On Wednesday, August 3rd at 3pm, I will be doing a live reading over Zoom for the virtual Arts and Crafts in August 2022 conference. The original in-person event, which has taken place every February since 1988 at The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC, is where my sisters and I premiered our just-out-of-the-gate Fulper Tile company in 1989. The virtual conference hosts a free online exhibitor show, along with a fee-based* symposium style series of lectures, which include me, reading two stories, Angels and Dragonflies and Legacy in the Attic. Many of you have seen/heard me read live, but this will be my first time presenting over Zoom. Because there are several slides involved, I will spend most of the time speaking from inside the little Zoom box. The upside to this is that hopefully you won’t see the mascara running down my face, making me look like a sad clown…or Alice Cooper, due to the blistering August heat in my un-airconditioned, fans only office.
Listen to Bride and Cupie Dolls, read by the author (check out the bride and groom triptych at bottom of page), or read text below:
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 illustration in full.)
The Night Nurse
In a 2005 interview, the cartoonist R Crumb, announced, “I’m 61. That’s old age…once you pass 60 you can’t call yourself middle aged anymore.” So, according to the author of Despair Comics (my bible in college), I am now well ensconced in old age at 71, with its attendant, clichéd talk of ailments and operations. This, one can always downplay by using the term “medical procedure”. “I’m having a little procedure”, I say nonchalantly. Adjectives like “minor” and “practically drive-thru” are tossed about. But what is going on in my mind is dread and loathing (usually at 3 in the morning) at what no doubt is the beginning of the end.
I was scheduled to have an ablation for atrial fibrillation in the spring of 2021. I had been dragging my feet about this for a few years but nothing else was working, so on the morning of May 11th, and fully vaccinated against covid 19, off I went to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. My husband was driving, so my time in the passenger seat was spent doing my anti-anxiety breathing exercises and trying for a cosmic perspective. Well, I thought (inhale) – I had been born in a Philadelphia hospital so (hold breath), it would be fitting (keep holding) to die in one (exhale). An old boyfriend had once complained “You make such a big deal out of everything”. But I believe it’s just part of my vivid imagination blended with the “positive power of negative thinking” that I tend to embrace.
After we finally found parking and speed-walked the several blocks to the hospital (elevating my heart rate to code red), we advanced through the board game squares of hospital admission; filling out forms, signing my name electronically, getting the plastic ID bracelet that was scanned numerous times, as I was repeatedly asked my name, birthdate and what procedure I was having. At first, I thought they were testing me for senility and wondered when we’d get to “Can you tell me what day it is?” and “Who is the current U.S. president?” I was working up several answers to this last one, deciding that “a functioning adult, hallelujah!” was best left unsaid as I wanted everyone connected to my well-being to like me, and you just never know, do you? We swiftly made it to the combination pre- and post-op area, which was a maze of mismatched curtained cubicles, like they had fitted up bed sheets from The Brady Bunch onto aluminum frames. To the left of me was a woman who had just been wheeled in from some operation and not yet fully awake. They kept badgering her with questions about who they needed to call for her ride home. She groggily tried to answer between loud snoring, like a wino propped up in an alley. “It’s my daughter Kia…or my other one, Kelly – yeah, Kelly….no Kia will come…yes, that’s it, just call Kel…zzzz.” I was hoping they would reach Kia/Kelly soon (who could maybe take me away with them?). No, no, I had to do this. The dice were in my hand, ready to throw so I could move my gurney the required number of spaces. On the other side of me was a young woman (I guessed early 30s) who was having the battery of her pacemaker replaced. Jeez I thought – a pacemaker at 30! I soon gathered (due to the lack of privacy from the kittens-at-play-with-balls-of-yarn printed curtain) that her heart had suffered due to drug abuse. When asked to verify that she was not wearing any jewelry, she said “well I have to wear this ankle bracelet. I was arrested for driving, on stupid drugs. But I haven’t shot up in over 2 years.” I was riveted. One of the nurses pointed to the needle marks on her arm and asked, “what do you call those?” (Was this a senility test as well?) Her response was immediate, “Pricks”, she said. “Good answer!” I thought. Another nurse continued to explain everything they were doing. “Now, Carol Ann, we are going to insert the port for your anesthesia.” This made Carol Ann protest that (a) she didn’t handle anesthesia well and (b) she was extremely anxious about that needle going into her arm. I wondered about this contradictory fear of needles by an IV drug user, but then it made sense. For someone who had gotten clean after damaging herself to the point of needing a pacemaker, anything that resembled that former behavior could cause enormous anguish. I listened to this anguish play out as she demanded her hand to be held “I’m freakin’ out, I’m really freakin’ out” – then “no, no let go of my hand – stop!” My heart would have gone out to her but she probably wouldn’t have wanted it, it being out of rhythm and all. “Get your hiccoughing heart away from me, you old bat! – I’m freakin’ out!” Me and my heart were forced to comply as it was finally our turn. This was it. I was wheeled onto a long hallway behind other gurneys, like planes on a runway waiting for take-off.
Then, whoosh! there we were in the…what…operating theater?, where an opening act of nurses and doctor’s assistants went through their standup comedy routines as they prepped, shaved and exposed me, while chatting away merrily until…darkness fell. When I came to, yet another person (hopefully a hospital staff member and not a rogue, terrorist kidnapper) was somewhat recklessly navigating me up to my room, conjuring memories of bumper cars in an amusement park. Upon reaching the room, more nurses transferred me to my bed with the speed and efficiency of magicians – one, two, THREE! Now my job was to stay completely still for the next several hours, a discreet catheter collecting all the pee, as I listened to David Rakoff’s essay “Half Empty” on my iPhone. I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours, so after the endless game of horizontal statue was over, the night nurse came in. Her name was Meghan with an “h” (Irish? I wondered… Welsh?).
She was tall with straight, dark hair, stylish black framed nerd glasses and thin as a tongue depressor. She told me the kitchen was closed but she could rustle up a chicken pot pie for me and stick it in the microwave. This I paired with cranberry juice mixed with ginger ale and it was divine. Meghan looked upon the mushy pot pie dubiously but then resumed her job with calm efficiency as vital sign checker, bed adjuster, cater waiter, trash collector, pee monitor.
The evening progressed and then it was time for me to get up and start moving. Meghan walked beside me and complimented me on my steadiness, as we started down the dimly lit, nearly empty hallway. A hospital at night can give off a creepy vibe with the faint beeping of machines, rapid but muffled footsteps and the occasional nursely reprimands “you have to turn down the T.V. Mr. Perrotti, people are trying to sleep!” – “trying” being the operative word because who can sleep in a hospital without heavy sedation? Anyway, there we were – me and Meghan with an “h”, traveling down the spooky corridor looking left and right like children in a Grimm’s fairy tale. “It’s like Night of the Living Dead here”, I remarked. Meghan jumped on the analogy. “I know!” she said “Sometimes, on the night shift, I feel like I’m in that movie, Halloween – you know, with Jamie Lee Curtis?” I told her I hadn’t seen it because I can’t watch horror movies as they have just too much…horror. Then I proceeded to tell her how I had seen the film Psycho on the big screen when it first came out in 1960 when I was 10. Women were screaming and fainting and being carried out of the Colonial Theatre in Beach Haven, New Jersey. Later that night in our twin bedroom, my sister, Julie and I slept together in her bed with the lights on and the door open. We clung to each other, as she watched the shower curtain in the adjacent bathroom, the breeze from the window causing it to quiver slightly while I kept my eye on what looked like a peep hole above the closet. I was scarred for life.
Meghan and I made our way back to my room probably faster than was recommended for post op. When I got into bed, I noticed the mattress would, unprompted, start randomly doing a kind of rolling massage. I pointed this out to Meghan who said “Oh these are brand new beds. No one is sure how all the features work yet. But don’t worry, it’s probably helping your circulation. Well, good night!” And off she went, the soundtrack from Jaws in her wake. Now I was alone with memories of Linda Blair’s bed, bucking and roiling in that other horror classic, The Exorcist – which I had seen at a Drive-In somewhere in the backwoods of Pennsylvania (along with what might have been the cast from Mare of Easttown in the surrounding cars).
To get my mind off all this, I decided to take a peek at my “procedure” site, where they had jabbed 2 catheters up me, one on each side of my groin in order to get to my heart – not exactly an ass backwards approach but pretty close. I was shockingly black and blue down there and it was then that I experienced an even more disturbing thought – what if I now had to wear an old lady bathing suit – the kind with an ample, little skirt and a Brunhilde style armature holding up the bosom. I thought back to my mother complaining about the indignities of getting old, and the specter of that skirted one piece bathing costume made me burn with empathy for her. At that point, I really wanted my mommy… just not her swimwear.
Catheters up the groin, tiny camera down the esophagus, fashion shaming. Horror was now mashed up with Sci-Fi in the genre fluid movie of my life. Oh, the reprehensible indignity of it all. “I’m freakin’ out” I thought, channeling Carol Ann and “I need a drink”, channeling myself. So, I pushed the button to summon sensible, cheerful Meghan with an “h”, my night nurse and have her bring me another ginger ale/cranberry juice cocktail…with a twist.
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.
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.