Sunday, July 3, 2011

"The Handkerchief Notes"

Three days to Stoptime: www.stoptimesaratoga.com

A few days after writing the “Handkerchiefs” post on February 11, John and I drove to Florida and back in nine days, a trip all about driving and the weather. Sort of a vacation, more about visiting John’s dad, very spry at 93. He spends almost every day working on parts of small airplanes in his garage. A road trip can be the most sublime way to travel or it can be the bumpy road to hell. Cram too much car time into too few days and you arrive at the second option. That’s what this one turned into, not enough time to be out in the good weather and too soon turning back north.

On each of these winter journeys we stick to the coastline avoiding I 95 whenever possible. We have a couple of favored stopovers. One is Litchfield Beach, South Carolina. The beach is excellent for walking. On February 15, I emailed Akiko Busch reporting our whereabouts and the weather: “Lovely to walk yesterday at sunset and hear the ocean all night and watch the sunrise at 6:50 am. It’s very windy and not so warm but energizing to be here.” The next night in St. Augustine, I had a reply from Aki: “Oh, Margo, the sound of waves, what a lovely dream. Thank you for this. I so loved the green ink on the hankerchiefs and I have an idea. You’ll see. Travel safely.”

So…Aki had read about Louis’s handkerchiefs that I’d seen and touched on my visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum archive at Queens College. Louis autographing with green ink captured her imagination as well as mine, that green ink mattered so much to him that he sometimes typed with green ribbons. And the hint that this had sparked something for her; she would respond. Response as vital as call, response fulfilling the human need to answer.

We returned on February 23 to the gray-white despondent upstate landscape. In the mail I recognized Aki’s handwriting on a white envelope that was soft, thick with something more than paper. Inside was a folded, often-laundered handkerchief with the letter P encased in a geometric design placed diagonally in one corner. White on white, it was easy to miss. When examined, the initial revealed a simple yet elaborate structure, this handkerchief chosen with care for or by someone in a time when people paid attention to their handkerchiefs. This handkerchief must have belonged to someone in Aki’s family.

Dear Margo
                  LOVE, AKI

Through reading Aki’s books I know her ever-present attention to the landscape and the affect of weather on the individual and on human relationships. I liked finding her inspiration for this message came from the mind-drift while driving, often the way into a contemplative excursion.  A few weeks later in a March 10 email (by then the handkerchiefs were often the subject of our conversations), she confirmed this…“walking and writing really are tandem events, are they not? Also, driving and writing but in a whole other way. I find that as the road unspools, so too does some kind of interior rambling.”

Familiarity is central to the role of cloth. In this first handkerchief message Aki wrote Louis not Armstrong, indicating she attended to the private person within the public, performing person. Louis’s writing, his marks on cloth, addressed to a specific individual, inspired her. Then there is the equation of landscape with textile process—“landscape would be stitched with green”—another marker of the work of cloth. Last, the importance of green, actually and imaginatively, the color bringing both the land and the cloth to life.

I interrupt my narrative to add a note on Louis’s inscription that I included in the February 11 post—To Sweet Lucy F———. Writing then I did not know who Sweet Lucy was. I imagined her a fan requesting an autograph, Armstrong asking her to say her name so he could inscribe it on the handkerchief. A month later I found this handkerchief’s history in Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo. Typically, with Louis Armstrong, the material link leads to a specific person.  “Louis adored the work of Italian singer Ray Martino—he mentioned him in several published interviews and the Archives has two tapes of Louis playing along with Martino recordings. Martino, who resides in Milan, has visited the Armstrong House & Archives several times, and has given us many treasures. One of these is a white handkerchief (Louis almost always performed with one in his hand) which Louis autographed in green ink to Martino’s wife: “To Sweet Lucy from Satchmo 1959.”1  

Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World offers more on this friendship: In October 1949 “After Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland, the band headed to Italy for ten days, arriving first in Milan, where Armstrong heard a young Italian singer named Ray Martino. Impressed by him, Armstrong asked Martino to join the band for the rest of the trip, and the two men remained in touch for years after. Armstrong particularly loved Martino’s rendition of an Italian song called “Luna,” playing it for his friend the producer George Avakian when Avkaian visited Armstrong’s home in 1953. At the Louis Armstrong House Museum, a private tape exists of Armstrong in his home playing along with the tune. Though the record is about as far from hot jazz as possible, Armstrong always loved a good melody, and he responds by performing a gorgeous obbligato to Martino’s Italian vocal, as well as a heartfelt solo. When Martino was played this tape years later, he cried.”2

Handkerchiefs have histories. They are often passed on. In Aki’s family this is the case as I was soon to find out. There is one more element in the receipt of the first handkerchief that matters to me. Was this the first or was it the only? In her email, she wrote, “I have an idea,” a phrase that I wishfully construed into a sequence. The single begged for the second; I wanted more. The next day another envelope arrived with a second handkerchief. I emailed her “your green river of words on what I imagine to be your mother’s hanky awaited me when we arrived 9 pm last night. Now I have returned from a very long walk trying to get my bearings and to stay out before the foul weather sets in again. There in the middle of the circulars, which I almost dumped without shaking out, I found another letter, fat and soft, and so I knew another hanky had arrived. This one perhaps your father’s. How fine that Louis’s green ink on white handkerchiefs has sparked this response. You and Louis keep me going.

Expectation is a funny emotion. The first one was a singular blessing but the second moves the human heart from unexpected gift to desire. I have never been on the receiving end of a mail art endeavor. Now I am thinking about the letters, boxes, cards I’ve sent into the world very differently.”

Two days later she replied, “The strange thing about all of this is that some months ago, not too many, a drink on my bedside table spilled, and everything in the drawer beneath got soaked—old bookmarks, photographs and a pile of white hankerchiefs.  I took them all out, laundered them, yes, then ironed every one.  And now what, I asked myself?  The only time I ever use these is for funerals, and I am not making this up.  So I have a pile of freshly laundered hankies, and then there is the thought, of course, that if I use these up doing something else, I will not be going to funerals.  And you have these ongoing relations with Walt, Joan, Elizabeth...  And then there is Louis and the green ink.  It just makes sense, doesn't it, in that amazing way that things do sometime?”

Yes, it made the best sense possible to me. I continued to speculate on the difference between sending and receiving letters, especially reflecting on my postcard projects. Postcards do not beg for acknowledgment the way letters do. They are just gone. My last postcard project lasted 365 days. Each day I sent two postcards with identical pictures and messages, the first to a different recipient each day and the second to myself. I love that I have all 356 postcards filed in two boxes and occasionally pull out a few and read them. In another project while traveling in Australia I chose seven subjects, e.g. wine, architecture, notes on Australian English, and seven individuals to receive notes on that subject. I wondered sometimes if the recipients waited for postcards. Now I know that I would have raced to the mailbox every day.

I sensed that Aki’s fat envelopes would end soon, these fine handkerchiefs belonging to her parents, both dead, stitched with her green writing, but decided not to go there and instead enjoy my daily anticipation. There are thirteen. They stretch from mid-February well into May. Then June, summer, finally arrived, even though summer this year is all fits and starts. Still the all-over green has come, thick and different from those tenuous spring chartreuses.

Almost as soon as Anne Diggory conceived Improvisations as an art exhibition centering on Louis Armstrong’s role as jazz’s first and foremost improvisionalist, I thought that Aki’s handkerchiefs would add something vital, a run of notes in language as in music, soaring, pausing, starting somewhere new, returning to a theme, a place for stoptime…the soloist speaking language to cloth. But as long as the handkerchiefs arrived, I did not want to disturb the privacy of correspondence by suggesting this to Aki.

Sometime in June I knew there would not be any more. Anne agreed that the handkerchiefs fit into her curatorial premise. I emailed Aki for permission and she gave me permission to show them. From the beginning she’d acknowledged once something goes into the world, it is the recipient’s to do with as she pleases. She ended her June 20 email, “It was really a spring series, wasn’t it? Once summer settled in with all its vivid density, the frail green lines and white threads somehow no longer seemed to be up to the season. But it makes me happy to think you will do something with them, and what you are describing sounds very beautiful.”

[1] Michael Cogswell, Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo, 111.
[2] Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World, New York: Pantheon, 45.

1 comment:

  1. On handkerchiefs:
    something I share with you, Margo.

    This is from a manuscript I am working on:

    "The handkerchiefs are precious/all pressed against unknown cheeks in some affection."

    My dad always carries a red hanky in his pocket. This is love: he lets me use it, or my sister, or mom, and he will still put it back in his pocket.

    From my mom: sitting on the bus with her friend. My mom sneezes and her friends offers her a hanky. It is beautiful. Monogrammed. It belonged to her friend's husband. "I carry it with me so I can carry him with me."
    "I can't blow my nose on this! It is too precious!" My mom responds.
    Her friend insists because she loves my mom too.

    On my first trip abroad my dad pulls a red hanky from his pocket and ties it around my luggage so I can identify it easily at baggage claim.