Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tribute To My Mother, Part Two: (A Few Houses)

The Pink Palace - named for the pencil-veined Tennessee granite which gave it its coloration - was once the biggest house in Memphis.  It had been constructed during a time of irrational exuberance, by a man for whom the irrational came quite naturally - though he had a good head for business and created, albeit briefly, a grocery store empire that has lasted to this day.  Well, he was hit pretty hard by the Depression - which hit a lot of people that way - and had to give the place up.  Since then, it had become the city museum, a pilgrimage-point for the curious bystander who might slake his thirst for novelty on carefully planned exhibits that were both educational and entertaining.  Not that all the exhibits were that way.  Some were right out of peoples' attics, whose contents were as evenhandedly displayed as the museum-worthy stuff. 

When I was a kid, the Palace was a grab-bag of science and intuition; it had legitimate, museum-style sections, where you could study rocks and minerals.  Or bird's nests, which were displayed, alongide of the once-living loot that was inside of them, in glass cases.  It could also give you an amateur's take on what should end up on a wall or display-unit.  One of my favorite experiences consisted of reaching through a hole in a log and feeling around in the vacancy therein.  If I felt around for a minute - or got lucky and hit something right off the bat - I could begin a tactile quest that yielded bafflement or a tentative identification.  "That's a turtle!" I'd say, then flip up the hole-cover and look inside.  Then I'd go onto the next engima and try to penetrate that.  Not a learning tool for the ages, but it got me going.

There was visual stimulation galore.  You could wander along a grand staircase and watch steel-doubleted Spaniards skirmish with Chickasaw Indians.  Inside of glass cases, bird specimens awaited your insight and commentary.  And, hanging along various corridors were the grisly trophies of patrician-style exploration - by which I mean the heads of mostly African animals, which were killed on safaris.  I think every small museum had some of them because museum donors were often the kind of folk who went over to the "Dark Continent" and killed things they wanted to pose with, preserve for themselves, and ultimately display.  What the museums thought of these donations, in their heart of hearts, in not, alas, on record.

I didn't care for them then and don't now.  I wouldn't have known what the word "vainglorious" meant, but that's what I thought about them.

Not so all the guns, knives, swords, battle-armor and such.  I loved those things quite madly and wished I could have some of my own.  My mother - who often took me there - was understandly dismayed at the blood-lust of the small child she had nurtured to believe in the sanctity of life.  Yet she also knew that boys will be boys.  And boys like to kill things.  Or at least see that they'd been killed by others.  Better, she must've thought, that it be secondhand.  She would eventually allow me to own a curious WWI rifle, which was too big for me to do anything with but set out somewhere and admire.  I'm sure she hoped the message - of deadly implements being too unwieldly to use - would carry into my adulthood.  In that regard, her message has taken.  I have never shouldered arms for my country - or for anything else - and don't intend to.  If somebody wishes to kill me that way, I will engage all of the alternative survival skills at my disposal, but will not tilt, steel to steel, with anyone.  

In any case, the Pink Palace was the only house of its type that was open to Memphis' peonage.  And my mother was smart enough to know that, if she took me to such a place, I'd imbibe a sense of the Finer Things which might carry through to my adult years, during which I might be able to surround myself with such things.  Or at least know where to find them.

That hasn't happened, but it's hardly her fault.  What I did do was adapt her policy for house-finding - which took on myriad forms as I got older.

Before I talk about that, I'd like to mention another place - which will stand in for many - she may have identified as being potentially useful to me as I staked out my own territory later on.  Or perhaps she just wanted to get us out of the house.

Her choices were not conventional.  And they have led me in unconvetional directions.

Most American cities did not discover themselves until urban reneweal had cut a catastrophic swath across their Old Townes or Historic Districts-in-waiting or to-be-beautiful Inner Cities.  My mother had insight enough to understand the historic gravity of such places and took me - and, later on, my brother and me - to them.  Again, one of them will have to stand in for many. 

The oldest historic house in Memphis was built by an Irishman who was, I think, engaged in the practice of law.  It was way, way downtown - which obliged my mother to get us on a bus at the corner of Kaye and Mt. Moriah - the neighborhood's busiest thoroughfare and a major boundary between lesser wage earners - who lived in dinky houses - and somewhat greater ones - who lived in houses that were merely small.  It is from these trips that I can remember Memphis' high points, which came to us in the form of crossroads and intersections.  Or not-very famous restaurants that stood out because there was nothing else of any interest around them.  Memphis didn't look like a traditional city until you were downtown, when it assumed the skyscraper proportions people from the outside expected.  Before you were there, it was as spread out as a country village that had succumbed, as Clarence Saunders had, to an irrational exuberance only more territory would satisfy.  

The bus-ride from Kaye and Mt. Moriah to downtown was probably tedious for my mother, who was stranded in the city's eastern corridor by the dictates of post-WWII marriage whereby the triumphant veteran toiled manfully while his helpmeet dithered around the house with the kids.  I think she relished these motor-trips as much as we did.  And invested a lot of time and research in them.

Our destination was a clapboard-sided structure situated on one of downtown's East/West-pointing streets, which, in that day, housed law offices, city agencies, and older residents who had seen their wispy formalities go up in a whoosh they would never fathom and could ignore from marble-clad interiors.

The bus put us on Second Street, from which we walked down a ways.  I don't remember whether my mother had to make an appointment to see the place, but any visit was marked by a ritualistic gravity that was very impressive.  When we arrived, my mother signed the guest register and waited for a guide to show herself.  She'd read that tours were given and had an idea of when and how long.  Thus far, however, no one had come to greet us.  In lieu of History, we concentrated on phenomena we could see and hear.  The house's floors creaked underneath us, wavy window-glass let in the light as sparingly as it could, and the voice of our guide (finally!) echoed from polished wood surfaces and brass fittings.  I'd never heard a voice that was room-filtered.  Our house couldn't do that - though we had some very nice hardwood floors.

"And where are you all from?" asked the guide.

"East Memphis," said my mother.

"I see," she said, managing to combine disappointment in our predicament and pity for us because we'd never find a way out.  She was a society lady who'd decided to slum it here.  She was stuck in an old house for a few hours, but she could leave after she was done.

Putting her best foot forward, she said: "Welcome, everybody, and let me show you some of the house's salient characteristics."

There followed a tour that was distinguished by its attention to the details of family and reputation.

"It was here that Andrew Jackson stood and spoke of monetary freedom," she said at one point.

At another: "The china here came from Eastern trade.  Before it was fashionable.  It is a complete set the family used when visitors came from out of town."

"Feel free to look around," said the guide when we were done.  "I'm always delighted to show the house to people who come from Memphis itself.  Most of our visitors are from. . .other places."

She managed to say that as if seeing the place, as a Memphian, constituted a lapse in taste.

Whatever the tour's shortcomings, it gave my mother an opportunity to soak up history - which was, for the most part, derived from her own forebears, who had settled North Carolina and Kentucky, where she was born and spent the formative years of her life. 

I wish I could remember whether she was exercised by our guide's condescension.  It's a safe bet that she was.  She was instinctively enraged by assumptions that were informed by the prejudices of race or class.  This old lady had assumed that we were poor, and in need of dignified recreation.  Both were true, but my mother wasn't used to people holding that against her.  I wish I could remember her exact response to the lady guide.  It must've been most assuredly withering.

Yet the visit had taken.  In subsequent years, I sought out pictures, not of people, nor of great panoramic views or natural phenomena, but of buidlings.  The most frequently drawn image of my childhood was The Alamo - which had been immortalized, not only in song and story, but in a recent movie - which we all saw on a big screen downtown.  The Alamo's Spanish-influenced design and terra-cotta palette appealed to me instantly.  I drew it so much, it got so that I could mass-produce it.  If somebody wanted one, I could draw it from memory.  Easy as anything.  Just make a box, round it off in the middle, open it up at the front, and there it was.  Sometimes I would put in figures, mostly in the throes of dying.  The Alamo had witnessed a bloodbath on its way to ushering in Texas statehood.  That was part of its appeal.  If a building could be enhanced by occurrences in which a lot of people died, preferably by sword, bullet, or fire, I liked it a whole lot better.  

Knocking out Alamos constituted my first encounter with the brisk professionalism that has not exactly distinguished my career, but it's gotten me out of things I haven't wanted to do.  At its best, professionalism dictates that a person can do something for money, under pressure, or when he or she doesn't feel like it.  It is why professionalism in the arts is a mixed proposition.  Most people do their best work when they want to.  And it is, presumably, from one's best work that one is universally recognized or arbitrarily forgotten. 

There were other houses in the real world. 

When I was in junior high school, a manic friend of mine and I found a place that was recently abandoned and had not been well-plugged.  It was accessible through front, back, side, and possibly, other places we felt no need to explore.  Like practical citizens, we chose the easiest point of entry and went right in. 
It was as if the family had sat down to dinner, decided to abscond as the plates were being cleared away, and left, as quietly as possible, through a side door.  Every stick of furniture was there to reflect sumptuous tastes on an ample budget.  There were even living things - in this case, poor palms that were stuck in enormous vases and sentenced to a certain demise.  In adjacent rooms were all the accountrements of an affluent lifestyle: a big library, the overstuffed furniture that is conducive to drowsy reflection, other odds and ends that minister to deep thought and perpetual comfort.  There was a rec room with a pool table.  Along its baize-covered surface, we rolled the balls somebody had recently shot into side and middle pockets - which were pouchy and leather-spun.  There were boxes everywhere: of books, magazines, and memorabilia.  Letters spilled out of one: intimate letters that were meant for one person and one person only.  One had a lipstick print; another said: "Absolutely Private!!!"  The place was in pretty good shape, but it would soon need attention.  From a visible roof leak, a brownish trail led down to the floor.  Birds had not nested along the crown moulding, but would eventually.  Some window-panes had been broken; when that happens, you'd best have a recovery plan and put it into action. 

"Look at all this stuff!" somebody said.

"Yeah, we need to get busy!" said somebody else.

This particular friend of mine was, more than I, torn between two opposite tendencies: an appreciation of aesthetics and pure, infantile greed.  The latter controlled his actions, though the former tempered them a little.

"We need to get something to put this stuff in," he said.

"But what?"

"I'm thinking."

We eventually carried the things we wanted out by hand.  I wanted that box of letters.  He got a chess-set, I think, and a box of things he wouldn't show me.  I suspect there was money in it.  He always got to the money first.

Then we came up with the bright idea of a red wagon, an inconspicuous thing nobody would notice as we dragged it down a conspicuously suburban street that wasn't quite twenty years old.

One of my major personality flaws, then as now, is an inability to keep a secret, so, after fidgeting with information that was doing nothing but banging around my head, I decided to tell my mother what I'd gotten and where I'd gotten it.

I showed her the box of letters.

"What are they?" she asked.

"They're. . .things I've found."

"Where did you find them?"


"Does that somewhere have any location?"

"I guess it does."

She wangled the whole story out of me with no trouble.

"What do you intend to do with your treasures?"

"Keep them, I guess."

"Do you think that's right?"

"Uh. . .I don't know."

"Well, where did you get them?"

"In that house."

"Whose house?"

"I don't know their names."

"But it was somebody else's house."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I think you know what to do, don't you?"

I ended up calling the family that had presumably walked away from the place after a tasty dinner and moved somewhere across town.  The name was a prominent one and had many branches.  I got lucky and called the "right" person the first time.


I told him my name and sketched out the reason I was calling.

"I see," said the person on the other end of the line.  There was nothing threatening in the way he said it.  It was his way of allowing me to gather my thoughts if I cared to say anything else.

"I'm sorry," I said, "that I took your stuff.  I've taken most of it back."

My mother motioned for me to take everything.

"And I'll bring the other stuff back tomorrow.  It's late.  It's. . .I shouldn't go over there at night."

"No, you shouldn't," he said.  "It's probably rather scary."

"Yessir, it is.  I mean, I don't know that from experience.  I'm just guessing."

"I do," he said, "and it most certainly is scary over there.  I think it's one of the reasons we all left."

I could tell he'd made a richly humorous comment for which I was expected to provide the appropriate response, so I chortled at him through the mouthpiece.  That satisfied or dismayed him - I couldn't tell which.     

After commending me for being honest, he said I could have anything I wanted.  I couldn't quite understand his cavalier attitude toward things that explained and illuminated his own origins and had, furthermore, outlasted his occupation of a place he might care to remember someday.  My mother was also wondering about that.  In spite of her studied detachment, she was as concerned about the disposition of these properties as I was.  And why not?  The acorn wasn't falling very far from the tree.

"We have what we want, but I appreciate you asking," said this extremely civilized person who sounded local, but had been other places.

"So I can have whatever I want?"

"Yes, you may.  But I want to thank you for your courtesy."

For stealing?  What kind of person was this?

"We think about the old place now and then and sometimes wish we could have kept it.  But it was ours to walk away from and, as such, we can't very well keep people out."

In the end, I felt too guilty to keep much of anything.  The wagon that had come away, went back.  In the course of several trips, I'd gotten an oil painting.  That went back.  I'd taken a dissecting kit that was housed in a leather-covered box.  That too was returned to its original resting place.  The letters and magazines I kept, but with a degree of discomfort. 

My friend took nothing back and kept getting more.  By then, he had competition.  Back-loading trucks had pulled as close to the front door as the uneven terrain permitted.  They were loaded with furniture and driven away.  The last time I saw the place, it was sadly - if understandably - denuded. 

At some point it was torn down.  By that time, I had moved on.

That discovery led to many others downtown, to which I made pilgrimages on the same bus that had taken my mother and little brother there.  This time, I was exploring such wholesale urban renewal that, if I'd thought of engaging a back-loading truck myself, I could have filled it each time I visited.  The only limitation consisted in the wreckers' timetable, which could make a house disappear in a couple of days.  The average house - if that's the word - was a stout Victorian that would not come apart without main force.  I remember walking around Beale Street, which parallels Vance - which had the most ostentatious residences - and finding a house that was so sturdily constructed, and in such pristine condition, that I could take one of its pocket doors and push it with my middle finger back into the wall.  It made a gliding sound and went right in.  Within a matter of days, those pocket doors were in a stack of salvageable items somebody in a super-large vehicle would have to come and get.  The spot the house occupied was a swath of black dirt.  When I went up to it, it smelled faintly of wood-splinters.  Bulldozer-chewed bricks indicated that something other than a shack had been there. 

All this from a visit to an undistinguished property my mother thought we neo-Memphians should somehow get to know.  We are advised to be careful about what we wish for.  Well, there's no wishing for the life our parents lead us into.  They just do it and we have to make of it what we will.  I'm, for my part, glad that we made that trip.  Through it, a sense of the past seeped into me - a past that leaves visible footprints only for a time.  Such experiences prompt some of us to look for them in the midst of vacuums we can neither anticipate nor control.  But they are not vacuums to us; we know what was there and it has some sway over our imaginations.

When a parent dies, the vacuum can begin to swell.  It's up to us to re-populate it with sounds and voices we can hear clearly enough to pass them along.  That time, for me, has come.  I'm here now, I remember less than I wish I did, but what I remember needs my fullest cooperation and conscientious stewardship.  Which is, alas, always greatest under pressure.  In years to come, such memories will fade as they grow old themselves.  We all have much to tell, but the urgency to tell it is hardly ever as great as it ought to be.  I'm doing the best I can for now, but I will inevitably move on, as life-addicted people will do, to something else.

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