Just over two and half years ago, I moved my mom out of her apartment nearby, and into a board and care facility. As I prepared to move everything out of the apartment, I decided I would photograph everything in it. Every thing. I did. The aim was to document all the objects which held some significance before casting anything to oblivion. Actually, it was to document everything and figure out later what has significance. The truth of the matter is that every single thing did. That’s just how I am.
There were just a few things I missed because they were not in the apartment at the time. A sugar bowl had been in use at my house for a couple years. It was my parents’, probably my father’s from before his marriage to my mother, and I remember it from early childhood. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned what depression glass is, or that it is somewhat collectible.
A month or two after I had completed the documentation project, I decided to photograph the few things that were scattered around my house. The sugar bowl was in heavy use near the stove. I thought to wash it before photographing it. That’s when I dropped it in the sink and broke it, and my heart. Though broken, I decided I would still photograph it, but I didn’t do it then. I was too disappointed at the time. I finished washing it and put it up on the shelf above the stove for later. Two and half years later, I’ve finally got it over with so that I can now,… cast it into oblivion.
Another of the photos I took while preparing to move my mother out of her apartment and into a board and care facility. That was almost exactly two years ago. Somehow it seems like decades ago, so much has changed since then: she went through surgeries and medical emergencies, and is so much more out of it; I went through job changes; we lost a few people; Theo has grown so much.
Anyway, my mother kept a lot of her sewing stuff in an old tin. It probably had butter cookies or something like that it in it originally. The holiday design caused me to associate holly with sewing rather than Christmas for years. At least they have sharp pointy things in common.
From the Family Heirloom Project. My mom made all her own clothes the entire time I was growing up. It had been awhile since I had seen her wear this one. I can’t even remember when I saw her in it. But it is typical of the kind of fabric she would buy. She did sew some some elegant things. But curtains and the occasional dress got the gaudy treatment with outlandish prints, usually with lots of blues and greens.
My father’s birthday is coming up in the next few days, and so I have been thinking about him a lot lately. One of the things I’ve been meaning to do is photograph everything I still have from him, and create a kind of catalog of evidence. Somehow I never get around to it, and periodically forget about it altogether. This seems like as good a time as any to actually start exploring the project.
One of the remarkable things about my father was his outsider art. He made pictures, sort of mosaics, out of cut up postage stamps. This is a part of one of his pieces devoted to FDR. He was also an FDR democrat. To the very end. Content-wise it’s quite unsophisticated, but what do you want from an uneducated Greek immigrant who survived the depression working menial food service jobs in NYC?
I still miss him after 16 years, but I’m glad that he is not around to see the current political climate in which Republicans are actively aiming to dismantle Social Security.
Last year we moved mom to a board and care facility on account of her increasing dementia, and it was while we were emptying out her apartment that I photographed everything in it for my Family Heirloom Project. Among the items was this one: a little ceramic bowl.
I attended kindergarten at Del Mar Elementary School and had Mrs. Kasner. She was an older lady with fiery red hair. I liked her just fine, although she occasionally sent me to the “thinking chair” or, if we were out on the playground, the “thinking step” to think about something I had done. All that thinking; maybe that’s where I picked up the habit that eventually resulted in grad school in philosophy. My cousin Tommy claimed that she once told him he’d never learn to read and that he never got over it.
In any case, we did a lot of art projects in her class. For example, there was lots of finger painting. I still remember the first day when we were told to bring an old shirt of our father’s to wear while painting. We wore them backwards. I still managed to get paint all over myself. One day, we did a ceramics project. I made a small, simple bowl. I remember shaping it with my fingers, over and over again, trying to get it right. I never really succeeded, but eventually got something to hand over to Mrs. Kasner.
So, I made this little bowl, and painted it blue and black. On the bottom was inscribed “Nickie AM”, because I was in the a.m. class. I brought it home and gave it to my mom as a gift. She did a lot of sewing and needed pins to be handy. She was always pinning things up for alterations, or pinning patterns to fabric, and so on. So she kept pins in it. For 40 years or more that thing sat on her sewing machine with pins in it. After we moved my mom, it came to our house and sat on a bookshelf in the office. Without the pins, of course.
Just a few months later I was cleaning up around the side of the house where the trash and recycling bins sit. I saw a little patch of blue on the ground and a wad of neurons jangled in my head. It was so familiar. I picked up a little chard, then another and another. My heart sank.
What one kindergartener made, another demolished. (I know, it’s a metaphor for a natural process all children and their parents go through.) I don’t know exactly what happened, and never will, I’m sure. Somehow Theo got ahold of the bowl and it became a play thing, until it broke. I have to admit that at first I was pretty mad. But when i looked into that sad, confused little boy’s face, I knew I had to just let it go. I might have gone a long time, maybe forever, never thinking about that little bowl. I don’t know what I would have done with it anyway, other than allow it to be another piece of baggage to carry around the rest of my life and eventually leave to someone with no personal connection or emotional attachment, and hence free to take it to the Goodwill with all the other old crap. So, that came sooner in this case. I didn’t have to carry it around another 40 years. Still, I can’t help feeling a little loss, not of material wealth, but of a piece of the story—a little hole, just like the growing gaps in mom’s memory.
This was my dresser for my entire childhood — from day one until the day I moved out as a young adult. It contained many memories. I remember digging in the bottom drawer for shorts to wear on the first hot days of summer; and the top left drawer with socks, folded in the special, partial inside-out way my mother used to fold them that made it easier to put them on. I remember hiding cigarettes in the bottom back corner as a teenager. And some other stuff, too.
One particular memory I have is of the time when I was about 13 that my friend Les Wood damaged the dresser. Les was a strange sort of friend. He was in 9th grade when I was in 7th grade. Les was a little scary. He had a streak that was half thrill-seeking and half sadistic. So, periodically I would have to endure some harrowing experience like being being burned on the forearm with a red-hot butter knife while cooking together, or being hiked on the back of a paper bike and plowing through a row of rose bushes.
On the occasion of the damage, which was around the Fourth of July, Les showed up at my house one day with some fireworks. While I was not looking he dumped out an entire box of snakes on to the top of the dresser and lit them. Within moments the room was filled with a choking sulfurous smoke. The snakes curled out into a monstrous heap of twisted ash and burned through the top layer of the dresser, leaving a shallow crater and wide burned area on the top. I was pretty damn mad; even as a teenager, I had a sense of propriety and pride of ownership. My parents, needless to say, were furious. Les just laughed his little sadistic laugh, his small teeth peeking through a thin-lipped grin.
Les’s attitude and behavior never really improved. Two or three years later, when I was about 16 years old, Les had been kicked out of the house and was living around with different friends, or just in the Chevy Vega he drove, and selling drugs for money. During this time, he gave away or sold almost everything he owned. He sold me his once beloved stereo system for about $20. That was my first real stereo, and I set it up on the top of my dresser. One night, I saw Les and Greg Baker, who had been hanging out together, at Geno’s Pinball Palace. Geno’s was a stoner kids’ hangout in Fresno in the mid-70′s. I saw Les outside in the parking lot drinking an Old English 800 Malt Liquor and extremely high on LCD. At one point he was sitting on the curb holding is head in his hands like a vice, his face red and sweating, trying to not freak out.
A few minutes later he was fine, walking around and laughing. Not many people tended to laugh with him. He asked if anybody wanted to go for a drive, go out to the fig orchards that were once plentiful in northwest Fresno and “go figgin’”. That meant driving out into the powdery soft dirt in the orchard and spinning the car around in circles, raising plumes of dust in a whirl of teenage entertainment. The only taker was Greg, who was probably equally high.
They next day we found out that the Vega had hit a giant fig tree at a high rate of speed and exploded on impact. Les and Greg died nearly instantly, we were told. We never really knew whether this was a drug-fueled accident, or Les’s intentional, final act of defiance against a world he didn’t like and that didn’t much like him back.
In any case, we had a yard sale last weekend, and while the dresser was not for sale, it was out because we used it to display other things that were for sale. I had started to refinish it over a year ago, and simply never got the momentum up to finish.The knobs were off, and only the drawers were really done. Three people asked me if it was for sale and offered to buy it, and by the third, I was starting to think that it probably made sense let it go, and do what we were out there to do: lighten our load. The other furniture had not even gotten a second look. I sold it to a woman for $50.
I guess I’ll have to find something else to keep my childhood memories in.
A portrait of my father taken when he was a young man, probably about 1918 or so. Here it is up in my mom’s apartment in Albany CA. 2009.
It hung on the wall in the living room, in the corner, next to the door, over the couch, when we lived at 1210 Griffith Way. When I was really little, up until at least seven or eight years old or so, I was scared to be alone in the room with it at night–i felt like the eyes followed me. I surely loved my father, and i was not scared during the day, but somehow, at night everything changes.
I can’t quite bring myself to put it up in my mom’s room at the rest home. I’ll have to scan it and print a copy for her to have there.
i was holding it in my hand today, and really looking closely at it, noticing the various imperfections, damaged corners and so on. I also really noticed what a fine looking young man my father was. He was 63 when I was born, so my concept of him is, of course, of an older man. I wondered too, about his motivation for having such a portrait made of himself, at 18 or 20 years old, fresh off the boat in New York and not speaking much English at the time. Was it a simply convention to do so? Was it vanity? Was it for family?
I’ll never know.
This print of the last supper had always hung near the breakfast table in my parents’ home. It was no different here at my mother’s last apartment, although it had fallen off the wall and sat around for a few months. I set it back here the other day, and it seemed a fine place for photo. A detail shot would reveal drops of this and that, and a spattering of tomato sauce.
It is a bit of an odd assortment off things on the cupboard, most sitting for weeks without notice from mom. Tomato sauce, orzo, salt, vanilla flavoring, the Greek coffee pot (the briki), and assorted trivets. A couple times in recent months my mom had cooked food with some odd flavorings, like baked chicken with a heavy dose of cinnamon or ground cloves. Eventually she gave up on seasonings and then finally on cooking much of anything besides boiled eggs, green beans, or broccoli.
Today, we went to Kaiser for an eye check-up and to start the process of getting a new pair of glasses. She had misplaced her only pair. It turns out that her right eye needs just about the strongest lens available. The doctor could not determine a prescription for the left eye at all because she is nearly blind from a cataract. So, we’ll be going back for cataract removal, and then eventually for a prescription for the left eye. Shit, no wonder the apartment was a mess. And no wonder the chicken was seasoned with salt and clove instead of salt and pepper.
I’m slowly making my way through photographing the items in my mother’s apartment. I only vaguely remember the suitcase. It was not used very often. In fact, the only time I remember it being used was when my mom visited Greece once. When we moved my mother up here we just packed it full of curtains she had made for her house. She would not let me throw them away.
The chair and end table are part of a set purchased when we moved into a new house my dad had built on Griffith Way in Fresno, back in 1967. There are two chairs and couch which, unfortunately, were reupholstered around 1980. The sofa was cobalt blue and I’ll never forget that thing. But I can’t quite picture the original color of the chairs.
The furniture all has to be gotten rid of soon. I was all ready for that. But now I feel more sad about seeing it all go. I had a fantasy while I was going through stuff the other day that I could move my mom back into her house in Fresno and find a wonderful, reliable, relatively inexpensive 24/7 live-in caretaker for her. Then all the power objects could stay together for another couple years. But these childish dreams must be left behind…
My mother, Efrosini Serafimidis, will be 90 years old this month. For the last five years she has been living down the street from us in a little one bedroom apartment. We moved her up here to Albany from Fresno and the home in which she had lived for over 30 years. I was resistant to moving her at the time, but my cousins insisted it was necessary. It is not easy for a person in their 80′s to switch gears like that. She still complains bitterly everyday about this place, and I think she still is a little resentful towards me on that count. But she did okay for two or three years.
The last couple years have been increasingly challenging. She has had a hip replacement and big surgery on a broken elbow. Also, she has been pretty lonely during the days when we are at work, and the lack of interaction and stimulation has taken a toll on her.
The next move is now necessary. This month, Effie will be going to a board and care facility somewhere nearby. It is going to be hard to do, and the transition is going to be a struggle, I’m sure. But her hips are not holding her up very well, and she is suffering from some dementia. She has wandered off a couple times, but her incredible luck with coming across non-Greek-speaking people who are charmed by her old-country, head-scarved, four-foot-ten-inch figure has held up. Each time we got her back none the worse for the wear.
Of course, Sarah and I both work full time, and have a five-year-old to attend to. And living in the Bay Area has its own challenges. So, I would not say I have been an overly conscientious caregiver, but nonetheless, I see her and give her her meds almost every day, try to keep her reasonably safe and fed, bring her back and forth to my home, clean her apartment, pay her bills, take care of her legal and financial matters, manage the renting of the family home in Fresno, and so on.
Chief among the challenges of moving her to a care facility is going to be the dissolving of her apartment home and figuring out what to do with all the things in it. We got rid of a lot of stuff when we moved her to Albany. But a lot of stuff is still packed away in her apartment. I am very nostalgic about these things and have a tough time just trashing them even though they are otherwise pretty worthless.
In response to all this I am planning a photo series. Right now the idea is simple snapshot-like photos of, basically, every object in her apartment. Where possible, descriptions will accompany the photos. Eventually, the series will include photos of each and every object I still have from my parents. I may be an old man myself by the time I finish.