|IMPRESSIONS FROM THE LAND OF VANISHED BEAUTIFUL THINGS |
By Stephen Mead “All that glitters is not gold”, is a useful cautionary phrase some sources site as dating back to Aesop. I imagine during the time of the American Gold Rush it was repeated ad nauseum in regards to Fool’s Gold, and that many a prospector replied “Yes, I know. Heard ya the first time. Thanks a lot.” In typical Contrary Mary fashion I like to adapt the expression to read all that glitters may not be gold, but on a personal or spiritual level, it may be much better. As a case in point, if I close my eyes and type I can conjure up the dining room of the farmhouse I grew up in.
A very light yellow paint covered the walls of that room so even on dreary days the space carried an airy sense of brightness. What created its shining aspect were its two fairly oblong windows when combined with two different china cabinets at opposite ends of the room. One of these, recessed into the wall, was on the right hand side immediately off the kitchen. Its interior wood was painted a deep red which surrounded the objects like a lacquered Chinese box. Small brass-plated knobs secured both doors of the cabinet with a fairly airtight seal so I don’t recall much in the way of dust getting in. Actually the glass must have been polished at least a couple times of year for I don’t recall even much in the way of fingerprints, smears or streaks; only reflections of the dining room like a mirrored series of interiors.
Were the best plates, the bone china white of circular rose design, kept there? Yes, I believe I can see their stacks now, a wedding gift heirloom to my parents or perhaps even my father’s parents. Over the years reaching these took a bit more care and finesse as other not-quite-as-good plates, but better than the motley chipped kitchen cabinet hodgepodge ones, got placed on top. Stacks had to be removed in stages for if you took the risk of tipping and sliding the best from the bottom there was enough of a distinctive clunk sound to issue the warning: “Don’t take them out like that. If you break ’em you’re not going to be able to replace ’em.” My siblings and I were able to get away with the slip and slide maneuver with the kitchen plates, often bought piecemeal via the A & P or S & H green stamps, but with the dining room ones we walked on eggshells, convinced they were relics combined from both the Ming Dynasty and the Treasure of Sierra Madre.
Still, for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, it was a privilege to be asked to get out the good china, a rite of passage. It took a Tiffany clerk’s skill, especially given the number of fine china cups lined up on hooks over the plates, cups that could so easily start to sway, wobble, even drop as if booby-hatched for a culinary game of Operation. The sense of pride taken for finally being able to help the grown-ups was combined with a sense of mystery due to all the antique vases, bowls, and tea pots, these cabinets held too. I remember one vase of a delicate midnight blue, feather-light, fluted at the neck and partially covered with the sort of gauzy material stylish women used to wear on hats to veil their eyes. Most of the vases were feminine, as were even the wide Rubenesque flowery ceramic bowls, and stout tea pots with their round arabesque patterns just waiting for a good set of pearls. The tall beer glasses and hardy steins intermixed made a nice masculine compliment. Taking these things out was like pairing up couples for a special ball, a night on the town.
Beneath the cabinets were two huge deep heavy oaken drawers. A honey stain burnished these and four widely-set copper handles. The interiors were dry, dark and wide enough to hide in though I don’t think my siblings and I ever tried that. The top drawer held all the goodies: Halloween candy, tins of home-made cookies, pies, and pans of cakes, though I can’t quite recall what these rested upon to be so easily reached. I picture different boxes of steak knives, candles and candle holders, layers of cloth napkins and tablecloths, but the contents blur and fade in comparison to the desserts.
The drawer below this was a catch-all for various picture books, (“Rumplestilskin”, “The Littles”, “How to Care for Your Monster”), and boxes of games; (checkers, chess, jigsaw puzzles and those plastic puzzles with the little metal ball you had to swirl through mazes to land in a specific hole and earn points.) This drawer smelled of crayons, paste and also provided storage for crafts both completed and not. I recall rulers and protractors and compasses. I recall tempera kits and cases of watercolors concentrated in small ovals. I recall the newsprint smell of coloring books and lying on the floor before this drawer coloring away to my heart’s content.
Nostalgia is a time capsule in a coloring book. Lying on the floor, next to the soft/scratchy elaborate Oriental carpet, turn on your back, next, on your side, look around at the underneath of things, eyes following the ornate legs of various antique furnishings, then back on up. There is that drop ceiling again, made of off-white squares and covered with little pinpricks to provide an acoustic cushion; each square fitting together in a grid of thin bronze trim.
Imagine lifting off the roof and viewing this dining room as a room in a doll’s house. We had a childhood book like that too only a mouse lived in the doll’s house and there’s no way in hell my mother would go in for that. We were more like “The Littles” only without the tails, industrious in that room of solid wood antique farm furnishing: the black walnut buffet, the sewing machine, the book case, the other china cabinet, the cedar desk and, in the center, like a heart, that dark dining table with its extra leaves to be put in or taken out.
I don’t necessarily believe any of this was of intimidating museum quality, but much of it must have been acquired by my father’s parents with something like pride. At the time of being acquired it most likely wasn’t even antique; just made from the durable stock people who put down farm roots expected to last. After all there would be other generations of those meant to carry on with the tradition of the farm.
In teenage years, squirting the lemon-scented polish in preparation for those holiday dinners… that’s when it occurred to me how intricately carved, how knobby, how old and different was our dining room compared to that of peers, especially the furniture with little metal wheels at the tips. Talk about a Cinderella complex, some part of me must have relished the idea of humming a tune while I polished with that nylon dust rag, readying the room for a fascinating gentleman caller. Cleanliness was not next to godliness. Lemon furniture polish was a way to enthrall a prince! This is what I fantasize in retrospect but actually I believe I just got lost in the tactile surfaces, the swirling reflective grains.
The robust buffet was certainly entrancing. It had cabinets at either end whose copper-lined doors magnetically clicked in their catches on the inside while having western spoon-handle designs for latches on the front. Within these were stacked boxes of stationary, mass cards and also scribbled letters of correspondence. My mom was a bit of a sentimental packrat in that way, storing these envelopes amid playing card decks, tissue paper, pinking shears, and Butterick clothes patterns. The center drawer held drawers within drawers. The top ones were lined with exotic implements such as shrimp skewers, nutcrackers and nutpicks while underneath rolls of table runners, doilies, and bolts of material lived in a hidden sea of soft, warm, fabric waves.
Above the buffet was a small, two-tier brown knick knack shelf that had grooves for plates and a mirror backing. The backs of reflected objects would have created the effect of more depth if the shelves hadn’t been so crowded. On the top shelf glowed dad’s golden bowling trophies complete with a miniature bowling man in action, as well a ceramic shaggy dog planter who had a red ribbon beneath his hanging tongue. Among the assortment of souvenirs I recall a plate which included the following wise rhyme: We may live without poetry, music and art; We may live without conscience, and live without heart; We may live without friends; we may live without books; But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
On the wall next to that hung an oval print of flowers in a milk jug, the jug partially covered with fallen petals. I say print, but most of my grandmothers framed images were cut from magazines and attached to cardboard with little slender nails holding all in place. The gold-plate frame, maybe a half-inch in diameter, was very ornate, woven of grooves and small openings, as if a multitude of toy king crowns had been melted together. This coalesced nicely with the rectangular gold leaf mirror between the two windows in the room, and of course the glass of the two china cabinets which were like polestars to that apex. Later an actual photo my brother took, had blown up and framed, replaced this mirror. This photo depicted the silhouette of a lion statue taken at a nearby river park, and he seemed very majestic sitting on his haunches between the two windows.
The other things of gold shimmering in the room came from the bookcase thanks to the lettering on the spines of the complete set of Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia. Many a school paper was aided by this series though we learned not to repeat articles verbatim. We did not read the series in alphabetical order but went by a more hunt and peck method when questing knowledge, sidetracked often by the diagrams and photos. A vintage series of Journeys through Bookland by Charles H. Sylvester lined the second shelf of the bookcase. I can still feel the soft leather texture, trace the impressions of letters on the cover of each book. Each overleaf had an illustrated color plate protected by onion skin with incredibly detailed pen and ink drawings scattered about the pages. The tales therein now elude me but I believe this a good thing when compared to the legions of hysterics psychoanalyzed from too much exposure to the Brothers Grimm.
Passing by the mahogany bathroom door with its knob like a gigantic diamond, we come upon the other china cabinet. I am pretty sure my father made this one from a free-standing piece he removed the legs from, again recessing the shelving into the wall. The glass on this cabinet curved round like a snow globe and between its doors was a delicate key. Crystal upon crystal, facet after facet, bounced myriad refractions off one another in this red painted enclosure. I believe they were three shelves to this cabinet and you could pretend that a silver filigreed spiral staircase ran between. At night, when no one was looking the finely cut wine, sherry and water glasses could waltz from floor to floor. A small bottle shaped like an actual fairy tale glass slipper resided in the penthouse of this complex. Carefully removing its cork top conjured imaginative magic.
A linen cupboard comprised the bottom half of this china cabinet. Along with an assortment of washcloths and towels lay the velvet-lined chest for good silverware. It had a hinged samovar lid to display the shining tines of different sized forks which one never knew to use for exactly which dish. On the shelf below, next to my mom’s hair dryer complete with an inflatable shower-like cap, was her pink wicker sewing basket filled with a smorgasbord of threads, tomato shaped pin cushions and even a wooden tool used for darning socks. Are families still as thrifty? Do people still darn?
Furthermore, there were coffee tins chockfull of buttons in case one should go missing from a shirt or blouse. Most were the common four-hole sort, but others made of textured metal or unusual flower shapes had the holes in back. I loved the Rainstick sound of these buttons pouring out of the can, loved to feel their river-pebble smoothness fanning back and forth beneath my fingers. From what river of garments did these relics come? Could you go back in time by picturing a particular checkered winter coat while pressing its big navy blue button to the center of your forehead?
The tall cedar desk adjacent to this other china cabinet provided for games of “Let’s Pretend” too. It had so many carved formations, small gothic bobbins, crenellated edges, cubbies and slots. When shut its rough slanted door was centered by the mystery of a small keyhole, but when let down like a drawbridge, revealing a green felt plane, there were so many drawers, nooks and crannies, a person could not help but stare, start to leaf through, investigate. My siblings and I had to be very careful about this though, for the bills and documents were important and we would catch hell if we messed up their order. We never did find any secret pigeon holes, false backs or bottoms, but this was not from lack of trying, usually using a slender letter opener; but there were still enough accoutrements to make games of Office or Library out of. Finding a cache of wired rimmed spectacles, the kind where the ear pieces curled all the way around, was helpful with our authentic look too, even if our magnified eyes wound up going in opposite directions.
Then of course there was the jet black rotary phone, its disc which lit in the dark, the click-clacking purr of its spinning dial returning over numbers. Once after watching an “I Love Lucy” episode we tried to dial it with our noses and another time, after a detective show, blindfolded, with a pen in the mouth searching for each hole. Sometimes this would inadvertently bring on an annoyed operator. Eavesdropping on the party line and trying not to giggle was actually even better fun, especially when they caught on to us listening in and warned how they’d find us with their x-ray eyes.
The infinitely gifted British singer/songwriter, Kirsty MacColl, recorded a song called “Angel” whose protagonist floated around the house in a state of loving domestic grace. Thinking back to that dining room and it central table of holiday meals I can almost believe such a benevolent celestial sort of energy exists. The angel is hovering over us changed into our best Sunday clothes even though we have not left the house. The angel is taking notes on the murmuring conversations of visiting relations and neighbors amid the carving of turkey and the passing of plates. The angel is peeking around the hanging lamp over the middle of the table set with the best rose-patterned china and cut crystal goblets brimming with home-made tomato juice.
That lamp is suspended by a rope and can be moved up and down. It has a glass hurricane lantern chimney set in a circle of brass. Another oblong bead-like brass piece is above that so the entire looks like a large U.F.O. earring. The invisible angel’s wings are warmed by the lamp while she straddles the rope like Annie Oakley. She is intently listening, smirking, and although we do not hear, when we leave the room, she takes out a trumpet and blows for us her angel song of wonder. About the Author:
A resident of NY, Stephen Mead is a published artist, writer, maker of short-collage films and sound-collage downloads. His latest P.O.D. amazon release is an art-text hybrid, “According to the Order of Nature (We too are Cosmos Made)”, a work which takes to task the words which have been used against LGBT folks from time immemorial. In 2014 he began a webpage to gather links of his poetry being published in such zines as Great Works, Unlikely Stories, Quill & Parchment, etc., in one place: Poetry on the Line, Stephen Mead