Saturday, September 19, 2015

Ruined by Jesus: The Trials of Estate Shopping

Estate sales can be awkward.  It's uncomfortable to paw through the belongings of someone's dead grandmother as the family watches, listlessly attaching price stickers to obsolete serveware and Porter Wagoner cassettes.

I'm hyper-aware of everything that's wrong within certain discomforting scenarios, so I kind of hate estate sales, but I also absolutely love them because they are treasure troves of amazing, mint vintage being sold for change by people who can't believe anyone would ever buy this shit.

Today I bought an armload of 1960s nightgowns, from the carefully handmade cotton variety to flouncy pink chiffon with embroidered rosettes, and even a buttery smooth nylon gown that clothiers stopped making 50 years ago because of their extreme flammability.  If you fell asleep with a cigarette in bed, as people were apparently wont to do regularly, you would be quickly engulfed in flames in one of these gowns.  And now I have one of my own!

This was excellent luck, as I've recently become interested in vintage nightgowns and have wasted endless time searching the internet for new pieces made in antique patterns of the Edwardian and Georgian variety.  Let me save some time for you: THEY'RE NOT OUT THERE.  So this dearly departed old Texas woman has saved the day for me, although she's lent me an evening fashion that is less Lady Mary and more Priscilla Presley.  I'm ok with it.

It felt so strange and wrong to be standing in another woman's closet, shrewdly inspecting the state of her clothes, holding things up to myself, and debating on whether I could pull off her things even in jest.  I know she was very old because she had a large collection of hats and gloves, and not only that, she kept them.  She had polyester pantsuits, pencil skirts cut to a 1950s length, chiffon and silk scarves, and dressing gowns with matching housecoats that were too old ladyish, even for me.  They made me recall my great-grandmother, old Italian mother Marian English, and her rigid observation of outdated fashion practices.  Curlers, nightgowns, polyester, and bags that matched your shoes.

My great-grandmother wore a nightgown to bed every night, and put a silk housecoat on over it if she was still up and about the house.  For years, I spent Friday nights at her house, and I remember when she tried to give me a nightgown and housecoat of my own.  I was around 10 years old, and this was too much for me to handle.  We had clashed many times as persons of different eras, and with a diplomacy reserved only for her, I'd usually back down.  I'd eat her bran muffins instead of doughnuts and let her serve me a bowl of frozen grapes as a "treat" instead of candy.  I'd let her listen to Dr. Bob Martin at a deafening volume all day on the radio without complaint.  I followed her instructions on etiquette when it came to answering the phone.  I'd let her force me to wash my face at night even though I for some reason hated to do it, but the nightgown was where I put my foot down.

I looked at this thing made of slimy pink satin, tattered and moth eaten from literal decades of wear, and threw a fit.  I couldn't stand the sight of myself in it.  Something about it repelled me.  It was the opposite of the image I wanted, and I cringed at the thought of my friends somehow seeing me in it.  This went on for a few weeks until she couldn't take it anymore and doubled down on me: I could not wear my dirty clothes to bed on her watch.  I gave in and put it on.  She handed me the matching housecoat - another layer, this time of lace, with floppy rosettes sewn to all the edges.  She had won.

Today's old Texan grandmother also had linens for me, which I purchased for impending projects, a collection of stories by Dashiell Hammett, and various pieces of Limoges porcelain dishes.  She had a collection of dish cloths from the 70s, which I loved, until I unfolded them and found they were all covered with religious art.  More perfectly fine items ruined by Jesus!  The perils of estate shopping in the bible belt.

The grizzly old guy at the cashbox reviewed my items, shaking the nighties and the linens out one by one, and leveled a googly eye at me: You want all this stuff?  Yeah! I shouted defensively.  He laughed and said, "Uh, five bucks I guess."  He doesn't know what a pink chiffon nightgown goes for on Etsy.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Late Summer Turning

I get a twinge each year around September.  A muted voice inside of my bones says the season will be changing soon.  I'm not sure why it's telling me.  It seems that a couple of hundred years or more spent indoors in an industrialized culture might be long enough to make the inner consciousness of your physical body forget about seasonal preparations.  Or maybe a handful of generations in modernity isn't enough to kill the internal calendar composed by thousands of years of agronomic ancestry.

The middle of Arizona is like a glass bowl full of dust placed under a heat lamp.  There's no reason to be worrying about fall in September when living on the cracked earth of one of the hottest deserts in the world.  Still, every year I anticipated a subtle turn that never came.  The feeling would make its way to my thoughts and, for an unconscious moment, I'd allow myself expect it: autumn.  Cold mornings, dark windows behind jarring alarm clocks, changing leaves, and that feeling one gets when it's cold outside but warm inside.  

The summer is long in Texas, too, but it's not that long - the sudden tapering of summer that I sensed a couple of weeks ago when first attempting to write this is real now.  A cool breeze drifts through the hot sunshine, and mornings are not quite cool, but they're no longer warm.  It'll take another month for it to get here, but it's coming.

I guess I just don't like warm weather, because over the past couple of months, I've slunk into something closely resembling the seasonal affective disorder I joked about when living in Arizona.  I really did sleep longer and do less over the summer.  I kept the blinds drawn and the television on.  Texas' summer is far less punishing overall, but in place of the soul-evaporating, dry heat is a constant, pervasive steam.  Mere moments spent outdoors will warrant a shower.  The air will stand and thicken, breezeless, so that you can feel the water vapor as you pass through it, and it lays sticky on your skin.  All movement is exhausting.  The lethargy and physical pain I experienced after exertion had me worried at first.  Had my metabolism simply ended at 32?  Was I dying of something?  Had I somehow gained hundreds of pounds of weight and not noticed it?  I felt like crawling up the stairs to my apartment after leisurely evening walks in my neighborhood.  I hadn't yet researched the great imposition humidity wreaks on the body, particularly when one is used to humid conditions of 8%.  In Austin, a nice day is under 50%.

I began to view the city differently.  To turn, unmoved, from beautiful views that I'm still not quite used to.  Although the creeks are dry and the toads are gone (dead? or moved), the trees and grasses are lush and the greenery hasn't vanished.  Still, the film of humidity smears the beauty of the city, and I began to complain openly of everything that isn't good.  The traffic, the housing market, the obsession with barbecue, my hatred of random live music and ironic mustaches.  Everything was wrong, wrong!  I began my research for a move to upstate NY.

As soon as the heat was cut through with the first cool breezes of autumn, barely recognizable but making all the difference, my mood changed.  The first coolness of the season is thrilling to me, and fills me with a sense of awe and potential.  Driving with the windows down, or leaving the door open for the cat to roll in a patch of cool sun make incredible differences in my quality of life.  Fall in Texas looks like any other time in Texas, but it feels different already.  Everything feels more beautiful, more charming.  Bluejays wing around while deer cavort in tiny preserves tucked unexpectedly around the city.  It's a bit like when Snow White woke up.

Enduring a new summer has given me perspective on my ideal landscape.  If I still believed in reincarnation, I'd think I was looking for something I lost: mountains and forests, and not the kind you find west of the Mississippi.  Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York feel like a return for me.  

Monday, September 7, 2015

Reunion Stories

Iowa is cold in May.  

50 of my extended family members, all mostly descended from my grandma's family of 13, visited tiny Percival for the second Monaghan family reunion.  The first was in 1959.

The farmhouse is still in our family, although it's decayed in the ten years since we saw it last.  It's one of those things you just can't think about, because you can't do anything about it.  It'll be ok, but it's not the showpiece it once was.  Some of the siding is rotting and one of the porch columns has been replaced by some kind of...jack.  

Circa 1915


It was very amusing for me to compare the branches of our family.  All of the Arizona people are dark, aggressive, funny, and a little scary.  My grandma moved to Phoenix in 1949 and two of her brothers soon followed.  Most of their children fit this bill, but none more than my grandma's four children.

In contrast, our midwestern family are all gentle, mild, religious, and peaceful individuals.  One of the cousins from Wisconsin said they were afraid of the Benz kids back in high school.  They were scary-looking, rude, and were still prone to fist-fighting in the living room.  My aunt threw knives at her brothers because she couldn't fight.  I always thought this was a funny lie my father told until he brought it up at a recent get together.  I looked to her for her denial - she only shrugged and said, "They deserved worse!"

My uncle got very drunk one night and missed the toilet in the bathroom the whole house shared.  My dad got up some time after this and became enraged when his bare foot met a puddle of cold urine.  He returned to the bedroom he shared with his brother, punched the sleeping boy in the face twice, and went back to bed.  His brother didn't even ask the next morning why his face was bloodied and his eye a little silver bag.  He just went with it.

Offensive jokes in the parlor
I love to freak my cousin out by recounting my morbid grandmother's tales of death in the house.  No house gets that old without a few grisly experiences.  The parlor we're sitting in held the body of my great-great grandfather Ed Monaghan, who entered the US illegally from Ireland, and worked on the railroads until he could bring his wife and child to Iowa.  They built a little house, and then built this house in 1895.  Their son married a girl from South Dakota and brought her to live in the home with his parents and sister, and over the next 20 years, she had 11 children.  They all lived to adulthood.

Ed's body lay in state in the parlor for a few days before he was buried in Nebraska City.  My dad made sure to tell my brother that the night he slept on the couch down there.

My great-aunt Julia died in the house during childbirth and she probably stayed a few days in the parlor, too.  Ed's wife Bridget died in there and doubtless lay in state as well.  These are practically ghost stories to us now, but death wasn't so intimidating back then.  It happened all the time.  When someone died, there wasn't a service to come haul the body off before you had to look at it like there is now.  You'd probably wash and dress the corpse yourself, then leave them in your front room for a few days in case anyone wanted to see it before it went in the ground.  No big deal.

The overture screen from Gone with the Wind?  No.  My great-grandma's porch.
My skepticism grows as I age and I can't even pretend to believe all the paranormal shit that I at least cautiously considered in the past.  Still, I think the house is a little disturbed.  I've slept there several times and each time has been less restful than the last.

It's the only place where I've ever woken up screaming in the middle of the night.  It was a setting of pure gothic horror: a lone Victorian house in the middle of an empty stretch of middle America.  A violent electrical storm with tree branches beating at the windows of the tiny upstairs bedroom I slept in.  A dream of a creature or spirit advancing upon me in the dark and a scream when it finally arrives at the bed.  

An old black walnut mirror sits on a shelf in my bedroom now.  It's from the farmhouse, some of the original set of furniture purchased by my great-great grandparents in 1895 for their fancy new house. The wood is chipped and splintering now and the glass is speckled and cloudy.  One of the few superstitions I allow myself is an aversion to keeping mirrors in the bedroom.  I don't like catching a reflection in the dark, and I guess that's one old Irish widow's tale that stuck with me - I don't want them in there.  But this one is, and it's ok.  I like to think of the faces that have looked into it and imagine the glass remembers them and could show them again.  That's not really reducing the creepiness of having a mirror in the bedroom, but ancestral ghosts don't seem so scary.