While watching a rerun of The Antiques Roadshow broadcasting from Tulsa, I got a message from my friend, Frances Walker Phipps. It was sent to me from infinity and beyond, but arrived just fine. No dropped call.
Frances was a reporter for several Connecticut newspapers, the antiques columnist for The New York Times Connecticut Weekly, the author of several definitive reference books on American antiques and colonial kitchens, and the founder of The Connecticut Antiques Show (1973), touted as one of the five most prestigious such events in the nation. Renown as a barracuda among a tribe of elite dealers who vied for the chance to earn a space in her much envied function, Frances determined what could, or could not be displayed on the show floor; what was, or was not an authentic antique. Her strict vetting of merchandise on preview night was surreptitiously referred to as the Phipps ‘reign of terror’.
The Tulsa Roadshow featured a woman who presented a folk art doll for discovery. I don’t own a folk art doll, but I do have a folk art cat that Frances gave me from her private collection of antiques dating from the 17th and 18th century, like most of the chairs, tables, cupboards, beds, books and decorations in her Haddam, Connecticut home. Hand stitched from swatches of forget-me-not floral broadcloth and twisted black yarn to form it’s Queen Anne stylized eyes, nose, mouth, whiskers, and outline of front legs with four toes, the coveted cat is in remarkable condition, even with the two small tears near it’s right eye, and drops of dried blood near it’s heart. I suspect the cat is older and rarer than the Roadshow doll appraised at fifteen hundred dollars.
The assessment made me smile — not for the price it garnered, but for what Frances said in my head:
Frances was once an attractive woman with thick, wavy hair, a bright smile, a great mind, and a fervor for the preservation of Colonial Americana.
But by the time we first met she’d matured into an unpretentious, stout woman with a big bust, a fierce wit, an untamed tongue, rumpled clothes, a bad wig pulled down like a wool cap onto her head, and a folded over Kleenex stuffed behind the right lens of her black horn-rimmed classes to hide a socket ravaged by a malignant tumor.
We were introduced by her ex, Midgie Donaldson, on opening night of the Connecticut Antiques Show in 1975 when I was the editor of a fledgling magazine, The Antiquarian, and she was the highly respected authority wielding power and influence over dealers selling to the rich and famous.
“So, you came here thinking I’d teach you all about antiques. Is that it?” she proposed.
“No-o,” I counterpointed. “But I heard you have an eye for it.”
We bonded instantaneously.
Back then, those of us in love with another woman conducted our lives without a need for labels, or social acceptance. One simply knew by the level of trust demonstrated and access allowed who was, or wasn’t ‘in the life’ — and knowing was enough to make you relax your behavior to match the trust and respect given, or strengthen your guard wherever zealots loomed. The antiques trade has always had its share of both, but nothing interferes with doing business.
One summer morning a year later my Elizabeth accepted a lunch invitation to Frances’ beach house in Westport, about 90 minutes from our Huntington, NY home. After we’d driven the 29 miles of the Long Island Expressway, crossed over the Throgs Neck Bridge, exited onto I-95 and traveled another 30 miles towards Stamford, I glanced at the telephone number to call in case we got lost in Westport.
“This isn’t a Connecticut number,” I noted while pulling an Esso map out of the glove box to search the index.
“This area code is for Westport, Massachusetts.”
“So? So? It’s another 150 miles down the road.”
“Oh, like I was supposed to know that?”
“You could have asked.”
“I didn’t want to appear stupid.”
“Oh, sure. I get it. As if accepting a lunch date in the morning from someone 250 miles from Huntington registered as smart. Uh-huh.”
It was after four when we finally dragged ourselves through the door of the beach house, but before I could offer an explanation, or apology, Frances hurled a cotton stuffed calico cat at me and smirked, “That’s for making the crack about my ‘eye’ for antiques!”
“Oh yeah?” I sputtered. “Well, then I’m keeping this ratty old rag cat!”
“As intended, my dear. As intended.”
In April of 1986, on the morning of the Connecticut Spring Antiques Show evening opening, we didn’t find Frances in her Manager Only curtained cubbyhole at the back of the Hartford Armory auditorium.
“She might still be at the hospital,” offered Midgie. “She’s not due here until noon.”
But a feeling inside me forewarned otherwise, so we drove down to the New Britain hospital and requested her room number.
“You can’t see her right now,” a nurse told us, visibly shaken. “She was accidentally given a double dose of chemo and the doctors are with her now.”
“Will you tell her we’re here?”
“Who shall I say . . .”
“Marge and Liz. Tell her we’re right here waiting for her.”
Hours later, after the 3 p.m. shift change, a different nurse asked, “You’re here to see someone?”
“Are you family?”
“I’m sorry, but only family members are allowed to see, or inquire about Miss Phipps. Hospital rules.”
By the time we left Hartford that night there was still no word from Frances. The gala went off without a hitch. It was well past midnight when we finally got home, and nearly noon before we heard the news that Frances had passed away. The obituary said she died of a heart attack at 62.
Here’s the thing: Our existence evolves through exchanges, most of it involving how we choose to spend our time in pursuit of whom, or on what we place the greatest value.
Just as the woman at The Antiques Roadshow planned to sell her ancestor’s rag doll in order to ensure her present, so did Frances Phipps plan on preserving her 200 year old calico cat in order to ensure her memory.
Ultimately, life is calculated, not by what we let go of from our wallets, but by what we hang onto in our hearts.
Rag doll: $1,500.00
Rag Cat: Priceless.
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Copyright Marguerite Quantaine © 2016
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I’m all eyes and heart.
Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
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