Thursday, July 20, 2017

Days...and Nights at the Museum

One of the fun things about having grandchildren is getting reacquainted with all the story books you read as a kid.  What goes around comes around; a good tale does not pale....even after a half century and more. In a curious juxtaposition of coincidences, this past week found me 1) seeing a Facebook post about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2) reading a piece about "" The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", a book I read in Scholastic paperback that turns fifty years old this year, and 3) spending a couple of sticky hot and humid days in Washington, D.C., a situation that will drive nearly anyone to the cool halls and galleries of a museum.

I have been to New York's  Metropolitan Museum of Art, walking up its stairs and entering its halls in reverent fashion, as befits a temple dedicated to genius and beauty.  I only spent a few hours there, not staying past closing time as did the children in The Mixed Up Files, but we stood amid the Pharaohs..and the knights in shining armor...and the glories of Art Nouveau.  I was too scared of security to try taking pictures anywhere else!  The Metropolitan staged its artworks beautifully, with lighting and backdrops that seemed to reveal the piece like a child would show off a captured firefly...or tree frog. Art is a great mystery...if it weren't, would we spend so much time trying to decipher what it is and is not?  And every gallery should indeed provide a sense of the wonderful.

Years ago, our family visited my aunt and uncle in Detroit.  I can remember two things about the trip: crossing over the river into Canada...a foreign country!  And visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts. There we wandered first into what appeared to be a medieval courtyard, echoing and dark.  Now I wasn't  a fan then...and still won't go out of my way to see the pale faced, two dimensional, heavily symbolic art of the Middle Ages.  But the surroundings of the gallery were so spectacularly reminiscent of what I thought a castle..or a medieval hall..should be that I could hardly bear to travel on to the next exhibit. Whatever it was. I wasn't looking for art; I was looking for magic.

No matter how many people surround me, magic is what I find looking into the eyes of Rembrandt  in a self portrait, the reflections in the water of Monet's garden, the turbulent maelstrom of a Turner sky.  I am speechless in the presence of Catlin's Indian portraits as a priceless recollection of a bygone era. When we stand in a gallery, we have firsthand experience with the artist in a way that we never can with a manuscript or a piece of music, no matter how much we are moved.

A couple of years ago, Blake and I were approached in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. by a man with his little digital camera.   We were strolling through the Dutch galleries when he asked if we would take his picture next to a Rembrandt.  His smile stretched clear across his face as he posed and I clicked the shutter; his delight was palpable, even as the guard chastised him for getting too close to the priceless painting. What was it that brought him such joy?   He didn't strike me as particularly knowledgeable or a matter of fact, I thought he might have been pretty simple.  But childlike or not, he was looking for genius and chose to find it in art...and not in a sports stadium or a movie theater.  That day, Rembrandt was 'the Man'.

Today Lizzie sat at the dining room table with her pastels and her construction paper.  During the course of the hot afternoon, she created two different designs with a big stylized daisy in the center and colorful tendrils and flourishes trailing toward the margins.  She smudged and mixed the colors until the shading suited her and the pictures resembled Early American stencils in a thoroughly modern palette.  Meanwhile, Abbie fetched one of her watercolors of fields behind a long brick wall and trimmed it until it fit into an 8x10 frame so she could enter and exhibit her artwork at our county fair.  Neither girl was shy about her efforts, nor coy; instead, both had independent and original visions and executed them without artifice.  It was a pleasure to see them take their work so seriously, especially for the lady with sweat stains back and front and pickling lime up to her elbows.
At ten, my vivid imagination made me thrill to the coal mine in the Museum of Science and Industry with its spooky lighting and deep dark elevator.  Or one could walk the streets of old time Chicago with gas lamps and 19th century storefronts; it might look kitschy now, but was as good as time travel to me then.

 The grand daddy of all museums of that ilk is still Harold Warp's Pioneer village way out in central Nebraska near Minden.  Blake and I stopped there on our first vacation with baby Lee; she rode down the dusty streets contentedly while we peered into one or another of the antique businesses, churches, post offices, or schools, a whole community of them!  The air-conditioned museum buildings were just as big a draw: presidential yachts and farm machinery of esoteric purpose that would have been familiar to Blake's grandfather.  It was a grand scavenger hunt and one of my favorite living history destinations: just loads and loads of stuff with note cards political or cultural revisionism and barely an attempt to curate. Years and years later, we discovered that the Pioneer Village Warp is the same as Warp Bros. Plastics, still producing products like the polyethylene we use to cover our greenhouses!

I didn't enjoy the visit to the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago.  The darkly Gothic buildings didn't invoke grandeur so much as gloom and the exhibit of artifacts from the explosion of Vesuvius was far too realistic to be anything but terrifying.  The twisted agony of someone's pet dog has been imprinted on my mind's eye for lo these many years and the vividly colored murals accompanying the ashy relics seemed to have been created for no other purpose than sensationalism.  Sometimes a museum can do its job too well!  After that experience, I had no desire to peek inside a mummy case.....

If the past at the Oriental Institute was a petrified hand reaching out to grab me from the ashes, the past in Springfield, Illinois on a humid summer night was flickering behind the curtained windows and brick streets in front of Mr. Lincoln's house. I'm certain every facet of the home is preserved and protected now, but years ago when I first visited, the interior wasn't air conditioned or well lit at all; the parlor was dim and stuffy with the unmistakable smell of old wallpaper. It might have been anybody's old house.  That night, I  could easily imagine Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln taking a walk after the sun went down, waiting for their home to cool before heading indoors.  They seemed so alive to me..

That would have been a night at the museum....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

For My Mother

We are waiting.

Three of us are quiet with our thoughts or our books or our phones.  One of us waits alone, drawing breath every once in awhile. Not in pain now….and that makes the waiting as easy as it can be.

I picture my dad waiting too. He’s leaning on a fence post near a big green gate without a speck of rust.  He's wearing work clothes and work gloves and a straw hat.  He’s come to meet my mom.

I’ve comforted myself these last days by looking through their photo albums and the pictures from the slides my dad scanned onto CDs. Here’s my dad planting a shrub on their corner lot….and tending a couple of rather scrawny tomato plants.

Here’s my dark-headed vivacious mother walking hand in hand with her two little girls…wielding a long handled hoe in what seems to be a gale force prairie wind….in work gloves, flats and a dress skirt and blouse? Looks like a very young me is doing my best to help, wearing a determined expression for the camera.  The background could be Dust Bowl Oklahoma or Ash Can School industrial with naught but bare dirt and power lines far as the eye can see.  In one picture she's as elegant as Jackie another the camera catches a mama-to-be reading the color coded notes on a toy piano under the Christmas tree.

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Mama all dressed up.JPG
Mama and the toy piano.JPG
I remember that piano….
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My kids tease me about the roomful of photo albums I have accumulated in this digital age, but they would understand were they to measure the albums and scrapbooks my mother created over the sixty years of married life.  Nothing escaped her artistic eye; nothing was too trivial to be wonderful captured in the camera’s lens. Oftentimes the photographs my father took...were of my mother… trimming a tree, hanging out clothes, blowing out candles, walking through the woods, holding her babies.



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 But my mother recorded everything from Mt. Rainier to model planes, the first day of school to the first great grandson, from my dad high on the roof painting their century old barn to showing off a computer desk he had fashioned by hand for their condo by the Lake.

Fireworks, daffodils, gravestones, car shows, band concerts,  daylilies.  Country churches, county courthouses, small town main streets: her camera accompanied her day-to-day tasks on the farm and criss crossing the blue roads of Missouri long before the ubiquity and spontaneity of cell phones made photography universal.

Our family carries a Canon to every event of consequence.  My mother is the reason why.

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Mama stuffing pooh bear.JPG

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She encouraged imagination and creativity in her children.  She supplied scarves and discarded jewelry for dress up and make believe; we never lacked for watercolor paints or chalk or crayons or colored pencils, even if we lacked talent.  As I leaf through the scrapbooks, I see stories I wrote in grade school and Laura’s whimsical drawings of fanciful birds, animals and plants.  We spent many hours at the local libraries and I can thank my mom for pointing me toward Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, Treasure Island and Dr. Doolittle, Nancy Drew and Jules Verne,  the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, the British mysteries of Dorothy Sayers and the exotic African tales of H. Rider Haggard.  She sewed constantly, making our simple play clothes and our Easter finery, supplying our bedtimes with the entire cast of A.A. Milne characters. The cedar chests and trunks of our home were always chock full of fabrics purchased for future projects...and bargains off the remnant table.  When I worked in Washington, D.C. the summer before Blake and I married, she traveled out to visit, bringing the wedding dress she was making for me to try on, especially the intricate lace jacket with its ruffled cuffs and trim.  I borrowed a car and we drove to Monticello and Civil War battlefields one day and Harpers Ferry another; it was a grand adventure.
One of my Easter dresses got a second life this last week when Abbie wore it as Little Bo Peep in ‘Shrek’.  I’m sorry my mom didn’t know that; it would have pleased her so much.
Abbie as bopeep.jpg

One year our family traveled by train to Utah to visit my mom’s family in Ogden.  Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Delore took us up into the Wasatch Mountain canyons and out to visit other relatives near Eden...Utah, that is, as well as all the sights related to the history of the Mormon church.  I was captivated by the monument of Brigham Young and the early pioneers and the story behind “This is the Place” and the Mormons’ endeavors to ‘make the desert bloom.’  Those were my mom’s people, and even though she was married at First Presbyterian in Jefferson City and joined the Lutheran church after her marriage, I think some of that  ‘make the desert bloom’ history was part of her DNA.  Their home in Orland Park was spartan at first..but there were houseplants in the west window of the dining room and a treasured antique Christmas cactus in my parent’s bedroom. The dust clouds of those early photos were transformed to bowers of morning glories and four o’ clocks, marigolds  and moss rose.  She let Laura and me start Dixie cups of marigolds on our window sill.  Besides the apple orchards on their farm, my mother and father grew grapes for jam and juice and wine, strawberries, red and black raspberries, cherries and plums and pears and peaches when the weather cooperated.  A summertime visit meant a bowl of berries at every meal, sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with honey.  In the summer, the house plants moved from the greenhouse to the cool and breezy market; a long raised bed of daylilies welcomed a visitor through the gate; crape myrtle and hardy hibiscus brought bright color to the late summer doldrums and dust of August.  Sometimes mid Missouri felt like the desert, but my mother could make it bloom.
It’s good to remember those days, not these last days when her spark shone rarely.  It’s sad to know she can’t call me ‘love’ where I can hear her. But I picture my folks in the early cool of a summertime morning walking down through dewy dad’s headed for his shop and my mom has a wash basket of laundry to hang on the line. The daylilies are abloom and there are berries to pick before it gets too hot.  They are together on their beautiful farm...and one day we will see them there too.  

Virginia Ann Renken
December 25, 1933- June 28, 2017

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Advice Column


Dear me. Will answering this question make me a preacher? Or a prognosticator? A sage? A voice crying in the wilderness? Or will it brand me indelibly as a grumpy cross old lady wrapped up in my 'back in the day' cobwebs and shaking my finger at the back of everyone who avoids me as a bore?

Fortunately, my sample size of great grandmas doesn't include any incredible bores. There's hope for me yet.

First thing to remember, great grandchildren-to-be, is how fortunate we will be to get to know each marvelous and amazing it will be for me to have held in my arms, whispered nonsense to, held hands with and tickled toes of not just your mommies or daddies, but your grandmas or grandpas....and now YOU! I didn't know my great grandparents: I couldn't even tell you the names of all of them, though I do have photos of some of them on the walls of my guest room. These great grandparents only figure in a few tales left behind by my Granny, who had the urge to write them down so her grandkids would hear them, and your great grandpa Blake's grandpa who told dozens of stories to his grandsons...then they remembered the funniest ones and told their kids, too.

So...maybe that's my very first bit of advice, even if it's not the most important or most useful: Tell your children stories...even when they don't ask to hear them. Take the pictures, go to the cemeteries, pass on the traditions. Build your family brick by brick and connect your past to your present. You have roots, kids, and they reach deep in the country you have come from, or your folks came from. I learned to love your great grandfather because he told stories of his town, his parents, his farm, his history...funny stories full of character and idiosyncrasy. I learned to know your Great Grandpa's family from afar...before I came to Atchison county to join them and grow roots here myself. You come from a long line of storytellers...

Travel. Travel cheap when you're young and pack sandwiches and cereal and milk and your one hot meal a day is cheap Chinese or cheap Mexican. Stop for historical markers and local museums and national parks and pose one or more family members in every picture. Climb trails and skip stones on lakes and toss pebbles into creeks and pick up rocks as souvenirs.

Then, later, see the great cities, go to the theater, eat good food, stay in a room with a view. Spend whatever is necessary to qualify as a splurge....every once in a while. What was magical to me...your great grandma...may be antiquated to you....but, believe me, high class never goes out of style.

Sigh. All this fun will come at a cost. And that cost, lovely kids, is work. Your grandparents will tell you how very hard they worked in rain forest heat and bone chilling winds building greenhouses and loading they awoke and fed their animals in their pajamas and muck boots long before the sun rose. And your parents will tell you they spent summer day after summer day getting up early to fill thousands of pots with mix while their friends were sleeping in until nine.

And I'm here to tell that it's TRUE, all TRUE! Yes, your grandparents worked hard with us building our business and learning the burden of responsibility: for years after the fact, they would awake from dreams in which the steers were out of feed or the well had pumped dry because a hydrant was left on. Your parents are learning all about sweat equity down in that dirt shed; today they're paid only with an afternoon free to swim or read in the cool shade, but before you know it, they will be logging hours on a time card and saving for a college car. Great-grands, whatever your career and your livelihood, you will have learned the dignity of working with your hands, the reward of working side by side with your family, and earned the right to tell those 'way back when' stories to future generations.

Finally, exercise your minds as well as your hearts and hands. Read. Read fantasy and history, mystery and adventure. Escape, enrich, enjoy. Read your Bibles for instruction, for counsel, for comfort, for encouragement. Read the stories you loved to your children....The Poky Little Puppy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel, Hobo Dog, Winnie the Pooh. They are the common threads of your cultural heritage. My parents left a roomful of books three foot tall by 12 foot long by 6 foot wide, proof of a lifelong curiosity on a variety of subjects. Among these books are my grandfather's engineering text, my grandmother's poetry books, my father's Spanish dictionary and German Bible and my mother's botany book. I doubt that anyone else will ever read these volumes, but I will preserve them in hopes that you and your children will leaf through them, read the frontispieces and the notes in the margin, and comprehend the glorious debt of enrichment you owe your book loving ancestors.

Oh, great-grands...there is so much more! Play music...sing loud in church....plant lots of flowers.....use the right tools.....take lots of pictures.....and come play with your great grandparents often....