Monday, May 26, 2008


"I've worked every Memorial Day for the last thirty-three years. I see no reason to stop now."

A promised call to an elderly client to set up a furniture pickup led to my voice-mailed message explaining why I'd come by on Monday morning. I've been working for this formidable lady for twenty years, off and on. I'd repair something for her, forget about her; she about me, and then some years later I'd get another phone call. For as long as I can remember, her phone recording included the tagline, in a sweet elderly Alabama voice, "Please remember to speak slowly, cuz I speak Southern."

It is true--this trend of working Memorial Day and Labor Day. It is old habit now, but goes back to the early, somewhat desperate days of being an unorthodox small businessman, doing it my own way. Taking off a Monday just because it is a national holiday never made much sense. When the times got better, I adjusted by stopping at 2 pm. That is not to say that I don't observe either holiday. I observe Memorial Day by remembering those who fought and died for my freedom, and I observe Labor Day by working.

"Happy Memorial Day!", Robin greeted me when I found her late morning having her Elevenses at the kitchen table. And later, when I drove her to her 4H meeting, I reminisced about being a young Boy Scout, somehow roped by my mother into memorizing some patriotic ditty and reciting it at a gathering, as I recall, of very old ladies in long dresses, and very old men in military uniform. They were gathered in an upstairs room above the hardware store on the square in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I was given a chocolate bar for my troubles, which seemed to me to be just about right.

My southern client, a widowed doctor's wife who has lived here part of the year for many an age, is selling her home and moving to Arizona. I asked her about this--selling this home she had herself designed on "a dry cleaner's cardboard." She burst into some few tears, confessing it was an awful thing to do. But she didn't spend enough time here to justify it. It was self-indulgence. Her home is in a beautiful, mature, gracious part of town, where the trees are in full fettle and people's yards are interesting. She is extremely proud of her home, and I had to secretly sigh: Would the yuppies coming to inspect it appreciate the turned wooden pillars of her porch, matched by the turned wooden newel posts and interior wall beams? Would they resonate with the flowered wallpaper, dark panelling, or sailor theme in the little boy's bathroom? It is altogether a gracious home, and reflects this woman's precise, determined, aggressive personality, as well as a certain softness for grandchildren. She showed me her (dowdy, aging) bathroom cabinets--she designed them herself! There is a cute hidden pull-out step for a child in front of one of the sinks. I could only think, "This is the first thing the new owners will rip out." Ah, me. She is selling it herself, using the heretofore neglected sales technique of haranguing realty agents and refusing to budge on the price. Her one prospective buyer is a female doctor, but " a weak woman" according to my large, edifical friend. "She couldn't just tell me she wasn't interested! She had to tell me her HUSBAND wasn't interested! Give me a woman who can make up her own mind!" This one does not gladly suffer fools.

I had to keep that in mind when, taking her Duncan Phyffe dining room table bases apart, she asked me the direct question, "Tell me about the quality of my table." I knew enough--and it isn't my habit to beat around the bush anyway--to tell her straight out what I really thought about it. "A nice table. Not top of the line. See the laminated curved legs? Those would be solid mahogany in the better pieces. But this apron is well constructed, and that is often the tell-tail of an above-average piece. It has nice, spiral-turned legposts. I like it." She grunted her approval, and pointed out the Grand Rapids Chair Company tag on the underside of the top, confirming my evaluation. Anyway, off to the shop it goes for refinishing, the final contribution I can make to the quality of her life.

I am her "furniture man". She will also have a plumber, an electrician, a general maintenance man for cleaning the eaves, doing the ladder work, or getting down or putting up the storms. They will all have been specific workers; will all have been carefully vetted, as I was. My politics weren't inquired of, but there was a proving time for me, years ago, when my Quality was evaluated and accepted. It was Understood that when I was under her roof or performing a service for her, I was to be on my best behavior. No fools allowed; any slipup officiously pointed out. Yes, ma'am. She's a Southern Lady, and there are certain things Southern Ladies expect of their certified servicepeople.

I make more of it than that, letting her know that I am interested in her life. This isn't marketing. It is what makes civic life interesting for me. And so we discuss the many things hanging on her walls; I take notice of her many visual memories. This is a life lived with a great deal of grace, and that is not at all common anymore. One must stop long enough to be blessed by it. She sat me down in one of her many comfortable rooms to show me the plans for her new home in southern Arizona. It is a beautiful location, with a view of Mexican mountains. So utterly different from the lush green maple Spring of her Wisconsin home just now. I think to myself, "I could do what this woman is doing. Just sell all and move to the desert."


Ethan said...

Heh. Nice post, Bruce.

...I feel like I should have further comments, but all I can say at the moment is, this was a good read.

Lutheran Lucciola said...

This woman is cool, I like her. She reminds me of all the older, strong women I would be entertaining as a kid, while my parents helped them out with house repairs of errands.

My fantasy right now, is buying a Tortoise Shell Home on wheels, which is a company I just found in the North Bay.

Bruce, you should make your own version! Check out my link to it on my page...

Bruce Gee said...

Thanks Ethan. I collect people like this. And people like your father, come to think of it.

LuterLuci, didn't you have something about these miniature homes-on-wheels some months back on your blog? I can just see Deb and me living in one of these. Two nights. Maybe three, and off she'd go screaming. We'd need separate houses, m'thinks. Can you double-bottom those things? I prefer a barge, down a long lazy canal.

Anonymous said...

The desert is not all that it's cracked up to be.

It's reallt hot and really dry. Maybe that;s why they call it...the desert.

Nice post. Very enjoyable. You are a good man Charley Brown!

- Steve Martin

Bruce Gee said...

Thanks, Steve. Loved your book CRUEL SHOES!

Wait. That...that wasn't you??

Cindy R. said...

Good post. I like how you write. The lady sounds cool and all, but my favorite part was when you mentioned your daughter having her Elevenses. That gave me a good laugh! My little hobbits seem to need breakfast, and then second breakfast, and by late morning I'm sure they're wondering, "Does she know about Elevenses?"

Robin said...

It's a long day, madam. Us little "hobbits" need plenty of sustenance to get through it.

-Little Hobbit

Cindy R. said...

Not Freddy Jones,

I wasn't trying to call you a hobbit. I'm sure you're more like one of Tolkien's lovely and brave young ladies (human or Elvish, take your pick). I can call my two little boys hobbits, since, as preschoolers, they are about the right height.

Robin said...


I really don't mind being called a hobbit - though I certainly prefer being called an elf - go ahead and call us hobbits if you like. We won't complain. :)