Perception. It affects us everyday. Do you see what I do? Am I noticed by you in the way I think I am? Is the image I am sensing the same as everyone else? The nuances of life are they seen or ignored? The older I get the less I appreciate. I simply do not have as much patience as I had when younger. Is this the same for you? I mean in relationships. It seems my propensity for eclectic people was much larger than now. It seemed I collected people, all types. Mother once remarked to me, “Your friends have the most interesting and amusing names.” In what way I replied. “Aquila, Salee, and Krista.” she stated. I suppose I did, do have interesting friends and somehow many of them had unique names. Natalie was one of the exceptions, at least in the category of names.
I met Natalie one stormy Spring day in May. I had opened a little antique shop and was trying to keep it open on Sundays to see if we could get any additional customers. I was desperate to make a go of this business. It was something that I had dreamed of doing ever since I visited my cousins, themselves dealers. I remember the large carved furniture, clocks and porcelains placed everywhere in their second empire style house in Atlanta. They were open by appointment and lived in a warren of rooms in the back of the house. The front rooms grandly displaying their treasures dimly lit with light filtering velvet swags was something I had aspired to ever since.
My shop was a loose partnership with a lady old enough to be my Grandmother that enjoyed junk shop merchandise and as we could not afford the place all to ourselves we rented out the back to other antique dealers. I am being kind by specifying them as such. We were one step above a flea market. Our step was not on solid footing. I was always in hot water with one or more of them as I could refuse them the right to display items not in keeping with the image of the store. It was a losing battle that I had not discovered yet. One of the vendors that did try harder to have antiques was Robert and his wife Betty. Robert was also wanting to get into the business and had been haunting estate sales and auctions for years. He had a garage and multiple store sheds full of his finds.It was not a cohesive collection, which I would have liked, but more curiosities and odd items. Chamber pots with Ulysses S. Grant’s portrait in the bottom, nautical devices that no one understood, portraits with unknown provenance. Robert was eager as I to be successful and came by to keep me company on the first Sunday we opened. I was chatting with Robert when in the door blew Natalie.
It was quite dark, the sky was black and the wind was beginning to stir the trees on the ancient oaks surrounding the courthouse. She wore round owl looking horn rims and had a sort of terrier hair that brushed up from her ears.She was wearing a white blouse with a peter pan collar, plaid bermuda shorts and tassel loafers. Clearly not the get-up of some of our locals. I guessed she was in her 50’s. She was inquiring about a preambulator we had displayed on the sidewalk in front of the store. Her first grandchild was recently born and ours reminded Natalie of the one her nurse used to care for her. She wanted to give her grandson the same memories. Excited to have a customer, Robert jumped and went out to double check the price tag. It did not belong to either of us but to another dealer, an old bitter divorcee, who had a high value of everything she touched. When Robert announced the cost Natalie repiled, “No, that is too much money, it needs a lot of restoration.”, she argued noticing the frayed lining and bent wheels. “It is only worth half. ” She then looks at me for agreement. Knowing I would be crucified by my greedy vendors if I took any less I regretfully informed that a 10% reduction was all that could be allowed on the price. She proceeded thru the store and looked at the rest of our inventory.
After a while she reappeared while Robert and I were debating the possibility of a tornado. She stared at me through her square lenses and asked if I was an interior designer. “Yes, I am”, flattered that she perceived me as such. I had not really done any real jobs at that point. Random friends’ dorm rooms and cousins in their first apartments seeking more help moving furniture than advice was my resume up to that time.
“Well I am looking for a sideboard for my dining room and some other things.”, she said in her raspy voice. It had a sarcastic bite to it and reminded me of a fairy tale witch. “You can get this type of thing , can’t you?” I very cooly replied yes. My mind was turning thinking of how lucky I was to get this customer and where would I get this thing. I had opened this little business with a partner some months before in the hopes of doing exactly this. I knew I needed to act fast, my first decorating job.
“Would you like to make an appointment? “, I was trying to find the appointment book in the desk drawer without much luck. As she was describing her taste I was wrestling with the drawer trying to open it . Damn the book was stuck inside the drawer and catching causing me a lot of difficulty. Noticing this she suggested coming by her house now. Since she had been the only one to stop all day Robert agreed we should close up and follow her home.
The house was only a mile or so down Main Street. I had passed it many times without giving it a lot of thought. Later I found out it was one of the oldest structures in our town and had once been a stagecoach house. It was a very simple two story farm house very close to the road with a darling little curved drive out the front of it. As many houses of its type are, this one was also misleading to its size. I walked in to a larger house than was expected.
Once inside we were met by two of her three dogs. All rescues and setter type mixes. Later I learned how attached she was to these dogs and how important they were to her. The living room was spacious and contained a Philadelphia style camel back sofa and various wing , goose and Martha Washington style chairs. On the mantle were a pair of old Paris porcelain urns. My word, they were beautiful. Have you ever seen any? Here is photo of some very similar to Natalie’s. Hers were purchased by one of the “great-greats” as she called them that hung in the dining room. The portraits were dour and plain. They did not not look like the type of people that would enjoy beautiful things. I was mesmerized by their beauty. It was the beginning of my love affair with Porcelain of Paris.
In the dining room besides the portraits of the “Great-Greats”,she had a mahogany pedestal table with 12 empire style chairs. The room looked empty. She did need a sideboard. The portraits looked so big and large on the walls with nothing to balance them. I imagined myself entertaining in this dining room, wine flowing amusing conversations occurring among my guests. Robert’s question about the provenance of a spitton broke my day dream and we continued through the rest of the house. Adding piece to my ever growing list to supplement the decor. Everything great seemed to be inherited. The newer pieces I later learned mostly came from QVC but at that time their numbers were few.
I had forgotten the increasingly gathering storm in my excitement. The cars just outside on Main Street were using their headlights now and the winds were getting to the point of howling. As the three of us were heading back downstairs, suddenly an enormous boom sounded and the entire house shook. Natalie exclaimed what was that and I had the answer immediately. “A tree has hit your house.”
When I was five years old, one of my earliest memories was of a tree hitting my grandparents house in Atlanta. Unlike this time it was a beautiful Spring day. My Grandmother a devoted gardener and arborist had some sort of ancient oak on the edge of the grove. It was sick and scarred and only that morning as we pulled up the tree surgeon was there consulting with her and its condition. I suppose the old tree realized it was terminal and rather wait to be euthansied by the wood axe it decided to commit suicide if you will. When it hit my Grandmothers housing shaking it to its core it felt exactly like what the 3 of us had felt at Natalie’s.
We went from room to room searching for the damage I knew was waiting. Entering the upstairs guest room we found it. More than half the room contained a tree. The damage was considerable and with the pouring rain entering where the roof had been, we began to move the furniture out of the room and across the hall. Meanwhile Natalie contacted the landlord. When the landlord arrived we must have had 10 strangers and aquaintances milling around surveying the damage and blessing Natalie’s heart. Once an emergency tarp was stretched over what remained of the roof, I went home. That was my first meeting with Natalie.
I looked for the items she requested but didn’t get the job but we did become friends and it was then I discovered she hadn’t any money. Natalie was a trust fund baby. The “Great-greats” had made the fortune and then over time and generations it was diluted. Natalie had inherited a considerable trust. She had gone to college and received a degree in nursing which she practiced until marrying her first husband. She had two daughters about the same age as me. Then divorced him and moved with the girls from New York and later to the Carolinas where she met the love of her life before arriving in Georgia.
One evening many months after that first meeting we had been cooking in her kitchen something we enjoyed more than anything. I loved it because I loved to cook and my own kitchen was the size of a closet with a sink that drained into a bucket. It was unusable.
This evening we had consumed our normal 2 bottles of wine and was still thirsty.Natalie went to open a third and said while uncorking the bottle “John Louis Arnold was the man I loved. ” Amused by her statement ,I asked her to tell me about him and she continued.”He was so handsome and well dressed. The girls loved him. They were as crazy about him as I was. He had the best sense of humor and understood me in a way that no one ever had. I would still be following him around if I hadn’t lost the baby.”
Baby? I was shocked. What happened to the baby I wanted to know? She told me she miscarried it. John was a married man. He lived 5 days a week with her and the kids and on week ends with his other family. Natalie had been seeing him for 10 years when she became pregnant with his child. “It all worked out pretty well”, she said until I became pregnant. What did his family think about his living with you I asked. “They didn’t know. He ran a big company in Raleigh and his wife and children didn’t want to move from New York. That was were I met him, in New York at a dinner party.” I was confused and asked if he was living in North Carolina when they met. ” Oh no, that was about a year later. He was still living in the city then. She could see my disbelief and said somewhat petulantly,”Sometimes you do things that make a lot of sense at the time. I had nothing going on in New York and the girls were young not even in school yet and I always loved the South so we moved to be near him.
“What did the girls think about him leaving on the week ends ?” , I asked. “Oh, that was when we got involved with the horses. On weekends we started showing horses and became very involved in it. The girls really enjoyed it. Lisabeth became quite good and began advancing in her levels. It’s very involved , horses. You have to keep the stalls clean and feed them and of course all the traveling for the events. It kept us busy. I even started a magazine for devotees called Quarter Horse Illustrated.” She brought the wine over to the table as she spoke this and began to refill our glasses. Then sitting down softly and her eyes beaming she added, “that was the best time of my life.”
I asked obviously curious about John’s whereabouts. Where is he now? Wiping her forehead with her hand and looking for a cracker she said, “oh I don’t know that was all over 15 years ago.” I began to get impatient as she was obviously finished with the story. I had to know why they split. When I asked her this very question she said Oh I don’t know, I didn’t love him anymore.”
“But what happened. you followed this man to another state and lived with him most of the week “
“Michael after losing that baby I just thought this is not for me and I left him. We sold the horses and moved to Atlanta.”
She could be very exasperating. She was a confidante one minute and close lipped the next. She supported herself by selling businesses much like a real estate agent except as we became better and better friends I learned that she hadn’t sold any businesses in a long time, in fact she didn’t have the licenses to sell at all. Natalie acted as a liaison with the broker and received a cut when one she listed sold. Now she mostly she sat in her den surrounded by more and more of her QVC treasures and often spending all day tuned into it and ordering more. It became very normal if I was visiting on a day off to go and accept packages for her if she was busy in the kitchen. One just expected the U.P.S. van to arrive everyday.
Then the economy began to falter and what remained of her daughters’ trust began to produce greatly reduced dividends. Somehow Natalie enjoyed the interest on her girls trust but it never covered much more than the rent on her house. She paid for her habit with her a diners club card and now was at its limit.
One day she called me at work frantic. The sheriff had been to the house. He had delivered an eviction notice. She needed to borrow money. I had been giving her twenty dollars here and there to buy food for her dogs or a gallon of milk but this time she needed thousands. She hadn’t paid rent in months she explained and before that only half of the rent amount for months. None of our little circle had any money. I had sold my half of the antique shop to one of the vendors for only what my deposits were upon opening. I had just wanted out, I was tired of fighting them. I was now a buyer for the gift shop at a historic site barely eking out enough money to support myself. All the others of our group were in a similar condition. So she had a yard sale.
It broke my heart to see her selling her Father’s portrait in the driveway. He was handsome in his Harvard rep tie looking out confidently from the gilt frame and the woman haggling with her so common in her stretch pants and pull over. She only raised a few hundred dollars and I was surprised at her anger with her landlord. I knew her landlord and had discovered after meeting with her to plead Natalie’s case that she had been lied to over and over. She also knew about the QVC addiction. Although she had sold most of her furniture, she still had museum quality pieces upstairs that she had not tried to sell and those beautiful Porcelain of Paris Urns. Knowing eviction day was looming I suggested moving those and anything else to my house for safe keeping. This was answered with a resolute no. She wasn’t hiding anything. She was taking the urns to Atlanta on Saturday to a fine art and antique dealer to sell them. She was then packing and moving to be near one of her daughters in Alabama.
Saturday after leaving work and getting home I called Natalie to see how much she was able to sell the urns. She answered laughingly saying she dropped them in the parking lot and they were in a million little pieces there now, much like her own life. She couldn’t hold it all together any more.
She didn’t move before the sheriff arrived. He came with the landlord who chose the best of what was left of her furniture, the rest she was given forty eight hours to have off the property. There wasn’t that much left. Her daughter arrived with her husband and they loaded the remains in a U-Haul and took it all to Alabama. Trying to to stay in touch was made difficult by distance and time. Many years later my friend Renee suggested looking up old Nat. With the magic of the internet we were able to do this in short order. She was working as a care giver on the night shift in a south Alabama nursing home. She told us this in her raspy voice. I wondered how she was able to do the job as she was old enough to be a patient there herself. I asked her if she still enjoyed cooking and she said cooking with me all those years ago was one of the best memories of her life.