Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.
In 1974, when they were honeymooning in Atlanta, my parents bought a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant—not the one pictured above, but something close enough. They spent fifty bucks on it: cash they’d won on a bet with my grandfather, wagering that Nixon would not see out his term.
The painting hung above our fireplace in northeast Ohio when I was a girl. It matters only peripherally that Grant was an actual man who lived and died in the nineteenth century; who was the eighteenth president of the United States; and who, as commanding general of the United States Army, led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. What matters is how single-minded I found his gaze, his eyes staring down at me—to say nothing of the distinguished crinkle of the eyebrows above them, those bright buttons on his jacket, that thick beard and head of hair, sculpted like cake frosting.
When my sister and I were toddlers, our dryer broke down, or so we were told. The man who came to repair it looked, by our lights, exactly like the grisly Union soldier grimacing at everyone from his perch over our fireplace. This portrait was, we realized, a heroic depiction of the very man who now stood before us—the very man who came and fixed our broken dryer at a time when my parents had very little money. Somehow, we came to believe that he fixed it for free, and that this was why we’d hung his portrait in our home, above the hearth where we all gathered on Christmas mornings, and where we set out floating vanilla candles in little dishes of clean water whenever important company was coming over.
The beloved appliance repairman was named Ulysses S. Grant, my father told us. Yes, this was a funny name for a Cleveland-based handyman in 1982, but it was the truth, my father swore, with the same conviction he had when he swore that the raspberry danish in the kitchen was frog cake. (The jam was blood, we’d better not eat any, we’d better let him have it all.)
Flash forward to fourth grade, the first of a trillion years in a row of studying the Iroquois, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, at the expense of every other chapter in American history. Who was the man that led the Confederate soldiers to victory, my fourth grade teacher asked us. She was ninety years old, a hundred, and had tinted glasses and short hair as yellow as butterscotch. It was none other than Ulysses S. Grant, she said, and my arm shot up.
Even as I waved my little hand in the air with pride, my head was spinning. That timeline stretching from Plymouth Rock to me in my desk at Saint Ann’s suddenly folded up like an accordion and disappeared. My father had led the soldiers to victory. The president had fixed our dryer. My face was beet red and everyone was laughing. Fifty bucks from my grandfather, he’d rigged the whole thing, all of history. My young and beautiful parents on a brightly lit street in late August, the air heavy and hot, both of them dizzy with boozy ice tea. My father had a thick head of shining black hair. My mother had the longest, skinniest legs. They were so beautiful. They found the portrait in an antique store. The Northern General, they called him. I like picturing them this way, so many years ago. The purchase a sort of riddle, a sort of vow, between them.
Bonnie Nadzam’s second novel, Lions, was published last month.