a curator’s quest

23 11 2008


Two years and $85 million dollars later, the Smithsonian just re-opened. I heard a story this week about the what it meant to organize all the doo-daas that represent so much of our nation’s collective history. This is how pack rats make a profession out of their bounty. I’m all over that.

I had some brief windows of time throughout the week to work through some small boxes. It is important for curators to be fully awake and careful in their assessment of items. As a content specialist, it is my responsibility to carefully examine each object and to determine just how it reflects the history of the culture.

The small item displayed above is rather nondescript on one side. As I turned it over I laughed out loud. It was so Billy’s eye to see faces in rocks and clouds. So this little buddy above is being cataloged for a place in the museum.

Next was the mystery bottle. I’ve learned to shake, open and dump before disposing. How did I know it was an address bottle? If you had sent him a card in the last who knows how long…the return address was carefully snipped and filed for future reference.

Which brings me to my last point. For the price of a latte…stop at the next greeting card display you see, find something appropriate, get a stamp for 42 cents, find your address bottle and shake out the right name and number, transfer the information and drop it in a mail box.

E-mailing is so much easier for us. Facebook even better…but there are lots of grandmas and grandpas out there that aren’t techno-savy. And a little piece of cardboard wrapped in a little piece of paper with the appropriate letters and number scrawled across the front will arrive at their door and bring happy smiles to their stoney faces.


This is the house that Milah built.

1 10 2008

In the 1960’s no one was in a place financially to swing it. My great grandfather, Miles Alan or Milah as he was sometimes called, supposedly built this house on Institute Street. It had passed from him to his daughter Geraldine and upon her death left to her nieces and nephews. It had to be sold and passed out our family.

Everyone was established in Gary and no one thought about returning to the homestead. Who would have guessed that our family would move back here in 1967? But the house had undergone lots of changes by then and now stands about double the size of the original. I always drive by when I’m here hoping to see a sign out front that says they want to give it back to our family.

Oral history is a tricky thing. Things that you think are gospel truth sometimes are far from it. Things get twisted with so much repetition. I find myself at this point in the story amazed at how much I don’t know and the hour is getting late. All the questions I should have asked my dad years ago…but what does it really matter in the end?

Remember me fixing the sconce last week when the wiring blew? I never knew where these ornate, scrolly doodahs had come from. One has a ram at the top – the other a lion. There are some kind of kissing birds crest on the front (temporarily wired for winter till we take them both off in the Spring for a new paint job).

If I would have had to venture a guess, I would have said that my dad brought them at someone’s garage sale thinking they would fancy up our little mid-century modern ranch. With it’s setting on a half acre of land – I suppose it could pass as an “estate”.

What do I know? Obviously not much. As I was wrestling with Wiring 101 my mom mentioned that they had been on the carriage house behind Miles’ house.

They had taken them down before the house sold along with rescuing two headstones of my great-great grandfather and his daughter that had been turned upside down and used as paving stones in the backyard.

Please note: I did NOT say they had been buried in the backyard. The stones had needed to be replaced and these “old” stones were repurposed. HA! Another clue that pack ratting, repurposing and hanging on to stuff is passed from generation to generation.

My mom went on to draw my attention to something I had never noticed in the 40 plus years they’ve lived here: the fixture beside their backdoor goes with other two. They’d all come from Miles’ house.

Magically as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust in my eyes, I thought they were beautiful. Not because I would have ever picked them out to put on my old Arts & Crafts Foursquare…but they took on a value because of where they’d come from. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they will come down from this house before it is ever sold too…not to go on my house – but at least someone else’s in the family.

I’d much rather have the headstones!

karma, chakra and chi…oh my!

13 08 2008

Six months after she’d given birth to my dad – three months shy of her 24th birthday, Eva died of meningitis leaving four children under the age of five. Her unmarried “spinster” sister, five years her senior, came from the Southern Illinois village of Ellis Grove to become a housekeeper for her recently widowed brother-in-law. After all that’s what you do when you’re family.

Vera didn’t make that journey alone. She had to bring along four unmarried brothers and her elderly widowed father, Eli Harris since their housekeeper / cook was moving away and they weren’t about to lose her! Best counts puts about ten in that household for her to deal with. A neighbor across the alley, Mrs. Jascoviak who had no children, volunteered to care for baby Billy all day long, returning him at night to sleep in the “boarding house”. I don’t actually know how long that went on – a year or less perhaps- or longer…it didn’t matter once that bond was formed. Auntie Jazz became a surrogate. No one made her do it. I’m quite sure she didn’t get paid to do it…but she opened her home and heart to that baby.

About eight years after Vera had come to help out her brother-in-laws’ brood, she spent a morning preparing a Thanksgiving meal for the clan and at some point – took off her apron, dusted the flour from her hands and she and her brother-in-law went down to city hall and officially tied the knot. It was another four years or so until they had a daughter of their own to add to and complete the blended crew of three boys and two girls.

Old Eli passed away somewhere in there, the bachelor brothers in and out – one was always in…Guy Jennings Harris. He was one of the most colorful characters from my childhood as the youngest of 14 grandkids. Tattoos on both arms – one a huge Naval anchor…he smoked like they did in the 50’s – just like on Mad Men…there was always a cloud hovering around his head and a freestanding ashtray like a mini cocktail table within an arm’s reach. The most fun was when he’d light a cigarette and let you “try” to blow out the match. God help me if I got in front of the TV when he was watching Gun Smoke. I asked Dad where Guy worked “No where!” was his quick answer…then I’d remembered – he was a bookie. “Legend” has it there were some shoeboxes stuffed with money found in his room after his death. My mind colors that even more knowing the kinds of activities in the Chicago area in the 1920’s and 30’s. I wonder if he paid room and board?

Vera’s house was pretty much a no nonsense kinda place. I don’t remember sleep overs (there was no more room!) but I remember family gatherings on the holidays throughout the year and we’d be a group numbering over 25 piled in around one table in the dining room and one stretched out in the basement for the kids. And to me – it all evokes the warmest of memories.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized that Grandma was really my dad’s aunt and I had never known the twist about Auntie Jazz till recently. That fascinated me – a stranger taking in this baby boy to almost raise him as her own – to help out another hard working woman – who had stepped into her sister’s shoes and got the job done. But in the end Vera was their “mom” and when Granddad, later in life had a stroke….the dining room table was taken out and replaced by a hospital bed. I think it was six years that she cared for his motionless body day and night. My dad would go over to the house on his way to work each day to give him a shave. I don’t doubt that a huge measure of my ability to respond and react in hospital settings had to do being around Granddad and talking to him like “normal” even though his vocal chords could barely eek out a sound. You don’t have to be afraid of quadraplegics in hospital beds.

And I grew up knowing that my dad was a serious blood donor. He has a fairly rare blood type and I knew that it was a monthly ritual. It wasn’t till talking to his younger sister the other day that it all came full circle – Auntie Jazz needed blood for some reason later in life…and my dad’s blood became a lifeline for her. When my father found out they were charging her for blood – he threatened to quit giving and a quick policy change involved an arrangement that Billy’s blood to Auntie Jazzy was always free.

Mismashed family it was – even knowing that there were mumblings of Auntie Jazzy wanting to adopt my dad as her own…it left a DNA imprint deep on my dad’s soul. My childhood home became home for people who’s parents were in other places…some just stayed weeks – others, a lifetime. My folks’ hearts had both been stretched big by the circumstances of their own lives…both motherless at young ages, they became parents to more than their biological children. My mom still tells people she had 11 children.

My parents’ generosity of spirit, rarely in expensive, extravegant showy ways, just quiet, practical honest love and a way of making their home a refuge for anybody who needed a place came from them learning to receive the kindness of strangers themselves. The Auntie Jazzys and Auntie Veras in our world today are still out there – quietly doing what women do best – picking up the slack, stepping in where there is need and nurturing other people’s kids. So even though my dad would never espouse squat about chakras or chi (but here he’d turn the phrase and say “no but I’ll take some tea”) – he said “what goes around comes around” – and call it what it is…karma.