No. 22: Turkish Souvenir

Artist: Unknown
Title: Tchotchke
Date: 1970s?
Culture: Turkish (?)
Provenance: Bought by my grandparents probably on vacation in Turkey in the 1970s

My grandfather is an endless source of inspiration for me. Many of the things that fascinate me about American culture relate to him in some way–to the world he would have been a part of. I loved him fiercely, but I have come to realize that love is only half the reason his life so fascinates me. His life spanned a unique period of rapid change, and his experiences were remarkable for their variety. Indeed, his life encapsulates something of the mythology of the American story and the so-called American dream.

And so it’s kind of funny that one of the trinkets I took to remember him by after he died is a tchotchke he and my grandmother picked up somewhere on their travels in the 1970s. I’m sure that when he was a kid he never dreamed of traveling the world someday. He was born in 1905 to tenant farmers in Iowa who then tried their hand farming in central Illinois before throwing in the towel and running a general store. They were poor, and life was a struggle. He was kid number seven of fourteen, back when farmers had lots of kids so as to have a workforce to farm the land. He left home as a teenager, working in meatpacking plants and conducting streetcar traffic in Saint Louis and Chicago. I loved to sit in his living room and listen to him tell stories about those days. He often told the story of how he would kill rats at the meatpacking plants by throwing his shoe across the room at them.

He seized every opportunity that came his way, making money in unlikely places and friends in every corner. He ran a dry cleaning business in Indiana, made airplanes for North American Aviation in California during World War II, and ran a successful taxi cab company in small-town Illinois. Eventually, he became a man of some means and influence, and he funded his retirement, as well as his intellect, by refurbishing neglected old houses.

It was during this period that he and my grandmother saw the world. They traveled to Vienna and Copenhagen, Ireland and Russia. And to Turkey, where they surely walked through some marketplace and picked up this souvenir to remember what they saw there. It’s made of brass, I think, and has three bells on a chain with two glass evil eyes and a small camel. Maybe they liked this souvenir because of the camel. Maybe this was the same trip where they rode on camels themselves. I have a great photo of my grandpa sporting a huge wide grin and Buddy Holly glasses, sitting astride a camel and looking devilishly pleased with himself in the way that only he could.

I keep this souvenir by my front entryway. The evil eye, of course, will keep away any malevolent forces hoping to enter my home. And it’s a nice reminder of my dear Grandpa Frank. The whole story I’ve written above comes to me in one quick glance. He had such an amazing life, and I feel so lucky to have been a part of it for twenty-seven years.

Today is his birthday. If there’s a heaven, I know he’s celebrating with a bourbon Manhattan on the rocks. He would always passed the booze-soaked maraschino cherry to me with a wink. As he would say, “Hit a dog!”


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