Pennies and Velvet

She was a widow longer than a wife, raised two children, but liked them better grown up. When we visited, we found textures, no toys. Not even pens and paper for drawing her pictures. Her Depression-era practicality found purpose, however, as she made what she had into something she needed. 

One room became two in her arrangement of the high-ceilinged great room: two Oriental rugs—whose borders we walked—and upholstered chairs arranged back-to-back where the rugs touched. Casual rubbed shoulders with Fancy, but did not speak. Each had a role.

The casual side held a wooden lady with carved and painted skirts, whose torso, with resistance, lifted to reveal candy corn in the hollow. A bumpy floral-patterned sofa. A dark-stained mantel clock that ticked and chimed. On the teak table sat a teak turtle, and when I turned over its smooth surface she chided me, "Put that back. It covers a spot." Each decorative object had a function. She grabbed a dishtowel to cover her face if she sensed a camera coming. 

 Grandma, photographed at the author's wedding

Grandma, photographed at the author's wedding

Across the divide stood a green velvet sofa we desired but were forbidden to climb since it was "for company." Nearby was a layer of overlapping pennies, fused to create a dish. She bit into onions like apples, but her breath was never bad. A desk had a cold glass top, family pictures trapped underneath. Often, for the grown-ups’ entertainment only, she set up a card table with metal legs and a 1000-piece puzzle on it: Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.

Still, she did not completely ignore the grandchildren; she gave us baked goods to take home. Rice Krispies cookies, sometimes with walnuts, cut into perfect squares, repackaged in their blue box, lined with crumpled wax paper. She may have thought this practical, but it was like the Pop Art of the era. I loved how she transformed the packaging from cereal to treat. Although she had not let my aunt become an artist, and never acknowledged my impractical desire to be one, she unwittingly made art herself. She knew how to give new meaning to the ordinary things.

 

- Alisa Golden writes, makes art, and teaches bookmaking at California College of the Arts. Her work has been published in several magazines including 100 Word Story, Diagram, and NANO, among others. She is the author of Making Handmade Books and edits Star 82 Review in the one-square mile city of Albany, CA.