After leaving Boston's MFA on Friday afternoon, I walked through the Fenway to the Isabella Stewart Gardner--another of our favorite museums, but one which I hadn't visited in 25 years, since before the famous heist in which their Vermeer and other masterpieces were stolen (and never recovered). Like the MFA, the Gardner has been encased by a modern addition with a library, gift shop, and restaurant. But once you enter the original home, everything is as it was.
The Gardner courtyard is even more stunning than I remembered--an oasis of Venetian grandeur and calm in the middle of Boston. I sat down on the ledge of the surrounding loggia to enjoy the perfectly-plotted greenery and the dancing white phaleonopsis orchids artfully placed as part of their winter planting. People on balconies throughout the three stories above gazed down, drawn to the elegant beauty and eternal spring of the this immense and perfect glassed-in conservatory. I could feel all the emotions of my day fall off me as I sat taking in its exquisite peace.
Walking through the rooms of the Gardner was like spending a day in the mind of my mother. As in our homes, every room was themed--a Gothic room, Venetian, Spanish, etc. Everything provided a glimpse into a world that no longer exists--the world of wealth and beauty to which my mother always aspired. From the opulence of the wallpapers, the ornate magnificence of the frames, to the extraordinary depth and breadth of the collection--here a Sargent, there a Rembrandt, and tucked around the corner a stunning Japanese screen --Mrs Gardner had clearly been a force with which to be reckoned. Even the dull lighting of the downstairs rooms, making the viewing of some of my favorite Sargent watercolors seem like an intimate encounter, Mrs. Gardner's will still ruled her home. She had clearly been a woman after my mother's heart.
When I was in my early twenties, I made up my mind that I would somehow see all of the 36 (or 37 depending on who you ask) Vermeers in the world. With the help of an extraordinary Vermeer retrospective at the National Gallery during the 1990s, travels to a few obscure places and this past November's trip to Dresden, I have seen all but two. I love Vermeer's quiet eye and glistening sensibility, and so the empty frame where the Gardner Vermeer once was broke my heart. I had seen it before it was stolen, so it wasn't a sense of personal loss. I was brought up to believe that collectors never own art, but merely caretake it. The theft of something that could have been enjoyed by so many reduces art to ego, and while there are many artists and collectors who might have been said to have possessed overweening egos, the true artists and collectors do it for love. However much the person who has that Vermeer today might love it--for the money, for having gotten away with it, even for the piece itself--they have deprived us all something much more important than all of that. . .the opportunity for even one person to have his or her life transformed by seeing.
That evening, I met Pam, my mother's friend and my spiritual mentor of twenty years, and her family at Durgin Park. I had been warned that the restaurant was loud and touristy--known for its theatrically rude servers rather than its great cuisine. We experienced none of that. Our server was delightful--and the food was delicious. I had never met Pam's family, and her daughter and son-in-law, JC and Jenn, turned out to be real foodies--with the kind of knowledge and enthusiasm for collecting great dining experiences that my parents had.
I shared with them my growing understanding of why my parents had written the book--the joy that sharing a meal with friends and strangers, of discovering new places and new palates, brought them. And JC, who had grown up in a large family in Puerto Rico, where every child was assigned a night in the kitchen and family meals were the highlight of the day, quietly said, "Breaking bread together is the ultimate connector."
That's exactly how I felt that night. As we shared recipes, swapped travel stories, tasted one another's dishes, oohed and aahed over pictures of grandchildren, I felt embraced and grateful to be there, for one night to be a part of their family.
JC and Jenn have traveled the world and shared many incredible dining experiences, but their most memorable happened on a night when they almost gave in to jet lag and missed the whole experience of discovering the perfection of a Brest chicken in France. I have never had food on any of my bucket lists, but after hearing their mouthwatering description of their meal, I think I can't get there too soon!
Pam and I each ordered the lobster and were promptly dressed in large checked napkins for our messy repast. Even the fries tasted as though they had been drenched in butter. It was decadent and delicious!
JC and Jenn both ordered dishes that they felt I needed to taste--the Scrod (which, I found out, is not an actual type of fish, but any young whitefish cooked in this delicious New England manner) and the fried clams, which were light and absolutely fabulous. . .nothing like the leaden, chewy ones they served at the Howard Johnsons in California. And for dessert, we had the rich Indian Bread pudding that my parents had included in the cookbook and, because I had never had it before--Boston Cream Pie. The whole evening could not have been better!
The next morning, I said goodbye to Boston as I drove through Cambridge to the Mohawk Trail--the back road that the bus I rode to college follows through the hills of northern Massachusetts. I had taken that bus so many times, and was flooded with memories of those trips. Odd snippets of conversations forever associated with the Mohawk Trail: My stepmother, the British actress Coral Browne, perpetually offered me diet advice when I was in college. I remembered one bus trip when I was contemplating her assertion that anyone who had a hard-boiled egg for breakfast would lose weight, because they are so hard to digest that it helps boost the metabolism. Listening to Joe Jackson and the English Beat on my Walkman. Seeing a motorcycle rider wipe out on one of the hairpin curves in the mountains above North Adams and praying he would get up and walk away. He did.
Although it was mid-March, spring seemed impossibly far away as I drove west through the snow-covered hills, and I remembered how hard it was for this California girl to fathom the Williamstown seasons--a two-month fall, a five-month winter, then mud season--the nice weather only finally arriving just in time for school to end. But mostly I thought about my mom--and the closure I was trying to find after all the emotions of my visit to Boston.
I was lost in thought when something caught my eye and I slammed on the brakes. An entire front yard of a house in the tiny town of Gill was covered with gorgeous turned wood burl bowls. I immediately made an awkward U-turn and parked. My mother loved wood burl as much as anything in the world. She was obsessed--or so it seemed to me as a child--with wood of all kinds. Throughout my childhood, she was always stopping to educate me about wood and trees. I could have cared less! Wood? Trees? Really?! I was unreceptive to say the least--though I was smarter than to let that show. "That tree," she would say, "grows to almost 40 feet and it's wood is the most stunning purple grey." I had tuned out at "that tree" and barely heard a word, though I nodded and smiled the whole way through.
I could shoot myself now. In the ever-unfolding irony of rethinking our childhoods, what I wouldn't give to have really listened to my mother's lessons on wood. Turns out, I love wood, too, and as i design furniture for my clients, how I would love to know all those things she tried to teach me.
I did, however, pay attention to her wood mania just enough to know that anything made of wood burl or other exotic woods was a good gift for her--and over the years I bought her wood pens, cutting boards, mustard knives, while she returned the favor by gifting me koa wood frames, an ebony paper knife, and beautiful cutting boards.
Had the Peterman Gallery in Gill, Massachusetts, been around when my mother was still alive, it would have been her Meccaa and my go-to place for her gifts. I have never seen so many gorgeous wood objects--turned bowls of spalted or ambrosia maple, burl cutting boards,
My tried and true wood salad bowl has been slowly cracking, and I had been looking for its replacement for years. To me, a wood salad bowl is a kind of touchstone, and I was determined to find the perfect one. So far, I had failed, and continued to use my leaky vessel rather than settle for something mediocre. Before I walked in the door of the Peterman Gallery, I knew I would find it there.
I spent fifteen glorious minutes reveling in all of the gorgeous woods, before settling on an ambrosia maple bowl with symmetrical dark explosions caused by the ambrosia beetles. As I stood there admiring the beauty of the bowl, I suddenly knew this was the closure I had been seeking. My mother loved things not just as objects, but for what they stood for--a time, a place, a person, an experience, an emotion, an idea. This bowl captured all that. . .and more. I could feel my mother smiling.
An hour after leaving Gill, I met my former art history mentor, Eva Grudin, for lunch in Williamstown. Although we hadn't seen one another since my graduation, we have stayed in touch--and we settled in as though no time had passed at all. . .let alone 30 years.
I took my first class with Eva during the second semester of my sophomore year. It was a heady time for me--I had been cast as the lead in Noel Coward's Hay Fever in the mainstage production, and been taken under the wing of one of the rock star students of the art history department. The fact that someone whose off-the-charts intellect so impressed me would choose to mentor me was a huge shot in the arm to my self-esteem. I felt like I was finally coming into my own. But it was in Eva's African art class that the light bulb finally went off.
Up to that point, I had seen myself as mediocre on every level--not as smart as all my summa cum laude friends, not as pretty as all the surfer girls of my high school, not as talented as my incredibly talented parents. But one day in Eva's class, I started to think about the connection between the African art I had grown up with and the German Expressionist art movement with which I had become fascinated when I was living in Germany as an exchange student in my teens. I knew I was on to something--a kind of connection that sparked my intellect. I would later realize that it was the first time I felt interesting and intelligent.
It was a turning point and the first time I clued into what has been the guiding principle behind everything I do--something that, a few years later, I would come to call my Wildflowers by the Side of the Road Theory. On a road trip across the US one summer in my early twenties with two dogs and a friend in a baby blue 1963 convertible VW bug, I noticed that wildflowers grew in the greatest profusion right by the side of the road. At first, that really offended my aesthetic sensibilities. Why couldn't they grow where it was more scenic, I thought to myself--like in the fields on the other side of the fence? Eventually I realized that wildflowers grow best where the soil has been disturbed--and they love that spot right beside the ugly black tarmac.
Like the connection I made between African Art and German Expressionism, I realized that the best things happen in those liminal spaces between two seemingly disparate things. It has become my guiding principle of design, of writing, and of all my creative efforts. And, of course, it was something I could understand because that's how I grew up--with parents who wrote a cookbook that brought together travel, food, design, and the collecting of experience to create one of the most beloved books of its or any kind. The apple never falls. . .
The best part of my lunch with Eva was getting to know her better--something that is never quite possible between a student and teacher. But now, as adults, we could meet as equals. I was telling her about my mom, and about my trip to China, when she exclaimed, "I was born in China!" and proceeded to tell me her own amazing life story. Her Viennese parents fled Europe before Hitler closed in, taking refuge in the only free port still open to Jews--Shanghai. There the Jewish community opened its arms to the refugees and created a community that heralded some of the finest schools in the world. There Eva was born in the Jewish ghetto, eventually returning with her parents to Vienna before the emigrated to Ohio.
We found ourselves talking about things--not the great things we had studied as art historians--but the things to which we attach meaning and that somehow become the talismans of a life. For her mother, it was an old enamel pot--unremarkable, heavy, worn with use--never left behind over decades, across continents, even fleeing Hitler. What had that pot meant to her? How can certain "things" come to embody something so much larger than what we are--something that may never be known to another person?
I showed Eva the cookbook, which she had never seen. She knew that my parents had an extraordinary art collection because early on in our African art class, she had shown a slide of a sculpture that is regarded as the greatest Epa Yoruba mask and had announced that, oddly enough, it belonged to an actor named Vincent Price. The class tittered but said nothing, so afterwards I went up and told her that he was my dad and that my mom and I lived with that mask. In fact, it was one of the reasons I was in her course.
That extraordinary Epa mask was one of my best friends growing up--a powerful female guardian in my life. Showing her some of the other rooms filled with pre-Columbian, Native American, and African figures, she was blown away and said, "You didn't have any idea that how you grew up was so extraordinary, did you?" But I did. I saw that my friends' homes weren't perfectly designed and filled to the brim with art. But mostly I knew that I felt different in other people's homes. It wasn't so much what we had in our house, but how we all felt about it. The art wasn't there on display. It was there to be lived with. It became part of the family. It was, well, us.
Six hundred miles and 24 hours later, I drove into Toledo, Ohio, seeking out the museum where I hoped to find my old friend. But as I walked up the steps of the grand colonnade, I could only hope my quest would come to fruition--not knowing whether I would find her. Five minutes later, I was standing in a sculpture gallery dissolved into unexpected floods of tears. There she was, waiting for me, more beautiful than I had remembered her. Her dark brown patina glistening with care, her blue accents gleaming. Strong arms, powerful features, that protective embrace. The emotion surprised me. I had lived with her for eighteen years and visited her at my mother's home for another two decades. She was always there to greet us in the front hall of any home in which she lived. But now she lived here--which is what my mother wanted. We knew one another so well, but now her arms reach out to more than just her twins, more than just our family, more than just me. They reach to a world of people whom she draws into her power. The tears were not tears of loss, but of the gratitude--for having known her, for my mother's wisdom in finding her this home, and for the strength and power they both gave me growing up.
It all comes full circle.
(From the Toledo Museum website: :This monumental mask supports six small figures arranged around a mother of twins (iyabeji), reflecting the Yoruba saying, “It is she who holds within her womb the future promise of community.” (Bold type is mine!) Twins (ibeji) are highly symbolic to the Yoruba people, who have the highest twinning rate in the world. The sculpture celebrates both the ase (life-force) and ewa (beauty) that the gods have bestowed upon the woman depicted.)