Many years ago in the Gothic Bookstore at Duke I attended a reading by Reynolds Price of a passage from his then new book, "Surface of the Earth." I couldn't, if my life were on the balance, tell you what it was that he read. But I carry the memory of at least one moment in the discussion afterward with me. The editor of the Duke poetry magazine (full disclosure: I managed to get one poem therein, a nasty bit of business) got into the concept of "place" and Prof. Price made sure the undergrad got a full dose of the importance of that concept to the Southerner. I am a Southerner. By heritage and "a Virginian by the grace of God" as the saying goes. So "place" is practically built into my DNA. One particularly marvelous thing about the world today (and here the praise of modernity by a traditionalist, as all true Virginians are, is to leap forth) is that Google Maps and Google Earth allow us to see distant or remembered places in startling detail. I won't even go into the utilitarian advantage of "street view," I just mean the zooming in and seeing one bit of the world as it has been captured at the moment the image was taken.
Recently I wanted to take a look at an overview (literally) of the Great Falls Park (Virginia side) wherein I spent many a youthful hour clambering over rocks, riding the now-gone Merry-Go-Round and generally having a ripping good time. After checking the park out for a few minutes I began zooming out and took a look at what used to be the house of a good family friend. He has passed several years now and he, as nominally one of my parent's friends, was not in my direct ambit but I am much diminished by his loss. He was a scientist who retired from government service to become an artist. However, what I found in the place of the old familiar house was a huge new construction of a house on the property, with only the angle of the road off the park access road and a tennis court identifying what I intended to see. So, obviously, the house has been taken down, the garage/workshop, the separate "art studio," the horse barn. All gone. As is the way of life and sadness is allowed at such, as long as it is not dwelled upon.
What strikes through the reminiscence is particular things, particular memories. The house had a huge windowed living room - dinning room area and on the dinning room side there was a marvelous stained glass window that was done in setions representing the four seasons. I wish I'd taken a picture of it but one doesn't think of that in the moment. Then there were particular pieces of "small art" inside: a lead "tree" that was made by pouring molten metal into an ant hill - absolutely fascinating even if a visually dull grey thing. A two stick-figure sculpture of fencers. A lump of raw metal ore set beside a metal model of a nosecone. And a clay work-in-progress model of a horse, a horse named Ichabod ("Icky") particularly, that the artist never, to my knowledge, finished because it was never "right." Ross loved that horse, and horses generally I suppose but he and Icky were tight.
Art seems to have been in the family's genetic heritage as the two daughters were artists and the son decided he preferred to farm, I'll admit there is a certain artistry to that as well. I knew that the elder daughter passed away some years ago from non-Hodgkins lymphoma (if memory serves) and the younger daughter turns out to be a photographic artist living in New York and spending some time on a farm in Northern Virginia. I e-mailed her recently to catch up, having had my memory jolted by my Google map excursion as mentioned above. I don't know that we'll ever see each other but it's rather nice to touch base with someone who shares a history, albeit tangentially. And, of course, I got to thinking about her sister who was one of the few people who visited me (on a trip with her grandfather) while I was teaching in Japan. It was a wonderful couple of days and I will always regret that I did not keep up with her more. But I thought I'd search her name just in case.
And now I have, on its way to me, an art book of hers that was put out in 2000 even though she passed away in 1997. 1997. 13 years. It doesn't seem that long ago. She was beautiful, smart, talented and strong-willed. I should have known her better but I do have one small piece of her art, a little geometric paperboard construction in black and red that I couldn't lay a hand on right now to save my soul. But I also know I absolutely saved it. And I will find it. And I will have her book. It seems the least I could do to keep her in memory.
These are the lessons in life that start with a visit to Google Maps.