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Souvenirs

Memories evoke emotion. Happiness, sadness, fear, love.  The whole spectrum. And what is it that triggers memories? Sights, sounds, and especially scents.

Travelling is an opportunity to make many memories.  How can we preserve them to refer back to in the future?  There are some things that get seared into your brain and you will never forget.  We all have something like that.  One of mine is sitting with a man in Turkey who was proud to call the pile of rocks surrounding us his home.  Gave me new insight about my home and I will never forget the faces and the rocks and the aroma of the fire burning with dinner cooking on it.  The idea of it all…

Other things are preserved through pictures.  Photos we take.  Notes we write along the way.  Somewhere in my house there is a journal detailing a trip made to Germany in 1974. My first major international excursion.

And then there are things that we bring home.  Souvenirs. Everyone has their own idea as to what will be a good reminder.  I try to find something that represents the place and the people living there.  On a recent trip through the American Southwest I collected several pieces of Navajo and Zuni jewelry.  That’s me.  Other people like keychains, postcards, t-shirts or books.  All fine.

So in travelling to New York City, what souvenir would I find?  Well, I ate a pastrami sandwich at a deli.  But I couldn’t bring it back with me.  I took lots of pictures.  One day I’ll actually go back and look at them.  I seared a lot of images into my brain.  The people and lights and buildings.  The Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building are all gorgeous. But they don’t fit in a suitcase. I smelled auto and bus exhaust, and food truck cuisine.  In Chinatown I was tempted to buy a fake Rolex watch.  But didn’t.  There were t-shirts galore.  All the sports teams, I heart New York, and one very interesting one that indicated the wearer had a serious dislike for someone out there.  Key chains, ball caps, postcards, books and “art” everywhere. And people buying all of it.

What would I do?  I had several Broadway Playbills, but don’t need to keep a bunch of paper around me. There was my week long subway pass. OK, I’ll tuck that away somewhere. That was a major accomplishment for me, but that’s another story.  I had a couple of maps from tours and ticket stubs from museums.  More paper I don’t need

My kids were looking for something to give me for Fathers Day and I was trying to find it. But it had to be good.  My daughter works in the publishing industry, specifically with libraries around the world.  So a natural stop for us was the New York City Public Library.

Beautiful old building built with the wealth of the late nineteenth century robber barons. They may have been greedy, but they left a few really wonderful things behind for mankind.  Of course this library has a gift shop.  Books yes.  Pencils and keychains, yes.  And t-shirts, hats and calendars.  I let the kids get me a t-shirt.  But then I saw it.  The perfect thing.

There was a sign – “Information and Library Cards.”  Holy smokes!  I’ll get a library card!!!

When I was a kid my dad would take us to the library every Saturday morning.  We’d all look around and grab a book to read.  He wanted us to explore.  And today my kids have library cards.  The library holds all the treasures of the universe.  Maybe not life size or in 3-D, but it has information on every single thing!  And the library card gives you access to all of it.

This, the 53rdStreet branch, with its fabulous scholarly looking building, reading rooms, and collections, did indeed have it all.  And the library card let me have it all too.  So I got one.  Easy.  But the librarian told me that since I lived out of state it was only temporary.  I could access all of this treasure from anywhere in the world on my cell phone or computer.  But only for three months!  The card, however, is made of plastic and will forever remind me to be curious.  And where to go to find all the information.

That’s part of my story.  What’s yours?

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Faces

He walks with a limp. Bent and stooped over he looks at the ground rather than straight ahead. With bowed legs and hips that curve to the left, his cane helps him to stand and move along.

That part I remember about him. He’s been like that for several years. But I was taken aback when I saw his face. Mouth sucked in. Cheeks seeming to drop off the side of his face. Almost puffy. Then I realized, he had no teeth! That was new.

When I was a child he had good teeth. Except the two front teeth on top, the ones that show the most. They were brown. He always said that was from being hit in the mouth by a rifle butt when he was in the army during World War Two. I guess that is true.

Then a couple of years ago I noticed that those two teeth had turned white. Dental whitening I thought. Lots of people whiten their teeth.

But the other day I took him to the dentist because his denture was hurting him. After the dental tech took him back to the chair the dentist came out to greet me. She said he’d been a patient of hers for a long time. The sign on her door read cosmetic oral surgery. Now I get it.

Turns out he has only two of his original teeth left. The rest are fake. And one of the originals needs to come out because it’s causing the denture pain. Damn, he’ll be down to one original.

Not like he’s thirty years old though. Not even forty. Or fifty. Hell, not even seventy or eighty. Nope, he’s ninety two years old. And still has one of his own teeth.

With his teeth in, in spite of his posture, he doesn’t look a day over eighty five. With the teeth out he looks like a cartoon character. Around the house he will leave them out. But when he goes out he puts in his teeth. He wants to look good for the ladies. And they all smile at him.

That’s my dad.

And that’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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Change of Heart

The advertisement had pictures of the items included in the sale. Not everything, but some of the best things that would draw the biggest crowds. And yes, estate sales can get very crowded.

Mid century furniture. Tools. All sorts of items that people want to buy. And some to resell. The pictures that caught my eye were of sailboat models. And a commercial ships big orange life ring. That, I had to have!

It was the greatest thing in the world in my mind. And I knew every other person on the planet would have the same opinion. So being first in line was imperative.

Now if you know me at all, being first in line is not something that ever happens. Not even for free food or alcohol. I was late for my wedding and I will surely be late for my funeral. So, I arrived and was fourth in line.

Something was wrong here though. Normally it’s almost impossible to miss the house having an estate sale. There will be a hundred or so cars parked up and down the street. And lots of people. Sometimes an hour before the sale starts. Or longer.

Today though, I arrived five minutes before show time. And was fourth in line. I knew I had a good chance of getting the ring. Upon entering the house I immediately asked the people running the sale where the life ring was. In the basement. Down I went, before looking at anything else.

Big basement I thought as I descended the stairs. I looked and looked and looked. No life ring. I was the second person to have made it down there, and the other guy didn’t have the thing. I asked the sales staff again and they pointed toward a wall. An empty wall. They were shocked. I was dismayed. It was gone.

Apparently the family of the homeowner had taken it for themselves. After all, it is their stuff. But they were supposed to have taken everything earlier. The sales staff was not amused.

But it was ok with me. I’d been through a downsizing sale with my elderly parents and knew how hard it can be. And I’m sure that as they moved through the house one last time, they saw that life ring and knew something about it that no one else ever would. Something that made it very valuable to them. Maybe their grandfather had sailed on that ship and taken the ring as a souvenir. Who knows? They wanted it. And I didn’t get it.

Things go places, or stay where they are for lots of reasons. Sometimes reasons unknown to us. But good reasons nonetheless.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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The Museum

My father and I have always been on separate pages. His was math and science, mine was history and art. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a brilliant man. A real rocket scientist who is responsible for a great deal of the technology that we take for granted today. And I , well, I’m different from all that.

He had great plans for me. And spent a great deal of time telling me what they were and how I could achieve them. What a letdown I was. At one point he was convinced that I was, in his words in the 1970’s, retarded. Until he had me take an IQ test. Same as his.

I tried. Really I did. A doctor. Sure, I can do it. Not. Lawyer, scientist, architect, same thing.   Even the business world was a little challenging with micro and macro economics, statistics and accounting. Yes, it makes sense, but only if you don’t ask questions. And I’m full of questions.

So, with great trepidation I entered the field of anthropology. Trepidation because as a college student I was certain that my financial stream would be dammed up. But he allowed it, only because my mother was an artist. She convinced him that anthropology was not totally worthless.

It’s always been like that between he and I. I’m a disappointment and have never lived up to his dreams. For the longest time I busted my ass to either satisfy, or surpass him. But somehow he was always better.

I published a book. But he had always written a journal and poetry and if only I did this like him I would be a better writer. I ran marathons. He ran to work as a young man and if only I would extend my legs a little further I could be an Olympian. Never. It even went so far as I had debilitating back pain caused by structural damage (too much damn running). Surgically repaired twice, but not corrected. But at age 93 he had back pain too. Much worse than mine. Give me a break!!!

So it was with extreme nervousness that I prepared myself for a visit from him. I go north to see him probably twice a year. I combine this visit with an antique shopping adventure through the Carolinas and Virginia. But he hasn’t come to see me since, well, I don’t remember.

He was coming to see my new home. My new home in the country. Would it match up to the place he had lived in for thirty eight years? I didn’t care. This was my house and I like it.

What did make me nervous though was my man-cave. I call it infinity. It’s full of the things that I love. Like mid century modern furniture. Asian art. Nautical artifacts. And no TV. It’s a real fantasy land.

I decided I would just show it to him and hope for the best.   I was surprised.

In this space he found things that he recognized from his own past. Sculptures he had created. Items that he and my mother had collected. Things he had never seen before that the thought were his. Some things never change.

But the thing was that he was very impressed. He loved it and spent quite a while in there looking at everything.

The biggest surprise was yet to come. He called me up one day and asked if I had any pictures from my infinity. I said no, but I could take some. What came next blew my mind.

He wanted the pictures. He said that the items housed in my man cave were museum quality. Wow!! Museum quality.

My mother worked in an art museum. I had studied at the Smithsonian. Surely my little stuff was not equal to that. But he’s a smart guy. And had learned a lot from my mother. And the stuff I have collected is good stuff. Ok. My man-cave is a museum – the Alexander museum of decorative arts.

I thought about this for a few moments and decided that if he wanted a few pictures, I would do him one better. Not just a few pictures, but a museum exhibit catalog. With me as curator. Dream come true!!!

Thus, the book was born. Thirty six pages with over one hundred photos of the items I keep at Infinity. The collection is ever changing but as of today, this is a sample. And I’ll give it to him so that he can remember history as he does.

It’s my museum. I love it. And it changes as I see fit. Museum quality. You said it dude, and you know you are always right!!!

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

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The Picture

Sometimes it takes a while for the reality of something to sink into our brains. It may be a matter of coming to a place where you can accept the reality when it’s much easier to deny it, or it may just be that something hits you that says something like “remember that event? It’s real.”

After thirteen months, it’s finally beginning to sink in that my mother has died. Not that I was in denial or anything. I knew she had died. I saw her in the coffin. And the coffin in the ground. But I didn’t really accept that the person I had seen was my mother. Looked like her, but it wasn’t the woman I knew as my mother.

She died at age 90 of complications from dementia. Complications is a nice way of putting it. Basically, even though she had some memory issues, she knew she was alive, and what her quality of life was like, and would be like. And she said the hell with it, I’m done. After twenty six days of a self imposed starvation diet, she died. My father was with her. But I was nine hundred miles away.

She had been struggling for several years. It started gradually with, with small difficulties in finding a word when she was speaking. In the end most of her words were just a string of gibberish. It made sense to her, but no one understood what she was saying. And you could see her frustration.

For several years I was afraid that every time I visited her would be the last time I would see her alive. Finally I was right. It was one thing when she and my father lived in their own home. The place they lived for thirty eight years. But when they moved to the assisted living facility, which is really very nice, she went downhill fast. There was no more running on autopilot because she no longer knew where anything was. She stopped cooking, cleaning, making coffee, washing dishes. And her speech capabilities faded.

The last time I saw her I walked out of the room and knew I’d never see her alive again. She was sitting in a chair, babbling about something, looking very, very fragile. She had lost a lot of weight in the assisted living facility. She was my mother. At least she resembled her in appearance, and sounded similar. But the life I saw sitting in that chair was not the woman I knew as my mother.

My mother was vibrant and intelligent. She graduated from college the year before I did after having sacrificed for many, many years to raise her family. Her degree was in Far Eastern Art, and she got a job in an art museum working with Japanese wood block prints. Spoke Mandarin. She loved art and history and was widely travelled. Politically active with an eye toward power to the people. She was really something.

So, when she died I wasn’t surprised, and it wasn’t devastating. I lived nine hundred miles away so I hadn’t seen her as often as I would have liked. And after all, it was this new person, not my mother who had died. I went home, helped my dad and sister with the arrangements, went to the funeral and that was that. Sounds cold, but I loved my mother tremendously. She inspired me in my thirst for knowledge and deep thinking. But the woman who died was not my mother. Not in my mine.

As the anniversary of her death approached I thought about the facts. But they were just cold facts. She was dead. But in my mind, my mother, the person I knew as my mother, had been gone a long time, replaced by an imposter.

Then it came time for my own birthday. Just a few days later. And my wife was putting together a big party for me. Milestone birthday and all. She put out a lot of pictures of me as a kid and teen and young man and then as husband and father and whatever. At some point I looked glancing at one of these pictures and it captured my attention. A closer look revealed that my mother, my real mother, was in the picture. She was old, but vibrant, smiling, aware and active.

I had just completed the Philadelphia Marathon and she and my father had come to see me cross the finish line. My father took a picture of her hugging me as I wore my finisher’s medal and warming blanket. I was happy. She was happy. My father was disappointed I hadn’t won the race. He was convinced that being an overweight forty five year old white male was no excuse for not winning.

When I saw the look on her face in that picture, I recognized my mother. And then realized that my mother is gone. I can accept that. In a way it’s sad now, But I will always remember her as she was in her prime.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?

www.personalhistorywriter.com

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The Staircase

Back in the day people weren’t terribly concerned with building codes. You took pride in your work. Maybe you were building the family farmhouse, or log cabin on the frontier. This was your home. You did your best and hoped it didn’t either fall down or burn down. Not everyone was a good builder and a lot of houses fell down. Or burned down. Or were abandoned. Driving through the country I see a lot of what I like to call fixer uppers. Collapsed piles of brick, wood or stone, far beyond any salvation.

Building houses has always been expensive so you used available materials. A tree you used for a wall in the cabin was just a tad beyond ripe. That rock in the foundation wasn’t quite flat and the house seemed strangely out of kilter. These kinds of things made for funky imperfections. Character. Along comes electricity. We replace gaslights, and their danger of burning down your house and the whole block, with electric lights. A miracle. And a jumble of wires running everywhere through the house. Now the danger is bare wires and overloaded circuits.

And who builds their own house nowadays? You rely on builders being professional, experienced, and ethical. You have no idea what lurks beyond that sheetrock.

I watched in amazement as my aged parents navigated the staircase in their old stone farmhouse. Sixteen stairs. Creaky old wood. Covered in carpet. On either side of the staircase was a handrail. Rickety on both sides. The stairs were steep. And narrow. Not up to code I would say. But good for their day.

My mother would go up ok, hauling herself all the way using the handrails. It was coming down that was so scary. She’d come down sideways. Holding on for dear life. One foot down, then the other. Two feet on a step. Then to the next step. Until she reached the bottom. At age 87 she seemed quite comfortable with it. But she’d been up and down these stairs thousands of times over the past thirty-eight years.

The stairs hadn’t changed a bit in those years. But she had. And I had visions of her tumbling down from top to bottom. Ending up much like the fixer upper I mentioned earlier.

I love the house. And the stairs. But I was glad she and my father were moving to a two-bedroom apartment. All on one floor. In a building with an elevator. But damn if they didn’t take the stairs to their place on the second floor! Tough old bird.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.com

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Fast Cars

Most men love fast cars. We don’t necessarily have to see it go fast.  It’s enough sometimes that we know it does.  And red is a favorite color.  I don’t know exactly why.  Red is flashy.  Maybe it’s because we remember what it’s like to go fast and want to do it again.  Or perhaps because we want to experience that speed for the first time.  Maybe it’s the beauty of the machinery.  Or the artistry of the design.  Do fast cars look like women?  Different shape, but mainly sleek.

Toy cars gave always been popular as gifts to children.  At least since the development of the mass-market vehicle.  Cast iron toy cars.  Plastic models to build.  Pinewood derby.  Soapbox derby.  Cars you can sit in.  Kid scale.  Today the popular thing is drivable battery powered vehicles.  My kids had one a while back.  But they are not the same as what was available in the 50’s and 60’s.  Metal pedal cars.

ImageI never had one as a kid.  I don’t know why.  Maybe I didn’t ask for one.  My parents were pretty good about providing me with everything I needed, or wanted.  Although, I never did get that Stingray bicycle all my friends had.  Maybe these were really for kids born a little earlier than I was. 

You sat in the car and pedaled with your feet.  The thing went and you could steer and it was just like driving a real car!  Fun.  Prelude to a bike maybe, or adjunct.  I didn’t have one, but I wanted my kids to.

In the late 80’s I liked to go to an antique market in Atlanta.  At the old fairgrounds.  One day I found a rusty old pedal car.  It was in pieces, and a few were missing.  It needed new rubber on the wheels and was missing a hubcap.  I think it was supposed to be a fire truck.  It had some kind of step on the back instead of a bumper.  And here was a bell on the hood.  Missing its string.  It was a mess.  But I took it home.

Over the next few years I found new wheels.  With rubber.  And a new hubcap.  Never found a ladder or the bell so I just turned it into a regular car.  I did some sanding, laid in some bondo and gave it a coat of red paint.  It was cool.  Ready.  And waiting for me to have some kids.

The kids came along but somehow they weren’t interested in the car.  And eventually they outgrew it.  Never having ridden it as I had planned.  And so it remained in the basement.  For years.

And now it sits proudly in my store, Living History Antiques.  Waiting for a new owner.  With children who will want to ride it.  Or at least a father or grandfather who has dreams of some kid riding it.

That’s part of my story.  What’s yours?  www.personalhistorywriter.com

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