Mamita & Harry

It is not too often that I get completely blown over by reading something that hits home as much as the essay (below) in my NYTimes Sunday Magazine by Montreal writer Durga Chew-Bose on framing. My mother always told me that no house was a home until pictures were put on the wall. I have faithfully followed her advice since. Of late I have been going to Sally Anne stores to find antique frames. I have purchases many bargains. What makes it even more fun is that with my Canon-Pro1 inkjet printer I can print to size to fit any frame. But I will go to my framer, Magnum Frames where they will see to the backing (archival one) and the glass.

There are two photographs that I have found in my present thinning of files in my oficina that will need the professional and gentle care of the folks at Magnum in Vancouver. They are photographs (the only ones I have) of my grandfather Harry and his wife Ellen Carter taken in Buenos Aires. I have no idea if my daughters will value them. I will be interested in how the-torn-at- the-edges pictures of Ellen and Harry will be handled. The second one has a special meaning. When Harry died in the 20s my grandmother started a pension in Buenos Aires. One of her boarders was an Armenian gentleman called Leo Mahdjubian. Curiously he had worn a kilt during WWI as he had been a member of the famous Black Watch. Leo was so well liked that he became “adopted” by Ellen. In later years Leo who owned an Assurance company in Buenos Aires was a wealthy man who helped my family when they had rough times.

During my time in the Argentine Navy I would go to Leo’s house for lunch on Saturdays. His wife would serve pasta and roast beef and would make pies, cakes and flan for dessert. The men (Leo had two sons) and I would retire for siesta. We would be summoned for tea (a complete tea) at four. Leo who was a gourmet had four pepper mills at the table with pepper from different parts of the world.

In circumstances that escape me he called me up one day to say, “Alex you father has kicked the bucket. Because he was taken to the hospital by a policemen you will have to go to the police station to sign some papers.”

The significance of Ellen’s portrait is that she dedicated it to Leo and it was only then that I found out that people called her Mamita. As a boy members of my family all called Ellen, Ellen Carter. Why was her maiden name so important? Read below.

One of the tragedies of getting old is realizing that in youth (this guy in particular) was not curious enough to ask questions of people who were alive to answer them. Because of this my information on the grandparents on my father’s side is spotty. I know that they were from Manchester and that they moved to Buenos Aires around 1901. My grandfather Harry apparently working for a shipping company. There is additional information that came via my father.

There was a family tradition in England that Harry Hayward used the middle name Waterhouse because he was the male firstborn. They had a son in Manchester (my Uncle Harry) and the three came to BA. But Harry, the son, never used that middle name. It was further revealed that a marriage license was made in Buenos Aires. My father then figured that Harry was born out of wedlock and thus he George (my father) was the legitimate firstborn.

When I was born my father wanted to continue with the family tradition. When he went to register my name he was told that in Argentina foreign names could not be used. I could not be called George Alexander (the name of my Argentine godfather). I had to be called Jorge Alejandro. And when my father tried to insert Waterhouse, that was rejected. My father then slipped money under the table and told the bureaucrat that Waterhouse was the surname and that there had to be a hyphen between it and Hayward.

Letter of Recommendation: Framing

By Durga Chew-Bose

Feb. 4, 2020. NYTimes Sunday Magazine

As if through a sieve, the kind you might use to dust confectioners’ sugar on a cake, the snow began to fall one Sunday afternoon in January — white diagonals obscuring the view just outside my mother’s living-room window. I called it picturesque because I was removed from the wind, the wet, the biting cold. I took pleasure in being deceived.

I was happy to be where it felt cozy, surrounded by walls of my mother’s framed things: leatherwork from Shantiniketan, Amrita Sher-Gil prints, the walnut-shaped eyes in a Jamini Roy. I grew up in a home where going to the framer’s was an errand I occasionally ran with my parents on weekends, or an errand that they would return from with pieces wrapped in brown paper. My grandfather, Amiya, framed in the eulogizing dignity of burled wood. My grandmother, Chameli, mounted on the wall in a simple black frame, the glow of her face understated but not contained; she looks like an actress.

When I left New York and moved to Montreal, I found an apartment with more rooms than I could fill. So instead, I arranged. A mirror I didn’t hang but propped against the wall. Magazine stacks, anywhere. My apartment maintained the kind of ambivalence indicated by a pile of once-worn shirts that I moved from the arm of a chair to the foot of my bed, depending on the time of day.

But arranging allows for reluctance. You’re not hammering nails into walls; you’re chasing light — carrying a vase from the front of the apartment to the back, and so on. By the time it was winter, my walls were still empty, and my piles of sentimental stuff were beginning to grow.

Eventually, I found myself unmoored, homesick in my own space. The first framer I tried was affordable and fast, but I stopped going there when I noticed a bagel seed stuck beneath the pane of glass, right in the middle of a Bill Gold poster I purchased impulsively on eBay. I will never come around to finding the mistake tragicomic or charming. So I found a new place. A framer located cater-corner from a health-food store and across the street from a neighborhood coffee shop. Since starting, I can’t stop. Consecutive weekends might include a quick trip to the framer, along with other essential errands: laundry, parents, balsamic, framer.

Framing serves an uncomplicated purpose: It yields results but isn’t fixed to clear thinking. The relationship with my framer exists beyond plain transaction. Piece by piece, my framer has become intimate with me: my choosiness, my fondnesses, my dumb, entirely sincere urge to create remarkability. The decision to frame a double exposure of my mother and her sisters on a rooftop in Calcutta, for instance, or a poster of Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” is ultimately subjective and extravagant (framing isn’t cheap). Should it really cost this much to affirm what’s meaningful to me? Building a home takes time, but it’s also an investment in anticipation, in wagering on the energy of a random Thursday when I find myself between moments, landing on that photo of my mother and her sisters hanging on my wall. She looks young and joyful; her knobby knees — her girlhood — caught in motion.

My framer is regularly asked to follow through on choices that might seem fanciful, even dramatic. Like safeguarding a falling-apart cover of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” where just below the title it reads: “Her Novel.” Or how I chose wood in a shade of pale mint to scaffold a tiny photograph of my father, the week we found out he had cancer. Some of us are born a little mournful, and we spend our lives discovering new traditions for housing those ghosts we’ve long considered companions. Framing, I’d venture, is central to this urge. It gives memories a physique.

It’s funny how adding four corners brings out the thing. But what I derive from getting things framed isn’t perfection; it’s completing a task that comes with rules, consideration for light and an opportunity to preserve — and not in my cluttered, humming mind, but with a tactile compromise. Hanging in my hallway is Frank O’Hara, surrounded by three inches of black mat and gallery-brushed silver. The image hasn’t lost the romance of why I fell for it in the first place. Visible in this photograph, taken by John Gruen, five years before O’Hara’s death, is the poet’s smile — more specific, his small teeth. Formerly, it was a piece of cardboard floundering on my fridge door. Now, it’s a proposition; the satisfaction of something made-ready.

Recently, I took a few pieces to the framer, among them a photograph of my friend Sarah. Backlit, Sarah passes forms. She is portrait and shadow, the way silhouettes obscure yet disclose the oneness of a person’s contour. A few weeks elapsed, and when the photograph was ready, I went to pick it up. Specially made objects are a rare pleasure because they demand what is scarce: time, consideration, belated results. The low-stakes sport of making surface choices like metal over wood, or lacquer for a different finish. And while these preferences are sacred, it’s lazy and untrue to describe my reaction upon seeing Sarah, framed, as divine. Sometimes what’s bespoke compels the opposite of novelty — it captures what’s right in front of us: the plain-spoken; the dear friend; her most conspicuous chin. I held the frame and could only say, over and over, “There she is.”

Durga Chew-Bose is a writer and an editor based in Montreal.

Link to: Mamita & Harry



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