Family Guy

My dad as clown, with my mother and my niece, Laura Lee, circa 1980.
My father as photo-bomber, with my mother and my niece “Labba Lee,” circa 1980.

Of the thousands of photographs and slides to survive the years of heat and dust in My Mother’s Attic, my favorites are those that feature my father as a young man. I wish there were more. I’ve never seen a likeness of Dad as a baby or a young child—inconceivable in this age of photo op overload. The shots I do have reveal a confidence and affability those who knew my father later might expect, but they also hint at a deep silliness that Ed Mattingly, successful man of business, reserved mostly for his family.

Consider his favorite means of waking me on high school mornings: As I lay curled in the last luscious moments of teenaged dreamland, he would poke me between the ribs and say the word, “asamunigots!” which really is not a word at all. Having rustled many a teenager out of bed in the years since, I do not recommend this method. It’s a wonder I didn’t haul off and slug him.

But “asamunigots”? What does that even mean? We never knew. I don’t think it occurred to my siblings and me that it meant anything at all. It was just one of those things Dad said, and did. The word never came without the poke, and the poke never without a funny flick of his wrist. We saw the flick and the long fingers and knew what was next, but there was no squirming out of his reach. My father was quick as greased lightning.

Dad, with paddle board, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Dad on a bad swimsuit day, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row, left of center.
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row up, left of center.

Come to think of it, our young lives were peppered with Dad’s whimsical  wordplay. We vacationed each summer in the Smoky Mountains and sometimes, as we  walked together down a rutted back road, he’d stop short, a devilish grin on his face, and cry out, “Dahn-ge-ru Skip-awah!” I’d laugh and look up and there it would be–written in red across a chain link fence: “Dangerous. Keep Away.” Dad’s favorite summer drink had three syllables: “Ice-ed Tea,” Our fiftieth state was  “Ha-wa-yah,” a good seafood dinner “Shrimp-us,” and the topping he preferred on every dessert? “Whupp-ed cream.” My father favored nicknames, too. Whether you had one or not made no difference. He was glad to oblige. My nieces and nephews, my children, took on fresh personas for him–Laura Lee became Labba Lee, Liz, inexplicably, was Hootie, Sam, Sambo. Matthew was Mattu and the six-foot, four-inch tall grandson remained always Little Ed. Dad didn’t stop at family either. Fellow insurance agents became Buzz and Podner, and perhaps my personal favorite, he dubbed his old pal George, The Egghead Flash from Newnan, Flash for short.

As a young man, Dad had his nicknames, too--Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain
As a young man, Dad (at right) had his nicknames, too–Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain “H,” for his middle name, Hagen.

It’s funny, the things we remember about our childhoods, and the things we don’t. My father never said much about his upbringing. We knew only that unlike ours, his was motherless and unstable, filled with challenges, even tragedy. What details we did glean came mostly from cousins or aunts and uncles who stood helplessly by as Dad and his brother and sister were shuffled away from their troubled father and in and out of orphanages until they landed in the capable arms of my Great Aunt Louise. I’ve only just begun to read through some of the letters The Attic has coughed up from this period in my father’s life, but already I sense this much–The Twenties failed to roar for his family, and though its clear that loving people had an eye on him, there was little levity in his life.

Father of five, 1956
Father of five, 1956
My father lets his grandson Ben take the wheel, circa 1988.
Grandson Ben takes the wheel, circa 1988.

And yet, he ended up with this playful sense of humor, a knack for putting others at ease. My father had his faults. He liked things done a certain way–his way–and my brothers remember a quick disciplinary hand, but he was not a bitter man. His humor never became biting or sarcastic, and though he could be Mister Gloom when it came to foul weather or the failings of his sports’ teams, he believed deeply in humankind’s basic goodness and strength of will. We, meaning the inhabitants of God’s Green Earth, he believed, would persevere.

It mystifies me, why some folks emerge from dark backgrounds angry and resentful while others come out determined to leave the darkness behind. My father simply refused to look back. He loved his Swing music and his Broadway musicals and had no patience for stories with sad endings. Denial? Maybe, but as the patriarch of a sprawling and spirited family, it worked. Dad made us smile. He bucked us up. One of his most constant refrains, especially as he aged and had trouble coming up with the right turn of phrase, much less a clever one, was “Prouda you!”

Like any family, we have our issues, our rivalries and jealousies, our failures and broken places, but in the end, we offspring of Ed tend not to take ourselves too seriously. And this has had everything to do with keeping us close, even through the grief and cleaning out and divvying up we had to do after our mother’s death, stuff that can strain the bonds of even the most tight-knit families. Somehow my father managed to keep things light for eighty-nine strong years, and that made all the difference.

Father of the Bride!
Father of the Bride
Dad and his brood, June, 1993. Two grandchildren, my daughter and youngest son, were yet to come!
Dad’s brood, ’roundabout Fathers’ Day, 1993. Two grandchildren–my daughter and youngest son–and fourteen great-grandchildren (so far) were yet to come.

Wooly Bully

Skeins from Mom's knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See below for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
Skeins from Mom’s knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See right for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
The sweater that wasn't
The sweater that wasn’t

I have a natural aversion to wool. It’s itchy, it smells when wet (or old—boy does it), and worst of all, you wear it in winter. Ah winter … long cold nights, mold and dust, dry coughs, cracked skin … (Is my Seasonal Affective Disorder showing?) It’s not all bad, you’re thinking, and sure, I love a good crackling fire, a little hot cocoa, silver bells and the occasional boule de niege, but with sincere apologies to all the knitters, Pendleton execs, and fat furry Merinos out there, wool gives me the willies.

My mother, on the other hand, was a great fan of Cotswold and English Leicester alike, a lover of gabardine, houndstooth, tweed in all its many manifestations, a veritable wool-monger, she was. I clued in early on, during a jaunt through the British Isles when I was all of ten, to my mother’s respect for—nay love affair with—wool. In every village north of Liverpool, she scoped out the corner shop with the fisherman’s sweater in the window and the rafters draped with tartan plaids. “Turn in here!” she would cry, and my father, every joule of energy dedicated to keeping the rental car left of the centerline, would pull over with a sigh. Inside, I found I stood just about bolt-height, which is to say, no air. I breathed in wool, left and right. My eyes watered and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I scratched and wiped my nose while my mother the seamstress swooned over a length of wool crepe, imagining it as a pleated skirt, or coveted a bit of McKenzie green, dreaming the smart blazer she might wear to a ladies’ lunch back home.

Wool dreams
Wool dreams
Making do with remnants
Making do with remnants

She simply couldn’t resist. She bought meter after yard, reams of the stuff, not only from the Scottish and Irish shopkeepers she quickly befriended but back home, from Atlanta stores like Hancock’s, Davison’s fabric department, later Sew Magnifique, and a place called Penney’s (or was it Penny’s?) that once sat deep in the heart of Buckhead. I liked our Saturday morning visits to Penny’s. It was open and well-lit and I was able to hide happily among the silks, to breathe in the cleaner scent of the cottons while Mom sorted through her jersey knits and herringbones.

Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don't you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.
Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don’t you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.

When my parents added on a family room in the mid-seventies, I guess it was only natural for my mother to have a cedar closet built into the attic space above it. Now, after having spent the last week sorting through the closet’s contents, I wonder if the family room wasn’t an excuse for that cedar closet, which is a shrine really, a temple consecrated to mom’s wooly obsession. (And I’m here to tell you the cedar is a miracle tree. Fifty plus years of fabric and moth-holes only in the single-digits.)

The closet
The closet

Sample Contents: (values approximate; wool, unless otherwise indicated) 79 skirts, mostly tea-length, some to-the-knee or maxi, 2/3 home-sewn. 37 suits (skirt and jacket, the occasional wool shell), a few Jaeger, some Chanel, more St. John’s Knits, and again, the better part home-sewn. 29 overcoats, a couple men’s styles included. 16 pair of slacks (though a closet-ahem-feminist, Mom fought the ’60s fashion overhaul to the end). 41 silk blouses (mais oui, moths eat silk for dessert), and countless–seriously, to count them would exhaust even Ebenezer Scrooge–wool remnants zipped or tied into plastic bags. These include strips and squares leftover from finished outfits, swatches brought home to be mulled over, and stacks of uncut wool, some of them color coordinated, others with notes attached that indicate Mom’s master plan. Good black flannel, she might write. Pants for Marth?–that sort of thing.

Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
The blue collection.
The blue collection.
Some of Mom's finery …
Some of Mom’s finery …

As we sorted through all this (Save for Family Distribution? Give to Goodwill? Toss in Trash?), we made sure to check pockets for forgotten treasures. Hoping for jewelry or hundred dollar bills, we found instead (see below) dozens of balled up tissues, emery boards, chalk (?), a toothbrush (??), and several notes-to-self. But we also discovered a startling number of unfinished projects, skirts and suits Mom began and stored away, thinking she’d get back to them. She was also a fan of the Re-Do. The closet thus coughed up many store-bought items with rent seams or dismantled collars, designer outfits my mother with her tailor’s eye just knew she could improve upon, if only she had world enough and time.

Pocket treasures?
Pocket treasures?

These unfinished pieces sadden me. I think of Mom’s last years, years filled with the stasis of the very elderly. She sat mostly, in her favorite chair in that added-on family room she came to love. She read, until her eyes went. She watched television, until her short term memory went, and along with it, her ability to logically follow a storyline, while just above her head in their cedar shrine these half-baked dresses, these cut-outs with their filmy patterns attached, awaited her expert hand. Too, I can’t help but think of my file cabinets, their drawers stuffed with poems I began then abandoned, stories, even a novel, compulsively revised but never published. I guess I’m not so different from my mother after all. And maybe it’s the process that sustains us, the joy of creating. Though we can never finish all that we start, we can sure go down trying.

Unfinished business.
Unfinished business.
And another.
And another.

My youngest son, 16, is lucky enough to be part of his high school theatre department and this year, I’ve served (sometimes kicking and screaming) as the Props Mom. As such, I work alongside the Costume Mom, whose job is gargantuan. It hit me mid-week that I should start her a stack from the Cedar Closet, and I’m happy to report she accepted every skirt and overcoat and dress I brought in. In fact, one of the leading ladies in the next production (set in the 1930s) has decided to wear one of Mom’s old ball gowns in the final scene. It’s a china blue taffeta with a tastefully plunging neck line, and a perfect fit. I think Mom would love the way she wears it.

Odds and Ends Revisited, en papier

My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest, wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o'lantern, presumably)
“My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest,” wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o’lantern, presumably)
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926

Today, a hodgepodge from the Attic because for one thing, I like the way the word rolls off the tongue. Hodge-Podge. It’s perfectly acceptable to hyphenate it by the way, and even its synonyms bring a viva voce sort of pleasure: mishmash, muddle, pastiche. Pastiche! A phonological wonder, that one, and wow, phonological! How’s that for a phun stream of sound? (A thousand thanks to my Word thesaurus on this phine Sunday.)

My mother loved words, as the contents of her attic fully reveal. (And I’m not talking about books. Yet.) Here under the eaves, boxes of travelogues and perhaps every brochure she ever picked up in a museum, cathedral, or botanical garden. There on a sagging plywood shelf, a tupperware bin exploding with preschool drawings and early elementary worksheets (some of them my mother herself completed, in the mid-1920s). Beneath a basket of crumbling dried flowers, a muddle within a mishmash–pages and pages of newspaper and magazine clippings stuffed into grocery bags, zip locks, manila envelopes, and in bits and pieces scattered about, all manner of perfectly useless print: stacks of old bank statements, acceptance cards from wedding guests–my sister’s and mine–and calendars dating back to the ’70s, some with reminders scribbled in the boxes (slightly interesting!), but far too many blank (decidedly not interesting). And of course letters–decades, almost a century’s worth of letters.

Keeping track of time
Keeping track of time
Saved from the AJC's book section
Saved from the AJC’s book section
And another …
And another …

One day, I’ll organize it, right? Catalogue it all, create a paper trail that will lead us back to Mom whenever we miss her most. Perhaps, I will. I hope I will, though at the moment, my sisters-in-law and I can only chuckle and curse under our breaths as we debate whether the city recycling folks will take the calendars with those little metal spirals attached, and the bank statements with those pesky plastic view windows. (Hey, we can’t save everything.)

So what’s it all about? Why was it my mother couldn’t bear to throw any of it away? Had it been up to my father (alias Mr. Clean) we’d have nothing but the signed photo of Georgia Tech’s Coach Bobby Dodd and the ticket stub from a Glen Miller Dance concert. It’s hard to say why. In part, surely the Depression’s to blame. They lost so much, those Depression kids, not only during the economic doldrums but just after, during World War II. Maybe my mother could never shake the feeling that if you had something you liked, for whatever wacky reason, you’d better hang on to it lest you lose that, too. Did she live too much in the past? Probably. I mean what forward-thinking soul would save a Christmas card her milkman in 1962 tucked into her tin milk box one frosty December morn?

Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962
Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962

Still, I believe my mother’s tendency to hoard, to cling to these papery keepsakes that may seem meaningless to us, is more a sign of hope than anything else. I’ve alluded to this before, and maybe I repeat it because I’m more than a little like Mom this way. Sometimes, to toss small treasures away–maybe that program from my daughter’s last gymnastics’ meet, or this boarding pass from the trip we took to see a few shows on Broadway with our youngest son–takes every ounce of willpower I can muster. It is about hope, about embracing the past, yes, but also looking to the future, anticipating the day I’ll pull out that boarding pass and think, that was a good trip, a good time, let’s plan another right away. For tomorrow will be good, too.

The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
And the sweet conclusion …

And if I’m not here to revisit the pleasure this slip of paper or that postcard brought, maybe one of my sons will be, or my daughter. Yes, maybe my daughter will pick up something that was mine and feel the warm rush of shared emotion I get when I read the letter, pictured here, that my mother penned to my grandfather (how did it make its way back to her? Via my Grandmother’s Attic, of course).

“We are having our fifth baby in October,” Mom wrote, just after she discovered she was pregnant with her youngest son, my brother Tom. “Bum (her sister, also pregnant) told me this was her year, but I had to have one, too … Love, Sary.”

There’s always tomorrow, these words, and the whole darn pastiche of them, seem to say, and I like to think it’s true.

Air It Out


Greetings Attic Fans! Pardon the pun but hey, who remembers the Attic Fan? There’s one in My Mother’s Attic, a big clanking contraption whose business end was sheet-rocked over years ago. In better days, on the odd spring or autumn Saturday morning, my father liked to crank it up and let ‘er rip. To clarify—this was no portable window mount, not a fan meant to cool the attic itself but rather a six by six leviathan that lay prone (see diagram) on the attic floor, ready to suck the heat and dust up and out of the rooms below. It’s still around, this sort of fan, though it goes by a different name—the Whole House Fan, billed as a green homeowner option.

Well, ours was just the attic fan. When it fired up with its Blitzkrieg racket, my mother would flash me a wry smile. My father’s airing-out ritual was a tradition she didn’t see much sense in. Having grown up in Florida pre-air conditioning, she had her fill of oscillated air and dust cyclones long before she met Dad. But she went along. I can see her now, hair tucked beneath a scarf as she marched around opening windows in cotton blouse and khaki slacks and tiny white Keds (an outfit never-to-be worn outside the home). My father did the heavy work, which included reaching through cobwebs to right screens that had bent or slipped from their hinges during the long shut-in season.

The window screen was an essential in our house, a barrier both literal and figurative between the out of doors and the more orderly—and in my father’s mind, superior—indoor sanctuary. Much angst arose if on Attic Fan Day a screen was found to be broken beyond repair—think of the pests that might enter! Bringing the outdoors in was an alien concept for my parents. Their goal, a common one for their generation, was to celebrate all the many ways humankind had managed to conquer the natural world. Plus, outside was menace, or the gritty memory of it—a nation ravaged by the Depression, bled by war, threatened anew by the growth of frightening movements like Marxism, Feminism, Free Love, philosophies that baffled my parents–hadn’t they just fought a gruesome war to prove the virtues of democracy and the American Way?

Attic window-on-the-world
Attic window-on-the-world

Thus did they join the flight to the suburbs, where inside the home, all was fresh and safe. And we stayed there. We had no front porch, nor back for that matter. No deck, certainly no outdoor kitchen, not even a grill, unless you count the rusted-out Weber on wheels my father rolled out of the garage once a year under pressure from my brothers to barbeque steaks. Don’t get me wrong, we had land, rather a lot for a property within Atlanta’s city limits—big shady hardwoods, tall pines, azaleas and dogwoods and even a gurgling creek, and my father maintained it all himself. Yardwork was his hobby, his exercise. It was all well and good to enjoy the outdoors, but when it was time to eat, or socialize, indoors was the thing, and we wouldn’t want a fly in our soup.

Still, we had our Attic Fan. Once the window screens were secured, Dad moved on to other Saturday projects—weed whacking, mowing the lawn, cleaning gutters. Meanwhile, mom and I floated about the breezy house, shouting above the din, pockets of air buoying us up the stairs and down the hall. The fan brought the house to life, curtains aflutter, sheets rippling as I made the bed, somewhere the tinkle of a wind chime. I remember feeling I could breathe more deeply, my lungs expanding, filling with the promise of the fresh new season ahead. When later my father came in to throw the off-switch, a sort of melancholy set in. I used to stand in the hall and gaze up as the big blades of the fan creaked to a halt. Then the blinds that hid it would snap shut and I had to wonder why. Why couldn’t we have this happy commotion always, this rush of air from somewhere beyond, somewhere exotic and pulsing with energy?

It’s funny, I planned to write today about travel, my mother’s way of seeking the exotic. I meant to apologize for having been away so long, and away I have been, to Thailand to visit an adventurous son. This, I thought, would make a nice segue to sifting through the boxes full of travel memorabilia my mother saved over the years. But somehow, the Attic Fan swept me into a different kind of journey, a journey inward. Thanks for joining me.

This Saturday, March 21st, would have been Mom’s 96th birthday. So I’ll leave you with a snapshot of her as a baby, the pride and joy of her dapper parents, another from her 95th birthday party. We worried such a celebration would be too much for her, but it was a great success. We fancied Mom up a little … pinned on a flower, dabbed on the rouge and lipstick she once wouldn’t leave the house without, and somebody came up with a birthday girl sash. Mom liked it, all of it, and she stuck around—indoors, mind you—much longer than we expected.

Happy Birthday, Mom. We sure miss you.

My mother, with her parents, at about a year old.
My mother, with my grandparents, circa 1920.
Birthday Girl
Birthday Girl, feted by grandchildren and great grands alike.

Whistling Warden

Rosie the Riveter ain't got nothing on this chick.
Rosie the Riveter got nothing on this chick.

For days I’ve been stuck in my parents’ post-Pearl Harbor correspondence, adrift in an age shrouded in confusion and fear. Maybe this is what it means to be a time traveler—not whisking back and forth in a souped-up DeLorian (though that would be more fun, and cleaner), but suspended outside of time, one foot in this world and the other elsewhere. It’s a little like visiting a live Nativity, or a battle reenactment, only more heart-stopping. Just when you begin to lose yourself, to be swept into the dream, someone steps onto the stage cloaked in a persona you half-recognize, and Mon Dieu, it’s the person who raised you.

My father’s WWII ID card, December, 1944. He’d jumped from Private to 2nd Lieutenant by then. Pretty sure mom was a career Air Warden, and glad of it.

Here, a photo of a young man who looks familiar (if you dressed him in tee shirt and ball cap, he could be one of my sons), and wow, it’s my father. There, a crumpled ID card. I examine the signature and discover that within half a year of her breezy, flower-strewn nuptials, my mother traded out her veil of ivory tulle for an Air Raid Warden’s helmet.

An Air Raid Warden? This is nigh on impossible. My mother, the belle of the ball, outfitted in khaki, with a whistle around her neck and a gas mask cinched to her belt? Glory be! I’ll have to ask her about this, I think, forgetting for a moment that she’s no longer in a position to answer. This happens often here in the attic. We find something that piques our interest (the egg carton stored in plastic, the vodka in a mayonnaise jar, my father’s silk “honeymoon pajamas”?!?), and my heart tilts down the stairs to the den, where Mom ought to be perched in her favorite chair, enjoying her meatloaf and Chardonnay.

Vodka and Harvey's Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
Vodka, and Harvey’s Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
"Ed's White Honeymoon PJ's," presumably never to be worn again
“Ed’s White Honeymoon PJ’s,” presumably never to be worn again

If only we’d started this cleaning out business while she was still with us, you might say. If only, but alas, my mother wouldn’t have it. The very suggestion could bring her to tears. It was all my sister could do to toss the soured milk from the fridge during visits home.

You must know the people in your Sector well … reads the Handbook for Air Raid Wardens. To them, you are the embodiment of all Civilian Defense. You must seek to gain their confidence so that in any time of stress you may more easily reassure them and avert panic 

Uh, oh. Mom was a worry-wart, and somewhat prone to panic.

On patrol, your first duty is to clear the streets. People should be told to go to their homes. You must see that drivers park their automobiles at curbs and in such a manner as to leave a passage for fire engines and ambulances. Horses should be taken out of the shafts and tied to a lamp post 

Horses in shafts? In the streets of Atlanta, in 1942?

When the warning sounds after dark, the blackout will be enforced. You will warn householders of any light showing and if it is not at once turned out or covered, report the fact to the nearest policeman. 

This is so not my mother! She was well-liked, yes, charmer of bus driver and boss man alike, but she could order a dog to steal a bone and it would run the other way. And at five foot two and 104 pounds, could she be expected to direct traffic, and corral large animals? In disbelief, I dig around some more and there, in a stack of envelopes held together with a limp rubber band, is a pertinent letter penned by my father in Atlanta, who had yet to receive his orders, to my mother, in Florida at a friend’s wedding.

Dear Sweetie, I’ve just come from my warden’s meeting. My work as a warden is just beginning to interest me. Possibly it’s because I’m at last seeing the light–up until now I’ve had a very poor understanding of this war and our role in it. Perhaps in a few weeks I’ll begin to know what I’m supposed to do, but for now I’m sure of one thing–I’ve got to have an alternate warden, and there is only one person in this world I want as that alternate! 

Dad went on to point out my mother’s sweetness, reliability and strength of character. He was a persuasive guy, and sly like a fox, to coin one of his favorite clichés. I’ve found no evidence of my mother’s response, but the ID card is authentic, and dated June 1942, the same month as Dad’s letter. In fact, it’s dated before the postmark on the letter. I believe my father presumed, as he was wont to do. I imagine Mom didn’t much like that. I feel for her. The ink on their marriage license was hardly dry, their first apartment still lacking curtains–who knew what would be asked of them next? Many of her friends’ husbands had been shipped off. My uncle was about to be deployed to France.

I’m sure Mom bucked up. I bet she kept those khakis starched stiff, and her whistle polished to a sheen.


Odds and Ends, Mostly Odds

Egg carton top, saved in paper sack labelled “Nice picture.”

I’m headed back to the attic today. It’s a steep ascent, one it’s hard to imagine my parents having climbed at all as they aged, much less bearing the swollen boxes they toted up over the years. But tote they did, well into their 80s, sometimes making it only as far as the dusty bank of shelves that runs alongside the staircase. The stuff of these shelves represents a variety of eras, and is often laughable (see egg carton remains). In fact, I can hear mom now, kicking back with her fresh copy of To the Lighthouse (Woolf was a particular favorite) and chuckling at our labors. It is Our, by the way. We’re a small village up here. Otherwise, this project would be endless, so here’s a shout-out to my sister and sisters-in-law, my daughter and nieces. We get by with a little help from our friends, and along the way we laugh, a lot.

Swim cap
Swim cap
"Travel Cosmetics"
“Travel Cosmetics”

So put away the tissues and come on over to the lighter side, the pack-rattier side, where my mother reveals her true hoarding colors, and proud of ’em. At left, Exhibit One: A swim cap. My mother liked to swim, sort of. At low tide, she was wont to pull on such a cap to wade knee-deep into the sunny Atlantic as my father floated just beyond. Now and then, she took a few free-style passes through the gentle waves, but the last time I witnessed her taking her lady-like dip was in the early 1990s. Yet here we have a nearly new cap, tucked in its original Jantzen bag, along with the receipt (from Atlanta Beach?!?) because who knows when one might be inspired to fetch down such a treasure for return. It might have gained value!

Above right, Exhibit Two: A cardboard pear crate, its compartments jammed with miniature toiletries pilfered from any number of hotels and motels around the globe, their lotions and shampoos gone stiff and gummy with age. Taped on the lid is a note that reads “Travel Cosmetics” in my mother’s neat cursive. Oh how she loved to travel, and were she still doing so today, she’d have no trouble getting her carry-on through security.

The lady preferred Hanes
The lady preferred Hanes

Final Exhibit (for today) and perhaps my favorite: Stacks and stacks of old catalogues–Calico Curtains, Pierre Deux (ooo, la, la), and Hanes’ Underwear. Did my mother prefer Hanes? The jury is out. Certainly Maidenform bras, generic girdles and flannel PJs populated her lingerie drawers, but these were jumbled drawers. A Hanes’ cami could very well have been in there somewhere.

Well, I’ve developed a case of the sneezes and the recycle bin is full. The Christmas card collection will have to wait. I’ll leave you with one last gem–the program from one of my brother’s Pop Warner football tournaments (in 1954!). With four boys in the house, there were lots of sports being played. Mom wasn’t much of a fan, but it seems she was paying attention after all, and keeping up best she could.

Go Team!
Go Team!

Of Ghosts and Goldfish

IMG_2757Before I leave the sewing room (fully reserving the right to return), a word about ghosts. I don’t much believe in them, but I’ve come to expect them nevertheless. This is a contradiction I can live with, and nowhere do I experience it more than among the stuff of my mother’s creative passion. Maybe it’s the dusty Butterick patterns stuffed into drawers, or the wooly smell of the moth-eaten skirts in the closet, or the sweet droop of the faded curtains that hang over the table where Mom used to spin her magic, whether finishing up her mother-of-the-groom dress within hours of the rehearsal dinner, or whipping in a final buttonhole on an outfit for me in the wee hours of Christmas morning. But somehow I, a non-believer, can feel my mother standing beside me, looking over my shoulder, ready to cry foul when I dump her treasures into my industrial-strength trash bag.

“But Mother—it’s a mess in here. Look at the dust bunnies around the rusted bobbins that are balanced over the old tailor’s ham that’s perched on those remnant boxes … under the bed!”

“We-e-l-l-l, Marth. I’ll think about that—tomorrow,” says my mother-spirit. “Ok then, Scarlet,” she adds with an ironic roll of her Vivienne Leigh eyes. A smart, self-mocking specter, she’s proud to have snatched up the Gone With the Wind reference before I could pounce. IMG_0621

Mom seems happy in this hybrid room, as she always was before, and she’s got company. There in the corner are my miniature pet turtles, dripping with salmonella. Their soft bellies bared, they teeter on tiny green feet and scratch at their plexi-glass prison, just as they did in life. And over here, on the table beside the bed, Oscar the goldfish—who like all domestic carp, got his death sentence the minute I dumped him out of his bloated plastic bag—swishes about unawares in water no one warned me to de-chlorinate. Best of all, my gal pals sit crisscross-applesauce on my pink gingham bedspread, fans of Crazy Eight cards in hand and boxes of Red Hots in their laps. It’s way past our bedtime. I can tell from their soft giggles and the still darkness at the window.

I feel better now. Once I’m done ditching yards of mildewed swatches and sorting all the buttons for Goodwill, I’ll be okay to leave this room behind. It’s a good cozy place. Maybe some young couple will recognize that it would make a perfect nursery. A changing table would be nice under the window, and a bassinette could fit beside the closet that leads to the master. But they needn’t bother with a music box. The tap of a shadowy foot on a pedal, the snip-snip of threads, the phantom whirr of a Singer engine going full steam–these were my lullaby, and I slept like a baby.

Vivienne … See what I mean?
Vivienne Leigh, alias Scarlet O’Hara
Vivienne–See what I mean?

All Buttoned Up

Button drawer There’s something pleasing about the button–simple yet functional, often bright, sometimes shiny, and usually a circle–sun, moon, wheel, life. So primal, and yet, somehow divine, and my mother had ‘em by the dozens! Before I wax on, a disclaimer—two entries in and already I’ve moseyed out of my mother’s attic (it’s cold up there!). Down the splintered stairs and up the drafty hallway I go to the sewing room, which began its life as my bedroom. Question—does it count as a bedroom if there’s no bathroom within ten yards? The baby of the family, I was two when my parents built their dream home, so naturally I got the bedroom that wasn’t. I figured it was normal to scuttle through a closet and hopscotch between highboy and hope chest to get to the potty. The house that has fallen silent now was crowded and chaotic then, four brothers, two of them teenagers, sharing a pair of bedrooms and a Jack ‘n Jill bath, plus my sister, who at eighteen wasn’t keen on the idea of sharing much of anything. Who could blame her? She’d survived childhood (including semi-annual, seven-hour station-wagon rides to Florida) while sharing her space with four rowdy boys. She deserved a bed and bath of her own and what did I care? I loved that only that narrow closet jammed with shoes and worn bathrobes and musty boxes marked, For the Scrapbook! separated me from my parents.

Button tinsSo I lived in the sewing room (even then it begged for a Singer and a good sharp pair of shears) and I shared my parents’ bath until I began to teeter at the brink of adolescence. Then, blessedly, someone declared it was high time I stopped barging in on dad when he was shaving so I could brush on a little rouge. Which brings us back to buttons. Or does it. I’ve moseyed again, this time way off the subject. But my mother did collect buttons, which made some sense because she was, one, a woman who disliked being caught off guard, and two, a seamstress. I suppose you’d call her an amateur seamstress. She didn’t sew for money, though she could have. She was good enough, but then, she was good enough at a lot of things to have gone pro but never had the courage. I wish she had. Late in her life, I think she wished she had, too.


Still, Mom did beautiful work with her needle and thread, and the Chanel suits and St. Johns’ knits she stitched up came to life thanks to those rhinestone buttons up the front or the pop of that mandarin knot at the neck. So what if her eyes went before she could use up the tins full (all carefully ordered, as shown, and color-coded). Wasn’t that better than coming to the end of a long day’s work to find you were out of emerald green studs?

Button up tight everybody, and enjoy the weekend. I’ll be sorting spools of thread while the Seahawks “take the air out of” the Patriots’ sails.

Joe wearing one of her homespun dresses
Mom sporting one of her homespun outfits. Miss you, lovely lady.

Finding the woman within, one toothpick at a time

photo 1

My mother was born in 1919, the year the dial telephone was introduced and WWI drew to a close. J. D. Salinger was a 1919-er, too, along with Eva Gabor, whom mom found silly, Nat King Cole, whose music she loved, Jackie Robinson, whom she never gave the time of day, and Balto, the renowned sled dog. She outlived them all. Against all odds, she liked her chicken fried, her pound cake with a spoonful of heavy cream, her pancakes with a thick slice of real butter, and her nightly glass of Chardonnay full to the brim. She never took a vitamin or swallowed a drop of fish oil, and unless you count a few failed games of croquet, she spent not a single minute of her adult life engaged in organized exercise.

Ok, so she had good genes. Her parents lived into their nineties, too, but I can’t help but think there was more to it than that. What was it about this lady (she was above all, a lady) that made her so resilient? Small but sturdy—5’2” with a playing weight of 106—she survived breast cancer at 81, a serious car accident at 83, the loss of her husband, a bad bout of pneumonia, and perhaps hardest of all, the death of her oldest son when she was 88. Tough as nails, her Hospice nurse called her, and a fighter, though at first glance she seemed anything but. In spite of a failing memory and the accumulation of sorrows that living long brings, she simply loved life. Even in her last difficult years, she clung to the remaining pleasures of her daily routine—a mug of coffee and a plate of eggs in the morning, a raucous visit from her great-grandchildren, an outing to Mass on Saturday evenings. Maybe this was my mother’s greatest legacy: You get up and get out of your pajamas. You engage with whatever is left to you. You hope. It served her well. She hung on as long as a body could, only breathing her last when she couldn’t swallow enough, literally, to keep her little heart beating.

That was last October, and since she’s been gone, I’ve been sifting through what she left behind. And she left behind A LOT, ten closets and an attic filled with dust and mildew and a frightful number of rodent droppings. She hoarded, you might say, (see party toothpicks above) and it’s true that like other members of her generation, my mother spent too much time saving things from the past. Yet somehow, she was always looking to the future, too. This bothered me over the years, the way she and my father never quite got the hang of living in the moment, but maybe we in our endlessly progressive throwaway society would do well to pay attention. As I paw through hundreds of cardboard boxes gone grimy and soft with age, I’m beginning to see that these leftovers are the fruits of my mother’s particular brand of hope. After all, why save every single one of those spare buttons that come with a new blouse if you don’t imagine that one fine day, you’ll wake up and fancy wearing that blouse, and it certainly wouldn’t do to go out with your collar gaping open.

So join me. I’d love the company as I journey into the dingy corners of this moldy and mysterious place, my mother’s attic.

Generational pic, Mothers Day, 2012
Generational pic, Mothers Day, 2012