Gregory Smolij didn’t have many prized possessions, but he had this fairy lamp—featuring a beautiful if mercurial Tinkerbell lounging on mushrooms and a crescent moon (as all fairies do). Above her is a small pink bulb, which you can use when you need a soft light. Above that, there is an all-out 60-watt GE REVEAL bulb. The original shade—a two-tiered affair that resembled a pink, fringed wedding cake—is missing.
Gregory and his wife Eva bought the lamp in 1956, to match a new turquoise sectional sofa. This was the same week they paid cash for a new two-bedroom brick ranch off Warren Avenue in Detroit. Gregory worked afternoons on the assembly line at Ford Rouge, and Eva worked mornings at Cabot Tool & Dye. They’d been married for twelve years. They had one daughter (my mother), and had lived in a Nazi labor camp, an American Red Cross refugee camp, the tenements of Brooklyn, and now they had this house.
Late at night, when Gregory sat in his chair, wracked and spent from slapping dashboards into Mustangs, he sat by the lamp, reading the Ukrainian newspapers. He must’ve thought things like this: How can a man like me, who once had nothing, not even food or shelter, own such a wonderful lamp? Look at her, this shining temptress, perched on her toadstool in a sheer skirt and bikini, her face in a sly half-smile, one leg pointed straight out with a flexing calf, the other leg bent, a knee pointing towards heaven. Turn on the small pink bulb over her head and see how her flesh glows.
Oh, look at her! With the work of my hands, I have earned her beauty!
These were famous times.
This summer, the sky in Detroit is tinged with fire and grit, the by-products of old industry. Even sunny afternoons look sad and purple. Gregory died three years ago. His widow, Eva, has the old house up for sale. The house is our last connection to Detroit. After this, my family is officially among the fled. Eva would stay, but we—sensible, prudent people—are making her leave. The streetlights are busted up and down her block. Her house has been broken into several times. What choice do we have? She can’t stay here, alone after dark.
When Gregory died, I went through his things, and I went home with this lamp. I drove 400 miles to my new city—Madison, Wisconsin—with the fairy belted next to me in the passenger seat.
This is where the lamp is now, with me. Here it is well loved for its kitsch value and its tackiness and its working-class yearnings for opulence. I could sell it to the hipsters on State Street. They would display this lamp, and their drab efficiencies would veer toward the ironic.
Here, the lamp is not a symbol of hope and work. We no longer believe in fairies. We no longer pay cash. We no longer save our money to buy turquoise sofas and light. Here, this fairy is a symbol of something laughably outdated. Oh, those old, sentimental words: promise and perseverance and prosperity! Who needs them? Who says those things anymore?
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