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THIS BLOG HAS A NEW NAME: DIY Found-Art for the Sentimental Packrat   Leave a comment

This blog was transferred to its new domain, postkatrinastella.com  in November of 2013.

Its new name is . . . DIY Found-Art for the Sentimental Packrat.

DIY Found-Art for the Sentimental Packrat

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What this blog offers falls into 3 categories:
— Artistic guidance with your mementos, showing you how I turn mine into found-art sculptures, and helping you make your own.  Write me at postkatrinastella(at)gmail(dot)com
— Entertainment when the stories behind my mementos are full of joy, nostalgia and the flavor of New Orleans, and
— Therapeutic support and sounding board when the memories, yours or mine, evoke grief, depression, anger, and the demons of our past.

Posted September 25, 2014 by Laura Stella Sitges in Uncategorized

I’m expanding!..but will keep this site up while I move to my new domain.   Leave a comment

Recently, several friends suggested that I use my blog to teach other people how to make photographic still-lifes and found-art sculptures from sentimental clutter they don’t want to throw away, but may feel pressured to do so by lack of space, or just lack of inspiration.  So, dear readers, I am creating a new domain to be the new home of . . . tadah . . .

DIY Found-Art for the Sentimental Packrat:  What to do with clutter from Grandmere’s attic, Poppee’s workshop, boxes labelled “sweethearts” and “travel” and “children”, even backyard excavations. 

It’s got everything the old Calhoun Rising site did, plus one thing that’s new.  

The old:  The autobiographical theme is still there, with a focus on my magical grandmother, Tisolay, and my deliciously eccentric home, New Orleans, as well as the historical theme, with a focus on my ancestry and the wealth of heirlooms and documents that I have inherited, and a twist of French Louisiana history to serve as a backdrop.  The Do-It-Yourself focus on the art that can be made of the tangible mementoes of our lives, while new (and delightful) in that it will bring me into closer conversation with you and make me the richer for meeting you,  is not really something new as much as it is a different slant on something that was already there.

The new: The new feature that was not a part of Calhoun Rising focuses on art therapy, my own brand of it, anyway. . . because working with the mementoes of our lives summons memories that can tap directly into our deepest demons.

So please forgive the absence of new posts for a while.  I hope to have completed the transition and resumed working with my mountain of sentimental clutter by the end of the year.  And I hope to see you on the other side with worthwhile things to communicate.

Posted November 7, 2013 by Laura Stella Sitges in Uncategorized

Violin/clock sculpture   Leave a comment

Granddaddy playing his air violin

Granddaddy playing his air violin

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For as far back as I can remember, Tisolay and I have been playing music together, both on the victrola and on the piano to each other.  And for almost that long, there have been two records we could put on that would make my grandfather, regardless of what he was doing or where he was in the house, come into the livingroom with his arms waving in the air, bowing and fingering the neck of an imaginary violin; the Franck violin & piano sonata and Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.   It was a pretty safe bet, too, that before heading back to his study, he’d slowly growl, “Laura, did you know that your grandfather was the world’s worst violin student?

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One day in 2006, a box was delivered to my house from my step-father who, since the unexpected death of my mother the year before, was packing up to leave New Orleans.  It contained a bunch of small things that had belonged to Granddaddy, odd and broken tidbits that were left behind after most of her things had been donated to the university where she taught. It was a bittersweet delivery, coming on the heals of my mother’s one-two punch: first, her breaking my grandmother’s will in ’04, taking away my half of the estate, and then, after my mother’s unexpected death a year later, her will specifying that everything Tisolay had originally left to me was to go instead to the university.

A box of Granddaddy's things

A box of Granddaddy’s things

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But, coming 2 years after her death, time had lessoned both the shock and the heartbreak, and post-Katrina construction had come to monopolize a great deal of my attention.  So, after the initial moment reliving the loss, I took notice that the main item in the box was Granddaddy’s violin, broken, but both neck and body present.  Also in the box was the silk scarf, given to him by his mother, he used to pad his collar bone as his chin held the violin against it.  Another item that I loved more than my mother realized, I suppose, was a cow horn bugle that had hung over the fireplace by Granddaddy’s chair since before I was born.  Together with his box of chess pieces, an old rope with a clamp hook, his gold belt buckle, Granddaddy’s things began to reconfigure themselves in my artist’s eye, mostly thanks to the fact that the violin’s neck had already broken off.  I saw the body of the violin as a sailing ship, the neck as a mast, and Granddaddy’s scarf, which fell into sections at the barest touch, as sails.  The long handled opium pipe, cut in half (*cringe*, yeah, I know), would serve as crossbeams for the sails.  I saw a few chess pieces as people and horses standing on deck, a leather case of throwing dice as cargo, the curve of the horn as a wave beneath its prow, the rope coiled neatly in seaman’s fashion, and next thing I knew, I was thinking of all sorts of things from my life with my grandparents that lent themselves to a nautical theme, things Tisolay had been sending me home with for several years without my mother knowing about it.  I thought it was a healthy sign that I could find creativity and fun in things that had symbolized such betrayal and emotional gutting only a year before.

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Wynken, Blinken and Nod

Wynken, Blinken and Nod

The Owl and the Pussycat

The Owl and the Pussycat

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There were illustrations having to do with the sea from the children’s books Ti used to read to me.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

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"Laura in Belize" by Tisolay, ca. 1967

“Laura in Belize” by Tisolay, ca. 1967.

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There were drawings that she and I did together that were sea related, like her imaginings of my first trip to Belize when I was 9, drawn in ball-point pen in one of Granddaddy’s unused appointment books from a previous year . . .

Baccarat seahorse

Baccarat seahorse

. . . and my crayon drawing of a crystal seahorse figurine out of a Baccarat catalog, similarly drawn on one of G’s old notepads from his bank.

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Proteus krewe favors

Proteus krewe favors, Granddaddy’s tux and tails cufflinks

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Proteus silver doubloon, 1978, my year

Proteus silver doubloon, 1978, my year

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There were mementoes of their many Mardi Gras balls together, mostly Proteus.  Proteus is the Greek god of the Sea, and Proteus krewe favors usually took the form of either scallop shells or seahorses.

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Mementos of the SS Drance, 1959

Mementos of the SS France, 1959

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There were mementoes of Tisolay and Granddaddy’s trip to Europe on the SS France in 1959, the year after I was born . . . luggage tags and dinner/cabaret reservations, an SS France ribbon, and a map of Florence.

Ti adored Florence, and the 1966 flood broke her heart, especially the damage to the Cimabue crucifix.  She read to me everything she could find on the restoration, especially when National Geographics wrote about it.

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There was a  pamphlet and passenger list from the Munson Steamship Line which took Granddaddy to Brazil in 1928 for one of his first bank jobs, where he also got the aquamarine ring that scandalized his not-yet-mother-in-law, Tiwazzo.

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.Tisolay’s broken Wedgwood coffee saucers make for good rolling waves beneath two French Polynesian island stamps that Ti had squirreled away in a drawer.  The three pottery shards I found on Deer Island on the Gulf Coast, known to be a rich midden-site of Paleo-Indians about 10,000 years ago.  Before Katrina, anyway.

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.     ****  PLEASE FORGIVE THE DELAY.  SHOULD BE COMPLETE BY DEC. ****

.nautical clock

long-handled opium pipe

frame

turquoise jewelry

Chinese cookie form

silver figurehead

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Cicadas on a Train   Leave a comment

Cicadas on a Train

“ALL ABOARD” – dada-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-deedle-deedle-deedle-deedle-dada-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da………. thank you, Ozzie.

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As far back as I can remember, I have loved the sound of cicadas.  Every summer, high up in the canopy of the big oak trees around my grandmother’s house, the air came alive with their raspy buzz and the shrill “reeee-ur-reeee-ur-reeee” that undulated back and forth between the trees, as they advertised for a mate.

watercoloring in Tisolay's garden

watercoloring in Tisolay’s garden

That sound meant that school was out and I would get to be with my grandmother for the next 3 months in her garden, watercoloring, listening to Chopin or Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals from a microphone Tisolay’d had installed outside under the roof eaves, maybe drinking fresh lemonade with crushed ice from that old hand-crank affair on the kitchen wall . . .

Waiting for the Red Wing ice cream truck,  . . or maybe waiting in the tree outside for the Red Wing ice cream man  to come by,

Waiting for the Red Wing ice cream truck . . .

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. . . or maybe waiting in the tree outside for the Red Wing ice cream man  to come by . . .

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Owl’s Pussycat

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. . . or just lying in the warm grass, eyes closed, with the sun shining red through my eyelids while Tisolay cut fresh flowers and greenery for the house (and took pictures of me).

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Tisolay's swinging arm wasn't half bad!

Tisolay’s swinging arm wasn’t half bad!

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That sound meant the interesting swing that Tisolay found and put up in the big Crepe Myrtle.  It came with several kinds of seats that slipped on and off, and cross bars that could make a ladder to get up into the tree.  My favorite part was that I could then pull it up after me and pretend that no one could get to me.

My tree fort

My tree fort

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I think there was something about this that brought out a jealousy in my father, and one day, on one of his blind drunks, he came and cut the whole thing down.  I never knew about this until years later when Tisolay told me how badly it had broken her heart that he would do that to me.

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Later, when my grandparents’ house became a refuge from the horror that was my parents’ marriage and my mother’s resentment over motherhood, that sound meant safety.  Now that she’s gone and I yearn for her so, that sound just means her.

But in those early years of innocence, the sound of cicadas meant that it was time for us to go treasure hunting for their shells in the English ivy that grew so thickly up the trunk of the big hackberry tree out front.  I collected them, and kept them in my grandfather’s steam engine cigarette lighter next to his chair in the library.  The mound of coal was really just a lid for a cavity which was made, of course, for storing cicada shells.   Well into my college years, to Tisolay’s amusement, I made sure Granddaddy’s train lighter stayed full of cicada shells.

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Not long after, though, a freeze killed the big hackberry tree, and we never got around to finding another place to look for cicada shells, content enough to listen to our neighbors’ cicadas.

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Fast forward 20 years.  I started dating a man whose house lay beneath no fewer than 3 giant live oaks, and that first summer, I saw my beloved cicada shells again.  But everywhere!  And their singing was like Tisolay purring in my ear.   So I married him! 😉

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Until last year, I had never seen a live cicada up close, only their shells.  I knew that nearly their whole 17 year life was spent underground; that only in their last weeks of life did they emerge, shed their skins and take wing up into the trees, where they mated and died soon after.  But still, with the thousands of cicada shells I’d found over the years, to never once find one with its bug still in it seemed strange.  Then last year, in our garden, there he was, my first, sitting eye to eye with me in a trumpet flower bush.  He sat for hours without moving, well into the night, as though he were waiting for something.  Was he about to shed his skin?  I watched him for hours to see, and checked a couple of times through the night, but the next morning, when I came poking around with my camera again, he just flew away.

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So this past summer (’13), I set about trying to find a cicada emerging from his shell, and, paying closer attention than I ever had, I began to see signs.  Evenly-shaped, round holes began to appear in the ground and between the bricks in the patio under our big oak.  Once, to my horror, I stepped on one of the poor little guys as he was walking across the patio, having just emerged from between two bricks.  One of Tisolay’s little winged angels… I felt so horrible, and couldn’t take another step in the garden for weeks without looking where every step was about to fall.

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But I didn’t see another one for weeks.  Finally it occurred to me that maybe all the action happened at night, so one night, I went outside with a flashlight around midnight, and stayed until 2, looking under every elephant ear, their favorite place to molt.  Bingo… and a spare.

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They stayed put for about 12 hours, letting their wings harden and dry, and then flew off to make their wonderful racket in the trees.

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Both of them were fully out of their shells by the time I found them, though, so I still had not seen the molt in progress.  Then, one day, I was hosing off grass clipping and saw in the clippings a cicada grub who must have just emerged from the ground, then gotten washed into the grass pile.  I scooped him up in a tupperware, put some wet mud over him, and kept him on the patio.  Sure enough, after sundown, I looked into the mud and saw an even round hole up from the bottom where he had come out.  He was only a few feet away, crawling slowly toward the elephant ears.  Not wanting to risk losing him,  I picked him up and put him on an elephant ear stalk.  He seemed quite content with the spot I’d picked for him, and stayed put.  I had no idea how beautiful their pastel colors were when they first came out.

A good spot

A good spot

All full of mud when he started, he came out a clean, sort of pearlized pastel, with little nubs where his wings were rolled up tight and folded over in half.  Big droplets of water came out with him to smooth the squeeze out

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When his wings were done unfolding, they were the most beautiful color of aquamarine.

Such brilliant

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Almost dry

Now go make babies, and I’ll see them in 17 years.

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So glad to have this lovely world for your last chapter of life.

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* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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Another one, already mated and ready to die, let me say hello.  Stayed on my headrest for hours.  Thank you, little one, for your song, for being Tisolay’s messenger.

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Archaeology sculpture . . . .   Leave a comment

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In 2008, my husband and I decided to raise our house to a two-story.  The house was jacked up, the old 1930s slab pulled out, and an 18×18 trench was dug around the periphery of the house and up the middle for a new foundation.  I knew that the house was built in 1892, in an area along the Mississippi River bank first developed for the workers of the 1885 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Expo right next door, a block upriver.  It was a cozy neighborhood of little Victorian cottages raised on 2-ft brick piers (square pilings) with Eastlake gingerbread at the porch columns and roof eaves, much as it is today except for the fact that some of those cottages now sit at the top of what are now 2-story houses.  In 1895 the levee broke, causing the neighborhood to raise their houses about 7 feet off the ground.   When my husband bought the house, he had torn out the dilapidated apartments that had been carved out of the 1st floor of the house, but been turned down for a permit to close it back in unless he raised it another 2 feet.  So when the crew pulled up the slab and started digging new foundation trenches, I knew I’d be doing as much excavating as I could for as long as they were digging.

Cut crystal bowl

Cut crystal bowl, in 9 pieces

The crew was Nicaraguan and at first didn’t realize why they’d come to work in the morning to find the piles of soil they’d dug the day before shifted a few feet over, but eventually I told them, “Soy una archeologista” and they left me alone.  But after their shovel found a shard of ornamental cut crystal, and then another and another, they started bringing them to me and asking, “Esta viejo?”  But by the time they brought me their 9th piece, and saw that I’d cleaned the others and laid them side by side, showing that every one of them fit together, and that they now formed half of a very ornamental bowl, they were mine.  From then on, I’d go down in the evenings and see that they had left things for me, placed neatly on top of the mounds.

pottery shards

pottery shards – some delicate china, some heavy crockery, teacup handles

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In those evenings, sifting through the dirt with clamp lights, extension cords and mosquito repellent, I found the usual mix of things.

glass shards

glass shards – bottle necks, a liquor decanter stopper, decorative feet and handles

glass pieces, whole

whole bottles, a mason jar lid & drawer handles

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iron, tools and hardware

iron hardware, wrench, broken pickaxe head, heavy nail & horseshoe

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The joint and horseshoe were found in the back yard where a buried foundation with features dating to 3 different periods indicates an out-building, possibly a barn-turned-garage or toolshed.

bone

bone, some butcher-cut, joint of cow or horse

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hints at domestic life

hints at domestic life.

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My favorite things are those that give you a glimpse of family life.  For the man of the house, several kinds of pipes; corncob, terra cotta, and the old white clay kind with the long skinny stems, usually from the 1800s.  Also a liquor decanter stopper.  For the woman of the house, a cold cream cosmetic pot, a picture frame, lipstick tube, skeleton key, shell button, curler pin, toothbrush, ink pen, table knife,  and a Delft scuttle handle.  For the children, a slate chalkboard marker, the foot of a porcelain doll, a bunch of marbles in glass, glazed ceramic and bisque, Mardi Gras doubloons and a king cake baby, a checker, and a Scotty dog pendant.

A civil war bullet (under the king cake baby) predated any building that was on the land, probably, and a glass hypodermic ampule would have been brought into the house by a doctor.

A thing doesn’t have to be old to be interesting – the tin ashtray is from the 1980 visit Pope John Paul made to New Orleans, when he officially designated St. Louis Cathedral as a Basilica.

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Square nails

hand-hammered square nails

roof slate

roof slate

wallpaper

wallpaper

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chimney summer front

chimney summer front

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I also kept artifacts that were part of the house.

doorbell

doorbell on segment of discarded floor joist

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1940s newspaper, map of German-Russian border

1940s newspaper, map of German-Russian border, stuffed in crack between fireplace and wall

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Something immobile that I wanted represented, so included a photo of, was the base of the old cistern, a 7 ft wood barrel for collecting rainwater.  It had once been behind the house, connected by a pipe to gutters on the roof, but was now half covered by a 1930s extension to the rear of the house.  The old meter box, once outside on the corner pier of the back wall, was still on the wall, long abandoned, both it and the stuccoed pier left as is as a column inside the new back room.

lid of old meter box

lid of old meter box

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Base of cistern

base of cistern

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The Civil War bullet got me thinking.  I had an 1883 map that showed a house on the property in a different place than ours; that ours was the second house on the site, not the first.  But the area had been wilderness just before then, so why would a bullet from the 1860s be here?  Where the 1885 Expo was, though, a few blocks further inland nearer the train (now the St Charles streetcar), there had been a Civil War training camp; I’d seen a photo of it, and I could see those guys walking to the river, up and down the banks, hunting and fishing.  Plus, the Expo site had been chosen because it had been the late 1700s plantation site of Etienne de Bore, the man who revolutionized the refining of sugar, land that was nicely cleared and laid out, and still big, having yet to be subdivided divided.

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By the end of ’08, so much stuff had accumulated that I put it all together into a “P” shape, for my husband’s name, mounted it as a wall sculpture and gave it to him for Christmas.

Original archaeology sculpture, 2008

Original archaeology sculpture, 2008

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But . . . if I thought that I could file this project under the “done” heading, I was sadly mistaken.

I kept finding things.

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Dug out a sunken segment of old brick sidewalk hidden beneath the grass outside the fence? . . found an old Western Union jacket button and a 1930s Green River Whisky token.

Cleaned out the rubble of the outbuilding foundation at the back of the property, where the horseshoe and joint bone came from? . . . found a horse tooth.

Put a potted plant in the ground? . . .  dug up a belt buckle, a woman’s rouge compact, a piece of a pierced porcelain food container (vege crisper, steamer?), and a hand grenade that Irv said he’d gotten at an army-navy surplus store with the kids when they were little.

Pulled up weed saplings from the slab of the demo-ed carport? . . . found a metal accordian-arm extender, strings of unused hook-and-eye eyes and nut-and-bolt nuts still bound together on their corroded wires, a rubber furniture wheel, drawer pull, barn door hinge, and a fishing leader with weights and hooks.

beadboard wall and door hidden by sheetrock of kitchen wall

beadboard wall and door previously hidden by sheetrock of kitchen wall

Even inside.  Tore out a wall? . . found a wire soap dish and a chandelier crystal inside the studs, and under the sheetrock a pre-existing beadboard wall.  Turns out, it had once been an exterior wall inside a screen porch, long and skinny,  that ran along the side of the house from the middle to the back, what we call a dog-trot.  I numbered the boards, took them down and put a seal coat on them, and ended up being able to put them back up after the structural changes to the room had been made.

"Where was Moses? And where was somebody else?

envelope

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But the best was when I took out a doorframe header, and an old bug-eaten letter, still in its envelope, came fluttering down from where someone had hidden it.  I’ll let it speak for itself.

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“Where was Moses?  and where was somebody else?”

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"My dear Choirmaster

pg.1

 – – – – – – –

“My DEAR Choirmaster –

See I am living up to my promise?

First of all I want to thank you for coming to church the famous first Sunday, second for coming up to the choir when I sent for you – and third for staying next to me – and GETTING NEXT.  have enjoyed being with you, have enjoyed all you have said to me – ‘cep once – that was Wednesday night when you got cross with me. I didn’t think you liked me one bit, but then when the lights went out!  O gee – I thought and thought, and then some – that night.  

pg.2

pg.2

You have been so good to me and to think of the 12th of May! Gee didn’t we have just lots of fun? Bet you didn’t tell “Kay” about putting the lights out. So men don’t tell every thing, do they? Well I am glad they don’t – I have been the happiest girl …”  

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“… (old maid) since you told me you were going to Communion.  I can’t help but think I aided it.  It’s going to be MY day.  I also got Vera (Mrs. de M) to be christened.      

Am crazy to get your answer if they are like your little toasts and poetry, and OTHER THINGS, I know they are allright.      

Say I like you awfully.   I have a “crush” on you, very strong.  I am going to try not to show it, now can I?  I mean to other folks..

Well here’s to you!  May your prayers ever be answered, and you won’t forget the twelfth of May, or how to put the “lights out” – Thank you for all you have done for me, and may you live happy ever afterwards!  With all that you say I have, I am yours.      

‘May 12’    .     .     .     .     Saturday night, 8:30″ 

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By 2011, I not only had found all these pieces, but a plethora of new glass and pottery shards, porcelain doll parts, pipe stem pieces, marbles, buttons, king cake babies and beads, etc.  So I took the whole sculpture down, reconfigured it to fit everything in such a way as to keep the essential “P” shape intact, and this is what came of it.

2nd version, 2011

2011 version

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How I wish I could say that this were finished.

But I have a bowl that’s filling up with stuff again, and I think it’s about time for a third incarnation of this living sculpture that just grows and grows.

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  In fact .  . . . . . . .

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 ———————————————————————

iron

iron

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The makings of the third incarnation.

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glass, including a Lea & Perrins stopper

glass . . .

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. . . including a Lea & Perrins bottle stopper

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Domestic collection, including a drawer bin pull, a Gumby figure, and . . .

Domestic collection, including a drawer bin pull, a Gumby figure, and . . .

Pottery . . .

Pottery . . .

. . . including a Wedgwood-like fragment

. . . including a Wedgwood-like fragment of jasperware

. . . a switchblade knife

. . . a switchblade knife, a bit of its wooden handle still intact

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Thanks for joining me for one of my little creative adventures.

© Calhoun Rising- All rights reserved.

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Tuxedo cats   Leave a comment

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Father’s Day was a few months ago, and I had a rather unique gift made for my husband.

Thanks, Dad, from all of us

Thanks, Dad, from all of us

I have a girlfriend, with serious creative leanings, whose latest interest has to do with creating tiny potted cactus gardens with ceramic miniatures.   Shopping online for fun figurines for her, I found some that put an idea in my head for my husband.  I asked her to make him a         planter for Father’s Day, with a scene centering on 4 black-and-white cats and a sign that said, “Thanks, Dad”.

And this is what she came up with.

Cuz, you see, my patient husband, who is not a cat person, has somehow allowed his home, one by one, gradually over the years, to be taken over by a bunch of black and white rescues,  the product of a feral female I’d seen around since before Hurricane Katrina.  No doubt, she herself was the product, born in the wild, of the constant flow of pets abandoned in a nearby park by owners who didn’t want them anymore, often college students who hadn’t thought it through that cute kittens grow into adult responsibilities whose care, starting with getting them spayed, cost more than they were willing to spend.

MamaCat

MamaCat, forever feral, but used to us after almost a decade. She’s the mother of our babies and she’s welcome to make her home in our garden for as long as she lives.

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  She’s trap-savvy and I’ve never been able to catch her to take her in to get fixed, but by strange circumstance in early 2007, we caught a litter of her kittens.  She had found a way to jump up from under our raised house through a plumbing hole in our bathroom floor, into the cavity beneath our jacuzzi tub, and that’s where she had her kittens.  I’d get up every morning and hear inexplicable little mews from within the bathroom walls that got a little stronger as the days progressed.  One of the side panels of the tub enclosure had been left unattached for easy plumbing access, so I opened it a  crack, put a dish of tuna fish at the far end of the bathroom, then hid inside the tub and waited until all of them were out, then reached a hand out and closed the panel.  I raised them in the tub.

Swarmed by kittens after a hard day of post-Katrina repairs to my grandmother's house.

Swarmed by kittens after a hard day of post-Katrina repairs to my grandmother’s house.

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It was my intention to love all the fear out of them and make them tame enough to make good pets, and then find homes for them in Craigslist, but there was a problem.  The contractor who was repairing my grandmother’s house ended up being one of those guys who came flooding into post-Katrina New Orleans to make a buck from people who couldn’t get their local contractors (waiting lists were years-long), but didn’t actually know what they were doing.  Not only did he not grasp the scope of the job required, but he thought that he could speak to his Spanish-speaking crew in English, if he said it in a Jamaican accent, and the intricacies of my directions would magically be understood.  Since I spoke decent Spanish and understood the rudiments of construction, I quickly realized that I had to be onsite and babysit the job every day for months, away from the kittens for those crucial first few weeks.

Squeaker is 2nd from top, facing right, with white chin.

Squeaker is 2nd from top, facing right, with white chin.

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A bouquet of sleeping kitty faces

A bouquet of sleeping kitty faces

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I’d come home at 5 o’clock, exhausted and mind-numbed, and plop down in the tub with a book of sudoku puzzles to unwind.  My husband, who willingly forfeited his tub for the duration, would bring me a cold coke or something, and visit with us.  We couldn’t take them out into the rest of the house, though.   He had a cat, a long-haired grey named Sebastian (the coolest cat there ever was), that had belonged to his kids who were now grown and gone.  He’d survived our 8-week Katrina evacuation, by the hardest, but was never the same cat, becoming fearful and clingy, never wanting us to be out of sight.  When I was little, my parents got two baby kittens when our old cat was about 10, and it broke her heart.  She quit eating and died for no reason the vet could find, and I didn’t want to risk breaking Sebastian’s heart.

Besides, they weren’t yet paper-trained, so they stayed in the bathtub.

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It was Irv who noticed that when I’d first get in the tub and the kittens would rush up to say hi and climb all over me, before going back down to resume their previous play, there was one kitten who was always the last to leave, curling up close to my face and looking at my eyes, sometimes trying to ‘catch’ my blinking eyelashes.  And it was Irv who said one evening, in a mock-fatherly sing-song voice, “If.. you.. want.. one.., you.. can.. keep.. one.”  But I wasn’t going to do it without Sebastian’s permission.   So, as each of these kittens, one by one, found new homes, I started introducing the little guy to Sebastian to see how he would react.  Fascinated by this new ‘elder statesman’, he embarked upon a relentless barrage of antics to get Sebastian’s attention.  Sebastian was curious, and didn’t seem to feel any jealousy, but we could tell the jury was still out.

Sebastian and The Squeak

Sebastian and The Squeak

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We needn’t have worried.

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Turns out, it was the best thing we could have done for Sebastian, who felt like we’d gotten the little guy as a pet for him.  They played together, and played with their toys together, and Sebastian had great patience with the roughhouse fights, like a parent training a youngster how to hold his own.  And when he’d had enough, he had a funny habit of irritably putting one paw on top of the little one’s head that cracked me up.  Irv’s favorite thing was when the baby would go bouncing and pronking up to Sebastian, making weird squeaking noises, trying to goad him into something, and contort himself into such a lather on the approach that he’d end up doing a complete flip on his head before he ever reached Sebastian, who would sit calmly looking at him like he were some strange bug.

Thanks, Dad - #1

Thanks, Dad, from Squeaker Fleabit

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So now the little guy could be out, and Irv could spend a little time with him while I was gone, but then we had a flea problem.  The poor little one was tormented by so many fleas, but was still too young for the harsh chemicals of flea killers.  So this man, whose year entailed reassembling his office in our livingroom after Katrina sent a 13-story crack up the side of his building downtown, trying to keep his business afloat, taking in a disabled sister, and managing the fate of her destroyed home which “fell through the cracks” of every hurricane assistance program – and who, I reiterate is not a cat person -, flea-combed the little guy every day until he was old enough for flea meds.  Eventually, he became Squeaker Fleabit.

attitude

“I’m a little big for that paw-on-the-head thing, now, don’tcha think?”

The Squeak

Attempts to train Mom not to have a fit when I do this have not met with much success.

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Life went on like this for 3 years, through the 2008-2009 construction upheaval of raising our house to a 2-story, all the while living in it, and the escalating hysteria that was the amazing 2009 Saints football season.   Squeak became quite independent and had fun exploring all the daily changes and messes left at the end of a day’s construction, while Sebastian slowly began to show his age.

Demon cat !

Demon cat and the future rumpus room.

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Ladders are such fun.

Ladders are fun, and put Mom in such a tizzy.

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A half-built shower - one of a series of ever-changing spots to take a day's nap in.

Half-built showers make for good insulation storage and kitty nap places.

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I began to mourn in advance for Irv, who was already an unwilling empty-nester, having lost to the evacuation all 3 of his college-age sons who had not only been over all the time for bar-b-cues but had brought their friends, too.  Now he was getting choked up at the thought of Sebastian, his 4th son, nearing the end of his life.

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Thanks, Dad #2

Thanks, Dad, from Bunny Wombat

sound asleep

sound asleep

In May of 2010, along about the same time that Sebastian got sick and started hiding, in obvious pain, I nearly stepped on a 3 week old kitten in the yard who was so startled that she froze for a half-second, long enough for me to scoop her up.  I walked back into the house with this frightened frozen bit of fluff and looked at Irv, who looked back from his seat on the sofa.  Here we go again.

But this time, I had the time to devote to a kitten and raised her in an old shoulder sling around my neck so she would have lots of human contact, even took her to a party.  I was involved in two projects at the time; landscaping a new hill from pieces of the old foundation slab, and painting a shop sign for a friend who was opening up a bakery.  And I did it all with a kitten hanging from my neck.

My painting partner, raised in my old shoulder sling

Wombat in her shoulder sling burrow

The changing of the guard

Wombat and Sebastian: the changing of the guard

  We hadn’t planned on keeping her.  She was a sad little kitten who didn’t play as easily as others.  She certainly knew I was mom and was scared without me, but she never purred for me.  She only purred when she was sucking her toe.  But she purred when Irv rubbed her tummy, which she wouldn’t even let me touch, and the two of them took a shine to each other.   Squeaker, despite all of Irv’s care while I was gone, had grown up to be a one-woman cat, surly with anyone else but me, and I was glad to see little Wombat bonding with Irv.  Raised in a pouch like a marsupial, I started calling her the wombat.  This was a bit too weird for Irv, and since we’d figured out that she had been born over the Easter weekend, he called her Bunny.  And thus, she became Bunny Wombat.

It was more than just a regular bonding, though, between Irv and Wombat.   The timing was weird.    Just before we found Wombat, we found out Sebastian had cancer.   In his last weeks, when we were carrying him around the house with us, he got to meet little Wombat, and liked her.  I certainly can’t say that he sensed that Irv was in good hands, that he could pass the baton and let go of this earth knowing that his Irv would continue to be loved, but I know that’s how Irv took it.   Me too, I guess.  Within a few weeks of finding Wombat, he was gone.

Goodbye, sweet boy

Sebastian

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Sleep well, sweet and faithful boy, ever beneath our pecan tree.   Your memory is kept alive every time Irv and I both, in unison, yell out in a scolding tone of voice, “Kitty!”, whenever your dad “lets wind escape” with particular gusto, lovingly continuing the tradition in death as we did in life.

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Wombat on Irv's desk

Can’t quite fit in Dad’s baseball cap anymore

In July, I went away for a month to recommune with my writing, which Katrina had so abruptly shoved onto the back burner, officially calling a halt to the final stage of what had effectively become an unwanted new ‘career’, working on the hundred little unfinished jobs that our crooked contractor had bailing on, a thing he eventually got arrested for.    When I came back, Wombat was a different cat;  I was a stranger to her.

Wombat on Irv's desk, 4 mos. old

Wombat on Irv’s desk, 4 mos. old

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Irv and Wombat hard at work

Irv and Wombat hard at work

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As if she and Irv weren’t already bonding before I left, she had spent every day that I was gone on Irv’s desk at the computer with him, curled up inside his baseball cap.  They’d become inseparable.  She was Daddy’s girl from then on, though she’s at least friendly to me again.     Ingrate.

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For my birthday shortly after, we spent a weekend at a secluded riverside B&B on the northshore, and my toes located a clay deposit in the river and I brought up a big clump of it to make something with in the leisure of the evening.  And this is what came of it.

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The first half of 2010 must have been quite the fertile time for MamaCat, because about 4 months after Wombat was born, she had another litter, one of which ended up in the trap we routinely set out for opossums.  She was around 5 weeks old.

They're taking over!

“Look at this cool vine Dad found for us!”  Clockwise from top; Wombat, The Squeak, and Ping.  Falafel is under the table by the hammock.

That same week, I was surprised to find a nearly-grown kitten I had never seen before in the trap, and her sister huddled up against the trap too scared to leave her.  They were both tame, but they had starved down to their skeletons and were terrified of their surroundings, and they were inordinately attached to each other.  It was clear that they had been mostly indoor cats with no outdoor skills, whose owner had dumped them in the park.  After a couple months of food and love and play, indoors and out, human and feline, their little wounded spirits had recovered a good bit, and I found a home for “Falafel and Tabouli” with someone who was willing to take them both.  But when they left, the little black and white missed them.  Squeaker was mostly a loner and sad little Wombat, always on Irv’s desk, did not want friends.  But with my resumed writing came a more sedentary lifestyle and an available lap, and she decided that was a perfect place for a lonesome kitten.  One day while watching football on tv, I was searching for a name amongst black and white things… orcas?.. penguins?.., and while scrutinizing a football play on tv, I remembered what a character in a Fellini movie said about what people dressed in tuxedos looked like.  And thus it was that Pinguina Fleaflicker joined the family.

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Sadly, a computer crash erased all her baby pictures.

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The perfect writer's cat

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Ping

The perfect writer’s cat

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For the next addition to the family… (I’ll be crying by the end of this paragraph)… I had to lose one first.  The week before Halloween of 2011, The Squeak disappeared.  He loved our big yard and never wandered, and regardless of everyone kept telling me, I knew he wouldn’t “come sauntering back in a few days”.  To my knowledge, he had never crossed the street, so I knew, even as I went looking for a body in the neighborhood streets, that I wouldn’t find him hit by a car.  He’d been taken.   I did the whole putting-the-signs-up thing, went to the SPCA, etc., and tried to keep the visions at bay of the psychos in the world that set cats on fire on Halloween, or use them as bait in dog fights, stuff like that (Philadelphia has lost me forever for taking Michael Vick back).  Hoping to hear something comforting at the SPCA, I instead was told that SPCAs everywhere routinely put a hold on adoptions of black cats during the last two weeks of October.  My Squeak was gone, and I cried inconsolably for a week every time I thought about what his fate could be, thinking of the terror and the pain, his little cat mind wondering what had happened to the serene, well-loved life he’d inexplicably been plucked from.  Until 2 weeks later after Halloween.

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Hi, Mom.

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A grown cat, a big black and white male, of a completely different body type and demeanor than MamaCat’s bloodline, appeared at our door.  He was bewildered, peering through the French doors at us, mewing.  We’d go out and talk to him; he  was affectionate, well-mannered, obviously somebody’s cat, and when we went back in, he’d put his paw up on the glass pane. He never left that door, never stopped asking us to let him in, and never wandered the neighborhood, as though he’d been dropped off right here and didn’t know what to do after that.

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And that’s what I choose to believe, that someone picked up a bunch of black and mostly black cats for a Halloween party, didn’t hurt them, and when they were done, dropped them back off roughly in the places where they’d gotten them… but hadn’t made a note of which cat came from where.  I choose to believe that in another part of the city, someone has taken Squeak in.   We fed the newcomer, gave him alot of much-needed loving and reassurance out in the yard, and he turned out to be one of the most affectionate, thankful cats I’d ever met.  What a lovebug!  The purring was constant, and the rubbing, and if I were gardening and he could reach my face, he had an endearing fondness for headbutting… bang, nuzzle, nuzzle, rub… BANG, rub, BANG.

Mmm, Dad's clean shirts fresh out the dryer.

Mmm, Dad’s clean shirts fresh out the dryer

Watching his face in the glass at night when we went to bed, after another day without a home and family, made me feel like 10,000 hounds, but Ping was jealous and I didn’t want to jeopardize the bond we’d formed.   When winter set in, though, I tried a few encounters inside with Ping.  She was nasty, but I refused to make him stay out in the cold.  Plus, it was agonizing to put him back out, after finally being let in.  I made sure Ping was the only one allowed in the bedroom with us at night, and never let her see me cuddling the big guy, and grudgingly, Ping relented.  Blackbeard, as we were calling him, for his black chin, was grateful to Wombat and Ping, both, for every bite of food and every minute of time inside they allowed him to have, and he showed it constantly with headbutts and nuzzles, no matter how nasty they were in return.

Thanks, Dad, from Ping and Blackbeard

Thanks, Dad, from Ping and Blackbeard

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Blackbeard in the rumpus room magazine bin

In Daddy’s rumpus room magazine bin

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He was twice as grateful to us, just for being allowed to be with us, and eventually, neither of us could stand keeping someone as wonderful as him an arm’s length anymore, within sight of , but not given, what he so badly wanted, to be part of our family.  The joy he felt when we first patted on the sofa for him to jump up and join us… well, as I’ve said, I’ve never met such a thankful cat.

That was 18 months ago and his joy has yet to be diminished.

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Goodbye, my sweet boy.  I still cry for you, am tortured by the not knowing, and pray for you every time I think of you.

My Squeak

My Squeak

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Beginning of 2012, I started this blog, and started doing alot of photo shoots.   From Ping’s perspective, I was up and shooting almost as much as I was sitting down with her, writing.  As the year progressed, the photos revealed something I hadn’t noticed, how much Ping was following me around.   I’m fond of the children’s book “Goodnight, Moon”, where you have to look for the mouse hidden in each illustration.  Those of you who have read my story “Goodbye, K-Man” know this.

So I give you a short game of “Where’s Ping?”

from "Mama Sitges"

from “Mama Sitges”

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from "Study in Red and Turquoise"

from “Study in Red and Turquoise”

for future series of construction "before"s and "after"s

for future series of construction “before”s and “after”s

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for future series on my garden

for future series on my garden

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Thanks for letting me share the feline facet of my little world.     ______     © Calhoun Rising – All rights reserved.

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“Tisolay’s Favorite Things” . . . . . . .   Leave a comment

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In 1998, I began the last drawing I would ever do for Tisolay.  I knew it at the time, too.  My sweet girl was finally, at the age of 93, starting to show her age.  Ever since Granddaddy died 12 years before, I had made it a point to involve her in all sorts of projects; initially, right after he died, to fight her desire to follow him, and to give her a reason to stay with me, and then later, just to keep her mind engaged.  Everything we ever did together was fun, so all this was was more of the same, just on a more ambitious scale.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it wasn’t all for her.  Also around this time, out of the blue and for no reason in particular that I can remember, that I first felt in my gut and my heart, “Oh my God, she’s gonna die and I have no idea how to do life without her.”  I started actively appreciating ever minute with her and telling her so, and thanking her for everything she had meant to me for 40 years.  And I started preparing myself, like a slow goodbye that didn’t have to be acted on for a while, and used our projects toward that end.

"Tisolay's Favorite Things", 1999

“Tisolay’s Favorite Things”, 1999 – © Calhoun Rising – All rights reserved.

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Ever since I was tiny, she’d loved to watch me draw.  We’d go out on the screen porch where she’d set me up at the glass table in my tiny white wicker rocking chair, a pad of paper, and a tin of watercolors.  When I got older, after Granddaddy died, I took over his blue canvas chaise lounge, with the lamp in the corner, and would spread out my Prismacolors across the glass table.  By then, my medium had become colored pencil.  So some time in 1997, I told her I felt like doing a big drawing project, a still life of her favorite things, set up on her piano.

A few things I knew she would pick; the porcelain figurine of the girl dancing in the waves that she always said was me on the beach in Belize, the aquamarine ring Granddaddy brought back from Brazil for her “before they were even engaged!”, much to Tiwazzo’s disapproval (her mother), and Papa Sitges’ incredible Meerschaum pipe, carved with a little boy and his hunting dogs in tow.  I also figured she’d pick a piece of her beloved cobalt Wedgwood, and Granddaddy’s gold pocket watch and chain, a central figure in our inside joke that Granddaddy was born bald, in a three-piece suit and watch chain, fully clad, like Minerva.  I was surprised, though, and charmed when she brought out Mama Sitges’ watch as well, so dainty and more delicately etched.  I hadn’t seen or thought about it for decades.

Papa Sitges' meerschaum pipe, front

Papa Sitges’ meerschaum pipe, front

 Also belonging to Mama Sitges were her little desk clock in its leather case and the mother-of-pearl opera glasses Mama Sitges had given Tisolay when she was still at the Conservatory and Granddaddy was inviting her to every concert and musical event in New Orleans “in furtherance of her studies”, lest any of her other suitors gain a toe-hold.

  Something else I hadn’t seen since I was little, out from a cedar box of her mother’s most fragile things, was Tiwazzo’s old French alphabet primmer, yellowed and crumbling, its disintegrating cover fortified by an old leftover square of blue-and-white toile from the library upholstery.  We held our breaths while we gingerly opened it to the page with “J for jardinier”, using her father’s gold nib pen and his massive gold pocket watch, the heaviest of the three, to hold it open.  Punctuating the gardening theme so central to Tisolay’s day-to-day life was a silver baby cup and saucer that we filled with flowers from the yard.   I don’t remember whose idea it was, but I added at the last minute a pair of Granddaddy’s black mother-of-pearl dress cufflinks from his Mardi Gras tails.

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Papa Sitges’ meerschaum pipe, back

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Adding height to one side was a crystal candlestick the wife of one of Granddaddy’s bank investors had given her, and above it, Mama Sitges’ black lacquer music stand.  And beneath the whole, rounding out the collection, went a whisper-fine, yellow Belgian-lace handkerchief that had been a wedding present from one of her piano students’ mother, Mathilde Gray, who became a Louisiana oil heiress and philanthropist.

A roll of film’s worth of photo studies, then several months of lazy afternoon visits in Granddaddy’s chaise lounge and innumerable pots of tea, and voila, “Tisolay’s Favorite Things” is what came of it.  I had never done an exercise in light before, let alone a piece of cut lead crystal, or done such detail work as with the lace, but the way I figured it, Granddaddy was sitting on my shoulder for this one.

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     __________________________

Like so many things, there is bitter with the sweet.  When we were done, Tisolay insisted that I take everything home with me, in a whisper, as if she were afraid of someone overhearing.   It was her veiled way of telling me that she worried about whether my mother would honor any bequests she made directly to me in her will.   My mother was a strange and complex creature with her father’s sense of duty and a warrior’s demeanor, who had never had the makings of motherhood, yet was forced into it by the expectations of a 1950s society that then turned on her, criticizing her every move as a mother.  After an idyllic childhood marked by an only-child’s limitless ambitions and a valedictorian’s success at everything she did, I became the symbol of her failure as a mother, and later, daughter, and Ti and I both understood that her gratitude and guilt over our relationship was tinged with bitterness and denial.    I never doubted that she knew how magical her mother was, but something in her early adult years put up a wall that shut her off from engaging in it.   Years later, I would be blindsided by how right Tisolay had been in her fears, but I still believe what I told her then, that the real treasure was something no one could take away from me, the wealth of experiences and memories she had given me, that for whatever reason my mother had closed herself off to.  And in this case, I would not only have a wonderful memory but a drawing of it as well.

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Thanks for letting me hand the memories of Tisolay over to you, to carry forward after I’m gone.     ______     © Calhoun Rising – All rights reserved.