For me, artichokes signify spring. Even as we speak, they are forming underground, waiting for the soil to warm them up, so that new growth can happen. And like all things that depend on the elements for survival, they too are confused by the weather. But the artichoke is stalwart. The shoots come out first, fernlike, making a protective nest for the globe-like blossom, its intricately patterned leaves snugly overlapping – elegant, but too subtle to attract the bees apparently, so nature provides a bright purple thistle flower on top, like a punk fright wig and the bees respond.
A toned down more visceral version of that color is echoed in the artichoke heart, “the goal of the whole endeavor”.
Below is the origin story of The Fulper Tile Artichoke lamp, along with my usual detours into related topics. Click on the lamp or the Journal cover to read full text with photos (reprinted here with permission from the Journal of the American Art Pottery Assn.).
Listen to Burn On, Brief Candle read by the author:
Or read full text below:
BURN ON, BRIEF CANDLE!
Wee Willie Winkie, Hamlet’s dad, the Bronte sisters, all would have benefitted from a candlestick with a protective backing like a hood against the draft, when they were forced to travel around the house in the dark, which was probably much of the time. Even to this day, I use such a “chamberstick”, as it’s called, to light the way if necessary. But mostly it’s kept stationary, next to my bed. I leave my traveling light to more reliable, battery-operated devices when the power goes out. But wax and wick, nestled against a portable fireproof shield do provide an effective and renewable (“gotta match?”) light source. And because it is shaped both like an early footlight and a holy shrine souvenir, it can shine quite efficiently into dark places.
When I was growing up, one of those places was the linen closet where, during a thunderstorm, you might stumble upon my mother, fingers in her ears, cowering against neatly folded terry cloth, the contents of a laundry basket clinging to her ankles. My candle exposed an ashen, Dante’s Inferno kind of face, trembling up at me. After I recovered from the heart stopping shock of finding a grown-up, hiding in the linen closet, I felt like I’d witnessed something I shouldn’t have; my mother so vulnerable and brittle – it was disconcerting. I’d just wanted a washcloth.
She was not known to be overly dramatic, unlike her daughters, so this must be something deep seeded. Why was she so unreasonably terrified? I later discovered a possible explanation. During electrical storms, my grandmother (Agnes the first) would make her three children – my mother (Agnes Two), Aunt Gerarda, and Uncle Grat, put on their rubber boots, gather around the dining room table, with their rosary beads and well-worn bibles, then lead them in fervent prayer. One imagines the jagged strobes of lightning and flickering candles distorting their stricken faces, each second counted, each bead squeezed, until the next apocalyptic crack of thunder. as they beseech our merciful lord- “don’t let us be taken by this storm, dear Jesus!”
I wonder why my mother didn’t sense the hooey in it all. She was smart, destined to be high school valedictorian and graduate from Smith College. Perhaps she was skeptical. But then years later, married to a non-Catholic, she conjured up the ways of her people, connecting to the life before she allied herself to my more devil-may-care father. His nonchalance about religion may have been a relief – but could have felt, at times, like a denial of her roots. Did she need to pay homage, just to keep up her end of the bargain? Her religion was important to her and a deal had been struck that the children would be brought up “RC”.
Because my father never succumbed to the fear mongering that the church instilled, my mother was pretty much alone in her devotion. The four of us grew up with a more casual approach to Catholicism, giving us license to mock it all, including the nuns we were forced to deal with at Sunday School. Today, I’d have more generosity and empathy towards these women, creating little back stories for their paths to the convent. But in those days, we were more cruel…and so were they. I savored my sisters’ dead-on impressions of the head priest, whom they’d dubbed “Pops Gallagher”, his thick Philly twang extolling the virtues of “our beyooteeful nuns who are so much more be-yooteeful than youuu…in your fancy Easter bonnets, painting your faces with lipstick and rooouge!”
And there they were, the chorus line of black hoods seated in the front pew, peeping out through wire spectacles, their squared-off veils and white wimples framing rapt faces the color of suet pudding, now smug with their newly proclaimed allure.
And then…someone quietly farted. “Pweee…”, Aggie imitated the sound onomatopoetically under her breath. Few things are worse than trying not to laugh in church. No amount of secret self-harm does the trick – fingernails dug into palms, arms pinched, eyes gouged, lips bitten until you taste blood. One’s face gets red and sweaty with the effort, you can’t breathe. Someone pokes you sharply between your twitching shoulder blades, which has the opposite effect and now you have no choice but to side-step parapalegically out of the pew, hoping your contorted face will be perceived as a seizure or woman’s troubles.
But even public shaming could not curb our “healthy skepticism” and I eagerly took on the ritual of Confession as my personal fish-in-a-barrel target. Once that little neon cross over the penitent’s door lights up green for “go”, you enter, kneel, and wait for the speakeasy hatch to slide open, which is your cue to begin. You start with the standard “Bless me father, for I have sinned”, jump right in with your first obfuscation – stating exactly how long it’s been since you last set foot in this creaking booth of atonement, the size of a port-a-potty, smelling of incense and stale breath, and something like beef stew. Anything over a couple months, you’re in trouble so, “Hey, long time no see!” doesn’t really work. Plus, you can’t exactly see the priest because he’s hidden behind a screen, revealing only a shadowy, outline, like a TV crime show witness, keeping it all very anonymous.
“Hello my name is Anne, and I’m a liar and a cheat.” “Hi Anne!”
Well, maybe not that kind of anonymous. After this rote introduction you proceed to enumerate your sins along with the number of times you performed them. Apparently, the devil really is in the details…of data entry. It’s a lot to conjure all these lists and numbers; Sister Fighting – three, Lord’s Name in Vain – two, Disobeying Parents – seven. You’d never admit to anything really egregious – “Impure Thoughts…five, Murder?…zero!”
I always managed to get through it all with the minimum penance, even coaching Julie, 6 years my senior, and arguably the most pious, due to her two-year stint with the nuns at Villa Victoria Academy in Trenton, NJ, on how to “spin” her overly long gap between confessions, which was causing her unnecessary angst. “Listen”, I said, “you say it’s been 2 weeks since your last confession and then you tack another lie onto the lie column. You told four – you say five…boom…forgiven!” I was skirting around the laws of the Catholic Church like Groucho Marx in a dress. Religion minus time equals comedy.
My mother’s family were all good Catholics so I’m pretty sure heaven would welcome them with open arms. My grandmother died before I was born, but according to my oldest sister (Agnes Three), she was wonderfully formidable, overbearing, but on your side – if you were her blood. She did lord it over her more complacent, non-blood, thank goodness, husband, Henry, whose name she shortened appropriately to “Hen”. Perhaps from the grave, Agnes One still held Agnes Two in her grip. The nurse who took care of our mother at the end, was a devout sort who assured us that “Mom” had truly accepted death – lock, stock and bible.” But I don’t buy it (although I did then, just to get through),. She was probably just as terrified as she’d been around that table, wearing galoshes and the weight of someone else’s fear.
But what exactly did my kind and law-abiding mother, who’d presided over many charities, think was awaiting her? Eternal damnation in the fires of hell? Really? Or maybe she was hoping, as some believe, that you are reunited with your loved ones in heaven. This idea alone may have been enough to give her the willies. Meeting both parents AND her beloved, only sister whom she’d lost at age 25…the anticipation might have been paralyzing. Any interruption of routine, and the elderly get nervous. And what if her in-laws were also there, on a cloud – the potter and the vaudevillian, who dared question the suitability of this Irish Catholic girl marrying their son. They had both died while my mother was still young and beautiful, so how would they see her now, wrinkled and suffering? The enormity of it all is too much. At some point, don’t you just want to shut it down, turn it off, fade to black? But, for the most part, we don’t get to say, “Cut! That’s a wrap!”, which is why we invented religion.
My dad, the heathen, died right before Christmas. I was living in New York City at the time and a few days earlier, before heading out to Pennsylvania to be with him and my family, I took the subway uptown to immerse myself in the lights and bustle of Fifth Avenue, before getting the train at Penn Station. Drinking in all the garishly cheerful, yet nonetheless dazzling store windows, I suddenly found myself standing in front of St Patrick’s cathedral. When we were kids, my mother used to drag us inside to light a candle during our end-of-summer spending spree on school clothes – perhaps as penance for all that rampant materialism (“Please God, make her buy me that purple suede coat with the gold buttons!”) The odors of wax and general holiness however, managed to obliterate the luscious new clothes smell and the lingering fug of grilled grease from our lunch at Hamburger Heaven. As my mother knelt in front of the candles, warming her hands in their light then burying her face in their warmth, we looked at her curiously like anthropologists, and waited for our turn with the long wooden match, mesmerized by its flame.
My father, who accompanied us to church only on holidays was, nonetheless, a fan of grandeur and impressive workmanship. So, I turned away from the dancing candy canes and nodding, animatronic Victorians, and walked through the huge copper fronted doors into a different kind of light show. Candles help, not so much to “rage against the dying of the light”, as to outsmart the dying of the light, illuminating the obscure, the shadowy, the private. They provide atmosphere and stoke the imagination. I thought of my chamberstick with its deep cobalt glaze, like a Maxfield Parrish evening sky. It had been so useful during my Nancy Drew phase, when I would draw the curtains in the living room and search for hidden clues in the secret compartments of my mother’s desk – Freudian, I know.
Now inside St. Patrick’s, my own face now warm from the rows and rows of melting prayers, flickering in their little glass holders, I drop a quarter in the slot, light a candle for my father, weep deeply into the cavernous solemnity, and walk out. It all took less than 10 minutes. And then there, across the street next to the Sabrett’s guy with the buck teeth, was a vendor selling black bow ties studded with tiny flashing red lights. Clearly it was a sign – my dad winking and grinning at me, as I walk down the aisle at my first communion, as if to say “This may be a lot of malarkey, but don’t you look cunnin’ in that dress!” I paid my six dollars for the twinkling tie and thus armed, began the journey back home, hoping to bring a little light into the darkness, battery included.
When I got married for the 2nd time, a dozen years after a brief dress rehearsal marriage that ended in divorce, my sister Julie was in charge of the wedding cake. She had piled together several homemade layers, then had our childhood bakery, Cramer’s, unite them all with their signature, diabetese-ly delicious buttercream frosting, with lots of roses and our names piped out in various shades of whatever the replacement was for red dye number 2. And to top it all off, she gave me an adorable, but somewhat disturbing pair of porcelain bride and groom cupie dolls, made by our grandfather’s pottery in the late 1920s. I say disturbing because the body language of the figurines gives the illusion of motion and suggests a rather dramatic story unfolding in their tiny cake top universe.
He is leaning forward, eager in his little black tux, which fits him perfectly because…it is painted on. She, however, is naked except for sparkly, silver slippers on her overly wide feet of clay and strategically placed, diaphanous accessories in various stages of disintegration. These include a flapper style headband and a large bow fixed squarely to her childlike bare bottom. He is clearly the pursuer, probably because he doesn’t have to worry about his pants falling down. She’s looking a little wary, dubious in fact. With face turned away, teeth clenched behind a Mona Lisa slash of lipstick and eyes looking elsewhere under impossibly fine lashes, her expression says, “Oh god, here we go.”
Cupie dolls were created in the early 1900’s to be cherubic, but mischievous babies, so seeing them in this romantic, adult role is both comic and creepy. The fact that they had also sat atop my parents’ wedding cake in 1936, left me to contemplate the differences between that marriage and my own.
Billy Fulper and Aggie Shields had known each other pretty much from birth. Children of two major industries of Flemington, NJ; Foran Iron Foundry and Fulper Pottery, they’d been in the same kindergarten class, courted through high school and college, wed in their mid-twenties, then immediately started a family. Their lives had unfolded against the backdrop of two world wars, the great depression, premature death, catastrophic fire, and suicide. So of course, romance was in the air.
I have in my possession two dented and rusted, metal cash boxes, overflowing with stacks of love letters from my mother to my father. Written in her elegant penmanship, they are full of flowery endearments and the jargon of the day. “Gosh I’m wet”, apparently meant that the sap from her words was dripping with too much sentimentality.
Northampton, Massachusetts, 1934… “My Darling, No letter yet from you and I’ve missed it so! Honestly dear, I’m so blue and discouraged I could just weep! It seems that all day I’ve heard nothing but hard luck stories and the futility of trying to get a job. And I feel that after all my education, I need to get out and support myself. I shouldn’t write to you when I’m low, because it won’t be so good for you – excuse me dearest. I’ll try to do better.”
Whah? Was this the same woman who would later answer my childhood permission requests with “I don’t give a good goddam what the hell you do” or wake me from my deep teenage sleep with the words “Feathers shit on the floor with loosie bowels and you can clean it up!” …loosie bowels??? My mother was not an actress – that was the other side of the family, so who was this hand-to-the-forehead ingenue?
I suppose when you fall in love, you play to a version of yourself that’s half what you think you should be and half what you think will dazzle your lover – the thrill of reinventing yourself in someone else’s admiring gaze. In fact, I maintain that part of what you fall in love with, is actually the reflection of that gaze – the new improved you – sexier, funnier, smarter, more politically earnest. With my first heartbreak, after I’d managed to throw out the bar of black soap I’d stolen from his bathroom because it smelled like him, I remember thinking – “you know, a lot of what I liked about that guy…was me”.
In 1985, fifty years after my parents’ wedding, I married a foreigner, a painter from France, only two years and two love letters after meeting him. He likes to say it was a green card marriage and that we were both on the rebound. Maybe it’s true. He’d had his heart broken by some cowgirl in New Mexico, who dumped him at gunpoint only a few days after he moved his entire life in France to be with her. And me – I suppose I was on the rebound from death. My mother had just died – soon to be followed by my father and then his sister, my aunt. All within 15 months.
I was 33 years old. Not that young, I know. Many have lost much more, much sooner. But I was not a mature 33, prancing around New York City in a unitard on various late-night stages, as half of an all-woman duo called The Sleazebuckets. A brief fixture of Howie Montague’s No Entiendes at Danceteria, we were photographed by Mademoiselle Magazine for an article on the new hip downtown performance scene. As part of our cultural and political lampooning, I was resplendent as Ronald Reagan. In a badly fitting wig, held on with an elastic chin strap, chimpanzee-style silver high tops and a white tailcoat, I good-naturedly tossed empty seltzer bottle bombs, Knute Rockne style, out of my oversized diaper. It was pretty good and if I’d had the balls, I could have had some success as a male impersonator. But back in my hometown, the family elders were dying off.
And then there it was; the I-want-my-mommy siren call for security and convention that my therapist had labeled “a foot in two boats” – one in the leaky artist raft and the other in the smooth canoe of the dutiful daughter. I had to merge the two. I was gonna need a bigger boat. So, I said yes again to marriage, deciding to throw my lot in with someone I sensed would let me be me. Weddings though, at least for my youth-obsessed generation, it seems we merely played at being grown-ups, like kids poking their heads through those cardboard brides and grooms with the faces cut out. Even my parents’ ardent correspondence had revealed stock characters, love letter paper dolls, soon to plump up into two embracing figures on top of a cake.
Every October on our anniversary, we bring out the small photo album and the cake topper. I look at the pictures of us, laughing, swigging Veuve Cliquot on the steps of City Hall in lower Manhattan after the ceremony. Then I turn and see that wistful trepidation painted onto the face of my tiny, cupie bride and I sigh in solidarity. Because when the inevitable union-threatening discord occurs and you imagine yourself going it alone, the prospect can seem daunting, yet at the same time, rather appealing. Is it a sign that my wedding ring lies broken in a box, never to be repaired (“I’ll get a better one later”) or that he’d lost his during the first year, never to be replaced (“I use my hands for work – I can’t wear stuff on them”)? I look at the cake topper again and reevaluate. Is the bride fearing the loss of her independence? Or is she just a bit skeptical about how on earth another person can hold all that she is and all that she wants to be in his tiny embrace?
Speaking of big things in small spaces, the delivery room, where I’d been in the throes of labor, swims into memory and there is Silvère in his green scrubs, telling me to be calm and count my breathing and I want to rip his fucking face off. Who is this know-it-all, pretend male doula, telling me what to do? The daggers shooting out of my eyes at him are being forged in some inner harpy-shrew-harridan cave of my nether regions. And just as he is about to be annihilated by them, the nurse gently interrupts saying, “Work with your husband, Anne – it will help”. “Oh, go to hell!” I mutter under my breath and then, suitably chastened by both the enormity and the routineness of what is happening, I think, “I have to do what she says!” Looking down at his ringless hand, steady and warm like butter on my wrist, I breathe and I count.
The daughter is in her 30s now. It’s been a long road, often rocky. But when I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Agnes says to me, speaking words of wisdom – “Life is a veil of tears – don’t be so goddamn sensitive”, which I take to mean – why not reach across the aisle to the groom’s side and lean on some of the old bromides? “You and me, kid, against the world.” “Two heads are better than one.” “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
So, we pour the champagne into my dead aunt’s monogrammed martini glasses, toast each other, our daughter, her girlfriend, my parents, his parents, and lastly the cupie doll bride and groom and marvel at the longevity of porcelain.
The art pottery journal which has published some of my essays over the past couple of years, asked me to write an article about how my sisters and I created a tile business based on our grandfather’s glaze recipe notebooks that we found in the attic. If you scroll down and click on the Journal cover, you can read the article. Or, if you have even further stamina and want to listen to the audio for HALF AN HOUR!, you will be rewarded (or possibly punished) about 24 minutes in, by hearing me, my sister Julie, my daughter Ella and Marcia Pelletiere sing a very brief parody of Makin’ Whoopee called Makin’ Seconds. Either way, you’re here now, so you might as well make yourself a sandwich, grab a cup of coffee and listen to me drone on…
Listen to Legacy in the Attic; the Story of Fulper Tile read by the author
Listen to There’s Baby That Baby Again, read by the author, or read full text below:
Stone Harbor, New Jersey, July, 2021. We have piled our beach chairs and umbrellas, sand anchors, towels, straw hats, soon-to-be-recalled-for-carcinogens-sunscreen, and books into the navy canvas wagon that we lug Mother Courage style across the fine white sand to a carefully chosen, uncrowded spot, set back enough from the high-water mark so we won’t get flooded when the tide rolls in. As the sun climbs merrily to the thinnest part of the ozone layer, others wend their burdened way onto the beach and settle into politely distanced spots along the seafront. Comfortable at last on our homesteaded plot, I find myself distracted from my book to watch an encampment of what I gather is a large extended family several yards away. Among this group is a flock, a pack, a gaggle of small boys, all between the ages of 4 and 7. Surprisingly quiet, they are in constant motion on skinny legs, flittering like sandpipers, but without the tight choreography.
Each time I look up from my Rickie Lee Jones autobiography, they are equipped with a new beach toy. I first see them all lined up at the water’s edge with a sprinkling of dads among them, throwing what looks to be flanged surfboards with little upright, surfing people attached. No matter how these plastic Kens and Barbies are hurled into the sea, they right themselves and catch a wave back to shore. Will this be as close as these little boys will ever get to playing with dolls? I find the scene delightfully riveting and now I want this surfer doll-boat thing for myself. My sister tells me I can get one at Hoys, the five and dime in town. She has four grandchildren and knows these things. I look over at my currently single, beautiful 33-year-old gay daughter, sunning herself next to me, too engrossed in her book to hear the ticking of my biological grandmother clock. I sigh, check the time on my phone and go for a walk. When I return, the boys now have colorful plastic golf clubs with matching oversized balls, which they smack and then chase, unconscious of each other, so absorbed are they in their personal best. Are they a new breed of child, hatched to evolve into teenagers, self-contained and hermetically sealed by their phones and iPads, replacing the physical with the virtual? I hope not, because right now they are free range and fully engaged in sand and surf and childish things.
Later, I look up again from my book, tsking because Rickie Lee Jones is falling in love with heroin and Tom Waits at the same time. Tom does not approve and dumps her- oh Rickie. Maybe it’s for the best, because if they’d married, he’d be Tom Jones. Optimism rises as I see the boys, now on tiny boogie boards, the dads watchful but not hovering, in front of a brace of red sweatshirted girl guards, overly tan but nonetheless vigilant, atop a white wooden lifeguard stand, reassuring in its classical design, even older than I am.
Then before I know it, there’s that baby again. It’s a young family of four that insists on setting up their tiny colony right behind us. A mom, a dad, a 3-year-old daughter and a toddler-to-be of indeterminate sex – probably “she/her/hers”, but who knows. The baby has a strawberry blonde crew cut and a sweet face. These are the kinds of parents who assume perfect strangers can’t help but be charmed by their child, a child who has yet to learn the dynamics of sand and wind and kicks her stubby feet towards us, mother and baby both smiling a little maniacally. The mom walks the baby between her legs, hands gripping the upraised arms as they plod Frankenstein-like ever closer, expecting reciprocal enthusiasm. I wipe the assault of sand from my nose, mouth and glasses, still managing to smile, because I am on vacation, thanks to the generosity of my sister. But after a year of Covid job loss, I am in no mood to chitty chat with strangers. And shouldn’t that baby be walking by itself by now? They never learn if you keep holding on to them – let ’em get a mouthful of sand, I think to myself, picking the grit from my teeth. I hear my long dead father saying “you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”, which always made me wonder “Isn’t it, in fact, eating the peck of dirt that causes you to die?” But I think he meant it as reassurance; that invariably a certain amount of dirt will find its way into your gastrointestinal system, so don’t worry about putting that fallen wad of gum right back into your mouth. Unthinkable now but those were simpler, less hygienic times…or maybe the dirt was cleaner.
The mother and baby veer off to a more receptive audience and I am left to question my grandchild longings. Why does that baby annoy me and what is the father doing, other than grinning vacuously and smearing himself all over with pina colada sun tan lotion? But then he goes and picks up the baby and cheerfully takes care of her for the rest of the afternoon, proving me judgmental and wrong.
The 3-year-old however…she seems to like being on her own at the edge of the family nest, both relieved and resentful at not being the focus. She is concentrating on her sand art and if someone tries to engage, she shakes her barretted blond curls, turns away and starts her museum in a new location. Seems perfectly reasonable to me. She stays put and doesn’t make a stink. Then I think is that healthy? A second child can inflict an unpleasant level of maturity upon the first born. I remind myself that this is not my problem. Wait, did she just slice open her father’s foot with the edge of a clam shell? I can’t worry about this kid. She’s fine.
I get back to my book, where I read that despite the roller coaster cyclone of fame, drugs, and crazy risk taking, Rickie Lee Jones has turned out more than all right, strong and uncompromising; not just streetwise, but rutted, fallen tree, gypsy wagon, dirt road wise. Her daughter is the exact same age as my daughter. I wonder if she also is deaf to the ticking of the grandmother clock, but I suspect Rickie Lee is more Zen and laissez faire than I am. If I were the grandmother of the 3-year-old behind me, I’d turn my chair around and advise her on her art gallery, that really looks more like a bakery, which, to my mind, would be a more lucrative option. She could call it All Washed Up, and sell ephemeral cakes, with or without drip castle icing. But hindsight has taught me to keep my clever marketing thoughts to myself and let her decide. I want my grandmothering skills to be better than my mothering skills – like a second chance…but not really.
Suddenly, a Wiffle ball lands with a plop at my feet. It is scooped up with apologies, as the boy brigade returns for a quick game before the parents round everybody up to head back to the rental and fire up the grill. The little family behind us has joined the exodus, the mother still walking that damn baby. The lifeguards whistle everyone out of the water, drag the heavy, cumbersome stand back to the dunes and disappear.
This is our cue. Wordlessly as one, we close our books, remove our watches, rings, glasses and hats, yank down comically ridden-up bathing suits (nothing to see here) and head towards the stark white, breaking waves, curling up and flattening out before us, their coy to and fro, belying their potential death grip. We are respectful of this and keep a sharp eye on each other.
Like me and most of my family, my daughter rides the waves with her arms out front in a diving position. My mother, however, had always held her arms tight to her sides, so all you saw was her white, bathing-capped head, bobbing and smiling, as though the breaker had a face. I wonder which technique my imaginary grandchild will inherit and if I’ll be around to witness it? These normally pang-inducing thoughts of mortality are cut short as a big wave slaps me across the face as if to say “shut up and be here now!” like an impatient, old swami. I look around, aware that the constant pounding of ocean on sand has reduced the ambient noise to a mesmerizing, background hum and I focus on the task at hand. My daughter and I scan the horizon, then position ourselves to catch the next cresting wave, like seasoned hobos hopping a freight train. And for now, the ticking of any and all clocks is silenced, as we are propelled forward.
Or read it yourself below! (either way – scroll to the bottom to see Silvère’s cartoon in full.)
My French husband of 35 years is not a romantic, at least not in any stereotypical Pepe Le Pew kind of way. He rebels against the expected, holiday, lemming-like behavior, refusing to bend to the corporate will of…Big Hallmark. This tends to make Valentine’s Day predictably fraught, with his last minute, sad bouquet from the local, downscale supermarket placed right next to my pillowy, red satin, heart-shaped box of boutique chocolates, containing, I admit, my favorites (salted caramels and almond toffee). Fortunately, we both bring a nice red wine to the table – the great leveler.
But on this February 14th, this enshrined celebration of coupledom, I want to honor the forgotten single, by remembering the times in my life when I was alone and Valentine-less. In this particular scenario, an actor friend had convinced me to come to Portland, Maine for a few weeks in February. I could occupy a recently vacated alcove in her “raw space” and try to further my mime career. Yes, that’s right – you heard me – my mime career. What can I say – it was the 70s.
Sadly, I had not been educated in the importance of money and practicality. Though I had heartily embraced feminism, I somehow missed the part where true independence means you need a good job with benefits and a 401K plan (whatever that is), and where a woman buying the candy and roses on Valentine’s Day is considered evolved. I instead latched on to the part where I am able to remain my outrageous self, not shaving my legs or wearing a bra, while my future imaginary husband does most of the housework and cooking, and supports my refusal to change my name because I am no man’s property!! And women do too have a sense of humor, you death loving tool of the patriarchy…oh, not you, darling…lalala.
Anyway, back to Portland – as it turned out, jobs for mimes were not exactly thick on the ground . But because the snow was (thick on the ground, that is), busking was definitely out. Unless I was willing to stand on a 10-foot pile of plowed snow on the side of an empty street in an oversized puffer coat and mukluks doing the walk against the wind, I had to find an alternative income, preferably indoors. My friend said that occasionally she got work doing nude modeling for a life drawing class. I thought – great! I can do that…my body being my instrument and all. So, I offered my services at $10 an hour which back then was good money. The sessions lasted two and a half hours, but I would be given a short break at 20-minute intervals.
The first time I went I was very nervous, as I am for the first time of anything, unless alcohol is involved, which in this case it was not, as my body is also my temple. (Although the occasional violation of said temple, is inevitable when you are in your 20s in the dead of winter, in a hard drinking, New England coastal town.)
The class ran from 7:30 to 10pm in an art studio in the basement of an elementary school. The room was well lit and calm, with easels and stools set up at several drawing stations. Facing these, under a couple of spotlights, was a platform on which were placed a rectangular block, a folding chair, and a space heater (“Nude Descending Platform with Space Heater”, I imagined someone’s smartass title). And so, I took my position, posing as I was directed, hand on hip, foot on block, head cocked looking off into the distance. When you are required to stand naked and inert for 20 minutes, time slows down to an excruciating pace, every sound is magnified, grating and startling; the busy scratch of pencils and charcoal on paper, throat clearing, sighing, a muffled belch. The back and forth of the normally silent eraser is broadcast across the room, along with squeaks of frustration, as if an exasperated mouse were seated on one of the stools…in a beret.
As I struggle for statue-like stillness, trying to be Zen, I notice a string of perky, hot pink paper valentines hung up as though pegged to a clothesline in the back of the room. A large glass jar of red and silver foiled Hershey kisses sits below on what must be the teacher’s desk. I then remember today is February 13th. In a few hours it will be Valentine’s day and here I am, alone with no clothes on, spot lit in front of strangers like the cliché of a bad dream. Somehow the valentine atmosphere lends an air of even more perversion to the situation and I begin to sweat. After what seems an eternity of clammy minutes, the instructor steps in and discretely turns off the space heater with raised eyebrows to my imperceptible nod and thank god, it’s time for a break. The spell is broken and everyone relaxes, either hulking over the too short water fountain or waiting for someone to wander by and comment on their efforts.
Trying not to bend over too much, I unfold the chair, and sit down. Then it dawns on me…Shit! I don’t have anything to cover myself with! Why the hell did no one tell me to bring a robe or at least an old sheet? My stiff neck turns to stare longingly at my clothes, hanging lifeless on a peg in the tiny changing room which now seems miles across a vast linoleum tundra. It would be ridiculous to saunter over, nonchalantly naked, close the door then get dressed really fast like a not so quick, quick-change artist, elbows banging into the walls, my hands all thumbs as I grapple with the buttons and zippers, and hooks and eyes, only to have to turn around and take it all off again, drawing even more attention to myself. Nor could I just go and hide for 10 minutes in this so-called changing room – not a room really – more of a tall skinny free-standing cabinet – like an upended coffin, a mummy’s tomb in a horror film. No, best to just remain seated, blasé on the platform – like I sit around naked in public all the time. I imagine taking out a cigarette (I don’t smoke) and asking for a light, then exhaling in sophisticated satisfaction as I cross my legs demurely. But instead, under the harsh, fluorescent light of reality, people are starting to approach me…(why?), wanting to make conversation – (oh god!).
“Where are you from?” “How do you like Portland?” “Do you model frequently?” It was like being hit on at a bar by polite night school students, undaunted by the emperor’s new clothes. A large bead of sweat starts to travel down what would have been my cleavage if the Mark Eden Bust Developer I had sent away for when I was 14 had been effective, but instead has a direct shot down my chest, unimpeded, plopping into my belly button like a golf putt. “Your body is a real pleasure to draw, you know?” a man’s voice says and my creepy stalker radar kicks in. But when I glance up at him, he just looks sincere and harmless, which of course makes me think “serial killer”, but then I start wondering what he meant by the comment. What makes an interesting subject to an art student – Deformity? Lack of symmetry? I was teetering on Sideshow Freak when the instructor announced the end of the break.
What a relief it was to return to sanctioned nudity! As I posed, now coddled in the space heatered comfort of occupational health and safety, I felt free to let my mind wander, picturing the Goodwill store near the center of town, lit up and beckoning, a mecca of endless hangers draped with protective clothing, that I will visit tomorrow. Striding purposefully down the aisles, I will find the “Loungewear” section, and after sifting through the gamut of frumpy to hideous, my eyes will at long last, land on the classic Maine, red plaid flannel bathrobe which, after getting a thorough washing, will become the perfect Valentine’s gift to myself.
Listen to Memories on Thin Ice, read by the author w/music by Dean Martin, and Darlene Love
Or read it yourself below :
Memories on Thin Ice I can’t be the only one longing to conjure the rose-tinted ghosts of holidays past, dredging up ecstatic memories of instantly harmonious families, jam packed together in the adrenaline rush and chaos of Christmas…can I?
In my youth, winter was mostly bitter cold and you could smell the snow coming. It paired well with that whiff of camphor from the Vicks VapoRub I’d gooped onto my chest to minimize the pesky cold and cough that would have kept me home on a school day, but now must be ignored because it is Christmas vacation and there is important work to be done outdoors. First, a token attempt to help with the shoveling, quickly abandoned as my father revs up the Wheel Horse tractor with the snow plow attachment and obliterates my fake work ethic in under 5 minutes, forcing me to move on to other tasks where my talents are better suited – snowmen that resemble the work of an enfeebled and possibly drunken Charles Schulz, icicles sucked to a deadly point then bitten off and chewed up, sending shock waves to my mercury laden fillings, and always the conveyor belt repetitiveness of sledding – up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill…Time is a blur and soon purple shadows overtake the glaring sun as it sinks.
So, it’s indoors to be met with the pricking of heat on ruddy, chapped skin and the smell of wet wool as frozen mittens and hats steam on radiators. The line of red rubber boots puddles by the front door, as I struggle with my ice embedded zipper which catches on the fabric, sending my impatient self into a rage as I realize I need to pee – now! My father, master of the bunched zipper, sets down his cocktail and comes to the rescue. Mere seconds later I am shuffling into the bathroom, the defeated snow pants shackled around my ankles, damp now only from the snow.
Leading this parade of winter memories, the grand marshal if you will, twirling its frozen baton, is the one pictured in the card above – ice skating on the canal behind our house. According to my dad, three nights of deep freeze was the requirement for a safe thickness and we soon learned to spot all the places that were weak because of too much sun or maybe an underground spring – you could tell by the color and texture of the ice, and where inevitably, some neighbor’s dog would fall through to be rescued by my cursing father, as we looked on with the tense, distraught faces of children auditioning for Lassie Come Home.
We were all pretty proficient skaters. I didn’t progress much beyond the figure eight, but Aggie took her skating seriously and was quite good. Rada and Julie were also lovely and graceful with the added bonus of professional grade, ice skating boyfriends and access to Baker Rink at Princeton University. But a stuffy rink was no match for our frozen canal.
My father had set up a spotlight on the railing of the widow’s walk, which lit up a small portion of the ice below, and then…get this…he wired a speaker from the living room stereo out onto the canal bank, so we could skate to music, thereby satisfying our Ice Capades fantasies both day and night. I remember…was it Rada or Julie teaching me to ice dance by gripping both my wrists really hard and skating towards me really fast, forcing me backwards, blind and breathless, as the sleigh bells, whinnies and whip cracking of the Ray Conniff Singers choreographed the falling on my ass.
Looking at Kugie’s beautifully rendered cartoon makes me ache for all of it – the bruised knees, the throbbing ankles, the cornball music, gloves stiff with ice and frozen snot, the silly tremolo of intoning one note over bumpy ice. And that singular day after an ice storm, when I was about fourteen and went behind the canal to the swamp to skate alone through this otherworldly blaze of trees, sheathed in ice, feeling both exhilarated and melancholy. Squinting hard against refracted sunlight, I skated faster and faster, away from a growing awareness that here was a moment in time that would never be replicated – a hidden landscape inside a sugared egg that I was getting too old to believe was real.
Half of the people in this Christmas card are gone – over half if you include the dog and the artist. And by all accounts, the score will only worsen as time goes by. So, I drag myself out of the sinkhole of nostalgia, grabbing onto the hands (and hand sanitizer) of those I cherish, whose warm hearts are still beating and think of the words of not Marx, but Lennon, – “All you need is love” – well, that and enough cash to pay the damn bills. May your year be filled with both!
HAPPY HOLIDAYS 2020
Now please, get up and dance…or skate!
Read more about the artist; Fulper designer J.O.W. Kugler in Still Life With Kugie, published in the Spring 2020 edition of the Journal of the American Art Pottery Association and reprinted here with their permission.
“Oh yes, Mother posed for many of the figurines at the pottery” my father said when he saw it.
Read I’ll Be Your Powder Boxfrom the Fall 2020 edition of the Journal of the American Art Pottery Association, republished here with their permission:
Audio: I’ll Be Your Powder Box (read by the author)
Pardon My French
For those of you who, for one reason or another, find yourselves able to read French or are learning French or maybe you are married to someone who is French or you yourself are French, or merely curious, read Humidor en françaisici or click on the beret!
I recently sent my family in Brittany, (I married a Frenchman – 35 years ago) an email announcing the link to this blog. One of my SIX sisters-in-law (“belles soeurs”), wrote back, clearly annoyed that, though the email was in French (merci, Google Translate), the blog was not, so she could not read the stories. I then chained her brother/my husband to his computer for a day to translate at least one of my supposedly laugh-out-loud-funny stories into French. Humidor was the first memoir written for this collection, which made me realize that the mundane function behind the form was something interesting and comedic. The full story is presented here in French, for your reading plaisir. Or scroll down to the smaller humidor below to read an excerpt in English.
Fulper Pottery, Jardinere, ca. 1915 Glazed stoneware Gift of the Fulper family in appreciation of New Jersey’s tradition of excellence in the ceramic arts, 1988 88.94 Collection of the Newark Museum of Art
Anne Fulper’s memoir SHARDS, is a collection of personal essays about the vases, ewers, planters, lamps, powder boxes, bookends, candlesticks, and crocks which surrounded her family growing up, taking the pot off the pedestal to tell the tale behind it.