Posted tagged ‘Mississippi’

Ink Pot Pill Box Hat – Beginning of Decade/End of Era

December 28, 2009

Ink Pot Pillbox Hat (after Rene-Jean Teillard)

With all the newspaper articles, I’m taken back to the beginning of the decade/century/millenium, or maybe just before, when everyone worried that Y2K would wreck havoc with all known security and operational systems, even perhaps bringing the end of the world as we knew it.  Flights scheduled for December 31 sold at heady discounts, and one guy I knew, who had a record of moving violations while drunk, was happily confident that the imminent self-destruction of the DMV’s computer system would finally give him a chance to get another driver’s license.

(Lesson:  the “end of the world as we know it” does not generally happen according to calendared anticipation but with utter unexpectedness of  box cutters taken onto a plane.)

Putting all that aside, the beginning of the decade/century/millennium brought a range of unexpected developments not only in the world, but in  my personal life. The first big event was the bursting of pipes in a snowy country house.  (This led, years later, to a second marriage.)  In the midst of those burst pipes, we also lost electricity for a few days (not because of Y2K, but an ice storm); for a day or two, we had to ship a dear old French friend, then houseguest,  to some one else’s house since our friend, then in his 90’s, suffered in a house lit by candles and heated by firewood.

Thinking back, I can’t help but focus on that same French friend, who died at the beginning of the following year, in early January 2001.  Rene-Jean Teillard, he was born to an aristocratic family in the Pyrenees in 1906 or 7, and there schooled by Jesuits, which instilled  in him a lifelong hatred of Catholicism.  He was a resistance fighter in World War II, who escaped capture by the Nazis by pretending to be mad, and later rescued several U.S. paratroopers in the French countryside.  This rescue (the paratroopers were from the South) led to Rene’s being awarded the “key to the city” of Tupelo, Mississippi, a town which welcomed him on visits throughout his life.

After the war, Rene emigrated to New York City.  I say, New York City, because although Rene later became a U.S. citizen, his move was definitely to New York.  He simply adored New York, believing it to be a place where one could do, see, be, anything; where freedom and possibility were literally made concrete.  He had a talent for design and friendship, was gifted with creativity and charm.  He opened a hat shop, where he made beautiful, stylish and above all, playful hats, whose sales and rentals sent him around the world four times.   (I’ve drawn one of the simpler ones; the more elaborate featured small pianos, flower pots, balloons….)

He was an old-fashioned New Yorker, both generous and parsimonious in the extreme–you probably know the type, a person who will give you absolutely anything while also spending as little as possible on himself.   His rent-controlled apartment, a fourth floor walk-up on Madison Avenue, looked like the inside of a Faberge egg, with hand-marbelized woodwork, a deep purple canopied ceiling (in the bedroom),  and a combination of true Louis XIV antiques and furniture scavenged and re-made from the City streets.

In the hot New York summers, he stayed with friends outside of the City.  He was the ideal long-term guest in that, with his broad life experience (he was probably the only person ever to have had therapy sessions with Carl Jung and to also go to the circus with Elvis Presley), he was both (i) a great talker, and (ii) a great listener.  Above all, he was purposeful, capable of silently, independently,  and beautifully, repairing almost anything broken, torn, fraying.

He was not perfect.  French, he could be snide, classist, gossipy (although not with confidences), and he drank a fair amount of wine.  But he was above all interested.  A taxi ride with him was an education; by the end of it, one had learned, through him, where the driver was from, whom he had left behind, and what he hoped to do when he did or didn’t return.  The driver, magically, did not feel drained by this, but unique, valued.

His favorite word was “marvelous.”

I think of him at the beginning of this century because he was such a creature of the last one.    Who wore hats after Jackie Kennedy?  Who uses ink in the age of computers?  Does Tupelo, Mississippi still have a key?  Does France still have nuns?   Is New York still a place where one can do, see, be, anything?

He missed 9/11, for which I was grateful.  It would have grieved him beyond measure.