My mother was born in a small town in north-central Pennsylvania, up in the mountains, far from the big cities. She was the middle child of three and the eldest daughter of a young lawyer who had a five-acre estate in the center of town. Her father eventually became the county judge, grand master of his Masonic lodge, and ultimately secretary of state of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So, in the small pond into which she was born, my mother was princess to a pretty important frog.
My grandfather was a horticulturist, among many other hobbies and pastimes, which included collecting books, firearms, and railroad memorabilia like switchmen’s lanterns and engine bells, as well as taking photographs, making home movies, and doing creative metalwork in copper and brass.1 But the enduring love of his life was still growing things. The estate in town always had a formal garden for display of prized and rare decorative plants, as well as working gardens for flowers to be cut and vegetables to be eaten or canned and given away. In the later years he specialized in growing gladioli, which he donated in bunches around the county for church services, weddings and funerals, hotel lobbies, and other displays. Growing up in this environment, my mother decided to study landscape architecture when she went to the university.
When I was young, she could identify every flower in her own garden with the appropriate Latin genus and species name. When we lived in Massachusetts, she took her boys to the Arnold Arboretum and the Glass Flowers collection in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I probably leaned toward languages and then signed up to study Latin after years of hearing her roll out names like Rhododendron tulipifera.
She met my father while at the university. They married upon graduation and moved to New York City in the late 1930s, when my father started working at Bell Labs. The story is that they were walking along the streets of lower Manhattan—they had an apartment on Jane Street in Greenwich Village—on the spring evening in 1936 when the Hindenburg was circling the city waiting for clearance to land in New Jersey. They remember seeing it floating above the rooftops, not knowing what was going to happen next.
Greenwich Village must have been an eye-opener for my mother. The exposure to music and plays, museums and parks, artists and bohemians—the vast pastiche of cultures and cuisines that is more available in New York than in any of the world’s other great cities—shaped the small-town girl and made her something of a sophisticate. I don’t think she ever loved the big city the way my father did, but she certainly knew how to get around. And as a New Yorker, she knew how to use her elbows when necessary.
During the Second World War, she got a job at Bell Labs working as a draftsman. Certainly, her background as a landscape architect qualified her for it. So both my mother and father would have had U.S. Department of Defense “secret” clearances—as did many other folks at the time.
Landscape architecture and the principles of good design stayed with her for a lifetime. My mother taught me about spacing and proportion. She had an eye for design and for grouping.2 She taught me about visual logic from the way she laid out the kitchen garden and the living room furniture. She showed me how to arrange furniture and had definite ideas about letting objects have their own space and not crowding them into corners or against a wall. She also taught me how to draw—not freehand like an artist, but with ruler and triangle like a draftsman. She taught me how to measure and mark distances, how to hold a pencil against the ruler’s edge to make a line of even width, and when laying out parallel lines how to measure twice with a ruler to make two ladders of tiny dots or check marks that could then be used to align the ruler. She appreciated type and typography, good handwriting and calligraphy, and she detested hand-drawn signs where the size of the lettering trailed away, or where upper and lower case letters mixed indiscriminately. “That looks like the sign a farmer made,” she would say disdainfully, becoming once again the big city dweller.
Her sense of design and creativity extended to making her own clothes, and she was a Vogue woman in the 1950s. She always used the dining room table to lay out her fabric, pin the tissue-paper patterns to it, and then cut around them. She taught me how to cut cloth and make clean continuous strokes with the shears rather than jagged cuts. She taught me to allow a margin of cloth beyond the actual edge of the seam, and how to make darts in the margin to relieve stress around curves.3 She showed me how to cut sheer cloth and Christmas wrapping paper by making a tiny snip once at the edge and then zipping the half-opened jaws of the scissors straight toward the opposite edge. She taught me what pinking shears were for, and how the cross-cut pattern avoided raveling the edge of the material. She tried to teach me how to use the sewing machine, but I never caught the rhythm of it.
My grandmother was a fabulous cook, but her method was all by taste and feel. My mother tried to copy her recipes, but she was ultimately a scientifically trained person and never had a good conversion for my grandmother’s cooking style that relied on “a pinch of this” and “season to taste.” Still, my mother was a great cook, with an inventory flavored by a dozen years among New York restaurants before the family moved to the suburbs and she started having us boys. She insisted that her sons learn the basics of cooking. She taught me how to make spaghetti sauce, fry bacon, and knead and bake bread. With that kind of training, a man can survive anywhere. And after that, opening cans to feed yourself is easy.
Through by grandfather’s interest in firearms, my mother became a marksman and member of a competitive rifle team in high school. There’s a story in the family about my grandfather, my aunt, and my father standing on the bridge over a creek that ran behind the judge’s property. My grandfather had gotten a set of burned-out light bulbs from the high school gymnasium—big, clear-glass globes with spidery filaments inside—and was tossing them off the bridge. As they bobbed along in the current, my grandfather, my aunt, and my father would take turns shooting at them with pistols. And if any were left floating, my mother was standing by with a rifle to nail the globes before they went around the bend and out of sight.4 She never taught me to shoot—that was my grandfather’s doing, with a BB gun in the basement of the old family home—but she respected weapons and their use.
When she went home to take care of my grandmother in her last illness, working alongside a practical nurse, the three of them would spend summer days out on the back porch. My grandmother loved watching birds at the feeder, and complained when the blue jays—who are natural thieves and bullies—chased other, gentler birds away. My mother would get the BB gun but, at her age, wasn’t strong enough to cock it. So the nurse would cock the gun and hand it to my mother, who would shoot at the jays. She didn’t want to hit them, of course. Instead, she shot at the seed on the feeder around their feet to scare them away. She still had a marksman’s eye.
She taught me to drive and, in doing so, she taught a certain style of driving: direct, centered, and fearless. Look, decide, move—don’t dally. No halfway measures. No hesitation. She taught me to drive economically: to bring the car up to speed quickly; to adjust my speed with the throttle instead of the brake pedal; and in stopping to let engine braking do the work, then apply the clutch and brakes at the last possible moment. She taught me to drive with skill: to brake before going into a curve and accelerate out of it, “like a race car driver.” She was a stylish and efficient driver herself and deadly earnest in a gymkhana. But she also taught me to be courteous and to yield the right of way whenever in doubt. Through driving, she taught me to be mindful of my whereabouts and actions, to be cautious and anticipate the actions of others, and to always look around corners.
She insisted her sons do chores. Mine were vacuuming and dusting inside the house once a week, as my brother’s was mowing out in the yard. To this day, I do the vacuuming and dusting once a week. If they elected me President of the United States, I would do the vacuuming and dusting in the White House—at least the upstairs quarters—and would feel awkward if someone else was doing it for me. I will do vacuuming and dusting until my legs give out and I retreat to my death bed. My mother’s lessons stuck with you.
She taught me to be brave and not to be prissy or squeamish. In the context of having to clean up messes the dogs had made, she always said, “If you never have to put your hands in anything worse, be thankful.” In a wider context, her general attitude toward life was that a proper person had to buck up and face reality. Problems wouldn’t go away by ignoring them. And it was not fair to let others do the dirty work that was your share: other people have rights and some have queasy stomachs.
She taught me about family honor with four simple words: “We don’t do that.” She gave me a sense that, apart from any notion of God and the angels, someone was watching me and evaluating the things I said and did. In the language of Transactional Analysis, at first that watcher was my “parent,” and then it was me. My parents, both of them, were very strong.
My mother’s family was one that treasured humor, wit, poetry, puns, and clever sayings.5 They valued conversation and quick repartee. When she was growing up she might have started with the little girl’s tendency toward being prim and proper, but all around her people were telling bawdy stories and playing practical jokes. That toughened her, of course, and in self-defense she developed a wry, ironic, and wicked sense of humor. She taught me to laugh, to find the humor in even the most painful situations, and to bear up under hardship and offense and then wave them off with a joke.
Because my father was an engineer, she moved all over the Northeast, following him from job to job, and then out to California on one last great adventure. Through it all, she remained a small-town girl in most of her outlook, but she was tough enough to make the best of whatever life handed her wherever they ended up.6 She made sense of life with a draftsman’s taste for order and precision. She never complained and she never made excuses. I am the son of a landscape architect and damned proud of it.
1. I patterned the profession, interests, and hometown setting of the judge in The Judge’s Daughter on this man, although not his particular story or predicament. For those aspects, the book is pure fiction.
2. Right now, I can hear her saying, “Plant in clumps. Avoid straight lines.”
3. That sense of margins—of leaving room for error—has served me well in many contexts, from allowing extra time to meet a deadline or arrive at an appointment, to preserving leeway and operating space when driving a car or riding a motorcycle. You could say my mother’s skill at sewing has saved my life a couple of times.
4. I know—pollution with broken glass and metal oxides, not to mention endangering the fish. But it was a simpler time, and the creek did run at least partly on my grandfather’s property.
5. According to family legend, two of the authors of the Burma Shave signs were friends of my grandfather.
6. This woman who grew up in a great house among beautiful gardens was ultimately able to say, “Family and friends are what count, a place is just a place.”