Portrait of a Lie

February 19, 2011 at 10:20 am | Posted in Childhood Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | Leave a comment
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First published in Island Writer Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2 (Winter 2010), pages 52-54.

On my fifth birthday, I received scissors.  I’ve forgotten what else I got, but I remember cutting paper with blunt-nosed safety scissors, small enough to fit my hand.  And I remember preparing to snip a strand of my hair, until Mom stopped me by saying, “Don’t cut your hair.”

“I won’t.  I promise,” I replied.

Later, my mother left the room while I lay sprawled on the floor, cutting paper.  Beside me played my puppy, a short-haired, black-and-white terrier named “Sparky.”

A section of hair slipped from its ribbon tie, falling over my right eye and obscuring my view.  Without thinking, I grabbed the loose piece and cut it off, then recalled my promise.  “Oh,” I thought, “Mommy won’t notice.”  My mother was easy going, so I got away with lots of mischief.

But she did notice.  Hair that previously flowed down the side of my face now formed a jagged bang.  Mom frowned—she seldom frowned—and said I broke my promise.

“But I didn’t cut my hair, Mommy.  Sparky chewed it off.”

Mom looked into my eyes.  I lowered mine.  Suddenly I clutched a piece of my hair, waved it in front of Sparky.  He grabbed it, as puppies often do when things are waved in front of them, but he simply tugged, didn’t chew.  Nonetheless, Mom was convinced that the dog chewed off my hair.

I don’t know why I lied.  My punishment would only have been a mild scolding.  My lie, made up on the spur of the moment, wouldn’t be accepted by most adults, but my trusting, uncomplicated mother wanted to believe me.

Two days after the hair-cutting incident, a photographer knocked on the door.  He was taking portraits of children.  Mom said she wasn’t interested.

“Her hair,” she added as way of explanation.

“You don’t have to pay if you don’t like it, ma’am,” the man countered.

Mom looked at me and I beamed, conveying my desire without words.

While the photographer set up his equipment in the living room, Mom whisked me upstairs to change into my best dress, quickly brushed my shoulder-length, wavy hair and tied one side with a big pink ribbon to match my dress.

I sat as the photographer requested—left arm on a table, chin resting on my right hand—and smiled.

A few days later, he returned with a hand-colored photograph.  Background shades were muted but face details were carefully rendered and brightly tinted.  My off-center smile hinted at playfulness, my eyes shined with impish glee, and the jagged wisps of hair I cut softened my broad forehead.

Shannon Moeser: “Mom’s Favorite Picture of Me”

Mom loved the portrait.  For the rest of her life, it was prominently displayed: on a piano, fireplace mantle or cabinet, depending on the home.  Often, she would show it to visitors, invariably adding, “You can see where the dog chewed off her hair.”  Sometimes she elaborated on the dog, saying what a terror he had been.  Poor Sparky.  Blamed for something he didn’t do.  And each time she told the story, I remembered the truth.

I probably would have forgotten the incident if not for the photograph.  It refreshed my memory and guilt kept me from telling the true story to anyone.  But I never told Mom a lie again.  Sometimes I avoided mentioning activities I preferred to keep secret.  Sometimes I exaggerated my “tummy ache” to miss school.  But I never again told her a lie when asked a direct question.

During my rebellious teens and early twenties, I broke social conventions, but owned up to my transgressions and Mom always supported me.  She was the buoy that kept me from drowning while I splashed in forbidden waters.  When, in my late twenties, I became a successful scholar, she reveled in the reflected glow of my accomplishments.

In Mother’s 80th year (and my 40th), we were discussing the pictures and souvenirs cluttering up her small apartment.  She picked up “the portrait” with her wrinkled, arthritic hands and once again said how much she loved it, even though “the dog had chewed my hair off.”

I couldn’t stand it any longer.  I said, “The dog didn’t do it.  I cut it off with my little scissors.”

Mother no longer remembered the original incident, didn’t even remember Sparky who was killed chasing a car when I was seven.  The phrase “the dog chewed it off” was now something she said each time she referred to the picture, a remark of habit rather than recall.

So I described the incident that occurred 35 years earlier.  Mother remained silent for several seconds until she understood, then said “Oh.”  She paused, and added, “Why?”  I didn’t reply. The “why” was to escape a scolding, but it seemed trivial now.  I shrugged and Mother started talking about something else.  My childhood lie didn’t bother her.  I can laugh at it now, see it as she did—just a childish prank.  But, for many years, the memory evoked by this portrait stopped me from lying to my mother and helped forge our honest, open relationship.

Shannon Moeser


Hand-painted pictures involved manually adding color to a black-and-white photograph.   They were popular until color film became readily available in the mid-1940s.  Hand-colored portraits in the 1940s had a softer tone than color film.

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