Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Happy Birthday Maman

Today is my mother’s birthday, and as with so many things, her attitude toward her birthday is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. Back then, back when she was the mother I knew, she hated drawing attention to her birthday and adamantly told her children that she didn’t want any gifts. She is not that person any more. She craves the small attentions.
Two days ago she could not recall the name of the son with whom she had just spend three days. Of course, she insisted she was very tired; I assured her that travel was exhausting and told her his name. I try to imagine what a tenebrous chaos must be engulfing her brain, such that she could forget the name of a beloved child. I try to imagine how it will be when I forget every detail of my children’s histories except for the face in front of me, but I cannot. Not yet.

So I am spending some time today recalling the mother who wrote this letter, in 1999. The mother who, as a foreigner and naturalized citizen, knew more about American vernacular architecture than any American I’ve ever met; the mother who never missed an opportunity to correct the spelling of Olmsted’s name; the mother for whom proper fenestration was a religious conviction; the mother who never once graced a Historic House Tour* without - politely, but firmly - correcting some historically incorrect label or pointing out an unfortunate solecism. That mother delighted in and could recount the life stories of Palladio, Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones. That mother chided her own mother when, in the early stages of her own Alzheimer’s, she repeated her stories. ** . That mother taught her first granddaughter the meaning of fenestration before she entered kindergarten.

So here she is, in all her glory.

If you read the above letter carefully, you will note typos of its own. Also, it is unfinished and unsigned. In fact, we don't even know if it was ever sent. But we assume that this was the draft for her files, and the final copy was sent out, flawless.

*As her frequent companion on these house tours, in various states and countries, I followed in her wake, simmering with trepidation. She was always correct, but not always tactful.

**Only sea snakes, scorpions, Boy #1, and tiger whiskers. No fenestration. Possible defenestration.

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