Thursday, May 29, 2014

19th Century Farm House Antiques

Yesterday, discouraged by a chilly and cloudy day and a lack of sales at my shop, I found myself at the estate sale my friend Tina has been working on with the prospects of a fresh pick and to satisfy my urge to buy more pieces of history. This was for the second sale as the one for the house had already been done two weeks earlier. The owners of the farm had never thrown anything out and the barns and other buildings were littered with items from the time it was built in the early 1800s to the 1980s. Time had made objects a continuum of jumbled piles regardless of age. I ended up staying longer than intended and found myself hoisting my body up to the second floor of a partially dilapidated storage building, using the top of a precariously placed cupboard as a launch pad. The storage space was ripe with mice and squirrel dung, walnut husks and the dust came up in clouds every time I moved a box. Undaunted, I handed down every useful box of canning jars and wine jugs by the dozens to the girls' waiting hands below. It was a scene right out of American Pickers, except this was a girl thing and no guys were on the premises. By the time I got myself down from there(not an easy task, for this 56 year old body is not as limber as it once was) my hair was powdered with dust and the humidity had increased its volume at least threefold. The gals who were putting the sale together were obviously impressed by my feat and I was allowed to cull through the first floor, finding a walnut jelly cupboard and wooden shipping box for cocoa that were both from the 1800s and a servant's fold up bed from the early 20th Century. Tina threw in a couple of signs for selling fruit and a red bucket which said "for use of fire only" from another garage and I was on my way. I got my son and he helped me unload and then in the quiet of late afternoon after I had returned my helper to the house, I cleaned generations of dirt from the product sitting on the middle of the shop floor. It's hard to describe the feeling I get when I am touching something that has been around as long as these pieces have been. I wonder about the original family who created them and how they lived in a world where there was no electricity or running water and where the crops they grew were a matter of survival. The land surrounding the farm is rich with the colors of wildflowers and overgrown orchards and even some bee boxes which still house the honey bearing insects. Wisdom emanates from the trees and the weathered buildings. It's been a good place for me. A very good place indeed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou

I just saw that Maya Angelou has passed at the age of eighty six. My heart sank and I felt as though a friend had been taken from me. I honestly didn't read much of her poetry, but her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has always been one of my all time favorites. I first read it when I had separated from my husband and left him to go on a journey out West with no prospects and a backpack for luggage. Somewhere along the way, I found it, probably at a newsstand in Arizona or California when I needed help escaping from myself and my situation. Eventually, I got my life somewhat straightened out and returned to the East Coast to have my son and reunite with my daughters. The work life started over again and so did the education and I found myself with an M.A.T. in English and with a job at a small high school in an upper middle class suburban school of predominantly white kids. I decided to revisit Maya's story and taught it to a bunch of misfit 11th graders who took to the story and enjoyed it as much as I did. Despite taking a risk with a book which held much adult content and wisdom, my decision paid off and many of the kids wrote about her story in their final essays. The worn paper back sits on my bookshelf along with my other favorites and I've decided it's time to revisit her again. She's one of the great ones, who transcends race, creed and color to remind us of what the essence of being human is all about.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day in My Hood

My partner is a Viet Nam vet and he was one of the few to return to his street, his hometown after a tour and a half in the jungle. He and Billy were the only ones to survive in this neighborhood. The rest never came home and he can remember the parents of those boys being bitter and asking why him and not their sons. It was tough. Even tougher, the Viet Nam vet was not respected the way our returning soldiers are nowadays. The partner was spit on by protesters when he got off the bus and it took him a couple of fifths of scotch a day to maintain equilibrium for a few months after returning. He had to learn how to turn off the killing machine and become human again. For awhile he had nightmares and I can remember him having a few terrible ones the first couple of years we were together. But that faded, though the complications from shrapnel debris in his body never let up. He went to the V.A. hospital more than once to relieve the fluid build up on the base of his skull due to the metal frag located next to his spine. Then that passed, too. Another decade later and the frag was surrounded with abnormal tissue that eventually became bone cancer which spread to his skull and part of his jaw had to be removed. He was still handsome despite some of the jaw bone loss and he survived that, too. He never wanted to join the VFW or any other veterans' organization. Said he didn't want to be reminded of something he had tried so hard to forget. He lost a good friend in Nam, Red. Found him skinned out after they had gotten separated on a night patrol. They were Special Forces and after that, the partner stayed another half tour to avenge Red's death, only going home after it was determined he had done enough. Sometimes he will tell stories and those liquid blue eyes will leave the room when he does. What bothers him most is memories of the children he tried to save. Mostly, he just chooses to live a day at a time and is thankful for the time he has had, despite suffering from another form of cancer. And every Memorial Day I give thanks that he is still here and that we have been able to spend the past twenty five years together in relative peace.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Should You Wash Your Jeans?

According to the latest skuttlebutt, Levi CEO Chip Bergh says he never washes his jeans in an effort to conserve water and keep them in "mint condition." While I understand the necessity of conserving water, I wonder if Mr. Bergh has any sense of history about why jeans were created in the first place. The original intent of jeans was for the working class. I believe they were popularized in America via Levi Strauss when folks started gold mining in the 1800s as apparel one could wear that held up to hard core labor and that were comfortable. My partner's jeans come home caked in dirt and mud and grease after a day of driving for a landscaping business. And what about all those hard working moms out there, dealing with infants who spit up, poop and pee regardless of where the stuff is going to land? Imagine wearing those same jeans day after day, removing soil by "spot cleaning." In the 1970s my brother passed on a pair of authentic orange tag bell bottom Levis to me after he had outgrown them. They had gone through several washings, were soft and had plenty of tears, especially in the knees and butt. Eventually, they became a series of holes that I artfully patched for an Art class project, receiving an "A" for my effort. Had it not been for the fact that I gained a few inches and could no longer fit into them, I would probably still be patching them. As it is, I sold them on ebay for a premium, stuffing a few extra patches in the pocket for the buyer's future use. And what about all the commando types out there, who choose not to layer their private parts with underwear? I shudder to think. I've decided Mr. Bergh doesn't have to wash his jeans because he dons a new pair every day. Heck, he can afford it being a CEO and all. But for the rest of us poor folk, it's a good washing that keeps us wearing and enjoying the comfort of a pair of broken in jeans. It's one of the things that makes being part of the working class enjoyable. So much for "mint condition."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Uncovering the Nude Woman

Art is a loosely based term for all types of creative endeavors. I surround myself with art. My shop is filled with the works of mostly unknown artists who have poured their souls out onto canvas or paper or wood or metal. Last weekend I helped my friend Tina with an estate sale. Out on the summer kitchen of the 1805 house a picture of a blonde nude hung. It was huge and filthy and it appeared it hadn't been touched in years, neglected and relegated to the back of the house. Tina and the girls who helped her organize the sale laughed at it and talked about how awful it was. They didn't even price it, figuring it was going to end up in the garbage. Of course, when I saw it and inquired about it, they thought I was joking. I defended my position, saying that it looked a bit like outsider art, but it was probably an art project, something raw. I told Tina I wanted it if it hadn't sold by the end of the sale. Sure enough, on Sunday Tina called to inform me that the painting was mine though she still couldn't see what I saw in it and that she had left it on her back porch for me. I picked it up on Wednesday and brought it back to the shop. After a meticulous cleaning, she sits in my store, an unschooled nude with a sort of mystique that compels me to look her way. Art is what saves me. It always has and it always will.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Ode to Evangeline

The ACHIEVE program was grant funded and run through first the local YMCA, then the local community college.  For two brief periods in my teaching career, I taught in the program, pretty much as poverty stricken as the students I served. 

In the early 90s there was a grant run program I taught at briefly entitled "Latimer," an after school enrichment program for at-risk elementary students on the Hill, one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.  When my growling '78 Cougar turned the corner of Craig Street, I was met with drug dealing well wishers holding up blunts for sale, thinking I was a potential buyer. However, after seeing me a few times head for the little three room school house next to the community center, they relegated themselves to their front porches and eyed this paper white blonde woman with curiosity. 

Sometimes I would bring my middle daughter with me as she enjoyed the company of these raucous peers.  We cleaned and organized the little classroom, taught reading, helped with homework and, in short, attempted to escape from a world of harsh realities.

Evangeline was my favorite, a fourth grader with anger issues the size of Mount Vesuvius.  She was big for her age and made her presence known to the other students, either whacking them when they displeased her or vocalizing their inferior traits to humiliate and control.

I soon discovered that Evangeline, who was always in trouble at school, responded positively to my presence, and I even allowed her to play through my hair with her sticky fingers.  Instead of punishing, I praised.  Instead of rejecting, I accepted.  She became my daughter's protector and guide on the streets outside of the classroom.  She told her "I got your back."

I finished that session and never returned to Latimer, though I was asked more than once by the director to substitute.  I asked him how Evangeline was doing and was told that she had psychiatric problems and hallucinated during class.  Later, I was told by her cousin that she had done prison time, but had a child.  One day as I was walking downtown, I saw her with another woman.  I knew it was her because she still wore that same hard and angry look she wore as a child.  However, she had never grown much after fourth grade and now appeared short as a fully grown adult.  She didn't recognize me as she walked past, but I heard her say to the companion "I like her shoes."  I didn't say anything, just kept walking.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

H is for Heroin

If you are a writer, you are always looking for fodder to keep the reader interested. In going back through my diary of four years ago, I came upon a passage describing a brief scene I encountered while my daughter Meghan and I sat on her hospital bed in the hallway in the Emergency Room. It was just another one of her many visits to the hospital for mental breakdowns, but that particular time the place was hopping, so we didn’t even have a room. There was a young girl in her late teens or early twenties in the bed just in front of Meghan who was writhing in pain with her mother standing over her and trying to comfort her. At first I thought she was having appendicitis or something, but quickly realized if she were that sick, she wouldn’t be in the hallway of the emergency room. It turns out it was her birthday and she got loaded up on smack just before she went to the birthday party her mom had put together for her. The load was bad, so she was in agony. She puked her birthday cake out in front of us and the male nurse who was in charge of the hallway apologized for not being able to keep us from being directly in view of the onslaught, then went to get her some medicine. He took his time getting it for her and while she was whining and crying, he asked her “are you ever going to do heroin again?” Of course she said “no,” but I saw her mother’s agony and knew that this was an ongoing battle and I also realized that for this woman, it probably wouldn’t be over soon. I thought about the girl, a beautiful one at that, making a conscious decision to become a heroin addict and my Meghan, who through no fault or choice of her own was on a similar journey and I also thanked God that my children had never made decisions that would purposely destroy them and cause a mother’s terrible heartbreak. There are always worse situations out there. One must remember that. Again, I have shelter, clothing, food and peaceful surroundings. Taking a look at the rest of the world, I realize that what I take for granted doesn’t exist for many. The Middle East, South American and African continents are fraught with conflict and wars, children lose parents, parents lose children, post traumatic stress is normal and the oppressors lose their souls to power and greed. There’s a show on TV about people who try to save whales from Japanese whalers and the head of the operation stated something that often rings true about humans “we as a species are insane.” Even the whales know it as they look at us through pitying eyes.