Featured art: Angel, stitched and burned on the synthetic fabric Tyvek by Gordana Brelih.
Out of my 7 sisters-in-law (including exes and Esta who has died), Ria Saunders was my first—she and I married the Saunders brothers: she the oldest, Cliff, and I the younger, Peter. Our beloved Cliff died in June last year, 2019, 4 months before his 80th birthday.
Ria and Cliff in March 2019, a month or two before Cliff’s death. Cliff is wearing one of the African shirts he loved, this one from the Ivory Coast. After his death, Ria sent the shirt to Peter.
On the evening when Cliff died after a prolonged sick-time caused by heart disease, Ria and her daughter Yolande (my and Peter’s god-daughter) were with him. Ria said his death was as he had always wanted it: at home and in his bed. All three of them were so prepared for his death and peaceful that their little dog, Dukie, “was not even upset,” but just kept lying quietly by them on the bed when his” breath became air.” After holding Cliff for a while, Ria and Yolande washed him and dressed him in his favorite black pants and shirt. Yolande went to sleep in her room, and Ria lay next to Cliff on the bed and slept by his side until morning. She only let people know of his death in the morning. When we spoke to her that day, she was very sad, but completely at peace—her Christian faith also carried her in this way through his funeral and the months of adjustment that followed and is—of course—still ongoing. They had been together since they met as neighbors when she was ten and he fourteen, and had started going steady once she got to high school.
Cliffs hands after his death, after Ria and Yolande washed and dressed him.
As Ria was starting to anticipate Cliff’s 80th birthday in November and her first Christmas without him, an invitation came from a friend in England, who invited her to come and visit—and offered to sponsor her travel and living costs for a prolonged stay. The fact that her friend Hilda was an atheist (like the Salt Lake City Saunderses) attests to Ria’s ability to spread her Christian love to many different people, no matter their beliefs.
Left: Peter’s and my goddaughter Yolande on her 50th birthday, with her mom Ria. Middle: Ria’s backyard garden at her and Cliff’s flat in Johannesburg. Right: Ria and Cliff lost their son Dudley when his was in his early 40s. By the lemon tree at the bottom of the garden, Ria erected a cross for Cliff after his death, next to one they had installed for their beloved son years ago. Ria raised 5 children: Dudley, who had a son Lee and a daughter Isabella with his wife Marlet; Lee is now an adult and Isabella (13) is being raised by her mother, Marlet; Yolande lives with Ria; Cliff Jr is married to Carina, with whom he has a son Daegan (12); Ria and Cliff also raised her sister’s two children, Albert and Ilette van Wyk, who joined the Saunders family when their parents both died in a car accident on the same day when the children were a teen and pre-teen. Albert and his wife Karen have two children, Anton and Klara; and Ilette has a son Reyno.
In addition to day trips in England, Hilda and Ria also traveled to Istanbul.
Hilda’s flat and garden in London. Ria and Hilda in Istanbul.
After staying for almost 3 months with Hilda, Ria traveled to Israel on her own for the last week or so of her time abroad. When we spoke to Ria yesterday for her birthday, she remarked with a laugh about her trip that she “had been mostly with atheists for three months and had learned a lot!”
Ria giving herself a face mask at the Dead Sea in Israel. The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was buried.
I continue to learn about love and forgiveness and acceptance from my beloved Christian sister-in-law Ria. Here is her story of an experience she had in Israel, which reminded me of something my mother, who had dementia, wrote in her journal when her clarity about the world was dim but her knowledge of things spiritual strong: “Angels and people sing songs of praise,” Susanna Steenekamp wrote in her legal pad. “Who are angels and who are people? Hosanna, Hosanna! After that comes the open end. An open end, because history continues after we arrive at an anticipated end point” (my translation from Afrikaans).
The Wounded Angel, Hugo Simberg, 1903
Ria trusted me to translate her story from Afrikaans to English to share with her church circle and other friends in South Africa. Now she is letting me post it here too!
RIA SAUNDERS: “ANGELS IN ISRAEL”
The mini cab in London picks me up at 04h00 for my flight to Israel. I must be at Heathrow by 05h00. My driver is a congenial older Indian man. We speak companionably and I confide my fears about going alone to Jerusalem for eight days. When we say goodbye, he says, “You are not alone in Jerusalem, God is with you.” And so it would be.
Angel 2, Gordana Brelih, 2011.
At the airport I was bereft when I almost miss my flight to Israel because I did not realize that Istanbul was ahead of London by three hours! Several times during the flight, I visualized my last red candle flickering in the Catholic Church in London that was so dark and lonely.
The Spirit of God, Marianne Gonzales.
We land at Ben Gurion at 18h00. My mini backpack, borrowed from my friend Adri, is missing from my checked luggage. I wait and wait at the carousel, but the bag does not show up. It’s one of Adri’s beloved possessions—she had walked the Camino with it! Besides, I had tucked into it the directions to the Jerusalem Hostel I had booked. Eventually I drag my heavy suitcase to Lost and Found, where a young woman listens to my lament. I try to be brave, but I don’t even know which bus or tram to take to the train. Miserable and afraid I push my baggage cart to the station. Everything is so unfamiliar and difficult. Such a different experience from thirty-seven years ago when I visited Israel with my husband Cliff, who died in May 2019, less than a year before my solo trip. Then, we camped for an unforgettable three weeks, traveling to various kibbutzim. Now, I am seventy-seven and alone.
“I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ,” by Marianne Gonzales, 2017. (The title is a quote from Ephesians 3:1.)
I buy a train ticket with my credit card. (Fortunately I had earlier exchanged £25 for shekels.) I go down the escalator, lugging my heavy suitcase, bulky coat over one arm, to Platform 1. I wait for the Jerusalem train in the cold air, chilled by rainy weather. I almost board the wrong train, the one heading for Tel Aviv. I make enquiries, get on the actual Jerusalem train: a swanky red double decker. A man helps me get my heavy case on board. To my left, an impossible staircase rises to the top deck. To my right, a vacant seat. I sink down in it. It is 19h30 or later by now. I am seated across from a man and woman with several pieces of luggage. They are talking. My hearing is bad—I wear hearing aids—and I strain to find out what language they are using. It is English! I am so concerned about finding the tram I have to take when I get off the train, that I start speaking with my fellow travelers. I tell them that I am from South Africa and traveling alone; and divulge my dilemma about the lost backpack and directions. They introduce themselves: Simon and Anne Holland from England; they live in Jerusalem and work at the Garden Tomb, Jesus’ tomb! British Christians working at Jesus’ grave!
Angel, Gordana Brelih, 2014. Note that the angel is unrolling the door from Jesus’ tomb.
God had guided me to board the train at the exact spot where I would find a seat directly across two of His children! As if this was not enough, angels Simon and Anne give me a Rav Kav card for the tram, help me load 50 shekel onto the card, and shepherded me from the confusing central bus station to the tram for Heil’Avir. They get onto the tram with me, travel with me to the fourth stop, Jaffa Centre, where they get off with me and walk me to my destination, Jerusalem Hostel, where I had booked a bed in a dormitory for six women. Simon and Anne accompany me into the lobby of the hostel, where I get another amazing surprise—since the hostel is having electricity problems, I have been switched to a single room for the same price as I would have paid for the bed in the dormitory! In addition, 35A is right next to the bathroom. To top this latest blessing, Simon hauls my suitcase upstairs to my own little haven.
Full image of Gordana Brelih’s Angel, of which the featured picture at the start of the post is a detail.
Lord, my God, You are miraculous/Wonderful! How good You are to me! The Lord God was with me and made everything happen in just this way. Simon and Anne Holland were God’s “angels,” appearing at the right place at the right time! I praise Your Name O God! And also for the mini backpack that was delivered the next day at the hostel…
Heavenly Host, mosaic on the domed ceiling of St. Paul’s Within the Walls Church, Rome, by Edward Burne-Jones ca. 1890.
Corona virus contemplations, including explication of what the coiff is going on in and around Doña Quixote’s skull
Featured image: From Entities of the Threshold, Tamae Frame, figurative ceramic sculptor.
I started this post about two- to three weeks before the true danger of the corona virus became evident to (many, but not all) of us Americans. I was writing—again—about the shrinking of my world because of my dementia; grieving it again, as I have done on different levels since being diagnosed nine years ago. Now that we are living in the uncanny realm of the corona virus, it seems that shrinking has beset our whole society. Not only do people with dementia and those with other restrictive conditions such as lupus or multiple sclerosis or organ transplant experience a shrunken environment, but even the sane, the whole, the young, and the robust among us are being squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces—physically, financially, and for many, emotionally—like the king on a chess board being checkmated in a move known as a smothered mate, choked off by its own pieces.
Before thinking more about self-shrinking in terms of our larger world, I will first—like writing workshops advise—write about what I know about the diminishment of “self”: A ‘self’ is the inner person that reliably shows up in your life every day. Our selves are created by the continuity, meaning, and coherence that memory provides. When memory fades, your self comes apart at the seams. You no longer act the way you and others expect: I open our apartment door to go out and don’t know which way to turn for the elevator. Where did my formerly spatially rooted self go? I look left and right, dread overwhelms me. I still myself for a moment, regroup. Adrenaline rush. I can do this. At my appointment, the adrenaline boost that got me out of the house still lasts—I am so anxious, though, it feels as if my nerves are outside my skin. I take someone’s words personally, say ungracious things to kind people. I cause hurt and bafflement. Shame envelops me. I have become a stranger to myself. I cannot be trusted out in the world.
Australian-born, London-based artist Robert Mueck’s hyperrealist sculpture, Seated Woman (1999).
As a result of both my inability to trust my orientation and behavior in the social world, I am less and less able to spend extended time periods with even my closest peeps. It’s not that they would not forgive me for acting weird—they forgive me all the time—but that self-doubt and confusion requires me to have lot of alone-time to regroup and recharge my brain; it’s the only way I can regain a measure of calm and focus in order to go out in the world again another time and dare be with other people. Some days it’s much easier and more comforting to stay forever inside the quiet cave of bed or La-Z-Girl or 704 Wilmington Flats. In quarantine from the world, one might say.
Ron Mueck, Two Women.
It seems, in addition, that I cannot always trust myself to function properly even inside the cave of our flat. I am daily reminded by Peter or my own easily noticeable mistakes that my ability to independently take care of myself is slipping. I can still clean myself up and get dressed by myself, but everything takes longer and my success is based on copious notes and the grouping of all items of each outfit together in one place in my closet. Today, I wanted to dry-clean a pair of pants at home with a kit I had bought at the grocery store. The box came with several enclosures and a sheet of instructions. I did not have the courage to even try to tackle the instructions of what to do with all the mysterious items inside. I have learned through constant confusion that my head can no longer follow instructions. So I asked Peter for help. In less than a minute, he determined that we needed neither the plastic bottle of spot cleaner nor the wrinkle- and odor-removing spray. He found the foil-packaged cloth wet with dry-cleaning fluid and popped it into the bag provided for steam-cleaning the item in the drier. In fifteen minutes, my pants came out warm, clean, fresh-smelling, and smooth enough to not need ironing. It was a good start to my day—despite having had to lean on Peter’s smarts, my head got the endorphins as if it had achieved this all by itself! Adding to the helpmate-fabricated head-chemical cheer, was that I now again had clean pants to wear—despite the trouble I experience getting dressed or organizing my clothes, “playing with my clothes” is still a creative occupation open to me and one of the things I most love doing: gentling some of my favorite worldly possessions onto my torso and feet and ears and neck! Seeing an outfit work is a much quicker route to a sense of creative accomplishment than, for example, writing a blog post!
The first two photos are of me at home, and the last one at City Creek Mall—in the good old days of about two weeks ago when we could still walk around the shops!
My grappling with the affairs of daily life in things like caring for my clothes and dressing—even with Peter’s all-time help—reminds me that the day when I will no longer be able to indulge my own eccentric and peculiar vanities and affectations will be upon me sooner rather than later. This awareness constantly rekindles some important questions: what can I ask of people who love me in relation to caring for my body when I can no longer do so myself? Should there be a period when I still care about how I look, despite not being in charge of my style, is it reasonable to expect people who love me—or even people paid to care for me—to dress and coiff me in the style I am accustomed to? My answer is a loud NO. I explicitly desire that my loved ones expend no energy for anything inessential—the essential care of a person’s body alone takes hours of caretakers’ time. Even showering and dressing a (still continent, let’s say) person with dementia, when they can no longer “help” by initiating actions like lifting the correct leg to put into the pants or opening up their arms for reaching into a sleeve, takes a lumpen amount of time. Incontinence makes the tasks an altogether more monstrous responsibility.
Ron Mueck, title not known. I am struck that the largeness of the woman’s vanity needs dwarfs those who help her achieve it.
I would want my caretakers to NOT do anything about my appearance other than throw a track suit (a blingy one would be good!) onto me and keep my hair in a style that will need only the fluff of a towel after my shower to be done for the day! While the blingy tracksuit can wait, I decided to immediately start experimenting with fluff-of-a-towel haircuts: I took this picture to my longtime stylist, Todd Bertagnolli of Salon Zazou, and told him to chop away:
Although Todd did exactly what I asked and I loved the shortness, it did not work for my hair at all—my hair does not cooperate to form a buzz. Instead, some patches on the sides decided to lie flat, others to stick out haphazardly. Behind my right ear was a patch of hair so fine it looked like a bald spot. The top of my head formed into a wannabe mohawk, settling into a chevron of which the center kept trying to lift off. It did not feel like an acceptable self. After just a day, I implored Peter—who has been buzzing his own head for many years—to buzz mine too. He was terrified to touch my hair, afraid of the consequences if this cut, too, did not work for me. I promised him I would love my hair no matter what it looked like. (He already knows I would love him no matter what it looked like!) It is a testament to his trust of me that he believed me and started up the clipper.
As the cut progressed, we decided, on Peter’s suggestion, that he shouldn’t cut off the hair on the top of my head. This photo shows an interim stage—after showing me the back of my head, he cut upwards and sloped the hair length for about another inch.
I love the end result. I experienced a brobdingnanian sense of my Gerda-self and my Doña Quixote-self coming together in my outward appearance. My trimmed-down outward self seemed to mirror my inside self in a way that felt honest and humble. I felt biblically put-back-together: there was still love and goodness in my world despite the fact that it (I) had been downsized. I felt like Job, who, after his own and his children’s flocks and servants were stripped away by raids, a fire that fell from heaven, and massacre, 20 …stood up, tore his robe, shaved his head, and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return.” And it was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get feeling.
Choi Xooang, Listener, 2011. Hi Fructose: The New Contemporary Art Magazine says that the fine detail and often grotesque style of Seoul-born South Korean Choi’s hand-painted oil on resin, wood, and polymer clay sculptures is his method of displaying” life’s wounds and scars.” “I try to express the anxiety of the human being,” Choi says.” Removed of (unnecessary) embellishment- clothes, style, and trends- these figures stand as individuals. If one feels uncomfortable physically or mentally when viewing my work, I would say it worked.”
No sooner had I gone through this outer-and-inner melding experience when the corona virus hit. I admit to an initial sense of new loss after our family decided, almost two weeks ago now, that our three family units would not communicate with each other in person, but only through video conferencing and the occasional “drive-by” so Peter and I can talk to our grandkids from our car to their driveway, or drop off food or other little surprises. Very soon, though, my sense of “poor deprived Ouma” was totally overcome by 1), relief that Peter and I would in no way increase our offspring’s chances of picking up our corona-cooties, and, 2), pride in the way my children and their families were managing to continue their work from home (except for teacher Cheryl who went to her school to prepare lesson packets for her students and distribute food and computers to those who needed it), supervised the grandkids’ school work, and kept up the spirits of their families with exercise, games, and other forms of cheer.
My original thoughts for the post (which I have now adapted into this one) were stimulated by a trip with my bestie Shen to Utah State University in Logan where I was invited to speak about my memoir Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia in the literature class of English professor Jennifer Sinor. Jennifer is teaching a course focused on “Grief Writing,” a sub-genre of memoir that has become the object of study in the fields of literature and psychology. An important idea in memoirs of grief is “ambiguous loss,” or the kind of grief associated with situations “where there is grieving but no closure,” such as the unfinishable mourning that accompanies the disappearance of an airplane off the radar and the resulting presumed death of passengers that are never found; soldiers missing in action; a child abducted; and also people affected by mental illness—dementia for example—where people “incrementally disappear” (Krista Tippet’s On Being interview with Pauline Boss on ambiguous grief, “The Myth of Closure“)
I met Jennifer Sinor (left, above), author of Ordinary Trauma (in 2018 at Sam Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City when we were both finalists in 15 Bytes’ book award in creative non-fiction. Between us in the photo is University of Utah Biology alum Brooke Williams, who won the award for OPEN MIDNIGHT: WHERE ANCESTORS & WILDERNESS MEET (Trinity University Press).
In hindsight, the materials about ambiguous loss that I read for my visit are eminently applicable to the huge, but (I hope) temporary loss of jobs and companionship and the simultaneous knowledge that the loss of people we love would be greater than that of our “freedom.” Also, while I and my family are privileged to still have jobs and an income (though Peter and I see our shrinking daily on the stock and bond market!), in our circle of friends and acquaintances–and in our wider apartment community in Wilmington Flats—people have lost jobs and many young people have moved out of our block. My heart and thoughts are with them, and those of you who are experiencing a much larger shrinkage of options that I ever have.
A passage from one of Jennifer’s class readings, Mark Doty’s memoir, Heaven’s Coast, about his partner Wally’s death of AIDS, spoke to me about the grace and luminosity that can still attend even the darkest times. Doty describes his visit, after Wally’s death, to the first other person he would see “really sick” with AIDS after his lover. Upon walking into Bill’s hospital room, Doty’s apprehension changes to relief and appreciation. “Not because he looks well—always a boyish man, he has become a large child, extremely thin, his head shaved, his lesions darkened against his pale skin, his eyes enormous—but because he is what people are, sometimes, very late in their lives: so fully himself, himself all the way to the edges….Bill is beautiful to me..in the way that all things which are absolutely authentic are beautiful. Is there a luminous threshold where the self becomes irreducible, stripped to the point where all that’s left to see is pure soul? Here, in unfailing self-ness, is no room or energy for anything inessential, for anything less than what counts.”
Sam Jinks’s hyper-realistic pieta rings with unexpected sublimity in our days of corona virus: how wondrous that, in the normal course of our contemporary lives, those who want to can be with the old and sick when they die, hold their hands, hug them, lie next to them. In coronavirus times, so many people are deprived of that option and people die alone or, if they’re lucky, with kind medical strangers. The title of Jinks’s work, Holding the Dead, reflects the magnitude of what our society has lost in this respect. (Jinks is known as the “shrinking artist,” since he works to a scale that is slightly smaller than life. But his insight that being with the dead is a privilege swells my heart. )
My wish, for you, my reader friends, is that even in these complicated times you will still live in the holiness of your hearts’ affections (Keats) and in expectation of a better future for yourself and all of those you love.
Cheryl Saunders, guest post about coronavirus: “We cannot control the world, but we can control where we put our focus”
Featured image: Australian Aboriginal artist Helen Milroy’s The Dance of Life (2006) reflects a multi-dimensional model of health and wellbeing from an Aboriginal perspective. All other art in this post is by Milroy.
My beloved daughter-in-law Cheryl Saunders wrote the letter below to our family and friends in this time of coronavirus caution and, alas, panic. I was so struck by her wisdom, smarts, and practical advice, that I asked her if I could post it here and she said yes.
Cheryl and her family: my son Newton, granddaughter Aliya (almost 10), Kanye (12), and Cheryl
Cheryl is a Certified Health Education Specialist and has a bachelor’s degree from Weber State University, Utah, in Nutrition Education, Health Promotion, and Children and Family Studies. She is a certified ACE Fitness Instructor and Weight Management Specialist. Additionally, she has a Level-One APT Health Education Teaching License for middle and high school. She loves working with kids and currently works as a PE Teacher at a K-8th grade public school in Salt Lake City. She is certified in first aid, CPR, and food safety. In the summer—and depending on the situation with the coronavirus by then—Cheryl will be teaching healthy cooking classes for kids.
Here is Cheryl’s letter:
Hi Friends and Family,
I believe that the next couple of weeks are going to be very challenging and stressful for many of us. My family, like so many others, are cancelling vacations. We are trying to navigate through a series of new challenges all while coping with the stresses of doubt, fear, and confusion for the future.
Earlier today I was scanning my Pinterest feed and came across a quote that said “We cannot control the world around us, but we can control where we look and put our focus.” It made me stop and remember that even though we are in a time of uncertainty and stress, we shouldn’t forget to take care of our mental and physical health. My little family and I have put together some schedules and activities to make sure that we are focusing on caring for our mental and physical health. I thought I would share some of our ideas in case they are useful to any of you.
Australian Aboriginal artist Helen Milroy’s Living Life depicts the individual within our psychological landscape and acknowledges the rich two-way connections you make throughout life from every direction possible. Your inner core is supported and protected by collective layers of experience, knowledge, and wisdom and yet the individual is able to perceive for itself the external world and be autonomous in their decisions. The psychological struggles within are comforted by a collective consciousness, a cushion on which to rest.
Scheduling Time Each Day to Disconnect
My family does not want to the stress of the outside world take over our joy and well-being. Every day, we are blocking time for when we can check for updates and changes, but we are also turning off devices so we can be mindful and enjoy moments together as a family.
Community Strong Together depicts the social landscape from the Aboriginal perspective, with the family tree at the center: its many rings represent he presence of past generations. The contemporary family stands on the outer ring, linked together with their children and providing for them a place on which to stand.
Creating a Daily Schedule / Routine
We are creating a daily schedule so we can make sure that we are filling our time at home with the things we want to do over this downtime.
- Exercise – My family is going to make sure that we exercise every day. We plan on going for walks, runs, bike rides, hiking, playing Wii games, and doing online exercise videos (youtube, Fiton phone app).
- Personal / Self Care – We are scheduling time every day for personal alone time and self care. Some activities that my family enjoys are reading, writing in our journals, baking, meditation, manicures, pedicures, art, legos, puzzles, and card games.
- Family Time – As a family, we have board games, outside exercise time, family meals, playing outside games like bocci, ladder ball, cornhole, paddle ball, soccer, volleyball, etc
- Productivity / Work / School – My kids will have approximately 5 hours of school work every day. We are blocking out that time so we know it is dedicated to work only communications.
The Tree of Life depicts the Aboriginal spiritual landscape: it connects the inner core of the earth to the outer dimensions of the universe. In this realm, life and death center on the richness and intricacies of all of creation of which we form only a very small but essential and irreplaceable part in a never ending cycle.
- Mental Health – Making sure we are disconnected from the news and social media. We are working on meditation, stretching, writing in our journals, and spending time outside.
- Housework / Projects – We have decided to spend some time catching up on house projects that we have put off because of time restraints. We spent some time doing a deep clean in our home, but are not going to obsessively clean our space. We have decided that once a deep clean is done that we only need to do our regular cleaning cycle.
Healing, Ceremony and Law illustrates the cultural dimension of health. The life force flowing among the figures indicate the dynamic nature of culture. The campfire at the bottom center symbolizes the ritual incineration of our burdens so that smoke disperses them into universe.
I surely hope that all of you are safe and well. Hopefully, you will also take some time disconnect and take care of your health. If we can do anything for anyone, please let us know.
Cheryl Saunders, CHES ®
As ideas for this post churned in my mind, I gathered some objects I have cherished as memorabilia throughout my life—we brought them along in the ships’ container when we emigrated—and took a photo of them: serving as the display surface is the riempies chair, (one of the eight around the table our family used in my childhood, starting at the time we lived on our South African family farm), that used to have a cane rattan seat, pecked to smithereens by our free-roaming cockatiels in Supernal Way, so that Peter had to replace it with rawhide thongs when we lived on Roberta Street. On the refurbished seat, the dusk-blue angora shawl my mother knitted and wore and passed on to me when I was in high school, now gone prickly with too many washes and pocked with holes, provides a scrim for the small pom-pom of rabbit fluff that, as a pre-teen, I picked off a barbed wire fence on our farm where I grew up; the wanna-be spherical rock from a salt pan in the Kalahari where my grandparents lived; and clip earrings, a gift from my first university roommate, Elise, that defined the color “teal” for me before it became a fashion meme.
Now that I can’t find even supposedly clearly visible portable possessions—my full-length coat or my tulip jeans even though they’re hanging in my closet; or my radio or handbag set out on the table by the front door so I can remember them when I go out; never mind my phone or glasses—I think it is just as well that on a daily recurring basis, my nostalgia is mostly evoked these days by what philosophers refer to as “medium-sized dry goods” (J.L. Austin), namely pieces of furniture that I cannot move around by myself, so that they stay put in the spaces we assigned them after moving into Wilmington Flats from Roberta Street two years ago. For example, a piece that particularly zings with memories is our La-Z-Boy/Girl/ Enby° two-seater—pictured below as the “dry good” by the window of our living room in Roberta, where we lived from 2006-2017. (°Enby, short for non-binary (NB), the umbrella term covering all gender identities and expressions outside the gender binary.)
Our two-seater is not just a couch—it is the backdrop of
- my student parties at home during my years in Gender Studies
- family—beloved sister-in-law June, niece Robyn, my brother Carel, nephew Reuben from South Africa
- godchildren—Oscar and Wilhelmina, reading with grandson Kanye; Eli and Lucy staying with us while their parents Susan and David, whose wedding ceremony I performed, celebrate their anniversary
- grandparenthood—below, clockwise across 6 photos, 1) Mama Cheryl, Ouma Gerda, newborn Kanye, 2007; 2) Aliya one year old, already taking on the sisterly labor of annoying her big brother Kanye, 2011; 3) Dante, just over a year old, gives Ouma the extreme pleasure of having a grandchild fall asleep on her lap (2014); 4) Aliya five, reading to Dante, two; 5) Marissa with Dante on her lap on the couch, the KCANs—Cheryl, Aliya, Kanye, and Newton—performing a Thanksgiving play they had written, and grammie Sandi, Adam’s mom; 6) Ouma with very sick grandpuppy, Callisto, whom Marissa nursed through kennel cough during the first two weeks after his adoption.
Shortly before we moved into Wilmington, we decided that our La-Z-Enby needed a refurbishing job. There was a time in our younger days when Peter and I considered reupholstery to be a cottage craft entirely within the capability of our family: I could sew and Peter and his carpenter father were adept at woodworking. Accordingly, when we got a flat in Queenswood, Pretoria, for after were married and acquired our first joint piece of furniture, we took on the fixing up of the couch of my childhood as a family project, attempting to reverse the damage of six Steenekamp siblings taking a running leap, planting head and hands on the seat, and using your momentum to thrust your legs to headstand position. Not surprisingly, the springs and cushions were shot. The frame, however, was salvageable, despite a deep burned-out hollow on the underside of one of the wooden armrests. Below, I explain how this happened on an image Peter cobbled together from the parts of various photos into a near-facsimile of our old couch’s side:
The piece of wood on the level of the seat cushion beneath the arm rest was a shelf for resting one’s cup-and-saucer on. On the farm, it was also useful to balance a candle on for some after-dark reading. (We used paraffin lamps and candles and got electricity only when I was already away from home at high school). If you put a shortish candle on the shelf, it was just distant enough from the arm above it to not set it on fire but close enough to turn the spot right above the flame into fine, concentric circles of charcoal, each night’s worth the width of a xylem layer or two, which dropped black flakes into one’s coffee over the years without detracting from the structure’s utility.
Peter and his dad restored the woodwork and frame. (While they could have patched the burn-hole with filler, I would not hear about it—it was history!) Making new history, I bought foam rubber blocks and a roll of black tweed-like fabric to replace the old seat and back-rest cushions, the springiness of the foam blocks obviating the need for actual metal springs as in the old ones. Unfortunately we do not have a photo of the refinished couch in our flat, but below is one of it after we moved into our first house in Kempton Park three years into our marriage: Peter stands next to me, and his mom Raaitjie and dad Dudley sit on the Morris chairs from Peter’s childhood that they passed on to us. I made new seat cushions for them too. I bought the carpet in downtown Pretoria, where there were still many Indian shops selling household goods at the time. I built the color scheme for the room from the carpet—with seventies-style pops of orange for color contrast!
Of course repairing a double recliner was a far more complex job than fixing our first couch. Professional help would have to be sought. Before setting out on such a quest, though, Peter and I checked out the furniture stores for a possible replacement. This idea was speedily dispatched when we could not find anything comparable to ours that would fit the space and come without beer-can holders.
In the absence of familial personnel to fix Enby, we set out in search of an upholsterer. One of the two establishments in our general neighborhood dissuaded us from fixing it—without having seen it, they said that the ten-year-old recliner mechanism would not outlast the new cover. That auspiciously led us to the remaining possibility, Zion Furniture and Upholstery, a family business that has been in existence one way or another since the 1930s.
The upholstery business at 760 S 300 W, Salt Lake City, was started by Barney Barnhill in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Around 1937-8, it was bought by Al Starks, whose family still owns it. It is now known as Zion Furniture and Upholstery. See great reviews here.
Joe Starks Sr (above), the current owner of Zion Furniture and Upholstery, started in the manufacturing world as a four-year-old, so to speak: he would occasionally go into work with his father, a fabric cutter at a furniture manufacturer. He remembers building forts out of tables and chairs awaiting repair. After his father completed his work and tidied his work space, Joe would be allowed to run up and down the 50 foot long cutting tables. His family and coworkers who knew him from then joke that he was “spitting tack” before he could walk! During his teenage years, he helped out at his uncle Al Starks’s upholstery shop, Zion Furniture, doing odd jobs and learning the skills of the trade, including leather upholstery. Eventually he headed up product development, which meant that he did not only repair old pieces, but also designed custom pieces and, eventually, developed products for mass production. After thirty years of making his own way in the furniture business in this way, Joe returned to his roots, acquiring Zion Furniture and Upholstery about 15 years ago when his uncle Al died.
While managing Zion Upholstery since the early 2000s, Uncle Al also partnered with a store in Kaysville, American Home Furnishing, that belonged to Dave Stroh (above). Al’s workshop made furniture that Dave would sell in his store. When Al died and Joe took over Zion, he asked Dave to come in as a partner. Dave closed the Kaysville business and has been sharing the day-to-day management of Zion ever since.
Continuing the family tradition, two of Al Starks’s relatives other than Joe are also part of todays team. Above left: granddaughter Megan Davie says, “I grew up with upholstery as just a normal part of my life.” Right: current owner Joe’s son, Joe Jr—original owner Al’s great-nephew—is following in his father’s and great-uncle’s business footsteps. Joe stands behind a couch on which he is working, indicating a wire grid that he’d built to strengthen the original springs.
Joe Jr (above) ruefully remarks that upholstery and refinishing are “dying crafts.” His two young sons—the older one recently graduated from high school and the younger still in school—have plans for their future other than the family business. However, with the wisdom that parenthood brings, he says resignedly, “You ultimately want your kids to find their own passion in life.”When we first got in touch with Zion Upholstery about refurbishing Enby, they said to bring it in so they could check out the mechanism. It was in amazing shape, they said. I picked a fabric that turned out to be hard to find, but they went on a search and came up with enough material to do the job. Soon our couch was back home, enabling family traditions of togetherness to resume against new scenery.
Left: Oupa and Dante in Roberta Street, right: Adam and Dante in Wilmington Flats
Soon after we moved into Wilmington, we acquired a long, lightweight, small-structured Ikea four-seater couch to supplement our living room conversation space. Together with La-Z-Enby, it formed an L-shaped space. At last we had a defined area again in which the whole family could gather for celebrations.
Mother’s day 2019. Foreground: Marissa and Gerda with backs to the camera on the Ikea couch. Middle: Dante seated, Aliya standing. Back: Newton seated, Kanye standing, Sandi (Adam’s mom) on the chair I rescued from my Gender Studies office when it was discarded during a remodeling in which it was replaced by a leather-strap chair that looked like an SM prop.
Even though our new couch functioned well for its purpose, its greyness amid the vibrant colors of the other living room furnishings started to work on this my equally small and grey dementia-mind that is now not only amused, but also annoyed, by small things.
I alternately tried out various colorful throws and strips of fabric on it (the yellow geometric one above is mudcloth I bought at a market in South Africa two houses ago) to make it blend with the other colors around it. While I loved the draped look, it was completely impractical: in no time, my cumbersome arrangements were squished into creased bunches that pressed bumpily into the seated person’s back and bottom. The only remedy, I realized, would be a cover that remained put. With contorted notions of my past upholstery successes, I briefly contemplated making a slipcover myself. Which only goes to prove how shrunken my brain had become—I did not even own a sewing machine any more! So off to Zion Upholstery we went again.
Joe Jr and Dave Stroh carry in our Ikea couch. The fabric I chose on the Internet is hanging on the backrest.
This time, a member of the Zion team we hadn’t met before would be crucial to our project: Julie Sawyer, the seamstress (above).
Having worked at Zion’s for all of 40 years, Julie Sawyer is the company’s longest continuous employee— she started there when Al Starks still ran the business and before Joe Sr took it over. Her status in the company was highlighted when we asked about having a slipcover made: “Julie hates slip-covers,” Dave warily told us. “But I’ll see if she’ll do yours if I ask her nicely.” Whatever forms of persuasion Dave used, Julie graciously accepted our project. Afterwards when we spoke to her, she explained why she detests slipcovers: “The never fit properly in real life,” Julie said, “no matter how carefully I measure them. And the customer ends up unhappy.” Fortunately we were able to let her know we were very happy: our cover fits perfectly. Like all of its kin, it will move during use—but it’s still so much easier to pull straight than the camouflage I had used before!
With Zion’s two refurbishments now in place, “home,” in the words of John Berger, “is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived” (And Our Faces, My Hearth, as Brief as Photos).
Left: Since Aliya was sick on Peter’s birthday last weekend and Cheryl stayed home with her, Kanye and Newton (red shirts) present Cheryl’s and Newton’s gifts under the rubric “Brain Food”: a packet of puzzles and, in the paperbag, a delicious, still-warm whole-grain home-made loaf of bread! Middle: Peter, in the chair from my office that I recently painted (with lots of help from Peter), opens his gift from Kanye: meticulously folded Origami art. Right: Kanye on the newly slipcovered couch, listening to MAD’s (Marissa, Adam, Dante) performance of their birthday gift, a praise-song for Peter—with lots of props .