Monday, December 24, 2018

Mum and the Dogs

It didn't start with dogs, it started with flamingos.

Every year when I go home to Pennsylvania to see family, I sleep in what was my old bedroom. Nowadays my old room is full of my mother's crafting projects; painted slates, decoupage. (I admire the things she makes. I have four pieces at my desk at work, and keep a painted tea-kettle and a collage coffee-pot in my library at home.) Most of her projects get cleared away before I come to visit. (It's a lot.) And on what will be my nightstand again, next to the button-lamp my mother made, there they are: two ceramic planters in the shape of spaniels, one green, one red. They're decorated with a kind of swirling, 70s, floral mange and they have daisies for tails. Their heads are elongated as if they are being pulled slowly into the gravitational field of a black hole. Their dead eyes stare at me when I reach to turn out the light every night. They are hideous. My mother knows this. I hasten to add, my mother did not make these abominations. (My mother's projects are actually rather beautiful.) The dogs came from an auction box, or a yard-sale, years ago. Their only purpose is to taunt me. They're a running joke between my Mum and me; call it, Brad's War on Kitsch.

As I say, it started with lawn-flamingos.

When I was a child, we went sailing on the weekends.  Never had a boat.  Not much for being on the water.  Yard-sailing, we went, my mother and I.  My hometown, hers too, didn't have a bookstore.  Still doesn't.  We went to yard sales because we were, if not poor, far from "comfortable," as the rich say. My mother likes a bargain. I needed books. The Thursday paper listed yard sales.  Sometimes the listing mentioned books.  We always went to those first. If we could, we'd try to go Fridays. First day had the best stuff, before it "gets all picked over." I had school and Mum worked, so we had to go early or not at all. She cleaned college dormitories, which was horrible, and the homes of the local professional-class; professors, doctors, and the like.

I couldn't have been more than ten when I tripped to the fact that any house with a lawn-flamingo was unlikely to have books, and even if books were advertised, the books would not amount to much if there was a flamingo in the yard. My mother found my snobbish deduction hilarious, but over time had to admit the truth of it.

When I came home from college for the first time, my father made a sign for the yard that read "Welcome Home Brad." My mother put lawn-flamingos on either side of it and stood grinning by them as we pulled into the driveway. After that, it was our "thing."

For my last birthday I got a shirt with tiny flamingo print, a necklace of flamingos, a flamingo that nods in the sun, etc., etc. In my middle-fifties. Mum's in her eighties. The woman is relentless.

Actually, my mother is known for for her style. Her taste is good. She dresses well, never leaves the house without her face, has an eye for fabrics, and color, and drape. She taught me to see beauty in simplicity, utility, age. She doesn't know the word, but she has always been quick to point out the ersatz and to find the one good thing amidst the dross. Were I to find fault now I'd just say she's always been sentimental and likes "cute things" simply for being "cute," and that we do not share.

It was, I think, my father who bought the painted plaster dogs that lived either side of the front door. These were ugly; machine-made, badly painted, clumsy. I found their ugliness offensive. I would hide them behind the furniture. Likewise I'm pretty sure Dad was the one who got the Fork and Spoon salt-and-pepper-shakers I hated as a kid. I thought them impossibly tacky. My mother thought them "cute." I used to hide them in a cookie jar that sat unused on top of the refrigerator. My mother is short and could not reach them there. They didn't "go" with the china I liked. Quite the little aesthete, setting the table in the double-wide.

I was an insufferable little shit, is what I was.

One Christmas, my mother sent me the Fork and Spoon salt-and-pepper-shakers, beautifully wrapped. Next time I went back for a visit, I hid them in plain sight in her china-cabinet. Got them again the next year for Christmas. I made her a calendar the year after; color pictures of Fork and Spoon, in a different setting each month: under a palm tree in California, in the mountain snow, visiting Las Vegas.

It was a thing.

And now the dogs. In retirement my father made a living from reselling stuff he bought in auction-lots: furniture, housewares, collectibles, "junk." The dogs came from there. My mother it was who probably rescued them from "down in the building" where such stuff is sold. Brought them up to the house specifically to put them by my guest bed, just to goad me. Relentless. She doesn't even much like dogs.

Dad did. He always kept dogs. Blueticks, bloodhounds, beagles, and mongrels, some for hunting, some to race, some just company, but all his dogs. When the last ancient beagle, slow as death and deaf as a post, went off after a rabbit and never came back, Dad said he was done. "Too old to chase her," he said, "home or heaven, up to her." He was right. She was his last dog.

My mother only ever had the one dog, Buster. Only animal big enough to bathe that ever lived in her house -- other than us. Buster was his name. Buster was special. A bright little terrier-mix. He'd hide under the sofa and growl when my scary grandmother came every day. Smart. He stayed when I left for college. When he died on the road, my mother said she'd never have another dog and she never has. People tried to give her dogs, still do, but no. My brother's dog, Bear comes across the yard from his house to hers every day now. Brings her the newspaper and gets a treat. Since my father died, when they bring my mother's supper, Bear brings the bread in a bag, or a napkin, something, just to have something to bring. That's his job. Otherwise he sits on the porch mostly.

Nowadays, my mother's mostly alone.

When Dad was still alive, he was in on the running joke too, specially around Christmas. One year they sent me a giant tin frog for the yard. Not pretty. Another time they sent an antique mirror decorated with -- wait for it -- painted pink flamingos. You get the picture. Relentless.

I still have Fork and Spoon, by the way. Mum has a picture of them framed in my old room. Everybody wins.

Auden said that the surest sign that a person had taste was that the person was never sure of it. I don't known that I'm sure of nearly so much as I was when I was fifteen. Fork and Spoon seem rather dear to me now.

But those ceramic spaniels? Those things are just ugly as sin.

Well played, old woman, well played.

Miss you.

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