Here it is. The picture I ate dinner with, and did homework with, for the first eighteen years of my life.
At the supper table, I had only to glance over my left shoulder and past my little sister on my left to see it hanging on the wall, just near the kitchen door.
The picture’s name is “Grace.” It is a hand-colored photograph taken in 1918 by a man named Eric Engstrom, who was born in Sweden in 1875. His daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, hand-colored it. The man in the photograph is named as one Charles Wilden, but the internet offers no other information than that about him. Engstrom died in 1968 in the town of Coleraine, Minnesota. In 2002 this picture was designated the state photograph of Minnesota.
Now, go figure. I never knew we had a state photograph.
My main point of fascination with this picture was the loaf of bread. How I longed for a taste from a loaf of bread that looked like that. In our house, the bread came in loaves that were square and white and uniformly sliced up. Oh, how I dreamed of that chunky brown country-style bread!
I also wondered about the soup. What kind of soup could it be? In the best of all possible worlds, it would have been Bean With Bacon. But maybe it was Tomato; that would have been good too. But, what if — and I knew that this was chancing it, because the picture really gave no hint of it whatsoever — it was baked beans, my favorite food of all time? Baked beans and a hearty loaf of brown bread! Now wouldn’t that be a feast?
Ah, baked beans… my passion for them from an early age earned me the nickname “Beanie,” which eventually morphed into “Beaner,” and then just plain “Beans.” I also constantly hankered for dill pickles and home-made strawberry jam on buttered toast. The thought of these things kept me going. Salami sandwiches on white bread with butter were another favorite. When I was little, lunch-meat sandwiches always had a nice layer of butter in there. (Later on the butter started getting left out.)
A boyfriend told me, once when the subject of the “Grace” picture came up, that his grandfather, called Boompa, kept a copy of it in his study. Originally it had been hung in the dining room, but Nan, an ardent bridge player, descendant of the Mayflower Brewsters, and strict housekeeper (clear plastic upholstery covers on the davenport in the front room), wasn’t having it. Boompa was ordered to remove “Grace” from the dining room, which he did. He hung it in his study, which was just as well, since that was where he spent most of his time anyway.
I used to stay with my grandparents a lot, and my grandmother always rose at 5:00 am. If I woke up then I would often be scared because it was so dark; I wasn’t used to waking up in the total black of night. But if I followed her to the kitchen, I could get the thrill of watching the coffee percolator do its thing on the stove-top. The sight of the boiling coffee bubbling up and dripping down inside that glass knob of the percolator! The rhythmic sighs as the coffee surged up and down! And oh, the smell of it! I could be brave for something like that.
Around six Grandma would lay out the pre-breakfast: a big bowl of Rice Krispies with milk and plenty of sugar. At the end, you’d drink the leftover milk from the bowl and suck a wet mountain of sugar through your teeth. After that came the serious breakfast: buttered toast with home-made strawberry jam, fried bacon or sausage, and something by the name of “egg o’ hawk.” This was a very milky and soft version of scrambled eggs.
Post-breakfast always featured Grandma doing the dishes and singing along to the radio, while I worked diligently on my drawings or coloring books. Later we would go to church, or the butcher shop, or the supermarket, depending on which day it was. Grandma gave me a teeny-tiny little plastic purse (Barbie-doll scale), which had an even teeny-tinier bouquet of flowers stuck on top of it, and stuffed inside there was a scrunched-up plastic rain bonnet that you could put on over your head in case it rained when you were going to church.
(Because it wouldn’t do to have your hair mussed up before going to church. No matter if you were four, or fifty-four.)
But back to the man in the photograph, Charles Wilden. In high school, after my obsession with baked beans and strawberry jam and dill pickles had cooled somewhat (but not entirely), I used to glance up at him from my homework as I sat in my dad’s chair at the head of the table, slogging through “The Iliad” and later “The Odyssey,” taking notes on every mind-crushingly epic happening chapter by chapter. The picture was so encouraging. I would look at it and think, “I’ve just got to press on here.” I admired Charles Wilden’s humble gratitude for his simple meal and holy book, and thought I would do well to make his ways my own.
I wonder how he did it.
Maybe he had some baked beans to eat.
I think that maybe he did.