My parents did a lot of stuff. They’re gone now, but some of the stuff lingers on. I have 20 large paintings that my father did — a few from the ’50s, most from the ’70s. That’s only a fraction of his output. Today I was looking at photos of him at work in his studio in about 1975. Interesting work hangs in the background of the photos. Most of it is gone now. Some of it may have sold; a lot of it is just plain gone.
I live in a 4-bedroom house, but even so, I have wall space for only a dozen of the paintings. And a dozen is too many. The house is jammed with paintings. In order to make the house more livable, I’m going to have to take some of them down and store them.
For years after my father died, my mother kept paintings in a big storage rack in the garage. Over the years, things happened to some of them. There was damage from cat urine, in some cases. The damaged canvases are gone now, either sold in the estate sale or, in a few cases, simply tossed in the dumpster.
I’m not going to store the ones that remain in the garage. Even though I don’t have cats. I can stack them in the middle bedroom. Hang five or six and rotate them every six months.
I could fill every wall in the house with family photographs if I wanted to. I don’t want to, but damn, I’ve got hundreds of good ones. Going back to around 1880.
Looming behind this little logistical logjam, though, is something deeper. A sadness about the meaning of a life. My parents were intensely involved with life — a fact that I sort of missed at the time, or took for granted. What I have now is a collection (a very large collection) of bits of left-over meaning from their lives. Not just paintings, and not just photographs (though Mom was a dedicated shutterbug — I threw out hundreds of photos of trees, cats, buildings, and workshops that she attended). I have shoe boxes of old letters and assorted scrapbook materials that never got assembled into scrapbooks. One of the things I threw out today was the program for a high-school play that I was in almost 50 years ago, “Teahouse of the August Moon.” God only knows why my mother kept that program, but she did. She kept birthday cards my great-grandmother sent to me. My third grade report card. My sister’s kindergarten report card. Prescriptions from the doctor for medications I was given when I was a baby. I have my mother’s social security card and my father’s last driver’s license. I have a clipped lock of my father’s baby hair from when he was one year old.
I have two shoeboxes full of collectible china or porcelain high-button shoes, which my mother inherited from her mother. None of them, unfortunately, is very valuable. (I checked online.) I could surely get a few bucks for them, but it almost wouldn’t be worth the hassle of finding a dealer. I have a double-pan weighing scale for gold nuggets. It belonged to my grandfather. Oh, and also an 1897 breech-loading army rifle that my grandfather gave me when I was about 8. It’s not valuable either; it was a standard-issue infantry rifle in the Spanish-American war. I have no idea where he picked it up.
None of this stuff has any real relevance to my life, other than for prodding me to think about my parents in a new way. I have no children, so when I’m gone it will all go into a landfill somewhere. I have more interesting things to do in my own life than sit around for months or years on end poring over fading memorabilia. And I really don’t care to warehouse too much of it. I don’t even want to warehouse the paintings, but they’re far too good to get rid of.
Here’s a photo of my father when he was an usher at the Lincoln Theatre in Decatur, Illinois. He was 17, so the year would have been 1927 or 1928. He’s wearing white gloves. In those days the Lincoln Theatre wasn’t a movie theatre, or at least movies were only a small part of the fare. It was a vaudeville theatre. A few years later — this would have been about 1933 — there was an article in the Decatur Herald about a golfer sinking a hole in one. The foursome listed in the article included my father (by that time the poster painter at the theatre, not an usher) and a young vaudeville comedian name Bob Hope. I have a photostat of that article.
I have a still life painted by Elmer Bischoff. Elmer and my father became friends in the late 1930s. Later on, Elmer became a fairly famous painter. On the back of the still life, in red capital letters, it says, “Ben — Merry Xmas from Elmer, 1940.” That still life is stored in a closet at the moment. I need to figure out a place to hang it.
I don’t have any of my father’s figure drawings. He did dozens of them, over the course of many years.
Next week I’ll be playing in a concert with a community orchestra. We’ll be playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Maybe I ought to save the concert program. My mother would have. I don’t want to burden myself with more memorabilia, but somehow it seems wrong to just let it all slide away.