chagrin of his mother.
“Let’s try for a ruffian look,” she says, thinking of the little rascals in the movies. “He’s too cute to be dressed up.”
His mother acquiesces, though none too thrilled, and cautions him about his role. He is to sit still, mind what the artist says, and not fidget. The artist repeats much of that, but adds that he should tell her if he gets tired. “Short rests are okay,” she says.
It’s alright for a time, the little boy unmoving, the artist sketching with her charcoal pencils and coloured pastels. His stool is on a platform, slightly raised above the main floor where the artist sits and the shoppers congregate. He can see his mother and grandmother, and their smiles reassure him. He is too timid to ask for a rest, but the artist takes one, perhaps twenty minutes into the sitting, and allows him to get off the stool.
During the break, his mother says, “Grandma and I are going to do a little shopping for a few minutes, but we’ll be back before the picture is finished.”
As the little boy’s brow furrows in concern, she adds, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Just do what the lady tells you. And don’t fidget.”
The second sitting is much harder for him, with no familiar face to focus on in the throng before him. What if they don’t come back in time? How will they find me?
His eyes constantly scan the crowd, searching, until the artist asks him to look directly at her. He does, but she is too focused on her work to give him the reassurance he craves. Glancing repeatedly at him, then at her work, she dabs colours on a canvas he cannot see.
But he doesn’t look away from her, and he doesn’t fidget.
That portrait of the little boy has hung in my home for more than forty years, passed on by my parents. And almost seventy years have flown since the little boy sat on his stool in front of those Christmas shoppers. When my own children were young, I used to look for similarities between them and the little boy—eyes, hair, expressions. And now I do the same with my grandchildren. Sometimes I see likenesses, other times I cannot.
On many an occasion, I have stood and looked into the little boy’s eyes, trying to recapture what it was like to be him. Not just on that day when the portrait was done, but during the days and years to follow, as he grew and passed into manhood.
I feel his eyes trailing me whenever I walk by, and I wonder what he would think if he could see himself now. Could he have had any idea that day what his future would hold?
Of course not.
Would he have had even an inkling of the man he would become, and of all that would befall him?
How could he?
Would he like me?
I hope so. I liked being him.
It strikes me now that he has never moved, not once in all those years. He sits as patiently and as immobile as on portrait-day, gazing steadily back at the viewer. Is he still waiting for his mother and grandmother to come back for him, I wonder? They’re gone now, long ago, and I wonder what he would think if he knew that.
The little boy is gone, too, I suppose, except from the portrait that hangs in my hall—and from my innermost soul, where he will always reside. Until I, too, am gone.
Fidget? Not likely.