The old Tucsonan man removes his moon-shaped tinted glasses. You can tell he doesn’t want to cry on camera, but his voice wavers and eventually breaks.
“My grandmother — they were just poor farmers. Her foster father started a gold mill, but there was no wealth. Just no wealth in the family at all.” His lips tremble. “I just can’t believe it.”
The appraiser, a suited man as bland-looking as one would expect an antiques appraiser to be, seems humbled as he shakes the man’s hand in congratulations.
“I had no idea,” the old man stutters again, his limp hand bobbing up and down in the appraiser’s. “It was just lying on the back of the chair all this time.”
Dan Elias’ voice slides in, and the video cuts to him walking comfortably towards the camera. In his usual professorial manner, he tells PBS viewers that this was one of the highest appraisals in Antiques Roadshow history — an authentic Navajo chief blanket, a true national treasure. He says his goodbyes, and the camera lifts up and away, panning across the antiques show behind him in all of its bustling, hopeful glory. Yellow credit text rolls over the masses of middle-aged roadshow attendees who scramble around, family heirlooms in hand.
“Hmmmm,” came my grandmother’s long sound of disapproval between sips of her vitamin drink. “I liked this guy so much more than that new Walberg kid. What are they thinking, putting such a young man in charge of an antiques show? What does he know about antiquity?”
I shrugged and made my own noncommittal sound — she had always been the expert on Roadshow, not me.
At some point in my early childhood, my grandmother and I forged a tacit social contract regarding my sleepovers: I got all of the sugary children’s cereal my parents would never buy for me, and, in exchange, she put me on a strict television diet of old British comedies, antiques appraisal shows and other educational public broadcasting. Our daytime TV could vary depending on her mood, but one thing remained constant: the holy hour from 8 to 9 p.m. was reserved for power-woman and financial guru Suze Orman — my grandmother’s personal hero.
“I think you’re old enough that you should learn about finances, Skyler,” she would say as she readied the trundle bed for me. “Every young woman should know how to control her money.” At the age of seven, I hardly had money to control, but I climbed between the soft sheets anyway, and we watched Suze talk money until we drifted off to sleep in our respective twin beds.
* * *
I don’t know when my grandparents stopped sleeping in the same room, but it happened at some point during my childhood — remarkably late, actually, when you consider the length of their marriage and their general distaste for one another. In true 1950s fashion, they were happiest living under the façade of a blissful marriage, no matter how unnecessary and unconvincing that façade might be. For this reason, I imagine they gave up on the idea of a shared bed during one of their earlier moves — it would have been much less conspicuous that way. Besides, with all of the moves, who would notice if my grandmother happened to put her box of toiletries in the second bathroom?
Unlike in the stories, where grandparents still live in the homes where they raised their children (homes containing the memories of a whole generation), my mother’s parents never stayed put. I could only gather a few years’ worth of experiences in one place before they moved on to the next. But despite the fact that they branded every new place as a “step up,” each move brought them to a dwelling with tighter corners, fewer windows and less room for their belongings.
The worst of these homes was a small apartment in one of those mid-’70s, stylistically gauche complexes in the strip mall part of town. In what must have been an attempt at exotic glamour, the building’s designer had tried to convert the indoor courtyard into a tropical terrarium. What resulted was a perpetually damp, carpeted faux rainforest. Amazon in an atrium, my mother would mutter as we walked through the mildewed jungle.
Their last move was to a ranch-style home in a rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of Houston, where iron bars latticed the windows of every house. Though there were few positive adjectives that could be used to describe the place, the real estate agent milked it for what it was worth. The house’s “two bed, two bath” layout accommodated their separate sleeping arrangements, and the second bedroom was even small enough that it could (with a little bit of sheet-tucking and pillow-fluffing) pass as an unused guest room. Though the house was oddly squat and exceedingly drab (a suffocating beige covered everything from floor to ceiling), the agent pointed them to the fenced backyard and extensive front lawn. Truly stately, I imagined her saying to them as they nodded along.
But even though the new house was less offensive to the senses (my mother’s nauseated disdain was replaced by a simpler aesthetic disagreement), it was essentially no better than any of the dwellings that came before it. This house, like all of the others, was a beacon of false hope for my grandmother — a stepping-stone that she thought would lead to financial safe ground. Every move was a chance to make up for the status they had lost over the decades.
* * *
It was a well-known fact amongst the aunts and uncles that my grandfather had done a fine job of spending the family’s money. Over the years since their childhoods — a heyday of family cruises down the Nile, exotic trips around the world and custom-designed Tiffany earrings — money in the family had dwindled close to nonexistence. Between the paychecks from my grandmother’s downtown sales job and their combined income from social security, the apartment had already been a stretch.
My grandmother waved away her children’s concerns with a bony hand and smoothed her ginger-colored bob. “Oh, don’t you worry about the money. Your father and I are just fine.”
And between boxes and packing tape and trips to and from the moving van: “Now be especially careful with the ceramic elephant. Your father and I got that from Thailand — very old.”
With the sense that they were accomplices in something irresponsible, my aunts and uncles begrudgingly helped move the out-of-place riches from one unworthy location to the next. The glazed porcelain elephant (the one with which we were ordered to be “especially careful”) was placed carefully at the foot of the carved chess table, standing in odd regality on the plastic parquet floor of the living room. On the bland, beige wall hung the antique wood panel depicting a Chinese myth, its heroes inlaid in careful mother-of-pearl against the black lacquered background. Piles of old books, along with their ornate bookshelves, went into my grandfather’s new study, though the room itself was nothing more than a little foyer between the entrance and the kitchen. And finally, the centerpiece of the room: a gold-mosaicked chest that held the many well-used passports of my great-grandparents. This, we positioned in a place of honor atop their empty silverware drawers.
The treasures seemed endless, overflowing, and yet, no matter how many relics we piled into the living room, hung on the walls or arranged on side tables, the house never looked any better. We were gilding an ugly frame, and however many shiny distractions we layered onto it, nothing ever looked quite right.
Intellectually, I knew that these items harkened to a “better time” — one in which money hadn’t been a source of stress for my grandparents — but as far back as I could remember, my grandmother had always been looking for ways to make a little extra. Alongside the golden trinkets and antique chaises, I carried boxes of plastic cups that shouted in bold turquoise lettering: VitaLife! After an unsuccessful moneymaking venture selling vitamin powders, my grandmother had been left with countless plastic cups and a bountiful supply of vitamin drink mix. There were other schemes as well — my uncles lugged in boxes of old manuals on how to sell independent insurance policies, on how to create sales websites (this, for the woman who could barely operate a printer), on how to self-publish, on how to get out of debt … And on top of the stack: a self-help finance book by our beloved TV host, Suze Orman. Underneath Suze’s blonde power-bob and shining teeth was an ambitious title: The Road to Wealth.
Looking at the old photographs of their sprawling 1960s Dallas ranch and perusing the stamps in the family passports, it was clear that my mother’s parents had, at one point or another, deviated sharply from the so-called “Road to Wealth.” But despite my grandmother’s desperation to make up for what they had lost, she drew a firm line between what was acceptable and what was treasonous.
“Grandmommy,” I asked as we piled into the spare room all of the heirlooms that didn’t fit elsewhere, “Have you ever thought about selling any of these things? Maybe going to an antiques fairs?”
Her recoil was immediate.
“Oh goodness, honey, there are some things you just don’t sell.” She turned to look at the living room and its meticulously arranged furniture: everything in its final, crowded formation. “Besides, your grandfather and I are doing just fine, don’t you worry.”