Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Gola's Picture of Love

First you need to know two things about me.  I have a husband obsessed with estate sales and auctions.  It started a year ago and has gradually gone from a pleasant discovery to attending 3-4 times a week. He calls it "Treasure Hunting". And second, I'm a private investigator on the side (Really. Not Really). For myself and any curiosity I might have.  I creep on facebooks and study obituaries and like to track things down, facts.  The internet makes it quite do-able.

Last Saturday Chuck was doing his usual thing.  He likes to arrive late in the sale on the last day and take away some real steals.  He got two crates of "good stuff" for next to nothing.  Our routine is when he gets home he starts handing me items he thinks could be "jewels" which is our code for 'we can retire tomorrow'.  We have had a few good finds, and even in that same weekend we found a pencil for a dollar that ended up being worth $70.  Not retirement-worthy but a good return-on-investment.

I sorted through the promising tea cups and vintage card game and came to the painting that I want to talk about today. 
I immediately got the feeling it was an original watercolor which is unusual. And it looked old.  The back side of the picture was cut open but you could tell the paper had yellowed and cracked and the wire was original.  

I took the painting out of the frame to get a closer look at the signature.  We both liked it a lot, but it had some water damage and seemed quite fragile. Paintings, even originals, rarely seem to go above $200-$300 for unknown painters and the water damage pretty much negates that.  But still, I love a mystery and a challenge.  I was having a really long pajama day and a good online search sounded fun.

I started looking up the artists name.  The signature was hard to make out but a note taped to the back said Oakland City, IN in 1932.  Wow, I don't usually have these kinds of clues when I start my PI work.  The note was clearly not that old, and I found out later had been written on the back side of a scrap of 2002 IRS form.  The tension builds.
I searched artist listings and sites, still hoping this was worth a lot of money of course.  I eventually emailed someone at a site called "Indiana Art online" but he had never heard of this painter. There are so many things that make a search like this unlikely, mainly that the city it was marked with might have nothing at all to do with the painter. 

After a couple hours I gave up, but something drew me back, most likely the desire to continue to stay in my pajamas for a good cause.  I had canceled my ancestory.com subscription but then accidentally renewed it, so it occurred to me to go on there.  I hit multiple dead ends ("Your search found 45,890 matches") But then I put in Gola (just the artist's first name) and Oakland City, IN and somehow, bing, it came up with something.  I can't tell you how much fun that is.  My own kind of treasure.  Now I possibly had his full name and date of birth.

There was an Indiana census record that showed me in 1930 he (I wasn't sure before that if the artist was male or female) was 15, had 2 brothers.  If this was the artist of my painting he was only 17 or 18 at the time he painted it.  My daughter is an artist herself and told me it looked like a novice had painted it (Chuck and I don't care, we just liked the fall colors).  So thrilling. Next, I opened his enlistment record from 1941, so at age 27 he enlists in the army.  It says in those records he is single has two years of college, is a commercial artist.  Suddenly my interest has become a surety that I was truly on the right track.  Commercial artist!

I next see his death record in the 90's.  So I'm not going to find Gola, but I had started out assuming this was a seasoned artist who painted in 1932, so I'm not too surprised. I run across city directories and Social Security records so I can see he got married (there might be kids!), was a "Card Writer" and eventually owned a home where his parents and siblings all moved into. 

But then the story took a twist.  I read an entry that said he was a Cartographer in WWII under General Patton, and mapped out the D-Day invasion.  History, sitting here in my lap, on my recliner, in my pajamas.  OK, part of me still thought "Wow maybe this little painting is worth something" but mostly I was just excited to learn about the artist and marvel at how history had ended up in my living room.

With a correctly spelled full name I have lots more googling I can do and the first hits lead me to the names of his two daughters.  Young enough to have facebook, one of them has an unusual spelling for a first name and a few minutes later I had found who I believed to be Gola's  two daughters and messaged them both on Facebook.  I didn't hear anything for a few hours and I was impatient so I located someone in the next generation and heard back immediately, that yes, this was her grandfather.  Yes, he had been an artist.  

Within a short time her mother was messaging me about this.  And she told me that just that morning she had consoled a friend who lost a parent a year ago that day.  That even though her father was gone 25 years, every now and then someone would bring him up, or tell her a joke, or share something that made her smile.  She then got home to find the message from me, about her father. From her father.

The granddaughter has a PhD-- in Art History-- and hadn't seen any paintings from her grandfather.  I learned Gola's daughter was having surgery in a just a few days and this really gave her something to look forward to.  None of the family had seen Gola's paintings he did at a young age, because he was told he wasn't that good, and moved on to commercial art.

We haven't been able to figure out how it ended up at an estate sale in Peoria, IL, but it was a fun journey making these discoveries.  The painting is in the mail. I can only imagine what it would be like to get something that your father painted, something you'd never seen.  My own father has been gone 34 years this month. It feels like some amazing timing, God's timing, and it was a privilege to be a part of this story this week.

And today in worship my pastor used a phrase I jotted down, "A picture of love."  and I thought, that's it, that's my title.  Gola's young self sent a picture of love out into the universe and 85 years later it ends up back with own his family. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmastime, 1968.

The huge glass windows were fogging up as I tried to see through them, across the dark to Santa's home.  We had just stood in the line. Me with both of my parents, no other siblings along for the ride. Highly unusual.

It was beautifully cold out there, and there were decorations on the lamp posts and lots of people walking about, laughing and chatting, in downtown Pekin.

We had come inside for a hot chocolate and my parents didn't seem happy. "You asked Santa for a what?"
"A Skip-bo" 
Silence.  "What's a skibob?"
"No. A Skip. Bo. My friend at school has one.  She brought it for show and tell."
Its 1968.  My parents went all out for Christmas.  I was the first girl in the family. They probably had a lovely table and chairs set with a doll and tea set already waiting to place under the tree, but no Skip-bo.

I have moved on.  Santa knows what I want and that was that. 

My parents however now had a few days to find a toy that no one had in stock. It turns out it was very popular and they couldn't find it in town. I learned much later that my mother sent my father far and wide to find this toy.  

And when I just searched for a picture of it I found out it is called a 'footsie'.  So though I described the toy in detail, I clearly had the name wrong.  I found a reference to one brand being a 'skipper', but what I heard in Mrs. King's show-and-tell circle, and was lucky enough to try out for myself on the playground at recess, was a skip-bo.

So here we are, a few days before Christmas, and my parents don't have the internet. And they are looking for a mis-named toy for me.  I delight in this memory now.  One that shows through generations we all just want to please one another.  And the memory continues from that night.

So I saw something so beautiful that I had to have for my mother, while I spun on that soda fountain stool.  It was a bath towel with a huge pink and red flower on the front. Kind of Georgia O'Keefe style.  How to get my mom out of the store so I could buy it?  I remember whispering to my father what I needed to do. I remember wanting to get that towel for my mother more than I wanted anything else.

My dad suggested my mom wait outside the store window where she couldn't see while we did our secret shopping.  I faintly recall my mom not being super excited to wait out in the cold when she was snug with her cup of coffee in the steamy, warm store. But she did it. When I wound my way to the display and showed my dad what I had seen from across the store, he proceeded to show me other things we could get my mom.  Bath soaps and curlers and socks.  Nothing doing. I wanted that gaudy towel.  Nothing else would be wonderful enough for my mother.  My dad tried telling me it was more money than I had to spend.  He tried showing me other towels even.  This was it.  I knew it.  I then remember him giving me some cash, and showing me how to stand in line to pay.  He stood nearby but wanted me to buy it myself.  It was super-exciting.  I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure my (poor, cold) mother wasn't peeking through the window. 

I took the sack they gave me, I unbuttoned my coat and put it inside. It crackled every step I took.

There is a picture somewhere of her opening this present and holding up the towel, and I was so proud at that moment.  It was the highlight moment of my Christmas.  I got my footsie from Santa, I took it to show and tell in January.  Turns out when it is the fifth one someone brought in, it isn't as exciting.  But watching my mother open that towel, that felt like Christmas.

And it still does.  I love picking out gifts, I love wrapping, and I love watching the receiver open them.  It is the childish thrill that never grows old for me.  So far anyway.  And Christmas 1968 is etched in my memory.  I love the Christmas tune "Silver Bells" and it always reminds me of this slice of life.  To me, Pekin was the city. Downtown was glamour. And surprising someone else was a lot more fun than standing in a long line to see Santa.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

My November Blessing

There is something about November that takes me back to childhood.  To the gray skies as I walked to school with a cold wind and raindrops falling sideways, getting under my umbrella.  I think of it feeling gray outside and a bit lonely, and that the bright yellow lights of my classroom seemed welcoming and cozy as I hurried past the crossing guard.

We'd hang our slickers in our pine cubbies and warm our hands over the furnace vent and try to dry off with the rough brown paper towels.  We'd go to our desks and get out our pencils and our already grubby erasers and get ready for reading group (I was in the cardinals). 

The world was a big gray comforter surrounding my school, my teacher knew everything there was to know about everything, I was with  friends. Who knew what exciting thing might happen today in music class?  And it would feel like all was right with the world. 

I'd be wearing my tights and my wool plaid skirt and my cotton button up top, and I'd be reading a story about a little Sioux Indian girl (we didn't call them native Americans yet) and I'd just be frustrated as heck that that word was pronounced 'sue'.  It made no sense!

I'd  smell paste, taste our mid-morning milk break from the waxy cartons (so fancy, my family only got milk in old glass bottles), see the faded construction paper scraps, and  happily listen to my teacher talk about cumulus clouds.  When I walked home at lunch-time my mother was sure to have Campbell's chicken noodle soup with grilled cheese and if I was really lucky, hot cocoa as it finally felt wintry enough outside to make some. 

By about 2:30 I'd had enough, and watched the clock-hands refuse to move just like every other kid, for that last 60 minutes of each day.  As I stomped through every puddle on the way home, the sky would seem brighter, and the rain had stopped, but it still felt later than it should feel.  I'd be anxious to get home, not stopping to look for frogs in the creek or any of the other distractions I might find in August or April.

In November, it was important to get home, turn on the tv, and start laughing at Gilligan.  Smell supper cooking (probably pork chops and applesauce), try to avoid any kind of chores, and when Sherry came to the door to ask me to come out to play, I might say 'Not today.'  November made me want to stay inside, and stay close to my humans.

Today as I drive home on a gorgeous sunlit day, with the November sunshine shedding light in a particularly warming way, highlighting every last leaf, it made me appreciate every single leaf still hanging onto those tree branches.  It made me want to pray for each individual leaf.  Yet it made me homesick for those second-grade Novembers.    And it reminds me that each month, even blustery November has its blessings. My November blessing is remembering.