He sat on his walker in the dining room where he and his wife entertained many guests in the 1960s and ’70s – when the beautiful Ralph Anderson house was new. He surveyed the sunken living room below and the view of Lake Washington and the Mercer Island floating bridge.
Strewn around him were the remnants of what had once decorated (filled to the brim, actually), this masterpiece he helped envision and build in the prime of his life, this personal museum and ode to the artwork and collections he pieced together with years of shopping and incredible love.
Downstairs, relatives searched through his stuff. So much stuff. Hundreds of paintings he created over his lifetime. Books that had sat on shelves, most unread. Tools. Art supplies. Clothes. Masks. China. Souvenirs from world travels. Hats. Fishing poles and reels. Old long wooden skis. Treasures.
The summary of his 93 years. Up for grabs. The relatives were respectful, asking if they could have this. Did he mind if they took this? “Is this one of your paintings? Would you mind signing it?” one asked, glad to have found it. “Is this Sun Valley? We used to live there. It’s meaningful to us,” another said upon finding three sketches of the Idaho ski town where he went with friends in the 1950s. “Yes, let me tell you about that trip,” he said.
This scene played out recently at my father’s Mercer Island home, which he had built with my mother in 1964; where he lived for 47 years until it became too much for him to care for with its many rooms and stairs and things. So many things. Although he had hoped to die there, he realized as his age started getting the best of him, that he needed additional help. He moved to a retirement community about a year ago, at age 92. By then mom had been gone 20 years.
But what about the stuff? Thousands of pieces of artwork and doodads collected over the years. African art. Mexican masks. Native American masks and artifacts. Hundred-year-old Native baskets. China and silver from his mother’s house. Dozens of wooden carvings. A room full of Middle Eastern crafts, tapestries, puppets and household items – in a red color scheme designed around a bright Oriental rug. Clothes (many that had never been worn). Magazines, saved from day one. Newspapers heralding important events. Paintings from Northwest artists. And papers. So many papers. Bank statements, check stubs, bills, Christmas cards, love letters, correspondence with far away relatives and friends, travel brochures, maps, art show announcements. Nothing was ever thrown away. Nothing. He prided himself on doing without garbage service. Mercer Island, after all, had a recycling center. But really – was anything ever taken there?
A historian late in life, he was the keeper of the family history. He was born in Victoria, B.C. His father immigrated from Alsace-Lorraine (between Germany and France). His mother grew up in San Francisco, but the family roots are in England. Mom fled the Island of Rhodes (then Italian; now Greek) during WWII. Nazis came five years later and shipped the remaining Jews to Auschwitz. All but 152 perished. He loved and respected this family history – his and his wife’s – and kept all the records – photos, letters, documents.
He organized most into boxes and notebooks. But a few escaped his memory – or just got lost in the piles of other things. Amid the check stubs, old clothes and insignificant travel memorabilia – treasures waiting to be uncovered under four decades of dust.
By the time we invited the relatives to have at it my brother and I had already spent countless hours and weekend mornings going through every scrap in the year since he moved out. One day we were unpacking a coffin-sized art deco style cedar chest at the bottom of one downstairs closet. It contained mainly my mother’s clothes from the ’50s and ’60s – a cashmere sweater, some wool skirts, a couple of dresses (all well preserved because the moths had been successfully repelled). A tailed topcoat that likely belonged to a great-grandfather. And then, at the bottom – two documents, laid flat between tissue papers: Italian diplomas marking my mother’s graduation from elementary school and middle school in Rhodes – 1932 and 1935. Extremely rare. Who had time to take these things with them across the world when being exiled from the homeland? Upstairs in the linen closet – a thick bed cover, embroidered throws and two boxes of needlework – also from Rhodes. Big find no. 1.
Big find no. 2? Two weeks later, amid the Boeing memorabilia, drawings of the Ms. Thirftway hydroplane (a university class project my father did in 1955. They’ve since been donated to the hydroplane museum) and a box marked “hair and teeth” was a non-descript roll of paper with penciled handwriting on the outside tissue paper. A note from my father’s mother to her two children: “Silk portraits of your great-grandfather Lewis Lewis painted in 1889 in China.” My brother and I carefully unrolled them. They were in pristine condition – Lewis Lewis, his wife Rachel. Lewis Lewis wasn’t just some guy. He’s famous in Victoria, B.C. as a successful businessman who paid for the Jewish cemetery, served as president of his synagogue for eight years and founded the Victoria Masonic Lodge. My father had never seen the portraits. He said his mother would be happy that they’d been preserved. The Victoria synagogue is anticipating their arrival in time for the 150th anniversary celebration next year.
Many treasures found amid some resentment. Who keeps all this stuff? Who has the time to shop for it all? If the money was instead put into the stock market would everyone be better off? Was there ever any consideration about what would happen to it all – and who would go through it? It wasn’t pure junk (though some of it was). Much of it was actually quite valuable – either monetarily or historically.
As my father sat there surveying his home for what likely will be one of the last times he goes there (it will go on the market soon after the estate sale) my aunt asked him how he felt. He’d spent decades amassing his collections, putting together his displays. How did he feel about it literally walking out the door?
“I’ve had my enjoyment out of it,” he said. “Now my family can enjoy it too.”