After both my parents died, some of the most difficult things to get rid of were the kitchen utensils. Most were useless: old, grease-encrusted relics of the 60s and 70s that these two frugal people had bought or found along the way of their married life and had been deployed literally thousands of times while I was growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I remember Mom’s and Dad’s actions in the kitchen because of these egg beaters and ladles – the way the two of them moved like dancers between stove and counter and sink and refrigerator. These utensils defined their domesticity and care for my younger brother and me. Yet they were of little use for me and my wife. They were broken or about to be broken. Throwing them away, however, was like discarding living memories. Yet one survived. A spatula with a wooden handle and six-inch long blade with 1/2-inch holes in it makes it the perfect pancake tool.
When the Lovely K and I traveled from New England to the City in early December 2001, about two weeks after Mom died, to go through the apartment and determine what to keep and what to toss, I came in contact for the first time with how much a pack rat my dad was.
He had been born in 1921 and grew up during the Depression in Babylon, New York. He often told me how men would come to his back door which led into his family’s kitchen and ask for a hot meal. He wouldn’t tell my brother Jim and me these stories during dinner, in order to get us to eat our food. He would just tell us to tell us. His mother died when he was nine, and he also had to get rid of his dog when he was young because of an onset of asthma. His early childhood was marked more by hardship than by joy. His father remarried and had a daughter and two sons, and then his dad died when my father was a junior at Hamilton College. He quit school a year before graduation to move back home and support his family. Hamilton considered him an alumnus and they sent him appeals for money, and he went to his 50th anniversary reunion.
He told me once, and only once, that he had always wanted to be an architect – he was quite a handy draughtsman and artist – yet he had to get a practical job because of family need. He went into television as a buyer of movies, mainly westerns, which he watched so many of that he and his colleague would make bets on how they turned out. He would go to Hurley’s on 49th Street and Sixth Avenue when he got off work and order two ryes for the price of one scotch. That was a better deal, and who cared if rye didn’t taste as good as scotch. It was still a better deal.
Dad eventually went into advertising sales with Transportation Display Incorporated, which was bought by the Winston Network at one point. He was there for years, becoming VP of Sales, and finally, at 64, when it went through an LBO, his revenue forecast was not so sanguine as top management wanted, and they fired him. He sued and claimed that it was age discrimination. He won and got a modest settlement, something in the neighborhood of $40,000, but he ultimately lost, since this job and his interaction with clients was his life, and his rapid decline started from that point and continued until his suicide in 1998.
The apartment’s second bathroom, off the dining room, had a commode and a sink only, intended for a maid who would have lived in this room a hundred years ago when the building was built. The commode had an overhead tank and a pull chain that caused a rushing sound of water going down a copper pipe about two inches thick. We called it “the Dragon Toilet.” Perhaps mom coined the name, and it stuck. She was known for creative things like that. She had worked at J. Walter Thompson.
When you sat down in that bathroom to do your business, you would look at a floor-to-ceiling storage space – about ten feet of vertical – which had advertising posters from the 1960s, scraps of wood of all sizes and types, and jars upon jars of semi-matching screws and nails and tacks. It had my father’s tools. Tools he used to build the kitchen cabinet and countertop covered with the tiles he took me to Spanish Harlem to buy.
Tools he never used as an architect.
But rather as a father.