when a great aunt comes calling…

“There is peace even in the storm”
Vincent van Gogh


(from left to right:
Aunt Blanche, Aunt Alma, my great grandmother Wiliford, and shy Mimi (Mary)
hiding behind their mom / circa 1917)

When I was a little girl, I had two great aunts who were still living.
Aunt Blanche and Aunt Alma.

Both women rattled my nerves…
or maybe it was more like they simply scared me to death.

They were the sisters to my grandmother, my mother’s two aunts.

Blanche had never married.
For as long as I could remember, she had lived with my grandmother,
having her own separate area of the house.
She always seemed old to me.

The story went that she had had a young beau who had asked for her hand in marriage…but…he was California dreaming and bound, hoping to make his fortune
in a bustling new area of the country.

This was a time of one century turning to another.
The thought of leaving home and family in Georgia,
setting off to a still newly settled West Coast, with a young man who had nothing
more than a dream… was simply more than she could bear.
She turned down his proposal and remained single until she passed away in her
late 80’s.

The other great aunt, Great Aunt Alma lived in Clearwater, Florida.
She and her husband had no children of their own and in my mind,
they lived to simply play golf with the other old people.

This pistol of a woman was as wide as she was tall.
At 4’11” she was truly short and truly round.
Her perfume filled the room with a sickeningly sweet scent that lingered in
one’s nostrils long after she was gone.
When first arriving she would always make a bee line for little cheeks…
grabbing both cheeks with her thumb and index fingers, giving them a hard tweak and squeeze before leaving brightly red lipstick mark imprinted on both now sore cheeks.

Whenever we were told of an impending visit by Aunt Alma, a deep sense of dread
descended over both me and my younger brother.
Yet as I aged and grew up, my great aunt who by now was widowed, seemed to
be more gruff and impatient…far from embracing or loving.
She no longer grabbed to pinch cheeks or smear ones face with lipstick
but was rather matter of fact and brusque with her greeting.
Plus she would cuss like a sailor in her impatience.

I kept both of these women at arm’s length as their personalities and lives were not
overtly open to young people. They were nice and always gave nice gifts yet there was
no mistaking the fact that they preferred limited interaction with their
young great niece and nephew.

And so now it seems as if we have a new great aunt arriving on the scene…
one who has announced the coming of a most wicked visit.

Her name is Irma.

Somehow I imagine that she too is rather brusque and very matter of fact.
As she is also very round and and exceedingly wide.
We’ve been told that she will roar into town making her presence known in a
most deadly fashion.

Just as I had a sense of dread as a child over the forthcoming visit of great Aunt
Alma, I now have that same sense of foreboding with Irma’s impending visit.

But the difference between Alma and Irma—Alma did love us in her own odd way as
she did enjoy giving us gifts… Irma I fear however cares only for herself…
Taking no prisoners and making no apologies before abruptly departing just as
rudely as she arrived…

Prayers for Florida as well as neighboring Georgia…..
as our prayers continue for Texas and Louisiana…

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea[b] were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.

Psalm 107:29-30

Cause the times they are a-changing

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changing

Lyrics by Bob Dylan

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(antique color plate of a wild turkey / Julie Cook)

Normally at this late inning in the game, I would be up to my elbows in flour, giblets,
and sweet potatoes…franticly watching the clock tick off the precious seconds of time…
time until it was…
Go Time…

But not this year.

Not this year, at all.
No flour.
No giblets.
No sweet potatoes.
No festive deserts.
No dressing (as in what we southerners call stuffing that’s not stuffed)
All simply…
no….

I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving, or at least the bulk and better part of it, ever since I was
a junior in high school…

Because that was the year my great aunt died in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning
and my mom, as her only living nearby relative, had to drop apron and
mixing bowls in mid mix…with Turkey quickly slammed in the oven,
as she practically threw me the basting bulb,
while shouting over her shoulder as she dashed out the door…
BASTE EVERY 20 MINUTES TILL DONE…”

Huh?

I think I was still mumbling questions when, like a bat out of hell, my mother with the car
slammed in reverse, barreled out of the driveway,
racing off to a distant nursing home leaving me in a puff of confused exhaust fumes….
still holding a forlorn basting bulb.

Did I mention that on this now discombobulated Thanksgiving it was also the Thanksgiving
that our pet parrot, the one we had rescued a couple of years earlier,
after a brief cold, had decided to also give up the ghost on this Thanksgiving morning?

So needless to say that this was not to be like any Thanksgiving that I would be able to,
in my youthful naive memory, recall.

Yet might I add that the turkey, by shear pluck, turned out really quite lovely.

And so I’ve been cooking ever since…

Oh I started out somewhat slowly, with but a few components of the feast left to my expertise,
eventually becoming the full Master of Ceremonies…
as those were the heady days and weeks of plotting, researching, planning,
buying and preparing…
The aromas leaving all in their wake salivating….
It was to be the stuff of legends….

Until this year.

Yet had I not seen it coming?
Slowly and methodically coming my way…
Despite my not wanting to acknowledge it…
it was hell-bent on coming.

My husband, over the past couple of years would gently, if not a bit too tactlessly,
remind me that the time was coming…
that the day and time would eventually come….
Our numbers were now diminishing at a far greater rate than they were multiplying…

As those we have loved and have known…have come and now have sadly faded…
in other words, the family has shrunk.
My husband’s side and now mine…
lost to the annuals of time.

The time when Dad would be too old to come to us…
The time when our son would be too old to stay…as he would now have to divide his time…
and the time I would be too old to manage it all…on my own….

Don’t you hate it when husbands seem to actually know it all…
or perhaps more accurately can suddenly, after 34 years, find the gift of verbalization…
As in verbalizing what we try so desperately to deny…
Whenever did they become ones to verbalize…?
When you least want it, that’s when….

And so it is…

No linens have been pressed.
No grandmother’s silver polished.
No burgeoning refrigerator bursting at the seams.
No massive turkeys sitting in brine as basting bulbs have long since been discarded.

For we will become one of “those people…”
The people I use to turn my nose up to who would go out to eat on Thanksgiving.
The people who make other people have to work and miss time with their families
because they were having to cook and service “those people”……

We will eat out and then take plates to dad, my stepmother and the caregiver.
As our son travels to in-laws as my in-laws are now longer…
Aunts, uncles, nieces, grandparents, parents, brothers have all since departed…
leaving but us…left to find solace in our memories of times now past…

So Bob Dylan was right all along…
for the times, they are a-changing…

PS….
you should know that going out to eat was not my idea.
It was my husband’s…
The same husband who, after 34 years of marriage,
has suddenly gained the gift of verbalization.
He has also gained the gift of thoughtfulness….
as in he has felt sorry for me these past several most trying months
and he has decided it is time for me to become one of “those people”
and I am actually both grateful as well as thankful….

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous.
Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

A chair, old things and a story of self

No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

“A house with old furniture has no need of ghosts to be haunted.”
― Hope Mirrlees

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(engraving from a circa 1890 copy of The Pilgrims Progress / Julie Cook / 2014)

I once taught with a woman who was an exceptional story teller.
No silly, not fortune teller, but rather story teller.
She oddly enjoyed teaching, of all things, freshman english–you know the ones—those young people caught in limbo somewhere between childhood and puberty who believe themselves to “be grown”. . .
Perhaps it was because she felt her young charges were still vulnerable and mouldable, much unlike their upperclassman counterparts. In her opinion there was still hope.

She was a delightful story teller—and that is exactly how she taught, by the use of stories.
It is said that we learn best by the hearing of stories. Perhaps that is how our brain best recalls information by placing dates and events into a story sequence verses simple rote memorization. Perhaps it is mere stimulation for our brains, increasing memory capacity as the imagination is at work.

I often envied her gift for story telling as I was not one to conjure up an immediate tale. Perhaps it was her keen use of imagination whereas I had let my imagination wane long ago. Either way, her students enjoyed her class as would I on those happenstance occasions when I’d be passing by her door as she was in the midst of a full regalia of the latest tale.

Which brings me to something I had told you about a week or so ago—it was a promised tale about a chair.
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(said chair seeking shelter on the streets of Savannah during a thunder storm / Julie Cook/ 2014)

Remember me telling you that I had found a chair at an Antique shop in Savannah when we were gathered for THE wedding? I happened upon it in a massive ancient cavernous warehouse just off River Street. The place was chock full of furniture all from England, France and Italy–dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

There were massive pieces of every size and shape fit for only the finest of homes. The most massive of homes. And most likely procured from such grand homes down through the ages. There were Tudor pieces, Georgian pieces, Colonial pieces and every type of Louis— but mainly there were heavy carved English pieces. Armoires, grandfather clocks, dinning tables, bar sets–as in entire massive wooden bars taken from taverns of long ago, wooden chests, cabinets, game tables, and chairs—a myriad of chairs.

We had actually wandered earlier into another antique store where I saw the loveliest group of Windsor chairs—old, as in 200 years or better, very early American Windsors—8 chairs going for the bargain price of $27,000! I knew right then and there I needed to leave that store. The shop keeper actually stopped me on the way out the door telling me he’d let me have them for $18,000.–a real steal. Good lord!! Who does that? Who can afford to do that?? Oh I digress. . .

So as I was weaving my way through the mazes which cut through the massive bevy of ancient wooden pieces, when suddenly, I stopped dead in my tracks. Perched up on a chest was this lone little chair–beckoning, calling out. . .”juuuullliiieeee. . .”
Rich dark wood, an ancient warm and woven cane back and bottom with the most splendid carvings imaginable. Cherubs, flowers crowns—imagine the story behind this lovely little piece!

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“ooooooo”
My husband wanders up behind me.
“What is it” he quips.
“Look” I breathlessly respond staring intently at the chair perched on an equally wonderful wooden chest.
“You like that!?” He quizzically asks as in I can tell he’s wondering why in the world I like it.
“oooooooo”
“How much is it?” he chirps
I look at the tag.
“Too much” I dejectedly respond.
“Where would you put it? The house is already busting at the seams with everything from your dads.”

My house is indeed more shrine than house I suppose. Most everything in the house is from either of my grandmothers or great aunts. A unique and eclectic blend of Italian, French, German and English pieces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with my own hodge lodge of 20th century shabby chic. Nothing matches.
There are figurines, china, paintings and furniture.
And my husband is right—almost too much stuff.

And yet this is the stuff of which I am made.

All of the stuff which is stuffed into my house is all the result of everyone in my life having died relatively early on. My mother actually preceded both grandmothers and great aunts to the grave. When you’re the lone surviving offspring, most everything comes your way. And as I happen to lean to the sentimental, I could never part with any of it–selling things away would be akin to selling away pieces of the very people who meant so very much to me.

And just in case you were wondering. . .no, I am not a hoarder thank you very much.

And this now brings us to, I think in part, as to why I love antiques. These pieces laced through my house were the pieces to the lives of my grandmothers, great aunt’s and mother. They made up their respective homes and their respective lives. One grandmother was very much the grand collector–acquiring this and that, then conventionally telling my grandfather, once he noticed some new this or that, “oh that old thing. . .we’ve had that”.
The other grandmother actually worked as a hair dresser in mid town Atlanta in the 1930’s-60’s. She would be given lovely things by her clients–mostly back in the 1940s when such gift giving was not so unexpected.

I can vividly recall where each item was in their homes and of my interactions and recollections. And as I’ve aged, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the pieces themselves.
For there is a history and a story behind each piece. A story that precedes even my grandmothers.
So many questions. . .
Who originally owned it when it lived across the pond?
Who may have touched it, come in contact with it?
Exactly how old it is?
What is its value?
Where was it located?
Why was it ever sold?
What attracted my grandmother to it?

As a history major throughout much of college, I hold a deep appreciation for the history behind things. It’s all about the story of a people–of how they, we, came to be— which is all so very intriguing.
Are we not all basically the same–those folks of the past along with those of us here and now?
We have not changed all that much over the centuries— as to what makes people, people, and what makes their things real.

The history is the story.
So many questions.
Who sat in this chair?
Who held this plate.
Who put flowers in this vase.
Who bought this as a present for a loved one?
Was this a commissioned piece or just the whimsy of a gifted carpenter?
Was it a part of a set?
What was the story of the journey from there, wherever there was, to here?
All this plays through my mind as I stand buried in a warehouse of ancient furniture staring at a lonely old chair marveling at how truly delicate the cane is woven–completely original–you don’t see such all that often.

My husband, who must have felt sorry for me as we were in the midst of wedding central and must have thought I was soon to be at my breaking point, offered to buy the chair as an early anniversary present (31 years in August)
“OOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”
Then quickly,”Oh no, it’s too much” I exclaim regaining some composure.
“I’ll get it if you really want it. . .”

15 minutes later we’re on our way back to the hotel, chair in tow.

DSCN5470
(sweet husband with chair)

Imagine the sight—my husband precariously carrying an antique chair through the old historic district of Savannah, down busy Bay Street, about a mile back to the hotel, with my aunt and I in hot pursuit. People were staring and commenting on the chair.
“Is it South African?” one man inquires.
“Heaven’s no” I exclaim—as I think to myself—We’re standing in the middle of colonial America for crying out loud, as in the 13th colony, founding city, James Oglethorpe, Georgia, as in King George, for Heaven’s sake. . .South African, really. . .

Suddenly a thunderstorm appears out of no where. I shriek, yelling for my husband to seek shelter between some massive columns protruding form some downtown building. We hunker down into the narrow protected space— the 3 of us plus chair– all tightly pressed against a massive granite building waiting for the rain to subside.

The chair stayed in my hotel room during the remainder of the wedding weekend. Family and friends wandering in would exclaim “oh my, did that chair come with the room?” Again, really?!
Eventually, upon our departure, the chair was given a prime place in the car for the long journey back home. It now graces a corner in my family room—maintaining its aura of royalty.

Maybe its Scottish?
Maybe it hails from Mary Queen of Scots. Maybe she sat on it while contemplating her cousin Elizabeth’s quandary.
Maybe William Wallace or Robert the Bruce sat upon it waiting for freedom—I know, that’s a big stretch time wise.
or maybe more like Robbie Burns penning his latest forlorn thoughts or perhaps Rob Roy plotting rebellion. . .

Or maybe it’s just some little pub chair from some long forgotten little tavern– happy now to finally be out of the pub. . .
The history is truly the story. . .

(Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow regarding the acquisition of a most interesting object last week from Scotts Antique Show in Atlanta—talk about a story)