Sweetie’s Box: Mystery, Mendacity, and Love

July 27th, 2015 2 Comments

My father’s ancestors were all prosperous Baltimoreans in a quiet, middleclass way. My grandfather, however, owned an iron business and was extremely prosperous. (There were several iron foundries in and around Baltimore and the men who owned them became known as ‘The Iron Men.’ Most of them, though not my grandfather, were ardent duck hunters, with elaborate hunting clubs in marshes up and down the Chesapeake from Havre de Grace to Cambridge, and it is largely due to them that we have the dog now known as the Chesapeake Bay retriever.) My grandfather died before I was born, but the sole anecdote that I know about him makes me think I would have liked him.

My father was working with him, or for him, in the iron business up until the war when, like so many others of that generation, he quit to join the Navy. But at this time it was still several years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and there was some obligation or deadline that had to be met that could only be met if the workers made a heroic effort. My grandfather offered them the usual pay incentive and then, showing a shrewd understanding of human psychology, offered to dance a polka the entire length of the foundry if they achieved the needed goal. They did and my grandfather brought in a Victrola, wound it up, and he and my father took off their coats and danced up the length of the foundry and back while the workers clapped time and cheered.

I don’t know who led, but I can see them as clearly as if some memory had been transmitted to me from my father’s muscle and blood: my father very lean, handsome, high-spirited, his hair in a crew cut; my grandfather, bald, portly, very dignified in his pince-nez and stiff high collar, but also with the same streak of playful high spirits, their white shirts in fulgent contrast to the dark and dirt of the foundry floor, both of them laughing as they danced, their laughter mingling with the workers’ and with the tinny scratching of the music.

My father’s father, who died not long after that dance, appears to have been an essentially kindly man. Not so my grandmother. She came from a much lower social, educational and financial level than my grandfather, but she brought with her three gifts: brains, burning ambition, and great beauty. Even as a shrunken, shapeless old woman—a ragbag held together by diamond brooches (Somerville and Ross)—it was possible to see the beauty; not even time could destroy the quality of those bones. Nor was time able to destroy the brains or the ambition. As soon as she was married she got herself accepted to Johns Hopkins and got her degree, something almost unheard of in those days. She wrote terribly arch and artificial short stories and had them published by a vanity press. She studied art and architecture and what she would have called ‘antiquities.’ She attended lectures by every learned speaker who came through Baltimore. All of this was admirable enough, but it was all geared to her achieving the position in society that she craved. By himself, my grandfather would have been prosperous; she drove him to become stinking rich. And as the money came in she spent it on the trappings she felt would elevate her. They had four residences within twenty miles of each other around Baltimore: There was a house on St. Paul Street, huge enough by itself; a farm, called By-Way; a converted railway station she had taken a fancy to; and, the pièce de résistance, a vast, pseudo-Gothic pile grandly called, The Cloisters, for God’s sake. This last, which had its own chapel and ballroom, stood on a seventy-five acre hill in the Maryland hunt country, complete with a working antique Flemish windmill brought over stone by stone and blade by blade, because, of course, every well-run Maryland country home needs its own windmill.

(The original name of this property was Bad Road to Midnight, as romantic and colorful a name as you could hope to find, a name filled with mysterious possibilities. It says much about my grandmother’s need for respectability that she changed it to the pompous and pedantic The Cloisters.)

She had no ancestors, so she simply created them. Paintings by Copely and Peale were bought and given fictitious provenances going back to historical people—or possibly made up people, for all I know—who were then identified as this great-great-grandfather or that great-great-great-grandmother. Emulating that man so deserving of emulation, William Randolph Hearst, she would take prolonged shopping trips to Europe where she would stagger grandly around buying up everything that wasn’t red hot or nailed down: furniture and paintings; mantelpieces and cornices and other architectural elements that were then built into The Cloisters; suits of armor; entire libraries; walnut panels; tapestries; everything you can imagine plus a bunch of stuff you could never dream of. Some of it was very good; some of it was garbage.

Toward the end of her remarkably long life she got a little peculiar. Not senile, mind you. She was quick and malevolent as a coyote to the end. She just became more outrageous than she had been, which is saying something. One of the last times I saw her was when I was about eighteen or nineteen. My father, my old friend Rowland Kirks, and I had gone up to Baltimore for something and we met her at The Cloisters in the early afternoon. She had become highly mistrustful of everyone and wouldn’t have maids or servants of any kind so the whole place was covered in a lovely thick blanket of dust. We were sitting in the living room and to give you an idea of the scale of the place, a grown man could stand upright in the fireplace and yet the fireplace was in perfect proportion to the rest of the room. She had offered Rowland and me some sherry, which we had refused (my father, with a look of panic on his face, shaking his head violently behind her back. Afterwards, driving home: “My God! That stuff would have killed you deader than a doornail. It’s been in that decanter since World War Two.”) and we were talking about art when she mentioned that she had a painting of the Virgin, painted by St. Luke. Even to my highly gullible ears, this sounded a little unlikely.

“Wow, Sweetie.” (This was her self-chosen, oxymoronic nickname. I have never been a good speller and when, as a young child, I would write to her, I spelt her name ‘Sweaty’ for years. I can tell you all you need to know about the relationship between my father and his mother by saying that my father never bothered to correct my spelling.) “Wow, Sweetie. I’d love to see it. Which room is it hanging in?”

She smiled beatifically. “Oh, no, dear. It’s much too valuable to hang on the wall. I have it hidden under a rug.”

As it was intended to, this left me speechless.

Later, in the ballroom, I admired two elaborate thrones that flanked the doorway to the entry hall. Even then she was planning to leave the entire place to the city of Baltimore as a museum, a monument to herself, where, presumably, happy throngs could file past the crypt in the basement where my grandfather, an uncle who died in infancy, and later she, were all buried. Consequently, everything was labeled with little three-by-five index cards.

“Go read about them, dear.” She leaned in conspiratorially, lowering her voice as though the nearest neighbor, over half a mile away, might be eavesdropping. “They’re thrones from the Duke of Milan’s court.”

Sure enough, the little card Scotch taped to one arm identified them as coming from the Duke of Milan’s court, circa sixteen-something, along with some other Italianate provenance.

Driving home that evening I commented to my father that taping three-by-five index cards to valuable furniture might not be the best way to preserve the finish. Daddy snorted.

“Thrones my ass! I can remember when she bought them at the fire sale of the Biloxi movie theatre on Mulberry Street.”

She had a boyfriend, an unctuous toady in his forties who lived up in the Boston area and whenever circumstances forced us all together he would fawn on her, sighing tragically every time she and my father disagreed about something, and nattering on about how he intended to marry her just as soon as some unspecified encumbrance back in Boston was resolved. From the way he looked at me, I had a pretty good idea of what that encumbrance might be and an even better idea of just how unlikely matrimony was.

Eventually, when she was either eighty-seven or ninety-one, depending upon which passport you chose to believe, things came to a head. She was in the townhouse on St. Paul Street, where she had taken to burning her trash in the fireplace. She threw an aerosol can into the fire and the resulting explosion blew her across the room, breaking her hip. Despite what must have been unbelievable pain, she had the presence of mind to take her purse and crawl down the long entry hall, down three steps, and unlock the four deadbolts on the inner door. She then crawled out into the little black and white marble vestibule where she unlocked three deadbolts on the outer door, but she was unable to reach the fourth and topmost lock. It was a Saturday and the mail had already been delivered, so there she lay, calling for help, all day Saturday, all Saturday night, all day Sunday, all Sunday night, and all Monday morning until the mailman found her.

Even after all this, she insisted on carrying her purse with her to the hospital where she refused to allow them to treat her until my father arrived to take possession of the bag. My father, knowing his mother all too well, refused to touch it until a doctor and a nurse were both present while he inventoried the contents in front of her. It contained a little over $10,000. Cash.

It was clear that at that age and with a broken hip she would never return to the house on St. Paul Street and the police advised my parents that the place would be stripped clean if it were left vacant. The upshot was that my father and mother and my father’s sister, Aunt Kitty, all went down to St. Paul Street to do an inventory. Also present were my grandmother’s lawyer and Aunt Kitty’s lawyer, because my father refused to set foot in the place without them as witnesses. My father was no fool. They were all standing in the living room when someone, I believe it was my mother, noticed what looked like a dollar bill sticking out from under a sofa cushion. By the time they were done, they had found over $100,000 in cash, and almost that much again in negotiable securities, hidden under pillows, behind paintings, under rugs, in silver teapots.

My father had to go back to Virginia, but my mother and Aunt Kitty and the two lawyers agreed to meet there the next morning with some men who worked for Aunt Kitty to pack up the most valuable items. In the meantime, my father went to the hospital to say goodbye and to inform his mother of what was happening and to tell her that they had been unable to find the key to the silver drawer of the Hepplewhite sideboard in the dining room, or the key to the metal fire door that separated the basement from the rest of the house.

My grandmother listened to everything impassively and then said, “Jimmy, on top of the Chippendale chest-on-chest in my bedroom, hidden behind the swan neck pediment, there is a metal box. Whatever you do, make sure you get that box.”

She refused to discuss the contents of the box or any or other matter.

The next morning, my mother arrived first. She opened the first, the outer door and stepped into the vestibule. She unlocked the first three locks of the inner door and was just turning the key to the fourth lock when she heard a sound behind her. And so it was that she pushed the inner door open as she was turning around. It was the mailman who had found ‘Sweetie’ and my mother thanked him appropriately. When she turned back, she was looking down the long hallway that led into the dining room. From where she stood she could see the Hepplewhite sideboard, the silver drawer now standing open with the key in the lock, it’s little cardboard tag still swinging slightly.

Being no dummy, she stayed where she was, watching and waiting. One of the lawyers arrived, but he lacked the nerve to go in even with my mother, so they continued to wait until Aunt Kitty showed up with her two men. Then they searched the house. The silver in the silver drawer, old-fashioned, heavy, valuable, was still there, gathered into bundles as if someone had been scooping it up with his hands. The metal fire door to the basement was standing open, the key still in the lock. The door from the basement to the alley had been opened with a key, then closed again, but not locked. The metal box behind the swan-neck pediment was gone, only a clean square in the dust to show where it had been.

 

‘Sweetie’ never spoke of it again. She showed neither grief nor rage and never told my father or Aunt Kitty what had been in the box. When I asked my father what might have been in it, he shrugged his shoulders.

“You can’t tell with her. It might have been the lost crown of King John, or it might have been a collection of old lightbulbs.” And when I asked him if he planned to try and get it back, he just laughed. “We’ve reported it to the police and I don’t care enough to do anything more.” That too speaks volumes of his relationship with his mother.

The boyfriend vanished. Temporarily.

He reappeared several years later after ‘Sweetie’ finally handed in her dinner pail. My father had already been killed and we were all a little stunned to find that she had not only left her entire estate to the City of Baltimore, for a children’s museum, as planned (it is now open to the public and may be rented for private events; the movie star Will Smith was married there), but that she had also left personal items of my father’s and Aunt Kitty’s to the city as well. Aunt Kitty hired a lawyer, an incompetent invertebrate, and we sued. Picture our confusion when we were told that we have to stand in line. The Boston Boyfriend had already sued the city, claiming that she had intended to marry him and that therefore he was entitled to the entire estate. He managed to make such a pest of himself that eventually the city gave him $70,000 just to go away. We got nothing.

Ten or fifteen years later, my cousin Ellen, a frightfully successful lawyer in New York, married to another equally successful lawyer, was leafing through a Sotheby’s catalogue and was rather surprised to see a painting she remembered well from The Cloisters being offered for sale. To cut a long story of avarice and mendacity short, the millions that had been left with the estate had all vanished, the museum was no longer, and the city was liquidating the remainder of the estate. I say remainder because many of the most valuable paintings and furniture had also vanished. Ellen forced the city to allow her and my sister to walk briefly through and claim only those items they could prove had belonged to their deceased parents. Right. My sister Judith went down to Baltimore with her daughter, Rachel. She was unable to persuade the staunch guardians of the public weal to let her have our father’s childhood diary, but they did let her take a cast iron bulldog that had been a toy of his as a little boy. She took that for me and some other equally innocuous item for herself and left. But Rachel was made of sterner stuff. Scrupulously honest in every way, Rachel has a highly developed sense of right and wrong and she was enraged by what she saw happening to her mother. When they got back to their car, Rachel produced from under her coat three small nineteenth century, Dutch, oil-on-board paintings that she had found, unframed and filthy, leaning in a corner. God bless her! So my patrimony consists, in its entirety, of two of the Dutch paintings, a cast iron bulldog, and a series of landscapes of the Baltimore harbor in a single frame that my father’s beloved great-uncle, William David Jameson, had commissioned in the 1890’s and which Daddy had taken, as his rightful property, when ‘Sweetie’ broke her hip.

 

I only returned to the Cloisters once after my father was killed. It was after ‘Sweetie’ had also died and we were there, my mother and Kitty and various lawyers, because of something to do with our lawsuit against the city. Losing patience with the arcane shenanigans of the legal types, I wandered upstairs to see one last time the room that had been my father’s as a little boy. One of the city’s legal eagles tried to stop me, saying something vague and lawyer-ish that clearly indicated he was afraid I would steal something. I told him that if he saw me sneaking out with a Goddard-Townsend desk under my arm he should feel free to stop me, but that if tried to before then I would knock him down. Furious, indignant, sad, I went up to my father’s room. But he wasn’t there. Try as I might, I could make no connection between the four-poster bed—I had slept in its trundle myself as a small child—or the bureau or the desk or any of it and the man I so adored and whom I missed so bitterly. But at one point I pulled open one of the bureau drawers (See the child. See him looking through his father’s shirts and handkerchiefs, socks and cufflinks. This is more than idle curiosity. This is the boy trying to find the man he hopes to become.) and found a yellowed, dusty brochure for some patented, guaranteed, sure-fire cure for baldness. So I didn’t find my father in that expensive, contested room, but instead a handsome young man who smiles out at me from a few surviving old photographs and whose smile conceals his own anxieties and modest vanity.

 

Many years later, long after ‘Sweetie’ and my father were both dead, I found myself at one of those huge, crowded, noisy, infinitely boring parties that everyone in Hollywood seemed compelled to give all too often, self included, in those days. I struck up a conversation with a pleasant looking man a few years younger than I. I had zoned in on him because his clothes, his speech, his manners, all stamped him as your standard, garden variety, prep-school-ivy-league type, and his accent marked him as coming from the mid-Atlantic states.

“Where are you from?”

“Baltimore.”

I took a shot. “Gillman School?”

He did a little double take, then grinned. “Yes. Did you go to Gillman?”

“No. My father did, a million years ago.”

“But you’re from Baltimore?”

“No. My father’s family was from there. You may have heard of them. They were pretty well known. Or at least my grandmother was pretty well known. She was pretty well known as the craziest woman in Baltimore, Dudrea Parker. She had a big place called The Cloisters out in…”

“Oh my God.” His jaw had fallen into his drink and he actually recoiled from me. “Oh my God! You’re… That woman…that Mrs. Parker… she’s your… Oh my God.”

And after that things kind of went downhill. If I had given him incontrovertible proof that I was the offspring of an illicit liaison between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, he couldn’t have been more flabbergasted. He kept staring at me with his mouth open, giggling nervously from time to time, occasionally going back to his mantra: “Oh my God.” After awhile I got embarrassed and abandoned the effort, staggering off in search of the bar.

 

I returned home from a trip a few years ago, and as I got off the airplane I suddenly noticed a man ahead of me whose ankles reminded me of my father’s. Well, more accurately, it was the shoes and the cuff of the khaki trousers and the slight gap between those two. I followed him all the way out to the parking lot. He had the same build, the same air of rumpled elegance my father had and it was only some vestige of common sense that kept me from talking to him. It must seem odd to think of anyone following a stranger simply because his ankles resembled those of a man dead over forty years now, but I loved him that much.

 

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    well, you know, I always tell my daughter that you can’t chose relatives but you can choose friends 😉 .
    It’s really a pity and unfair that you and your family got nothing. My respect to Rachel and her guts.
    My father’s father was a quite simple man. He worked as a gardener and was the most patient, gentle and generous man I’ve ever known. He didn’t need much and spent all his money to let his sons become one an engineer and the other a secondary-school teacher. His wife was the tackiest brimstone you can imagine. She pestered him for more than fifty years. He said she was his wife and living with her was his duty. When she died after a couple of years confinement in bed (what didn’t prevent her of chasing him around) he excused himself and said he couldn’d stand the funeral. We went to church without him. Afterwards when we returned he had already neatly packed all her stuff in five cartons and told us to take it out.
    Don’t worry about you haven’t left much from your father. You obviously had a wonderful, unique relationship and that is worth more than anything else. Nothing on earth, how precious it may be, could ever replace him. No souvenirs are needed to remember a loved person. You’re already a grandfather yourself and it seems you still miss your own father. He must have been an outstanding
    personality.

    Best wishes

    NW

    PS: your longlasting misspelling will be a little calm for (to?) my daughter 😉

  2. Anonymous says:

    Do you mind me asking how your father died? Did you get a chance to say good-bye?
    N

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