Sandstorms and birthdays

Soon after the fall that would eventually end her life, my grandma thought of sandstorms in Australia. She spoke of this phenomenon and this place that she had never seen in her ninety years with an urgency and fixation that we could not explain. During my days visiting a Texas hospital, though I did not know they would be my last with her, I scribbled down her words — because she so often recorded mine in her journal when we spoke on the phone, and because she had always spoken in truths, and I knew this riddle must be no different: “Are you familiar with the sandstorms in Australia? They come to take the land, infiltrate everything. I’ve been fighting them all my life. Now the sand has filled my house. Go check on it.”

I would see her house once more, staying there to attend her funeral two months later, and all was still. There was no sand. But now that house, with its grey-blue carpet and its ceiling glitter — like stars, I had always thought, or was it silver-coated sand — belongs to someone else, and I think I know what she meant. As I described when I began this blog in her honor, Grandma had archived her own history, and so mine, too, keeping daily records of her travels and phone calls and meals, of the thank-you notes she received after gift-giving, of the origin of every thimble and china dish in her collections. In our last days together, she was telling me why she lived this way, as if by means of that timeless metaphor, the sands of time: it was time that came to take the land, time she had been fighting, time she feared had finally filled her house. Her crewelwork and photos on the walls, the smell of caramel and cherry and buttermilk pies, the files and boxes of clippings, photos, letters, lists, all of it has been deconstructed now, deaccessioned among her family. We couldn’t save her house from the sandstorms, but they haven’t won.

My grandma, Vera B. Stallcup Taylor, and her beloved sister, Beth Stallcup Young. Grandma loved this photograph that hung in a convex oval frame on her bedroom wall.

Today, on what would have been Grandma’s ninety-second birthday, my sister and I will fool the hourglass, share memories of her, play her favorite card games, fight sandstorms. And eat pie; there will always be pie.

 

All signs point to a Happy Kansas Day!

I have emerged from my thesis cave to celebrate the first big holiday of the new year. That’s right, folks…Happy Kansas Day!

At my Texan middle school, my math teacher and now dear friend Myron taught me more than how to calculate the slope of a line; he showed me how to take active pride in history. A historian in his spare time who has written about the Texas postal system and his experience flying 0-2B airplanes in the Vietnam War, he is also a dedicated ambassador of his home state of Kansas…which entered the Union on today’s date in 1861. Every year, on January 29, signs would appear around campus—on doors and windows, in the elevator and the pages of library books—bearing wishes for a Happy Kansas Day. Some featured facts about the state of Kansas (the state amphibian of Kansas is the barred tiger salamander), others hand-colored sunflowers (the state flower); all generated a great deal more conversation about Kansas than would normally be heard in a Texas middle school hallway.

He tells me that he started the tradition in hopes of encouraging people to consider and even “advertise” the origins of their own home states. It didn’t quite take off that way; few people seem to have such loyalty for their state, respect for its roots, and initiative for raising awareness. Of all places, this must be especially true in NYC, where notoriously few people are native New Yorkers but many are quick to adopt the New Yorker identity. But that is all the more reason to spread the Kansas Day joy. Last year, I received an envelope full of Myron’s handmade signs from years past, passed along to me with a list of suggested spots to post them (e.g. “side of a bus—don’t get run over”). I relished seeing them pinned up in halls around Columbia and clinging to the glass of NYC bus stops (not the buses themselves—I’m a coward) until the snow took them down. This year, I made photocopies, preserving the remaining originals so that wherever I am on each January 29, I can share with strangers a bit of cheerful curiosity on behalf of the Sunflower State.

Love to Myron, Kansas, and statehood in general, and a very happy Kansas Day to all.

Click to zoom...Columbia and Kansas Day

Dear Barnes & Noble, please don't ban me as a litterer if you see this.

 

It’s Christmastime in the city

I’m back! Admittedly, I haven’t been in the celebrating — or blogging — spirit in the past month; ’tis the season for final papers and presentations (now completed!), and a beloved family member passed away over the Thanksgiving holiday. But I’ve been coerced out of my hermitage by an annual magpie-like weakness against the lure of sparkly things: I’m a bit of a Christmas light enthusiast.

Unlike last year, I didn’t make a trip around town to admire the Rockefeller tree and shop windows, and the circuits in my lovely old apartment don’t take too fondly to overuse. Still, Christmas found its way to me, from the lit display of trees for sale down the road, turning the sidewalk air to pine, to the lights above the supermarket that I found mid-stringing. The light-highlight was another happy accident; on campus, I bumped into a crowd awaiting Columbia’s annual Christmas tree lighting, and shivered along with them until the shapes of trees lining our main walkway appeared, white-dotted and shining. I have a longstanding partiality to lines of lit trees; when I was a child in Houston, the image epitomizing the holidays for me was Post Oak Boulevard. My family would make an outing of driving down the road, under its chrome arches and between its seemingly endless rows of tree-lights. I have always loved how we reinvent places with light, infusing branches, outlining eaves and columns and, especially in NYC, fire escapes, using our built (and planted) environment as a means of expressing this inescapable sense of seasonal joy.

Christmas lights on Post Oak Boulevard in Houston, photo by Brent Allen Thale

Columbia in anticipation of light

Columbia trees lit

College Walk, Columbia

on Broadway, how New Yorkers buy Christmas trees

decking the market

The Packrat Gene: an almost uncanny update

Last month, I speculated that genetics and “packratism” were largely to blame for my becoming a preservationist. Today, I’ve been smiling for hours since I found in my mailbox unexpected and nearly unbelievable proof that I was right.

Since my grandma passed away last year, my aunt has been sifting through the museum of her house in New Braunfels, Texas. It has been a slow job, despite the fact that Grandma left all of her keepsakes sorted in labeled boxes and Ziploc bags—or more accurately, because of it. My aunt and parents have uncovered treasures from Grandma’s past that they didn’t know existed, and might never have found if it hadn’t been for her archival system.

She often mailed notes—always handwritten in cursive—in envelopes thickened with clipped coupons, newspaper articles, and comic strips (a habit my mom has happily since adopted). In the mail this afternoon, I received an envelope from my aunt with a note (handwritten in cursive) explaining that she had found a cartoon, clipped from a newspaper by Grandma, at the bottom of a box, and had immediately remembered my blog post.

I swear that I had never seen this before launching my defense of the archival mindset also known as packrattiness, or even talked to Grandma about the idea. See for yourself; this might look like just a comic strip, but to me, it is part of a continuing confirmation that life is a comedy, and death isn’t much of a separation, after all.

Packrats and preservationists

Since I first found myself in the preservation world a little over a year ago, I have tried to make sense of how I ended up here. I’ve been a fiction writer by instinct since I first held a pen, and more recently by training; I know more about the construction of a sturdy narrative than I do that of a wooden-frame house. So, I’ve been building one out of my memories to assure myself that there are no real holes in the plot of my life (and the very fact that I am doing that, I think, makes me a preservationist).

As I suggested in my previous post, I have identified a preservationist gene bequeathed to me by my grandparents. Another thread in my self-explanation is that I have long suffered from the accusation of being a packrat. While I can’t deny an aversion to spring cleaning, I refuse to admit to rodent tendencies of any variety. What some call packratism, I call preservation, and the essential difference is the act of curating.

I like to think that I approach my own life with an archival mindset, for my own sake. My collection is not nearly as organized as that of my grandmother. Hers is like the archive of a national museum, mine more like a local department of buildings. I keep things that most people might consider garbage (or preferably recycling matter): tickets, receipts, bottles. Contrary to the common belief among my loved ones, however, this collection is not a slovenly compulsion but follows a standard protocol: I keep an item if I associate it with a memory, and if I know that throwing it away will drastically decrease the likelihood that I will ever experience that memory again. Sometimes I wonder if this practice is shamefully materialistic, but what I value is not the material itself so much as the history it represents.

I feel exactly the same way about buildings. James Marston Fitch, who founded my graduate program, referred to historic preservation as “curatorial management of the built world.” The reputation of our field would benefit, I believe, if we could promulgate the understanding that preservationists aren’t just saving buildings because of an inability to throw anything away.

Preservationists are not hoarders; we are curators.

Dates and foundations

Vera Taylor, 1920-2010

I spend quite a lot of time considering what it means to spend time. One conclusion I have reached is that, to me, dates are objective correlatives, talismans of memory. I tend to equate forgottenness with loss; if I will have no way of recalling in exactly a year’s time what I was doing on today’s date, the present seems doomed to oblivion.

Maybe parallel thoughts led my grandmother, Vera Taylor, to begin the journal that she kept for decades. Cursive words and a stack of black, bound volumes hold a daily chronicle of her life: where she went, what she did, and who was there. She held phone conversations at her desk, jotting the news she learned from family and friends; when she would ask for a name to be spelled, I knew what I had said somehow merited recording. She noted special meals, and sometimes seemingly mundane ones; “Don’t you want to remember what you ate for breakfast growing up?” she would ask, enticing me with the threat of lost memories, however small, to start a journal of my own. But I never did for more than a few weeks at a try, and Grandma remained the only diarist in the family. Through the years, we had many evenings of cherry pie and debates over family chronology — attempts at calculating the date when someone’s old friend came to visit, or when someone lost a tooth — that Grandma always concluded with, “Let me check my journal.”

I will never forget what I was doing on this date last year, when I drove with my parents and sister from Grandma’s home in New Braunfels to the town of Uvalde in southwest Texas. I remember the day as a series of passed places: the house where Grandma’s mother lived, where my dad remembered visiting his own grandmother; the singing school where Grandma’s father-in-law, my great-grandfather, taught — now an empty lot; the department store where my grandfather worked long ago; the cemetery where he was buried, and where we lay Grandma beside him, one year ago today. Places are talismans of memory, too.

The last direction my life took that Grandma was aware of, was that I would soon be entering the Historic Preservation program at Columbia’s architecture school. When I told her of my plans, she said that Grandpa, who had owned a lumber yard and was a self-taught architect, would be proud. She insisted that I lay claim to his old drafting table, although I can’t claim a single bit of his design talent, and from a back room she retrieved sets of Grandpa’s blueprints for the houses he designed and built for his (my) family. To the degree that my being a preservationist is genetic, a large portion of those genes come from Grandpa, and an equally large portion from Grandma. I know that she is just as much to blame because of the fact that those blueprints were folded in a box labeled “blueprints,” one of many labeled boxes in her house, and that her immediate response to my announcement was to reach for her journal. Grandma was the archivist of her own history and, therefore, of mine.

Today, then, seems a fitting date on which to begin this blog. storybuilding is not a journal per se, but a means of preserving my own experiences and thoughts, not because I assume their worth to anyone else but because I value them for my time spent. Here is where I will store stories and write about adventures that occur, ideas that occur to me — usually about preservation, and its intersections with literature and art — and perhaps occasionally, just for the record, what I ate for breakfast.