Sunday, October 02, 2011
I think the most difficult part of telling a story is finding the beginning because the true beginnings often begin long before what becomes the story. When I was a kid, my work-at-home mom, Bonnie, started a business painting ceramics and selling them to local stores in Omaha, NE where we lived. She started out with holiday napkin rings that looked like fancy Thanksgiving turkeys and one Saturday I rode around the city with her as she dropped of Zip Loc baggies filled with samples (4 turkeys in 4 different painted styles), along with a price list and her name and phone number neatly written on square pieces of yellow legal paper and sliced into squares with her sewing scissors. Before we got home later that afternoon my dad had made dozens of trips from the garage, where he was transforming his 1972 Triumph TR6 from a factory model butter yellow to an emerald green with 36 coats of metallic paint and a fully chrome engine, to answer the basement chalkboard telephone that was scrawled with mine and Bonnie's names and our most current weight. By the time we arrived he was utterly frustrated and she had dozens of orders. A week later she had paid for a new kiln, the biggest home model the kiln manufacturer made, that sat proudly in a corner of the basement garage - an unwelcome guest until Rusty realized it served a dual purpose, also heating his frozen garage in Nebraska's freakishly cold winters. She was in business!
A couple of years later we moved - transferred again. One of numerous cross-country moves and school transfers both prior and yet to come. Then in Lubbock, Texas and getting acquainted with our new city, Bonnie and I ventured into a locally owned toy store, "The Pink Giraffe". I was 12 by then but I still collected Smurfs on a weekly, Saturday basis and seeking out a new toy store that carried them was part of our agenda. I was wearing a knicker outfit Bonnie had made for me and barrettes that I had made myself for my hair. They were silk flowers with a needle sculpted face made from panty hose set in the center of the flower. Bonnie had donated her ruined stockings and working from magazine instructions I had sculpted the faces and stitched them to flower centers and embellished them with embroidered faces. The woman who owned the toy shop asked me about them and Bonnie - always the salesman and proud mom said, "She made them herself...." and continued in far too great detail while I tried my best to shrink into the Smurfs. "Come here! Show the lady! Tell her how you made these! She likes them!" The woman wanted to know how much I would want to make some for her store, we negoitiated a price, and before I left I had purchased the Smurfs I had come in for and left with an order big enough to pay for them and the ones I would buy the following week. I had twice monthly orders from her until my parents divorced several months later and Rusty, answering the phone one day, told her I was out of business.
Later, in high school, Bonnie was working three jobs and struggling to make a payment on the house in Lubbock that she still owned but didn't at that moment have rented. I wanted to buy tickets to a Huey Lewis concert and take my friends. One of Bonnie's three jobs was working as manager and buyer for a locally owned chain of dress shops. She managed the shop staff and budget, as well as made quarterly trips to the Dallas Apparel Mart to buy stock for the store. The answer to our dilemma was a new fad, scarves that she had seen on her previous trip to market that we could make and sell to stores in nearby Lubbock. We spent the week, her at the sewing machine and me doing the handwork (beading and embroidery), making up several dozen. The following Saturday we drove two hours to Lubbock and systematically stopped at stores, Bonnie asking to speak with the owner or manager, telling them what we had, the price point, and did they want to see. By the end of the day we had sold out! Bonnie had made two house payments and I had concert and shopping money for me and my friends!...............So all of this was the beginning before the beginning of this kooky little road trip of what would become an extremely well crafted and well road tripped life.
After high school there was no money for me to go to college. Bonnie had always assumed Rusty would help pay for it. Rusty and Judy, after much discussion, came to visit me one day (our relations had always been strained) to inform me that they had something very serious to discuss and I shouldn't feel bad about it. They went on to tell me that I had been born mentally retarded and that Bonnie had always insisted that I be raised like any normal kid so nobody ever told me. They couldn't justify the expense of sending someone like me to school - someone who would never mentally be able to keep up, when Judy had two children that needed and deserved an education and were equally capable of maximizing it. I was crushed. I went into a two year period of depression, anger, and constant questioning. It was a lie. But it was one of those cruel lies that was so cruel it was almost easier to believe the lie than the cruelty.
I wavered, in and out, for a couple of years, at what I really believed. I also went to work. My senior British Literature teacher, Mrs. Sharma, gave us a graduation gift of a "List of 100 Books Everyone Should Read". I carried that list with me for years, prowling book stores to find each one. Eventually I lost it, but not before I got through most of them and books I found myself along the way from books I read. Eventually I found that books find you. I also realized I wasn't the handicapped one in my family.
A year or two after I graduated high school, 1989 or 1990, Bonnie and I had designed a line of hand-sculpted clay santa claus's. Bonnie had spent the year before cross-stitching all of the Leisure Art's Olde World Santa patterns for her bedroom that hung in frames on her bedroom walls from Thanksgiving until New Year's. She wanted to decorate a tree for the room but the santa's she wanted were made by Duncan Royale and sold for $500/each. I suggested she could make some and we spent months travelling to cities in the vicinity and searching the craft stores to find the perfect heads. She wanted wrinkled, old man faces but every Santa face was a plastic Coca Cola Santa version and she wouldn't accept any of them. Finally, fed up, I purchased a box of clay and while she was at work one day I sculpted eight wrinkled old man heads, with inset eyes, layers of wrinkles, rumpled chins and noses, and hand rolled clay beards. She came home from work later that night, "Is this what you want?".......She was thrilled and set out making historically accurate costumes that depicted the history of Santa Claus from his beginnings and through Eastern and Western Europe.
After Christmas, the following spring, we were taking a friend of mine back to the airport in Albuquerque and Bonnie loaded up the Santas in my taxi yellow duffel bag with the intention of driving on to Santa Fe and asking a local art gallery their opinion of her "artist daughter". I was mortified. She did it anyway. I sat in the car, refusing to go in, as she pranced herself and my taxi yellow bag into an art gallery on the cities historic square that had a $30,000 painting hanging int he window. I scrunched down in the seat low-rider style, watching out of the corner of my eye, fully expecting her to exit the store airborn and bottom first. I waited, and waited. Finally she emerged, tapping at my window. I rolled it down. "If you were going to sell these, not these, but more like them - how much would you want?"......."ummm....????....I don't know. Do you think they would give me $25?".......She presented me with a check for $1,000 and an order for 8 identical pieces to be delivered the following week.
We made the eight, plus eight more, this time to take to an art gallery in Albuquerque. The gallery in Albuquerque bought the eight, eight more, and then ordered an additional five indians. A couple of weeks later we delivered those and got the amazing news that our work had been chosen out of 40 artists in the gallery to be featured in "The Collector's Art Guide" - a prominent New Mexico art publication. I was to be the youngest artist to have ever been featured in it at that time. We went to parties, met artists and gallery owners, travelled extensively for the next year selling our work throughout New Mexico and Texas, and even had it picked up by a couple of museums. We had arrived to our fifteen minutes of fame. Then a tragedy that would last an eternal four, home bound, years.
Four years later everything had changed, we had no publicity, no magazines, had done nothing in the art world and been entirely confined and unheard of. The world around us had changed and we had to make a new start. Country decorating was big then and primitive country was emerging. I designed a line of home decor items that we could wholesale between $1.00 and $14.00 each. We made $5,000 worth of inventory, loaded our 1993 Toyota Tercel - the ugly one that we had called the dealership and said "we have this much money. We'll take anything you will bring us that it will buy." We loaded the car with our merchandise, sewing machine, scissors, tools and fabric we would need to keep going, two changes of clothes and t-shirts to sleep in, and we left. We left the house with everything in it knowing full well it was our only safe way out. Without direction and only gut instinct, we drove and sold and sewed over and over again for the next nineteen months.
Everything in that car was packed in tiny Zip Loc bags, meticulously organized so that we could easily take projects out and sew them up at night after driving and selling all day. Zip Loc bags because you can suck all of the air out of them and therefore pack a whole lot more in the tiniest of space. Bonnie swears that someone in a hotel parking lot somewhere saw me and my thousands of zip loc bags and had the idea to make the giant ones now sold on info-mericals. Probably. We covered 38 states in 19 months, sewing and selling the entire way. We paid off our car loan, paid our taxes, and when we were completely and entirely worn out, we drove back to the safest home we had ever known, Omaha - where we lived the next five years - supplementing work with wholesaling to local stores.
A life like this has to be meticulously organized. You can't afford mistakes or misteps. Missing a beat might mean missing a meal or a roof for the night. Being sick is not an option, taking a break is an unthinkable waste of time and over-compensating is the order of every day - right down to carrying rolls of wide masking tape with us to "vacuum" up all the bits of thread and fabric that may otherwise be left on hotel room floors. And Lysoling every hotel room both entering and exiting because a sick day will really throw you off your game.
Life’s good! It’s peculiar and strange and unfamiliar to most but we’re paying off bills and living quite well. Maybe this girl's not so retarded afterall.
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