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Home Movies

My first piece of original art that I ever paid to have professionally framed was given to me as a gift by a 23 year old, divine, Canadian artist, Lupe Rodriguez, who I knew for a brief, but fun, 7 weeks one summer, 42 years ago. It’s called, “Home Movies”.

That painting has hung on every wall of every home that I’ve ever had.

When you slam the mudroom door in my house, the paintings on the walls sometimes shift.  I was straightening that painting recently when I realized that I never saw her again after that summer.

“What ever happened to Lupe?” I wondered.

In the early months of college in 1977, I started to worry about what kind of summer job I could secure so that I wouldn’t have to go back to my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and scoop ice cream at Isaly’s again.

I saw an ad in the back of the New York Times Magazine section for summer instructional counselors at a sports and arts camp in Parry Sound, Ontario.

Something about the arty aspect of the ad appealed to me, so I applied, old school, with a letter that highlighted my brief work history (scooping ice cream, waitressing, working at the college equipment checkout desk) but which also emphasized my major in Film and TV, as well as having to master an understanding of the principals of still photography. Wait. I even mentioned that I was a field hockey player in high school and could easily teach that if called upon. My 20 year old self was throwing it all on the table.

No such thing as overselling when it comes to applying for summer jobs.

A couple of weeks later, I received a letter requesting my references and asking me to call the director of the camp for an interview. (No cell phones in those days’ folks).

I wish that I had been able to record the phone interview.  To this day, it makes me think I should have gone into sales. I was offered the job as the Photography Instructor/Counselor. They would secure the necessary papers that would allow me to work in Canada and would pay me in Canadian dollars, which at the time, was about a plus ten cents on the US dollar. It was something like $1200 for 7 weeks of work and all the bug juice you could drink. I did have one small negotiating point that I brought up at the end…I had a boyfriend who was an amazing basketball player and recent college grad.  He would make a fabulous Instructor. Could they take him, too? Bingo! My summer was set.

Lupe Rodriguez was one of the first people I met. She had been hired as the Studio Art/Painting Instructor and she was, in my mind, the movie star version of an artist.  Not only was she incredibly talented, she towered over me and had this European essence that made me laugh at my plebe-y self. We would take respective breaks from our Studios and meet outside to just howl about ridiculous stuff and smoke cigarettes.lupe2.jpg

lupe1.jpg

Lupe was a few years older than me and had just finished art school. We compared notes about our dreams of what our futures would hold. She was going to be a famous artist and I was going to be a filmmaker…None of that starving artist bullshit.

When you’re in your 20’s, anything is possible.

Towards the end of our seven weeks, she emerged from her studio with a signed painting for me called “Home Movies”.  She had painted it on a piece of linoleum and ran it through the press two times. I got the first one. I don’t know what happened to the second one. I am hoping that I gave her something, too, but I can’t remember.

42 years had gone by when I launched a search for her on the internet.

The first thing that came up was her name and the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Canada. I clicked the link and landed on the exhibit Lupe Rodriguez: Radiant Passion. She did become famous and her paintings were stunning. The opening paragraph on the home page went like this:

As artist, educator, arts reporter, world traveller, cultural celebrity and serious aficionado of historical and contemporary art, Lupe Rodriguez shared her extraordinary passion and remarkable insights with thousands of people in Toronto, the GTA, across Canada and around the world. Her vivacious personality and love of art and life was infectious. Many of those who have known her have remarked that her exuberant and colorful artwork directly reflected the radiance and passion of her character.

I became aware of the Dreaded. Past. Tense. I held my breath and read on:

On October 4, 2008, Lupe Rodriguez passed away after a courageous battle with leukemia, leaving a great void in the lives and hearts of many – but also leaving behind an astounding body of artwork that embodies the spirit of a great life lived.

A wave of sorrow came over me. The only comfort was discovering that she had married, had two children and lived, what sounded like, a most amazing life in spite of it being cut short by cancer. She was cherished. She was loved, which was way better than our 20-year-old selves looking for fame.

I dug into my old black and white negatives from that summer and digitized those that had not disintegrated.  I wished I could have shared these with her.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer as to why we never reconnected.  I hate to say the very trite life happens, but it does.

This has reminded me to always be thankful for the small gifts that you receive. Lupe will live forever in my “Home Movies” and in the hearts of everyone she touched, including some 7- week friends, like myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catching Some Rays

Of all the photographs I’ve taken, this is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a picture of my Dad, catching a nap, on his cherished, Thrift Drug, foldable chaise lounge chair. During the summer, he would zip home from the office at lunchtime, whip off his dental gown, and catch a few rays on our back patio. He really loved the sun.

“Bald heads look better with a tan”, he used to tell me. In those days, he didn’t wear sunscreen and from the look of his chest, can you blame him?

Photographs can tell you a lot. This one not only reminds me of my Dad’s ability to chill, but it also reminds me of why I spent years in electrolysis. Genes are a powerful thing, you know.

It’s been ten years since my Dad left this earth. He died in an I.C.U., tethered to a bunch of life saving equipment that ultimately failed to do its job. I am not the only one in the world who has witnessed a parent or loved one leave life this way. It is nothing short of horrible and if you’re not careful, it can burn a haunting image in your memory.

Thank goodness for the power of strong visuals. I have found that old photographs can provide the necessary assistance for coping.

Frida Kahlo mustache not withstanding, this photo always makes me smile and is the one that I have buried in my heart.

 

 

The Great Grandma Google

Seven years ago, I wrote an essay about the time I accidentally threw away my Great Grandmother’s cherished engagement ring in the garbage and how I luckily found it in the dump before it got sent out to sea. It was a miracle of sorts and an episode that I revisit from time to time when I think about what I would have done if I hadn’t found it. That ring conjures up so many memories of my growing up in Pittsburgh with my loving, but oh-so-domineering, Grandmother. Who would have thought that some old jewelry could do that to you?

The other morning, I was thinking about how little I knew about my Great Grandmother, the original owner of that ring. She died the year I was born and nobody really talked about her. I kind of remember my Dad telling me things like, “She wasn’t very nice” and my Mother’s recollection which was a little more descriptive: “She was ten times meaner than your Grandmother, and that’s sugar coating it.” But for the most part, she remained a mystery. My Grandmother never spoke much about her except to tell me that she was extremely smart, followed by a knowing wink. It was almost if she was letting me in on a secret, without telling me what it was.

There was one unusual thing that she did mention to me back then, but I never really followed up on that because I thought it fell into the pool of my Grandmother’s other expert exaggerations like, If you cross your eyeballs they’ll freeze, Your Dad could have been a professional tap dancer, Sit up straight or you’ll be a hunchback by the time your 20, My podiatrist is madly in love with me, and so on. But today, in this easy age of Google, I felt like this story was worth looking into.

When I was ten years old, and practicing my memorization of the Gettysburg address, my Grandmother told me that during the Civil War, her mother’s family was kicked out of Kentucky by Ulysses S. Grant because they were Jewish. Why this came to my mind now, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s all this immigration talk in the news or maybe it’s because I don’t sleep and have many early mornings to sit and think about life.

It took more than a few hours on the Internet and a couple of phone calls to Paducah, Kentucky to find out that THIS WAS TRUE!

My Great Grandmother, Bertha Livingston Newman, was born in Paducah, Kentucky on June 18th, 1877. Her father, Mangold Livingston came from Germany around 1850 and settled briefly in Smithland, Kentucky. When the railroad came to Paducah in 1850, he relocated there and set up a wholesale dry goods and fruit operation, the M. Livingston Co. (think early Costco). He married his wife, Amelia Friedberg, also from Germany, around 1861. During the Civil War, Paducah was a Union stronghold but it became the place of smuggling and illegal trading with the Confederate South. Apparently, Ulysses S. Grant was super pissed about that. Some reported that Union soldiers were the ones doing the illegal trading, but somehow the Jews got blamed for it and Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous, anti-Semitic General Order No. 11 in 1862, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Given 24 hours to leave, Jewish families had to pack-up and head north. Bertha wasn’t born yet, but her parents and older siblings began to make their way toward Ohio. A Paducah man by the name of Cesar Kaskel, immediately traveled to Washington to meet with Abraham Lincoln and report this unconstitutional decree. Upon hearing this, Lincoln ordered Grant to revoke the order. Within a week, the Jewish families returned to Paducah and resumed their lives. My Great Grandmother was born there 12 years later. She grew up in Paducah, met her husband, Sam Newman, a businessman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Enter the ring…hello, 1895) They relocated there (that’s where my Grandmother was born) and eventually moved to Pittsburgh in the early 1900’s, where my Great Grandfather started the Keystone Grinder & Manufacturing Company, an outfit that made gadgets, which fixed busted Railroad Tracks. Old documents, county certificates and voting registries enable you to track movements, but without primary sources or saved correspondence, it is impossible to investigate “intelligence”. All this great history and my Great Grandmother didn’t leave a trail. What made her “smart”? Why didn’t I follow up on that with my Grandmother while she was still alive? The only thing that I can surmise is that Bertha had something to do with my Great Grandfather’s successful business, but I have no way of fact checking that one. We all know that behind-the-scenes women were seldom recognized in those days. Is that what the knowing wink meant?

I have to believe it was. Bertha deserves a story.

The photo I’ve attached to this essay is Bertha’s wedding picture. To think that she was wearing the ring that I tossed in the garbage in this beautiful shot, gives me eternal chills…especially when I envision her supervising the repair of broken railroad tracks.

Oral Obituary

When I was growing up, there was a lot of magazine reading going on in my house. My father, who was a dentist, had a newsstand of subscriptions ordered for his waiting room, but our house always got first dibs. We had them all. LIFE, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Woman’s Day, Harpers, Vogue, Tiger Beat and Good Housekeeping, which encouraged my mother to try daring Sunday night recipes that almost killed us. On top of that, were two daily newspapers, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the former Pittsburgh Press, plus the weekly Jewish Chronicle. We were a classic, news-informed, current events family, with ink-stained fingertips and two steps away from a Hoarders episode if reality TV existed in those days.

An early favorite magazine of mine was Highlights For Children. Before I even read some of the silly stories in there, I made sure to do a few puzzles and circle all the hidden pictures, in pen, no less, which really upset my siblings. It was a first come, first serve, ethos in my house. When my brothers got older and discovered Mad Magazine and then Playboy (that one never made it to the waiting room), many who-had-it-first, mailbox fights ensued.

Growing up, I noticed that we each had a unique reading behavior. My father’s was peculiar, but memorable. He was a real newspaper man. Before he ever read the headlines or the sports, he went straight for the obituaries. He didn’t even know most of the dead people that he read about, but he was infatuated with how they met their end, their various backgrounds, their summaries of good deeds, and the family they left behind. We used to make fun of him for turning to that page first, however he couldn’t help himself.

“They are supposed to be read,” he would justify, and occasionally, he came across someone he knew.

Was he curious? Yes. Was he being respectful by reading the obituaries? Yes. Was he entertained? Yes to that, too. When I graduated from college and moved to New York City, I occasionally peeked at the New York Times Obituaries. Some of them were like junior novels. Most of them far exceeded the half column allotted in the Pittsburgh papers.

I remember calling my Dad and reading him a few. “They’ve got some pretty impressive dead people in New York,” he said.

My Dad was so funny. He had an arsenal of great one-liners. He used to fill his patients mouths with dental dams and gauze and then practice his jokes.

“That is what you would call a captive audience.” I accused.

“They’re still laughing” he reported, “Muffled, but laughing”.

“We’ll have to add a stand-up comic line, to your obit,” I replied and we laughed like hell about that one.

Sixty years later, long after my Dad had divorced my mother, retired, dated like a madman and finally married a woman 4 years older than me, he was rushed to the hospital with an intestinal blockage. While in the ER, he had a massive heart attack and never regained consciousness. He was kept on life support for 14 days, his wife trying everything possible to bring him back.

I was never a fan of his wife and she was never a fan of mine. These are common occurrences as families go through shake-ups. She was not comfortable with the closeness that my siblings and I had with our Dad. We felt her tremendous rejection from our very first meeting. I think that she truly believed that since we were adults, we should get our own life. She wanted a life with only my Dad.

Over the time that they were together, she would make brief appearances at family functions, but as the years wore on, those sightings became less frequent and when they suddenly and secretly married five years before my father’s death, she avoided all contact completely. Unfortunately, my father deferred to her isolationist policy and our relationship was relegated to letters and phone calls.

While sitting in the ICU, trying desperately to make comforting small talk, my father’s wife announced that she did not want an obituary to be released upon his death. My facial expression to that declaration prompted this next unforgettable line:

“I don’t want the world to know that I’m some rich widow,” she said.

My sister was sitting right next to me and for the first time ever in our lives, we were completely speechless.

A few days later, my father passed away. As per his wishes, there was no service. I wrote his obituary that night and faxed it to the funeral home. To prevent false reporting of deaths, I learned that Obituary submissions must come directly from a funeral director. I got a call the next morning telling me that my father’s wife was forbidding its release.

“That’s insane.” I said. “I’m his daughter!”

The funeral director agreed with me and apologized profusely. Because my Father’s wife had the Power Of Attorney, she was able to prevent the one thing my father enjoyed most about reading the newspaper. My heart sunk. How could we deny him his very own obituary? As a result of her decision, we had to call each and every one of my father’s friends and relatives and tell them what had happened. His death announcement became an oral Obituary; delivered by his children, recounting the great things about him in ways that a paper truly couldn’t. Although this situation was beyond incredulous, my Father’s wife gave us an inadvertent gift as the constant retelling of my father’s oral Obituary helped us cope with his death.

I never spoke to his wife again. I can only hope that when she encountered people who asked about my father’s whereabouts, she let them know that he passed away and wasn’t home reading the obituaries.

That was seven years ago. I recently found the original “benched” obituary. I wanted to embed it into the end of this essay for no other reason than I now had the power, but I realized that it didn’t hold a candle to the oral version of which I’m still telling.

(Photo of Edward Newman Aronson, 1934, age 9, practicing his stand-up routine on a dirt path in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We think that the cigarette might have been real.)

Found My First Selfie

In the summer of 1975, as an early birthday present, my Dad bought me my first 35mm SLR camera. I remember how hard I lobbied for it (now I know where my kids get it from) and how excited I was to finally get it. It was a Canon FTb and it had the coveted 10 second timer which, back-in-the-day, allowed you to be in your own photos.

I can tell a lot from this photo and I am certain that I hadn’t yet figured out how to use that 10 second timer. I shot a few portraits of my Dad that day, but he got annoyed that I was interrupting his lawn mowing.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the price tag is still hanging from the strap. I’m standing on my back patio, taking a photo of myself in the reflection of the sliding glass door and probably thinking, “I look so cool holding this camera!”  and there in the background, is my Dad, captured on film, trying to escape the “Just one more” pleas of yours truly.

Taking The Pledge

When I was little, this was dress-up of the highest order. With nary a rank, and absolutely no earned badges whatsoever, my six-month brownie stint made me feel like I was a world leader. Where else at the age of seven could you get a pseudo military outfit like that?

There was something very “Princess Grace” about those gloves and I remember that you had to wear them when taking the pledge or posing for troop pictures. This was the closest I ever got to the “service” and was probably my most favorite uniform (Isaly’s Ice Cream, not withstanding.)

Speaking of pledges, for all you nostalgia buffs, here it is:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

I take my pledges very seriously as you can see by the expression on my face. Thank goodness this one emphasized the word try. 

Sentimental Garbage

(This is the original article that appeared in Women’s Health Magazine. Reprinted with Permission by Rodale Press)

Over the years, I have acquired some nice jewelry. I’m not a bling person, but I treasure jewelry with sentimental value. My high school ring, my mother’s pearls, my wedding band, and my all-time favorite, my great-grandmother’s platinum, old European-cut, diamond engagement ring, which I wear all the time. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother (she passed away when I was three), but my grandmother wore it every day. I used to play with it on her finger. Often she would let me wear it and I would run around claiming to be royalty.

My entire family was scared to death of my grandmother, who at 4’11” was opinionated and judgmental and not known for her sense of humor. In 1963, four years after her mother passed away, her husband (my grandfather) died from cancer and bitterness consumed her. Around this time, at the age of seven, I started to accompany my father on weekly visits to her apartment. She was always angry. My father listened dutifully while I sat quietly drawing cartoons on scraps of paper from her desk.

I was never afraid of her. Maybe it was her size, I’m not quite sure. My grandmother must have picked up on this and soon asked me to come to her weekly painting classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh, Pa. She was an amateur painter of endless landscapes. Prolific is not the word; excessive seems better. Her many works hung all over our house and my father’s office. I later figured out that no one was brave enough to tell her no thank you.

I rather enjoyed the attention of this mean old woman. She would let me carry her blank 18×24 canvas into class, which at the time, was about half my size. I remember taking great care weaving through the other easels as I followed my grandmother to her painting spot. When I would catch the stolen stares of the other adults in the class, my grandmother would bellow out, “What are you looking at?” It was a harsh response for sure, but I smiled politely. I didn’t want people to think I was scared because I wasn’t. I sat there for three hours every Saturday doodling away. Occasionally, she’d ask for my opinion. “I don’t think water looks like that, Grandma,” I offered once. The entire class became deadly silent. She turned to me and asked, “Do you think it needs more green?” I became her sidekick and midget muse. For the first time, I saw what it was like to lift the sadness from a person. She was different around me, and I liked that she found me worthy enough to accompany her.

When my grandmother died 28 years later in 1993, my father gave me the ring and I became the keeper of something whose value could never be measured. I immediately got it insured, but the document said nothing about its true worth. When I put it on my finger, I was flooded with the all the memories of my grandmother’s deep affection for me. There was magic in that ring and now it was my turn to wear it. The thought that I would pass this on to my daughter one day became almost spiritual.

I like to keep the ring shiny because that’s how I remember it on my grandmother’s finger. One night last spring, it was exceptionally dirty so I took it off, cleaned it thoroughly and left it wrapped in a tissue on my bathroom counter. When I awoke in the morning, I forgot it was there as I tidied up the bathroom, and swept it into the trash, along with a few q-tips, random tissues, and an empty mouthwash bottle.

Moments later, I heard the garbage truck rumble down the street. I swept quickly through the house and dragged the trash to the driveway. Twenty minutes later when I woke my youngest for school, he let out a tremendous sneeze. “Ewww,” I said, “Use a tissue.” And with that, I looked at my finger and stopped dead in my tracks. “What’s wrong?” my son asked, but I couldn’t speak. I ran to my bathroom and looked at the counter. Empty. No tissues. I looked in the wastebasket. Empty. No liner. I looked out my front window at the garbage bins. Empty. Clean. Tipped over. The blood left my body.

There was no time for tears. I immediately called the carting company. The truck had compacted the garbage and was headed to the transfer station. I gave a succinct but passionate summary of what had occurred and begged the dispatcher to radio the driver. I would meet him at the transfer station. I would pay the extra costs, but I had to recover that ring. The dispatcher, a lovely woman named Lillian, heard the distress in my voice. “Hang on,” she said, “Let me see what I can do.”

I waited for 110 seconds. I did not breathe until she got back on the line. “How fast can you get to the transfer station?” Lillian asked. “Four minutes” I lied. (If you drive the speed limit, it’s eight.) “He’ll meet you there, but don’t stop for coffee,” she said. I left my house in my ratty pajamas, no bra, tousled hair, and very bad breath. I grabbed my dish gloves, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. I screamed out to my son to make sure he got on the bus.

I got to the transfer station in 5 minutes and 30 seconds. I was led by the gate guard to a huge building where several large refuse trucks were backing in and dumping into a cavernous rectangular compacting pit at the back. I was instructed to wait for all the trucks to finish dumping and that my truck (note the possessive) would then dump its contents onto the floor of the garage where I could sift through the entire load.

As we were waiting, I asked my driver how many more houses he had picked up since mine. I think he said 12, which meant approximately 120 bags were on top of my 10. “Your wedding ring?” he asked. “My great-grandmother’s ring,” I said with reverence. I stared at the garbage. My senses were numb. I put on my dish gloves. I sifted my mind for strategies. I remembered that I used white plastic bags with red ties. My truck backed into the enormous shed and dumped its contents. My heart sank. One half of the load was white garbage bags with red ties. Does everyone shop at Costco?

I asked the driver which heap might be my street. He pointed to somewhere in the middle and I jumped in. The bags were all compacted so you had to shake them to get them to expand. “You should rip them open and check the addresses,” said the attendant. “If you find your street, you’ll know that you’re looking in the right place.” This gave me tremendous hope.

Has anyone ever seen a week old chicken wing? An exploded diaper? I ripped open bag after bag. I saw things that I can’t even repeat. Suddenly I came across a soiled envelope with my neighbors address on it. “My street!” I screamed, and my garbage man came over to help me sort through the compacted bags. Soon I had exposed my entire street’s garbage. That’s when I saw it. A compacted, white bag with red ties and an empty mouthwash bottle in it. My hands were shaking. I opened the bag and recognized my garbage.

I gently squeezed each balled up tissue until I felt it. I opened the tissue and there in all its shiny glory, was my great-grandmother’s ring. I burst into tears. Hysterical, sobbing tears. My garbage man came over, patted my back and put his arm around me. In broken English he said, “It’s okay, Miss. No cry. You found ring.” I pulled it together enough to ask him one question. “What is your name?” I sobbed. “Jose,” he said. “Thank you, Jose,” is all that came out.

I walked back to my car and turned to watch the attendant use a backhoe to dump the contents of my garbage truck into the in-ground compacter. I heard the crushing sounds as the 500 cubic feet were reduced to five. I peeled off my gloves and placed the ring on my finger. It glistened in the early morning sunlight. The sentimental value of things can never be measured, but they can remind you of the power of love. I only hope that one day, when this ring belongs to my daughter; she will have an even better story of how she kept it alive.