Family Portrait

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Aside from trauma, the painting was the only thing that united my chaotic family.

I’d waited decades for this day. Despite divorces and betrayals, remarriages and new starts, unofficial adoptions and schoolyard blood pacts, the legends of the painting survived. Finally the collective effort of so many people would be honored, and I was thankful my infant son could be here on this momentous day to see the work restored and reframed after years of neglect.

As I waited for them to bring the painting of the blue-haired woman with the flower in her hair out from the back, I reflected on the years that had been so unkind to her and the way she tied us all together.

My parents hadn’t been married very long when my father brought the painting home as a surprise for his pregnant wife, but my own formative encounter was over a decade later.

I have no idea how he got it approved by his second wife, but I first spotted it in their marital home during a sleepover for my tenth birthday.

I didn’t know my first stepmother. I had lived with them for a couple of weeks at the age of four, but was promptly returned to my grandmother as defective. Soon after they moved to Marin County. Although it was only an hour’s drive toward the ocean, not much further than San Francisco, it was like a different country in that I never, ever saw it.

For my tenth birthday I was allowed to invite a few friends over to a sleepover at my father’s house. I imagine that, for most children, attending a sleepover is exciting because it’s an opportunity to spend the night in someone else’s house under different rules, but in my case hosting one was equally foreign. My father’s new house with his new wife was alien and mysterious, and the rules seemed to be nonexistent. I was more likely to recognize my new best friend, who I’d met a few months prior to the party, than my stepmother, who’d married my father more than five years earlier.

Aside from the long drive, and despite probably both cheese AND pepperoni pizza (let alone the coolest VHS rentals), what we children all remembered most was creeping around the house at night, in part exploring our newfound freedoms, and in part actually trying to find the bathroom.

It was on this night that we saw the painting for the first time. We stood in awe, young girls in moonlight, looking up at the dark painting of a woman herself lit up by moonlight. She was beautiful, with her black hair shining blue in the dark light, with a large white flower barely illuminated in her hair. To our impressionable minds, however, the most memorable part was that she was topless. Her nipple seemed to follow us around the room wherever we went.

Years later, after my father and Second Wife divorced, my best friend-turned-blood pact sister and I would find ourselves gazing up at the Topless Woman With The Flower once more. As his first act as a newly single guy, my father chose to hang her over his bed in his room.

This struck me as ill-advised.

I was older now, twelve, and I Knew Some Things about adults and mating habits. This did not seem like an appropriate location for the Topless Woman With The Flower. I decided to consult my mother, my father’s first wife.

(This did not strike me as ill-advised, although it probably should have.)

I don’t remember where we were, although it was probably at a bar or a barbecue. My godfather was there. He had introduced my parents, worshipped my mother, and openly despised my father since the divorce. “Oh gawwwwwd,” he drawled. “He still has Linda?”

He and my mother broke into laughter, his uncontrollable teary-eyed braying and her belly guffaws interspersed with exclamations of horror.

“That’s not just some Topless Woman,” my mother explained. “That is one authentic, black velvet painting of Linda Ronstadt. Except she’s not topless on the original album cover.”

“The artist took some creative freedoms with the source material,” my godfather snickered.

“I can’t believe she let him keep it!” my mother said to him. “God awful thing. But I’m not surprised he’d hang it up now.”

My godfather said, “If he ever wants to get rid of it, tell him I’ll take it.”

They relayed the heirloom’s provenance, which I’ll record here with the caveat that literature knows no narrator more unreliable than my mother in any matter, let alone in matters concerning my father:

In the ancient times of the 1970s, when a small family’s rent was a mere $375, my father came home to announce he’d spent $250 on a piece of artwork. He hadn’t consulted with my mother first, but was certain she’d be supportive of the purchase, being an art student herself. He knew she’d understand that it was an investment. The artist would probably be famous someday, and he assured her it was high quality workmanship.

He proceeded to unveil the black velvet topless Linda Ronstadt. (In researching the family heirloom in subsequent years, I discovered the image was based on the cover to her Blue Bayou 45 record, released August 1977, while I would be released later that same year.)

My parents divorced.

(While Linda was not the direct cause, it’s not a surprising outcome given the story.)

My mother and my stepmother, my father’s third wife, try to find some common ground at my bridal shower, when somehow “Linda” comes up. They are both trying to not cry as they laugh over how awful the painting was.

“Oh, I made him get rid of that years ago!” my stepmother explained. “He tried to keep it as a memento. He said YOU gave it to him!”

My mother’s eyeballs bulge with horror at the accusation, but she’s speechless from her laughter. My 13-year-old stepsister, who will be forced into the role of maid of honor at the last minute, tells my mother the stories from her own sleepovers. They’ve moved three hours away to the Sierra Nevada foothills, and she has had her own “alien house exploration and surprise discovery” experience. Topless Linda becomes the tie that binds mothers and daughters, keeping us sane through the wedding reception.

My father and stepfamily have moved back to our region and “Linda” comes up again at my stepsister’s graduation party. Her best friend from the foothills is visiting and her father owns the infamous painting now. Her mother hates it but he got it for free and keeps it in the garage so she can’t complain. My older sister-from-another-Mister tells her own stories about discovering “Linda.”

“Hey, let me know if he’d ever be willing to sell it,” I joked, “I’ve been telling people about it for years and they want proof it really exists.”

We all laughed.

(It did not strike me that this was ill-advised.)

That summer I received word: The friend’s dad is interested.

The bastard charges me $200 on top of the gas money I gave my baby sister for the 400-mile round trip, but the blue-haired lady returns to the family.

I put “The Ronstadt” (as her price tag dictates she now be known) in a closet and only bring her out to entertain people at parties.

My father has taken my overindulgence in an ironic joke as a sign he was right about the art’s value all along.

Years pass, and my godfather, brother-in-law, and my baby sister, who so bravely ventured forth to claim our family’s heirloom, fight over the right of inheritance at parties. Meanwhile my cats have knocked “The Ronstadt” over in the closet to sleep on it. I no longer speak to my father.

The Ronstadt is worn in spots like a velveteen rabbit, while covered in a variety of fur from cats no longer alive. She has torn in one corner from where a fat cat butt mistakenly tried to fit. The decades-old frame has fabric tape coming off of it. I say I’ll get it repaired. I message an art restorer on Craigslist. I do not hear back.

I have opened a yoga studio next to a frame store. The owner, Madge, is a plain-spoken, irreverent, chain-smoking older woman who gives me silly yoga cartoons and a stuffed Shiva doll. She has seen it all and gives no fucks, and the frame store houses the local arts association. I realize that this is the one and only place to take a black velvet painting of a topless Linda Ronstadt for art restoration.

Suddenly I discover I am pregnant after twenty years of marriage, years of trying, a medical test confirming I’m infertile, and years of fully accepting and embracing the childless life. My baby sister comes out from Colorado for a month to help me with the baby shower. She drops “The Ronstadt” off at Madge’s frame store. We need our family heirlooms in order before the heir comes, but I go into labor before we get back to them on the frame.

A year passes.

It strikes me that “The Ronstadt” is still at the frame store, frame unordered. My godfather has passed away. My mother and I don’t speak. My father and I, oddly, do.

I take matters into my own hands, and march down with my babe on my forty-something hip. Madge completely understands my saga and gives me a deal on some scrap gallery frame they had left over.

It still costs over $200.

Today is the day we finally see her: Linda Ronstadt in all her glory. She’s been cleaned, some of the damage trimmed off, stretched across foam core board, and set behind protective glass.

Despite the wear and tear to the velvet, they were able to save the nipple.

My infant son is able to see his inheritance for the first time, and most likely the last time for at least another decade.

There is no blood to bind his lineage, and in many cases no legal bonds at all connecting him to his family. There is only Linda Ronstadt, great unifier of tastemakers, matron saint of kitsch and mother’s milk.

She will hang on the wall over the bar downstairs in a room with other No Babies items, tucked in for a nap behind her own curtains. “The Ronstadt” will be ready to be unveiled as a reminder of our heritage, or to unite our family behind a common cause, whenever we need her.

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