Friday, December 27, 2013

Full-Circle Stories

At Author Frank Waters' Home in New Mexico

It's quite amazing don't you think, when you read a book or see a painting that influences you so much that for some strange reason you find yourself sitting in the living room of the author or painter? Irregular yes, but that's what happened to me after I was aquatinted with the words of the prolific writer, Frank Waters

I was introduced to Mr. Waters' work by a woman waiting to board a plane to Chicago at Albuquerque Airport. She was moving from Chicago, where I currently reside to Taos, New Mexico where I dream of residing. (Coincidence?)  "If you want to learn about Taos and the people of the Valley," she said, "Then you need to read Frank Waters." 

Mr. Waters was a writer who penned numerous books about life in and around Taos. He carved staggering, fluid and articulate stories out of the beautiful and expansive landscapes; the community triad of Native Americans, Latinos and Anglos; rapid racism, corruption and the slow and sometimes silent culture. 

I started off reading The Man Who Killed The Deer and instantaneously became a Waters' fan. Hungry to learn about the man between the book covers, I then dove into, Of Time and Change, Waters' autobiography that includes his friendships with the painters who founded the Taos Society of Artists  along with Mabel Dodge Luhan and Georgia O'Keeffe who fell hard for the blue colored mountains, flowing river gorges and endless sun-filled vistas.  

Excited to visit Taos on our vacation last September, my wife and I ended up staying in El Prado on the north side of town. On our second day we made a visit to the arts village of Arroyo Secco where we met talented potters, painters and printers. Out of curiosity I asked one of the shop owners if Mr. Waters' widow, Barbara was still alive. She said that she was elderly but still alive, accepting visitors and that I should go and giver her door a knock. When I hesitated she ensured me that it would be okay, "She has a caretaker and she loves to talk about Frank." 

"What's the address?" I asked. 
"Oh, we don't go by addresses round here. It's up the road a bit, you'll know it when you see it." 

We found the Waters' homestead only after driving around in circles for thirty minutes and came upon a postal carrier. I sheepishly walked to the front door with a copy of Of Time and Change in hand and knocked. A small screened window opened and the top of woman's head appeared, her small, thin voice accented with Spanish said, "Yes? Can I help you?" 

"I was wondering if Barbara is available? I'm a big fan of her husband's work." The tiny head turned and called out into the darkness of the adobe style home, "Barbara. Someone here to see you." There was a pause and a weak and creaky voice asked, "Who is it?" The tiny head turned back to me and asked, "She wants to know is it?" 

"Tell her I'm Bruce from Chicago and that I was wondering if I could meet with her and ask her some questions about herself and Mr. Waters, but if now's not a good time I can come back another day."

The tiny head repeated my words verbatim and Barbara's frail voice relayed that she wasn't feeling well and asked if could I come back tomorrow at 2PM. "Yes. Tell her yes. I will come back tomorrow with cookies." The tiny head confirmed the next day's appointment and that Barbara prefers chocolate chip cookies. "Bring a lot. I like chocolate chip cookies too," she said.

At the appointed time the following day I showed up with two bags of cookies and my wife at my side. We gave the door a gentle knock and a beautiful puckish woman with a waterfall of white hair greeted us at the door with a warm and friendly smile. Surely this couldn't be Mrs. Waters. She was way to young and spry. And she was not the tiny head from the day before who spoke to me through the screened window. "Come this way, Barbara is almost ready to see you." 

She let us explore the modest house complete with generations of collected paintings, letters, photographs and sculptures from what I guessed were given to the Waters over the years from friends and artists like Blueminschien, Couse, Sharp, Phillips and one of my favorite painters, Nicolai Fechin. Here we were standing in the living room of Frank Waters! I was gobsmacked by the fortuitousness of the situation and the generosity of our host. When I turned to my left there on a far wall was a graphite portrait of Frank Waters which, Waters writes about and includes a copy of in his book Of Time and Change. According to Waters accounts in is autobiography, it was the only portrait that Nicolai Fechin ever did of him. They were good friends and took many high mountain walks together but only one portrait came out of all their time together. 

"Wow!" I exclaimed. "Is that the original drawing?" When assured that it was I felt like I was in a dream. I just read the book, saw the copy of the portrait, came to know of the two men's friendship and here I was face to face with the artist's work in the sitter's home! I felt like a ghost in a house of the living. All the energy that was created in this little, warm and comfortable home over many years had never left; only touching and growing those that came and went. You could see it in the slanted rays of sun that poured through a southern facing window; feel and smell it in the crisp pinion scented air. 

"Would you like to meet Barbara now?" Our 'guide' Jackie asked.

"Yes, very much."

We walked through a small door way to a makeshift living-bedroom where we were greeted with by Mrs. Barbara Waters who was laying on her bed with her felt elevated, her blonde hair brushed neatly, a small wave of bangs flowed over her forehead. 

"Well hello. Welcome. Please, take a seat." She was adorable and sweet and kind. 

I was smitten. "It is so nice to meet you Mrs. Waters. Thank you so much for inviting us into your home." 

"I'm sorry that I couldn't see you yesterday. My foot was giving me so much trouble but it feels better today." 

I did a little math and figured that she was probably in her mid to late eighties and if her foot was the only thing troubling her she was doing pretty well for her age. 

"We're so sorry that you're not feeling well. Are you sure you're up for visitors?" 

She assured us that she was and asked, "Now, what would you like to ask about Frank?"

I had so many questions and had know idea where to start. I had been in this situation before. The first time I met Dame Judi Dench outside the Royal Court Theatre I was so woozy with happiness that I practiced saying her name over and over again in my head before I blurted out, "Judi Dame, it's such a pleasure." 

I started off asking Barbara questions about writing, hers and Frank's: where and when they liked to write, the duration of their writing sessions, etc. Then I moved onto personal topics of where and when she and Frank met, their first date and other areas of interests that may have appeared mundane to Barbara and her ever peaceful and watchful friend and caregiver, Jackie. Barbara told us that she is from Illinois and that Frank believed that there's a direct line leading many people to Taos from Chicago and that it was no coincidence that we were lead to her husband's work and the beautiful mountains of Taos.  

We could have stayed in that warm little room all afternoon but wanted to be respectful of the time. Our two hours chat was equal give and take with Barbara and Jackie asking about my writing and my wife's hat designs. I learned a lot about the story behind The Man Who Killed The Deer, the writing cabin behind the main house and the lyrical Kiami Gypsy Wagon parked nearby where I imagined many yarns where told over the miles it travelled.

Barbara thanked us for the cookies and company and invited us to come visit again. I promised that we would and that I would call her from time to time. I get a tickle each time I do. The connection from the printed page to the author's home is truly full-circle. 

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