In Memoriam P.H.F.

It’s with much sadness that I dedicate this post to my weird and wonderful stepdad, Peter Freeman, who died on February 8.


I’m struggling with where to start, because the things I have to say about Pete could fill a book; his life could fill a series. He was scarily intelligent, and could debate any seasoned academic on politics, history, or art. He was loud, hilarious, naughty, campy, and irreverent—I can’t tell you all the dance moves and great one-liners he taught me. He hated small-mindedness, and loved originality and beauty in all forms. He could be opinionated, high maintenance, and a total pain in the ass. He was the life of every party, and sooooo cool—our commie leprechaun with the handlebar mustache.

(WARNING: This is going to be a lengthy, bleeding-heart tribute, so stop now if you could care less, or scroll down to see photos of Pete’s talents. For those interested in the Coolest Man on Earth, read on!)

Pete was my mom’s high school boyfriend. They dated for four years—50s punks in berets, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, sucking face in his father’s ’57 Chevy (no joke), blasting baroque records in my grandparents’ living room, making fun of the dumb jocks in school. (A little aside: My mom famously resigned as National Honor Society president when their closeted principal began letting said jocks into NHS based on “athletic ability”; afterward, the school’s superintendent called her “a malcontent and a snob.” Go Jane!)


The malcontent/snob and Pete at her junior prom, 1958

Mom and Pete drifted apart in college—she at nursing school in Syracuse, he studying history at Boston College—married other people, had kids. Cut to 30 years later, spring of 1995. They’re both 53/4 and divorced. On a whim, Mom writes to Peter and proposes lunch in NYC. They walk through Central Park and have coffee at the Met. More visits follow, and then plans to meet in Boston, for the Early Music Festival (wink wink). They marry a week later, on June 24. (Pete’s proposal to Mom was: “Will you be my bitch?”)

Here’s a photo of their wedding, at their friends’ farm in Wallkill, New York (this was also the day I met Pete):

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Peter is my raison d’être when it comes to working on my house. He taught me early on that you don’t need a lot of money to have beautiful things, just an eye for the good stuff, and time to put in to hunt for it and then do the work. He encouraged me to frame anything I liked (old calendar pages, weird needlepoints, vintage book illustrations, an Upper West Side artist’s sketches found on trash day) and then taught me how to hang it properly, using a pencil, a tape measure, and the right OOK. He taught me how to strip, sand, and varnish wood, how to choose a stain and paint a room. He taught me how to silver-leaf, use a table saw, identify wood types (sort of… I still have trouble sometimes). He also taught me by example that it’s cool to fly my freak flag and that I shouldn’t care so much—or at all—what other people think.

Peter could have done anything he wanted in life, and he most certainly did, but professionally, he chose to work in NYC’s welfare system. Not an easy or glamorous job, especially for a sophisticated guy like Pete. He spent 31 years advocating for poor and working-class New Yorkers, women, minorities, and gays; he was a union organizer and writer/editor for various activist publications. And he was passionate about all of it. He also loved classical music, opera, disco, and Bette Milder. Here’s one of my favorite photos of him, at work in the 1970s, wearing his Divine Miss M concert T-shirt:


I remember shortly after meeting him, Pete telling me about taking his single-mother welfare clients to the Salvation Army in Harlem, where he’d help them pick out furniture for their subsidized apartments; he’d then show them how to make those apartments prettier than they ever thought possible. He did the same thing with me.

Since I was a lil’ rat, I’ve been into vintage clothes—hunting them down, taking them apart, altering them, giving them new life—so Pete and I bonded quickly over our love of old stuff. (He sealed the deal early on when he gave me his collection of 50s bowling shirts.) Even though Pete retired and moved upstate to Mom’s house shortly after their wedding, we saw each other often—me traveling upstate and them to NYC—and we’d go to thrift stores and rummage sales to look for treasures.

Back then, in the mid to late 90s, I spent a lot of time moving from apartment to apartment, each place an improvement over the last. A lot of my nicer things were discards from Pete, who was constantly updating his “collection.” With every move—somehow it was always to a fifth-floor walkup—Pete and Mom were right there with me, hauling, painting, sewing, cooking, and partying down. The two of them were like a traveling road show of great food, Vivaldi, intelligent conversation, a three-legged orange tabby named Buster (“Prince and Heir!” Pete would trumpet when the cat hobbled into the room), pure silliness, and a shitload of love.

By 1998, Peter had had enough of upstate New York (understandable—it’s cold, and a far cry from NYC) and fled with Mom and my grandmother to Cape Cod, where they bought a wretched old crack den/rental house with oak floors soaked in dog pee, BBs and paw prints in/on the ceilings (still a mystery, that one), and an old Mercedes rusting in the backyard (though at least it was a Benz, yo). It was here that they discovered the joys of estate sale-ing; this also became the moment for Pete’s big dream: restoring and decorating his first house.

Peter always loved antique furniture—Federal-era (1789-1823) especially—but now that he had a place to work and a house to put things, he went cray cray. Understatement of the year: His talents put mine to shame, completely. But then his talents put pretty much everyone/everything to shame, and it’s only after you see the work he’s done and hear him explain a piece’s provenance and all its details that you realize how much crap furniture is out there, no matter where it was bought or how much it cost. (Peter smiled down—up?—at me as I wrote that.)

Here are a few of Pete’s masterpieces (in a house filled with them):


A prewar mahogany sideboard Pete refinished sometime in the 90s. He bought it at a Staten Island antique store for $50. Above it is a massive mirror he spent two weeks gold-leafing, day and night. It was the last major project Pete worked on—his swan song.

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Chinese linen cupboard, made of camphor wood, bought for $75 (Pete was the only bidder at the Sandwich Auction House). He spent over a month refinishing it.


HMS Victory model ship Pete bought at an estate sale for $100. He restored it to be an exact replica of the 1765 warship. He and Mom visited the actual ship (now a museum) in Portsmouth, England, in 2013.


Mahogany dresser from the American Classical period (1800-1850). Bought at auction for $100 (dealers overlooked it because it had two holes on top for an absentee mirror, which Pete covered with marble). This is Pete’s only original antique piece.


Maple/mahogany toolbox, $20 estate sale find. It had been left outdoors, and was covered with oil stains. Pete refinished it and restored the brass hardware. It’s now displayed (with tools inside) under the mahogany sideboard.


Baker mahogany china cabinet, bought for $2,000 at a PA antique store in 1997. Pete and Mom brought it home on top of their minivan on a windy day. When Pete stripped it, he uncovered the flame mahogany veneer on the lower doors. He painted the interior to coordinate with the dining room, and installed an elaborate lighting system to illuminate his prized Wedgwood collection.

Laurie Anderson’s wonderful documentary Heart of a Dog deals with the deaths of her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, and her husband, Lou Reed. “The purpose of death is the release of love,” she said, and it’s a line that made my whole brain light up, because it’s true, and a sanative way of looking at such a dismal time. Pete’s death has been nothing but an outpouring of love—love, and total gratitude for all the intelligence, humor, and beauty he brought into our lives.

Peter’s death feels like the end of a long, great party, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this. The dance moves and one-liners may have stopped, but he’s still very much alive in the beautiful home he created, the home he helped me create, the unique skills he taught me, and in all the people who loved him. And that’s pretty freakin’ cool.

What a man! What a life!