Tag Archives: vintage American culture

My Past in Costume Jewelry

Remember when I wrote about feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and wanted to write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear? I wrote about “Magical Bowls” and later about my grandmother’s mailbox sign.

This past week I went through a drawer of old jewelry to photograph it. I like to photograph things that I have packed away and haven’t seen in a long time. That way I can decide what to keep, as well as what to get rid of and just keep the photo. Jewelry was always something that appealed to me. When I was in college, I first worked for a department store in the jewelry department. I even briefly considered becoming a “jeweler.”

I use quotation marks because the definition of jeweler versus jeweller is one of the many things that has shown me how fast our world is changing. When I was in my twenties, there was a difference in the United States between these two professions. Today, the first is American and the second British, but in those days there were American jewelers and jewellers. And one was a more sophisticated job than the other. One actually made jewelry and the other sold it in a store. I’ll be darned if I can remember for sure which was which.

The other happy memory I have about jewelry is that the gardener was even more fond of buying me jewelry for gifts than I was at receiving it. This is what he gave me for high school graduation. It is sterling and onyx and was purchased at a shop on the Kalamazoo mall that specialized in gifts and decorative objects from India.

While I worked in the jewelry department, I managed to purchase a couple of pieces of jewelry with my discount. I thought they were a little better than costume jewelry, almost semi-precious. Today, they have no value as the gold is “gold-filled” and the styles are no longer fashionable. They really are costume jewelry.

But I didn’t stop hanging around jewelry after I quit that job. After I graduated from college, the gardener and I opened a store that sold “accessories.” That included handbags (purses, pocketbooks), billfolds (wallets), jewelry, belts, and gloves. I was always more interested in accessories than in actual articles of clothing, so it was a good fit for me. (Actually, I am not very interested in clothes at all). The gardener worked for Dictaphone as a sales rep, while I ran the store.

Over time, I collected a handful of pieces of “semi-precious” costume jewelry for myself. This is my carnelian Les Bernard necklace. Vintage Les Bernard jewelry is available online at about the same price it sold for originally ;).  Carnelian represents passive female energies (whatever that means).  Check out its meanings here.

Although I enjoyed the freedom from a corporate job running my own store, I was a little bored. Luckily, there were a few aspects of the job I enjoyed. One of my favorite parts of running the store was “doing” the window displays. I never had a class, a mentor, a single comment from anyone teaching me how to decorate a window, but maybe the proudest part of running the store is feedback I got from others about my windows. (I wish I had photos–maybe one day I will run across a photo!) There was a professor at Western Michigan University who loved my windows and one of her assignments was to send her students to check them out and do a write up about them. I would say that the most engaging part of my style was my use of color. For instance, my favorite window was all in bright red and natural wicker/bone. I didn’t bring in any other colors, and the contrast of those two colors was unique and really drew the eye.

Today my enjoyment of interior design is probably tied to my window design background, but I would never want to design someone else’s home interior (although friends have asked me to do so). I have confidence when it comes to doing what I like for myself, but I don’t want to have to take someone else’s “likes” into it ;).

What I noticed as I went through pieces of costume jewelry from one grandmother, then my other grandmother, then the gardener’s aunt, and a piece from an elderly relative who was cousin to my grandfather was that each piece, even if it is absolute junk from the viewpoint of the world at large, means something to me. Each piece makes me remember something about my past. The clay cross from La Purisima mission brought home by one of my children from a school trip, the kukui nut necklace from my parents’ trip to Hawaii, the hand-beaded bracelet a high school friend made. They all mean something to me. When I die, nobody else will have any connection to this jewelry. It will look like garbage to anyone who goes through my stuff.

Sometimes when I go to an antique mall I look at the vintage jewelry displays and try to imagine the stories behind the jewelry. But, honestly, it looks like shopworn seen-better-days stuff to me. That is a crushing blow, probably related to feelings of mortality. So of course I didn’t get rid of anything. Now I have the stuff in a drawer AND the photographs.

While I’m not a hoarder because (to the gardener’s everlasting annoyance) I like to throw things away (he is a hoarder!), I sure have managed to accumulate a lot of stuff for a thrower-awayer. I surprise myself at how sentimental I am. But then you’re probably not surprised!

On that note, have a great week! (hah)

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Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt

Screws and Recipes

Last week wasn’t great. There were several reasons, but the problem with my car can summarize the whole week. Presumably somebody  spilled a huge case of big screws out of their truck at a major intersection that I drove through at noon–when it was super busy. By the time I got my car to Discount Tire, it was the 31st one that day with tires studded with the same screws (just at that one store so imagine how many cars were truly damaged!). Yup, all four of my tires had to be replaced. Luckily, we had bought them in 2008 from Discount Tire, and they provide a lifetime warranty. So the cost was well under my deductible.

Speaking of deductibles, I discovered that my insurance doesn’t cover “road hazards.” What the heck is that about? If a car stalls right in front me, and I can’t possibly stop in time, is that a road hazard? What if a big chunk of concrete comes down from the overpass onto my car, is that a road hazard? I don’t like sneaky loopholes, and that is what it sounds like to me.

I plan to call the police department to see if they have a camera and can see who littered the road and caused all this damage to so many cars. My reasoning is that somebody who doesn’t fasten down a case of screws doesn’t fasten that ladder either–you know, the one that falls off on the freeway, causing a fatal accident.

On a more positive note, I went through my recipe box. I don’t use it anymore. Instead, I keep my recipes in two binders. So the recipes in the box date back a bit. I’m on a path of very very gradually cleaning up some of the old stuff that litters my life. I want to get rid of junk recipes that I’ll never use again–and that serve no historical purpose. I won’t get rid of my grandmother’s recipes although they are mainly breads and cakes that I can’t make for the gardener because of his celiac disease.

I found several recipes that are impossible to make because a key ingredient is no longer sold. But I found three I wanted to make. One is a corned beef cream cheese ball, but when I got to the grocery store, I discovered that they don’t sell those packages of flaked corned beef any more, and if I get some from the deli it’s probably too expensive and the wrong consistency anyway. I don’t remember noticing when they stopped selling processed corned beef in those little packages. If we think about it, we could probably make a really long list of foods that are no longer available that we used to count on.

That left two recipes, and I did make them. One was an ice cream pumpkin pie. This recipe dates back to junior high, which brings back a lot of memories. I had typed the recipe after I got it from two girls in my class. It was a favorite since I always loved both pumpkin pie and vanilla ice cream.

I had to make a couple of changes, though. The gardener can’t eat ice cream anymore because of the lactose, so I used vanilla almond frozen dessert for the “crust.” And I substituted Cool Whip for the Dream Whip (which I haven’t used in decades). I thought it was pretty good, but not as I remembered it. The gardener loves it (and he’s not even a pumpkin person), but since he can’t eat many desserts, he isn’t much of a judge of sweets.

The other recipe was for Coney Island sauce. When we were young, both the gardener and I loved to get Coney Dogs at the Coney Island restaurant in Kalamazoo. While we were in college, we worked at different retail stores downtown, and it was fun to meet at restaurants like this one and share our break. It looks like Coney Island is still in business. If you click the link, you can see the photos of the inside of the place, looking as it did when my grandfather and my mother and I were all kids!

I no longer eat beef (for the sauce) or regular hot dogs,  but thought the gardener would enjoy this blast from the past. The first thing I noticed is that the ground beef I buy is shredded into long tubes, rather than being the ground beef that crumbles in the frying pan. That meant I literally needed to chop the ground beef. Geesh. Then I tried to make it in my slow cooker because it requires 3-4 hours of simmering, and I can’t leave the flame on with cats all over the kitchen. I still simmered it on the stove near the end, but then the gardener told me I should have left some of the juice in. I don’t remember juice in the Coney dogs we ate as kids. He loved the flavor. The bun isn’t as good since it’s a dry gluten free bun and not one of those squishy cheap buns that are part of the fun.

Does it work to go back and try to relive the past by making old recipes? Sort of, but not completely, as you can see.

Even with all the screw damage and other stuff falling apart and causing trouble last week, I completed my writing resolution for the first week of 2018. I wrote every single day, at least 30 minutes. I will never be somebody who writes 4-8 hours per day, and I’m ok with that. But if I can write a minimum of 3.5 hours per week (excluding blog posts), I find that acceptable.

What about you? Did you have any resolutions or goals for the year? Have you made a good start on them?

 

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Food & Drink, gluten free, gluten free travel, History, Memoir, Vintage American culture, Writing

A Sign to Remember

This is my second response to feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir about the “secret life” of objects.

This object is not something I’ve owned for long, carrying from house to house. In fact, I only spotted it in July when we brought my mother home from the hospital.

My mother’s basement has shelves, boxes, and tables overflowing with photo albums and photo boxes. She has little interest in them. They were my father’s treasures. He was the family photographer and tried to hold every memory close to his heart and mind. With him now gone, my mother feels burdened by belongings that she never cherished to begin with. Every time I visit, she encourages me to take as much as I want of our family memories.

Before we flew back to Arizona, I decided to give the photo albums another go-around, taking home as many of the most important photographs as I could pack. I plan to scan them and then email them to other family members. While downstairs, I noticed a metal sign resting on the floor, shoved between two boxes.

This mailbox marker is from the 1960s. My father had it made for his mother’s mailbox when she moved near us from Chicago.

This is how it was attached to the mailbox and what Grandma’s mailbox looked like. If you click on this image, you will discover that there is a company (perhaps) still making these using a machine from the forties. The writer of the article says the company is so old school they don’t even have a website.

Grandma was born in Germany in 1893 and immigrated with her family to Illinois when she was two or three years old. When she was in her early 70s, she decided to leave Chicago for the small town atmosphere of Portage, Michigan, a suburb of Kalamazoo. Dad bought a duplex around the corner from our house, rented out one side, and moved Grandma into the other side. I was ten and could now ride my bike to Grandma’s house.

Not that I liked to visit her. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true. When Mom or Dad made me pedal down her street the houses all seemed to be watching me.  The nameplate on the mailbox signaled that soon I would be walking in Grandma’s door. I always had either terrified starlings or lake stones in my stomach.

But why? I am not sure, but am trying to figure it out. Grandma was a bit stern, a bit strict, at least more so than my Kalamazoo grandmother who was warm and fun. (Kalamazoo Grandma was 19 years younger than Chicago Grandma). Was it a cultural reflection of Grandma’s semi-German upbringing? I think her father was stern and difficult to know. He might have been domineering and given to punishments. But this is a guess based on my dad’s and uncle’s stories. In old photos, Grandma’s mother looks like a sweetheart–sort of like my maternal grandmother. Was it that I was afraid of my grandmother’s strictness?

If so, that’s odd because my father could be unrelentingly strict. She was an amateur compared with Dad in that way.

I remember Grandma, a talented seamstress and tailor, poking a straight pin in my stomach and warning me that I was getting fat. I wasn’t overweight, although for a period of time my belly protruded a bit. I deeply resented her saying this to me, but she didn’t do it all the time. Would I have held it against her? Maybe, but I think she did it after I already had developed anxiety at visiting her.

Within a year or two, a doctor confirmed that I had “water weight” in my abdomen. Years later I would be diagnosed with lymphedema. Where did I get it? From Grandma who never did get a proper diagnosis. Doctors told her it was caused by congestive heart failure, a disease she developed with age, but the swelling in her legs was visible before she was forty–I can see it in photographs. (I hope you’re seeing the thread here about photographs: they can be important).

Grandma always had a glass bowl of Dum Dum suckers for me to choose from. I didn’t care for those dull little things. Tootsie Pops–or better yet, Slo Pokes–were my lollipops of choice. Did I resent not being offered what I wanted instead of what she wanted to give me? It’s possible that she couldn’t afford Tootsie Pops. The candy was only for us because she couldn’t eat it; she was diabetic. Was I a brat? She seemed to try to make me happy, but her ways were limited and without imagination.

Some of my memories make me wonder if I pitied Grandma. Her age? Her solitary life? Some unexpressed sadness deep within her?

I remember Grandma’s home being so quiet that the clock ticking spooked me like a sudden noise in a horror movie. And still. Every object in the dusty rose living room seemed preternaturally still, the sort of stillness that comes before unexpected movement, as if the contents were waiting for me to leave.

When I left and pedaled as fast as I could down the street, I deeply drew in the outdoor air, thrilled to be headed toward my own street.

Then, all these years later, I saw the heavy metal sign in Mom’s basement and brought it home in my suitcase. The gardener didn’t say anything until I pulled out hammer and picture hangers to hang it on the wall of my study. “You don’t want that there, do you?”  Hahaha, yes, I did, and there it is.

Every day I scan a few of the photos I brought home. The other day I found this one of me kissing Grandma, thanking her for the crocheted afghan she made me for my high school graduation (you can see a bit of the pattern in the photo). Proof that Grandma and I loved each other, even if she made me nervous.

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Magical Bowls

A while ago I warned you that I felt inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and might write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear (or in fear). Here’s the first one that I wanted to explore.

I only now have realized that the four snack bowls, speckled like the linoleum floor in my childhood kitchen, are melamine, not plastic. Maybe that’s why they are at least fifty years old and still have their little handles intact, although cracked.

When my parents moved out of their winter condo south of Tucson a few years ago, they decided to get rid of the majority of their furnishings, rather than cart them back to Kalamazoo. They urged us to take what we could of the wall art, furniture, and Dad’s craft pieces. My mom was amused when I grabbed the stack of dull brown bowls. “What do you want those for?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted them.

As long as I could remember, we had eaten Be-Mo potato chips, as well as vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s syrup whipped into milkshake consistency, from those bowls. When Mom kept out our hollowed tree branch bowl of nuts long after Christmas, we filled the snack bowls with smooth pecans and bumpy walnuts that gave way to cracked shell fragments.

The bowls were out at parties, but not for individual snacking. Mom filled them with her homemade Chex Mix and placed them around the living room. Her makeup and bouffant hair were already complete, a frilly half-apron tied around her waist, as she spread out party food, paper plates, and napkins. I placed the spoons and forks in angled lines. Lamplight and low music from the hi-fi set the stage.

As he beamed and told me silly jokes, Dad set up a temporary bar with highball and Old Fashioned glasses, cherries, olives, and a bucket of steaming ice. The anticipation of the party made a team of my parents and me, a protective shield against arguing and my father’s sudden mood changes.

At twelve, I was always hungry; my mother said I had a bottomless pit. When we counted up our daily calories in 7th-grade science class, I averaged 10,000/day. My parents were thin people and not big eaters, so meals were just what we needed for nutrition, no more. To fill up my cranky stomach, I would munch cooking walnuts and chocolate chips from a bowl I’d hidden under my bed.

I wonder today what my mother thought was happening to her baking supplies. And the sugar cubes she kept on hand to serve to company that stayed for coffee. Maybe there were other shortfalls in my life that my mother didn’t notice. In my imagination, as is the way of magical objects, the bowls are always brimming with delicious munchies.

Anybody want to play along and write about the secret life of an object? If so, please post the link in the comments here!

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On another note, you all (that’s the same thing as y’all without me co-opting southern talk, or “you guys” as we used to say in Michigan) know I love family history. You probably know I have a blog called thefamilykalamazoo.com about my family history. Now I have a new–a second–blog about family history. It’s called enteringthepale.com and is about the gardener’s family history from eastern Europe.

I think this new blog, which follows our search for his ancestors, is important work on a very small scale. I am talking about finding and recording the history of Jewish family branches that were either lost or decimated during the Holocaust. In the case of the gardener’s family, we just don’t know yet what happened to anybody or who or where his family was 100, 150, 200 years ago. That’s what I will be writing about on this new blog. I’d love for you to follow. Right now we have about one follower unless you count my twitter followers.

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Gotta Read Those Old Headlines Carefully!

My friend and professor Clare Goldfarb published a beautiful piece in Lilith that involves two of my favorite topics: memory and family history. If you recall, I reviewed her novel She Blinked here. You can read “Material Culture: The Samovar” here. I love how it focuses on an object to talk about family and history. Just gorgeous.

That would make a good writing prompt: write about a family heirloom.

I’m working on the Flash Essay course I’m taking right now, but in my research for essay #2, I found this interesting newspaper article from July 9, 1920. Look below the lake commerce article for that tiny article that begins “Seven Babies.”

When I first read this report, I took it at its word: that there were seven babies that had been killed or kidnaped.  They even clarified in the headline, although they tried to disguise it. I can just hear the argument.

“You can’t leave it so readers think these were real babies.”

“But it makes for better newspaper sales!”

“Put Kewpies in the headline!”

Grumble grumble. I’ll put it in, but in a way that fast readers won’t pay attention and will still think it’s 7 dead babies.

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Haha. Is that all this woman can write about: dolls, cats, and birds?!

Speaking as a doll collector, I can tell you that Kewpies are very popular collector items, and I think this stash of 1920 dolls would be a hit today with the right person.  You can click through the following photo to the blogger who posted about her aunt’s kewpie collection a few years ago. It’s full of cute Kewpie photos, and, yes, you can find a real baby in the mix (though not in this exact photo)!

Today is my BIG birthday. I turn 60 today. I still feel like a smidgling (my made-up word for a wee one), but there it is: 60. That’s a whole lotta numbers!

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, Dolls, Essay, Inspiration, Memoir, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt