WHEN ONLY A DONKEY WILL DO

I am not embarrassed to admit that I love gnomes. That being said I shun most garden gnomes because they’re too cute or sickly-sweet. If I place a gnome in my yard it has to be a certain type of gnome. I can’t really quantify the type I like but I know it when I see it. We have a gnome named Fred that reminds us of a former handyman.

Fred

Fred

We have a gnome that sits on a bench inside the outdoor shower and we have a small gremlin that guards the front door.P1000778

When I walk around the lake I take note of what my neighbors choose to put in their yard. Lawn art can usually be divided into one of four categories: religious, artistic, kitsch and cutesy. The world can be divided into two types of people. Those who like lawn ornaments and those who don’t. Early this spring we were driving past a neighbor’s house when we stopped the car. There on the street were two cement cherubs.We called down to the owners who were sitting on their deck.

“Do you want these?”

“They’re all yours.”

We could not believe our good fortune.They easily weighed seventy pounds each and it took both of us to haul them in and out of the car and down the steps. We hadn’t owned them very long before our son, Jackson came to visit and took one of them home for his yard. Apparently lawn ornamentation is genetic as well.

When my father-in-law was not working as a house painter he liked to help his wife buy stuff. They rarely took regular vacations. Their idea of fun was to get in the car and drive into the country.

“Let’s take a ride, “ Mario would say to his wife and son and off they’d go.

The day was made better if they stumbled upon an antique shop or a yard sale. I Don’t think Mario ever really wanted to buy anything for himself but he wanted to buy whatever my mother-in-law, Anne, wanted. Money wasn’t as much of an issue as it was the “principle of the thing.”

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

“Can you do any better on this?” Mario would probably ask, rubbing his hand over a tiny chip on the edge of a Roseville vase. That was how they acquired large collections of Roseville or Rose Medallion tea cups or carnival glass. They picked up a lot of slightly flawed items that were marked down. Anne never really considered the resell value, she just liked the things she picked out.

Mario liked to barter. He never paid the asking price and if the seller wouldn’t come down, even a little, Mario and Anne walked away. He never looked back. There was always more stuff to buy someplace else. Mario was also a sentimentalist. He was a large, very loud, uneducated man that spent his whole life looking for his father’s approval often in the hearts of strangers. For Mario, one of the advantages of having a house full of chipped or scratched antiques was he could give them away.

The first time I met him he was trying to get me to take home two bulky green vases that had supposedly been unearthed years before in Korea.  Mario knew a man who had sneaked the vases  into the United States and then low and behold sold them to Anne and Mario at a loss.

“Some of these other things, might not be worth too much, “ he said as part of his argument for me taking the vases home. “But these two vases…they’re valuable.”

“Really?” I asked wondering why they would want their son’s girlfriend to own them. We ended up taking one ugly vase back to our studio apartment in Brooklyn. It was always easier to do at least part of what Mario wanted than it was to dismiss his requests entirely.

His own father had a large cement donkey in the front yard of his house on East 233rd street in the Bronx. The donkey had two cement baskets hanging across his back that served as planters. I don’t know what happened to the original planter but years later Mario bought a decorative donkey planter at a flea market. This donkey was meant to stay indoors. The small, white, ceramic donkey with big Bambi eyes was so utterly kitsch that I immediately liked it.

When my children were young they liked to sing a song called Dominick the Donkey. It was an old Italian song that Mario knew and hummed along to when they sang it. Dominick also happened to be Mario’s father’s name and maybe the little statue became a substitute for his own deceased father. In any event this particular flea market ware was regarded as something of a pet.

Not the original

Not the original

After Mario died, the house was sold and Rob and his sister divided up the things his mother couldn’t use in assisted living. Rob and I held yard sales for two consecutive weekends. We sold furniture but we also tried to unload a lot of antiques with flaws. I took the donkey. We had just bought the lake house and I wanted the statue as a memorial for Mario. I placed impatiens in the donkey’s two wee baskets and planted his hoofs into the garden soil so it looked like he belonged. I didn’t care what anyone thought.

“That’s Mario, the donkey,” I told anyone who visited.

“No, his name is Dominick, “Rob would say.

“No, Mario. It was Dominick. Now it’s a memorial to your father.”

“But his name could still be Dominick.”

“Mario.”

We left it at that. We brought the donkey inside for the winters but the years in our lake yard had not been kind to him. His baskets had both been broken and re-glued several times and he lost a leg. I propped him up against a tree and that worked until he eventually split in half and we had to throw him out. But by now Rob’s sister and my father had died and we had placed lawn ornaments out in their memory too.

Marlene's memorial

Marlene’s memorial

Rob’s sister, Marlene was memorialized with a cement cat. Marlene loved cats even though she was allergic to them. She once rescued 5 feral cats had them spayed and neutered and they lived in a cat house on her back deck. They made a path across the lawn between her house and her parent’s house because Mario was feeding them cheese everyday on his front step. Who knew that cats ate American Cheese Singles?

Mario showing us how to hold a cat. Notice the cheese next to him. Photo by Robert Forlini

Mario showing  how to hold a cat. Notice the cheese next to him.
Photo by Robert Forlini

The cement cat is positioned between two bushes on our patio and if you forget the statue is there you can be caught off guard and think it’s real. We always try to choose tasteful pieces that blend in so no one will be able to tell how utterly tacky Rob and I both are.

During my father’s funeral, just as the first person began to speak a few words in memory, a terrific wind blew around us in the cemetery. We could see the wind wasn’t blowing across the lake in the distance, just around this small party of mourners. The wind was so strong, we held onto hats and pressed our skirts down and struggled to hear the words being spoken. When the last speaker was finished, the wind cut off like a switch.

“Wasn’t that strange,” I whispered to my aunt.

“Leave it to Steve to have the last word,” she said.

My father’s yard memorial is wind chimes that call out from the lower yard. We kept moving them around to new locations because the chimes were temperamental and it didn’t always chime when it was windy and sometimes chimed when it wasn’t. The new spots didn’t change anything and we’ve pretty much given up control to my dad.

When my brother Chris died late last August we were feeling very low and Rob suggested a drive.

“Let’s take a ride,” he said.

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

We arrived at a rundown garden shop in Newburgh, New York. The grounds were littered with cement statues in varying sizes and states of decay. We trudged along searching for a donkey replacement along with a garden memorial for Chris. The owner spied us and came over.

“Everything’s on sale.”

“How much is this one?” Rob asked pointing at a weather-worn cement donkey.

“One hundred.”

“His ear is broken.”

“Okay, seventy-five.”

“It’s a little worn.”

“That’s how they age.”

“Do you have any other donkeys?”

“No,” he said. “Let me know if you have any more questions.” He walked back inside.

“Let’s leave,” I said.

“Let’s just go around back first.”

We made our way past some really ugly, painted statues and a variety of cupolas with weather vanes. “Maybe we should put a weather vane on our house.”

“Maybe,” Rob said.

As we headed to the car we came back around to a cluster of small cement statues arranged on shelves. A small angel was sitting on the end.

“What about him?” I asked.

“We’re not religious.”

“Chris was.”

“True.”

The man showed up again. Perhaps determining we were cheapskates he said, “Sixty-five.”

When we brought the angel home we were tired and placed him in the front lawn between two large plants. “We can move him later,” I said.

IMG_4325

Memorial to Christopher

Now, coming up on the one year anniversary of his death the angel is still in the same place. He greets your arrival on the way down the steps and makes me remember Chris on a daily basis, which is precisely the point.

Our quest continues to find a replacement for Mario’s memorial. We’ve been online and searched numerous statue shops but nothing seems to be a fit. The donkeys are too big, too cute or non-existent. We found a small bronze bird on top of a red glass ball that seemed perfect for Rob’s mom, Anne. We planted it near the cat.

I found a pig that I really liked at an art museum gift shop. The pig had two baskets strapped across his back for planters. I texted a picture of it to Rob. “How about this instead of the donkey?”

He texted back. “No.”

I didn’t press the point. In the end we both knew that only a donkey would do. And a particular sort of donkey at that. You see when it comes to lawn art there’s no accounting for taste.

Advertisements

BROTHER FOUND

 Chris1

Robin Williams as John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society

I was saddened to hear about the death of Robin Williams this past month at the young age of 63. Of course we never met and I knew absolutely nothing about his personal life or struggles but his performances made his public feel as though we knew him. My daughter and I re-watched Dead Poets Society thinking it would be an homage to the deceased actor but the story is so utterly depressing that it had a negative effect on us and we stumbled around the house a bit down for the next few days.

Then less than two weeks later my older brother Chris passed away also age 63 after a losing battle with a brain tumor. I briefly thought of Robin Williams again and how parts of my brother’s life were as distant and far away as a celebrity I had never met.

Chris2

Chris, Susan, Deborah and me in Illinois in the 1960’s.

I was ten years old and going into the fifth grade when my brother left for college. Mrs. Hudson was my fifth grade teacher. She looked at me and said, “Another Gilman. Are you as smart as your brother?” She didn’t wait for an answer and was fairly disappointed to learn otherwise but she was still nice to me.

Ten years later my brother and I were both briefly home together and my mother arranged for me to travel with him from Illinois to New Hampshire to attend my cousin’s wedding. Chris was living in the Charlestown section of Boston and we were going to stop off at his house along the way. We had never been anywhere alone together and I remember being almost giddy with excitement but I was trying to act very cool and intelligent. On the plane trip to Boston we mildly struggled to find common interests to discuss before Chris asked me if I had ever seen the show Mork and Mindy. Living in a dorm with no television I hadn’t yet and Chris went on about how impressed he was with the comedian named Robin Williams who starred in the show. He was discussing the comic’s improvisational techniques and how he appeared to spontaneously combust with thought. The first thing I thought was, I like the name Robin for a boy, you don’t hear that very often. Growing up in the Midwest you never heard it except in Winnie the Pooh. I kept this to myself.christopher-robin

 

When we landed in Logan Airport I tried to maintain my cool, adult act as Chris shepherded me down to baggage claim and then out to the taxi stand. I sat back in the deep cushioning of the yellow cab seat feeling briefly cared for and watched the city wiz past us as Chris kept redirecting the driver to a better route. Chris had been working as a Boston taxi driver and he knew every turn and shortcut.

When we arrived at his apartment I was a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I had imagined. The neighborhood was very run down and almost grey in appearance. Clusters of white teenagers lingered on the stoops looking like thugs.

“There’s Bunker Hill,” he said pointing to the obelisk. “I live right in the heart of Bunker Hill.”

“Cool,” I said or something like it.

Chris lived in a three-story building that slanted quite a bit to one side. As we ascended the steps we had to lean to right ourselves and walk straight. We passed an open door on the first floor where an old woman called out. “Chris, have you seen my cat?”

“No. I’ve been away.”

“Oh,” she said as if she didn’t quite believe him.

We climbed another flight of rickety steps and arrived at his dwelling. I had never known anyone who lived in a slum before and that is the only word I could think of to describe it-slum. A man in a clean white shirt and corduroys stepped out from a back room and I was introduced to his roommate, Jared.

“This is my sister,” Chris said, tilting his head in my direction. “My sister Phoebe.”

“Like Catcher in the Rye?” Jared asked.

“A little,” Chris laughed.

“You’re a little old for the part but it fits,” Jared said lightly.

Jared stared at me and said, “I didn’t know you had a sister.”

Speechless I stared back at Jared and then at Chris and waited.

Chris laughed nervously and said, “Three. I have three.”

Jared suggested we go eat at Durgin Park so I could experience some local fare.

We stood in a long line outside and waited for a table. Chris knew very little about my current life except I was an art major in college and he looked up into the summer twighlight and asked, “What color would you call that sky?”

Sensing I was supposed to impress him I gave it my all. “Periwinkle.”

Chris seemed satisfied. “Ha, ha, that’s great. Periwinkle it is.”

Inside we sat family style at a long table with other parties and I ordered cherrystone clams thinking they were steamers. Raw clams in shells arrived sitting on ice and I couldn’t control my disappointment. The cool act went away.

Dining-room-at-Durgin-Park-Boston

Durgin Park interior

“Of course, you wanted steamers,” Chris said understanding my mistake. “But these are great.”

I stared at the uncooked mollusks and grimaced while Jared happily ate his Shepherd’s pie.

“I’ll take them,” Chris offered as he slid a raw clam down his throat followed by a swig of draught beer. Then he hailed down an impatient waitress and ordered steamers for me and another round of beer.

“Not to worry,” he said smiling. Fixing orders was something he could do for me.

When we arrived back at his apartment after dinner Chris disappeared into his room. I went into the living room unsure of my next move. The apartment was lined in books on shelves and haphazard stacks of more books rested on most of the free floor space. Their library was filled with books on philosophy, religion, classic literature and massive collections of poetry. Jared sat down across from me. He spoke in soft even tones and asked me questions about my childhood. I gave slow careful answers and tried to be myself which was never easy.

“You’re going to a wedding?”

“My cousin’s, tomorrow. In New Hampshire.”

I went to look for Chris and found him fast asleep fully dressed on a bare mattress. I went back to the living room.

Jared asked if I would like to hear some poetry. He read something he was working on and I strained to find at least one thing I could comment on that sounded intelligent.

He smiled.

“I guess Chris isn’t getting up.” I said.

“I guess not,” he said. “You can sleep here on the couch. “

I looked at the depressed sofa and nodded.

“You’re in college?”

“Yes, in Minnesota,” I said.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“Read mostly,” he said. “Have you read any Bly or Wright?” he asked picking up a book.

You couldn’t go to college in Minnesota in the 1970’s and not know about Robert Bly. “Yes I’ve read some Bly,” I tried to say casually.

“This is Wright’s newest collection,” he said, opening what looked like a new book. He read the title, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright.”

Then he read the poem about a man who idles the day away watching both time and nature pass him by and then feels regret. I thought of my brother in bed with his clothes on, eight years older than me and still not done with college. A man searching for something. A man who had fallen asleep and forgotten about me.

In the morning Chris took me out for pancakes and then we drove north to our ancestral home. Relatives we had always known were waiting for us. No one was thinking it was unusual that it was just the two of us and I pretended that being paired together was an everyday event. The ceremony was alongside a pond on a chicken farm and they had a wedding cake with green frosting. That trip would be the last time either of us saw our grandfather alive and we would both remember that. After the wedding Chris and I said good-bye and I went to Maine to stay with my aunt, before returning to college. Chris went back to Bunker Hill and returned to a life I didn’t want to think about.

Since that time Christopher’s life moved in a trajectory I would not have imagined on that summer day in 1978. He picked himself up and finished college then graduate school. He married and raised two daughters. He traveled the world and mastered three more languages including Japanese. He worked for Fulbright in Japan and ended up as the International and English Language Programs Senior Director at the University of Washington. He divorced. He remarried eight years ago to Sonia. And in a time when I feel like my own family is shrinking his was expanding in leaps and bounds into step-children, in-laws and grandchildren who were always around him and supportive. Sonia and Chris traveled the world together and bought a beautiful house overlooking the Sound. Whether they were traveling or in their home he was content and made the last eight years the happiest of his life. A month before his death he excitedly told me his idea to import Bolivian wine to the United States. He told me he was buying a Lexus and he and Sonia were leaving for Hawaii— a trip they took. He died knowing he had at last found himself. The fact that we are eight years apart has not gone unnoticed by me. I am reminded of the advice of Robin William’s character John Keating: “Seize the day.”

Chris3

Me, Chris and Sonia in Edmonds, WA last summer

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

BY JAMES WRIGHT

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.