Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The perfect image

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

The Eye of the Beholder

 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

The Realist and The Dreamer

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

Museum Quality

“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.