Back home in Cincinnati, in our 1860's Victorian house, our life was confined by hallways, French doors, a formal dining room with a chandelier, a library with a medieval paneled ceiling, bookcases behind glass doors, a pantry, and back kitchen. There my father's voice boomed with excitement when he talked about Modern Architecture. As a child, I knew there was an exciting time coming, when no one would build cluttered decorated buildings anymore. Everything would be designed with clean elegant lines. I listened closely to my father. Modern was Truth and Simplicity, and it followed Rules. When we stayed at the house on Nantucket, I knew we were living in the Modern, where the roof lifted up like a wing to glide over the long beach below.
One evening on Nantucket when the others washed the dinner dishes and my mother put my little brothers to bed downstairs, my father and I lingered at the table as the room grew dark. Beyond the glass floor-to-ceiling windows, the sand beach and sky streaked blue purple on a forever horizon. "This is what we want to create," he said as he gazed out the window. "Spaces with no boundary between the inside and outside." The wooden structure holding the windows in
place became a grid of black lines framing blocks of color: the dark sea, foaming white surf, and indigo sky.
I suddenly remembered an artist who painted like this, black lines and squares of colors. My father brought home to us little booklets on Modern Art that he set on a stand at the kitchen table at home, so we could turn the page each day to a new painting and study modern art at meals. I could identify Miro's happy floating shapes, Picasso's sad blue faces, Modigliani's lovely ladies, and Kandinsky's jagged lines and bright colors. I turned to my father, "It looks like a big Mondrian painting."
My father roared with laughter, patted my back, "That's my girl!"
I lived for these rare moments when I basked in his attention, these moments he claimed me as his special child. From the way everyone else looked at my father when he spoke, I knew he was special. I once heard someone say he was brilliant. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I knew the room felt electric when he walked in and every one turned to listen to him. I hungered for the moments when he shone his brilliance on me. I was my father's daughter, a devotee, a
serious girl studying what he loved: the radiant play of light and space in architecture and art, the thrill of riding in sports cars and appreciating tiny sips he gave me of fine wines.
When we stood on the beach that day, my father holding my stone, he knelt down so his head was even with mine, his knee touching the dry sand. He ran his fingertips over the surface, his eyes closed. I studied his big face, the mole on his cheek, his bald sunburned head. I waited for the color he saw in my stone.
He smiled, opened his eyes, looking into my face. "It's turquoise, Navajo turquoise with a streak of silver in the groove." I nodded, smiling into his beaming gray-blue eyes. Oh, my Daddy. I felt more alive with him than with anyone else.
We returned home to the house where our family had lived since the 1870's, where soon after my father was born in 1913, his mother went to bed in a darkened room for three years. Forty five years later, at the end of her life, ghostly and addled she had drifted from room to room, pulling down shades to hide from imaginary strangers, until my mother, home alone with four small children, couldn't take it any longer. My grandmother was moved to a home for the elderly until she faded away.
In that house, in the room at the top of the stairs, I fell asleep as I had for two years to the faint rustle of my little sister's breathing. Yet that winter Bria grew weaker until she could no longer take in formula. My mother decided not to have our baby kept in a hospital. Bria began to starve, etching the hallway with her tiny whimper, until she became too weak to make a sound.
One day the doctor came to our house. His shoes slowly brushed up the stairs. I watched as he held the silver stethoscope to my sister's crumpled chest. He told my parents, "She is still a tiny bit alive. It will just be a matter of time."
My tall bald father gazed out the window, his thin lips pressed. He glanced at his watch. There was important work to be done. He was designing the Modern world. His polished shoes rushed down the steps. Far below, I heard a zoom in the garage, before his red Alfa Romeo backed out and he drove away to his office in the city.
My mother and I stood together looking down into Bria's translucent face in the bassinette. My mother held onto the wicker edge as if to hold herself up. Finally she turned, gathered up a pile of laundry and walked downstairs. The washing machine began to shake the old wooden floors of the house. I smelled coffee and knew she was sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette.