The Sons of Frederick Harold (and Jean) Long
Bill Long 12/26/04
Photograph by Nancy Long, 1975
I took the title of this mini-essay from the 1882 painting of John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. In that painting, drawn in the Paris apartment of the Boits (when Sargent and Boit were expatriate painters in Paris), the four girls, ages 4 to about 14, are shown in their engagement and disengagement. The painting is striking because of what the art critic Ruskin called the "penetrative" view of Sargent into the personalities of the girls. As it was, the two in the rear, who are almost engulfed in the shadows and seemingly least engaged in the painting, were the ones with greatest mental problems as their lives unfolded. None of the girls married, and the longest-lived of them did not die until 1969, five years before I had moved to the Boston area.
My then-wife loved that painting and obtained a print of it, placing it in our daughter's bedroom as she grew up. Thus, a print of the work accompanied us for most of twenty years from the late 1970s until about 2000.
My own "Boit"
When I visited my mother in California early in December 2004, I examined many old family pictures that she wanted to entrust to me. My favorite is the one below. I call it the "Sons of Frederick Harold Long (1925-1981)." It was taken in 1975 by Nancy Van Horne, who would marry my older brother Rick that very week. Nancy was an artist by training when Rick met her while they were studying at UCLA in the early 1970s. Here is the photo:
We are the four sons of Frederick Harold Long. Let me tell you about the people in the picture. On the right is the oldest, Rick, born 1950. Next to him and looking at him with a smile is Chris, the youngest, born 1960. In the foreground is Bob, born 1955, and I am in the rear (born 1952). I love the picture because it captures the truth of the four sons in 1975, when life was still pretty intact for all of us, and when we were enjoying a playful time in the back yard of our California home.
Each of the four sons is depicted "in character." Chris, the youngest, is the "cut up," the one who always kept us laughing, the one who always saw the light side of things. Chris is an artist, a musician, who played a mean trumpet even in his early teens and today (2004) runs a business called CalltoWorship.com, in which he leads seminars on church music to congregations and music leaders around the country.
Chris has obviously just said something funny and is looking at Rick with a kind of 'aren't I cute?'-type of smile. Rick, the oldest, and the most conservative of us all, seems to be looking at Chris with his typical intolerant expression. I can hear Rick now, even 30 years later saying something like, "It isn't that funny, Chris!" or "Chris, isn't it about time you grow up?" It is a great expression for an anal brother whom the world has richly rewarded for his anality (but, more accurately, his business acumen).
But Bob is off to the side, looking on with his lambchop sideburns, with a smile not quite as broad as Chris but with the sense that what Chris has said really is funny afterall. He is "siding" with Chris in this intra-familial debate on whether what Chris has done is funny. It is as if Bob is saying, "Yeah, Rick, what Chris is saying is funny after all." Bob is also a successful businessman today, a Vice-President of a multi-national fish wholesaler in San Francisco with many millions of dollars of business annually.
Bill in the Middle
But I am drawn to the picture not only because of my brothers but also because of how I am depicted in the picture. Nancy has so accurately captured me. I am engaged with the family, really in the center of the "action," but curiously disengaged at the same time. It is as if I am present but not present, involved in the world of the brothers but also in my own world. But I am involved in my own world in a quiet way, unobtrusively. I am looking downward, looking quite fit if I do say so myself, oblivious to the wise-crack remark of Chris and the conflicting reaction to Chris' remark by my brothers. I wonder if the disengagement of two of the Boit sisters, portrayed in the rear of the painting, the sisters who encountered comparatively more mental problems in life than the other two, might also characterize me--the "disengaged one" in the picture. Certainly, I am the young man lost in thought, even at the tender age of 23. I have never been able to shake the dual reality of a strong presence in the middle of things and a disengagement from whatever seems to be happening in a group.
I will treasure this photo as long as I live. It shows us all as healthy, attractive young men, all driven to a degree by the strict New England Puritan upbringing in our family, all achievement-oriented, captured unawares in a summer moment. The moment fled as quickly as it came, but it left a memory, an accurate "take" on all four of us, that is as true to us as any written description could be.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long