As I ran my fingers lightly over the black paper image, slightly raised from the white, I felt my mother, a young woman, sitting so still and determined, her hair done up just so, her lips lightly pursed, the wisp of her eyelashes, the tip of her nose. I saw the faint pencil outline of her profile, a guide for where the snipped portrait would fit. I stroked the paper and I felt the years wash away as I imagined my mother, so very young, some years before I was born, and I felt the passage of time. I could see my daughters’ profiles, and my own, and I could sense the tenderness of my mom as she sat long ago for this silhouette she had made for my father.
In the second chapter of Molly Peacock’s book, The Paper Garden; Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, the author writes about how Mrs. Delany learned to snip silhouettes while in Mademoiselle Pruelle’s school for girls in 1706. The young charges from privileged families learned, among other ladylike lessons, how to precisely snip paper into black on white images. Silhouettes. The girls practiced, some wearing mini-corsets and posture boards, all in proper dress for young girls at the turn of that long ago century. Mary Granville, who would become famous sixty years later, would have been about six years old.
As I read about Mary’s early exercises in paper cutting, I recalled silhouettes, and the grade school images many of us sat for, the beam of a projector light upon us, our image against a white background, a project for Mother’s Day. How many of us carried these school projects home?
I also recalled, as I read this chapter, coming across a professional silhouette while going through family pictures not long ago. I rummaged around in my mind, then my boxes, and there it was, a silhouette of a beautiful young woman. My mother. The silhouette held the name Noel Wisdom. Noel Wisdom, I learned, was a well known silhouette artist in the first half of the century. On the back was stamped some information on how to obtain copies. In red print, it says:
MAIL THIS SILHOUETTE
TO NOEL WISDOM, KRESGE’S
10 S. State St., Chicago
With 50¢ for 3 Copies, or
$1.00 for 8 Copies
Kresge’s is no longer there, of course, but I wondered if Ma had copies made and who else went to have a silhouette made. I learned that Noel Wisdom served in the British military during WWI, making silhouettes of enemy fighter planes so that they could be recognized by soldiers. I also learned that after he made his fortune as a silhouettist, he traveled to Europe where he amassed a collection of chromolithographs, which he donated to the University of South Florida.
Books are wonderful, are they not, for the many things they give us in the reading them? The gift of the story, the gift of the words, the gift of knowledge – and the gift of finding a small snippet of paper held in abeyance for just the right moment in time.