The sale was in full swing when we arrived. And the house was packed with strangers. In my mother's eyes, Eunice was just one more of those. Leila was a sight to behold, dripping with diamonds, and wearing a turquoise corduroy slack-suit, with a foot-long rhinestone-studded cigarette holder, balanced on her lower lip. Eunice was stunned; she had never seen the likes of Leila. Shades of “Auntie Mame!” What a far cry from her own modest mother, who signed her letters, "Always Mum!" My Mother was anything but friendly.
Looking back, fifty-five years later, only now, do I fully appreciate the significance of that moment. The liquidation company had put a price tag on every artifact of my family’s history. No object was too small or insignificant to be sold. Things that were worth next to nothing were priced at sums under a dollar. Tools, kitchen utensils, the contents of my bedroom drawers, the small mementos of my childhood, along with my father’s brick-a-brac, his pleasures, and his treasures, some of which, in later years, I came to realize were priceless antiques, were priced to sell for peanuts. The morons who had estimated and labeled these remnants of our life were clueless when it came to estimating the value of antiques. And they, no doubt, did it at lightning speed. They knew how much a well-used spoon was worth, but they, clearly, had no idea what the price of an animated ceramic lady sultan, who sat cross-legged beneath a crystal dome, gently nodding and fanning herself eternally, should be. Hundreds of smaller items were spread out on aisle after aisle of long folding tables in the “rumpus room.” As Eunice and I walked between them, I felt like a shoplifter, impulsively grabbing last-minute souvenirs of the only world I’d ever known. We saw a pair of golden goblets, they were brass, actually, and we agreed we needed those. And so, we joined the throngs of vultures, scavenging the remains of my father’s life, and picking bare his bones.
If this were a grand opera, I could visualize the scene in the form of a complex quartet. Leila would be the starring Diva, Queen of Seven Mile Road. This was her moment in the limelight! And while I would be singing a sad goodbye aria to all the treasures of my childhood, she would be bidding them good riddance. She never gave a “doodle-y-doo” ( her word) about all this junk to begin with.
Eunice’s part in the quartet would express her wonderment and confusion, her hopes, her dreams, her doubts and fears. She had arrived in the middle of this tea party, just as it was going mad. What was she doing here? Would the Queen accept her, or proclaim, “Off with her head!”? And would her Jack of Hearts, yours truly, turn out to be a King, or a knave, instead? She needn’t have worried about my mother. At that moment, Leila barely knew that Eunice was there. But I did! This radiant creature was the fulfillment of all I prayed life had to offer, the glowing promise of a glorious future. The two of us would end the act in a love duet.
The fourth member of this make-believe quartet would be my Father’s ghost. His aria would be tragic, lamenting the fact that he had, not only, passed away, but that on this day, all evidence of his Earthly domain was being erased. And, last of all, there would be a chorus, a raucous crowd of bargain hunters, chattering and bickering, as they picked upon the carcass of Sam’s world, like buzzards.
With the sale still in progress, but winding down, my mother pulled herself away, just long enough to drive us to the depot, and we took the bus back to Ann Arbor. School was to begin there in two days. Pulling out of the driveway for the final time, the realization that I would never set foot inside the house at on Seven Mile Road again never crossed my mind. All I could think of was the future, not the distant future, not the next fifty-five years that fate decreed Eunice and I would spend together, but the more immediate future of getting back to Ann Arbor, and back to bed again.
Speaking of bed, thinking my single, twin size mattress would be adequate turned out to be a bad idea. I soon realized that I had overestimated its size, and underestimated mine. So our first purchase with some of what remained of my own money was a new box spring and mattress, extra-long, and queen sized, with screw-in legs. When it was delivered, the next door neighbor, a nerdy guy, named, Jack Noyes, who became our friend, cynically remarked, with envy, “Kiddies, your playpen has arrived!” He called it right! We played our brains out, day and night.
Meanwhile, the new school year began. I needed only a few more credits to earn a degree: One year of residency, an English class, a class in public speaking, and two semesters of a language. To meet that last requirement I chose to take Italian for opera singers, thinking it would enhance my enjoyment of Verdi and Puccini. It turned out to be all about pronunciation, and learning how to roll an "R." I also thought it would be fun to take a few art seminars, although, I didn't need the credits. They consisted of working at home, and then, bringing the paintings in to discuss them. I soon tired of it, so I just put fresh coats of varnish on some paintings I had done in Paris, and carefully carried then in, "still wet." And we, the teacher and I, “talked” about them, one on one. He felt that I had made progress, throughout the year.
After two weeks, pretending we were married seemed absurd. Therefore, we decided to just get married. So, one afternoon, we walked to downtown Ann Arbor and got blood tests, a marriage license, wedding rings, and a kitten in a cardboard carrier box, who, upon smelling his breath, we named, “Fish Face.” I vividly recall that day. Eunice’s ring was fancy with flowers, and cost $30 dollars. Mine, although, much larger, was plain, and cost only $14. Then, we stopped at a fast food restaurant, and set Fish Face’s box on the table, where he meowed melodically, while we ate.
We cautiously broke the news to Leila that we were “engaged,” and invited her to be at the wedding ceremony. Clearly the days of “Yeah, Uh-Huh” were over. We had now entered the era of, “OH MY GOD!” Not that anything I got up to, at this point, could really surprise her. So, when the SHOCK subsided, she reluctantly agreed. We found a justice of the peace in the Yellow Pages. And then, the wait began! The wedding was delayed, time and again, because my mother, for lack of a better plan to nix the marriage, was always “too busy” to attend.
During the previous long lonely summer, while Eunice was jigging in the streets of Paris, I had discovered some amazing candles in one of the quaint shops of Ann Arbor. They were shaped like large glass teardrops, flat enough on the bottom to stand without tipping, open at the top, and half full of wax, with a wick. The element that made them unique was the fact that each glass vase was a different transparent color. I purchased the five shades that I liked best. And when I saw them lit, I went back to the shop, the following day, and bought the rest. There were ten, in all, a complete set of all the colors of the rainbow. I can still close my eyes, now, and remember how beautiful our apartment, and our life was then, when all the the colored candles were alight, and we fumbled and frolicked, day and night, trying to master birth control, and self-control, and failing dismally at both.
In Paris we had borrowed a small record player from Bob and Verta. Although, we had only one LP, a recording that we considered “our song, ”Dakota Staton singing “Misty.” We played it constantly. Even though, my Klipsch Corner Horn was gone, I still had a small portable record player. Thus, the music that we loved in France, continued in Ann Arbor.
Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree; And I feel like I'm clingin' to a cloud. I can' t understand, I get misty, just holding your hand. Walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play, Or it might be the sound of your hello, that music I hear, I get misty, the moment you're near. Can't you see that you're leading me on? And it's just what I want you to do. Don't you notice how hopelessly I'm lost? That's why I'm following you. On my own, would I wander through this wonderland alone? Never knowing my right foot from my left, my hat from my glove, I'm too misty, and too much in love. Too misty, and too much In love
Later in the year, Dakota Staton appeared, in person, at a night club in Detroit. We traveled there to see her. This was major excursion, and an experience for Eunice, who, by then, was well into her pregnancy. We had to take the bus, then borrow my mother’s Cadillac, and drive to that mysterious place that seemed so exotic to me, growing up, “the colored section.” We were, in fact, the only white folks in the place. Then we stayed overnight, at Leila’s condo, and returned to Ann Arbor by Grayhound bus, the following day. But it was worth it. Dakota was great! And, of course, she sang “Misty” for us.
After fifty five years of marriage, and seeing that we are now living in an era when birth control is in the headlines, every day, I suppose it would be no longer be out of place, or even in bad taste, to mention that our amateurish attempts to prevent pregnancy were getting out of hand. So Eunice visited a local doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm. Believe it or not, his name was, “Dr. Botch!” I kid you not! The implications of his name, along with Eunice’s disclosure that he tried to fit the device in the wrong orifice, inspired little confidence.
Meanwhile, just Eunice and me, and Fish Face made three. We were happy in our blue Heaven, at 405 East Jefferson, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here, we posed for our family portrait. We were, indeed, a handsome family. Eunice knitted that enormous sweater for me.
Speaking of good looking, whenever Eunice ventured out into the daylight, all heads turned in her direction. She was an ethereal apparition, amid the clean-cut, well-scrubbed, buttoned-up world of the Ivy League. Whenever we went anywhere together, such as a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, or a concert, featuring Louis Armstrong, in person, all eyes were upon her. As a student, I got a free ticket to all the U of M football games. Then, I paid an extra fee to get Eunice a season ticket next to me. We went to our first game with a plaid blanket on our laps, and a thermos jug, and cheered for the home team. The band was positioned right behind us, and the sound, to my delight, was deafening. Eunice hated every minute of it, the crowd, the music, and the game. We never went again. Needless to say, we had no trouble finding something better to do on a Saturday afternoon, or for that matter, any afternoon, when I was not in school.
One month later, on the final day of our license being valid, I told my mother, "Today's the day, Mom! Either you want to attend our wedding, or we’ll get married, without you." And so, her latest boyfriend, a slick and rather debonair gentleman, volunteered to drive her to Ann Arbor in her own car. And I made a reservation for Ormond E. Capp, Justice of the Peace of Ypsilanti Michigan, to marry us that evening. By this time, Eunice and I realized she was pregnant.
When Eunice was still in Paris, she visited the Schiaparelli showroom, where there was an enormous sale going on. There, she purchased a lavender blue gown, which she had never worn. She left it at her parents’ house, perhaps, as evidence that she was coming back again. Now that it was decided that she was staying in America, her friend Audrey arranged for a BOAC pilot, whose route occasionally took him to Detroit, to bring it to her when he could. The Detroit airport is only ten minutes from Ann Arbor. Thus, on November 5,1959, when Eunice and I we were all dressed and ready for our wedding night, and waiting for my mother and her escort to arrive, an unexpected knock came at the door. We thought it was my mother, arriving a few minutes early. Low and behold, it was the BOAC pilot. He handed Eunice the dress, politely declined an invitation to come in, and left. Eunice hurriedly put on the lavender dress, which fit her perfectly. And, as if it had been Heaven sent, this lavender gown became her wedding dress. Considering where we were going to be married, to say that she was overdressed would be the understatement of the Century.
Minutes later, Leila and her latest lover arrived. He turned out to be a very suave and debonair good-looking guy, and a far cry from some of the obnoxious slobs I’d seen her with that summer. So, we headed through the night to Ypsilanti. It was nearing seven in the evening, and dark already. We arrived at a small farmhouse, way out in the country, with a sign outside that read, “Ormond E. Capp, Justice of the Peace.” As we headed up the walkway, my mother took me aside, and whispered to me that her date insisted that he pay Mr. Capp’s fee, as a wedding gift to Eunice and me. Wow! What a guy!
The ceremony was more than memorable, which is another way of saying, unforgettable. For anyone old enough to remember Ma and Pa Kettle, that was Mr. and Mrs. Ormond E. Capp. Or, in terms of comic characters, think Pappy Yokum wed to Mama Katzenjammer, or the Toonerville Skipper and Powerful Katrinka. The house, itself, was that of Dorothy, newly blown in from Kansas, and fallen to Earth in Ypsilanti. Ormond’s home was identical to Auntie Em’s, except there was doilies on all the furniture and a piano. Standing atop the TV set, was a fluted plastic cylinder, in which brightly colored printed fish swam round and round in circles, propelled by the rising heat of a light bulb, inside. After some nervous introductions and polite pleasantries, Mrs. Capp announced that she "always liked to make these ceremonies nice." So she sat down at the piano, and began to play “Here Comes the Bride.” Then Ormond E. stood beneath the arch of the dining room doorway, with Eunice and I standing before him, and my mother and her gentleman friend a few feet behind, and slightly over to one side. Then Ormond handed each of us a small folder with flowery colored decorations, and said: “I always like to begin the ceremony with a little bit of religion.” And he instructed us to open our booklets. There we beheld a picture of Jesus, hanging on a cross, bestrewn with Hallmark card like flowers, while in the background, Mrs. Capp played a bible hymn. Then Ormond delivered the invocatation, “May Jesus bless us one and all.” It sounded like the words of Tiny Tim.” And Eunice began to stifle a laugh. I, too, struggled not to giggle. My mother, on the other hand, audibly burst into tears. Then he got down to business, “Do you Melvyn Arthur BARNHART ... That was when we lost it! Both Eunice and exploded into peals of laughter. And thus, began the kind of laughing jag that, once set into motion, cannot be stopped. Five minutes later, when we finally pulled ourselves together, I pronounced my name properly for him, as well as I was able, while still laughing, like a hyena. Then, Ormond said, “Oh there’s a lot of BARNHARTS, around these here parts!” and we started laughing all over again. Somehow, we made it through the ceremony, laughing all the way, until. at last, he pronounced us man and wife. Then, still giggling, I kissed the bride, and we all collapsed into the doily clad chairs in the living room, exhausted.
And then, the small talk began. I was waiting for Leila’s beau to pay the bill. Meanwhile, the talk got smaller and smaller, and the fish swam round and round, as we chatted, for what seemed like an eternity, about the weather, which was a subject, about which Mr. Capp had a lot to say. Finally, my mother caught on, and said to me discreetly, “Mel, he paid, already! Oy Vey! My mother’s gallant gentleman had done that negotiation so inconspicuously that the transaction had totally escaped me. And so, we finally bid our hosts goodbye. Ormond kissed both my mother and the bride, and out we went into the night. The entire ceremony, from start to finish, had been embarrassing and hilarious.
It was as dark as midnight outside of Ormond’s house, there in the desolate wilderness of Ypsilanti. Us newlyweds got into the back seat, while my mother’s escort, escorted her to the passenger seat of her elegant Cadillac Eldorado. Then, he took the wheel, and proceeded to turn the car around. Suddenly the magic of the night was shattered by a resounding, “CRASH!” It was the impact of my mother’s Cadillac, backing into Ormond’s outhouse. Not daring to look back, we sped off into the night.
An hour and a half later, we found ourselves in Detroit, having supper for last time, at my favorite restaurant, the Paradiso Cafe. My parents and I had dined there every Thursday night, for what seemed like my entire life. Then, my mother dropped us off at a motel, where we spent our wedding night. We were far too drunk and exhausted to consummate the marriage. Nonetheless, I did manage to consume the rest of my medium rare fillet mignon, which I had surreptitiously wrapped up in one of Paradiso’s pink cloth napkins, and stuffed into my pocket. In the morning, my Mother picked us up, and drove us to the bus, leaving the blood soaked napkin, and our unwed lives behind us.
And now, the mad tea party descended even farther into madness. My mother got to thinking, contemplating the situation. And, suddenly, she realized that she hadn’t played her cards right. All the other “girls” in her canasta world had sons and daughters who got married, and they had fancy Wedding Parties, and their ‘kids” were lavished with wedding presents. And Leila had attended every one, and gifted many newlyweds, throughout the years, and, Oh My God, she blew her only chance to hold a party of her own. As a member of a vast and complex mutual obligation society, she had missed her golden opportunity to be the center of attention, and collect the accolades and wedding presents that were her due. Therefore, she decided to host a Gala Wedding Celebration, a month after the wedding!
And, as if that wasn’t enough, her friends also felt the gnawing guilt of a prerequisite obligation, unmet. So, they, too, decided that they would create and contribute their own post marital event. And so it was that Eunice and I had to endure, and perform at, not just one, but two belated Wedding Celebrations. I don’t know who hated this ordeal more, Eunice or myself.
Protesting was pointless, although, what this was all about was obvious. Leila had taken a better look at Eunice, and come to the conclusion that she was presentable, after all. We were like a couple of trained animals, yearning to be wild and free, but forced to sit up and beg, like pampered pets. For a variety of reasons, Leila had us in her power, wielded in the form of generosity. Out and out rebellion was out of the question, as I was obligated both financially, or as the saying goes, "he who pays the piper calls the tune," and emotionally, after all, she was my mother.
Maybe there was something wrong with me. The kind of person my family hoped I’d be, and I had spent my life trying not to become, would have loved both these events. Furthermore, as a reward for performing properly, we were offered treats. The first was in the form of a “Money Tree!” That was what the party that my mother’s friends arranged was called, “A Money Tree Party.” This consisted of Eunice and I, getting our act together, as best as we were able, and attending a gathering with many of my Mothers friends, in a restaurant with a bar.
Propped up on a barstool, we were plied with alcohol, and presented with the branch of a tree, set in a pot, and painted silver, with lots dollar bills and silver dollars, taped to its extremities. These decorations were essentially symbolic, for the real treasure was in the form of a check in an envelope, conspicuously attached to the branch with a red ribbon. The money was most welcome. I can’t remember how much it was, or anything else about the event. It was like a dream, and a rather pleasant one, as I always have fun when I am drunk! Then, as we made our exit, the crowd shuffled off into an adjacent room, where they finished up the evening, playing cards.
Now, for the Main Event! My mother sent out invitations. The whole thing was professionally planned and catered. God knows what all this cost. No doubt, it would have been more than enough for me to have lived another year in Paris. The irony of this, in light of the lie my mother told me to get me back to Detroit again, was not lost on me. The entire Birnkrant family, still living in Detroit, as well as all my mother’s friends were in attendance.
Now, follow me, and I’ll offer you a peek into the phantasmagorical “Land of Supposed to Be.” Anyone who has ever known me, at any point in my long history, might find it hard to believe that this is the world, from which I came, or one might better say, from which I escaped. My entire life has been an ongoing attempt to leave the huddled masses of affluent mediocrity behind me. I have at times been known to eagerly pursue poverty, but never the money driven vision of adulthood that these people conveyed to me. Their children, my contemporaries, were merely younger versions of the same. This is not what Eunice anticipated when she came to the USA. For her, this event was a nightmare; for me, it was a recurring dream.
These musings of an awkward teen, grown old, are academic now, for all the people in these photos, except for my cousins, myself, and Eunice are dead and gone. Considering the fate of Detroit today, I realize that they were the lucky ones, the blessed citizens of a Golden Age, the likes of which Detroit will never see again. Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to get away.
Here is the Birnkrant Family: On either end of the lineup are Herb and Edith Schelberg, my Grandmother’s brother’s son and daughter-in-law. Next, starting on the left is Aunt Loris who was thoughtful and intelligent, then Uncle Teddy, who was a Teddy Bear. Next, is their daughter my dear Cousin Janet. I had a crush on her, growing up, and I still do today. I was upset to learn that first cousins couldn’t marry. Now, seriously, looking at us, side by side, would you ever think we were related? Then is yours truly. And in the middle, front and center, glowing like a Heavenly angel, is Eunice, standing on one leg. Perhaps, her injured one was hurting. And then, my mother, still tan from Florida. Next to her, is dispicable Uncle Norman, beside his bride, Aunt Phyllis, former wife of his late brother. Then comes my sweet young Cousin Madge. I cant remember why my Cousin Terry Joy was missing, here, but I had the pleasure of sitting next to her, throughout the following year in art history class at Michigan.
This event was a horrible ordeal for Eunice. To begin with, she was two months pregnant, a fact that, thank God, still remained a secret. Yes, Leila still had a few more "Oh My God!" moments in store for her. But, for now, only Eunice and I knew. The dress that she managed to squeeze into was one that she brought with her from England. It was uncomfortable and already starting not to fit. But, by far, the worst part of the evening was the receiving line. Not unlike at a funeral, my mother and I stood together with Eunice in the middle, as a long line of party guests passed by, one at a time, to congratulate my mother, size up Eunice, and openly announce their verdict.
This was exceedingly grotesque. Displaying an amazing lack of finesse, each of these middle-aged ladies expressed their opinion candidly, as if Eunice wasn’t actually standing there, in person, or could not hear a word they said. No slave girl, auctioned in a Persian market was more thoroughly examined and assessed. Clearly, the men liked what they saw, and to their wive's annoyance, made it apparent. But it was the women who had the most to say. Although, their remarks were intended to be complimentary, they were inadvertently revealing. “Oh Leila, your little daughter-in-law is adorable!” “She’s not so bad, after all.” “Why didn’t you tell us she was so cute?” “I love your accent, honey!” They felt free to touch her hair and pinch her cheek. “Oh, she’s so much prettier than I thought she’d be!” Naturally, Eunice knew exactly what to say to charm and disarm them.
And here we are together, my wife, myself, and my mother.
And, once again, the family line up. I can only speculate what Eunice was thinking, at that moment. Clearly, her thoughts were a thousand miles away, perhaps on the Left Bank of Paris, or maybe in the Beat Hotel, and wishing that the rest of her was there, as well.
And this one, in which the photographer said, "Look at the ice mold." So we did!
As soon as Eunice arrived, our interrupted honeymoon continued. On September 18th, we donned our birthday suits and celebrated my twenty-second birthday, suitably “en déshabillé.” Meanwhile, the new semester at U of M was about to begin. Therefore, it was necessary to return my mother's car, before then, as without a permit, there was no student parking during the school year. So, on the following day, we drove to Detroit, and Eunice met my mother.
The house had been sold, during the summer. And it happened that there was a big “Estate Sale” underway, at 1590 West Seven Mile Road, that very day. The sale was orchestrated and conducted by a professional auction company. They had come in and priced the entire contents of the house, including “my stuff.” Then, they advertised and supervised the sale for a commission. All the preparations had been taking place, without consulting me, while Eunice and I were resuming our premarital honeymoon in Ann Arbor. So, in a manner of speaking, I was getting screwed, every which way! ALL the contents of my childhood home had to go; and did! My Beloved Hi-Fi, the awesome Klipsch Corner Horn was sold for a measly $600, a fraction of its value. Eight long years would transpire, before I could replace it with another, even remotely approaching its sonic wonder. I was allowed to have the money for that, and nothing else. My mother had also permitted me to choose one object from the house to keep for myself. Ironically, I chose the exotic Egyptian chair that totally terrified me in my youth. I had been told that it was found in King Tut’s tomb.
Last of all, I see dead people! I found these seven photos, yesterday. The numbers on the backs indicate that there were originally eleven. Thus, four tables are missing, and with them, some wedding guests, who I know were there, but do not appear in the photographs, below. On the other hand, there are many people here I did not know. This truly was my mother’s party. She seized upon it as an opportunity to meet a lifetime of obligations for countless invitations, and as a bonus, “the Kids,” got wedding presents.
In the end, this is just a sample of the vast army of my mother’s friends, the countless women, with whom she played canasta, and their men. These are the faces of the Detroit, from which I fled, for fear that I’d become like them. Sometimes, I say a little prayer: “Thank God, You can’t go home again!”
The not so newlyweds survived the belated Wedding Party, and returned to the safe sanctuary of their apartment in Ann Arbor, with Christmas, just a week away. At the risk of sounding like one of those stomach turning year-end letters:
1959! What a year it had been! The previous December, Eunice was in Dover, learning how to walk again. And Mel was in Paris, celebrating Christmas Eve by candlelight, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Then April came! And, in the space eight short months, both their lives miraculously changed. Mel met and wed his ideal woman. And, by the following December, God’s little acre had grown bigger. The love affair that began on a straw filled mattress, in a tiny chamber at l’Hotel du Mouton Blanc, on Rue Mazarine in Paris was now continuing on a regal queen sized Posturepedic, in an apartment, twice its size in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. And Eunice, suddenly, found herself, living in America, with a cat named Fish Face, and a baby on the way.
With the fuchsia street lamp glowing, the very one that Bob Grosvenor and Mel stole from a Paris manhole, and later hung in Bob and Verta’s hotel room at Number 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur, and a yellow rainbow candle, flickering in the window, "Eunice Birnkrant," Mel’s heavenly angel, radiant in the light of their first Christmas tree, let down her golden hair.