If you've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, you remember Ma's little china shepherdess. Wherever the Ingalls family ended up--in the big woods, on the prairie, by Plum Creek, or in town--after the wagon had been unloaded and the floor swept Ma would unwrap the little china shepherdess and put her on the special shelf that Pa had made, and the Ingalls knew that they were home.
The ancient Romans were really good at finding gods for all kinds of things. Among the most useful were the lares and penates, minor deities in charge of protecting the household. In time, their name came to designate the statues representing them, and the term also spread to especially treasured household objects.
Like Ma and the Romans, I had my lares and penates, objects that followed me from house to house for almost fifty years of married life. The problem is, I had too many, and before moving to our present cottage I got rid of most of them.
Sometimes, sitting in our new digs, looking out at the new view out of our new windows, I try to imagine where my lares and penates ended up. Are they hanging on somebody's wall, sitting on somebody's kitchen counter? Have the gods who protected my household all those years transferred those duties to their new owners? One thing I know for sure--of all the dozens of lares and penates I let go, I can only remember a mortar and pestle, and a set of wooden bowls.
However, I did hold on to a few, a very few, of my household deities. One is a print of Lucas Cranach the Elder's Portrait of a Saxon Noblewoman, decoupaged on an old wooden board edged with antiqued gold paint.
She sits on the contemporary equivalent of the household shrine, the mantel above the gas fireplace. She has to be one of the ugliest faces in Western art, and I wonder why I'm attached to her. Maybe it's because she looks so alien. In my family we tend towards the typical Spanish look--think el Greco--with thick droopy eyebrows to shade us from the glare of the Mediterranean sun, and eyes whose outer corners tilt down rather than up.
But I think the real reason I've enshrined the Cranach woman all these years is that she looks both mean and unapologetic. I occasionally feel as mean as she looks, but I'm also inwardly apologizing all over the place. The Cranach woman is mean-spirited and unfriendly, and she doesn't give a damn. She not only embodies what is worst in me, she possesses a complacency that I can only aspire to.
Family lore has it that I was an exceptionally well-behaved, compliant child. But as a toddler I had an evil doll, named Antonio, who was constantly misbehaving and having to be made to stand in the corner. I think the Cranach woman on my mantel is Antonio's successor. Like the ancient Romans, I know how to pick my gods.