Friday, March 27, 2009

(Distant) Family Tensions: What Should I do With Great-Grandfather's Sword?

UPDATE: The votes are in! 66% of voters said I should give the sword to my nephew.

When I visited my Great Aunt Jackie a few weeks ago, she made a request that left me feeling a little confused and disturbed. How do you say "no" to the 95-year-old Great Aunt who more or less raised your father?

Here's the story: We were sitting on the couch in her family room. Frink and Aunt Jackie's daughter, Annabelle, were conversing at the oth
er end of the small room, and Annabelle's 30-something son (Lawrence) was sitting in an easy chair listening to both conversations. (It was the first time I had seen Lawrence since he was 7 or 8.) A few minutes earlier, Lawrence had opened up one of the glass doors of a book case and showed us "his" pipe -- an elaborately carved German pipe from 1800 that used to sit on great-grandfather's mantel. Aunt Jackie is leaving the pipe to Lawrence.

Anyway, my Aunt and I were chatting along, reconnecting after not seeing each other for more than a decade, when she sighed and said, "I wonder what ever happened to my f
ather's Knights of Pythias sword."

"Oh," I said. "Dad gave it to me." Aunt Jackie, I
should note, gave the sword to my father 35 or 40 years ago. She was at my wedding 25 years ago, where the sword played a small part in the ceremony.

"I would so like to have it back," she said. "When I gave it to your father, I didn't have a grandson. I would so like my grandson to have it."

I looked up and noticed that Annabelle and Lawrence were listening with keen attention. It was obvious that they had all talked about this before Frink and I arrived.

I stammered out that the sword was one of the only things dad owned that had belonged to his grandparents.

"I sure would like it to go to my grandson," she repeated. "I didn't have a grandson when I gave it to your father."
The object in question is an elaborately etched silver ceremonial sword like the one in this photo. Such swords were widely used by fraternal organizations in their rituals from the late 1800's until WWII. It's not worth much -- $250 at the most. But it belonged to my great-grandfather. I have always intended to pass it on to my nephew, who shares his grand-father's and great-grandfather's name. (For the story of how dad changed his name when he was 6, choosing the name of his beloved grandfather, see the related posts below.)

The sword is one of only 5 or 6 of my
great-grandparents things that was passed down to my dad, and through him, to my sister and me. Everything else--antique furniture, silver, china, artwork, scrapbooks, photo albums, and so on -- went either to my father's sisters when his mother passed away or will go to Aunt Jackie's daughter and then to her children (including Lawrence.)

I know this sounds complicated, so here's a little family tree:

This conversation left me deflated and disturbed, casting a shadow on an otherwise wonderful visit. I stand in the same relation to my great-grandfather as Lawrence does. If I were a male, I wonder, would Aunt Jackie make the same request? If my father were still alive, would she ask him to give the sword back? Would my father reply that he wanted it to go to HIS grandson? (Knowing him, probably not. He would think it, and he would be very hurt, but he would probably give it to her.)

Thirty-five or forty years seems a long time. At what point did the sword cease to be Aunt Jackie's and become
my father's? I think back to the gaudy diamond cocktail ring another aunt left me a decade ago. It wasn't my style, so I gave it to a distant cousin I hardly knew. If I could do it over, I'd give it instead to one of my nieces. But I can't imagine asking for it back.

We saw my Aunt, Annabelle, and Lawrence again at brunch the next day, and the sword didn't come up. But the whole matter tarnished my visit a bit, and left me uncertain about what to do. My sister says it wasn't fair of Aunt Jackie to ask for the sword. But how do you say no to a direct request from the 95-year-old Great Aunt who practically raised your father?

What would you do? Cast your vote in the sidebar at the top of the page.

Related posts:
The Party Grandma
Stumbling Down Memory Lane
Willa Cather and my Grandfather's Peace Pipe
Read more!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Postcards from 1944 New Orleans

(Click on the photos for a larger view. Click the back arrow to return.)

"My Dear," my uncle wrote in 1944, "The little man has had a very full day, and is now having his demitasse at Broussard’s, an old restaurant in the French Quarter. Shrimp remoulade, soup, plus a few other items. Friday night I have a reception at Antoines, supposed to be something in the food and atmosphere line. Pretty soft, isn’t it?"

This was the message on one of the 6 postcards my uncle sent from New Orleans. I'm not sure what he was doing there in 1944, but it probably had to do with WWII. The cards, marked with a "Red Cross War Fund" stamp, are addressed to my aunt in Houston. They had moved to Houston from St. Louis because Uncle E. wanted to do work that supported the war effort. This followed a devastating rejection when he tried to join the military, one final insult from a bout of TB he suffered as a young man. I remember my aunt telling me how they had to save all of their gas rationing coupons so they could drive their car from St. Louis to Houston. So, when I read my uncle's comment about the"soft" time he's having, I detect mixed emotions: pleasure at indulging in some hard-to-find luxuries during a time of rationing, mingled with a sense of guilt at not being in the trenches like other men his age.

That's one of the things I love about these cards: the intriguing hints of untold tales. I also love how they reflect my uncle's dry, Noel Cowardish wit, how his voice sparkles and smiles through his brief words.
Here's another example:

Darling: This town is not so fun as the articles in Colliers and others would have you think, but undoubtably much more so than in the recent past. Plenty of gambling, but the lid is fairly well on so far as [illegible]. The place fairly abounds in night clubs and joints of every description. Maybe whiskey isn’t flowing freely, but most other kinds of giggle or weeping water are.

Uncle Edmond, I should add, was a teetotaler, having given up alcohol a few years before. Again, while the words are mere ripples, dashed off in a hurry, they offer intriguing hints of a deeper back-story whose details I will never know.

Read more!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hand-painted Cards for the American Lady

After my Great Aunt Fern passed away and I was clearing out her house, I found a bag marked "Keepsake Cards by Segar." It was full of exquisite notecards painted in the early '80s by a Sri Lankan artist who was a friend of my aunt and uncle. I don't know when she and Uncle Edmond met him; they lived in Sri Lanka in the 60's, when he would have been just a boy. Perhaps they knew his parents. Or maybe they met him during a later visit there.

Once, Aunt Fern showed me a magazine cover featuring a cubist painting by this artist, who at that time worked in a bank. That was the sum total of what I knew about him. But, thanks to the internet (which still seems to me as magical as Merlin's book of spells) I found several articles about the artist. In one, I read the following:

"One of the handful of Sri Lankan artists who is able to make a living entirely from his painting....Segar [would] occasionally make greeting cards for his friends, especially for the American lady who complained that the Sri Lankan cards are copied, western-oriented and do not depict Sri Lanka life at all. His hand-painted cards were so popular that he got the idea to have the outline printed and get his friends and family to hand- colour them."

Reading this made me wonder if the "American lady" in the article was my Aunt Fern. It certainly sounds like something she would say. I can picture her blue eyes twinkling behind cats-eye glasses as she floated out her complaint in that direct, disarmingly gracious Southern drawl. In any case, here are a few charming early works by this internationally known artist. (Click on them for a larger view. The colors of the originals are brighter.)
Read more!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Frankie Gets Her Groove Back

My ex-husband didn't share my itchy foot. To him, traveling was a waste...a waste of time, of money, of time he could spend making money. Although I managed to cajole him to take a few trips during our 25-year relationship, my itchy foot went largely unscratched. As did most of my other needs.

I was 40 when we divorced, childless, shell-shocked, completely unsure of myself. (My ex-husband told me I was no longer attractive. Apparently, he couldn't forgive me for not being the same thin babe he met at 16. I've never seen the woman he had the affair with, but evidently she was more his type.)

The end of my marriage meant the beginning of my travels. For my first solo trip, I chose Iceland, Sweden and Norway, countries that seemed unthreatening to a middle-aged woman traveling alone. I loved every delicious, frightening, exhilarating moment. If I wanted to stay a few days longer than planned, or spend a whole day in a museum, or jet off someplace else on the spur of the moment, I could. I didn't have to debate or consult with anyone.

I knew I loved traveling, but I didn't expect to enjoy my own company so much. And the last thing I expected was to get my mojo back.

I was in Olso, standing on the stairs outside the art museum, pondering where to go next. A young Brit asked me what I thought of the art. We chatted about the paintings--Munch's
The Scream was more pastel than I expected--then moved on to literature as we strolled to an outdoor cafe. As the sun began to set, we decided to seek out a spot for dinner. Somewhere over dessert, it finally dawned on me that this young man (14 years my junior) was attracted to more than my sparkling wit and knowledge of Huckleberry Finn.

It would be a better story if I told you we ended up in the sack, but in truth, nothing happened. At least not on that trip. We corresponded and talked on the phone, and the following March I found myself in England, where we spent a lovely week in a romantic 17th-century cottage on a lake.

Although we're no longer intimate--one of the attractions was that we lived in different time zones -- I'm very grateful to my British friend. It makes me smile when he calls every so often and asks if I'm still with My True Love Frink. He sighs when I say yes and then fills me in on the young hotties he's dating.

So, you may be wondering, what does all this have to do with the polar bear necklace at the top of this page, the object that all this wisdom is supposed to be about?

Fast-forward to the next year. I was traveling in Iceland and decided to take a day-trip to Greenland. In a tiny store, I bought the polar bear carved from reindeer bone as a memento of my trip. On the small plane back to Iceland, I met a travel writer. He, too, found me more attractive than my ex-husband had. We spent a few invigorating weeks traveling around Greenland together. I have fond memories of this trip, even though I ultimately realized that I was more enthralled by the travel writer's job than the travel writer himself.

Today, when I look at my little polar bear necklace, I see more than a $5 trinket. I see adventure, freedom, and friendship. And most of all, I am reminded of my first solo trips abroad, when this middle-aged broad got her mojo back.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My First Solo Meal in Vienna

It was my first solo meal in Vienna, a city I would call home for several months. A little self-conscious about dining alone, I chose a non-hip-looking café, with plush red velvet seats and a clientele that included a few tourists. I was relieved to see a vegetarian menu, but unlike the main menu, which had pages in German, English, Japanese, and Russian, the vegie menu was only in German. The waiter didn't speak much English – a startling pleasure in a world where the edges of cultural difference are being relentlessly eradicated by the Resistance-is-Futile-You-Will-Be-Assimilated globalizing Borg machine. After searching for and failing to find the right words to describe the offerings, he gave up and went to get a waitress who spoke a little English. She described a couple of items, but it was still all a bit confusing. Finally, I recognized the word "spinach.”

“Yes!” I smiled. “I’ll have that.”

I sipped my beer and tried not to look conspicuous as I studied the artsy black and white S&M photos on the walls, which seemed at odds with the stuffy baroque decor. Finally the waiter arrived and placed my dinner down with a flourish: a plate of bright green, algae-colored puree, with a basted egg floating on top.

(I soon learned that Austrians will put eggs on top of just about anything. You can even get a coffee with an egg, not on the side, but right there in the cup. But, they are an enlightened people in many ways; a standard breakfast comes with eggs, rolls, potatoes....and a beer. I can't, however, guarantee that the egg won’t be in the beer.)

The creamed spinach was soupy – a bit hard to eat with the fork that was provided
and was the spitting image of baby food spooned from a tiny jar. This effect was magnified by the fact that the puree and the shredded potatoes that accompanied it arrived on a divided dish, either a deep plate or shallow bowl, which looked just like the dish you'd use to feed a toddler, sans the picture of Winnie the Pooh. I resolved right then to learn to speak German.

In the end, I never did learn much German, despite buying a pile of dictionaries and German CDs. And, even though I became more adventurous in my dining choices as I came to know the city, I found myself returning several times to that cafe, where I ordered that same SpinachGloppenEggen, an oddly satisfying comfort food for a lone traveler far from home.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One Sick Kitty

Sticking a needle in a cat seems simple enough: You pinch the scruff of fat on its shoulders between your thumb and forefinger, jab in the syringe, depress the plunger, and in two seconds you’re done. The cat feels hardly a thing. (Apparently, cat’s backs aren’t very sensitive; maybe they get toughened up when their mothers carry them around by the scruff of their necks as kittens.)

But injecting our cat Puki is another matter. She is so thin --
a sheet of fur draped over a sharp-spined skeleton--that there’s hardly any skin to grab. When I insert the needle in the tiny pinch of flesh on her back, I’m afraid it will poke straight through to the other side. But Frink and I do it twice a day nonetheless. The injections are the only thing keeping our kitty alive.

Puki (pronounced Pookie, named for a naughty Icelandic sprite) has kidney disease. It causes her to vomit frequently and become anorexic. No matter how many varieties of tasty treats we put in front of her, some days she simply will not eat. The medicine is meant to calm her stomach and stimulate her appetite. W
e had been doing very well, getting her up to 7.3 pounds, until a recent downward spiral.

Puki doesn’t seem to be suffering – she still chases ribbons, purrs when you scratch behind her ears, watches the birds outside the window with murderous interest, and
sleeps all night curled up in the crook of Frink’s arm. But we know that someday this will no longer be true. Someday we will have a hard decision to make. But not today. She’s lost ground this week, but the vet seems confident we can bulk her up again. Which explains why our kitchen looks like a mini-hospital ward.

There are syringes and
needles, bottles of sticky orange fluid we're supposed to squirt down her throat, special powders to mix with her food. And then there's the IV-bag with a long, clear hose and very fat needles that we use to pump fluids into her when she gets dehydrated. She sits patiently through this procedure, letting us massage the big Quasimodo hump of fluid that collects in her back until it shifts and flows through her body. But she fights like her wild-cat ancestors when we try to give her oral medicines, whipping her head from side-to-side, clamping her jaw shut, flashing her claws in terror. Which is why we have shifted to the injections. We had to get over our needle phobia, but they're a breeze compared to the oral medicine.

It may seem wasteful to spend so much on a cat in a world where people go hungry. But Puki is family. She came to stay 10 years ago, several months after I had to say goodbye to my 22-year-old Siamese. When I was finally ready to share my life with another cat, I went to the pound. I was looking for a Siamese, not a plain, standard issue tabby with ears as big as a small rabbit's. But every time I went back, searching for my shallow notion of feline perfection, Puki would come up to the door of her tiny cage, stick out a paw, and look me straight in the eyes with a steady gaze. There was something so sweet and so persistent about her that I finally succumbed and brought her home.

I realize now what an effort it must have taken for Puki to ask for a home. She is a very delicate and shy cat. She does not grant her trust lightly, unlike SamIAm, our big, snuffling dog of a cat, who will leap into anyone’s lap and settle in for a long, sighing snooze. Puki takes her time sizing people up, deciding if they meet her high standards. It took a year before she would sit in our laps. Eight years went by before she became an undercover kitty, nustling and nudging her way under the sheets.

Now of course, she throws her small weight around like she runs the joint. And I hope she'll keep bossing us around for a long time to come.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Girlie Girl Things

I don't think of myself as a girlie-girl and yet I have a whole array of girlie-girl baubles. (That word, "bauble," is itself a girlie girl word. Stern librarians and macho generals do not have "baubles.")

My two antique perfume decanters belonged to my great-grandmothers, and although I didn't know either woman, I like to think they reflect their personalities. The one that belonged to my father's grandmother is sleek and cool, made of leaded glass sliced at angles like ice slivered apart by a pick. It belonged to The Party Grandma's mother, whose husband built her a large home in a then-posh part of town. I can imagine my grandmother playing with it when she was a little girl, lifting the heavy lid to dab perfume behind her ears, pretending to be the sophisticated flapper she would one day become.

The other decanter is gaudy and overdone, a brass filigree design of flowers and glass amethysts. This belonged to the farm woman who peers out of old photographs with a care-worn face that reminds me of Dorothy's Auntie Em. This was my mother's grandmother, and I imagine it was one of the nicer things she owned.

Nestled among the decanters is a small pile of brooches and necklaces, in various shades of monochromatic sparkle. These, too, belonged to my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I rarely wear them, but I enjoy looking at their cobalt blue, hot pink, and diamond dazzle.
My mostly staid and ordinary closet probably is also embellished with a flourish of beaded and mesh handbags. Only one came from family – a leather, beaded bag. I found most of them, in shabby disarray, at various yard sales and flea markets. The only one that ever gets to go out for an evening is a black quilted bag with a nickel handle decorated with swans, but it's a cheap date: It cost all of a dime at a church rummage sale 30 years ago. I don’t know what the appeal is in these tiny, all-but-useless bags that hold little more than a lipstick and mad money. Maybe they remind me of a more elegant time of kid gloves, long gowns, and penciled names in dance cards hung with ribbons. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to live in those days when women wore corsets and couldn’t vote, but there is something charming about them nonetheless. One day I'll give them to my nieces. In the meantime, I keep the purses on a wall in my closet, along with another girlie-girl item, a cross-stitched picture of two Southern belles in ballgowns.

I made the picture back in the 80s, for my great aunt Mary. Now that was a girlie girl! She wore gigantic diamond cocktail rings and high-heeled fluffy slippers like she had stepped right out of a Vargas drawing. Her entire house was decorated in shades of pink and powder blue, including her Christmas tree, which was covered with butterflies and rosebuds. Although she lived alone, Aunt Mary always set her table with fine china and silver. She even ate Snickers bars elegantly, cutting them into pieces with a knife and eating them like fine chocolate.

I’ve always had a hard time meshing the somewhat mincing Aunt Mary I knew in her old age with the woman in yellowed photographs, who wore dungarees and waders, fishing in Colorado’s streams or camping out in a canvas tent. I got to know her in her later years, when she had settled into a genteel femininity, enhanced by increasing age and the first real financial security she had known in her life (thanks to a good retirement plan and careful investment by my father.) So, when I was going through a cross-stitching phase and found this pattern with its Southern belles, I immediately thought of her. It took months to make, but she was pleased and surprised by the gift. She hung it in her bedroom and even showed it off to her friends.

It’s too frou-frou for my own décor, but I keep it on the wall in my closet with all of my other girlie-girl things. Like Aunt Mary’s waders and jeans, which she kept in the basement just in case she ever got the urge to go fishing, they allow me to keep a side of myself nearby, just in case.
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Sisterhood Award!!!

I'm so excited...I just received the Sisterhood Award from Alpha Button Pusher over at PushtheButtonAlpha. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Alpha, you're a doll! (And such a fun blogger--I hope everyone will check out her blog.)

And now, I get the enormous pleasure of nominating other fabulous women bloggers for the award. I nominate these blogs, which have given me laughter, wisdom, not a little envy for their creativity, and new perspectives on the world. Click on over and give them a visit.

Blogpourri, a gifted and thoughtful writer and woman of wisdom who often shares the spice and sparkle of her Indian upbringing.

WickedLizard, who was one of the first people to welcome me to the blogging world, who has a wild, wacky, whimsical spirit and a blog to match.

Lucy Coates, at Scribble City Central, a children's author whose lively literary and travel adventures carry me off to new worlds, and whose courage about sharing her occasional struggles inspires me to continue telling my own story.

Wandering Pam, a blog I've only recently discovered, but will keep following to see where her wanderings take me.

Adlibby on the lose, who, in her own words offers a "sassy, sarcastic voice from the heart of suburbia."

Silva From Over the Hill, whose blog is .... well....indescribable, but always makes me laugh and often makes me think.

Here's how it works:

1. Put the logo on your blog or post.
2. Nominate at least 5 blogs which show great ATTITUDE and/or GRATITUDE.
3. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5. Share the love and link this post to the person from whom you received your award.

Now DO go read these wonderful blogs which have heart and soul! Read more!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Books, Brochures, Bartlesville

Several new objects came home with us after last weekend's road trip through Arkansas and Oklahoma, most of them books or pamphlets from The Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright's only skyscraper. Wright called the tower "a tree that escaped the crowded forest." Its main form (the trunk) is a square, made more interesting by the intersecting squares (branches) that bisect it at rotated angles, creating triangular balconies and stairwells. This book, which we bought at the Arts Center on the ground floor, has an interesting history of its construction.

The current exhibit at the Arts Center, "Fallingwater en Perspectiva," features oil paintings of what is probably the most famous home in America. The artist, Félix de la Concha, is from Spain. This lucky (and talented) guy got to spend 14 months in residence at Fallingwater, painting it from dozens of perspectives over the span of several seasons. The brochure shows him with one of a series of paintings that, when hung side-by-side, create a 360-degree view of the living/dining room, each from different, slightly over-lapping angles. Stretched across an entire wall of the gallery, this grouping was stunning and a bit dizzying. (The curator complained that it was hard to hang because the paintings were at all sorts of odd angles.) This photo was taken from the exhibit website, which has many other images from the exhibit. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

I love collecting brochures like this from places I visit. Even if I take scads of photos of a place, when I stumble across a tattered and yellowed brochure years later, it brings back memories -- who I was with, what the weather was like, what kind of flowers were in bloom, details of artworks and facts that I've long forgotten. Even better, brochures don't cost anything and don't take up much room.

Frink, on the other hand, is a collector, especially of coffee mugs, which take up A LOT of space. (If all the neighborhood Starbucks lose their coffee cups in an earthquake, we've got them covered. Someday I'll write a post about our dueling Oscar & Felix personalities when it comes to collecting things.) Frink hoped to buy a mug showing the Price Tower or its cool Wright-designed logo. (The originals are hard to find and beyond our means. Six cups sold at auction recently for $3,000 and two plates sold for $1000 each.) But, aside from some pens and a poster of Wright's presentation drawing, the giftshop didn't have anything depicting Price Tower or its logo. The guide said the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation claims copyright on all plans and images of his work. For this reason, visitors aren't allowed to photograph the interiors. It seems strange that the owners of the actual building aren't allowed to sell souvenirs showing their own property. But we followed the rules and didn't take interior photos (except of our room--shhh, don't tell anyone.) I did find some excellent pictures online if you're interested.

We also picked up a guide to Bruce Goff's architecture in Oklahoma, and a DVD about Shin'enKan, a home he designed in Bartlesville that was destroyed by arson in 1996. Goff was an architect who worked primarily in the Midwest in an astonishing array of styles, from Prairie to Art Deco to what I call Dean-Martin-Meets-James-Bond Martini Modern. Shin'enKan, a hip bachelor pad built for a wealthy young client, was definitely Martini Modern.

Goff had an affection for recycling found objects long before it was trendy, and a key feature of Shin'enKan was aqua blue glass, left over from glass manufacturing. It was shattered into faceted chunks, which Goff incorporated into the walls of many of his buildings.

This blog has some amazing photos of Goff's designs, including this photo of the lost house in Bartlesville.

For more on our visit to The Price Tower and Bruce Goff's Oklahoma buildings, please visit my travel blog. Read more!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stumbling Down Memory Lane

Frink and I spent the weekend road tripping through Oklahoma and Arkansas, putting 1200 miles on the car and doing our part to stimulate the economy. It was a combination tour -- some architecture gawking, some reconnecting with family I haven't seen in years. We spent several hours with my 95-year-old Great Aunt (my grandmother's younger sister.) Her stories confirmed some details of family lore and helped set the record straight on others.

For one thing, the peace pip
e I thought was my grandfather's actually belonged to my great-grandfather and is much older than I realized. It was my great-grandfather who loved the American West and traveled all over the frontier in a stagecoach, visiting the area that would become Yellowstone National Park; the Rocky Mountains; and Denver ("Queen City of the Plains"), where he met his future wife. Unfortunately, any letters he may have written from these days are long gone, although my aunt has almost every other object her parents ever owned.

Her living
room is furnished with a pair of elaborately carved ebony chairs that great-grandfather bought at least 100 years ago in San Francisco, straight off the boat that carried them from China, and with the same Victorian furniture that graced her parents' parlor (although the silk upholstery has been recovered more than once in green velvet.) The peace pipe sat on a fireplace mantel in the house my great-grandfather built in 1909. That house, where my great aunt was born and my father spent his childhood, is no longer in family hands and is sadly deteriorated. The leaded glass windows are hidden behind an ugly metal storm door, and the floorboards on the once-elegant, wrap-around porch (a necessity in the hot, sultry South in the days before air conditioning) are sagging and rotted, covered with green outdoor carpet.

The family home was lost, in part, because of my ne'er-do-well grandfather (husband of The Party Grandma.) In addition to the heroin and alcohol addictions, which I knew about, it turns out that he racked up huge gambling debts. The mafia wasn't much inclined to let such debts slide, even for men with wives and young children. He also ran some kind of scam, selling policies for an insurance company, but instead of turning the money in, he gambled it away. Aunt Jackie, who would have been around 13 or 14 at the time, remembers a lot of closed doors and tears. The debts nearly bankrupted both sides of the family. Grandfather's parents paid part of it, leaving town not long after to reestablish themselves in Texas. My great-grandfather, who had pledged surety on the insurance money, scraped together the rest. This was just before the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. He had to close his once-thriving restaurant across from the town's finest hotel, and the family never recovered financially.

My childhood recollections of the Party Grandma proved accurate, at least as reflected through the eyes of her younger sister, who had to clean up after her for most of her life. Lily liked to have a good time, as two bulging albums of filled dance cards attest. This was during the Roaring Twenties, the days of bobbed hair, short spangled dresses, and the Charleston. Lily fell for a rakish young man who shared her enthusiasms for drinking, dancing, and good times. After he lost everything, Grandma left her husband and came home in disgrace, her two toddlers in tow. It was shocking to be a divorced woman in 1929 Bible Belt America, no matter the reason, and most of grandma's friends dropped her cold.

Lily's poor choice of a husband nearly destroyed my aunt's chances of marrying at all. Even in 1935, when Jackie became engaged, the taint of divorce hovered over the family. Aunt Jackie's beau was forbidden to marry a woman whose sister had disgraced the family by divorcing. He defied his parents and married her anyway, moving into her family home to help her care for Jackie's widowed mother, divorced sister, and her sister's children.

Like the heroine in Kate Chopin's
The Awakening, grandma was not "a mother woman." It was Aunt Jackie who raised my father and his sister, who ironed and mended their clothes, who walked with them to Sunday School at the church around the corner. It was Aunt Jackie who consoled my teen-aged father when his mother remarried, Aunt Jackie who consoled him again when he washed out of Naval flight-training at 17 due to poor eyesight, Aunt Jackie who consoled his sister, a young wife whose husband was shot down over Germany, where he was a POW for two years, not even knowing he had an infant son.

I hope every family has an Aunt Jackie, the unsung caretakers and consolers, the keepers of heirlooms and lore.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shopping, Ecology, and the Economic Crisis: A Paradox

Two recent posts from my friends over on Opera have stirred up mixed emotions and thoughts. This World War II-era poster (posted by Wicked Lizard) captures my feelings exactly. In fact, I've even been working on a new weekly feature about buying less and clearing out clutter. Certainly, the "reduce" part of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" equation is better for the planet. And I'm ashamed when I read in this article that "the average American consumes about fifty-three times more goods and services than someone from China." Alas, the entire Western world, and China itself, are quickly catching up.

But my friend Richard points out that when consumers stop buying products, the people who make, package, ship, and sell those products suffer. Factories turn off their machines, businesses close, jobs are lost, people go hungry. In his post he shares an email he received from a record company practically begging people to buy CDs to keep the economy rolling. Buy a CD, they plead, and keep us in business.

They have a point: According to this article in the Christian Science Monitor, consumer spending has dropped to levels not seen since 1942, (the era of that white elephant poster.) "When necessity or worry causes most consumers to save money at the same time, it causes a problem known among economists as the 'paradox of thrift.' Consumers are acting rationally to safeguard their financial health in a recession, but their collective action may hurt everyone by shrinking the economy even more."

So what's a responsible world citizen to do? Please share your thoughts. How are you responding to the paradoxical crises affecting our world? Read more!