I’m getting to the age where places from my past are, quite literally, going up in smoke. The buildings in which I graduated high school and college no longer exist, nor does the hospital in which I was born. This is my way of saying, “I’m old. I hate your music. Get off my lawn. Is it time for Matlock?” Sunday, September 22 marked the destruction of another building in downtown Houston. Some people know it as the downtown Macy’s store. For those of us who grew up here, that building will always be Foley’s, a department store chain born in that building in Houston well before I was born.
I know what you’re saying. “But, Rhonda. You hate shopping. The sole reason you want to create a clone is to send a more willing Rhonda to buy your clothes. Why so emo about this?” Well, for me, Foley’s was “the store where Bonpapa works/worked.” For 20 years, my grandfather designed and altered furs for Foley’s, putting into practice the trade he’d learned and practiced for years before coming to the United States. When I heard about the plans to destroy the building, apparently to make room for yet another nondescript office tower, I felt sad, partially because another Houston landmark was being torn down, and partially because news of the demolition made me realize how much I still miss my grandfather. I sat with my mom that Sunday and we did what Jews do — we ate, had coffee, and reminisced about about relatives.
In case you missed the three-letter word above, yes, my grandfather was a furrier. He had a job that now ranks only slightly lower on the politically incorrect scale than “head researcher for Rush Limbaugh.” But the man was a master craftsman. In Europe, he would make coats for my grandmother to wear, but they were never really her coats. They served as advertisements for him. “This is the furrier’s wife. That must be the best coat in the history of coats! I must have it!” And they would. And Bonpapa would make Bobonne another coat.
Back in the day, even in this hot and humid place, fur was a status symbol and completely accepted. Women wanted it, and department stores like Foley’s, Sakowitz, and Neiman Marcus not only sold it, but they provided a storage service to preserve the fur during the summer, or what we in Houston like to call “April through October.”
When my newlywed parents moved to Houston from South Bend, IN in the late 50s, my grandparents weren’t far behind. Moving from Indiana to Houston meant giving up a few things like, oh, winter, which is kind of important to those in the fur trade. Down here, there were few independently-owned fur shops, but Bonpapa didn’t want to work for anyone else, so he worked for a dry cleaner for a while. Later, realizing opening his own fur shop in the Land of Perpetual Summer, was a horrible idea, he found work with someone else’s shop. Not surprisingly, the shop was not overly busy. Later, he applied for a job at Foley’s, because department stores tended to do more business. Bonpapa’s ability to perform pretty much all tasks associated with designing, creating, and altering fur coats all but assured his getting the job. Foley’s was his professional home until his retirement in 1981.
In his last months, my grandfather lived with my parents. They’d gone out one night, so I went over to visit with Bonpapa. We started talking about fur, and he pulled out a box in which he had a few skins. He dug one out and set it on the kitchen table. He closed his eyes momentarily and caressed it. Then he explained the meticulous process of piecing furs together so they looked like they were part of one skin. As he spoke, I noticed the way his hands seemed steadier when he would show me, on the fur, how he would mark a pattern, and how he would lay it alongside other skins. It was the last time I would see the twinkle in his eyes.
As much as a box of animal skins makes my grandfather seem like the Leatherface of the animal world, he was really more like a Polish Native American. My mother mentioned being a child and watching him in his workshop. He would sadly, and respectfully caress the fur, much as I witnessed that night on my parents’ kitchen table, and utter something like, “poor animal” before starting a project. One other thing Bonpapa did was take scraps of fur from the shop and make other things — sometimes stuffed toys for my brother and me, sometimes rugs, throws and pieces of art. He respected the sacrifice of the animal, and tried to be sure as little as possible was was wasted by making things that made people, mostly his family, happy. It was always the pieces he made for us that meant the most to me.
My grandfather worked for years on a piece, made of Persian lamb. The piece steadily grew to enormous size, until my grandmother said, “Enough! You’re through with it, already!” Seriously, I could hide under this fur piece, and still have room for two other people. In 1974, Bonpapa entered the piece in an arts and crafts fair Foley’s had for its employees. He won.
Goodbye, Foleys. Thanks for the memories.