Saturday, June 30, 2012

More basement archeology

I certainly do not want to suggest that this comprises the weirdest list of random items dredged from the parental basement and barn; nothing has yet topped, for sheer delight, the shelf of dusty, moldy & empty wine bottles, labeled “Empty Bottles with Good Memories”. But still, there are nuggets to be gleaned here:

• An Ethiopian one-dollar bill featuring a lovely portrait of Haile Selassie, the original Rasta (Who went to Ethiopia? And when? And why? That is to say, I know why I went - long story - but why did the procurer of this dollar?)

• Typed school reports my father and his brother, from Brush Hill School, Spring 1934. Given that we were raised to think that my father, from his earliest years, was brilliant, tri-lingual and able to perform calculus in his sleep, it is rather shocking to read this from Dad’s science teacher: “Philip has shown little progress through the year in extending his interest. Is interested in the things we do without caring to know why we do them.” (Hmmm.)
Or this from his PhysEd teacher: “Philip is keenly interested in baseball…He responds more accurately in rhythms. He is over-critical of others.” (Okay, that last bit does seem more like the Dad we know & love.)
However, this from his music teacher seems apt, then and now: “He still uses only one or two tones in his voice, and he ought to have one or two minutes of daily work to overcome this handicap.
• A collection of certificates certifying the bearer to have circumnavigated the world, crossed the International Date Line, or the Equator, or some other landmark, imaginary or otherwise, issued by assorted airlines, such as the International Date Line Club, Northwest Orient Airlines (last name misspelled); Jupiter Rex/Pan American-Grace Airways/Panagra; Neptune Rex, TWA; Domain of Phoebus Apollo (first name misspelled).
• The House Beautiful Climate Control Project, printed in 1951 by the American Institute of Architects
• Among several items attesting to my wasted youth (all those A+’s in religion), a report made by yours truly when a student in parochial school, in which the sacraments are defined AND illustrated. As this example of genuine contrition:

But what I find most compelling is a brown manila accordion folder, the kind with attached matching ribbons, labeled in my grandmother’s unmistakable perfect convent script: Hans Lehner. That is my grandfather, my father’s father. The script is that of my mother’s mother. Inside this manila envelope I found:
• Hans Lehner’s passports for the years, 1947, 1951, 1955 and 1959
• A program of my Uncle Claude’s marriage to Nancy Mansfield in Seekonk, Massachusetts
• Several photographs of my father and uncle and their father, with lots of dead fish hanging from a string, somewhere
• Lists (both typed and handwritten) of the guests who came to my grandfather (Hans Lehner’s) funeral in January 1965. The lists are long, and only the male member of a couple is named.
• A catalog for machinery and supplies for carding, combing and weaving (50,000 spindles)
• An ink stained handwritten family tree, entirely in German, hence incomprehensible to me
• Three fond birthday cards from Reine (mother’s mother) to Hans (father’s father)

What was not found in the basement or anywhere else, what cannot be quantified or labeled, what is worth all the dredging, the inhaling of old dust, and the grimy fingers, are the stories that get retold, and sometimes, just sometimes, they are even stories I have never heard before.
Thus, peripherally related to the subject of having all this junk in the basement, my mother explained to CSB that when she and her brother and mother left Indochina in 1940, they left in a VERY BIG RUSH. Specifically, European women and children had exactly 24 hours to pack and get on the boat heading east, if they wanted to evade the Japanese army as it scorch-earthed its way south. My grandmother backed up her children, their toys & clothes & books, and left everything else behind. And among that everything else was her collection of Chinese jade.
I always knew that my grandmother loved jade, and I suppose I always knew that my mother’s father was color-blind, because all three of my brothers are color blind, and color blindness is a recessive trait carried by the female. But here is the part I never knew. As he traveled throughout Indochina, my grandfather Arnold, known to me as Bon Papa, often bought jade for his wife, but being color blind he could not distinguish between green jade and pink jade, and he bought numerous pieces of pink jade jewelry and carved pink jade figures, thinking they were green jade. Because he actually had no idea that jade came in many different hues and colors. And Reine, my grandmother of the convent script, known as Bonne Maman, did not want to disillusion her husband, so she gratefully accepted the pink jade, which was lovely, but it was not green.
According to my mother, that pink jade would be very very valuable now, but what do we know? We do not have it in our basement; it is in some Japanese general’s basement – or so said Bonne Maman – although I don’t think of Japanese houses as having basements, and we hope they are enjoying it, pink or green.


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