When they returned to Ohio, my grandfather finished off the film in the camera by taking a picture of my grandmother in front of the pine tree in their back yard.
It was the last picture taken of Dorothy Ann Wehrle.Â Two weeks later, she was dead. She was 52.Â I was four, the oldest of her grandchildren.
The portrait of my grandmother hangs in my office.Â It was painted by Gerry, my mother’s cousin’s “friend,” as they put it back then, from that last photograph. It was a gift for my grandfather. I’m the only grandchild who remembers my grandmother, so I received it after my grandfather died.
The portrait of my grandmother is painted in an impressionistic manner best described as being in the style of Lucien Freud, but with brighter colors.Â The background is green from the pine tree in the yard, her beaded earrings are gold, and her hair is a frothy blonde, undoubtedly dyed at home with Miss Clairol.
If you knew the person in the portrait, the painting will never look right to you. It will never be the person. If you didn’t know the person pictured, the image shapes your memory. My memories of my grandmother are fuzzy, but they’re there. To me, the portrait shows a kindly lady, who let me bake cookies and who taught me to write my name.Â It shows a glamorous lady in a working-class town, who sold Avon and brought lipstick samples for her granddaughter’s playtime pleasure.Â It shows a healthy lady, which is what we thought she was, until she died of a massive heart attack while doing laundry as her 12-year-old son stood by.
The painting is signed with a stylized monogram in the lower right corner that looks like 2X. The “2X” stood for Twinn Connexion, a musical duo founded by Gerry Hopkins and his identical twin, Jay. The two were born in Montana, grew up singing, and even had their own TV show in Helena when they were in high school. They arrived in New York early in the 1960s to seek their fortunes, performing in coffeehouses and eventually getting a contract from Decca Records. Twinn Connexion’s eponymous album came out in 1968 and is filled with easy listening music from the time before that term was an insult. The album included a one-hit wonder, “Turn Down Day.” On the cover, Gerry and his brother sport fabulous yellow-and-white damask suits accented with green ascots held down with “2X” pins. When he wasn’t singing, Gerry dabbled in painting as a way to promote the band in that psychedelic, multi-media time.
But “Turn Down Day” wasn’t followed by another hit, and Twinn Connexion didn’t have a follow-up album. Jay became a metals trader, Gerry an itinerant artist with a steadily employed partner, a playwright who also wrote for soap operas, ad agencies, and others interested in commercial scripts. Twinn Connexion’s music received occasional underground airplay, seemingly rediscovered once every few years by a college radio station or a DJ looking to add something different to a club mix. “Turn Down Day” even showed up on a Japanese compilation in the late 1990s.
Gerry still lives in New York. His partner, my cousin, died last year.
My grandparents weren’t the sort to have portraits painted. They were Catholic Workers, union activists, busy sending five kids to Catholic school by supplementing a steelworker’s wages with Avon commissions. Their working-class life belied a more complicated background, as it always does. My grandmother grew up with enough money and position not to care about what other people thought, and she had enough moxie to do something about it. And in the 1930s, that meant socialism, trade unionism, leaving your crummy town for the big industrial cities, where the action was. Had my grandmother been born 15 years earlier, I like to think that she might have ended up in Paris, running into Hemingway at a party. 15 years later, and she might have been a beatnik in North Beach, helping Lawrence Ferlinghetti organize poetry readings. And I like to think that she would have wanted me to get out into the world, too.
Some other groovy Twinn Connexion tunes: