|Portrait of the Artist's Great
Grandmother as a Young Uncompahgre
By Tom Bradley
She's in a ceremonial lodge, constructed of underbrush, blankets and jackrabbit skins. To this day it remains ambiguous whether this is a studio mock-up or an actual location shot. Through the exit flap are visible the vast orange sandstone formations of the great southwestern desert—but, even seen through the corneal lens, these look unreal. One can tell nothing from the tidy, yet somehow uncouth ambiance of the wigwam. Nobody remembers the circumstances under which the picture was taken, even though it was once submitted to a major national magazine in support of a proposal for a photo essay. Photographer and subject are dead now, and the current editors of the publication have refused to answer inquiries, written or telephonic.
She has been decked out in traditional garb for an aboriginal rite, her lily-white midriff daringly exposed, the rest of her smothered under fur too sparse to belong to anything large as a bear, though it is the Bear Dance she is about to participate in. She is kneeling reverently at the feet of the octogenarian head judge, legendary Cesspooch herself, whose million fine, papery wrinkles show up excellently. Great Grandma seems to be receiving a blessing from the judge's gnarled hands, or perhaps she's participating in a sacrament. Maybe she is being initiated into prehistoric lesbian mysteries.
Defacing the lower-left corner of this document is a terse pair of sentences elegantly scrawled in purpling fountain pen ink by an editor in Washington, D.C.: "These are obviously debased versions of customs derived from more vigorous coastal native peoples. This hopelessly remote part of Americana is simply not interesting enough to warrant inclusion in the pages of the National Geographic."
Bowing to the superior wisdom of the dead easterner who wrote, but forgot to sign, that rejection, it is nevertheless easy to see why this particular picture has survived. On the youthful face of my departed ancestress is an all-encompassing rapture, a bone-level acceptance of existence on the earth, of love consumed whole, without shame or hesitation—all somehow contained, with room to spare, in the slight angling of her left eyebrow. The rest of her face is without motion or expression.
Tom Bradley's essays and stories have been published widely on the net and in print. His novels have been nominated for The Editor's Book Award and The New York University Bobst Prize. One was a finalist in The AWP Award Series. Bradley maintains a website at tombradley.org