An art mystery, a heart’s history

Well, friends, it’s our first February of Covid – more than 11 months since our initial shutdown here in San Francisco. Of course, this is the month of Valentine’s candy and cards, so I wanted to share some discoveries about love echoing in faded words and forgotten names. But this is not your Hallmark card valentine – so it will take a while to get to the heart of our tale; over a century, in fact.  In “real time”, not “reading time”!  Come to think of it, it has taken me 20 years to write these words.

Aunt Monie was the crazy relative.  Of course, that’s probably what some of my family say about me – they have a point.  But Aunt Monie – technically my great aunt, being my paternal grandmothers younger sister – she did it with gusto.  The youngest of 3 surviving sisters, born in Nogales, Arizona in 1902, where her father worked with Santa Fe.  Not long after, the Grey family moved to Needles, California and her oldest sister Dora was one of the famous “Harvey Girls” there.   

Crazy Aunt Monie as I remember her, under her portrait

Monie was the only one of the 3 sisters that I have actual memories of – my grandmother Bela, the middle sister, passed when I was quite young, and there are fragments of moments, feelings really, that remain – probably inspired by the handful of photos.  But Monie lived into my young adulthood – showing up occasionally, sometimes without notice, and always full of life.  Perhaps a bit like “Auntie Mame” but only popping into my life every 5 years or so. 

She was a personal care nurse, and a single mother – having married 3 times – and from what everyone says, being very comfortable in intimate relationships (short term and long) well into her 70s.  At one point in her life, she operated a kind of roadhouse/bar in the Fortana/Rialto area of Southern California’s “Inland Empire” with an illegal “one armed bandit” slot machine in the back room.  And yes, she loved to drink! 

Monie and her second husband had a son – Bill – who I saw rarely.  I knew from comments my Dad and stepmother made that he was different- not realizing what that meant, as a teen in the 70’s – Bill was a homosexual (this was before “gay” was in common use, and the other words were far less polite).  I just knew that everything was a little different on those few occasions we visited – and, in time, both Monie and Bill moved to Hawaii, so I didn’t see them for several years. 

Bill Rennie as a child in California

Then, shortly after I graduated college and began my professional career, I was selected for an assignment in Hawaii.  I had actually never flown in a plane until I got out of college.  My assignment was on Maui, so I spent a few days ahead in Oahu – my only visit there, now nearly 40 years ago.  As it turned out, that remains my most vivid memory of our visits before her passing at age 93.  Monie drove me around, meeting a friend who was well known in the indigenous people community and famous for her ukulele singing, but her son Bill was not there – and I was a bit relieved.  By this time I knew he was “gay” – and so was I – but there was nothing I wanted to do with him, or that part of myself. 

Of course, as I have shared in other posts, life had a plan other than the one I sought to cling to – and in the process of exploring my family history, I learned Bill, “Cousin Bill” as my Dad called him, had actually moved to Palm Springs from Hawaii.  Anxious to quiz him about some of the family lore, I convinced my stepmother to drive out to see him – more than 30 years after my last encounter with him as a teen.  Over the 4-5 years since that visit, I learned a lot about him and my family – and in time, I became involved in his care. Sadly, my father, bitter from disappointing memories of encounters with his aunt and cousin over the years, refused my request to bring Bill to visit for Thanksgiving 2005. He pass in October 2006, preceded that year by my mother and stepmother, and followed the following year by my father.  It was a time of loss and learning, slowly, to journey through grief. 

As I dealt with Bill’s estate and personal effects, being greatly helped by his neighbors Jim and Niles who cared so lovingly for his needs in his last years, there were many possessions in his ramshackle mobile home and storage unit.  He had lived a flamboyant life, and was for many years a very sought after hairdresser, in California and Hawaii – even taking care of Betty Ford’s styling when she and the President would visit Honolulu.  One painting he had always told me had been a gift to his mother, Monie – an oil painting, of what he said was the old harbor there before the hotels starting getting tall.  In fact, supposedly this was the very site of the hotel made famous in the TV credits for “Hawaii Five O” where the camera zoomed in on Jack Lord weekly to that famous theme music. 

You can see the hotel, and the yacht club, in this famous TV opening.

Bill, and Monie before him, had a reputation with my Dad and family of … exaggerating, to be polite.  Dad called her Phony Aunt Monie! So it didn’t entirely surprise me when I looked into the history of that hotel – the Illikai – opened in 1964. Back then, it was the first “high rise” hotel in Honolulu –  Which wouldn’t really be relevant, except – he had said this was the boat harbor, before the skyline was altered by construction.  and as near as I can determine this would have been the Ala Wai yacht harbor, also the site of the Waikiki yacht club.  But ….. the mystery arises from inscription on the back of this painting.  

It’s faded, understandably – partly in English, partly in French.  On one side, the words are printed “The Yatch (sp) Club”, Honolulu, September 60 and the artists name – seemingly, Giordani.  The style of signature matches that on the lower left of the oil painting itself, but for years I had been unable to find any reference to an artist by that name.  On the left reverse of the frame, in French – “A ma tres cheri ami Mona, en hommage et sincere amitie j’ai de tout coeur”.   Now my junior high spanish was 50 years ago, but with slight uncertainties about the handwriting, that basically says – To my dear friend Mona, in homage to the singer friendship I carry in my heart”.   Signed, seemingly, as on the front – Giordany? Or … Giordani;  and dated May 19th, 1965, Honolulu Hawaii.   

Or is it September 66?  Hard to say, but by then, the artist would have to be painting from memory if in fact this was near the site of that famous Jack Lord hotel shot seen for many years.  The Yacht club still exists – but is not in proximity to the hotel – and so, it would seem, the story about this being the the “site” of that hotel before construction is, like perhaps many of Bill’s stories … exaggerated.  

Still it is, I think, a lovely painting – of a time gone by – and I had always been curious about the identity of the artist.  Not being a student of art personally, I cannot say that it is particularly remarkable, although certainly well beyond anything I could ever produce.  And having seen episodes of Antiques Roadshow where seemingly common items turn out to be worth untold amounts of riches, well, one has dreams.  But I could never be sure of the spelling of the name – not knowing if it was a first, last, or other kind of signature.  My google searches turned up nothing;  when I recently took it to get reframed, as it is, other than photos and letters, the last piece of the legacy of Monie and Bill that I have – I decided to try again to see if, somehow, this work of art was by a well known artist. 

But my initial 2021 web searches did not turn up any results that seemed to match any artist working in Hawaii in that era;  and there were many names with life spans that did not correlate.  That is, until I decided to search images and … eureka.  A photo of a painting by an Aldo Giordani, with the same unmistakeable signature and similar style.  Was he famous? Was I going to be rich?  How to find out more?  I realized my subscription to Newspapers.com might shed some light, having used it to find out some amazing, sometimes shocking, stories about family events – and, indeed, there were some articles that finally gave me some insight into the artist behind the painting. 

Aldo was born in 1914, from a family of generations of artists, including his father, Italo Giordani.  According to one article from the Austin Texas American Statesman in 1974, he studied at the Eclose des Beaux Arts in Paris, working in both oil and sculpture.  He traveled extensively, and according to that same article (pictured – screen shot) he was captured by French forces while serving in the Italian military in Algeria – and served 3 years in prison.  From there, somehow, he made his way to Polynesia; then to Hawaii;  from there, at some point after his dedication to Monie,  to Canada, Mexico, Montana, and Texas.  A 1972 Billings Montana article quotes him as saying, explaining that he never married – “I can’t deny I’m attracted by women.  But I look for something besides the physical, the sex. I look in a woman’s face, her eyes.  That tells much. Women are very emotional”.   Ah, Italians.  Apparently, he also loved to cook, and hosted parties and receptions with international cuisine from his many travels.   But after the several articles from all these locations, Aldo seems to have, like so many, trailed off in time.  I found a reference to him passing in 1980, and another to a lawsuit in Taos for unknown cause, as well as a notice to auction off an unpaid storage unit in Hawaii.  

1972 article about another Giordani artwork – I wonder if it still is on display?

So, like Monie, and to a degree Bill, Aldo was a bit of a gypsy, a bit of a showman, and perhaps a scoundrel – a colorful man with colorful art, who enjoyed life.  What their story was together, is lost.  You may well ask why I would put time into researching something so seemingly obscure and meaningless, but as I have written in the past – there is something about these moments in time, these artifacts of mostly forgotten lives, that speaks to something more timeless.  Love, intimacy, yearning;  hope, inspiration and the quiet corners of our hearts that we sometimes turn off the lights and shut the doors to, forgetting they existed.  Monie touched many lives with her caring for patients, Bill with his lovers, friends, and styling conquests, Aldo and his apparently profuse creations of art, now probably mostly gone.  I cannot hear the ocean when I see this painting, but I remember Monie and Bill, as do my brothers – and probably few, if any, others.  But I feel the colors, of the caked oil strokes, and of their energy, their laughter and their love.  

Bill was always gracious, loving – and mostly, outrageous. He was, himself.

Whether we all pass into something once we leave this earth, the reality is, most of us, our lives and our longings – will fade and be forgotten.  Walk through any old cemetery and reflect on the struggles and triumphs of all those lives, now for the ages, and the immediacy of our seemingly insurmountable crises will possibly feel a little less weighty.  I am glad I have this painting and hope one of my nieces or nephews will one day ask me about it, and when the time comes, hang in in their home.  Like many who will pass without children, I wonder what they will remember of me.  For you, dear readers – if any – think about, in this digital age when so many pictures and films, thoughts and hopes, songs and tears have no long term physical existence – what pieces of your life will survive your time on this earth?  And, answering that question – what can each of us do with the days ahead, whose number is unknown, whose opportunities to feel the sun and the ocean breeze, or the touch of a loved ones hand, will not always be ours to treasure anew, only to remember. 

Mahalo, Aldo Giordani; Aloha, Monie and Bill – until we meet again. I treasure your love, and am reminded the love we receive is mean not to hold within our hearts forever, but to give anew.

Thanks for visiting, friends. You all stay safe, and keep on keeping on.

Root removal and garden renewal

If you were to look at my facebook feed, or visit any of my homes over the years, starting with my childhood in Southern California reaching now to the chillier climes of the San Francisco bay – you would discover that I always worked to transform whatever spot of soil I tended into something a little more green, a bit more colorful. To create a little spot of refuge that would bring joy, peace, and a sense that here, nature is welcome, and appreciated. I find being in a quiet garden a spiritual experience; digging my fingers into the soil, planting something alive and nurturing it hopefully into bloom, giving the birds and bees a place to feel welcome; it gently reminds me I am a part of something larger, and yet I can still accept that, like all things, my creation is only temporary.

In our SF home – where I have lived a little more than 3 years, but my husband has been for more than a quarter century – over the years, occasionally some trees have become too large, and they were removed.  When I first moved here, the small strip of soil immediately adjacent to the front of the house had 4 large olive trees so overgrown I did not even know there was cement under them;  climbing a ladder to try to trim them from reaching to block out the front windows on the main floor was a joint effort.   Eventually, we decided to have them removed – but, as was the practice in earlier such attempts, the gardener engaged simply cut them back, and cut them down to the ground, where the stumps remained.

In another small spot, immediately by the first few of 30 steps leading from the street to our front porch, a much older stump protrudes from the small rectangle where my efforts to get other plants to prosper have been futile.  In fact, my planting of climbing roses where the olive trees had been failed so miserably I had to remove them, as well – they, of course, left no residue behind.  Soon, I will begin to search for a resource here who will, hopefully at a somewhat reasonable price for this expensive city, come and grind the stumps down, at least far enough to free up some space for new growth. While those roots, lifeless as they may be, remain – new growth will still struggle to make it their own.

I remember as a child of perhaps 6 going with my older brother to the city park in our little town of Corona, California more than 55 years ago, and picking up an acorn from the great oak trees there – I am sure, now, it looks very different but hope some of those trees still stand.  I planted it in our little back yard of that simple 60’s tract home … and it grew, slowly, at first just a little few branches.  I grew, also … into high school, and college, and my first job, moving away. In that 20 years and more, the seedling became a mighty tree, so large it created problems with power lines and neighbors, and had to be removed.  In the years after my mother aged, and became unable to be at home alone, I returned; as she spent her final years in a nursing home, I began the process of renewing  that home, where she, as a disabled parent, raised us with limited income and was unable to keep things in repair.  It gave me a sense of wholeness to create a garden, and to bring new life and comfort to the house itself, so that someone who would follow would be happy to call it their own.

The oak sleeps in the acorn, the bird waits in the egg, and in the highest vision of the soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities … James Allen

Regretfully, roots take a great deal of effort to truly remove – particularly if they are dead, and run deep.  Sometimes, as with our olive trees, shoots emerge from the roots, life struggling to survive, the cells programmed to reproduce and reach for the sun. Cutting off that which was seen resolved the visual issue … but left stumps and roots that I cannot, on my own, remove.   As I have spent time the past few weeks of the new year, trying to use a saw to cut through that deadwood, trying to dig somehow into roots that run at least 15 feet below where the plant emerged from the surface, down below the stone foundation of our home that withstood the 1906 earthquake – I am defeated.  But nothing new can truly thrive there – the opportunity for beauty to bloom anew cannot be fulfilled while those stumps, those roots, dead as they be, take up the limited space that new life needs to come forth.

The same is, of course, true of our hearts.  My heart.  There are still deep roots, as I am reminded constantly by my struggle to channel my emotions positively, to heal the deeper gashes in my soul from the trees that no one can see but which were planted in my spirit from the earliest years of life.   We all have gardens in our hearts; I have always loved the symbolism of “The Secret Garden” children’s story, but also – Oscar Wilde’s “The selfish giant”.  In the first story, a young orphan taken in by a distant relative discovers a walled garden shut off for years, where, by entering and letting in light, love grows within that new family to replace the pain that they had tried to shut out behind locked gates and overgrown shrubs.  In “The selfish giant”,  the title figure returned from visiting his ogre friend to find the local children had been playing in his garden; he angrily shuts it off, walling it away from the.  One day, he finds a young boy visiting there, and his heart begins to open, until … the events of the story are best left for you to discover, it is freely available online.

In my postings of 2020, my first year of writing here, I shared about some of the events of my life, very personal events, writing even of things I had not told to many of my closest friends and family.  I titled the blog “my journey towards authenticity” – because that journey is really only begun.  Discovering who we are – especially when, for whatever reason, we have been somehow denied that opportunity, afraid to accept ourselves, and traded the seeming approval of others for embracing what cries out in our own spirits – it is a process that takes a lifetime, much like a great oak takes decades to grow from that tiny acorn I held in my hand as a child.  My shortcomings and foibles constantly remind me there are roots running deep in me still that I have not yet removed – or time, perhaps, has not yet wrought its power to dissolve sufficiently to erase their presence.  I recognize they may always be with me – but in acknowledging they linger, present but unseen, I can at least embrace honesty.  As Pinocchio repeatedly proved, one cannot become real without honesty.

In the past two weeks, I have been graced with the opportunity to join an online book discussion with strangers.  They are all men;  they are all people who, for whatever reason, learned in the course of their lives that, like me, they were different – they had feelings others did not share, and in many cases that they were taught to deny, or fight, or erase.  And, like me perhaps, some erased their own ability to grow, to become the great trees they were born to be in spirit – denying those around them the shade of their caring in times of heat, or the song of birds nesting in the branches above.

Perhaps, like these roots in our garden I cannot dig out without help, we each need help from others to uncover those deeply buried residues in our hearts – they block the ground of our spirit from new life, and perhaps even sprout up in new ways, refusing to be buried forever.  Today, I shared with the group, as we discussed how the factors in our own, unique histories and lives and backgrounds had common threads, that I was learning – slowly, painfully, and unfortunately often at cost to those in my life who loved me, some now gone – only by coming to continue to grow into accepting myself as I am, like you – flawed, imperfect, selfish at times, discouraged and afraid at others – only by believing that others can in fact love us, as we are NOW, can we begin to be the channel for a greater love through us to those around us.   

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

So, another year has begun, and the first month nearly over – change is happening around us. Soon, here in the northern hemisphere, it will be spring … new life will start to emerge from the seeds. Daily, we plant seeds in our hearts, from what we read, what we hear from others, what we listen for in the quiet of the night when the wind and darkness wakes us and the distractions that keep us occupied during the day are not as present in our consciousness. And daily, over the years, we reap the fruit of what we planted before. I am working on my own root removal, in both my gardens. Whatever season it may be – a time to sow, and a time to reap – we can stroll in the garden of our hearts, ask what we see there, and begin to dig, and plant anew.

Your comments and sharing are welcome … hope to see you again, friend.