Sepia Saturday: Finding Lost Treasure

Blumenfeld store, St. Paul Minnesota, 1950s

Around 1977, my mother inherited a collection of novels her grandfather David Blumenfeld had written. His assumption had been that as a published, award-winning writer, she would appreciate his work and know what to do with it. However, she looked at a couple of the novels, dismissed them as amateur works, and resealed the box. After a few years, she asked me whether I wanted to take custody of the manuscripts. I knew little about him other than he was a haberdasher in St. Paul, Minnesota and had a book or two vanity-published. Collector that I am, I jumped at the chance to check out these manuscripts. However, I had much the same reaction: I thumbed through a few volumes, and disappointedly resealed the box as a curiosity that someday I would delve into further.

David, my mother and elder brother, circa 1924

Dissolve to 2008. We were in the process of moving, and I was triaging boxes the basement. I finally took a look at the Blumenfeld cache. The titles (such as A Torn Family Reunited, A Woman’s Grit, and The Tigress-Hearted Mother) and the opening paragraphs sounded very old-fashioned. They read like treatments of silent movies, with broad characters (the wicked shiksa, the humble Jewish peasant who rises to be a New World captain of industry, the betrayed spouse, the wise rabbi) and they had melodramatic, wildly improbable plots of biblical convolution and moralization.

Suddenly I did a double-take — the title of the next manuscript read simply Diary.

In the last several years I had become a genealogy buff, and this was just the thing to jolt me awake. Was it really a diary, or was it just an uncharacteristically short title for another novel?

At first, it did not take diary form or tone, but read like an historical novel. I was suspicious but intrigued: while not recognizing any of the names, slowly I realized that many details matched the little I knew of my mother's ancestors. I then saw that the next manuscript in the box was Part Two of Diary. I could see that it segued about halfway through into pure journal form and by the end was using names I recognized: David’s sons and daughters, Al, Belle, Helen, and Mose, and my mother’s cousin Lorraine — although the hero and his wife retained the false names “Nate” and “Rosaline.” I dropped everything and began to read from the beginning in earnest.

I soon found that no one — not David’s immediate family, nor any living descendents — had had any inkling of the existence of the diary. My mother had not gotten that far in the box. Neither Beth’s late cousin Belle nor her husband Abe had mentioned it. It was like I had uncovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.

To be continued...

Garth Williams: The Idea of Home

Another slight digression from my usual photographic fare, as promised: a brief survey of my favorite children's illustrator, Garth Williams. Most of these are from Golden Books editions I had as a child.

In addition to my love of his funky architecture, adorable and expressive animals, and vivid imagination, I am fascinated with the old-world comfortableness and safety communicated in all his works, even when dealing with such traditionally scary subjects as bears, dark woods, and old wrinkly people. Perhaps most of all, the concept of Home permeates Brown's and Wlliams' work, and encompasses and handles reassuringly the pre-reader themes of getting along with others, figuring out what you're good at, and getting free of the apron strings (a little, at least).

Williams often worked with Margaret Wise Brown, a writer you typically either love or hate. I fnd her work strangely mesmerizing, if admittedly tending toward the insipid. But I think Williams' sensitive art saves the text from itself.

"Mister Dog," Margaret Wise Brown, Simon & Schuster 1952
Not only does The Boy find a friendly, fun-loving, and resourceful companion, but one who lives in a really cool playhouse.

"The Friendly Book," Margaret Wise Brown, Western Publishing Co. 1954
This book's poetic vignettes afford Williams a great range of panoramic, detailed fantasies.

"The Kitten Who Thought He Was a Mouse," Margaret Wise Brown, Western Publishing Co. 1951
In this moral tale couched in cuteness, a mouse family adopts a lost kitten, until it becomes too big to fit in the mousehole. From the outside, their dwelling looks pretty basic but they've outfitted it with midcentury modernist chairs, which is unusual for Williams, to say nothing of mice.

"Animal Friends," Jan Werner, Simon & Schuster 1953
Another subtly pointed story about a disparate collection of critters who somehow all live in a tiny stump until their varying diets demand that they strike out on their own (for example, the turtle to a swamp, the chick to a chicken coop, and the squirrel...well, see below.

"Animal Friends," Jan Werner, Simon & Schuster 1953

"Little Fur Family," Margaret Wise Brown, Harper Collins 1946
Another remodeled stump!

"Little Fur Family," Margaret Wise Brown, Harper Collins 1946
This decor is a more typical William treatment, sort of pre-industrial, fairytale style.

"The Sleepy Book," Margaret Wise Brown, Western Publishing Co. 1948
This collection of hypnotic, simple, rather wistful poems lulls a child along with the homely and softly drawn pictures.

"Wait Till the Moon Is Full," Margaret Wise Brown, Harper & Brothers 1948
One of my favorites, done in charcoals, concerns a young raccoon who really wants to join the other forest animals but who must wait...wait...

"The Sailor Dog," Margaret Wise Brown, Western Publishing Co. 1953
Before getting shipwrecked, this intrepid and very organized dog lives on a sailboat. Here too Williams' lets loose with wild imaginative scenes of a world populated by exotic dogs.

"Home for a Bunny," Marget Wise Brown, Western Publishing Co. 1961
Another parable of a young animal searching for his place in the world. No, it's not in a tree or in a bog, and though the log seems suitable, the resident groundhog begs to differ.



What would light be without darkness? As July draws to a close, here's a recap of Independence Day (2009), splendid lighting effects due not just to roman candles etc. but to a thousand pyromaniacs smoking up the atmosphere with unsafe and insane flammable product.

Watching from the other side of the street

Fireworks vendor

Hawking the wares


bonfires, explosions, fireworks, parking enforcement, pyromania
Bonfire of the manatees


Sepia Saturday: Idiomatic Architecture in Vintage Children's Books

I'm a voracious and omnivorous reader, and I got my start as a wee lad. My parents read to me and filled my room with books. My favorites were Little Golden Books. Some of these classic books have been reprinted, but not enough of them. I have in recent years prowled used book stores to restore my childhood collection and have added a few titles that I didn't actually have at the time.

One of the most endearing qualities these book had for me (and for perhaps everyone, parents included) was the combination of charming anthropomorphism and wild visual invention, which I find most intriguing in the dwellings that are illustrated in these mostly contemporary tales.

My favorite Tibor Gergely title is The Merry Shipwreck (George Duplaix, 1942), in which an ark full of colorful beasts goes astray ("little mice were sharpening their teeth on the rope that held the barge fast to the pier"). They become shipwrecked, to be rescued by the New York fireboat. In addition to his typical quaint scenes of American life (there are still horses, carts, and jolly colored folks servicing Manhattan) Gergely's attention to both animal details and the allure of living aboard is very appealing -- even in a serious storm. This is one of the books that hooked me on the life aquatic.

Regular readers will enjoy a glimpse of Uncle Wiggily as drawn by Mel Crawford (written by Howard R. Garis). This is from the series from which my father named his automobiles. In this 1953 episode the rabbit gentleman is vexed by rambunctious dog-boys and the Skillery-Skallery Alligator ("'With my rough nutmeg-grater tail I'll saw down the tree...' snarled the bad chap." This was in the days when people actually used (and grated) nutmeg. Wiggily escapes thanks to a timely application of red paint, but never does finish remodeling his bungalow. I love the notion of a stump with rooms inside. As a kid I drew maps and blueprints featuring such abodes, as well as caves and tunnels with food -- and rayguns. Oddly, I only recently discovered a rabbit actually living in a stump near my office...I always thought rabbits simply lived in burrows.

Gustaf Tenggren tended to illustrate classic folk tales like this Grimm Brothers one, The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs (1955). He has a distinct style which I always found rather offputting, but it's evocative of dark woods and distant times. Here our plucky hero stumbles onto a "den of thieves" in the woods. My wife and I spent our honeymoon night in a cabin unfortunately reminiscent of this shack. The thieves turn out to be practical jokers and manage to cause the boy to be married to the princess.

F. Rojankovsky seems to have studied at the same school of stump architecture as Mel Crawford, though he's added a few appropriate traditional German touches in the window shutters to the de rigeur thatch roof. The three bears in this 1948 edition terrified me because of their tiny, intense eyes.

Richard Scarry managed to prolong his career well into the present. He revels in miniscule details, including meticulous, period interior decoration. This book, The Party Pig, (Kathryn and Byron Jackson) was one of my least favorites as a child because it was so sad (happy ending and all that, but getting there was tough). Little Pig barely avoids canceling his birthday. Here we see the rustic exterior of his house. Eventually Scarry's books took place in the world of cars, planes, and TV sets, but in 1954 (my birth year) the focus was still on the early American country life.

The master, however, both in artistic finesse and imaginative originality, was Garth Williams. I'm planning a whole post on him, but here for starters is a romantic cottage from my favorite of his Golden Books, The Sailor Dog (Margaret Wise Brown, 1953). Scuppers gets shipwrecked (a common plight, apparently, amongst boaters) and fashions a cabin Crusoe-style from the wreckage until he can rebuild the boat and go shopping. I love Brown's typical incantatory style: "...he hung his new hat on the hook for his hat and he hung his spyglass on the hook for his spyglass, and his new handkerchief on the hook for his handkerchief, and his pants on the hook for his pants, and his new rope on the hook for his rope, and his new shoes he put under his bunk, and himself he put in his bunk."


Thursday in the [Car] Park with George

Ah, the pure delight of colors, shapes, textures -- and, er, the occasional number.

Newport Hills, Bellevue WA

Westlake and Mercer, Seattle WA

Westport WA


Visitors from the Ravine

Since we're situated on a greenbelt, we have lots of birds... flickers, crows, chickadees, eagles (well at a distance), starlings, robins, sparrows, towhees, swallows, etc. But also four- and six-legged interlopers. Here's a fair sampling, most of whom survived our three Felis domestica.


June bugs


Luna moths



Mammoth gastropods


A History

Some highlights from the interpretive center at Ocean Shores, Washington that struck me as being particularly painterly. I recommend clicking to enlarge these ones.

Message in a Bottle

Barbwire on Paisley

The Mouse in His House

The Catchers and the Caught


Sepia: Detroit Wheels II

I'm not sure why my father fixated on Chevrolets but fixate he did, and from the time I was about three we had a series of Chevies.

Uncle Wiggily was a 1950 two-tone coupe exactly like this. I remember the velvety grey interior and the buttons on the radio - they were a cream Bakelite, square with a large dimple for my tiny finger. I remember being small enough to curl up on the inner deck (in the rear window). One one summer drive to the ocean (this took all day, before the freeway came through town in 1963) I captured a "woolly bear" caterpillar in Oregon who escaped in the back seat somewhere. I believe we also took our cat Growler for a seaside weekend and he spent most of the trip under the front seat.

Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy (Uncle Wiggily's muskrat lady housekeeper) was a '55 four-door. It was not a two-tone like the one pictured, but a solid blue, a funny darkish shade. Nurse Jane had a habit of overheating; crossing the Cascade range one day we had to fill soda bottles at every mountain stream to pour in the radiator. This ad does not illustrate our typical hill-climbing exerience. (Click to better read the exquisite prose!)

The Bad Pippsissewa was actually a powder-blue '63 Impala, but this ad is as close as I could come, aside from the hovercraft effect. It had a manly V8 engine that got about 6 miles to the gallon. When I finally got my license I drove it into the ground -- through high school and for several years thereafter until it expired in 1979 in California, where I left it to the junkers. It's the car in which I honed my dashboard-and-steering-wheel drumming technique.

My mother at last acquired her own Chevy, a Merlot-red '64 Nova. (In Mexico they called it something else since "Nova" means "No go.") My father named it Rosie (my mother not being a car-namer) after an old girl-friend, I think! My mum finally managed to eviscerate it by running over a concrete divider in a parking lot.

My father upgraded Impalas -- to a '65 model, a maroon stick-shift. A feckless colleague fobbed it off on him. It became known as Sam Abelson after a crusty childhood acquaintance of my dad's. The trunk leaked and he developed quite a forest of redolent mold in the trunk. It was also a sort of "annex" for him, he kept several years' worth of old student papers in the back seat.

Meanwhile my dad bought my sister, now out of high school, a 1969 Chevelle, sky blue like this one but not actually an SS (SuperSport) edition. She drove it like a SuperSport though, and eventually "totaled" it. Although, my son having just done the same to his old Honda Civic with a slight fender crunch, the term is pretty relative! Bloody insurance companies.

In the early '80s my folks got a pair of nearly matching chocolate Novas (Novae?) - a '77 and a '79. I honestly don't remember if either of them got names! Anyway my wife and I inherited them after not only my father but my Datsun B210 wagon shook off their mortal coils. The Novas had only six cylinders but were gas hogs, and they were hard to park, not only because of their size but because neither had power steering, my dad always trying to save on the extras. I recall that at least one of them featured a back seat that wouldn't stay put.

So, uh, that's the story.

Some these ads came from this great site.



Spent a couple of days escaping the heat at Ocean Shores.


Night vision: dune grass from the Shilo Inn

Puddling at the tideline