All my life I’ve been intrigued by paper. I’ve loved the sound of a sheet of Ivory Vellum being yanked through the platen of a typewriter. The smooth edges of a freshly cut reem. The pebbled surface and deckled edges of a stiff sheet of 300 weight cotton cold press. The rainbow of potential exposed as you fan through a fresh stack of construction paper.
Bindery is the magical form that organizes these clean sheets into virtual novels and narratives. A thick spiral of wire joins the top edge of a stack of papers to a hard cardboard backing and gives each page of a pad the opportunity to be turned to prominence. A group of lined or unlined signatures, perfectly bound beg to be filled logically from front to back. Even the lowly rubber glue at the top of a legal pad brings order to chaos, while allowing you to remove an errant leaf without disturbing the flow of pages.
As a boy I lived in a suburban neighborhood. Our streets created regular sized rectangles and these blocks were scored into evenly sized lots. Each lot had a one-family house, surrounded by green yards. These houses varied in size and style. Two bedroom, four bedroom, one floor, two floors, maybe three. But these differences were within acceptable limits. This regularity was enhanced by the unique qualities of the homes. It was not interrupted by them.
This was true on each block for the one mile walk between my grade school and my home, except on Cedar Street. On Cedar Street the regularity was broken by a three-story brick industrial building, surrounded by asphalt parking on a quadruple lot that cut deep into the center of the residential block. It was only as an adult that I figured out this building was an offset print shop. We called it The Paper Factory.
Any day of the year was trick or treat at The Paper Factory. We didn’t have to wait until October to enter their customer service entrance and beg.
About once a week, while walking home from school, four of five of us would stop by. The man behind the counter would hand out a stack of freshly trimmed paper, cut from oversized sheets. These were the leftovers from the day’s print jobs.
Sometimes these rectangular stacks of paper, with odd aspect ratios, would have visited the gum binder, and were crafted into writing pads. We’d accept our gifts and head for home. I don’t know what others did with their paper, but I hoarded mine. I knew that paper, in its pure state could not be improved upon. No pen, pencil, or brush could mark a sheet without ruining the sanctity of its homogeneous potential.
Many times I had made the mistake of beginning a drawing, or a sentence in a fresh book or pad, only to realize that I had ruined it. I would set it on a stack on my desk, or under my bed. It was now blemished with the imperfect scrawl with which I had desecrated the front page. This sentence fragment or smudged attempt at drawing didn’t just ruin the first page, but turned the whole book from treasure to trash. I would not discard the book, but rather leave it in sight, like the corpse of a perished friend. It was a reminder of the danger and ruination of putting pen to paper.
I know when I began to learn the value of imperfection. For ten years I ran a children’s theater program each summer with my wife and a few friends. Each teacher had a skill they shared, improv, dance, song, aikido, theater arts all. As I had no real interest in theater, per se, I ran the art department.
I would bring a stack of refrigerator boxes from town, and with a group of ten or fifteen kids, we would paint sets in tempra. The scenes of a Western Town, a Chinese Royal Court, or a Yellow Brick Road would be tacked up on the back wall of the stage to define the environment. Next, we would use small pieces of cardboard and wood, painted to look like the props each scene needed.
These kids ranged in age from six to sixteen, so the fact that my skill set fell somewhere in the middle seemed like a strength.
One week we decided that the Samurai Princess’s chambers should be decorated with open fans. We cut out one hundred semi-circles of corrugated cardboard. We painted them to look like folded paper fans. Depending on each child’s skill, the fans ranged from virtual trompe l’oeil to barely recognizable. Once we had stapled these cardboard cutouts to the wall of stage right, they became a motif. It was a pattern of repeated paper fans that was easily readable from the audience.
Those less successful renditions didn’t interrupt the regular order, but rather became part of the pattern.
It is said that even Turkish rug makers who spend years stitching an intricate pattern, intentionally weave in a flaw, so as not to annoy the gods with their lack of humility.
Now I try to cover my pages with my imperfect renderings. I force myself to go on until the pattern of my efforts obscures my errors.
I’ve learned that unless you are a binder, a blank book is a waste of creative potential.
Through experimentation , you’ll find an approach that works for you. You might like to begin at the heart of your subject, placing the eyes and mouth in pleasing relation before moving on. Or you might find that a horizon line and intersecting vertical gives you a place to land your subject in space. I like to start with the objects in the foreground before placing my subject. These things, whose shapes are unbroken by overlapping objects, give a landing place for my subject, and insure I don’t continue a line or form into an area actually obscured by surroundings. This also gives me an area of relative size that ensures that I can fit my subject into its surroundings, rather than discover, too late, that an arm placed in one spot on the picture plane means the head will actually miss the whole page and land in space, beyond the margins.
It’s valuable to try a variety of approaches to find the method that gives you the most satisfaction.
Before I put pen to paper, I consider the challenges of perspective that my chosen composition will give me. Look at your subject. Now, don’t turn your head, but move your eye to the edges of your planned picture plane. The more eye movement your composition requires, the more distortion of perspective will be needed to execute the sketch successfully.
If you want to ignore observed perspective, which will make your sketching life easier, hold you drawing surface roughly at arms length. Now back up until your paper covers your chosen composition. There! You’ve placed yourself in a spot where you’ll be able to largely ignore rules of perspective. It is like using a telephoto lens on your camera. This long lens tends to flatten your subject. If you are too close, and your eye needs to travel a great deal from top to bottom of your subject, your point of view becomes more like a wide angle lens, causing substantial parallax distortion. Think of an image photographed with a fish eye lens. This is the logical extreme of wide angle photography. Just imagine the distorted lines needed to compress this space into a flat picture plane when your angle of regard is so broad.
Now you can picture the opposite end of the ocular focal length. How simple it is to render the observed lines in a pleasing fashion.
If you are like me, there is nothing more perfect than the unbroken field of a plank page. Your first mark is like a contrail crossing an azure blue sky. The simple perfectction of the open space is ruined but the blemish of the first line.
If you share my point of view, you must make yourself a promise. Before you begin, promise to fill the page with your planned composition. Don’t stop until your’ve completed a sketch that includes the scope of your chosen subject as well as those elements of background that land you subject in space. No matter how erroeous your first line seem, no matter how disappointed you feel in your ability to find the correct place to start; promise you’ll finish your sketch.
If this exercise takes more than five or ten minutes, then you are probably beginning with a subject that has too much detail, or, you are being too tentative in committing your lines.
Once you have fulfilled your promise, and completed a simple observed sketch, I have a promise for you.
My promise is that if you complete your sketch and look at it dispassionately , it will give you substantial satisfaction, more than you expect. If you find yourself still hypercritical of your efforts. Turn the page on your sketch book, and return to your drawing tomorrow. In 24 hours, you’ll begin to see more of your successes and less of your errant lines.
I didn’t know her as a young woman, or a girl. I didn’t know the co-ed attending Barnard College. Nor did I know her in Paris with her closest friend Marie Birmingham. I never saw the cold water flat on Sullivan Street where she first lived with her husband, my father, William Birmingham, for $14 a month. I never knew her at Mentor Omega or Cross Currents working side by side with my dad as a young professional in the 50’s, a time when I later learned this was less common for a young mother.
I am her youngest son. I knew my mom, Mary Louise Birmingham, as a mother, a mentor, and an inspiration.
I first remember my mom as a mother of five, a professional woman taking the train into New York City each morning as an editor in Praeger’s Young Readers Department. Somehow, while raising us and maintaining our home life in Hackensack she was able to develop an accomplished career in publishing.
She was an editor at Mentor-Omega and then, with my dad put together an encyclopedia of Catholicism. She’d worked on Cross Currents and, I’m sure, other projects and jobs, but by the 70’s she was working full time for Praeger as an executive editor.
Then one day Praeger decided to close down its Young Readers Department, and so she was out of work. Her career in letters ended in a year when it seemed as though only Jackie Onassis was being hired to work in publishing. Mom took a year or so at home, collecting unemployment. She started knitting during that year and thought about her future. At a time of life when so many complain about the wrench that is thrown in the works of their career by outside forces, Mom decided to return to school and become a nurse.
In her mid-fifties she returned to school to get her nursing credentials. She did it rather quickly, as she “challenged” courses, taking home the text book, Chemistry for instance, and studying it cover to cover, only returning to the classroom to take the final exam and earn that course’s credit.
In her late 50’s Mom embarked on a second career as a hospice nurse at Beth Israel in New York City. She worked twelve hour shifts. This was a time when the typical hospice patient was not a little old lady with graying hair but a young man cut down in his prime by HIV. In those days, the scourge of Aids ran rampant, leaving mothers to bury their sons, as it should not be.
She continued working as a nurse for most of twenty years.
Through this I learned from her that it is never too late to pursue your dreams and your passion. A few weeks ago I saw a “Man on the Street” column in the local paper asking “What do you wish you had studied in school?” The answers came from twenty and thirty year olds, lamenting the path they had taken, and the doors they saw as closed. “If only they knew my mom,” I thought, “they would have learned as I did, that it is never too late to learn.”
Long ago, she told me a story of walking home from work. A boy in his early twenties approached her on the sidewalk. He was a red-headed well-spoken kid and asked her. “Lady, can you spare a dollar.” My mom looked at him and asked, “I am almost 70 years old, and I just finished working a twelve hour shift at the hospital. Why should I give you money?”
“You shouldn’t,” he said as he walked away.
I often wonder if that young man learned something from my mom that day. I hope he did. When I first left home, I know I was a trial for my mom and my dad. I left New Jersey after high school, and pursued a life “on the road.” At one point I was living in tent in a cow pasture, and I would sit in the evenings watching the cattle on the hill, content in the sunset light, and I would think “If only I could learn to graze.”
I saw that as a perfect if unattainable solution to my goal of a peaceful life. I don’t think that is the type of ambition that makes one’s parents proud. However, my mom always expressed to me how proud she was of the choices I was making, and how glad she was that I was living the life I chose.
I’m sure as I reflect back that there must have been some other thoughts that crossed her mind. She must have had some difficult nights wondering what would become of me. She never expressed those fears; she kept them to herself, and just shared her love and support.
As a father, I try to remember that lesson. My kids will tell you that I often fail. But they can be sure when I succeed, its because I try to live up to the example my mom set for me.
When I met Erin almost thirty years ago, it was time to turn my life around. I had recently adopted a dog, who joined me living under a redwood tree in Big Sur.
“I’m going to have to change my life,” I thought. “I can’t treat a dog the way I’ve been treating myself for the last seven years.” This idea resonated through my head, and became a guiding force for me to move forward, and maybe build a life for myself that at least a dog deserved.
Erin is younger than me. When she was nineteen, we discovered she was soon to have a baby. My parents expressed their love and support. We were living in Oregon, 3000 miles away, but from afar there was acceptance, and caring, and an assumption that I could thrive in whatever situation life offered me. I worked hard to fulfill that expectation.
When we got married on a beach in California the next June, my parents came out to the coast. I just have to go to Erin’s book by our bedside to read the card my parents gave us that day. She still keeps it as a bookmark.
We wish you everything good
In your life together –
Bread and wine and joyful balloons!
Read my mother’s words
As through this
Our spirits soar –
Wrote my father.
When we left Oregon the next year, with a plan to drive to England with our nine month old son, Mom never expressed how crazy she must have thought we were. Her only words of advice were, “When you move to get away from your problems, you may discover that they have followed you when you get to your destination.”
Truer words I’ve never heard.
As the years went by, more grandchildren came into her life. When her family comes together, there is my father, the five of us with our five long-term spouses. There are eight grandchildren, who are now all grown.
It seemed as if my mom was born to be a grandma. She had a toy basket right next to her favorite chair at home, and the walls were soon filled, and still are filled, with artwork and photos from her beautiful grandchildren.
All the kids loved visiting with their grand parents. My dad would make spider bread, a home-made loaf made pull-apart-style, with each section of dough colored a different garish color. My mom was always there for them, sharing a toy, or a game, or listening to their stories.
I hope if I am blessed to be a grandfather one day, I will remember the lessons of patience and caring that my parents showed to their growing family.
As time went on, both my parents retired. My dad taught at Fordham University and Truro College for many years, and my mom had worked as a nurse into her early 70’s. My folks never talked about money very much. Raising a young family in the 50’s and 60’s, I know there hadn’t been much money to talk about.
Now it was time to live on the fruits of their labors, and frankly, I don’t think any of us kids knew whether they had a dollar or a lot more.
When they retired, they sat down and put there books in order. They had figured their savings and felt confident they had enough to live on modestly, as they’d always lived, throughout their retirement.
They put pen to paper, and shared a run-down of their financial situation with all five of us kids. They didn’t want us to worry, and they wanted us to know that they were comfortable and set for whatever life put before them.
They repeated this financial report every few years, and lo and behold they found they had a bit more money than they thought they would ever need. Every few years they would share some with each of us kids along with a note of sharing their blessings with the ones they loved.
While this money was never so much to be life changing, it seemed to come at opportune times, when a chunk of change was just what my little family needed to get through a minor catastrophe, or it would help us to save for the future as their example indicated.
I work hard as I get older to create a life for myself and Erin that will be sustainable, even after I no longer choose to or am unable to make a living. I appreciate the example that my folks set, that work was not to be avoided, but to be relished as a rich part of life. I appreciate the peace of mind their reports offered, and of course, I appreciate there generosity.
I hope to hold on to their lesson always.
Now as our children are grown, our parents settled into a peaceful retirement.
I thought my mom had taught me all she could. Now it was up to me to hold on to her lessons of kindness, equanimity and generosity. I was wrong. My mom had one more lesson to share with me, maybe the most important one of all.
My little family just visited my mom and dad six weeks ago in Stuyvesant Town. Our son lives in Brooklyn, and he was receiving his Master’s in Illustration. I had come to town with Erin and Emily to celebrate. Of course, we came to apartment 7C almost every day of our visit and shared a couple of hours with my folks.
My mom was a bit of a hermit. Many people say guests are like fresh fish. After two or three days they both go bad. My mom loved our visits, but even her most beloved family was welcome most if we kept our visits to under a couple of hours. Even though she was as hale and hearty as she’d always been, she was tired, and didn’t feel up to coming out for our graduation party for Chi…of course I understood. Of course we knew she loved him, she was just feeling a bit tired.
Just three weeks later; just nineteen days ago; just out of the blue, Mom felt more than tired. She felt so poorly that on a Monday morning in the first week of June she was admitted to the hospital. How could it be that this healthy, stalwart, capable woman could be taken down so far so quickly?
Soon the diagnosis came back. Acute Leukemia. Prognosis Grim. The doctors and nurses loved Mom, of course, but now she was at the mercy of the AMA whose quixotic task is to tilt at the windmills of grave disease, as if they can prolong life indefinitely, and you know what, sometimes they can.
But not for Mom. She knew her age as well as any of us. As a hospice and hospital nurse she knew the rigors, sometimes tortures, of modern medicine and the havoc it can wreak on a frail body. “No,” she said. “Chemotherapy and radiation is not the way I plan to spend the last months of my life.” She would allow nature to take its course, and she would peacefully face that against which so many of us rail, futilely.
My mom was given drugs to clear the mutated white blood cells out of her system and the poison in her blood the Leukemia had left behind. She was given three transfusions of fresh red blood cells, and lo she was offered a miracle. Not the miracle of eternal life, that came all too soon possibly, but she received the miracle of one wonderful week.
She returned home Saturday, two weeks ago today. I arrived for a visit on Sunday. I hoped it wouldn’t be my last. She didn’t have the energy or steadiness to walk by herself from the chaise lounge in the living room to her modified and bolstered bed for sleeping, but she had the will and the humor and the comfort to have one last hurrah!
Her family rallied around her. My dad, who is no kid himself, came up to bat; to support her and help her; to get food and drink; to walk her from chaise to bed and back again. Each of us served her as we could, as she had served us for so many years. Kate and John live just a block away in either direction, and they came every day to be with her. Meg and Moira came down from Connecticut. I flew out from Big Sur.
After Meg, who is a nurse (or is she an angel, I’m not sure) called the doctor to check that Mom’s new medications weren’t “contra-indicated” with her normal regimen, she came in with the news.
“The doctor says you can go off your cholesterol medication.”
“Great!” Mom said. Then a few minutes later…”I wonder if you could go down and get me some cheese?”
For the next few days Mom was in relative comfort. She was surrounded by those who loved her. She had visits with old friends and confidantes. She ate exotic cheeses and dark chocolate. She told me that 70% cocoa was her favorite, but settled for the Jacques Torres 60% I brought from across town.
She seemed, not just at peace, but relishing her time, her company, her cheeses, even a glass of beer. “I don’t fear death,” she told her doctor…”I haven’t lost my joy of living, but I don’t fear the end.”
It was so true. She obviously hadn’t lost her joy of living.
After a few short days I went home to California. We thought there would be weeks, maybe four, maybe six, but no one ever knows the doctor told us. I would return, I hoped, to help when things got tougher, as we knew things would get.
When I’d been home only a few days I got a call from Meg. Mom had taken a turn. She was able to go from bed to bathroom with help, but only just barely. The doctor came and said, yes, this is the beginning of the end. “There may be days, there may be hours, there will likely not be weeks.”
That was Monday morning, I think. By Wednesday, Mom was no longer conscious. Her blood could no longer carry oxygen around as the white blood cells once again crowded out the red.
My dad was with her. My sisters were with her. My brother was with her. I was with them all in spirit, even if I could not be there. Friday afternoon at 2:00 pm East Coast time I got another call from Meg. The call I was dreading, and the call I was dreaming of. My mom was gone. Her suffering was at an end. What a blessing and a lesson she had given me in the end. This was a final lesson, one I cannot but imagine aspiring to follow.
Mary Louise Birmingham lived her life in full for 89 years and 8 months. After a four day illness she was given, by the grace of God and the miracles of modern medicine, a week to share with us in joy and comfort. After only a few days of true suffering, still surrounded by, and in the care of her loved ones, Mary Louise died peacefully in her bed at home on the seventh floor behind a door marked with a C in a neighborhood of lower Manhattan with a park running through it.
There was one more member of our family I haven’t mentioned. A family member my mother loved wholeheartedly and unabashedly. That family member is the city of New York. My mom and my dad love the diversity of New York. They love that the people of New York are all poured together like one giant soup. Sometimes too spicy, at times too hot, but always nourishing and rich.
My mother wept for New York on September 11th, as she’d wept for her city during the tough years of the 70’s and 80’s. Her neighborhood is no longer for working class families. Its ‘luxury apartments’ are now filled with so many NYU students and young professionals.
Her home was sold and defaulted on in the biggest real estate transaction (and debacle) in history. Tishman-Speyer walked away from their mortgage, so to speak, after losing more than a billion dollars on paper in the two years they owned Stuyvesant Town.
“You know,” she said, “in real estate you can lose money in three ways. Either you’re stupid, you’re greedy, or you’re just plain unlucky.” She concluded, “When Tishman-Speyer bought Stuyvesant Town, they hit the trifecta.”
I digress. These thoughts of real estate and rogue terrorism have no place in my story, or maybe they do.
My mom loved New York. She taught me to love New York. Even though I’ve made my home so far away, I am glad she shared her New York with me. It is a very special place.
Now she no longer has a use for her ruined body. Her soul, her self, is no longer moored to her flesh. Does she live on in some other way? I don’t know. I do know that she lives on in the lives she has touched, and in the lives of her husband, her children, and her grandchildren. I know she is present in my heart.
Her body is now but a box of ashes. Soon they will be spread at Corlear’s Hook, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There, at Manhattan’s widest point, if you walk south along the East River, where the river widens into the harbor. The Statue of Liberty appears far to your right. The Hudson River spills its waters into the tidal basin which is the harbor and the East River.
Just six weeks ago she told me that it was one of her favorite spots in New York. That made it one of my favorite spots in New York. I will go there as long as I live and think of her, and love her.
So that is my mom’s final lesson.
My mom faced death without fear. She relished life whole-heartedly. But she did not cling to hours at the cost of suffering for herself and her family.
I miss my mom. I wish she could still be here, and that this summer we could celebrate her 90th birthday together. However, I appreciate that she wanted to live her life fully, when she could live it in full, but not cling greedily to the scraps.
Mary Louise Birmingham is survived by her husband, William Francis Xavier Birmingham. She is survived by her sister Ruth Gertrude Barrett. She is survived by her daughters, Moira Theresa Birmingham, Katherine Mary Birmingham, and Margaret Mary Birmingham; sons John Francis Birmingham and Thomas Stephen Barrett Birmingham.
Her family was increased by her sons and daughters in law, James Bruce Brewczynski, Lola Ehrlich, Barry Denny, Timothy Patrick Keyes, and Erin Lee Gafill.
She was blessed with eight grandchildren: Chi McCallie Gafill Birmingham, Rachel Eliza Denny, Samuel Adams Brewczynski, Jake Ridley Birmingham Keyes, Anastasia Inez Brewczynski, Emily Reed Gafill Birmingham, Simone Angelica Denny, and William Amory Birmingham Keyes.We all love her and miss her. I know we are thankful for all she gave us.
Everything I’ve learned in my life, everything that I am in my life, at least that which is good, I am and I’ve learned from my mom and my dad.
Bill Birmingham was a man. He was a husband, a friend, a father, a brother and uncle. He was a teacher, a leader, and he was a consummate storyteller.
My dad sat up, when others might lie down. He sat in a chair in the corner of his living room.Early on a cigarette was cradled between his fingers, an ash, impossibly long bending towards the floor, a glass of beer perched on his knee.
Bill Birmingham was a teacher. In the late sixties, he took me to his classrooms in Bedford Stuyvesant and Harlem, where he stood before a group of prodigal students. Maybe they hadn’t finished high school, or junior high school, but he stood before them, a worn paperback book in one hand, a pack of Kents in the pocket of his old tweed jacket and offered a possibility. The possibility that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding could make this life better?
Today, when so many are fooled into thinking that value is measured in wealth, that the litmus test for success can be equaled to the size of your stock portfolio, Bill Birmingham, father of five, vveteran of the Korean conflict, owner of a “four-square” suburban home in Hackensack, New Jersey, would have been judged a failure.
But Bill Birmingham held values that surpassed avarice and acquisitiveness. He valued the security that money offered, but, at a time when ours was probably the last black and white television in Hackensack he said “I don’t want to earn enough money and pay the extra taxes to afford a color television.”
The last time I visited my dad in Connecticut, I had rented a car, so I asked if he would like to go down to New York to visit his sister, Marie. We drove down the Merritt Parkway, turned south on the Saw Mill River, and tried to come into the city across the Willis Avenue Bridge.
If you know that part of the city, and if you know how cheap I am, a trait I inherited from my father, you’ll know why I was heading to the Willis Avenue Bridge. It is the only route into Manhattan from the Bronx without a toll.
Unfortunately, I got hopelessly lost. I would have gotten on the Triboro, except I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, so I couldn’t pay the $8 toll. As we drove down a road in the Bronx, under an elevated train, with Manhattan visible in the distance, but that damn East River separating me from my destination, my dad said “I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
That said a good deal coming from a man whose mother lived in Brooklyn, who grew up in Queens, who shared a cold water flat on Sullivan Street with his new bride in the late forties, who started his family in an apartment in the Bronx, and who spent the last 35 years of his marriage in Stuyvesant Town.
I knew I might be in trouble.
But after a few blocks, dad said, “No, I was lost here once before.”
He told a story of driving a group of students from Harlem to a school related event in the Bronx. They had all met in The Bronx the previous month, but several of the women in his class told how hard it was to take trains and busses from 125th street to some god-forsaken location in the furthest reaches of this outer borough.
At the time our family car was a 1965 Volkswagen Microbus. So, Bill offered to pick them up in Harlem and take them out to the Bronx the next week. On the way back to the city, he couldn’t find the Willis Avenue Bridge, just as I couldn’t find the Willis Avenue Bridge, and he found himself stopping on some side street, looking for directions home.
As a white man driving a bus load of black women, in the South Bronx, in 1968, he feared he could only be mistaken for a pimp with his stable of girls if a cop were to come by.
Like my dad, I made it into New York City.
I didn’t know this would be the last drive I would take with my father, with Bill Birmingham. But, if I had known, I would have wanted no other trip than a visit with his sister, whom he loved dearly. As we sat in Marie’s living room later that afternoon, surrounded by a lifetime of books and artwork, Marie looked over at me and said “He was such a beautiful baby.”
I wish that I could have written this spontaneously as I did for my mom’s memorial. The more I pour over these words, the further, I fear, I stray from some fundamental truth.
As is true, I imagine, with most relationships between fathers and sons, it is more complex than between mothers and sons. I never understood my dad as well as I would have liked until these last few years, this “bonus round,” after my mother, Mary Louise died.
My mom told me once that he ate work like breakfast. That I could understand. Outside of our kitchen door at 67 Willow Avenue in 1965 there was a cork board. I wish I had an image of that cork board now, but what I do remember was a note my dad posted in disdain of a Bob Dylan lyric. It was a lyric about mothers and fathers, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand”. I think his response was something like, “What an arrogant prick.”
At the time, as a seven year old in 1964, I thought “my dad just didn’t get it.” As the years went by, I understood that it was Bob that didn’t get it.
The counterculture movement disdained values that my dad never embraced in the first place. My dad embraced the values of critical thinking, creative expression, and spiritual enlightenment. We were not living a life from which the sixties could credibly rebel.
No one who knew my dad would doubt the importance of the spiritual community of the Catholic church in his life. But he lived a Catholicism that was very personal. He didn’t live his life hewed to the dogma of the church.
At one point, in high school, I asked my father, “If the pope walked in right now, and saw this life you are living, would he call it Catholicism?”
Even then, forty years ago, my father had thick, bushy eyebrows, which he could raise independently. He looked at me, his left eyebrow raised to the heavens.
“So, you think the Pope is Catholic?”
That question, left unexplained and uncommented upon, was imbued with more lasting spiritual instruction than anything I ever heard in church or catechism.
A man leaves behind a legacy when he leaves this life. He leaves a legacy from his professional life.
In my father’s case there is a legacy of the students whose lives he enriched. There is a legacy in the people who didn’t see themselves as students, but discovered a love of learning that enriched their lives. There is a legacy of teachers who were given the opportunity to teach for the power and insight that knowledge brings. To teach from the fundamental calling of this profession.
There is also a legacy in community.
Bill Birmingham left a legacy in the community of The Grail, an organization that both my parents loved. He left a legacy in the communities of learning at Fordham University and Touro College. His legacy is left in the community of Stuyvesant Town, and in his own way, in the City of New York.
The greatest legacy any one of us can leave behind, because, if you didn’t know, we are all leaving, is the legacy of family.
In this, Father of Moira, John, Kate, Meg and me, Tom; brother of Marie Ponsot, uncle to all the Ponsot offspring, grandfather to so many gathered here and not, left a rich legacy of love and constancy.
Here, I must digress, and spend a few moments acknowledging my sisters and my brothers.
No one can give a greater gift than to open their home to witness and support someone in their last days.
For this I acknowledge the kindness that my sister Moira and my brother Jim gave to my dad and to our family.
My sister Kate did almost nothing…just ask her. All she did was to run her life for almost four years to weave an invisible safety net that offered my dad his years of independence after my mother’s passing.
If she was the weft of this invisible net, then my brother John was the warp. Together they created a web upon which my dad could relax and know that his bills would be paid, his pills would be poured, and if he set out on a journey across Stuyvesant Town, he would arrive safe at his destination.
Hmm. but what did Meg do? Meg provided an advocacy, informed by her training as a health care professional, inspired by the fundamental values with which she runs her life, and maintained by the unfailing generosity of spirit with which she is blessed.
After my mom died my dad said, “I know I’ve done wrong, but, I must have done something right to find myself surrounded by my family at this time in my life.”
My father was not a perfect man. He was a man. Whatever things he may have done of which he was not proud, I am blessed not to know. But, he cherished the forgiveness offered to him, and forgave those who trespassed against him.
That is the legacy of which my dad was most proud. The legacy of love that surrounded him. Was taught by him, and which he learned to count on late in life.
I’d seen her sitting on a blanket outside of Café Trieste when we arrived in North Beach last Thursday. A small garage sale scattered around her. When she walked in to our show half a block down Grant Street the next day, I had to ask her. Do you paint sometimes? Are you sometimes kitty corner outside the old hardware store?
She used to sit in that spot she told me, twenty years ago…
I wondered if she remembered, she didn’t, so I told her the story…
Erin and I had driven north to San Francisco the week before Christmas. Emily was less than a year old, and had fussed through the three hour drive. Erin lay down on Tony’s couch with Emily to nap, and Chi and I took a walk down Grant Street. Chi was almost seven.
As we turned the corner past the old hardware store we came upon a woman sitting on a blanket painting. Trinkets and treasures were spread across her blanket, but Chi was transfixed by the paper and paints…and the pools and swoops of color that trailed from her brush.
Would you like to paint, she asked Chi. Yes, he did want to. He crouched down on the stoop and painted a group of fish wandering under a blue sea. She appreciated Chi’s work, and as he handed her the completed painting he said “Sheww…I needed that.” She and I were both charmed.
He painted another and another; she generously shared her paper, her paints, her patience, though it seemed she would have had so little to share. When Chi was done with his works, we returned to Erin and Emily, and I never forgot her kindness.
Now, here she was in our humble show, I was telling her the story of the boy she had befriended so long ago. She obviously didn’t remember. She obviously was a person who befriended hundreds of bored or agitated boys and girls, and soothed them with her attention and her art supplies. But as I told her this story, and pointed behind her to the wall of Chi’s artwork tears were streaming down all our cheeks.
This is his show, I told her. This is the legacy of inspiration you provided.
*** Coming to North Beach, we hoped to bring Erin and Chi’s work to a San Francisco audience, maybe to sell a few paintings to make the trip worthwhile. What came about was so much more. So much richer than anything we’d planned or hoped for.
Grant Street is a gritty and grey urban environment. The creative life is largely the musicians who play jazz and salsa, flamenco and samba at the half dozen bars in the three block business district.
But North Beach has another legacy. It was a magnet and a beacon for beats and wanderers of a time. Many came here following a golden vision of the California experience, the Beat scene, the freedom.
Some lived the life for just a time, but others became entrenched. It seems they lost sight of the possibilities of life. The grey grime on hands and clothes matched the grit on the sidewalks and in the gutters. They had not come here to get stuck on a street, but to be set free, then found themselves ensnared.
Many of those who visited our show at Live Worms Gallery on Grant Street in North Beach could not have afforded one of Erin’s printed cards, let alone her original works. Several just came in I’m sure for the cheese and crackers and sparkling wine our opening afforded them.
A few looked around the room at Erin’s vast works and Chi’s urban geometries and it was like they saw a vision of that path they had meant to follow. Wasn’t that golden glow beyond the horizon, beyond place, just what had brought them here so many years ago. It wasn’t gone. It just wasn’t there for them.
Several of the local people thanked us as if we were missionaries bringing ‘the word’ not peddlers bringing our wares.
The people of North Beach welcomed us, and befriended us and enriched our weekend beyond any ledger tally.
Thank you Alistair for making us so welcome. Thank you Fanny for sharing your paints with Chi so many years ago. Thank you Benjie and Benito for sharing your ringing guitar styling. Thank you to all who visited our gallery over the weekend.
We will be back, and we may have a fabulous time, but it can’t surpass the warmth and welcome we felt from the neighborhood. From those who might become patrons, and those who had so little to share, but their kind words.
Monday morning came. It was time to pack up our paintings prints, cards and photos and return to Big Sur. Three hours later the walls were stripped of the 65 paintings we’d hung. The row of new still-lifes Erin had painted were safely in a box. Everything was neatly packed in our Chevy Van to return to Big Sur. We looked back at Live Worms, an empty store front. It almost seemed like a dream…
Since the year we met, Erin has been pursuing the history of her Great Great Grandmother, Jane Gallatin Powers. This pursuit has brought us to Rome and Capri, Switzerland, Boston, Long Island, and even, Atherton, California. Several years ago we visited Erin’s cousin, Wyn Wacchorst. He shared with us images from his collection, including these. Now that we are getting back to working on the book in earnest, I spent the afternoon processing the scans and preparing them for publication. Hopefully, with some help from Wyn, I can get all the captions correct!