New Voices: “Picture This” by Alicia Marshall

May 9, 2022

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.


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.

The Oldest Child

The oldest son stood very tall in the picture, upright and erect in his plain black suit, with its Nehru-style collar and its sack-like frumpiness. He held his head high, so that all the other children would know he had done his duty and would follow suit, and not give their mother any grief. Any more grief. She already had more than enough to worry about with the second child running his mouth and embarrassing her in front of the congregation.

He had always done exactly as his mother asked. He had built his life within the guidelines of his mother’s rules and expectations, and she had rewarded him with extra responsibilities and limited praise.

He was always the first to the barn in the morning, before sunrise, milking the cows, emptying feed into the shallow troughs, pitching fragrant hay across the concrete floor to soak up yesterday’s mess. He was always the one on duty after breakfast, readying his younger brothers and sisters for school or church, combing their hair and buttoning their collared shirts.

He was the first of nine, and he was determined to blaze a trail—perfectly, precisely—for all the others to follow: grade school, high school, farm work, then marriage and children. And he had never wavered. He met every milestone his mother set before him with the same unflinching precision.

All his movements were efficient, with no waste or passion hindering his forward progression. He read like he plowed like he milked like he drove like he wrote like he talked—with no fluctuation, with no spikes or peaks or deviations.

He did it all for a mother who needed him, relied on him, reached for him in times of crisis—but rarely thought of him and never understood him. He did it all without thinking or evaluating or becoming anything intentionally, rather than incidentally—almost by accident.

Years later, he would tell his children that he had married their mother out of duty and pragmatism—not love—and he would fail to comprehend the hurt and confusion on their faces, just as he had failed to register the emotions of every other living creature who was not his mother. His mother! She alone was the object of his affection. He had searched her face every day of his life, looking for the slightest flicker of warmth or acceptance, and yet had never found it.

And so it seemed only fitting that, on a cool day in the fall of 2003, he would eventually find himself hunched beside his mother’s deathbed, straining for a benediction, hoping beyond hope for some parting blessing—breadcrumbs from her ancient lips—only for her to wake and stir, restless in her bed, muttering something jumbled and incomprehensible (about the second child!) before sinking into silence and later passing in her sleep.

After that, the oldest son would unravel, a pristine clock suddenly incapable of keeping time. He would lurch from one place to another, recognizing nothing and remembering even less. He would remain vacant, blank as always—but now unfurled, the bright chords of his competence, slack and dangling.

But none of this had yet happened on that cool fall morning in 1965. And so, when the camera snapped, the oldest son stood erect, his spine straight and tall, his face turned slightly—glancing toward his mother.

The Second Child

The second child leaned against a fence post in the picture, his eyes blazing, a cocky smile spread across his face—to let the others know that he wasn’t cowed by his mother’s outburst seconds earlier, or by the stern way in which she eyed him now, or by the threat of her stony silence later.

He was a bright light in a family that valued dim lights, lit and extinguished in perfect accordance with their mother’s will.

And on that cool morning in the fall of 1965, he hadn’t yet learned that no exceptions would be made for him. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Five years later, when he was twenty-one, he would backpack across the United States with a friend’s youth group—and return home wearing bellbottoms and sporting shoulder-length hair and a scruffy beard.

He would stride into his mother’s kitchen full of bright enthusiasm and loud stories—only to be met with an icy stare, a cool frown, and a stern warning of ex-communication if he didn’t cut his hair and shave his upper lip immediately.

He would comply. Immediately. Fully. The very next day. But it wasn’t just his hair that was wrong. Wrong-shaped. Wrong-sized. Wrong-headed. Wrong-footed. Wrong-minded. It was him. He was wrong. So he struggled to take himself off. To shrug out of his own skin. But always there was something askew, askance, misshapen about him.

He dreamed of college—of leaving behind the dirt and the cows, the cape dresses and the head coverings, the bread pudding and the long Sunday afternoons spent visiting on other farmer’s porches. He wanted to read secular books! And wear English clothing! And write scandalous poetry!

But this was not acceptable for an Old Order Mennonite, and certainly not for a Wegner.

Years later, after a series of explosive fights with his mother—long after he had left the cloistered Mennonite community of his childhood—he would be walking through Central Park in Manhattan, and he would smell the fragrance of rain-soaked grass and of rich loamy dirt, and he would remember the farm and the cows and the hay and the large round lima beans dangling like crescent moons in the garden, and the porch with the red oak swing, and the pasture out back, and the stream by the barn, and the laundry strung up on the wash line like bright bursts of clarity descending from the heavens—and he would wonder if it had been worth it, to fight so hard and so long to leave, only to spend the rest of his life remembering it.

And he would remember it. He would write a book. He would hold a speaking tour. He would get his Master of Divinity in Anabaptist theology and spend years touring the Friesland region of the Low Countries so that he could better understand the life and legacy of Menno Simons.

After, he would return to Lancaster County and settle down, in a small house less than ten miles from his childhood home. He would visit his mother and father every week in the Mennonite nursing home where they retired. And he would never—not for the rest of his life—let his hair get long or fail to shave his upper lip.

But the second child didn’t know any of this yet in 1965—didn’t yet know how his heart would betray him and return, return, return to the land and to the farm where he had lived and where he had fought and agonized and wrestled, and from which he had ultimately fled.

So as the camera snapped on that cool fall morning, he smiled a calm, lazy smile, full of muted anger and flat scorn—like he was biding his time, holding his breath, watching and waiting until the cage doors sprung open.

The Lost Children

They stood in a line as the camera snapped: the lost children—third, fourth fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth—descending like a staircase in height from oldest to youngest, a crooked patchwork of gangly limbs and pointed elbows. They were all secondary characters, stuck in the in-between places, caught in disputed territory and forced to pick sides.

Their family was a map, an encampment, an entrenched combat zone, a cosmic tug-of-war between the forces of tradition and change.

Like many wars, the disputed territory remained both uncertain and ever evolving.

Was this a war about cape dresses and mesh bonnets?

About English culture and Western education?

About pride and humility?

About faith and tradition?

Initially, the third, fourth, and fifth children sided with the oldest and with their mother. Even when the second left, they stayed on the farm.

Then the sixth, seventh, and eighth sided with the second child and left for college.

Only the ninth remained undecided, lost in the shuffle, too young to pick sides and denounce this-evil or that-oppressive-tradition.

But the lines were not static. The children came and went like waves, like seasons, like magnets caught between the powers of two opposing poles.

The third son stayed, but then left to become a psychologist. The fourth—a daughter—married a Wegner, a distant third cousin, but later divorced and remarried (the scandal!). The fifth son went overseas as a Mennonite missionary, but later renounced his faith and spent his forties and fifties growing pot and racing cars. The sixth son became a deist, setting foot inside church only for weddings and baptisms. The seventh and eighth (daughters) became universalists, though they still considered themselves cultural Mennonites, and taught their children hymns and quilting—not as a means of piety, but as a form of self-care. The ninth son, perpetually forgotten , remained a part of the Mennonite church, though he eventually joined a contemporary congregation—where he wore jeans and sang in a praise band.

Yet despite these many differences, all nine children ate peaches and bread soup on brisk autumn days, sang hymns at family reunions, and owned multiple copies of More with Less which they proudly displayed on their handcrafted bookshelves. All nine valued thrift, saving grocery sacks and reusing tin foil, sandwich bags, scraps of paper, and tea bags. They planted vegetable gardens, hiked in the forest, told self-deprecating jokes, canned apple sauce in the fall, and dreamed of crescent-shaped lima beans dangling fat and ripe in the morning dew.

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.

And while this was all very tragic, none of them yet knew what awaited them on that cool fall morning in 1965. None of them yet guessed at the haunting and the restlessness and the dislocation to follow.

So they stirred and twitched in their ill-fitting suits and their too-stiff cape dresses, bobbing—expectant—like a line of buoys in the ocean, waiting for the wind and the waves to unmoor them, to lose them—to carry them away, to transform them and transport them to some distant shore.


The mother planted herself, as the camera snapped, like a metal post emerging from the ground—shoulders, hips, and back aligned perpendicular to the earth beneath her, the soil her ancestors had toiled over, labored for, and ultimately tamed.

The wind blowing through the cornfield did not distract her. She barely heard the birds chirping in the trees or noticed the barn cat sprawling out lazily atop the nearby tractor.

Her eyes were fixed on her second son. He was her enigma, her riddle, her mystery to solve, her problem to fix. Black sheep. Stray lamb. Lost coin. Resister of her will. Defier of tradition.

Less than two minutes before, he had wandered into the front yard—disheveled and late—with a crumpled and untucked shirt. He had smiled casually and offered to stand in the back.

Even now she could feel the scorn radiating off of him. Toward her.

Somehow she had become the object of his contempt. Mesh bonnet. Black sneakers. Nude nylons. Blue gingham cape dress, sweaty against her legs.

When he was a boy, he had trusted her. He had come to her with bruises and scrapes, presenting them as though they were presents to be treasured. She had cradled him, kissing his brush burns and cleaning his cuts—indulging his amplified sense of importance.

Now he was suddenly a man who stood at a distance and smirked, who wore brown shoes and spoke loudly at church gatherings.

She regretted her carelessness.

Already she could feel the ropes that bound the family together unfurling. She blamed her husband. Blamed his mild-mannered goodness, his even-tempered calm, his natural acceptance of everything and everyone.

But most of all, she blamed herself. She had been careful, but not careful enough. She had allowed small infractions—a careless joke, a lazy afternoon spent in idleness, an occasional coddling of hurt feelings or vain frivolities.

And now. Now she must draw the line. She must curb the tide. She must tighten the knots and chords that bound them all together.

Starting with the second child.

She narrowed her eyes and shifted her weight.

Years later she would look back on this day and think: If only I had shown more resolve. She would enumerate the steps she should have taken. She would revisit all the instructions left unspoken and warnings left unsaid.

But she would not see—she would never see—that she, not her husband, was the source of the rupture—too rigid to stretch, too brittle to bend.

She would grasp and clutch and grip and latch and hold on tight.  But she would lose them all.

They would yo-yo toward her and then away: repelled by her rigidity; drawn by her strength; repulsed by her fastidiousness; bound by her fury.

She was their exacting sun. And they circled her. Their successes and failures, their loves and their hatreds, their rebellions and obediences—all defined and illuminated by her night and her day.

But none of this was apparent yet on that cool fall day in 1965. The wind blew through the branches of a nearby maple tree. Leaves flapped against bark, blasting winged samara seeds in lazy helicopter circles toward the ground. Birds chirped. Cows mooed. The yellow tabby cat atop the tractor stretched and purred. And the camera snapped, capturing the mother’s grim expression. The narrow slits of her glare. The stalk of her body. The farm. The land. The late afternoon sun. The lanky limbs and odd angles of her children—bent and straight, soft and hard, leaving and remaining.

Alicia Marshall is an emerging fiction writer and a full-time editor. Raised in Central Pennsylvania, she now resides in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband, her one-year-old, and her very finicky cat.



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