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.

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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.

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MY CHILDREN MY SELF

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Before junior high I always felt like a girl inside but to many strangers I looked like a boy. Unless I was in school or church clothes, both of which required a dress, I wore dungarees, sneakers, t- shirts and sweat shirts and I had very short hair. It was the 1960’s and when many girls my age had long hair my mother insisted on keeping mine very short. I was the only one of my sisters who befell this fate on a consistent basis year after year until I entered eighth grade and she backed off and let me decide how to wear my own hair. My high school freshman yearbook photo shows an adolescent working hard to grow out short hair. This class photo from my kindergarten class gives you a pretty good idea how different I looked from other girls. I am second from the right in the back row next to the teacher. It also shows you who the photographer felt should not be in the front row.

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When I had children of my own I remember looking at photos of me and my young son at various ages and it was remarkable how similar we appeared. Jackson and I have small close set eyes and big ears that stick out a little at the top. So I usually kept his hair a bit longer. It was a reaction to my own insecurity that developed spending a decade with my ears exposed.

“See how much he resembles me?” I would ask people when I placed our pictures side by side from similar ages. When Jackson was in the fourth grade he started wearing glasses and then puberty started and any obvious similarity ended.

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Conversely I have perpetuated the belief that my daughter looks nothing like me. I have always resembled my own mother to a certain extent and I was surprised when she did not. Instead she resembles my husband’s sister except in coloring. She has large, wide eyes and a small nose and ears. She recently measured her face according to the golden section in a math class and discovered that the proportions of her face were “perfect.”Image

I added this item to the long list of things my daughter and I will never have in common. For example I always hated school and she seemed wired to succeed at it from birth. She was a pretty natural swimmer and I struggled throughout my childhood to learn the skill. She read early and often and I didn’t pick up the habit until I was almost seventeen. These are the things that sit at the forefront of my brain when I think about my daughter being connected to me. It’s as if she could do so much better than be like me.

Quinnie’s enduring hairstyle throughout childhood has been to part it on the side without bangs and cut it blunt across her shoulders. This isn’t terribly interesting except I recently uncovered a colored snapshot of me taken in 1967 when I was in the third grade.(Note the date on border. Film took a long time to get developed in our house.) The photo stopped me in my tracks. It reveals the one small window in my entire childhood when I had somehow managed to grow my hair to my shoulders before my mother shuffled me back to the hairdresser for my routine pixie.

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When I look at both of these eight year old girls I see the things the viewer cannot. Our difference in age is exactly the same as my mother’s and mine. We are both the youngest and have a deep fondness for little things like fairies, trolls and gnomes. I see our imaginative selves that wrote poems and drew expressive people dressed up in fancy clothes or the beginnings of countless comic strips where girlfriends said banal things to one another. I see our love of Little House on the Prairie books and the caretaking of numerous dolls that needed more attention than we each had time to offer. I see  both our childhoods played out against an exurban backdrop.Image

I remember longing for the late afternoon to arrive so school could end or the Saturday chores were finally over and my mother would relax and serve a late day snack, free from the pressures of housework. I recently learned Quinn’s least favorite time of day is between 1 and 3 PM. She has always had a longing for a little four o’clock tea and biscuit which helps transition her into the evening. I suppose I encouraged and nurtured this habit.

I can’t say anymore that we are more different than the same or we never resembled one another. The pictures reveal that what we believe and what we remember aren’t always reliable indicators of the truth.