Wednesday, 7 May 2014
My grandfather was the most elegant man I ever met. He was not conventionally handsome but he truly believed in ‘dress to impress’ and he was impressive. All of his suits were bespoke and he only wore French cuff shirts. Every day. Dressing down for him meant not wearing a tie and a cashmere cardigan instead of a suit jacket and Keds or Converse One Stars (this was the era of Air Jordans that he found unrecognizable as tennis shoes) instead of his leather wing tips. I can see him now in linen suit pants and the finest cotton French cuff shirt with cufflinks wandering around outside in Indiana August heat with a bucket of varnish and a brush doing touch up maintenance to our log cabin. In the 1960’s he converted his bedroom’s sleeping porch into an enormous walk-in closet to hold all of his beautiful suits. After he passed away my grandmother refused to let any of us clean out his closet or donate his clothes. She claimed she didn’t need the space, or wasn’t ready to, or that if one of us did it we might throw out something important. So it remained untouched. As the years passed she became nervous about throwing away mail so into the floor space of grandpa’s closet it went until it was waist high. Despite a marathon clean out session once when she was at a doctor’s appointment the floor was again covered in a matter of months. We gave up on that closet and the door was closed almost like it never existed. When the time finally came it took me over a week solid to go through his closet. So many tiny scraps of paper. I did find treasures. They would surface as if by clockwork always at the point where after hours of receipts and old newspaper clippings I was on the verge of chucking everything into the recycling bin sight unseen. It was days before the floor area was clear enough to open the cupboard doors and drawers. I had such a clear memory of his beautiful clothes and anticipated finding a treasure trove of the finest vintage men's shoes. Instead I was greeted by what happens if a closet door remains unopened for 16 years. Everything was ruined. All those beautiful shoes playing host to mildew and mold. Old stains surfacing on the suits and rotting silk ties. It seemed an unfitting end for such a carefully collected wardrobe. It was the shoes though that really got me. Beautiful leather molds to the shape of the foot and the heels were worn just so. It reminded me of his very particular reverse pigeon-toed walk. I could picture him striding out of his office in Santa Monica or in the Kenyan bush –both times wearing cuff-links. I looked at those once beautiful shoes and thought about how unusual that the most elegant, most continental man I had ever known could have been born on a farm so rural that he never was given a birth certificate. His story and life trajectory all symbolized by the moldy shoes I held in my hands seemed so very American and yet sadly seemingly belonging to a now vanished America. I wondered if today all of those strangers would take a chance on a well presented, personable, smart but wholly inexperienced and undereducated young man with a great idea? I put the shoes down and took a photograph as a souvenir of my favorite pair and then placed them in the black plastic Hefty trash bag with the rest of the elegant man’s once beautiful wardrobe.
Wednesday, 23 April 2014
There are photographs that are great because they are so compositionally and aesthetically. There are portraits that are great because they are are flattering or seem to capture the spirit of the person portrayed and then there are photographs that are great because they are a souvenir of something you never want to forget. This portrait of my grandfather is the latter. It was most likely taken for a publication or some other purpose where 'Executive Portrait' was what had been requested. It isn't particularly flattering and captures about as much about his personality as a stock photo would have. It had even faded unevenly and blotchy over time. For some reason though (of all the images -some that fit the former criteria exactly) this was the one that was hanging above the television in her bedroom when he passed away and once someone passes away it somehow doesn't seem right to move their picture so above the television it stayed.
As with most people as my grandmother aged her world became smaller -save for long drives along Mulholland to greet the ocean in Malibu she spent most of her time in her bedroom sitting in her favorite chair facing the television. In the last years of her life she had dementia and the conversations would circle endlessly and could be very confusing and frustrating for her. On a good day though, when chatting with her, if my grandfather came up she would smile when remembering him, calling him her 'dear husband' and in one graceful motion she'd look at the faded, stiff portrait crookedly hanging above the television and blow it a kiss.
Wednesday, 16 April 2014
I watched as a five year old skipped through from the entry hall and stopped dead in his tracks staring into the dark living room and whisper to his mom, “Is this house haunted?” Looking at it from a five year old’s perspective the living room looked like a cross between the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and The Adams Family, with its dark paneling, worn antiques, light fixtures designed to look like candelabra and unhappy, unattractive purchased ancestors peering out of heavy gilt frames. I still saw the living room as where I would lie on my stomach eating Froot Loops and watching Saturday morning cartoons on the 70’s RCA television expertly hidden in a Louis XV commode. When I was cleaning out the house people kept asking me if I was creeped out being alone there at night. The Ukrainian pool man even went so far as to assure me that if I ever got scared he’d come over with his Beretta to protect me. Because my memories were such happy ones I’d always felt very safe there. In fact despite a cameraman stopping by and saying that I needed to rent it out as a location for American Horror Story there was really only one thing in the whole house that had always scared me and that I was happy to see leave the building.
Early in my childhood I had decided that a monumental painting hanging above the staircase was a portrait of Dracula. The figure had a long pointed bony finger that I was convinced was going to reach out of the painting sometime when passing alone and grab me. Furthermore he would suck me into the painting and into his scary dark world where I would be trapped for all eternity. To avoid this fate I took the back stairs –for my entire childhood. If I went up with someone I made sure they were between me and Dracula and I never looked at it –ever. Even has a teenager I found myself always running the last few stairs past it out of habit. It wasn’t until I heard a guest talking about how much she liked the painting of the monk on the staircase that I realized that it wasn’t Dracula but rather a monk receiving divine revelation. I told this story to my grandmother and she laughed and laughed. “You know we only bought that painting because it looked so much like our friend Marvin and we thought that was so funny.” I kind of think it fit my grandparents perfectly to have bought an enormous 18th century imposing painting because it looked like one of their friends, they had always had mischievous sense of humor. The eye of the beholder really is everything. There I had spent my whole childhood convinced there was certain evil lurking on the stairs while each time she passed she saw her friend Marvin and smiled. So too a house that visitors thought looked haunted she must have wandered around late at night turning off the lamps one by one surrounded by happy memories and felt very safe.
Wednesday, 9 April 2014
One can't help but look for signs when they're in mourning. This card would have just been a card never sent if taken out of context; if I had happened upon it months earlier when she was still alive. Late at night though when about to reach ones limit and frustrated at her inability to leave her affairs in order coming across this makes you soften and re-implants that lump back into your throat and reminds you of how lucky you were to have had her in your life. A realist would say she had someone particular in mind when she purchased this card in the 1960's, a dreamer would say it was me.
Wednesday, 2 April 2014
“Ugh” that would be the closest approximation to what I uttered when after weeks of going through closets of unopened mail, mildewed shoes and molting feathered hats I unearthed behind a layer of clothing what must have once served as my grandmother’s gift closet. Boxes of unopened ‘collectibles’ from The Franklin Mint paired with tat from the Ye Olde Gift Shoppee in every small town she had passed through in her 98 years. On a family holiday to Kenya when I was 11 she began to refer to the mounds of tourist grade African wood carvings she was amassing as ‘Museum Quality’. She extolled the talents of these unknown artisans. Defending them to the end she would declare that she had seen something just like it in the Louvre. ‘Museum Quality’ became shorthand in the family anytime we passed cheaply made souvenirs or kitsch. Squished into the pile of museum quality treasures I found this little gem that I had last seen on a very hot and humid day in June of 1992. My grandfather a staunch believer in capitalism and the American way decided that he needed to take his grandchildren to see his favorite city of Hong Kong before it was handed back to communist China. The humidity in Hong Kong in June is something to behold but despite this my grandmother then in her 80’s decided to accompany me and my parents on a one day tour of Macau and Guangzhou. In the afternoon of that very long, hot day my grandmother decided that she would prefer to stay on the bus while we visited Dr Sun Yat Sen’s home. She was worn out from the heat and the walking. You can imagine our surprise when we rejoined the bus and she now had piles of souvenirs. During our tour she had been wooed off the bus by some ‘darling, giggling Chinese girls’ . Into their home my grandmother had been beckoned and sat down with the family and had tea. They spoke no English and of course my grandmother spoke no Mandarin or Cantonese but she said that they had gotten along ‘marvelously’ with hand signals and had passed a ‘delightful’ time. She then purchased some ‘exquisite’ embroidery and the family returned her to the bus where she had been waiting for us to return from our bog-standard tour.
My grandfather may have believed in capitalism but my grandmother practiced capitalism. We used to joke that her souvenir purchases propped up developing economies abroad and sagging ones at home. Looking back though that is a bit simplistic as whenever I accompanied her on one of these outings she would take the time to admire the artist’s talent and their creative vision. She would chat endlessly with gift shop owners about their lives and their businesses and extol the merits of optimism. She wasn’t simply a consumer she was a supporter. I look at this tacky kitten embroidery and imagine the scene of an 80-ish American woman in a Nancy Reagan-esque suit, heels and her Nancy Reagan-esque hair, in the heat and humidity of the Southern Chinese Summer sitting with a Chinese family, in a Chinese home, drinking tea and laughing. And I cannot help but marvel at the strength of her charming wordless diplomacy.
Wednesday, 26 March 2014
“It is just so sad.”
“I am just so sad.”
I spoke into the portable phone as I wandered around our Grandparent’s home from room to room still not quite believing that the day everyone knows is inevitable had actually come.
My brother, Flint listening on the other end of the line finally replied,
“No, I get it.”
“I mean all I want to do is go back in time to lying on the carpet watching The Love Boat with them while doing water colors on Grandpa’s cardboard shirt inserts…”
I don’t remember what else he said because I was off remembering the feel of the carpet, our Grandmother rooting around in our Grandfather’s closet for more cardboard and my frustration when the colors got muddied. Over the next few weeks sandwiched between old magazines and in the back of drawers I found them one by one and each time The Love Boat theme song would play in my head.
Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
My grandmother wore a suit or a dress with (2-inch "None of this foolish stiletto business"- she would say) heels every single day up until my grandfather's death when she began to wear slacks and flats for the first time. As a child I would spend hours in her closet playing shoe store which as you can see didn't require much imagination. The ones that still had wear in them we cleaned up and donated but most were so worn they had to be thrown away but those of course were the ones that you could tell had been favorites; the ones that had molded to the shape of her foot; that had traipsed all over the world and back again.
Monday, 24 February 2014
In 1970 MGM held its infamous auction offering the contents of their prop houses to the public. Amongst other items my grandparents were taken with a needlepoint chair used in the the Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby film High Society. It was only when they picked up their purchase that they were close enough to see that the "needlepoint" was actually a brilliant piece of prop painting. When I look at the chair it seems symbolic of so much. A move to California as a sign of success and the necessity to showcase that success by furnishing with European antiques. Like so much of Los Angeles (with its Mock-Tudor, Spanish Revival and Moorish Fantasy architectures) though it is only a facsimile of the old world -a very beautiful land of make-believe. Whomever painted this chair was incredibly skilled and in my mind perhaps more skilled than a needlepointed original. It seems a fitting tribute to a city that came into its own by borrowing, appropriation and imitation by extraordinary people who didn't belong in the old world and thus created a new one.
Thursday, 20 February 2014
In 2012 I began the process of sorting through and packing up my grandparent’s home after the death of my grandmother. It was a very large house with an attic, a basement and many closets –full of souvenirs of lives no longer lived. I sorted through most of the house alone late into the night. As I sifted through old grocery lists sandwiched between private detective reports and old Christmas cards I realized that I was actually sorting through a veritable time capsule decades in the making. A snapshot of the two of them but also a snapshot of an era and a way of life that would not be repeated. As I unearthed mementos that become useless in death it struck me again and again how fitting it was that my grandfather’s favorite film was Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You. My grandparent’s had truly lived the American Dream born into rural Mid-Western and Southern working-class lives and dying in a mansion in Beverly Hills. All the money in the world though couldn’t have prolonged their living and shortened their dying. The happiest of lives and love stories all end tragically as the Hollywood Ending always ends long before the actual end. Afterwards someone else comes along and decides what of your life is worth saving and what souvenirs will fabricate your history.