Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Before You Go

When my father was very ill, at the end of his life, I was shipped out to stay at my cousin’s home. I was sleeping in the top half of his bunk bed when, and I can remember this vividly, almost as though it happened last week, my Aunt saying to me, after receiving a middle of the night phone call that woke me up, “Frankie, your father’s dead. There’s nothing you can do about it. Go back to sleep.” It was early November, about two weeks before my seventh birthday.

I remember being at the funeral home, people getting up to talk. They would walk up to where my father was laid out in the casket, turn and address the gathered. At one point, someone played a zither. That was pretty much all I remember about being seven years old. Not too long ago I re-discovered my elementary school report cards and saw, in one of them, the teacher commenting on how well I’d adjusted since my fathers’ death. I don’t remember the second grade at all.

At nineteen I left home, in the wake of my mother saying, one too many times for my liking, “as long as you live under my roof, you’ll do as I say.” I was angry, but then so was my generation, I thought. We all wanted freedom to do what we wanted. It didn’t occur to me that I had blamed my mother for my father’s death. I didn’t talk to my mother for about 2 years after I left home. I always believed my mother loved me, but I never felt very close to her. There were all these “things” she’d said and done that just ruined our relationship: washing the wool pants to my first suit that I’d bought with my own money; making me make supper after my two sisters had moved out; keeping my summer earnings to give back to me as an allowance during the school year; saying things that embarrassed me, showing just how callous and mis-understanding she was. Who would want a mother like that?

There were at least two Christmases that I didn’t even bother going to see her, much less wish her a happy holiday. Now, of course, I understand that my un-resolved feelings toward her allowed me to punish myself, when I really thought I was getting back at her for not letting me stay out past curfew.

It wasn’t until I had become a father that I resolved my un-resolved feelings about my father. Instead of seeing every adult male as a potential father-figure, when I became a father I came to understand what the phrase “when they’re young they step on your toes and when they’re older they step on your heart” meant. Becoming a father was one of the most significant growth periods in my life. However, I still had all these un-resolved feelings toward my mother.

It was easy, as a result, for my wife to help me to understand that my mother didn’t like her, nor did my sisters like her, and so why should we even go around them. I became convinced that her family was to be paramount in our lives. Why would we want to associate with people who didn’t like us? Nevertheless, we went to visit my family on the requisite holidays; however, it was not without consequence. At some point I decided to just give in; it was easier to just give up seeing my family than it was to try to force the issue. It was just too much of a hassle; besides, we had her family.

When our marriage broke up after fifteen years, I found I wasn’t encouraged to stay around her family; it wasn’t very comfortable. My family, however, was welcoming. It was almost a revelation to re-establish contact with them. Years later, I started asking questions about how my family felt toward my ex-wife. They liked her. They could never understand why she never wanted to be around them.

In the aftermath of my marriage ending, and perhaps out of loneliness, I decided to re-establish contact with my mother and started visiting her regularly. It wasn’t too hard to do since I was not in any relationship, was reeling from the whole experience of the marriage dissolving and was suffering separation anxiety from my children. Being a father had been the most important thing for me to do in my life. Not being in a complete family unit was the last thing I’d ever wanted to do.

It had taken three years for me to come to the conclusion that my marriage wasn’t going to last. During that whole time what was keeping me in it were my children. I didn’t want them to grow up as I did, without a father. I didn’t want them to be the product of a broken home, as I had been. I didn’t want the cycle to repeat itself. On the other hand, I couldn’t stay any longer. I felt like I was being strangled, that I was losing my sense of self. I felt like my spirit was slowly being eked out of me. I felt almost as if I was emotionally dying.

A number of years later I came to understand how important studying karate during the last six years of my marriage was. It became a physical release for all my tension; it became a way for me to re-gain some measure of control over my life. It became a means for me to re-kindle my spirit. Karate became a Way of life. When my life seemed like it was spinning out of control karate gave me a sense of balance. It was a way in which I could center myself physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It was something that could not be taken away from me. It also gave me the confidence and courage of my conviction that the marriage was over and that it was time for me to move on with my life.

Now that I was an adult and a parent, visiting my mother, after many years of rarely seeing her, gave me an opportunity to be with her as her; I could separate her out from being “my mother.” We sat and had many conversations; however, she didn’t want to talk about the past. We didn’t dredge up past transgressions. There were never any apologies made by either of us. We had no heart-wrenching heart-to-heart’s. We simply shared time and space. As a result, I came to forgive her.

I came to understand that she’d done the best she could with what she’d had at the time she was raising us. What I’d become in my life had really always been up to me. In turn, I understood that what my children become is really up to them. This is the life that’s been dealt and it needs to be dealt with. Saying I’m sorry isn’t really going to change anything if you don’t want to give the anger and feelings up and being sorry doesn’t necessarily make anything better. Being able to say it happened, it’s over, I love you anyway is really all that matters.

Several years later, my mother became very ill. At first, until my other sister moved back to the area, my one sister and I took turns staying with my mother, each of us staying with her for half a week at a time. For about three months I toileted, bathed, dressed, fed, and each night put my mother to bed. And then I did the laundry. It was a time of spending a lot of time thinking I could lose her at any moment. I became grateful for having spent time with her before she was ill. It was during that time that I truly came to learn what it meant to love her, with all her faults, with all my issues around her being my mother, as herself. Eventually, she pretty much recovered but she was clearly at the end of her life.

When she died, I was emotionally able to let go of her. I had resolved the anger and other negative feelings I’d harbored against her all those years. I was at peace with my mother. I think it’s important not to hold grudges against others, since you never know if one day the person will just disappear and you’ll not be able to ever reach any resolution with them. I think that’s especially true for someone who took you from the womb and brought you into life.

Given the circumstances mothers find themselves in while raising children, regardless of how those circumstances occurred, they did the best they could. A person can feel justified to have any feelings they want to have toward their mother.

But remember, no matter how long you’re gone, how far away you go, or how you feel about them, your mother will always take you back. She will always love you. Don’t let anyone ever try to keep you from that.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Antiques Roadshow

Julie and I ventured down to Baltimore over Father's Day weekend with tickets to the Antiques Roadshow. We were able to take two items each; the caveats being that you had to be able to carry your stuff yourself and whatever you brought had to fit through a standard size door.

I had gotten the tickets from The website is just incredible for finding things. Anyway, someone posted that they had two tickets to the Roadshow, couldn't use them and were giving them away (they were free to begin with). She had submitted her name to WGBH, and, in the lottery drawing, got them. I responded, got the tickets, and so we went.

Man, I tell you, it's a long drive from Waltham/Watertown to Baltimore/Fallston. It took us 7 hours to drive the just less than 400 miles. On an up-note, my 2007 Corrolla got 40 mpg, so I was happy with that. I put the car on cruise control and we cruised right into a huge backup at the Tappan Zee bridge and then into another one entering Delaware. We left Friday at 1 p.m. and headed back north on Sunday morning. We calculated that we drove just about 800 miles over that 48 hour period.

Our tickets were for Saturday at 2 p.m. In the morning we ate breakfast with my oldest sister and lunch with my middle sister. For lunch we went to Attman's of Lombard St. It had been a long time since I'd eaten lunch at Attman's. While we were there I was reminded of one time seeing Charlie Eckman eating there. I remembered standing there staring at him, thinking to myself that it was really him. He looked up at me, sandwich in hand, and said "what're you lookin' at?"

After lunch we toured around the Canton area, looking for and finding a bunch of painted screens. Ever since I turned Julie onto them, she's decided to try to make it a business venture. It'll be interesting to see if Bostonians take to Baltimore painted screens. I wish her well on this. She's really a good artist and her work is excellent. She has the technique and style down pat. If you want a painted screen, let me know. Julie's the one to do it.

So we get to the convention center, treasures in hand (actually wrapped up in a backpack). We get directed into this huge room in the cavernous convention center and start by getting in line. A long, long line as it turns out. We stood and moved forward in this serpentine line for two hours. Of course, along the way we meet people in front of, behind and to the side of us. We all trade stories about our treasures. The stuff that we saw around us ranged from the mundane to the bizarre. I saw a huge mirror in a gilted frame with all kinds of images on it. One woman had a wooden carving that was about 5 feet tall and shaped like a boot. At its bottom it sat on three carved wooden hooves - they looked like horse's hooves. The narrow side of "the boot," I guess where you could say the seam would be, it was hollowed out for the entire length and in the space were small bells and other objects that made a sound. We asked her what it was and she said she had no idea, that's why she had brought it.

The couple immediately in front of us had what they thought was a piece of pre-colombian art. An amateur archeological diver, he had found what looked like a stone axe about a foot, maybe a foot and a half, long, the handle and head of which vaguely resembled a person while scuba diving down in the Dominican Republic. Later on, after we'd finally gotten to the appraiser's tables, I saw them and asked about their "treasure." He said that the appraiser told him that they thought it wasn't even real; that they thought that someone had carved it and thrown it into the water so that amateur archeological divers like him would find it and get all excited and keep coming back. Needless to say, they were very heartbroken.

Eventually we got to the front of the line, rather we got to the table where we check in, so to speak. We then go to another table where we show our stuff and the guy hands us what looks like fat bookmarks for each item that tells us where to take our stuff - decorative arts, jewelry, books. A Roadshow person, most are volunteers, took us to the first line and, after that, we were on our own.

The lines for each of the tables where the appraisers sat started behind the scenes, sort of. In the middle of this kinda dark cavernous room, separate from the first cavernous room where we'd snaked in line for two hours, was what looked a little to me like Stonehenge. There was a set of colored cloth panels, each about 20 feet high and about 10 feet wide, arranged in a big circle. Once you got on the inside of the 75 foot in diameter circle, in the bright lights, you could see the tables against the cloth panels where the appraisers sat. In the middle of the circle was another circle, which was a set of chairs and TV cameras and a boom mike. There were also remote camera crews that were going around the room filming at the various appraiser tables.

I had brought a wall-plate that my father's father's sister had brought with her from Hungary when she emigrated to the USA in the 1890's. Since it was one of the few possessions she apparently brought with her, and that it was over 100 years old, I figured it must be valuable. The appraiser told me that it had been mass manufactured in Germany, maybe in Hungary, in the 1890's, that the color was painted, not baked, on and that it was worth maybe $30. So much for my treasure.

My second item was a ring that a mutual friend, Marjorie, had given us. Marjorie runs an art gallery in Lawrence. She said the ring had been given to her by a friend who told her it was Art Deco. Marjorie had always wondered about its worth so she was excited to find out how valuable it was. I found out that the ring "wanted to be art deco" but was actually only about 20 -25 years old, the stone was hematite and it was worth about $100.

Julie brought two items. One was a set of beautiful hand painted staffordshire place card holders and the other was a book that Herbert Hoover had translated from Latin in 1912, had inscribed to someone and had signed. The book had been found in a trash can in the 1970's by a friend of Julie's and he'd held on to it all these years, figuring it was worth something.

The place card holders turned out to be worth about $15 each (she had twelve of them). There's not too much demand for place card holders in today's market, she was told.

The book turned out to be worth about $500. However, Hoover apparently had signed a lot of them at the time (I guess he was marketing his own work) and so "they come up for auction quite often."

Julie had actually brought a third item, photos of an antique desk she had bought some time ago. She found out it was a woman's writing desk made in the late 1800's early 1900's and was worth $800 - $1,000. Not too shabby for a $300 investment.

Nonetheless, we did see people being filmed and we did see the appraisers we'd see on TV when watching the Antiques Roadshow and we got caught up in the moment of it all. It was very cool to be a part of it, even if our treasures were mostly only valuable to ourselves (at least mine were).

Afterwards we went to the G&M restaurant on Hammond's Ferry Road for a crabcake dinner that couldn't be beat, even if we were. After driving so far the day before, standing in line for two hours and then standing in four more lines in order to be in the middle of things for about another hour left us mighty tired.

Sometime after January 2008 we'll be able to watch the show that was broadcast from Baltimore and we'll say - "We were there." I had always wondered how people got on the show, about their stuff, about how the show worked. Now I know. It was cool. I'm glad I had the chance to find out.