Among the gifts and challenges – the two so often are intertwined – of living in a family like ours is that you experience things you otherwise never would have imagined. Take having a year being stuck inside your house, a year of lockdown that we all have just survived – you likely couldn’t even fathom what it would be like to be with someone so bored, frustrated and impulsive that there would be virtually nothing intact on any walls or shelves: that art work and decorative items like vases and candlesticks and most of all family photos would all be tucked away in some safe space because your family member would systematically or not (the process being more chaos than order) dissemble everything within reach. I used to call him my little deconstructivist, but he’s not so little anymore, and the bigger he gets the more destructive he is, not by intention but by his sheer size and strength.
And so rather than have him take apart every frame and take out and ultimately damage every vintage photo (copies of, not originals; I wouldn’t dare have originals within his possible grasp) they’ve gone into storage, a few boxes full of stuff and one large magnificent Buddha tapestry that used to take up an entire wall and now resides, all six feet of it, behind the breakfront on which the photos used to dwell. It was taken down years ago when V used to jump on the sofa under which it was hung; weighing more than he did at the time it was removed as a matter of safety. Like much of my favorite art and artifacts it remains hidden from view.
I often refer to my home, to myself at least, as the Silberling Museum because I seem to have at least one piece of furniture from every member of that large side of my clan. Yet the fact is I have objects from all parts of my family and some from friends as well. I no longer recall the original owner of many of the items: did the glass table belong to Aunt Annie? What about the extra dresser upstairs? Who had this table at which I sit or the small ones in the living room? While for others there is no doubt: The rocking chair with the plaque attached given to Aunt Dina on her retirement from NYU Hospital, the avocado green piece of furniture that anchors our dining room belonged to Aunt Sau and Uncle Mike; the painting that matches that green perfectly which was painted by my friend Florence and given as a housewarming gift and that somehow V tolerates despite its striking presence in the room; the hidden tapestry a generous present from my Aunt Ruth from when I moved into my first New York apartment.
The Silberling Museum, like its living inhabitants, is worse for wear this past year, and needs a sign that says closed for renovations, or enter at your own risk – some explanation for its current state. I’ve seen street signs that say “Child with Autism”; we could use one inside, to elucidate that the museum curator has been occupied to an unprecedented degree by that now grown child. Is it any surprise that the internship at which V thrives is Green Vision, a program in which young people with special needs dissemble computers, printers, etc. so that their parts can be recycled?
I spent the better (or worse, depending on how you look at it) part of a day this week tidying the museum for a rare visitor, a young man who was recommended by someone at Friendship Circle, about possibly spending some time with V on Sundays when we need help. We have home therapists who come a few times a week but other than that no one has been inside for quite some time and I was self-conscious at the state of things. Not that he needed an explanation, especially given that we’d be hiring him to be with V, but I am discomfited at how much his idiosyncrasies are felt throughout the house, that there should be a disclaimer of sorts, “The museum is occasionally open to the public but many of its holdings are currently in storage. Those that are on view are likely in some state of disrepair.”
I’m reminded of when we moved from Brooklyn and were advised – as home sellers often are – to remove everything that showed a sign of who lived there, from photos to toys to shelves of books, so that the potential buyer could see themselves in the space. This was at a time when people were just starting to “stage” their homes and my downstairs neighbor, also selling her place, invited me in to see what the realtors had done through one of these nascent stagings. We laughed at how we both had apartments with two young active boys, yet on the market they belied a sense of serenity and minimalism that had little to do with our real family life. The fact is I liked to see a sense of who lived in a place when I toured houses. Although he wrote it of New York City, it reminded me of that phrase from a Frank O’Hara poem, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” I wanted to see those signs, to feel that lack of regret, to sense the messiness of lives being lived fully inside four walls. But alas, realtors are not poets and they still insist we rid our homes of any sense of who we are. (And for my neighbor those family photos featured the loving father better known now as Congressman Jeffries, the Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, so there’s much of interest that’s missed when we all go in hiding : )
And so, inspired by that streamlining process, I pull the photos out of storage. What if I reverse-staged my home, just for me? What if I opened the museum for limited hours, say 10am -3pm four days a week, what if it felt homey when the deconstructivist went to school, just to feel a glimmer of what we once had, what we hopefully will have again? And so I take out a few of the pictures and place them on the shelves. I sit and write and glance up first at Flo’s painting and then at my photos, I write these words surrounded by my ancestors, their furnishings as well as their faces. The museum is opened temporarily for my solitary pleasure.