In “Picture This” by Alicia Marshall, readers are introduced to an Old Order Mennonite family with Wegner blood through a family photo taken in 1965. An ekphrastic story, “Picture This” sprawls forward and back through time, examining the familial and cultural tug-of-war beneath the surface, behind the frame. Take a look below.
In the end, none of them left completely. None of them stayed entirely. They were destined, every last one of them, to live in the in-between places—stranded in that two-souled space, suspended between past and future.
The father stood off to the side of the picture, like he stood off to the side of the family, like he stood off to the side of life, always looking for a way to escape into the margins, where there was breathing room, where he could tell stories and crack jokes without receiving dirty looks from his wife.
It was true. He was the head of the household in an Old Order Mennonite church, but he was also a Stoltzfus, while his wife was a Wegner, which meant that he had married way up. He had reached for the stars and grappled and brought down the very light of heaven—and then forced her to reside in a much smaller house, on a much smaller farm, with a surname that could never live up to the glory of Wegner.
He did not regret it, simply because he was not the type of person to regret anything. And because he loved his wife. But he also doubted that he would ever stop paying for his insubordination, for the pride that had caused him to reach above his station—in obligations, in expectations, in a rigid and driven life that he had never anticipated or wanted.
He had guessed, but he had not entirely known—at least not until it had happened, that his wife would never stop being a Wegner, not when she entered his house or his bed or his kitchen. His children (all nine of them now!) had Wegner blood. And Wegner blood did not falter. It did not fail. It did not accept half measures. It did not compromise. It did not cut corners when it came to brown shoes or collared suits. It did not miss Sunday services. It did not tell frivolous jokes or spend long hours tossing horseshoes in the late afternoon sun.
He did his best to make his wife happy, by setting schedules and enforcing rules, by barking out orders and spanking the kids when they strayed too far. But his heart was not in it, and she had sensed immediately his lack of mettle. Not that she ever challenged him. Mennonite women simply did not confront Mennonite men. But still, it was there. Always lurking beneath the surface. That phantom desire for him to be different. That deep and abiding disappointment with his good-natured softness and warm-hearted cheer.
And so, when the camera snapped in Lancaster Pennsylvania, on that cool fall morning in 1965, the father stood off to the side, smiling apologetically, like he had just told a joke and been chided for it.