Monday, March 25, 2019

Aunt Connie

I have a long and diverse list of artists who have inspired me, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, Wayne Thibaud, Hans Holbein, Hillary Knight, Alexander Calder…and Aunt Connie.

Aunt Connie  was an artist whose canvas, her magnum opus, was her house.

Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut once had a summer cottage by the sea in Westhampton Beach, Long Island.  The great hurricane of 1938 washed away that house and even the land it stood upon.  All that was left was a bucket and an old bookcase.

They believed it was the Lord’s doing that they and their children were safe in New Jersey when the storm came, so when they found a house near us in Sag Harbor they named it “Grateful Haven” and took as their motto the Bible verse Matthew 7:25;

“And the rains descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

    Durrell and Constance Tuttle, and their children, Bette and Porter, became our family’s closest neighbors and friends.   Aunt Connie was tall, Uncle Tut was short.  She said that when she announced her engagement and was asked to describe her fiance she said, “Well, he’s rather like Napoleon.”  He was Napoleonic in stature only; a mild mannered, soft spoken man who thought Aunt Connie could do no wrong. She called him Daddsy and he called her Dollin’.  She always looked cool and crisp in her summer dresses and spectator pumps.  

    Grateful Haven stood so close to the water that in some of its rooms you felt like you were in a ship at sea.  Nobody knew how it actually came to be--it might have been a warehouse for bootleggers during Prohibition days.

     There were French doors across the whole front and two large unmatched windows above so that it looked a little like a smiling face winking at you. It had a jaunty tilt and very few straight lines or right angles.

    You entered a great room--so big that a ping pong table sat by the door without feeling obtrusive. Over that was a wagon wheel chandelier.

    Who said “Less is more?”  Aunt Connie’s  credo was “Less is a bore.” No wall or surface was left unadorned. The interior was unfinished and in each niche created by the vertical studs was a still life--a picture she had picked up at a junk shop, a piece of driftwood, a little vase with one flower.  She painted roses and ivy all over the old upright piano.  On the wall of her dining room she painted the map of Peconic Bay, with a star where Grateful Haven stood.

     Painting on the walls?!  No one in my family would dream of such a thing.

     It was a magical house. In a game of hide and seek several years after they moved in, the children pulled up a rug they’d never noticed to find a trap door. 

     They pulled that open and found a room below with a tunnel running a hundred feet under the lawn all the way to a room under the gazebo with a still, proof of the house’s bootlegging days. That was quickly removed by the teetotaling Tuttles.            

Upstairs was Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut’s bedroom, the same gigantic size as the living room except for a chunk taken out for the bathroom.  It was called Texas because Aunt Connie’s sister, having done a little housekeeping, came downstairs and said,
“Well, I’ve just finished sweeping the great state of Texas.”

    Not everyone was as enchanted as I was.  My grandfather said, “As many chairs as Connie’s got there’s not one you can sit in.” But I didn't care about comfortable chairs.  While the grown ups talked I would look around and try to decide what I would save if I knew the flood was coming.  I usually chose a china chicken from her collection.

    My teacher, Robert Beverly Hale, said, “One’s work is nothing but the long journey through life to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three great and simple images that first gained access to one’s heart.”

Look who now lives on top of my kitchen cabinets.

When I was grown up I took a friend who wrote about design for New York Magazine to see Aunt Connie's house and she swooned, “This place is beyond charming!”  Thus confirming my childhood conviction.

Why was Aunt Connie my inspiration? She had qualities every artist needs:
She was resiliant, After her first house was washed away she gave thanks that her family was safe and then she started over again at Grateful Haven. If you lose everything you have, start right over and know that whatever you’ve made before, there’s more where that came from.  I once left two finished drawings on the subway and I went right back to the studio to do them again while the image was fresh.

She had discernment.  William Morris said, “If you want a golden rule, have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  As much stuff as Aunt Connie collected, there was nothing that was not either beautiful or useful, and everything was mostly both, and all arranged with order and a plan.  I hate clutter. Was that house cluttered?  NO. There’s clutter and then there’s abundance.

She was resourceful. There was nothing that cost a lot of money--she had an eagle eye for wonderful things and if she saw something she liked she could usually figure out how to make one like it or better.  She saw some beach chairs on her travels and duplicated them for our beach.  They were funny looking but surprisingly comfortable and light enough to carry. Not really lounge chairs but Aunt Connie wan't a lounging kind of person.

She was industrious; she always had a project.  My grandmother would say, “Connie’s always fussing with something.” As much as I loved my serene MomMom, I also admired Aunt Connie’s busy ways. I have learned that when my hand is working my mind is engaged and focused instead of running in all directions as it did in school.

    But industry without imagination can fall flat. I think Aunt Connie’s greatest gift to me was insouciance, defined by the dictionary as “casual lack of concern, indifference.”

I would add joy.  Her aesthetic was whimsical and offbeat and she stood by it proudly with an attitude of “whatever I like works.” She gave me the freedom in my drawings to say, “A pelican in the window? A rhino in the kitchen?  Why not!

    My grandparents’ house was beautiful; solid and austere, decorated with family pictures and Bible verses.  It’s my sturdy foundation.  But Aunt Connie’s house showed me how to let loose and have a little fun.  I'm grateful for both.

Who was your Aunt Connie?

Friday, March 22, 2019


Is it really time for March Madness? The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament begins next Tuesday so basketball is on everyone's mind, even mine.

Remember the little black books I wrote about a few weeks ago? I pulled out these two pictures from 1991.

These little athletes are playing in New York City’s Junior Basketball League.

Then look at this shot, the starting lineup of Duke University’s basketball team. The caption says “Duke’s starting five, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Jason Williams, Chris Duhon and Dahntay Jones, can be an imposing group.”

Arthur tells me all five went on to careers in the N.B.A.

They could be the little guys all grown up, although they’re not; the two pictures were taken around the same time.

Looking at these two photos together makes me think of the Sugarplum Fairy.

Stay with me here.

In the second act of Balanchine’s Nutcracker, the Sugarplum Fairy dances surrounded by her court of young dancers, students of the American School of Ballet.She's the epitome of effortless grace and beauty.

It’s my favorite moment in the ballet.  They look up at her and see the embodiment of their dreams. 

Here they are rehearsing together.

"Stand up straight, hold in your tummy, do this with your hands."

Ballet is the art of making enormous hard work appear effortless.It's all about the dream; the seed and the flower. Where does it begin and what's required of us to make a dream come true?

I saw Mets shortstop Jose Reyes make a diving catch--fully stretched out, flat on his belly on the grass and the next second he was on his feet; he pivoted and threw to first for a double play.  How many crunches and burpees did it take to achieve that easy grace?

Here’s a story from our family legend.  Arthur and my dad were talking—Dad was going on and on about a friend he greatly admired, “He’s just a wonderful person—a perfect person...Well, I can’t say that because we know there was only one perfect man.”

Dad of course meant Jesus, but Arthur said, “I Assume you mean Pete Maravitch.”
[that's Pete Maravich of the scraggly hair and floppy socks, all time NCAA division I scorer, played for three NBA teams until injuries ended his career.]

I've read that Maravitch as a kid, took his basketball wherever he went-even to the movies. He’d sit in an aisle seat and dribble all through the show.  That may be an apocryphal story, but it rings true; Pistol Pete strove for perfection. He dreamed of playing in the NBA and he knew what it took to get there.

It’s not only with athletes; Mary Oliver said, “Lord knows when I started writing poetry it was rotten… but I kept at it.  With my pencil I’ve travelled to the moon and back several times."

Pablo Casals, in his nineties, was asked why he still practiced at his cello for hours every day.  He replied, “I think I’m getting somewhere.”

Any gift—a talent, a garden, a baby, THE EARTH, takes work to bring it to flower. We all know how to get to Carnegie Hall.

Friday, March 8, 2019

My Grandmother

This is how Jessie described a visit to my grandmother n her school journal.

My grandmother, we called her MomMom, died early in the morning on my Jessie’s 7th birthday.

We were staying  at her home at the time, and after several hours of phone calls and business, after the doctor and the undertaker had left, I looked at Jessie and thought, this little girl needs a celebration.

So I drove to town to buy a cake, then went to the party store and bought 7 pink balloons and one purple to grow on. I headed out the door. The spiky chandelier in the entry way caught a balloon and POP! I went back, they replaced it for free and I headed out again, this time holding my bouquet very low. On the street I passed a woman with a lit cigarette and POP!

I went back to the store and this time I paid for the replacement. I headed out again, holding the balloons in a tight cluster. As they rubbed against each other, they heated up, the air and helium inside expanded and POP! Just like we learned in fourth grade science class.

I went back.  They were not happy to see me. I asked the helium person not to fill them quite so full and she looked at me like I was speaking a strange language. I finally got the balloons to the car and put them in the back seat.

They rose up and completely filled the back window, blocking my view. I backed out of the angle parking space VERY cautiously and ever so gently tapped an on-coming car. A crabby old man got out to inspect his fender and then drove off ignoring my profuse apologies. I wanted to say to him, “Sir, if you only know the day I’m having…”

I guess you can’t expect kindness from someone you’ve just dinged. I drove home carefully and we had a party in the midst of the funeral plans.

My Grandmother, Louise Mayhew Russell Swanson, loved the Bible and Jesus, and she held an unshakable faith in the resurrection. In her circle Death was referred to as “Going Home.”
Sojourner Truth, said at the end of her life; “I’m not dying--I’m going home like a shooting star!” I like to think MomMom went home like

a burst of pink balloons.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

My Friend, Valerie Bessette

    Yesterday was the birthday of my friend, Valerie Bessette.

    She and I went to High School together. Val was petite with silvery blond hair.  She played the Good Witch Glinda in our High School production of the Wizard of Oz.   The next year she played the lead in Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen.  Her character carried a tiny dog wherever she went, but nobody in Vermont has a tiny dog--the closest we could find was a forty pound poodle.  Val made her entrance buried under that dog with perfect aplomb.  And that was her way--she could handle anything.

    The summer we were twenty-one I was languishing in Stowe with a bad boyfriend, a pile of debts and no plans for my future.  Valerie came home from New York City where she’d been going to Parson’s School of Design.  She was living my dream life.

    She suggested we take a day trip to an art gallery in the next town. Just getting out of town opened something up in me.  I remember one painting, a huge abstract with squares of bright yellow.
I don’t remember what Val and I talked about that day,

except that she told me she had a two bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and she needed a roommate.

   Talk about a good witch.

     So in September of 1969 I moved to New York City, got a job in a ski shop and started taking classes at the School of Visual Arts. We had a great year and mostly got along well.  When we walked together in the rain she always carried the umbrella, even though she was shorter than me. It would bump on my head, but it didn’t occur to either of us that I should carry it—Val carried the umbrella.

    Neatness and order were very important to Val and I was a slob. My messes bothered her so much that she would clean my room, just so she wouldn't have to look at it.  Years later, when I had learned to appreciate order and had two kids messing up my house, I said to her,

    “I know that with all my messiness I was awful for you to live with, and I’m really really sorry.”
    Valerie just looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

    Remember what Arthur said about  letting go?

    Here we are at her wedding.

     Val was a wonderful mother to her son, Ted. They made a pet of the spider who spun  a web in their cellar door and named her Charlotte.

     She made sure Ted was steeped in the rules of civility.  When he was barely three I helped him into a chair and said, “Let’s slide your butt back here.”

      He said sternly, “We don’t use that language in this house.”
      In May of 2004 Val went for a check up and after some tests the doctor told her she couldn’t go home.  

    It was Acute Myeloid Leukemia.  She died on August 22 of that year.
    I miss her. I miss the talks we could be having now.  I’m so sorry she never got to see Ted become a man. 

    I'll always be grateful to her and for her.

    The last time I saw Val we met at an outdoor cafe in the midst of a sun shower.  I can still see her walking towards me, the raindrops sparkling all around her in the sun.

Thanks to Carol Skinger for filling me in with some details, and also to Jodi and Erica; the Skinger girls were Val’s sisters.


Christmas in July

I've been feeling a little uninspired and overwhelmed by papers and stuff, torn by needing to clear the decks and get rid of everything ...