Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Child Is the Father of the Man

I've been ruthlessly clearing out boxes and bins for the past several months. I don't wonder why.

In August, after my grandmother died, we discovered that for years she had been treating her tiny house as a four-roomed, three-dimensional game of Tetris. Every inch of every closet, drawer, and cupboard was packed, neatly, top to bottom and back to front.

We–four adults–began our cleaning out by emptying closets. There were three. At the end of two days, we still hadn't got to the back of all of them.

The things we found. Oh, the things. My grandmother, proud daughter of the Great Depression, had learned early to never throw anything out because one day you might need it.

A bag of margarine tub lids (just the lids).

Eighty-three representations of the Virgin Mary in materials ranging from plaster to crochet

All the receipts for repairs to a car (I think it was a DeSoto) that probably made its last trip to the grocery store in 1962.

All of her pay stubs, from the 1940s to the day she retired.

A tea kettle with a burnt bottom. A roasting pan with a burnt bottom. A lid for a pot that disappeared, but which might fit another pot.

Thousands of zippers and buttons collected during eight decades of work as a seamstress and tailor.

Her prayer books. Her late son's prayer books. Her late mother's prayer books. Her late brother's prayer books. My grandmother was a religious woman, devoutly Catholic, and so when people died and left behind devotional paraphernalia, people said, "We should give this to Pauline." And my grandmother was certainly not going to chuck a crucifix, a Missal, or a guidebook to apparitions of the Blessed Mother in the trash.

It makes you think, seeing all that left behind. Some of it, I'm happy she saved. The trunk my great-grandfather (her father) brought with him as an immigrant in 1903 is here with me now, holding a heap of my knitted samples. It's a nice thing to have.

Other stuff, we groaned over. Why did you save this? Why? And off it went to the dump or St. Vincent de Paul or the scrapyard.

Back at home, I looked around and felt like opening the front door to the general public and screaming COME AND GET IT! I started asking myself, Why did you save this? Why?

One of the surprises I unearthed was a beat-up five-subject spiral notebook. Two hundred sheets, green cover. An old sketchbook, though with more than sketches inside. I date it to the year I would have been about ten, maybe eleven.

I found a Christmas list inside (I wanted Trivial Pursuit?), the recipe for my Italian grandmother's cookies, the start of a dreadful mystery novel (stolen diamonds), and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of drawings.

I have to laugh. In this neighborhood, at this time, any kid who shows the slightest inclination to draw or paint is immediately presented with a plein-air easel, a set of oil paints, a tray of watercolors, a personal tutor kidnapped from a picturesque street corner in Montmartre, an agent, and a gallery show.

I drew on lined notebook paper with...whatever. Appears to be mostly Number Two pencils,* which seems about right. Art supplies cost money, and I didn't have any. And my art lessons consisted entirely of checking out art books from the base library and making freehand copies of stuff I liked.

What I drew made me laugh even harder. Looking at these pages, I wonder if I've changed fundamentally at all in the intervening thirty years.

Vaguely nineteenth-century still lifes, mainly domestic, mainly culinary. Our kitchen never looked like this. I just wanted it to. I'd still like it to. (It still doesn't.)


An obsession with Toulouse-Lautrec–again, the nineteenth century, writ large.




I already saw New York City as the Great Elsewhere–more chic, witty, urbane, and exciting than wherever we happened to be stuck.


I didn't understand half of what I read, but I forced myself to plow through everything in The New Yorker from "Talk of the Town" to the back page with the hope that one day it would all make sense. (It did.)

And costumes. Oh, costumes. Pages and pages and pages and pages of bustles, crinolines, lace collars, drapery, trains, capes, tiaras, gloves. I looked at Tintoretto's take on St. George and the Dragon and ignored both the saint and the dragon. What caught me was the fancy chick in the foreground.


I just looked at the original painting again and what gets me now is the muscular nude male in the middle ground. I'm sure I must have noticed him at the time, but I had separate notebook (now long gone) for those sorts of drawings.

I'm not keeping the sketchbook. In fact, by the time you read this, it'll be gone. But it was fun to look it over one last time and see how far I have, and haven't, come.

*Young readers, Google it if you need to. Number two pencils are what we used to use for making erasble marks on paper. There was erasable ink, for a little while, but it never caught on.


Susan said...

Oh, wow! Did you find a Buffy notebook? I still have a few of the stories and drawings I made in just these types of notebooks, inspired by my big brother.

newamy said...

Your childhood drawings are wonderful, shame to let them go. Good to have some digital copies. I currently save my daughters drawings...oodles and years of them.

PFrance said...


Anonymous said...

Your description of your grandmother's stash reminds me of my Dad's aunt. But it was cottage cheese containers. No lids. The lids would have been useful - the kids and I use them as paint palettes. I wish I had been privy to her button stash - she was a seamstress as well. Dang.

Luneray said...

This was wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

DorisM said...

I used to draw on my notebook paper during class. When my mother discovered it, she yelled at me for wasting valuable school paper on 'doodles'. So, then I took to erasing my drawings, so she wouldn't complain.

I used to have the same obsession with Toulouse-Lautrec. I even had a phase of drawing floor plans and landscape designs on graph paper. I got those ideas from the Landscaping books my parents had for 'low-maintenance gardening'.

I really liked your drawings. Thanks for sharing this. Now I need to get back to clearing out the stuff I accumulated from cleaning out my parents' house last year. It's not that much fun.

sandi said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. It is wonderful to see so much of the man foreshadowed in the child.

=Tamar said...

I use plastic lids as coasters. I used part of one to make a cover for the missing back of a clock. I have plans to use others for a costume project, once I have enough. Raw materials are where you find them.

Ellen said...

Thank you for sharing those - they are lovely and well worth having saved.

Anonymous said...

In the 1960's or so plastic cans or margarine...were used to cut templates for quilt pieces. Now we have rulers and rolling cutters that slice through piles of fabric like pizza cutters on steroids. Such is progress, but I totally remember/understand keeping the lids.

jenann said...

I had to laugh at this post! We cleared my late uncle's bungalow out some months ago. He seems to have had a passion for storing out of date food stuffs in all three of his huge wardrobes. Who would have guessed it? He was a neat freak and the rest of his house was pristine.
When my mother dies I will be showering the local thrift stores with hundreds of bags and purses. Why does she love them so? She brings a new one (or two) every time she leaves the house.
When it's my time to shuffle of this mortal coil, my offspring can look forward to finding a way of disposing of a few sheepsworths of wool and several hundred knitting pins - well, they seem not to like being part of a permanent couple and, every time I need a certain pair, I can locate one but not its brother, so I have to buy more... and those lovely yarns just have to be bought..I'll use them all some day...or will I?

Great drawings - your talent was obvious at an early age. Wish I could draw. All my family can, but the skill somehow passed me by. I was the only kid in my school thrown out of art class for incompetence rather than bad behavior!

Kim said...

Oh, trust me, kids these days know what #2 pencils are. Those are what they use to bubble in their answers on the myriad standardized tests they take. They probably doodle on the test booklets with them as well, but we teachers (like Lot's wife) are forbidden to look upon the booklets lest we turn into pillars of salt. Or, more likely, FORMER teachers.

petoskystone said...

Ah, to be torn between joy, sorrow, & bewilderment when cleaning out past lives. My daughter won't go through this (more likely my grandchildren) as I keep a compact life from having to move frequently.

Stasia said...

Beautiful drawings, beautiful sentiments, beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

And I am still laughing about what a pencil was! :)

TERRI said...

I totally relate to your experience of cleaning out your grandmother's house after her death. I grew up with many elderly relatives that kept a lot of stuff and we did not know the extent until after their death or when they had to move to a smaller abode. I too have a lot of "stuff" and for the past several years I have been using it up and giving it away.

=Tamar said...

Pencil: combined with "paper", it provides a portable way to record thoughts and images; never needs recharging, though occasionally one or the other part requires updating or replacement. With optional "eraser" it becomes reusable, though there is a limit to the number of times the medium can be reused.

TERRI said...

Thanks for sharing your early drawings. I know your influence was Toulouse-Lautrec but for some reason I see influences of Gustav Klimt. Were you also looking at his work back then?

Jennifer said...

What a lovely stroll down memory lane. One thing that popped out at me was: "A bag of margarine tub lids (just the lids)." - and it made me wonder if she had a craft project in mind... or used them under plants... or some other practical purpose. I love the notebooks... hey are priceless.

Anonymous said...

I keep thinking I'll find something interesting in my old notebooks - which I'm positive my mom has kept - but so far it's mostly illustrated news articles about how every 8-year-old girl in America is going to be given a horse. It would make for an interesting children's book, but hardly New Yorker material.

Its SO TRUE about kids and their overwhelming encouragement of their someday-talents. I think the true artists will find themselves t in spite of their materials, not as a result of.

Linda said...

Love your writing, Franklin. Seeing those early studies makes me glad that you persisted. Your drawings mix humor, line and vision.

Ann said...

I think I still have a few of your notebooks here in IN. I came across the two book you wrote back in grade school. I will show Abby the next time she is in town. I remember all your doodles. (Susan I still have some from you also). Love, Mom

Evelyn said...

And some people question whether one's sexuality is hard-wired from a young age!

Renee Anne said...

I know exactly what you mean about the never ending piles of stuff that they may someday need. Both my grandparents were like this. The stuff we threw out of their house when we moved filled 2-30 yard dumpsters.

Yarn and Ivories said...

Should I throw out my lids to long-gone pans? My daughter was here a few months ago, and I found photos of a trip from 1998 in the trash just a few days ago. I bravely averted my eyes and let them go. Pat on the back. It's SO hard for some of us.

Patti said...

I can so relate to this... Did your grandmother have a box labeled "string too short" ? My mom does, and I can only imagine what else I might find when the time comes, besides closets of clothes enough for a cast of Bye Bye Birdie.
Fun drawings. Thanks for showing those.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I know what you mean about STUFF. And when you pass 50 you suddenly look at your stash and think, "Will I knit this stuff at all, ever, in the rest of my life?" I've started destashing. What I really want is a week of vacation to stay home and get rid of stuff from my house. It's hard to be this age, and have a tweener who is in the hoarding/saving time of her life, we are at cross purposes!

sgt_majorette said...

"*...There was erasable ink, for a little while, but it never caught on."

Beg to differ: my eighty-eight year old mother, recently persuaded to get rid of my late father's teeth, uses an erasable pen to do her crosswords.

Linda said...

My middle brother and I sold our parent's house to our youngest brother (that way,we didn't have to clean it out or repair it) to finance our father's 5 year stay in a nursing home. My youngest brother just moved a bed and found boxes of dried flowers from my mother, now dead 16 years. God only knows what he will find next!

Pam Sykes (aka Pretty Knitty) said...

I love that you have the freedom to toss...and also that you have documented some of it here. I, like most of my relatives, tend toward the pack-rat lifestyle. Try as I might to rebel, my efforts are mostly fruitless, but blogging things helps sometimes. :)

Peg in Kensington, California said...

Oh, I have been there, done this, and am trying to do it at home. My mother-in-law saved everything (except, apparently, my husband's baseball cards). We had to bury things in the 30 foot dumpster so she wouldn't retrieve them when we cleared out the house. Family photos stuffed in bags of old sheets that had been washed and ironed and saved. Wonderful material, a zillion purses and scarves, etc. We had to do it again at my in-laws retirement place when my father-in-law died. How many flashlights, scissors, glasses and matches can you own? Lots. We inherited a ton and now need to get rid of lots of it.

Seanna Lea said...

I definitely have a few things we've kept that can (and will be) go away. Most of them are straight needles that I haven't used since I decided I love circulars, Indian food takeout containers, milk rings for the cat. Tons of these things that can be trashed or occasionally donated. The ruthless weeding needs to happen.

NewJerseyLaura said...

You were 10 or 11 when you made those drawings! And you found the art books at the library, too. Impressive!

Kris said...

What a wonderful find, thanks for sharing.

sue pitkin said...

you, my friend, are (in the common vernacular for which i apologize), awesome.

June said...

Thank you for sharing a glimpse into the notebook. Lovely!

Btw, I remember those EraserMate pens, too, but the current favorite erasable ink pen is FriXion. I just bought them for use in marking textiles (sewing clothes). They work remarkably well on paper, erase with a touch of the iron on fabric, and presto-chango becomes visible again if you freeze it. Should make for some neat invisible messages when my kids are a little older.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your drawings! it can be great funto encounter one's younger self, can't it?


A dear friend has spent large whacks of the past two years clearing out her long-widowed mother's 4-bedroom home of 30 years. In the basement were hundreds of canning jars, all empty, for instance. My friend spent night after night of tv time shredding decades of financial and tax records, etc. she gave away boxes and boxes of old books, filled a recycling bin before each pickup, sold and gave away furniture -- and on and on and on.

finally, her mother having died a few months ago, the house is emptied out and on the market.

Her ordeal inspired me to a major reorganization, destash and abstention (except for one small slip) from yarn purchases so far this year. Nobody else in thebfamily is at all fibery, so when i shuffle off or utterly lose enough brainpower to knit, i will do as my SIL's late friend did: i will have told my heirs to lay out all my craft items and invited members of my various knitting grus to come and help themselves. Whatever they don't want will go to an upcycler or charity.

Erica said...

Oh dear Franklin! How I understand. My father (aka the best guy ever) gave my husband and me the house that belonged to his parents after my grandfather passed. The stipulation being that we had to clean it out. It took us 6 months. In the upstairs bath we found a clear plastic bag about 5 ft long filled with pink styrofoam meat trays. We just stared at it in mutual disbelief and closed the door. We ended up donating them to the art department at the local junior high. We also found grape juice my grandmother had canned in 1980.

Thank you for your wonderful wit and for just being you. Cheers!

Amanda said...

My grandmother also saved lids to margarine tubs. She used them to make Christmas ornaments. She would cut out the entire center so just the outside rim was left and then crochet around it making a pretty trim or edging along the outside. Them she would hang a small ornament or crystal object from one end so that in hung down the center. I relate to this post so much. It was so bittersweet going through my grandmother's things when she passed away.

Anonymous said...

Yes Franklin, I ask my self weekly how many black turtle necks does one person need?

iopsc said...

After my Mum died my sisters and I found she had kept plastic bags - all neatly knotted- in several hard-sided "train luggage cases" ,she probably hadnt used them since the 60s? 70s?
But we never found any of the exquisite clothing we had seen wrapped up so carefully over the years; the matching hand-knit suits with cropped blazers fashioned like Irish fisherman sweater patterns that my Dublin born Nanny had made us back in 1965.
God they were beautiful.
As I dropped Mum's suits off to 'Second Chances'
a resource for women going back to work I noticed some pretty odd characters hanging about outside, as I exited I noticed on the front door was a warning:

Adele said...

How delightful! (the drawings)

Kristen said...

I feel for you! Right when we started dating, my husband's mother died. Her house was the same—tiny, yet packed to the gills. We found an entire shopping bag of dog leashes and dog bowls. They hadn't had a dog since the late 80s. At any rate, we also found some fun treasures. I'm glad you did too!

The Lake Fever said...

When my great great uncle died, we found a shoe box of used nasal spray bottles (he also grew up during the Depression, and threw away nothing ever). And then, MY MOTHER KEPT IT.

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