A number of years ago, looking for something in a rarely used cabinet at my mother's house, I came across drawings of a young child, around two years old with short, neatly parted hair. My name showed that I was the subject. I took them to my mother and asked, "Who drew these?"
She said, "I did."
"You draw? Or drew? I never knew you drew."
"I was an art major in college."
"What? You never told me that." She was probably in her fifties then, which meant I was approaching thirty. "I thought you were always in business."
"No. I studied art at Brown, and I even took classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. After I graduated, the CIA tried to recruit me, and my parents said ‘No.'"
I didn't ask her why the CIA wanted a female art major in 1951. Perhaps art appreciation was required if one spied in Europe.
"My parents didn't want me in the CIA so much that they were happy to pay for Harvard Business School," my mother said. "Harvard was recruiting me, too. Then I met your Dad and the rest is history."
I stared again at one of the drawings. History. She'd been good. "So why did you stop drawing?" I asked.
"Because I was married and I had you. Life happened," she said.
My mother, who'd always been a direct-mail specialist and executive, had this whole other life I hadn't known. It's odd when you think you know someone and realize there's so much there you don't.
I'm thinking about these things these days as I get calls from my two brothers in Minnesota. The youngest one, ten years my junior, the one who visits our mother daily and doesn't notice changes usually, even now says her breathing is bad. She's on oxygen most of the time. Time feels limited. How much more of her don't I know?
Such thoughts caused me to check out flights to Minnesota this Memorial weekend from Los Angeles. I found a reasonable price. I took it. I'll see her.
It'll also give me a chance to look at her house. We're selling it to pay for her care. The insurance that she'd spent years paying for, assuring us that if she became incapacitated, this would pay for everything, isn't paying for anything. This is after we learned that, at best, it would only cover sixty dollars a day. The company says that "incapacitated" means she can't do anything for herself. If you're that far out of action, what kind of medical treatment can you get for $60 a day? Can you even get a Motel 6 for $60 a day?
Her house is what she lived for. It was her dream home, a version of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's lead apprentice and draftsman, John Howe. Howe became a highly regarded architect, too, and her house was the first under his name. Wright had died just after she'd contracted with his company, Taliesin Associates, but Howe would take over. Mom had fallen in love with Wright's architecture in an art class at Brown, and she'd written her honors thesis on Frank Lloyd Wright.
None of this I knew growing up in the house. The house's centerpiece was its sunken living room with a fireplace that extended out like the Guthrie Theatre's thrust stage. A hood of stone collected the smoke. Our family of six could stand in the fireplace, and we could burn logs so thick, they'd go for days. One end of the living room had a built-in couch, built-in bookshelves, and built-in lights within the shelves. A Persian carpet covered much of the floor.
The house was long and narrow with a polished red concrete floor and floor-to-ceiling thermopane windows that extended through the living room and dining room. The windows overlooked nearly seven acres, which were a snowy blanket in the winter and an emerald green lawn and field in the summer. A thick forest was on the edges, so we saw no neighbors at all--still can't. In fact, over the last decade, deers and foxes started living in the woods and sometimes gallop into the field. It's like a live-action Discovery channel there.
With two-acre lots and larger, the neighborhood has gone upscale over the years. Modest houses have given way to mansions with slate roofs. Our guess is that even though our mother's house is an architectural marvel, it's small in comparison to its neighbors and will be knocked down for something huge. After all, no one in the area has so much land as my mother, so it could be an estate.
Growing up with my three brothers, my mother and stepfather, I thought we were poor. We didn't have a garage. Wright didn't believe in them. We had no second floor like all our neighbors. Wright didn't believe in them. Our house seemed to blend into the woods, too--which was his intent.
Even though it was on a hill, it didn't feel overpowering. I later came across a quote of Frank Lloyd Wright's, which explained our house completely: "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other."
As a kid, I never saw our house as some sort of artwork or that it was fueling my spirituality. We moved in when I was in fourth grade, and all the cabinetry was raw wood. Wright wasn't a fan of closets--cabinets were better, and a bank of cabinets ran the whole length of the house, down the straight hallway. We had to stain and polyurethane all the wood. It took us years, and I'm sure that's where my work ethic formed. Every weekend we worked on the house or on the property, adults and kids. Now I'm proud that my labor is in that house. Wax on, wax off.
For the last few years, I've been learning to draw, and now when I look at a great drawing in a museum, I sometimes try to trace the strokes with my finger. You have to feel the art. My hands, arms, back and legs have worked on my mother's house. Its art is within me.
And I've read about Wright. Some of Wright's more famous quotes about architecture work well for the art of writing, too. He said, "The truth is more important than the facts." That's exactly what fiction is.
He said, "The heart is the chief feature of a functioning mind." That's what goes into fiction.
He said, "An idea is salvation by imagination." That's good fiction.
And as my mother labors to breathe, Wright had a thought for her, too: "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."
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