Speaking in Two Tongues

March 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

There are many ways to learn a language. Most often people seek to study a second (or third or tenth) language, in a classroom or on their own. Or they learn it at their mother’s knee, conversing in the familial Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Hindi, while speaking English to the world outside.

I saw on Facebook that our son-in-law is using Rosetta Stone to teach himself Swedish, the language of his ancestry. My husband and I joke that our son-in-law is studying Swedish so he can talk with his father without our daughter knowing what they’re saying. Or maybe they’re planning a trip to Stockholm, who knows.

During high school in Canada I was compelled to learn French, so I can scrape by pretty well. I don’t have to use subtitles much when watching French movies, I can find my way easily around the menu of a French restaurant, and on the one occasion I went to Paris, I did not feel utterly lost. But I never think in French and that’s what separates “speaking French” from “knowing” it.

Long before the French though,Mother married an Englishman (I was ten), and when we moved to West Yorkshire,  I developed my second language: English. (“What?!” You say, quizzically.)

Well, I know to look both ways at the Zebra crossing so I won’t get struck by a passing lorry. When I’m tired, I prefer the lift to the stairs. I’ve corrected my mistakes with a rubber (rather than preventing “mistakes” with one) I’ve gone to the Chemists for a plaster, which I’ve then affixed to my finger. I’ve enjoyed the warmth of a good anorak, and I’ve been gone longer than a fortnight. I prefer Trifle to Blancmange (aptly pronounced blahhhhh-maahhnj) and I can never put my hand on a Biro when I need one.

Additionally, I know the difference between a barrister and a solicitor. You probably shouldn’t look for crisps in a chip shop, I need plimsolls if I’m going to play netball, and there’s nowt for the moggies to eat. I’ve never written to an Agony Aunt, I prefer bangers and mash to bubble and squeak, but I’d rather have a butty than either. I’ve exclaimed “Gor Blimey, this fairy cake is delicious” Luckily not too many things have gone balls-up, though occasionally my teachers would say “Oy, you, stop skiving.”  Okay, then, Bob’s your uncle. Oh, and there’s nothing like a bit of cha to raise your spirits.

Which is something that my Chinese American husband would certainly agree with, though he, like all Chinese, would never dream of taking his tea with milk and sugar. Crazy, he says, it just doesn’t go. Like putting fish sauce on your breakfast cereal. He calls it the same thing, though: cha.  The British slang, in fact, comes from the Cantonese word for tea.  “Cha” was the first Chinese word our son learned, picking it up from hearing his parents’ one word question “Cha?” (Tea?) or “Ngeem Cha?” (Drink tea?)

My husband’s mother was an immigrant, arriving here in 1936, just as the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally being lifted.  Her husband was a third generation Chinese-American, but the exclusion act had required him (as it had his father) to go to China for his bride. In fact, Elmer’s father had been born in China and came to the U.S. alone in 1913, at age 12, to seek his future. In 1921, he returned to China to marry (it was an arranged marriage) and then returned again, alone, to America. There would be many such trips across the Pacific for the next 14 years. The couple had five children before the family was allowed to come to America.

When Rose Louie Lieu arrived at the port of Los Angeles, she spoke no English.  Elmer is uncertain if his father tried to teach his mother some English, but certainly he had to translate for her. They settled on Clanton Street in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, about two miles by bus or foot from Chinatown and the familiar charivari of her native tongue. Five children became six, then seven. All the children always spoke Chinese with their parents, and each of them went every afternoon to a special Chinese school to learn how to write the beautiful Chinese characters.

Dad worked in the shipyards, Mom stayed home and hand painted silk ties. When Elmer, the baby of the family, was about five years old, his parents opened a small neighborhood grocery store on Washington Boulevard. At the store, both his mother and father spoke English with their customers, but the language at home was still Chinese.  (Except for the year when they both got mad at each other, and didn’t speak at all, but that’s another story.)

In 1969, the grocery burned to the ground. The Lieus were in their late sixties, so they took the insurance money and retired. From that day forward, their English language slipped away little by little. By the time I met Elmer’s mother in 1992, she didn’t speak any English at all.  During the many telephone conversations Elmer had with her, he spoke Chinese fluently, and without hesitation. But put him on the spot, ask “What’s the word for this,” or “How do you say that” and he can’t remember.

His mother came from a village outside of Toisan, in the Pearl River Delta. Up until about 1950, three out of every four Chinese immigrants was from Toisan, and the city was referred to as The Home of Overseas Chinese. The dialect that she and Elmer’s father spoke is further distinguished as being a “country dialect.” It is a derivative of Cantonese, but can lead to awkward assumptions: Many people know the Chinese dish Moo Goo Gai Pan. It is chicken with mushrooms. In Toisanese, “gai” means “dog” and “goy” is chicken. Best to have your dialects in a row before you order your Peking duck.

Mandarin is now the official Chinese language, but 70 million people still speak Samyip (Cantonese) and it is the official language in Hong Kong and Macau.  Of course, the dialect that Elmer’s parents spoke is preserved from a time nearly a century ago. In the very same village, they are no longer using these particular idioms or constructions; like many immigrant families, we have preserved for ourselves a vernacular of antique Chinese speech. 

During our marriage, I’ve spent a lot of time smiling in restaurants while Elmer conducts elaborate conversations (in Toisanese) with waiters and waitresses across the country, and in Canada. Especially in Canada. I know the drill. He says “Are you Chinese?”

“Yes,” the person answers, adding his or her own question. “Are you Chinese . . .” and they’re off and running. My ear is attuned to any reference to bak gwee (White Devil, that’s us pale folks) but so far no one has mentioned it.

The best (and most authentic) Chinese restaurants are often the most unprepossessing ones, in strip malls and office buildings. We found one such place in Crescent City, California. The food was excellent and the owner-waitress-wife of chef was from Toisan. It’s a good thing our son was there too, or I would have had to spend the entire meal without uttering a word. Just as we were leaving, Elmer and the woman had a particularly lively and cheerful exchange. As we walked to the car, I asked Elmer “What was that last thing you said to her?”

 “Do you want to go back to the hotel?”


“Do you want to go back to the hotel?”

“That’s the last thing you said to the waitress?”

“What do you mean?”

Julian was laughing so hard at his father’s unwitting faux pas, I thought he would pass out. When my dear husband finally caught on, he started laughing too and we all had to sit in the car awhile to collect ourselves.

The first word my mother-in-law taught me was Heckla. It means “have some more.”  She used it like a blessing, though, making sure that we were well fed, warm enough, cool enough, had enough cash . . . and here, have some more. It did no good to say we were full, or fine, or had enough money; there was always something more to give us. It was a beautiful and generous sentiment and I wish we could have had it etched upon her headstone, but of course, the Chinese are far too formal for such things.

In the 17 years that Elmer and I have been married, I have picked up a bit of Chinese here and there. It’s not as fluent as my French, or my idiomatic British, nor will it ever be the language of my thoughts. But I can urge Julian to hurry up Lwoy-la. (Come on). I can say I’m ready to leave.  Luwht-la (Let’s go.) I know that the antique dress in the lacquer trunk is called a Cheung-Sahm and I know that the carved trunk with the scenes on it is the Jun Muk Lung.

My abilities extend to wishing you a Happy New Year, (Gung Hay Fat Choy), saying Thanks (Wa-deh) and politely asking how you are (Neh How Ma) My husband and his long time friend, Bill Ahaus, are hilarious when they say this to each other on the phone, in what I call Chinese-restaurant-short-order-screech. Bill’s a bak gwee (like me) but his wife Doreen is Chinese American, so it’s okay. It’s not racist if you’re making fun of yourself.

I also know Wah Sun (New China, frequently seen on restaurants and my husband’s Chinese name)  Ma (horse, and also the famous cellist) Haack (black, and Haackas are a dark Chinese minority; Chow Yun Fat is one, so is our brother-in-law, father of the family’s claim to real success: Famous Headline News anchor, Richard Lui) and the ever essential ShiHahngGee (literally: shit bowl paper, but what we polite Americans call toilet tissue.)

Sadly, our son won’t learn Chinese at his father’s knee, as it’s hard to teach Chinese when you can’t remember it except for when you’re having conversations with waitresses.  Julian has picked up some colorful Cantonese terminology (and a few insults) with which he dazzles his contemporaries at school. And he has learned to listen for the music in other languages, puzzling out German and French and now his own choice for speaking in a second tongue: Latin. Deus Succurro Peur




  A Very Short British-American Glossary

zebra crossing — crosswalk

lorry – truck

lift – elevator

rubber – eraser

chemists – pharmacy

plaster – bandage, bandaid

anorak – parka style winter coat

Trifle – layered dessert with fruit, cream, cake and sherry

Blancmange – molded gelatinous dessert

barrister – an attorney who argues cases in court

solicitor – an attorney who represents you in matters not involving court

crisps – potato chips

chip shops – fish and chip shops—chips are slices of fried potato

plimsolls – girls gym shoes (like Keds)

netball – basketball

Agony Aunt – advice columns, like Dear Abby & Ann Landers

nowt – nothing

moggies – cats

bangers and mash – sausage and mashed potato in a casserole arrangement

bubble and squeak – fried potatoes and cabbage, sometimes a bit of bacon or sausage

butty – a sandwich made with meat and butter

Gor Blimey – an exclamation, a colloquial form of “Gosh!,” from “God Blind Me.” Really.

fairy cake  — cupcake

balls up – totally ruined, messed up, SNAFU

Oy – A form of address similar to Hey!

Skiving – to avoid work, dawdling

Bob’s Your Uncle – “That’s it, then,” that’s all there is.

Cha – tea













Walking Somehow from the Sun

March 10, 2009 § 10 Comments




a requiem

If I had awakened in Montana last Thursday, as I have for most Thursdays for the last two decades I know the feeling that would have washed over me as soon as my eyes fluttered open: disgust. More snow, in March, for God’s sake. Would the winter ever end? It wasn’t just a dusting, but a significant snowfall. The kind that makes people linger in bed, or if they brave the weather, they stamp their boots going into coffee shops, the windows wet with condensation, shaking the snow from their hair.

The news reached me within an hour of its occurrence. There had been an explosion on Bozeman’s historic Main Street. My husband, at our home in Ohio, called me at my mother’s to tell me. It was enough of an explosion to catch the attention of CNN. We didn’t live in Bozeman, but it had been the closest large town, and it was the place we went for shopping, special dinners, baby gifts, art galleries, ballet lessons.  We’d walked Main Street for the Christmas stroll, the Sweet Pea Festival, Crazy Days.

Elmer called me back when he found out where the explosion actually was. We knew the block well. It was thought that the explosion was centered around Boodles, an upscale restaurant. We’d eaten there a few times. The food had failed to live up to the hype or the price tag, but still the restaurant’s sudden and complete disappearance into a pile of broken debris saddened me. Some people must have enjoyed the restaurant, they’d been in business for at least a decade. The front of Boodles was painted a glorious green, somewhere between sea glass and geranium leaves. 

The color was shared by the bar next door; the Rocking R. It was enough of a cowboy bar to be packed during Rodeo week, but mostly the clientele ran to MSU students. When I first moved to Montana, a hundred years ago, I went there with my old friend Sheryl Dahl. Since then, I think we’d been in once or twice to get a sandwich, a Bobcat or a Ken’s Special at the Pickel Barrel counter inside.

There was a gallery of Western Art next door, and next to that, a charming and luxurious children’s shop, Lilly Lu’s, a place that would have fit in as well in SoHo as it did in this Rocky Mountain town. Maybe better in SoHo, actually. Upstairs from that, was a place where we’d spent a lot of time: the studios of Montana Ballet, where all three of our kids had taken lessons. Julian had stuck with it the longest, thumping out the rhythm of plies and grand jetes in both Ballet and Jazz classes. A little wave of nausea rippled over me as I thought of those polished floors and high windows, all those kids in their leotards and soft leather slippers. 

I learned later that the Ballet had moved, that the space I remembered was now an architect’s office. It had been early in Bozeman when the second block of East Main blew up. Just after 8 a.m. and officials thought the early hour and the new snowfall had kept injuries to a minimum.  Initially eleven were feared missing. One by one their whereabouts were identified until only a solitary soul remain unaccounted for and officials were tight-lipped with details.

The story trailed after me, like the scent of smoke in my clothes. I thought perhaps I’d write about it, how we felt connected to some of those places. I made a few notes, penciled the word “Ka-boom” in the margin.

In the comment sections of online newspaper editions, people – some long gone from the Montana scene- wrote of their sorrow. Others made snarky remarks about cowtowns and militia, revealing the ignorance of those who penned them.  There are other towns in America like Bozeman. Asheville, North Carolina. Boulder. Madison. It is a deep blue pocket in a mostly red state, a town full of young mothers with jogging strollers, bookstores, coffee houses, oriental rug galleries, wine bars. The women in Bozeman choose Dansko clogs over Manolo Blahniks. And so do the men. 

The Rocking R stirs memories for many. One writer hopes the bar’s sign, an iconic red enameled holdover from the “R’s” good old days (that is, before the remodel) can be saved. Someone else says no, it’s lying crumpled in the street. It isn’t though. Photographs of the scene show it hanging on the fragile façade that still stands. The Bozeman daily features the scene in their online photo section, Montana 360, [ http://bozemandailychronicle.com/montana360 ]providing a navigable view up and down the street. Windows are said to be boarded up as distant as city hall, four blocks away.

They say that the American Legion is badly damaged by fire. Next door, Artcraft Printers, where they printed Julian’s baby announcements; they are closed indefinitely. Starky’s, a deli where we used to stop in for Reubens and chicken soup has sustained heavy damage.  Then there’s the Great Rocky Mountain Toy Store on the other side of them. When you live somewhere that long, some things become as familiar as the back of your hand. The Governor, Brian Schweitzer, arrives in the snow. The owner of the rug gallery on the corner is inconsolable. He had just stepped out for coffee when the explosion occurred. The next day volunteers will help him carry out scores of wet and sooty carpets, most weighing more than a hundred pounds each.

Days go by. I check the news online. CNN has long since dropped the story, moving on to other catastrophes in other places. I am nagged by the mystery of the missing person. Officials are not forthcoming about anything in that regard. When I read that the missing person is a woman, I wonder who let that slip to the media and if they thought “Oh shit” when they realized what they did. 

The general consensus is that the explosion was caused by a leak in a 12 inch natural gas pipe. Northwestern Energy has been on the scene, shutting down gas lines. Owners of the businesses on that block are allowed to visit, escorted in silence. The woman from Lilly Lu’s reports that she stood sobbing, looking at where her shop, where the last ten years of her life, used to be. They allow her to carry away a brick of the historic storefront. It’s all that’s left.

It is a Riverdale, Utah paper that spells out what everyone fears. The Boodles chef, Scottie Burton is a Riverdale native. His girlfriend, Kate Ludwig works next door at the Montana Trails Gallery.  They are usually at work by eight o’clock in the morning, but with the snow, they’ve overslept.  Burton says they are quite certain that the Gallery manager was there, though. He wonders if perhaps she triggered the explosion by turning on the lights. Montana Trails. I’d been to a couple of receptions there, I’d admired pieces in the gallery window as I’d passed by on the sidewalk. Bears, horses, calves, bison, trout rendered with skill and sensitivity, not couch art. A collection of beautiful knives handmade by the charming son of a famous writer.  Bronzes, fluid with motion. No Conestoga wagon scenes.

The Dickinson, North Dakota newspaper is initially alone in reporting that “Search Turns Up No Victims”  in the Bozeman explosion, as if therefore, there are not any. A handful of other papers searching for news will also miss the unspoken, unwritten “yet.” No victims found yet. Seeing the strangely upbeat tilt of the story makes me impatient and agitated. Are they stupid? Well, maybe. Maybe they’re just hopeful. Maybe you have to be that way to stand  living in Dickinson, North Dakota. Maybe you have to hope against hope.

This morning, the news: a body has been found. Searchers found that one last person shortly after noon on Sunday. One of the British poet laureates, Philip Larkin, wrote a poem in 1969 after an explosion in a mine. He describes the miners walking to work, “Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke/ 
Shouldering off the freshened silence.”

He describes them with a certain tenderness, playfully chasing a rabbit, returning with a nest of lark’s eggs, which they admire and leave undisturbed in the grass, before they passed “ Fathers brothers nicknames laughter/ Through the tall gates standing open.” 

This afternoon, there is identification by dental records. It is an unnecessary and cruel detail, but every news story carries it, and I am guilty of it as well. The woman is Tara Reistad Bowman, the manager of the gallery. She was the wife of Chris Bowman, whose family owns Owenhouse Ace Hardware up the street– where we’ve bought string and canvas, horse buckets and Christmas lights, French rolling pins and cans of paint, extension cords and shop vacs, ice cream sandwiches. I don’t know Tara, but my heart breaks for the people who loved her. 

The photograph accompanying the news story shows a young woman with long pale hair, a face that is all angles and planes, strikingly beautiful, but not conventionally pretty. A family friend describes her as “the most genuine, positive person, the nucleus of her family.”  A couple of artists’ blogs note her death, heavy with sadness. Many photograph of the scene has shown  her vehicle parked behind the gallery. 

She is the youngest of four children, the only daughter. One of her brothers describes her as “gentle, but tough.”  In February 2004, Tara’s father was murdered by a disturbed man, the paranoid-schizophrenic son of his lady friend. The man had forced his mother to write him a $10,000 check before killing first her and then Chester Reistad. It was a brutal crime, and one that captured the attention of the Bozeman community.  It was Tara’s strength, her brothers say, that supported the family during that terrible time. Tara is quoted in a newspaper story as saying that the defendant “killed the only two people who would have been willing to go to bat for him.” 

I am reminded of a comment written before her body was discovered. Someone who knew her wrote that the only comfort to be found was in “knowing that she is safe in the arms of both her fathers.”

“The dead go on before us,” wrote Philip Larkin “they/ 
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort 
/ We shall see them face to face– 

/plain as lettering in the chapels. 

The morning of the explosion Tara Bowman had been exchanging emails with her mother, Skip, planning together an upcoming party. Her mother said to a local television station that her “daughter’s beauty was just a mirror of what was inside.”  It is exactly what a bereaved mother might say upon losing a beloved child, which makes it no less true. Still, she gives us perhaps a more telling glimpse of Tara when she describes her as a “prankster who liked to laugh.”

It was said and for a second

Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed–

Gold as on a coin, or walking

Somehow from the sun towards them.

That morning, Tara was on the telephone with one of her best friends. The friend recounted to a local television station that they were talking about an upcoming trip to Hawaii, Tara was laughing. At 8:14 the line went dead.  Ash and snow falling from the sky.

Today,  Monday, the day after they pulled her from the bricks and rubble, she would have been 37 years old. It was her birthday.







The Crooksville Bowl

March 8, 2009 § 11 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

The bowl was sitting in a shop window along the narrow Main Street of Newberry, South Carolina. Newberry is an old town, its cotton mills long gone. But it does have a leg up on economic recovery with the restoration of the Opera House into a first class performance hall, and its streets lined now with interesting restaurants and antique shops that range from excellent to laughable. 

The window in which the bowl sits no longer belongs to a functioning shop. It has a colorful display of mismatched goods and a couple of handwritten signs, “For Rent,” and something I can’t decipher from the intersection. The bowl is quite large, a foot across the top rim; cream colored, with a reddish band. Maybe McCoy, I think from the car. It’s handsome. The light changes, I put the car in gear and not another thought is given to the bowl in the shop window.

As it happens, I find myself stopped at that particular stop light nearly everyday. I have come back to Newberry to help my mother who is scheduled for major surgery. In the first days of her recuperation, alone in my car, I find myself looking for the bowl when I arrive at that crossroads, and it is somehow reassuring that it is always there. When Mother is well enough and we are on our way somewhere, I point it out to her as we pass by. Her glance does not locate it among the hodge podge of goods, so I ‘round the block and slow down for her to see it. It’s not really to her taste. 

By now I’ve deciphered that one sign directs inquiries about items in the window to the oddly named Pink Verandah, a shop two doors up that has no verandah and is not pink. I have still not actually walked up to the window to give the bowl a closer look. It could have a giant chip in the rim not visible from the roadway, or a significant closed crack; both of those would be deal breakers. I mention the bowl a few times to my mother, thinking perhaps she’ll take the hint that this might be a good birthday present to mark the otherwise unacknowledged day that passed by a few weeks before. She does not.

Then it’s time to go home to my husband and son in Ohio, I decide if I am that undecided about the bowl, then clearly I don’t need it. So I go away, and come back a week later to resume care for my rapidly recovering Mom. I am pleased to see the bowl is still sitting in the window. One day after lunch at one of the better restaurants in town, we walk across the courthouse square to take a closer look at the bowl. There are no visible chips or cracks, but the litmus test is to ring the rim. If it rings with a thud, there is a crack and the structure is significantly compromised. Ringing true is the hallmark of a piece that is still very much intact.

The tag is visible from the sidewalk outside. It reads “Crooksville Bak-In Pantry Ware” and “$45.”  From the turn of the century through the forties bowls were produced (often made of yellow clay and referred to as “Yellow ware”) for use like a casserole dish in woodfired ovens, baking puddings and pot pies. They were quite popular and are still sought after by collectors. Though the bowl in the window is the right color for Yellow ware, which can range from the color of egg custard to that of Dijon mustard, the clay isn’t the right consistency, as the Ohio river clay used for Yellow ware was pretty coarse and resulted in a thick earthenware vessel. 

We walked to the store down the street to inquire. Our timing is less than perfect, though, as the store is inundated with a gaggle of women demanding the attention of the shopkeeper, their observations and limited knowledge ringing out like a chorus of chain saws. I think maybe I’ll just go see what I can find out about Crooksville on my own.

It isn’t too encouraging. There was lots of ugly stuff made by Crooksville, and most of it is being offered for less than ten dollars. There are some other examples of  Bak-In Pantry Ware, but their resemblance to “my” bowl does not extend beyond the mark. It’s very curious. I dig deeper. 

Crooksville, Ohio, is about sixty miles southwest of Columbus. It is a tiny town of less than two thousand, and the area has been home to many famous potteries. Hull pottery was located in Crooksville, six miles north is Roseville, another tiny town, home to both Roseville pottery and McCoy. Eleven miles further along is the larger town of Zanesville, which was home to Weller. 

Historians have established that in 1851, there were 41 potteries within three miles of Crooksville. These were called “Bluebird” potteries, and were established to provide farmers with containers and tableware. They were often set up in sheds with a couple of kick wheels, and a brick kiln outside. They were called “Bluebird” potteries because the potters relied on the return of the bluebirds from the south as a signal that it was the proper time to mine the clay. 

The Crooksville Pottery was established in 1902, but by 1959, they had shuttered their doors. They had outlasted Weller (1948), Hull (1952) and Roseville (1954.) McCoy managed to continue through to 1967, when they were bought by another firm; production ceased altogether for them in 1990.

Crooksville (named after a postmaster, not a tendency for larcenous behavior) still is a pottery center, holding a festival (complete with Queen and Cute Baby contests) every year, and providing a home for Pottery Museums and other organizations interested in American pottery.  While all this was fascinating, I could still find nothing that looked like the bowl in the window.

In fact I was having a hard time finding reference to any earlier pieces at all. What I was seeing on line (and it is not pretty) was serving and table ware produced in the 1950s: little Dutch girls in tulips, elaborate decals of roses, rust and gold florals.  I combed through several hundred patterns at Replacements.com, an excellent online resource for china patterns. Nothing. I still hadn’t seen the mark on the base of the bowl, perhaps there was some mistake. 

In the meantime, my mother was much improved, and quite ready to live independently. I’d been gone nearly a month and my family was getting fractious. So I made plans to go home, and started packing. On my last day in Newberry, we went to lunch downtown with my mother’s two sisters and one of her brothers, and as one is wont to do in such situations, we ate too much. 

“The bowl,” I thought. While the others still sat around the long table, my aunt Carol and I took a stroll up the street, pausing outside the restaurant to admire Calamity, a bulldog out with her owner. The Pink Verandah is empty of customers when we arrive, but it turns out Calamity and her owners are on our heels. There is a sweet teenaged boy behind the counter. When I ask about the bowl in the window of the shop two doors up the street, he says “I’ll have to call my Mom.” As he does so, the woman with Calamity says “Are you calling your mother? Ask her what the name of the lamp shop is and where is it?” As the boy talks, she interrupts several times. “Don’t forget about the lamp shop.”

In the meantime, we browse. There is a tin that used to hold Balkan-Sobranies cigarettes. I smoked them occasionally in college. $4. I wish I’d kept the tins. There is a plywood cabinet, painted white, presented as a folk piece. $550. Carol and I laugh. There is an awful lot of negrobilia (mammy dolls and the like) that makes me intensely uncomfortable. You see quite a bit of that in antique shops in the south. It’s funny, they’d never dream of selling the disrespectful caricatures that the Nazis produced of the Jews. Or maybe they would. There are some nice paintings, but I really just want to see the bowl.  

Finally, the father of the boy tending the store arrives. He has unlocked the other shop, and Carol and I walk up there, with the boy who climbs into the window to get the bowl. 

“Don’t drop it,” I pray silently. There, on the sidewalk, I examine it. On the bottom, there’s the mark, in orange. “Bak-In Pantry Ware by Crooksville.” There’s no pattern number, so it was one of the earlier pieces. Somewhere around 1920-1930. I could tell that anyway, by the arts and craft style border below the rim, brick red with a floral motif, maybe poppies, or pansies. An open faced and friendly flower. I flick the edge of the bowl with a finger tip. It rings true. 

My mother is surprised that I didn’t try to get a “better price” on the bowl, but really, I just didn’t have the energy. My uncle Allen examines it and proclaims that it is not old, because it has no chips, cracks or crazing. In fact, crazing (fine lines in a pottery glaze) is caused by fluctuations in temperature, extreme hot (like in the oven) or extreme cold, (like in a freezer.) It isn’t necessarily an indication of age, as improperly glazed contemporary items can become crazed.  

This bowl was probably never “baked in.”  There are some very light marks inside the bowl, where a South Carolina mother stirred up brownies or macaroni salad, mashed potatoes, biscuits. Maybe she set it on the table laden with green beans or collards.

Who knows how it got here to Newberry, South Carolina. If it sat on a shelf in the old Rose’s store, or one of the other housewares shops that used to dot Main Street. Maybe it was purchased in a general store in Pomaria or Little Mountain or Whitmire. No matter, today, it’s going home to Ohio.

Folly Beach

March 7, 2009 § 5 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

When my son, native child of a landlocked state, was eight years old, I took him to see the Atlantic Ocean. We were visiting my grandmother in upstate South Carolina when it occurred to me that we were pretty close to the ocean at Charleston. It’s about 150 miles, but living in Montana, where the distances are so vast that it’s nothing to drive 30 miles to get a gallon of milk, that didn’t seem far at all. Heck, we were driving 72 miles a day to get Julian to school (18 miles there to take him, 18 miles home, 18 miles to get him, 18 miles home.)

But Charleston is not the beach. Further inspection of the road atlas revealed a little barrier island just south of the city. There, a tiny green patch was labeled “Folly Beach,” so we took our suits and sandals and were bound for glory, or at least a sunburn. The interstate goes within about ten miles of the island, after that you have to wend your way along a suburban highway lined with Burger Kings, tanning salons, gas stations, drug stores. (No doubt a suburban hell during hurricane evacuations.)

Finally the roadsides give way to low-country marshlands, estuaries, fishing docks, seafood merchants, and as you get to Folly Beach proper, an authentic beach town. Churches and the post office and the public library sit on prime real estate and one hopes that they always will remain so. 

“Can you smell the salt?” I asked Julian. He put his head out the window like a dog. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

What makes the shore smell like the shore is actually dimethylsulfide, a gas produced when phytoplankton (the basis of the ocean’s food chain) are consumed or die. A few hundred parts per trillion is enough to scent the sea air, and it is a smell enjoyed by seabirds, (to them it must say “lunch”) as well as humans. I guess “salt breeze” sounds more poetic than dimethylsulfide. Whichever, what it said to me as I drew closer is “home home home home.” Maybe I was a mermaid in another life.

My pulse quickened as we neared the shore. I knew that any minute, I mean, any minute now, the Ocean was going to appear before us in all of her shimmering glory. Kind reader, I wish I could describe to you the wonder on my child’s face, the thrill of that first sighting, but like our first glimpse of the ocean at Folly Beach, that has to wait.

For at the top of Center Street, right on the beach side sat an absolute eyesore: a concrete behemoth that has as much sensitivity to its location on the water as a Federal Prison would, blocking any and all views of the sea. It’s the Holiday Inn, and it had sat there like a colossal insult only since 1995, which makes it even more reprehensible.

Whoever is in charge of zoning at Folly Beach should be tarred and feathered, or at least spanked. The architect who designed this horrible structure should be used as an example at every architecture school in the country of what not to build, of what kind of aesthetic disaster it is to not design the correct structure for the setting. What is wrong with these people? Whatever kind of payoff occurred to have that Holiday Inn situated there it was not enough. There’s no amount of money large enough to justify it.

But that’s not what this essay is about, because the monolithic Holiday Inn is the exception at Folly Beach, not the rule. So we will ignore it and go on. We turned left along Arctic and drove down along the edge of the world. The dunes rise up next to the road, so you still don’t immediately see the water. We parked the car next to boardwalk steps and walked up to have a look. Julian had only one word: Wow.

The beach stretched up and down as far we could see. Late in the afternoon, it was nearly empty.We played in the water until nightfall. Julian picked up a hundred shells, got wrinkly fingers and toes, and licked the salt from the skin on his forearm. The sand along Folly Beach is so silvery and fine, it “sings” when you walk in it, the faint, fine song of the siren. Just before we left, I fetched a plastic grocery bag from the car and filled it with dry sand to carry back to my landlocked home. There I would keep it in an enormous Mason jar and whenever I needed some relief from the oppression of the mountains, I’d open up the jar and breathe deeply.

We didn’t get back to Folly the next year. Though our travels took us to the Carolinas, we went north this time, up through Myrtle Beach and along the coast to the Outer Banks. The intense development from Hatteras to Kitty Hawk left an impatient feeling in my soul.

It’s nothing like the little town south of Charleston that still made room for ordinary things: VFW turkey shoots, funny little package stores, trail rides, girl scout troops. No wonder the locals call it “Mayberry By the Sea.”

When I went back the next year, I tried to convince my grandmother, then 92, to come down to the sea with me. She put her novel down on her lap and thought about it for a minute. “That might be nice,” she said. Later, though, she decided that she probably should just stay home. I asked if she was sure, and she said she was. “You go on, I think I’ll just stay here and read.” Now I wish I’d tried harder to get her to come along.

So I went with my dog and it was nearly dark when we finally got there. We walked along the beach together, his joy plain as he darted in and out of the surf. After returning him to the car, I walked to a restaurant on the pier and ate oysters and drank a Pilsner while writing postcards to friends back in that dry and ocean-less state.

Historians think that Folly Beach was named for the old English word meaning “an area of dense foliage,” but come on, the word “folly” as we understand it, the quality of being rash and foolish, has been in wide use since Shakespeare. “Though age from folly could not give me freedom,” as Mark Anthony said.

In the 18th century, the island was used as a quarantine by ships entering Charleston harbor to drop off passengers suffering from cholera, and was at the time called “Coffin Land.” Try developing a tourism industry with that kind of moniker.

There were shipwrecks, Charleston cut off communication and supplies during a particularly bad patch of disease, the Union Troops used Folly Island to help launch their offensive against the important port city to the north.

Being a barrier island, it has seen its share of storms, and grainy black and white photos in local histories show the devastation that the the wind and the sea have wrought from time to time.

With the dawning of the twentieth century came rum-running, pavilions, boardwalks, piers and Folly-land became the vacation destination for city dwellers. The big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were regularly featured at the Pavilion.

In 1934, George Gershwin spent the summer on Folly Beach, in a bungalow at 708 West Arctic Avenue. It’s reported that he “went completely native” (sometimes unshaven and in blue jeans) there, rambling around Folly Beach and James Island, attending revival meetings and church services of the Gullah.

In 1926, Gershwin had read (in one sitting) the novel Porgy, by Charleston writer (and real estate and insurance agent) W. DuBose Heyward. Working in concert with his brother, Ira (in New York) writing the lyrics to some songs, and with DuBose Heyward (in Folly Beach) as librettist, Gershwin composed the great American opera, Porgy and Bess. It is said that he also judged a local beauty contest.

Yesterday, I went back to Folly Beach again, this time with my mother. I went back to the restaurant on the pier, it has declined a little. The pale gray blues and lemon yellows of the walls are a bit grimy. It reminded me, sadly, of an old lady who has turned herself out in a fine linen dress, not realizing that there are stains on the front, or that it is soiled around the collar and cuffs. The She-Crab soup had too much celery (I think it was celery) and the Prince Edward Island mussels, while lovely and mild would have been better served in a saffron cream sauce than the spinach and yellow pepper broth chosen. Mother said the crab cake was good, but you could tell from looking at it that it came this close to being burned. Still, we got to sit, looking out at the water, watching the pelicans and pigeons, a few bedraggled-looking starlings marching around.

Afterwards we walked out on the pier for a bit, laughing at the sign that Sharks Are Catch and Release Only! “Catch and Release” is a minor religion in landlocked Montana, the tourists releasing Browns and Rainbows because they can’t differentiate them from the native and endangered cutthroat trout. Just as well the mountain streams aren’t populated with sharks as well.

We drove a little further up the street, not too far from the trailhead to Morris Island. (You can’t actually get to the lighthouse anymore. Erosion has left it surrounded by water, and it was decommissioned a few years ago. The Light had been scheduled for demolition, but a local group rallied their support and found a private buyer.) We found a spot to park, paid to get a parking chit, got out of the car and broke the law.

Dogs are permitted on the beach November through April all day long, and in May through September they are allowed before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. but they must, and I repeat, must remained leashed. Taking a Chesapeake Bay Retriever to the beach and keeping him leashed is like putting a bowl of She-Crab soup in front of a starving man and not allowing him to eat. Both dogs are trained to come at a whistle, are always under voice control and will sit immediately to be leashed. They’re pretty good canine citizens. We released them.

They had a splendid time racing full-tilt into the surf, chasing each other and the foamy tops of wavelets rolling into the shore. After about 40 minutes, when we were joined on the beach by a couple with a Yorkshire terrier puppy, we called in the dogs, clipped on their leashes and went to the car to find towels. They might have thought the Yorkie was a squirrel, which would have resulted in considerable consternation.

“It was really nice to just stand there on the beach,” my mother said, handing me a dry towel.

Nearly every house on the island has a shingle in front, offering it for vacation rental. It’s very tempting, this notion of spending some extra time in Folly Beach. We did motor the seven miles into Charleston and devoted ten minutes to looking at the historic district around the Joseph Manigault house. I always think there will be enough time after the beach to go and explore the city. This is what I’ve always intended and it is absolute folly.  I always spend so much time on the barrier island I never have a chance to see Charleston before its time to go home.

Perhaps a week or two at the beach would do the trick, perhaps then there would be time to see what Charleston is about, in between sneaking dogs onto the beach and eating shellfish and drinking Pilsners, going native, answering the siren song of Folly Beach. I wonder if 708 West Arctic Avenue is available.

Family Affair

March 4, 2009 § 2 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

I’ve been thinking about family quite a bit these days. I’ve been in my mother’s hometown of Newberry, South Carolina almost full-time since late January, helping her recuperate from heart surgery. Her family is still in the area, so I’ve seen more of aunts, uncles and cousins than I often do in the course of a year. Or several years.

And it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed this sense of connectedness, of belonging. My first cousin once removed is the Mayor. His son, Clark (my second cousin) and Clark’s wife, Kathy own a wonderful restaurant downtown, The Flying Pie. 

On the day I brought my mother home from the hospital and tucked her up in bed, she ushered me out to dinner at the Flying Pie in the company of my Uncle Allen and Aunt Linda and when we arrived there we joined a dinner party consisting of Cousin Ed (the Mayor), his wife Joan, Cousin Larry (Ed’s brother) and his wife Vicky and Vicky’s brother Tim and his wife and their daughter and son in law. 

Sitting there, tucking into my lobster ravioli, I was struck by the fact that I belong to these people, and in turn, they belong to me. For the only child of footloose parents, this is a heady sense indeed.  Even if over pink grapefruit champagne sorbet my Uncle Allen did caution my Cousin Larry not to tell me any secrets that Larry didn’t want to see published on a billboard. 

Astounded, I asked Allen when I had ever divulged any secrets of his and he replied “Lots of them, to the whole congregation at Mama’s funeral.”  I think he must have meant the parts of my eulogy for Nana when I said Allen claimed Mom pushed him out the window when they were kids and that while he was growing up he refused to have more than one kind of food on his plate at a time. But really, those are family folklore, not secrets at all. 

Through the vagaries of the paths my parents chose I lived at eight different addresses in three countries by the time I was fifteen. Among those I count Middletown, Connecticut (age 7 to 10) and Prince Edward Island (age 12 to 17) as something like hometowns. Certainly, if I went to either of those places, I could arrange to see people who knew me, who hold me in esteem and affection. 

But it isn’t like sitting down at Aunt Carol’s and Uncle Nelson’s with my mother and Aunt Margaret for Beaufort Stew (shrimp, potatoes, sausage and thick slices of corn on the cob) and talking about other relatives not present, and solving the ills of the world and having Aunt Carol tease my son Julian when he calls on my cell phone.

“Who is this?” she asked. “Well, I found this phone on the street. Who are you looking for? Who? Your mother. Oh. Do I know your mother?” She listens for a minute. “Oh, okay,” Carol says. “You know I think I saw your mother on the street corner.” We are doubled with laughter.

Nothing can compare to what it feels like to belong. 

All my life I’ve found that sense here in this old mill town in the foothills of the Piedmonts, and also in the far northwestern corner of Ohio, in the little railroad town that my father called home. But my father’s brothers and sister scattered. His aunts and uncles and his father died and then my father died.

Montpelier doesn’t welcome me anymore, even if I did drive Julian all around the town the last time we were there, pointing out the church his great-great-great grandfather built with lumber he felled on his own land; the house where his great-great grandparents settled and raised their six children; the machine shop where his great grandfather worked, the high school where his grandfather was the basketball star and the Williams County Playhouse where Grandpa honed his chops.   I even showed him the trotting horse barns at the fairgrounds where I used to while away summer days as a child. And the cemetery at the edge of town where most of those stories found their end. 

My great-grandfather Christian Vonalt emigrated from Germany around the turn of the century. His heritage has been thoroughly mined by the Vonalt children. A couple of delegations have even returned to Germany to meet with cousins, and the family history has been traced back to the 15th century. 

On the other hand, Christian’s wife, Chloe, was the daughter of a Pennsylvania Deutsche man who had migrated from Loysville, a little town northwest of Harrisburg. When I inherited a quilt that Chloe’s mother had made, I had to do research to find out what the woman’s name was, as she had always been referred to as “Mrs. David Tressler.” (Her name was Elizabeth Shaul.) I am the first (and so far, only) member of my extended family to return to Loysville, 446 miles from the town where David put down deep roots.  It didn’t take much digging to find that the Tressler-Shaul branch of the family have been Americans since around 1750, in sharp contrast to Herr vonAlt’s relatively recent arrival. 

My mother’s family also claims a very long connection to this fair land, having arrived in Charleston in 1758. I never knew my maternal grandfather, he was killed in an accident when my mother was just 12, but I know that his ancestry is so well documented that every last bit of mystery has been pounded out of it. Oh, there are some great stories to be sure, but there is nothing new to be learned.  Every last scrap of the Ouzts history has been recorded in a two-volume hardbound set that rivals the physical heft of the Oxford English Dictionary, and can be purchased for $125.

My mother has expressed a desire to know more about her mother’s side of the family, the Kyzers (the branch to which Cousins Ed and Larry also belong) and Granny Kyzer’s family, the Roofs. It turns out that Cousin Ed has been in contact with a man in Phoenix, who is composing a history of the Kyzers, and my Uncle Ben still gets notices of the annual Roof Family reunions. It is a complicated business, this keeping track of where we came from.

Through DNA, we can now trace our ancestry beyond that of written record, presumably all the way back to the Mesopotamian river valley from whence we all originated, with a nod to all the tribes we belonged to along the way. The DNA Ancestry Project will process a swab taken painlessly from the lining of your cheek and with that can tell you where your ancestors came from, by comparing with geographical concentrations of like DNA. It can tell you which groups of people who share your surname you’re actually related to, and whether or not you share ancestry with some famous predecessors . . . Thomas Jefferson, anyone? Marie Antoinette? 

National Geographic is engaged in a similar quest to make a DNA “map” of the world with The Genographic Project . They began with a study of indigenous peoples to see what they could figure out about who we are and how we got here, and have extended the project to the public at large in a combined effort to tell the story of where we came from and where we belong. To participate in the studies cost between $100 and $200 depending on how much information you want. 

I can’t help but wonder what kind of surprises people get with their results. In an antique store today I saw a photograph of a long-dead prominent local couple in formal dress. A note attached to the photo said it was taken at the Eisenhower inauguration, but I had my doubts, given the setting. It made me think of how askew our family histories get handed down from parent to child to grandchild.  This couple probably attended the inauguration of Eisenhower. Maybe she even wore that same dress for the occasion. But I don’t that particular photo was taken in Washington DC, no matter how fervently family members believe otherwise. 

My curiosity about ancestral family probably doesn’t extend a c-note’s worth. There’s still so much to know about the living.  Mother and I went to lunch today at Delamater’s, a very nice restaurant that she described as belonging to “one of your relatives.” This was kind of strange, because of course, the owner is obviously one of her relatives too. 

A genial man met us at the door, and looked at me with something that I would have sworn was recognition, but of course it could not have been. He welcomed us to the restaurant and seated us at a table, clearing away the “Reserved” card. 

“They were supposed to be here at one, and they haven’t shown up yet,” he said with a smile.  After he retreated, mother whispered across the table.

“That’s your relative.” Apparently his mother was an Ouzts. Or maybe she married an Ouzts. It’s all so hard to keep straight. Lunch was wonderful though: velvety she-crab soup, crunchy catfish po-boy and a key lime parfait that was a perfect blend of sweet and tart. 

Of course, the best family are the ones you count among your friends, and the best friends are counted as part of your family. During my mother’s heart surgery, her circle of friends, the Fairest Flowers of Winthrop College, and high school classmates and a woman she met in Connecticut in 1969 who has remained her friend through thick and thin; all of them together formed an incredible network of support and bonhomie that kept both us afloat through some pretty dark hours. They too have made a place in the world to which my mother belongs. 

After my grandmother died, my aunts and uncles formed a living trust to conserve Nana’s house. With real estate bottoming out, it made more sense to keep it, and my mother is living there now. It provides still a sense of place for this family. All were in agreement except my Aunt Faye who said forget it, she wanted her cut now. Her share amounted to just about $4,000. And that’s the price for which she sold her birthright, cut her family ties forever, and lost her real place in the world. 

I expect I’ll come back to Newberry, South Carolina for as long as there is someone here to come back to. Every time the screen door on the back porch closes behind me, (a distinctive yawning sound followed by a sharp slap)  I hear the voices of my relatives echoeing from forty years ago:  “Don’t let the screen door slam!” My mother wants to paint the kitchen and change things and that’s fine, life changes. But there will always be that long flight of steps to the front door, a monument in not-too-distant Edgefield that spells out our family history, and the possibility that the person walking down the street is a member of the clan.  Finally, family is what you make of it and Home really is where the heart is.

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