Tina Kane: Miscellany

A collection of essays, poems, stories & reflections

Tina Kane Interview

with Nancy Willard

August 2009


Tina in Venice




Nancy: So I’m going to start right in the middle and ask you about the remark you made about horses. And I just wanted to know, can you tell me about how it was to grow up in Australia? You said it was a wild and wonderful place. What was that like? The horses suddenly brought something into focus for me.

Tina: Well, I’ll talk about the whole horse thing…

N: Talk about the whole thing and anything you like.

T: OK, I was seven when I was asked if I would like to move to Australia. I was living in Rochester, New York, and I was a little equivocal about it, because I didn’t understand what Australia was [laughter] and I was living with my new step-father and my mother and they helped me over my feeling that maybe I didn’t want to go by promising me that when I got there I could have a horse. And having a horse had been my dream, like many little girls, and in Australia there were wild horses called Brumbies. And I was told that I could have a Brumby and that we could keep it in the backyard [laughter]. My mother was quite inventive. I was told that Australia was an island and that it was in the South Pacific. So when we left Rochester, I saw this very small place in my mind’s eye, with this house and this horse—that was going to live in my backyard—that was wild, and I was probably going to tame it. And my mother, being a very good person, actually did, in part, fulfill her promise.


The first horse that actually did manage to come into our suburban backyard, however, was not a wild Brumby, it was a riding school horse that had had an accident, and my mother kept it in the backyard because she had promised me that I could have a horse in the backyard, and it used to foul her clothesline. But several years later I did get a horse. And at that point we were living on the edges of Melbourne, which was even then a very big city—this was 1950—and we were living in what is now a suburb, but at that point was the edge of Melbourne, so when we looked out we saw nothing except the Bush. And I was ten when I was given my horse. My horse had been rescued as a foal from the abattoir. It was about to be killed and, because we didn’t have very much money, it wasn’t a very expensive horse. And it was not what you would call a show-horse, but it was a perfect horse for me. I had it for eight years and it never hurt me. Whereas I had many very serious accidents off of practically every other horse that I would ride [laughter]. My horse’s name was Misty. And Misty was the gateway to the most wonderful childhood you can imagine because we were set loose on these horses. There were maybe three or four other girls about my age who also had horses, and it was a complete freedom. I don’t know what it’s like for kids now, I don’t know if they’re given that kind of freedom, and it was better than a bicycle because you didn’t have to stick to the footpaths or roads. You could saddle up your horse and you could go any direction. And we would leave in the morning and come back as it was getting dark. And on school days we would ride our horse to school. We would tuck our pleated box tunics into our blue jeans [laughter] and tether the horses outside of the school. We didn’t do this all the time, but it was very nice, riding your horse to school. Yes, it was, as I look back on it, an idyllic childhood because where we lived was not country that was in any way broken up. It had no roads or paths or anything, and it was ours. And I suppose there were dangers in this sort of Bush, I mean we were warned about snakes. But horses were clever about snakes—they didn’t like them either. And I had a sort of freedom that I wonder now if kids have. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Maybe out in the country.

View from 40 Orchard Crescent

N: In the country, maybe. Some.

T: Yes, right. So it wasn’t exactly a Brumby in the backyard, but it was…

N: Something pretty wonderful.

T: Yes, it was pretty wonderful, it really was. I think it helped me a great deal to have that freedom, and I think it gave us independence.

N: It sure did that.

T: And I think it also made us a little bit fearless, perhaps fearless to a fault. Wonderful to be able to spend that much time on your own as a kid.

N: Now I think, when children play they’re often told what to play, or there’s a game that they’re told, or a video. Just to have someone—your mother probably did this too—say “Go out and play!” And no one told you what to do.

T: Yes, nobody told us what to do. I remember doing stuff that, when I look back now, I think if they’d known what we were doing, they wouldn’t have liked it. For example, we used to take the horses to a big river, and on a hot day we’d take the horses down to the river and take off the saddle and we’d probably have our bathing suits and we’d ride the horses into the river. Well, it’s very dangerous to ride a horse into running water [laughter].

N: It’s understandable why you might wish to do it.

T: It was so much fun. I can still remember that feeling of slipping under the muddy water.

N: That’s nice, that you grew up near water, in a sense, you could get to it.

T: Well, it was a river. The big river that runs through Melbourne, it’s called the Yarra, and it’s famous because it’s the only river in the world where the mud is on top and the water is on the bottom.

Yarra At Warburton-1a

N: That’s wonderful actually. So you must have learned to swim early.

T: Ah, yes, swimming was my passion.

N: Yes, I grew up near water, too, so I remember for safety we had to learn to swim.

T: Yes, yes. I actually learned to swim in Lake Placid, before we left America. We used to spend our summers…

N: Who taught you to swim?

T: Well, you know my father was playing in the Eastman-Rochester Symphonette for the Lake Placid Club, which had its attendant problems because, of course, at that time it was extremely anti-Semitic. And my mother would not let me step foot into the Lake Placid Club because they wouldn’t allow Jewish people there. So I wasn’t allowed to go to the fancy beach at the Lake Placid Club, we went to the people’s beach on Mirror Lake, and there was a nice man who in some way was crippled, and I can’t remember exactly how, I just remember his face, but he now made a living teaching children to swim.

N: Interesting. When he’s in the water, he’s like Roosevelt, the water lifted the weight of him…

T: Something… I think it was his legs. But anyway, he was a very good swimming teacher and I took to it like a fish. I loved it. And when we moved to Australia it was no longer freshwater swimming, it was the ocean, and we used to spend hours and hours and hours in the salt water, in the surf, body surfing. We were probably about half an hour from the bay that Melbourne is on, and maybe an hour from the open ocean and…

N: Wow.

T: It’s one of the most glorious oceans. Australian beaches are—well, they’re famous—it was pretty nice.

N: Well, I know you’re a gardener. You must have, living there, you must have really connected with the visual part of the natural world, the plants, things like this. Did that happen to you there?

T: I don’t think I was aware of it so much, but when I came back to America when I was sixteen, it was a long time before—probably another six or seven years—before I got back to Australia again, and I remember getting off the boat when I went back to Australia, seeing the Eucalypts, the Gums, again and realizing—I guess it happens to everybody where they grow up—that that was my landscape, and that everything else was a divergence, didn’t look quite right, because that was how things were supposed to look.

N: That’s a nice way of putting it.

T: Yes, the Australian bush is quite unique. And it’s a very different color, it’s very drab, gray, greens, and blue-greens and sort of mustard-y…


N: There are different seasons I should think?

T: No seasons.

N: No seasons? That would be different.

T: It is a temperate climate. There are seasons, I mean it gets cold and it gets hot, but no deciduous trees.

N: What do they have? I mean Eucalyptus…

T: It’s Eucalypts, mostly Eucalypts. And because it was a British colony, there had been during those years a real effort to make it look like anywhere but Australia

N: [laughter] Ah, the British!

T: And so there were always a lot of unhappy looking palm trees and stuff like that [laughter] to give it the colonial feeling.

N: But they can grow there?

T: Yes, sort of. You know it’s interesting, now Australia’s in drought, terrible drought, because of global warming. And that’s not a dialogue about whether this is happening—it’s happened.

N: It’s happened, yes.

T: And the Australian vegetation is surviving, but many of the European transplants are perishing. So in an odd way Australia has reasserted itself.

N: How much were you aware of the other cultures going on there?

T: I was aware of it in the way that kids are. There were attendant rituals that were perplexing to me when I went, because it was a very Anglophile place in the ’50s. Australia was very, very British, and there were terrifying things like tea parties. I don’t know if you ever were made to go to a tea party as a child, but it was a very scary experience, because you were given these very delicate little cups of tea, and I will never forget this: being handed this cup that I was very scared of dropping in the first place, and holding onto it with both hands, and trying to figure out, one, how I was supposed to drink the tea, and then somebody would come by with a plate of sandwiches! [laughter]

N: So you thought that was hard, try this! [laughter]

T: Yes! There was a kind of formality to it, and there was a severity to it, that I think came from a class consciousness which, in America, we don’t know about. And I think there was a cruelty and a sort of superciliousness to it that, as a child, you pick up, that there’s this system of judgment going on that you don’t understand.

N: A caste system sort of…

T: Well, people placed each other in a class. And that was how they classified and that was how they related to each other. And, of course, that was, to us, a real foreign territory.

N: So, in the school, was that one of the things that made the school not pleasant? What kind of school was it?


T: Mother was very concerned that I get a good education—God bless her—so initially I was sent to the best school in Melbourne. It was a school called St. Catherine’s, and it’s still probably one of the two best girl’s schools in Melbourne. I was in the fourth grade and it was, I think actually, a sort of finishing school for girls. And the kids were OK because kids are generally kind of OK, but it was a snob school. It was in the snob suburb of Melbourne, and you were being groomed to be the sort of person who would live in that suburb. I think that it took both me and my mother a little while to figure out that the emphasis here was not necessarily getting a good education or keeping the mind open and alive and inquiring, but learning a certain coded behavior, and I think that it was probably quite hard for me. When I was home this summer I was looking at my report cards and when I first went there I was like all A’s, and everybody was saying what a terrific kid and what a terrific student I was. By the second year I was there I wasn’t getting A’s anymore. I can’t remember it too well, but I think that I’d gotten unhappy about being there, and there were some problems, I think, with my behavior and stuff like that. But anyway, mother and I came back to America because her sister was very ill. And we were here for a short time, probably about a half a year, when her sister died. And then we went back to Australia and we moved at that time from where we were living to this place where I got this horse. And my mother asked me if I wanted to go back to that school and I didn’t. I said I wanted to go to the school that the kids in the neighborhood went to, and it wasn’t a private school, it was a public school. And in some ways it was better for me because it wasn’t a finishing school, and in some ways it was horrendous. It was awful. Because, well, things were endemic to the school system from the British at that point, such as corporal punishment. And very strange ideas about things, for example being taught that Aborigines were not human beings…

N: Really?

T: Yes, and stuff like that. I think the thing that I talked to you about, which I always thought was a sort of wonderful piece of irony in my life, was that one of the things we had to do was take sewing which [laughter]…I would say it was not my favorite subject, but I more or less tolerated it. And at a certain point we were given a project that really intrigued me, which was to make our own dress, and I got quite excited about this and I went and got some fabric that I really liked and I got a pattern that I really liked. We were told to make it in stages and we were to do the side seams of the skirt or something first, but I got really excited about it and I made the whole dress. I thought perhaps that I would get praised for this—I was very proud of this dress—I hadn’t actually tried it on, however. So, I took it to the sewing class—at this point I was in the sixth grade—and the sewing teacher was a woman called Mrs. Lee. Mrs. Lee was a rather fierce character. We had to bring out our projects and she came by and looked at what I did and she looked at it and she said “Reynolds”—we were referred to by our last names in class—she said, “Reynolds, would you come up to the front of the class please?” And I still at this point thought that I was going to get praise for having completed this lovely dress, and she took my dress and she held it up and she said, “This is what happens to people who don’t do what they’re told.” And I had put the arms of my dress in backwards, and she took the dress and she ripped out the arms and then she ripped it in half…

N: Good heavens!

T: And I burst into tears…

N: Oh my heavens…

T: And I ran screaming out of the room, and well, my mother was not happy about this [laughter] and I did get excused for the rest of my life from going to sewing class.

N: Wow, that’s a story…amazing.

T: But I always thought it was rather ironic that I ended up working for the Metropolitan Museum restoring medieval tapestries.

N: Is that teacher still around? If she’s in the next world, send her a telegram.

T: She’s clearly in heaven because she was a Christian Scientist.

N: Well, at least she never was ill anyhow, right, she’s in somebody’s heaven, right?

T: Can you imagine doing that? I mean I suppose that kind of thing does…

N: No, no I cannot, I cannot imagine that.

T: Can you imagine that?

N: No I can’t, that’s impossible.

T: When I think back on it, I can hardly imagine that it happened either, but it is one of those moments that you will never forget. I remember the sound of the cloth as this…

N: I can imagine…

T: As this sleeve was torn off. Well, it was dismembered, she dismembered the dress in front of the class.

N: That’s incredible!

T: Isn’t it?

N: I mean the destruction of it is bad enough, but the humiliation for the child, having done something good? Good night!

T: But it was the culture, and I mean it was the same culture that was expressed in the razor strop, which was what was used for disciplinary purposes.

N: Yes, I was going to ask about it. I know often boys would be punished in this way but were girls punished the same way?

T: Girls were hit behind the knees; boys were on the hand. And these were pieces of leather that were maybe half an inch thick and maybe two inches wide. I don’t know if your dad had a razor strop, I mean they used to, you know, sharpen their razors…

N: He had a razor, but I don’t know if he had that.

T: It used to hang in the bathroom, this thick tongue of leather, and, you know, the kids would have to hold out their little ten-year-old hands and these big teachers would haul back and really pound!

N: I wonder if anyone got really hurt?

T: I don’t know if they broke people’s hands or what. But the girls had to stand and lift up their dresses, and in those days you wore bloomers, you know, you had knickers, your little bottoms [laughter] and they would whack you behind the knees.

N: That’s amazing, where it didn’t show, right. But I mean, a musician—that could do considerable damage.

T: A musician, I know!

N: Wow, that’s amazing.

T: Yes, it’s really quite extraordinary.

N: Who was the teacher you told me about—was it a French teacher?—when you had done well in her class? It was the spirit, I remembered, the spirit of the place, that was embodied in what you told me about this woman.

T: That was at a different school, that was the high school—she was the headmistress. She was, if you were to design a headmistress [laughter], she would be it.

N: God help us! [laughter]


T: Perhaps she was not quite as terrible as I have made her in my memory. But her name was Miss McMillan and she hated me. I was American and in those days Australians did not like Americans. Curiously, because they didn’t like the way that the American soldiers had behaved during the war. You’ve probably heard about that. I mean, that we helped by winning the Battle of the Coral Sea doesn’t seem to have made as much of an impression as the fact that the American soldiers were better paid than the Australian soldiers and got all the pretty women. Believe it or not, that got so deeply embedded in that culture. But, anyway, she didn’t like me, and I also was a bit—I was quite cheeky—and I was not a very well behaved child, to put it that way. And she was also the French teacher.

N: That’s what I remembered.

T: And I was good at French. In fact, I was very good at French. And it was really very irritating to her [laughter] that I was very good at French and also so hateful in all other ways, and she was never pleasant to me. But I think the incident that you’re recalling was that the Alliance Française had tests every year, or competitions, and there was a competition—I remember it was a three-part thing and I only remember two parts, one of it was that you had to memorize a French poem, and I memorized Alfred de Vigny’s “La Sauvage,” and you took a dictation test. And so sometime later I was sitting in class, somebody else’s class, and a student came and said, “Reynolds is to go to the headmistress.” And I was quite scared of her and I went wondering what on earth I’d done now! [laughter] And I walked in and she very unsmilingly said, “Reynolds, you won the dictation.” [laughter]

N: Begrudging.

T: Begrudging!

N: And that was it, right?

T: That was it. Yes. “You won the dictation,” and I thought, well, this was quite a moment between us, that she had to say that. That was the nicest thing she’d ever said to me.

N: So the memories of school are not so pleasant?

T: It was mixed. I had a very terrific education somehow, but I wanted it very badly. And in the midst of all of this there were wonderful teachers.

N: OK.

T: A lot of them were women. Particularly the literature teachers were women, unmarried women usually, who were absolutely passionate about what they were teaching. They loved poetry and they loved literature. I had a wonderful art teacher. And I got a very good education—so good in fact that when I came to America when I was sixteen to live with my dad again, I’d finished all of the work that was to be done in the next two years in American high schools…

N: Oh, my god.

T: So they put me into college instead. It was a very good, very strict education system. So, I have mixed memories about it.

N: Well, now, tell me this, this was interesting. I know you’ve written about the Berkeley experience, and I’m to going to hold off on this—it was astounding, the recollection of it—but how did you get into the weaving, and the tapestry.

T: Ah, many, many years later.

N: Was there one thing that took you in that direction? Were there other things you were doing? I know you were in Paris for a while.

T: Well, I don’t know about you, Nancy, I have a feeling you kind of figured out life quicker than I did—it took me a long time to figure stuff out. I loved education—I love learning—I was good at languages.

N: Yes, I remember.

T: I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. You know, this was the ’60s, and I was in graduate school and I, you know, had gotten my Masters in Comparative Literature. Well, do you know how many Comparative Literature departments there were in the United States then? There was Berkeley and Princeton and that was it.

N: I can’t imagine there would have been many, right.

T: That was it. And I was bright but not brilliant, and I was not going to be hired by either of those, so I was going to go on and get a PhD because I loved studying, but I’d probably end up being a French teacher. So, I went to the Southwest. I’d gotten interested, after the political experience in Berkeley in the ’60s, in spiritual ideas. I got involved in a group, a spiritual group, and one of the members of this group was teaching at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and I went to visit him. I had just gotten my Masters and I had qualified for the PhD. I went to stay with him and his wife for the summer and he had in his class at St John’s the first of the Navajo ever to have gone to St John’s College.


And that was Ben Barney. Ben was probably about…he was a freshman? Maybe a sophomore. He was probably about eighteen or nineteen. And he was also interested in these spiritual ideas, so I met him through Tom and through that group. Now, I had never done anything with my hands…

N: I can’t believe it!

T: In my life.

N: Amazing!

T: I had been brought up to be an intellectual. And mother had been extremely clear that she didn’t want me to do the women’s, usual women’s, stuff. Which is great [laughter].

N: You would have it both ways eventually.

T: Yes. But I had been living in a house in Berkeley that belonged to a woman who had been married to a very famous architect, a man called William Maybeck, who had designed many famous buildings in San Francisco—a beautiful house—and I’d just been living there as a student in rooms that she rented out. And she had a collection of Navajo rugs that she’d gotten from Taos. And I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful as that in my life. I didn’t know anything about them. This was the mid ’60s by this point. And so when I met this Navajo boy and we just got to know each other—he was such a delightful boy. I mean, he was completely unlike anybody I had ever met because he was very truly Navajo.

N: That’s interesting.

T: And there was a different quality there than I’d ever met in anybody—I mean, we never even got that close but there was this open friendly relationship. So, the only thing I knew about Navajo was the rugs. I asked him about it. His mother was the main weaver for the tribe. I had said that I’d tried to find out a little bit about the rugs and how they were made and everything during those years—there was nothing available. Now, there’s books on it. But at that point the Navajo were not sharing that world with Americans. But because he trusted me and we had this sort of common friend and common interest, he said, “Come and I’ll teach you how to do it.” He said, “We don’t show this, but I’ll teach you in the Navajo way.” So, the Navajo treat their crafts—I don’t know if this is still alive or not—but in those days they were part of their inner life, part of their spiritual life. And they brought great seriousness to this. When a young member of the tribe—and it’s always the women who weave in the Navajo—becomes interested in weaving, she will usually go to the grandmother and say she wants to learn to weave. And the grandmother will organize a time when the youngster can be shown how to do the warp for a blanket. This is a sacred ceremony. They set the loom beams. You’re not allowed to speak during the whole process. You’re not allowed to do anything accidental. If anything accidental occurs, such as you drop…

N: A needle…

T: A needle or something, you have to undo everything you did and start again. Once the warp beams are set nothing can enter the space where the warp is being set up, because it’s a sacred space, and what you’re doing is you’re actually invoking the spirit of the rug to come and manifest itself.

N: Wonderful!


T: It’s a very beautiful process in itself—simple, but beautiful. Ages old. And everything about it is very prescribed. There might have been chants that went with the various processes, I don’t know, but there were no chants. So Ben said “We’ll just do it as if you’re a little Navajo girl who’s interested in weaving.”

N: That’s nice.

T: After the end of this ceremony, of setting up the warp, the grandmothers or the mother undoes everything that’s been done and asks the child to repeat what she’s seen. And if she can, then that means that she’s meant to be a weaver. So that’s what they did with me. It was only maybe six or seven hours of my life but I had never seen anything like it. I had never, for one, seen the sort of wholeness that these people brought to what they were doing, and I’d never seen spirituality combined with activity that produced. So the end result of all of this was that if you went through all of this and you did it in the right way that at the end of the process you would have a vision of the design of the rug. Well, I didn’t have the vision. But the interesting thing about that is that I learned about the visualization experience. The Navajo never work from design, they never work from any sketch, they have an impression of this and then they make the impression happen on the warp.

N: That’s amazing, that’s amazing.

T: And now that weaving is dying out because, of course, they can’t make any money doing that, they use the Navajo women to put together electronic circuit boards because they have instant visualization. They can look at a pattern and reproduce it like that. Anyway, I took this in and it made such a profound impression on me that it changed the course of my life, and I just decided that that was what I wanted to do. And I pursued it.

N: So after you saw it happen, and you knew it could happen—you knew that was what you wanted to do—did you go for further instruction from some other place, or did you just learn it on your own?

T: No. That was it.

N: That was it?

T: That was it. And after that I kind of mumbled my way through it again and again and again, figuring out how to do it. I moved to New York and started a small business, a tapestry weaving business, and wove probably for about six years, made a meager living and had the most wonderful time because it had become a passion to learn how to do this. I worked with a few other people who had the same sort of passion and we made funny looking rugs [laughter] and sold them for very little money but made enough and it was absolutely wonderful and by the end of it I was a good weaver!

Tina Barn Weaving

And then someone came to me with a Navajo rug that had a hole in it…

N: Ah, so you were repairing…

T: And they said, if you could do that, can you fix my Navajo rug? And I looked at it and I sat and worked with it probably for about thirty-six hours trying to figure out how you would do that and I figured it out and I did it. And lo and behold, they gave me a lot of money for doing it! [laughter] And I went on from there.

N: That’s remarkable in terms of repairing—the variety of things that you have been asked to repair and restore is astounding, and yet, you could adapt to all of them! You were able to solve them all!

T: One of the things I actually like about what I do—some of the work is actually kind of dull and repetitive—but there is a problem-solving element in all of the private work that I get, and each one presents different problems, and I love that.

Tina in studio 2N: And solving it…

T: Yes, I love solving them.

N: So, no two tasks will ever be the same?

T: No.

N: That’s a good way to work.

T: Yes, it is. It keeps it alive. And that’s a nice story isn’t it? And, as you know, we’ve kept up with Ben Barney. I mean, he was just here a couple weeks ago.

N: I remember seeing him.

T: Yes. Paul has him into the class every year, right before Bill Clift comes. Bill and Ben know each other.

N: I’m sure, I figured they would.

T: Yes, yes, and Ben thinks that my story is very funny.

N: It’s an amazing story.

T: Well, he laughs [laughter], he laughs at my reverence.

Tina & Ben Barney

N: Well, the reverence is not so bad either. So then how did you get into working at the Met? What brought you there?

T: Those years were the late ’60s, early ’70s by then, and at some point I heard from a friend of mine—I think it was actually another weaver—that there was this extraordinary woman who was working at the Metropolitan Museum who had started a department there that looked after the textiles in the museum, and I sought her out. She was Japanese and, at that point, she must have been in her forties, I guess. And she was absolutely an extraordinary woman. She probably still knows more about textiles than anybody in the world. And she was very beautiful, very rich, and had sort of by happenstance got this job at the Metropolitan Museum, which at that point had no department that cared for the textiles in the museum.

N: Oh my goodness, wow.

T: There was a woman who volunteered in the corner of Object Conservation who did things like stitching the tops on tapestries so that they could be hung. And the museum had thirty thousand textiles.

N: Oh, my heavens!

T: And it had paid no attention to the entire collection because it was decorative art.

N: Yes. The prejudice.

T: And so a little bit of interest had flared up! Somebody had said, wait a minute, this is an extraordinary collection of stuff you’ve got here! And then questions came up about how to exhibit and how to look after it.

N: And then they needed people who knew this to come in.

T: So, I went and introduced myself to her and said that I was starting to do this. Well, at that point what I was doing was restoration, different from conservation.

N: Oh, well that’s interesting, how do you distinguish them?

T: Restoration is actually reproducing lost fabric and image in tapestries. Or rugs. But the basic problem with the museum collection was how to store it, how to clean it, how to stabilize it, how to do all that stuff. So she didn’t need anybody who did restoration for a while and then this project that I’ve been working on for awhile and just finished after all these years…

N: The Everyman?

T: The Everyman or Burgos tapestry came up and she called me up and asked if I’d come work on it. And that was how that started.

N: But that is amazing.

T: It was amazing, yes!

N: The process of that, what shape did it come and how did you figure out how to fill in various places?

T: Well, by then I’d been doing it for awhile, and I’d actually been working freelance in New York City on various people’s rug collections, so I’d built up a certain body of experience. But I certainly hadn’t worked on museum-quality tapestries. So, there was me and Alice, whom you’ve met, that was working on it. And I’d say we learned as we went.

Tina & Alice Met

N: Yes, which was probably peculiar.

T: Well, we had, you know, thirty years to learn, so we got pretty good.

N: That’s an enormous tapestry for one thing!

T: Well it’s twenty-six by fifteen feet, but it had been cut into four pieces.

N: Oh! So you had to fill in things.

T: It’d been vandalized, and it was in really, really bad shape.

Tina Burgos

N: What I remember is the first time I went in with you into that room where you were doing all the work, I asked you what you were working on and you said you were working on one of Unicorn Tapestries.

T: That’s right.

N: And I couldn’t touch it because it was sacred [laughter]…

T: Was that the first time you went down there?

N: And then I said “what are you doing to it?” and you said, “I’m mending the stocking of a hunter,” and I thought, “He, too, needs his stockings mended.” [laughter]

W; That was the limner’s stocking

N: Ah, that was it, OK. I was much amused that he needed his socks mended. But that was the first one I saw and I realized how much was really involved in what you were doing.

T: Yes, right.

N: And then you mentioned also that the—and this was an interesting notion—that the back is one color and the front is another. How do you bring these two together?

T: Yes, that’s one of the great things about being a tapestry conservator, or a conservator of art, is you get to handle the art. But the front of tapestries are light damaged and the back of the tapestry still has the original color. But with the Unicorns there’s not that much color loss.

N: What was the man with the golden arm that regaled us?

T: That was the first of the Unicorns.


N: Oh it was! And his arm has been replaced.

T: His arm was replaced. Not by me, but by another conservator. It’s been replaced. We used to call it the “atomic arm” [laughter] because somebody had put in a plug made of gold synthetic silk, rayon probably. Yes, so as soon as you looked at the tapestry you saw “the arm.” And slowly figured out the rest of it.

N: It was actually put in as a patch?

T: It was a plug that was actually put in. The arm for some reason had been cut out.

N: Who knows?

T: Warp and weft.

N: Strangest things!

T: Yes, you know, somebody—who knows—suggested, since this was the prince in the tapestry, that perhaps he’d been wearing some sort of royal insignia and it would have been burnt during the French Revolution.

N: Yes, I imagine that you can almost read the damage from that point of view.

T: You could, or it could be that they just wanted the arm out of the way so you could see how the potatoes were doing in the bins.

N: They were often used for that?

T: They were often used to cover potato bins, yes.

N: Or orchards?

T: And orange orchards, yes. Some of the repairs that I worked with on them looked as if somebody, you know, stuck in a knife and opened it up to see how the potatoes were doing.

N: That’s amazing. That’s an amazing story.

T: It’s amazing when you think that they couldn’t see the beauty of it.

N: See it! That is amazing!

T: Yes, it is amazing to me that somehow there was a hole and it must have been centuries when…

N: A failure to really see!

T: When somebody did not perceive beauty in the fabric.

N: Boy it’s a whole different standard. Well, the back of the tapestries looked extremely happy.

N: All right. You must be exhausted. I should be giving you the cup of water.

T: [laughter] No, I’ve got water!

N: I will listen to this when I get home and see if I can…

T: See if there’s anything interesting there!

N: There will be. It’s wonderful hearing you talk about this. It just gives me a context for some of the things I’ve heard you say over lunch and that is fun because there are individual stories that you remember. But also, there is a narrative context and a precision with which you discuss them that is really wonderful!

T: What do you mean?

N: That is to say, there is no fumbling, no guessing, they’re complete sentences. A lot of people don’t talk that way, including me!

T: You know I’ve actually been told that before.

N: Yes?

T: I have been told that I speak in complete sentences and I…

N: That rarely happens! I can tell you from experience.

T: Why is that?

N: I’m wondering why. Or people will fumble or they’ll repeat or it’s as if speech were so informal when most of us—at least in America—speak…

T: Do you think it’s a Brit thing?

N: I think it is.

T: I do, too. I do, too.

N: When you stand up to recite you’d better have it right! [laughter]

T: I think it’s a Brit thing. I do. And it was part of this, you know, this Oxford English thing, which was part of the class thing.

N: Well, that’s interesting too. I’m not surprised.

T: I think that that was one of the class things, that the easiest way to identify somebody’s class was if they spoke well and with certain intonations.

N: And did not hesitate.

T: Yes.

N: Ah. OK that’s it. But I noticed it immediately.

T: But when I go back to Australia and I see some of my old friends, I’m always intrigued—and I wonder if I’m being sort of wrongly categorical about this—but there’s an enjoyment of language and words that’s kind of palpable.

N: I can believe that.

T: Not necessarily a class thing, but there’s a…

N: Cultural thing, maybe.

T: A cultural enjoyment of language that I think might be British.

N: I think so. I agree with you on that completely.

T: Certain turns of phrase that people deliver most lovingly.

N: Yes.

T: Maybe it’s true in our Midwest here, or in the Northwest, or in the South. But I don’t see it on the East coast, do you?

N: I don’t. And I am inclined to maybe look at the different kinds of environment. I noticed out in the Midwest people often speak more slowly, they listen more.

T: They listen more, but do they speak with that… there’s certain phrases that just give so much pleasure to just say them.

N: That may mean we’re “British.” I’ll hear something with pleasure because I’ve never heard anything like it before and I’m charmed by it. I’m not sure that the speaker has heard it, unless they’re listening to me the same way, but perhaps they’re not.

T: Yes, maybe.

N: Or too polite to say something.

T: Nancy, it’s so kind of you to find me interesting. On a very dark day…

N: I remembered all of these stories…

T: I will remember that somebody found me interesting [laughter].





Sheba: a mostly true cat tale

This is the story of the Queen of Sheba—a truly remarkable cat—known by close friends and family simply as Sheba.  This tale begins when she was no longer a kitten, though not an old cat either. But perhaps it really begins centuries before because Sheba came from a distinguished and royal line of cats. She was, in fact, the daughter of a Mau, which means ‘cat’ in ancient and modern Egyptian. Think about that, it makes sense. Sheba’s mother was a relative of an Egyptian Mau and looked something like this:


In ancient Egypt, Maus had spots, like leopards, but today they can be striped or almost anything. For thousands of years Egyptian Pharaohs, Queens, Princesses and Princes worshiped Maus. There was even a Mau Goddess named Bast (sometimes also called Bastet) of whom there were bronze statues, like this one:


The cat goddess Bast, or Bastet, was responsible for many things including joy, music, and dancing. Here you see her wearing an earring. She also protected people from evil (and mice).

There are two features that distinguish Maus: first they often have an M on their forehead, and then, second, their eyes are clearly outlined in black, as if they used eye liner, just like Egyptians used to in the time of the Pharaohs.

Detail of Banqueter from the Wall Paintings at the Tomb of Nakht --- Image by © Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS

Detail of Banqueter from the Wall Paintings at the Tomb of Nakht — Image by © Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS

Sheba had Egyptian eyes and an M on her forehead.


She seemed to understand that her ancestors were worshiped. She was always elegant, poised, and smart.

Sheba spent most of her life in a small town high in the Rocky Mountains with her family, who were all musicians. This was appropriate for a cat descended from a god of music and she clearly enjoyed listening to music. During the long snowy winters she would settle high up on a broad wooden beam where it was warm. There she would stretch out and listen with half-closed eyes. Mr. C and Ms. P, after they retired and the children had grown up, taught music lessons at home. Many of the students were excellent, but sometimes the beginners were not. Sheba tolerated this; however, occasionally if she heard a truly awful note, she would discreetly cover her ears with her paws. In summer she would move to the windowsill and would lie there and gaze out at the mountain scenery, purring.


In the evenings she would lay on Mr. C’s shoulders or on the back of Ms. P’s chair as they listened to more music or watched a movie. And on Sunday mornings, in the summer months, she would eat fresh cantaloupe, her favorite food.

Many years passed peacefully and life was simple and joyous in the house in the mountains, filled with love and music. But nothing stays the same forever and one year Mr. C and Ms. P began to grow old, and then invalid, and finally they had to leave for a place they could not take their beloved Queen of Sheba. That day the house was empty, silent, and sad. Soon after that Sheba found herself in a cat carrier, in a car, and then on an airplane to New York. And this was how she left the mountains forever, to go and live with her new family, relatives of the musicians, Mr. P and Ms. T.


When Sheba arrived in New York, Ms. T was there to meet her at the airport. Sheba recognized her at once (of course they had met before) and immediately made it known, in a loud clear voice, that she was not pleased. However, there was even more in store for her that day. Mr. P and Ms T loved cats and had many of them. Now Sheba knew other cats existed, but had never seen so many in one place. When she arrived at her new home she was greeted by black cats, tabby cats, tortoise shell cats, calico cats and one very large, handsome orange tomcat. She remained as poised as a Queen and uttered neither a hiss nor a growl. Instead she took a good look around and then, in one great leap, was up on top of the highest cupboard looking down on them all, as if to say, graciously of course, what is this riffraff? And all the other cats looked up at her in surprise (and some admiration) and then went on with their cat business of grooming, playing, watching birds, hunting butterflies, eating, sleeping, dreaming, and so forth.


Only the handsome orange tomcat, whose name was Remington, and who looked exactly like a lion, gave Sheba a good long look. Over the following days and months Sheba became accustomed to her new home. In the summer she looked out of her own private window at the flower gardens, listened to music, and ate cantaloupe.


Then during the first winter in New York she accepted Remington as her consort to keep her warm during the cold weather. He worshiped her and after a bit they were inseparable.

Sheba and Rem041

Sheba spent most of her time in Mr. P’s private office with Remington and when she needed something she learned to play a simple melody on the keys of the fax machine to attract attention. All in all life became satisfactory for her once again. And her new family adored her. And all the other cats admired her from a distance. And so, again, the years passed peacefully until one day she celebrated her 22nd birthday (her 154th cat birthday) by eating a large piece of cantaloupe. She had enjoyed a good long life for any cat, even a royal Mau. Soon after that she began to sleep more and more and then one morning she did not wake up. Remington, Mr. P and Ms. T and all the others were very, very sad that day. If they had been ancient Egyptians P and T would have gone into mourning and shaved their eyebrows. But they were New Yorkers, not ancient Egyptians, and although they mourned they left their eyebrows on.

It was May, early spring in upstate New York, and Mr. P went out to the field in back of the house to dig a grave and lay Sheba to rest before leaving for his job. Had Sheba been a Mau living in Ancient Egypt she would have been mummified, embalmed in cedar juice and special herbs, wrapped in fine linen, and buried in a gold and jeweled cat coffin with all she needed for her new life in the next world. The Ancient Egyptians believed life was eternal and that people reincarnated in their last life as cats before they became gods.


But New Yorkers, even those who worshiped cats in the 21st century, did not know about such things. Ms T. had to leave before Mr. P had buried Sheba to go to work in New York City. When she returned it was late afternoon. She went out to plant catnip and forsythia on the grave. And as she did she began to cry and wondered, how could she go on without her friend the beautiful Queen of Sheba?

As she stood there weeping suddenly something very strange occurred. She heard a sound behind her, like a snort, and when she turned to see what was there she saw a yearling doe standing very close behind her.

Deer in Grass Web

The doe looked directly at her, pawed at the ground twice and snorted again as if to say, “Why are you weeping?” Then the doe turned around and slowly walked away, grazing here and there as she went. Ms. T was so surprised she did, in fact, stop crying. There were always deer around their place but they were very spooky, and certainly never behaved like this. She finished planting and said a cat prayer for Sheba’s spirit and turned to go, still thinking about the strange deer. She recalled reading somewhere that deer, in Ancient Egypt, were symbols of renewal, among other things.

When Ms. T came in to the house, and into the kitchen, she saw something she could scarcely believe! There were two kittens sitting there: one was a gray tabby, and the other looked very much like a miniature Queen of Sheba. They both had Mau eyes and M’s on their foreheads!

Sherbert & PQLater she found out that when Mr. P. returned to the house that morning, after burying Sheba, he found them waiting on the back porch and had brought them in. They are still alive today and have brought much joy into the lives of P and T. Although these cats neither play the fax machine, nor eat cantaloupe, and although it has never been possible for either Mr. P or Ms. T to explain rationally what really happened that Spring day, in their hearts they understand that the Queen of Sheba orchestrated a miracle for them.





Crossings: The Pacific

December 29, 2012

The food served by United Airlines has hit a new low. We are traveling sardine class with 300 other souls packed into a Boeing 747. I am 5’8” and my knees touch the back of the seat in front. When the passenger in front pushes back her seat I wonder if anyone has ever had a kneecap broken this way.

This flight from Los Angeles to Sydney is 14 hours of turbulence and hence many hours with seatbelts on. We are in the back of the plane. The advantage here is there are only two seats – so we have a modicum of privacy. We are with long-haired students and a few Islanders, perhaps Samoans. One young man looks Aboriginal. And that is indicative of the one big advantage these days: most people can travel. That is important but does it have to entail inhuman treatment? We do not even have individual screens, and those of us who cannot sleep in these conditions stretch our already uncomfortable necks to watch movies at an awkward angle up on small screens on the ceiling.

“Dinner” is dried up pasta with tomato sauce and inedible meatballs the size of peas. I had requested vegetarian but somehow that failed to get into the system. Often that is also inedible, actually “indescribable” would be more accurate. In addition to the pasta there is a soggy salad and a wrapped brownie. When we ask for a second small bottle of sour red wine to wash this mess down, the flight attendant pulls a long face and says disapprovingly, “Well I guess you can.” For this we have paid $2,100 each. Business class would cost twice or three times more and first class is nearly five times as much. The system is obscene and the airlines get away with it. We are grateful to touch down in Sydney finally – so grateful.

I have lost track of how many times I have crossed the Pacific. I moved from Rochester, New York, to Melbourne, Australia, when I was seven, and later returned to live in the U.S. My family remained in Melbourne and, after I married P and he found an interesting professional and personal world in Australia as well, we went back and forth numerous times. Although a lot has changed over the years we have remained migratory and eventually built a small house outside of Melbourne on a dormant volcano in Central Victoria. With many good friends and various interests in Australia, we now go there twice a year. Often, as I sit on the plane, my thoughts return to memories of other journeys, of my own personal history of Pacific crossings, and all that has changed, for the better, and in terms of personal comfort and quality of life, for the worse.

 Crossing 1

December 1949

 When we moved from Rochester to Melbourne I was seven, but by the time we arrived I was eight. My world suddenly expanded dramatically beyond our Rochester apartment, the neighborhood park, city block, school, friend’s houses, the hall where I took dance lessons, and a few places in the city like theaters, where you went to a ballet or a concert, or to a movie. Also Lake Ontario and Lake Placid where I had summer camp and summer holidays respectively. In a matter of weeks, my world now included the Canadian Rockies, Vancouver, Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and the thousands of miles of the Pacific in between. I was in the third grade.

The trip began on the evening of December 29th on a train from Rochester to Vancouver. I had been told there would be no snow in Australia, at least not in Melbourne, where I was going to live. So, before I left I said good bye to snow by jumping into a snow pile, lying on my back, and looking up at the stars. I loved the snow, a constant in an upstate New York winter. Sledding, skating, snowmen, and snowy Christmases were a child’s pleasures in the long winters. I have no memory of ever being cold, but I remember the snow.

My mother and father had divorced two years previous. In those days that was unusual and it was to be many years before I met another child whose parents had divorced. It set me apart from other kids. My mother had recently remarried: a young New Zealander, visiting Rochester on a post doc scholarship from Cambridge University. He had been hired by the Australian Government to install Australia’s first mass spectrometer.

The train left Rochester at night. I recall many people there wishing us farewell: hugs, kisses, frosty breath in the cold night air on the platform. I was wearing a plaid dress with a black velvet bow at the waist, patent leather shoes and white socks. One of my mother’s close friends, one of my personal favorites, cried when he hugged me and said to be sure to write often and he would too. I began to understand I was really leaving and would not be back again.

Train travel was luxurious. Smiling black Americans in starched while coats waited on white Americans. When we returned from the dining car after dinner our cabin had turned into a bedroom with starched white sheets, curtains around the bunk beds, and a silver washbowl in a mahogany stand. I cannot remember how many nights it took but my next memory is of Chicago —eating dinner in a restaurant —and a phone call to my father, who was living in Oklahoma City. Then I remember dry cold, and then wind and cold when we stopped in Winnipeg and got out of the train for fresh air.

Vancouver was our destination, where we would join the ship. After crossing Manitoba, the train went through the Canadian Rockies. We watched for bear and elk and moose and played cards. I remember seeing elk, and mountains and snow and more mountains, more snow. My mother, C, cried some. She was 27. My new stepfather, T., 32, sang to her: “I’ll take you home again Christine, to where the fields are ever green.” But she was to visit only once again and then never return.

Vancouver had a park with carved poles —totem poles—with great beaked birds and giant faces with huge eyes. They were brightly painted and fantastic. A friend of T’s took us to see them and told me about the “Indians” who painted them. Later I had my hair washed and curled by the hotel hairdresser and read Little Lulu comics. I had been told Little Lulu might be hard to get in Australia. Our clothes were laundered and pressed. We ate our last meal in North America in a restaurant with marble floors. I had fruit and cottage cheese, among other things, because I was also told that cottage cheese was not available in Melbourne. Cottage cheese was my favorite food.

Next morning we boarded the ship. Her name was the Aorangi, and in January of 1949 the MV Aorangi—the Cloud Piercer in Maori language—made her final voyage from Vancouver to Auckland, New Zealand. If ships could talk she would have had a lot to say. As I write this now I go online for information and images. There is a wealth of stuff and now I know: “the graceful Aorangi, acted as a hospital ship and engine repair shop for more than 1200 vessels during the Invasion of Normandy. She was a Steamship, 4268 tons, built in 1883. Formerly New Zealand Steamship Co. and sunk at Scapa Flow during World War1. Later she was raised and used as a storage ship in 1921. In 1946 she was fully restored in Sydney.” Some time after our trip she went to the breakers.



Our cabin was on C deck and had bunk beds and a private bath. There was a bowl of fresh fruit on a table and the two black metal steamer trunks with the gold painted latches with our things waiting there for us.

For the departure we went up on deck. There was music, a military brass band, and hundreds of people throwing colored streamers at each other. Nobody was there to see us leave so we watched the others. As the ship began to move away people cried and screamed and blew kisses and waved and the streamers snapped and flew in the wind. The great horn blew and the ship left for Victoria Island. We were there very quickly and then towards evening we were off again. After we were underway T. took me up on deck and held my hand as we looked at the waves breaking against the hull. The foam marbled with slate blue broke and blistered as a new swell rose up and smashed into the hull, over and over again. I was just tall enough to see over the top rail, but it was easier to look under it. He said I had to be careful not to fall overboard and showed me the lifesavers tied to the rails. He said if someone fell overboard the ship would stop and a sailor would go get him in a lifeboat. I remember thinking you would have to try very hard to fall through those railings. It was difficult to see how it could happen.

The sky was gray, the air cold, and the wind harsh now in the Northern Pacific in January, so we went back down to the cabin to dress for dinner. I slid and was thrown from one wall to the other of the narrow passageways as the ship rolled out to open sea. A ship has a unique smell, salt, damp, food and other nameless odors combined and I smelled it then for the first time. A steward appeared around a corner carrying a covered silver tray and he was swaying towards me from side to side too. I wondered if there were many collisions. I never saw one.

Dressing for dinner was a new idea for me. We had always lived informally. Unless there was a party or an occasion I wore overalls and t-shirts or shorts and t-shirts or my school uniform. I had special pretty dresses for parties and the first night I wore my black velvet dress with the lace collar. I cannot remember what I wore after that but every night I changed into a party dress. C. wore her Dior cream silk dress that first night. Those were our best clothes. We ate with the same people for the whole trip. I cannot remember them very well, but they were British, and I remember they talked a lot about how the Americans did this and that, and the British did this and that differently. For example the Americans (C and me) ate with our fork in our right hand. They ate with their fork in their left hand and used their knives to smash their food onto the back of their fork. I did not enjoy eating certain things the British apparently found delicious. Fried lamb’s brains were one example. Tripe was another. Ugh. And kidneys were the worst. Each dinner ended with a steamed pudding. That was good.

The waiters and all the stewards were black Indians, not African Americans, nor Native Americans, which we called Indians. They were from Portuguese Goa. C had grown up in the Southwest and hated racism and racial inequality. She treated them as equals and I remember some sharp comments from T in the privacy of the cabin. This was one of our early encounters with the hierarchy of the British colonial– the first of many to come.

As I write this I did some research online. “The Goanese wore a blue and white striped jacket with silver buttons and blue serge trousers. In the hot weather they wear white trousers instead of the blue. In the saloon and whenever else it is considered necessary they wear a white jacket with blue shoulder cords. The Cooks wear the traditional rig of a white coat, blue and white check trousers and a tall chef’s hat.

“Goanese, as the name implies, come from the Portuguese colony of Goa, though numbers of them are now settled in Bombay and elsewhere. They are the descendants of the early Portuguese adventurers to the East. They all have Portuguese names and are devout Roman Catholics. A large number of them speak excellent English and they make good servants and cooks.”

The first part of that journey was cold and inhospitable. The north Atlantic in January was not a warm introduction to the Pacific. This went on for a week. The sea was rough and when I felt queasy I was taken up on deck and put under a ‘rug’ on a wooden deck chair and given a hot salty drink called beef tea and an orange. Huge waves streamed by throwing plumes of white foam over a grey blue sea under a grey sky. One minute all you could see was ocean, then the next all was sky. I was taught to play new games: deck quoits was one where you tried to throw a rope quoit over a wooden pole down the deck. The rolling ship made it very hard. I think there was something else where you pushed a puck into a square grid, but I have forgotten the point of that game. Was it shuffleboard? Then there was walking around the decks for exercise and the distances were marked so you could tell how far you went. There were places you could not go—the crew’s quarters and first class. So you turned around and walked back.

Another new thing was tea. Morning tea with cakes and sandwiches and what I called cookies but were called, I discovered, biscuits. Then there were scones, which looked to me like biscuits, but were sweet. Afternoon tea repeated the spread. When it was very rough the cakes and cookies would slide around on the plates and the hot tea would slop over the top of the cups into the saucers. Apparently it was important whether you put your milk in your cup before or after you put the tea in. C. said people watched to see. I asked why? She said I guess we don’t want to be thought of as milk-in-firstish and laughed.



I was excited about Hawaii. We had been at sea about a week and I rose early to see us arrive. The weather was beautiful and warm and the sea calm. The dawn sky was light pink and the air fragrant like flowers. I had been allowed to run around the ship on my own for several days now. So I watched us arrive and dock alone and felt grown up. As we came close enough to the wharf I could see there were children my age and a little older, young Hawaiian boys waiting for the boat. After we docked they dove for American coins tossed in the water by the passengers. Hawaii was not yet a State. I ran downstairs to get some coins and was given a couple of dimes to throw. I could see C was not crazy about the whole idea but I went back and threw them in anyway.

T had a friend there. He took us to Diamond Head, which was in the clouds that morning, to Pearl Harbor, to a golf course, and to the one hotel, The Royal Hawaiian, where we had lunch.


royal Hawaiian

A young Hawaiian man climbed a palm tree on the grounds and picked a coconut for me. I really liked that and somehow got the idea it was the only coconut in the world. I thought Hawaii was the most beautiful place I had ever seen and the palm trees the loveliest in the world. They clicked in the wind as they swayed. As we left women danced for us on the beach we were given frangipani leis and the Hawaiians said Aloha as they put them on our shoulders. The smell in the air was frangipani blossom and carried out to sea for quite a distance.

HAWAII Hula Dancers~ PAN AM-Issued 1950 PCARD

As we left the boys dove for more coins. C said it was not right to exploit native people like that. And she would not give me any more dimes. We kept the leis in the washbasin and our stateroom smelt of flowers for a while.

After we left Honolulu it became cold and rough again. There was a big party for the children as we crossed the equator. For some reason I became sick and very sad at that party. The fact that they showed us the film The Yearling made it even worse. What a terrible film to show children. Trauma.

Then we moved into summer in the South Pacific. Days were spent around the saltwater pool. The air was sweet. I had made friends as had C and T. We were enjoying ourselves. Another week passed and we arrived in Suva, Fiji. At the dock was a huge open air market smelling of onions and there were stacks of sugar cane and handmade baskets and mats. The people were black, had huge hairdos, lovely smiles and soft smiling eyes. Again T had a friend who showed us around. Fiji was a British colony. I had my photo taken with a Fijian policeman on a traffic island.


He wore a white skirt with a jagged hem and a blue jacket with a red sash. It was very hot and I had been allowed to wear my bathing suit because we were going swimming at the Grand Pacific Hotel.


But first we were taken on a tour outside of Suva. We went to a native village. The houses were made from grass, and the women did not wear tops. They came out of their huts and smiled at us and offered baskets and fruit. We saw the chief’s house.


I remember C was very uncomfortable and I asked her why. She said she felt like a voyeur for the first time in her life. Then she told me what that was. After this we returned to the Grand Hotel. There was a large saltwater pool. We were served lunch there. I swam and C and T drank gin and tonic. I thought Suva was nearly as good as Honolulu. I would look many times in years after that at the picture of me in my bathing suit with the Fijian policeman.

Another week passed. The ship was our home now and I was even allowed to go sit in the bow alone and watch the dolphins and flying fish. I can remember the feel of the wind, the air, the beauty of the open sea, all mine at that moment, and the porpoises and flying fish soaring through the spray these decades later. Unforgettable. One night when we ate with the captain he told me the porpoises guided the ships and warned the crews of any trouble ahead.


Then the voyage was over. We arrived in Auckland, said goodbye to our ship friends, to the good ship Aorangi. It was sad she would never sail again – I did not understand why – she seemed just fine. And I became very upset when a customs official said I could not take my coconut into New Zealand. It was then I discovered it was not the only one in the world. Then I remember even when we were on solid ground the swaying sensation continued for a couple of days.

After two months’ visit with T’s family in New Plymouth we returned to Auckland to complete our trip to Melbourne. During this time I had learned to surf, play tennis, and drink afternoon tea, none of which would have happened in Rochester – except perhaps the tennis. I thought New Zealand was almost as beautiful as Hawaii. My new step grandparents had a lawn tennis court, a nectarine orchard, and lived two blocks from a surf beach with black sand (from a high iron content I was told). It was fun to come out of the cold surf and roll in the hot sand and turn black. We were also several miles from a beautiful snowcapped mountain called Egmont (now Taranaki). There were neighbors around my age. I had a very good time. How things went for the adults, however, I could not say. Sometimes C seemed sad, which was new for me.

We returned to Auckland to board our ship across the Tasman Sea to Sydney and Melbourne, the MV Wanganella. I was again wearing my plaid dress with the black velvet bow. When we arrived at the dock I was amazed and delighted to discover we were traveling on a ship full of dwarves. To me there were hundreds of them, all around my size. I was to learn, however, that I was not allowed to play with the dwarves; they kept to themselves. No one has ever been able to explain this to me. Where were they going? Why such a large group? And why couldn’t I talk to them?

Now there is still a lot of information available on line about the Wanganella, but not about the dwarves. This ship too had many tales to tell.





Saloon in 1935

From my research: on May 19th, 1941, the MV Wanganella was converted to an Australian Hospital Ship to allow it to carry equipment, medical personnel and to operate as a hospital. Two trips were made to the Middle East, and then, in May 1942, Australians wounded at Kokoda and New Guinea were evacuated at Port Moresby for Sydney. On her return from this trip, Wanganella proceeded to Townsville and embarked wounded Americans from the South Pacific Campaign for transfer to the American Hospital in Melbourne (now Melbourne General Hospital). Wanganella was now serving on two battlefronts: the Middle East and the New Guinea and Solomons campaigns. During her war service Wanganella travelled 251,611 miles and carried 13,389 wounded and sick evacuees, comprising Australian, New Zealand and American Service personnel.

The Wanganella was returned to Huddart Parker Ltd late in 1945, and she was sent to Melbourne for her refit, turning her back into the luxury passenger liner everyone loved. She was ready to go in September 1946. It was decided by Huddart Parker that the fresh looking TSMV Wanganella would first operate a return voyage to Vancouver, sailing from Sydney via Auckland and Honolulu, returning to Sydney on December 28. She departed Sydney for her first postwar Express Trans-Tasman Voyage, which would prove to be eventful!

Her first voyage, after the war, sailing as a full fledged liner with some 400 passengers on board could easily have Wanganella’s very last voyage, for she had a narrow escape when she ran aground on Barrett Reef located at the entrance to Wellington Harbour in New Zealand. This reef is well known and it would later claim the Union Steamship’s newest Inter Island Ferry between Wellington and Lyttleton (Christchurch), the TMV Wahine, with a tragic loss of 51 lives on April 10, 1968.

On January 19, 1947, the Wanganella struck Barrett Reef at 11:30 PM, whilst she was sailing at a speed of 13 knots. Apparently (and this is the short version) the Captain, Commander R Darroch, had mistaken the flashing buoy in front of Barrett Reef for the light to guide the ship into Wellington harbour. The Wanganella was firmly stuck on the reef and it would prove to be difficult to remove her, as she was stuck badly on the rocks, with two massive gashes below the waterline at her bow, the larger of the two being some 12.2 meters long and up to 6.7 meters wide. Thankfully, there were no injuries on board. The next day all passengers were evacuated from the ship. She returned to the dock and work continued, and it was finally completed on October 29, 1948. After that and many years’ service, she went to the breakers in 1971, at 41 years of age.

The Tasman Sea can be tricky I learned. Half of the four day trip I was not allowed on deck because of the weather. It was cold and windy and I was bored. I did not see a single dwarf except once, when I was being taken on a walk, I saw a number of them together in what looked like a pen on deck. But this may not be true.

We docked at Sydney and saw the Harbour Bridge. Then I cannot remember whether we continued by sea to Melbourne or took a train. Something had changed between C and T. One day I found C crying. I had seen her cry before only once, on the train, and tried to comfort her. Our trip ended in Melbourne in early March. We stayed one night at a fancy hotel, the Windsor, with velvet drapes. The next day we moved to a residential hotel in Dickens Street. But that is the beginning of another story. The first crossing was over.


Crossing 2

May 1953

In 1953, I was 10. This was our first trip back to the US since we came on the Aorangi and Wanganella in 1950. We were on a DC 6 belonging to BCPA (British Commonwealth Pacific Airways), a company later owned by Qantas.

I was traveling with my mother and 2 year old brother. C’s older sister was dying of cancer and we were going to see her. I was also going to visit my father. They both lived in Oklahoma.

We had a compartment of four seats, and at night a bunk bed would be prepared in the space that in later planes was to be used for baggage. The whole plane was like this, the service impeccable, silver, porcelain, and white linen tablecloth and napkins.

plane interior

I do not recall seat belts, and because this was a propeller plane we flew at relatively low altitudes. I spent hours watching the wrinkled waves as we flew over the Pacific and remembering the Aorangi and all we were missing down there. Occasionally we saw a ship below. There were a lot of bumps which my 2 year old brother enjoyed immensely, like a circus ride. The pilot visited us a few times to see how we were doing and mother asked him how far we fell during the worst turbulence. He replied up to about 2000 ft . That explained why my stomach felt so funny when we hit air pockets, as they were called then.

The route was Sydney, Auckland, Fiji, Canton Island, Honolulu, and San Francisco. I remember the whole trip lasted 90 hours including the stops. We would continue on another airline to Oklahoma after resting in San Francisco for a few days. Each stopover we left the plane, were taken to a hotel to shower, eat in a restaurant, and sometimes take a swim. I remember Fiji because I had liked it when we were going out to Australia on the boat. This time we were in Na’di, not Suva, and it was dark and rainy. There had been heavy storms as we approached Fiji and two nuns siting across the aisle had been praying loudly. C finally leaned over and said for God’s sake be quiet, you are scaring my children. When we arrived the air was lush. It was nighttime and hot and damp.

Canton Island was a flat rock in the middle of nowhere. At the age of 10 this place stayed in my imagination. It seemed remarkable to me to be standing on a rock in the middle of the Pacific, the warm wind blowing off sea. It was bright and sunny – hot.



In Honolulu we were taken again to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which even then was about the only hotel on Waikiki Beach. It was pink with a big swimming pool, and we shared our room with another young woman traveling with an infant. I remember C saved this child’s life by grabbing it just as it tried to crawl off our second story balcony. We ate at a banquette in the main restaurant and I had cottage cheese and fruit salad. Delicious. Food in Melbourne had been a bit of a problem according to C. Nobody ate fresh vegetables much. Just lamb chops.

As we re-boarded the plane that night one of our fellow travelers pointed out another plane on the runway with a curved fuselage and three fins on the tail. It was one of the early jets, and he said next time we came we would be travelling on a plane like that. I remember it was called a Constellation. Six months later we returned on the same plane and made the same stops. Years later I learned that the great pianist William Kapell had died in a plane crash on October 29 that same year as a BCPA DC 6 failed an instrument landing at San Francisco.   That was several days after we had arrived in Melbourne for T’s birthday, also October 29.


Crossing 3


The next time I flew I was alone, 16 years old, and going to spend time with my father and his family. The plane was a new Boeing 707. In 1959 it was the latest thing and the flight took a mere 19 hours, not including stops at Na’di and Honolulu, where we were not put up at hotels, but were given a meal as part of the flight. There was some concern about that flight, because the early 707’s sometimes had trouble lowering their landing gear. But everything worked.

The seats were three on each side of the plane. But the flight was not full and I shared my three with one other woman, a professional cellist. I was traveling to Bozeman, Montana, to live with my father and go to college where he taught music. I remember she was concerned because in Honolulu she had learned of a major earthquake that had hit Yellowstone Park as we were flying. This major earthquake had killed many campers and actually shifted the location of Yellowstone Lake. Bozeman was close to Yellowstone but it was not badly affected. Still my first nights there were filled with aftershocks, which shook my bed as I dropped off to sleep.

I did not return to Australia for 7 years, and then again on a liner, the Oriana, a P & O (Peninsular and Orient) ship.



Crossing 4


By then, in 1967, I was a graduate student, 23 years old, returning to see my mother and brother in Melbourne. The liner was not full but because I was a poor student I shared my cabin with three other women. We were pretty much left to ourselves except for meals, and a few films and parties. The Oriana also took 3 weeks to reach Sydney, still stopping at Honolulu, Suva, Auckland and Sydney. This trip was much less formal than the earlier one. I was studying for exams and read a lot. In the evening I would share a beer with other young people on board in the stern bar.


In Honolulu I walked around and read under a palm tree on the grounds of Iolani Palace. Waikiki was already transformed into an esplanade beach with many hotels. I walked on the beach and took a swim. We were there for about 24 hours. It was nice but the fragrant and the empty Honolulu of my childhood was a thing of the past. I bought a palm leaf basket for my mother which I still own today.

Suva had also changed. 1967 was the first year of a Fijian government independent of the British rule. The feeling was very different, hard to describe. Perhaps less regimented would be a way to put it. I walked out of Suva by the ocean. Bright eyed Fijians coming from church smiled and smiled. That was lovely. I bought some painted tapa cloth from a market.   It was very cheap and very beautiful. The main memory I have, though, is still the feeling of that velvet air of the South Pacific, and the stars at night – so bright, so many, as the northern constellations gave way to the southern sky. Even so, by the time we reached Sydney, I was glad it was over. The trip across the Tasman was rough and I had had enough.


Crossing 5

November 1974


By this time ocean liners had become cruise ships. Air travel had forced the change and cruises maximized the number of passengers at the expense of personal comfort to maintain profits. The stops were the same, Honolulu, Fiji, Auckland, Sydney but the magic was gone. It was difficult to find any privacy on the ship at all. Escaping a cha cha class, you run into a samba class. You get the picture. The threat of a slow moving hurricane lurking around as we sailed towards Fiji did not help as there were a few days when we were not allowed outside and had several rather scary lifeboat rehearsals. I could not wait until this trip was over. The return trip was on a Norwegian freighter. At that point I had time and could afford six weeks to travel from Perth to Singapore to Hong Kong to several ports in Japan and finally on to Vancouver. Perhaps by the end of the six weeks the relatively close quarters and company of the other 11 passengers had worn a bit thin for us all. But on this smaller vessel you joined the life of the ship and the sea, and you had good and familiar accommodation wherever you stopped to change freight, which could take up to three days. That was the last time I traveled from the US to Australia by sea.


Crossing 6

March 1980 and on

The next time I few to Melbourne was on Pan Am. The planes still stopped along the way, and the airlines still permitted stopovers. So, for example, you could fly from New York to Honolulu and spend a day or two there, then on to Fiji, take a break and so forth. Sometime in the 1990s the airlines started charging for the stops. And it was around then that the long haul flights from LAX to Sydney or Melbourne became the norm, fourteen hours non-stop.


Air-to-air view of Pan Am Boeing 747, N740PA, Clipper Ocean Pearl in flight, facing left, ca. mid 1980s-1991.

Air-to-air view of Pan Am Boeing 747, N740PA, Clipper Ocean Pearl in flight, facing left, ca. mid 1980s-1991.


January 2013

By divine intervention, or so it seems, we were upgraded to Business Class for the flight back from Sydney to LA. Here I discovered what had become of the luxury of my early travels. It had moved to the front of the plane, or upstairs, and become prohibitively expensive. But here was edible food, friendly service, and a bed with pillow and clean covers. For the right price you can travel in style barely cognizant of the other 270 passengers cruelly crammed into the back of the plane. This trip explained a great deal. When I think of the early days, and the fact that we were never wealthy, the fact of travel must have implied special status and therefore special treatment. Today, of course, travel is possible for many more people, but at the cost of being treated like a human being. We are not people, we are customers.

Medieval and Renaissance Tapestry: A Guide and Companion


What does it mean to read a tapestry? You can look at this in two ways. First, you can consider tapestry in its historical context, as it has evolved over time. Or, second, you can regard tapestry as a visual language frozen in time. We will look at tapestry in both these ways. This book intends to incorporate both a diachronic (historical context) approach and a synchronic approach (as visual language without historical context). (1)  Thus, we will look at tapestry within the course of history, and then we will look at exemplary individual tapestries, both in the context of their individual histories, and as visual experiences in themselves.

We’ll begin with the historical context but, first, we need to define some terms. Here is a provisional definition of tapestry: “Tapestry is a simple weave structure.”

That’s our first definition and our most important one. There is a structural element, the warp (vertical), and a decorative element, the weft (horizontal). The weft goes over and under each warp and then reverses the pattern in the next row, as you see in the images below. The weaver beats down the weft to conceal the warp. (With this definition in mind we can see, for instance, that The Bayeux Tapestry is actually embroidered, although people continue to think of it as a tapestry. This confusion might have arisen because of the narrative content of the Bayeux Tapestry, something we will consider later.)

Here is a more technical definition of tapestry: “weft faced plain weave with a discontinuous weft,” meaning that the weft does not go from selvage to selvage (or end to end), but rather the images are built from adjacent sections of different colored weft. Image and structure are integrally connected. (This is unlike embroidery, where a ground cloth is first woven, and then the embroidery superimposed as the design

image002  image005 image006 Image 1: Warps (vertical) with two adjacent blocks of colored weft (horizontal) woven alternately over and under the warps.


Now that we have a definition, we can begin with an historical overview of tapestry to provide a context for the medieval period in Western Europe (which will be our main interest). (2)

But first, to get a better sense of the wonderful variety of tapestry that we will be considering, take a look at the following tapestries from different cultures and eras and note just how remarkably diverse they are (using the simple technique outlined above).

image004Fragment, woven between the 2nd and 3rd century BCE; it was found in a mass grave. Collection of the Xinjiang Museum, Urumqi, China.



Tunic, 7th–9th century CE, Peru; Nazca-Wari, Tapestry, Camelid hair , H. 21 1⁄2 in. (54.6 cm). Gift of George D. Pratt, 1929. Metropolitan Museum of Art Accession number: 29.146.23



Wearing Blanket, 1840–60, United States, Arizona or New Mexico, Navajo Wool, H. 60 x W. 71 in. (180.3 x 152.4 cm). The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979, MMA: 197.206.1038.


Kilim, ca. 1800 CE, Central Anatolia, Wool, cotton, and silver thread, 13 ft.3/8 in. x 5 ft. 4 1⁄4 in. (4.2 x 1.6 m) Purchase, Rebecca and Richard Lindsey. Gift, 2006. MMA: 2006.9




Rank Badge with Lion, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 15th century CE, China
Silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi) 15 1⁄2 x 14 1⁄2 in. (39.4 x 36.8cm) Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. C. Y. Chen and Anonymous Gifts, 1988. MMA: 1988.154.2



Fragment from a Coptic Hanging, 5th century CE, Egypt, Linen, wool; plain weave, tapestry-weave. Textile: L. 40 15/16 in. (104 cm) W. 24 13/16 in. Gift of George F. Baker, 1890, MMA: Accession Number: 90.5.905A



Fabulous Beast (Fragment of a Tapestry), ca. 1420–30, German (Upper Rhineland; Basel). Linen warp with wool weft, 28 1⁄4 x 33 in. (73 x 85.1 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 1990 MMA: 1990.21



The Unicorn in Captivity, ca. 1495–150, South Netherlandish, Wool warp, wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts. 12 ft. 1 in. x 99 in. (368 m x 251.5 cm). Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, MMA: 37.80



Angeli Laudantes 1898. John Henry Dearle (English, 1860–1932). From a cartoon painted in 1894 by John Henry Dearle. Manufactured by Morris & Company Weaving workshop at Merton Abbey Tapestry Works (British, founded 1881). Woven by John Martin. Tapestry: dyed wool and silk on undyed cotton warp (15 warps per inch; 5-6 per cm.) Overall: 92 1⁄2 x 80 in.




Modern Tapestry, Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green, 1927/28
Cotton, silk, linen 150 x Some Ancient History(235 x 203.2 cm). Rogers Fund, 2008.MOMA: Accession Number: 2008. 8


As you can see from the examples above, tapestry has been with us a long time, and in many varieties. The first recorded use of the word tapestry, or ta-pe-ja, is found in Mycenaean Greece (c.1,600 – c.1,100 BCE), composed in Linear B syllabic script. However, what are called “warp weighted looms” were probably developed much earlier during the Neolithic period (10,200- 4,500 BCE); the weavers used loom weights to put tension on the warp to enable them to thread in the weft material. This allowed for simple tapestry weaving and, indeed, by 566 BCE, history tells us that giant figurative tapestries recounting the victory of Athena over Enceladus and the Giants were ritually prepared by young women for the celebration of the festival of Athena, the Panathenaea.

Lekythos, ca. 550–530 BCE.; Archaic, black-figure, Greek, Attic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Terracotta H. 6 3⁄4 in. (17.15 cm). Fletcher Fund, 1931 (31.11.10)


This tapestry for Athena coincides with the dating of the Greek vase above, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where you can see a warp weighted loom and young women weaving, spinning, and weighing yarns.


Since this book is intended primarily for an English-speaking audience, we will concentrate on European tapestry (especially medieval narrative tapestry), which is the type that the reader is most likely to encounter in museums, art collections, and public spaces. But bear in mind that the world of tapestry is a very large one and we will be traveling through only a small portion of it.



(1)  diachronic / synchronic. (Gk, chronos, time; dia-, through, across; syn-, with, together). A diachronic study or analysis concerns itself with the evolution and change over time of that which is studied; it is roughly equivalent to historical. A synchronic study or analysis, in contrast, limits its concern to a particular moment of time. The extent to which a synchronic study really does, as it were, take a frozen slice of history for study is itself not absolute. In linguistics, for instance, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) thought it necessary to take a snapshot of language at a particular time and effectively produce a freeze-frame of it in order to understand its historical development. By approaching it in this synchronic way, he assumed it would be easier to see what was eternal and universal.
(2) Most tapestry in the middle ages was woven with the warp perpendicular to the design. It was much easier to construct images of drapery and buildings without having to join between the warps – a laborious process at best. The downside to this was that the tapestry was hanging by the weaker decorative element, the weft. Over time this causes problems for conservators, as holes or gaps open up because of the stress on the fabric.

Lady Grey’s Leap

Kristin Headlam  "Bound"

Image: Bound by Kristin Headlam



Lady Grey sights

a dish of milk—


dark blue china high

on a yellow shelf—


gathers herself regal

in perfect concentration:


elegant, silent, still—

her yellow eyes half closed—


she gauges the gradient,

leaves the ground, as if leaving


earth, gravity, even time,

flying slow motion


to a perfect landing,

blue dish placed before white paws.


Time Watch

Vachel BlairTina ABR Poem 2

For Vachel Lindsay Blair.

See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2qSOKXVx1w

Letter to Les

les_murrayWarwick, New York

Dear Les,

I‘ve been thinking about the memories I wouldn’t have if we’d never met. For example, I am certain that I would not remember having slept in a large motor house at the bottom of a steep hill in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. I am sure of that.

Do you remember our visit to you and Valerie, Daniel, Claire, and little Alex and Peter that November? It was 1984. We arrived late in the afternoon and Valerie kindly invited us to stay for tea.   You and my brother Dennis hit it off right away. He had lived in a cave on a beach in New Zealand with some Maori for a while and you talked about that. Paul and Den and I had just taken some friends to the airport—they were returning to the States, after a camping holiday with us on the beach at Booti Booti. During our time there I had seen two porpoises playing in the surf, but I would never have known that Booti Booti meant ‘two porpoises’ if you hadn’t told me.

We had rented a large green vehicle, sort of a cross between a motor home and a bus, for the trip from Melbourne with our friends. We called it ‘Le Bus’. You suggested it would be prudent to park it at the bottom of your very steep hill, instead of in front of your house half way down, for fear ‘Le Bus’ would take off in the night. The next morning, when I first woke, I didn’t have a clue where I was or what I was doing there. But I remember it was a fine morning.

And then, I would never remember having met anyone with a mind like yours—that is, like an encyclopedia. I began to discover this about you over dinner at the house of a friend of Paul’s in Melbourne, later that year. I had been professionally involved in New York in a study of the Shroud of Turin, one of many such scientific studies attempting to ascertain, once and for all, whether the linen textile could have been Christ’s shroud or if it was, instead, a later medieval creation.

My part of that project was minor, translating relevant articles from Italian on studies of the weave structure, spinning and fibers of the Shroud (the Turin Sindone) and the veil (the Oviedo Sudarium). I remember you knew about both of them. You knew, for example, that one fascinating thing about the Shroud was that the image of the corpse on the cloth is imprinted and behaves like a photographic negative, not like a stain. And you knew that the face on the linen Sudarium—purported to have covered Christ’s face during the deposition—and the face on the Sindone have identical measurements.

I remember you saying that maybe at the moment of Christ’s death an immense spiritual energy field was released that could have imprinted the image of the corpse on the shroud. I found that more interesting than any of the conjectures I had read in the scientific studies. I do not believe I have ever mentioned anything to you, like that—of interest to me—that you didn’t know something about.

If we had not met you, I also would not remember meeting Joseph Brodsky. You came to New York, a couple of years later, to read with Joseph at the 92nd Street ‘Y’. Our year in Melbourne had ended and Paul had invited you to stay with us when you came to the East Coast. But I was hesitant because, at the time, we had twenty cats and a dog. I did not know you well and not everybody fits in easily with such a menagerie in a small old farmhouse. But you’d been around animals all your life (I hadn’t known that) and they liked you just fine. And you liked them too, I think.

That was an unforgettable evening at the ‘Y’. You wore a striped sweater Valerie had knitted for the occasion (later someone washed it and it shrank to pigmy size). You read in Australian to New Yorkers. Perhaps, for all I know, that was a first. And Joseph read in Russian. He read in pure voice, and you, in living language. The audience was transfixed. Afterwards, you both signed books. Joseph was better known than you at the time, but now, of course, he’s gone and you are famous. That night we went to eat in the Village after the reading. Over dinner you and Joseph—as he termed it later—scraped ideas everywhere from off the ceiling.

And I would not remember Valerie. I have never met anyone like Valerie. I know intelligent women and candid women and a few with a very good sense of humor. I also know one or two truly strong women, with the great gift of common sense. But I had never before encountered all these qualities in one person. Next time you came to the States, Valerie came too. The cats loved her. I would not know the word ‘moggie’ without Valerie. There were two tiny calico kittens sleeping yin/yang together in the kitchen and Valerie walked right in and petted the small wild things, saying “Be good to each other little moggies.” They liked each other very well as kittens, but grew apart later. They never did each other any harm, though they were both very beautiful, and you know how jealous cats are. One of them is still alive, very frail though. She’s fifteen now. Anyway, ‘moggie’ is such a wonderful word. Valerie has the gift of language too.

Of course I would not remember Bunyah or a rental car biting the dust in Coolongolook in the middle of the night. That was Easter, some year, and we had rented the last Avis car at the Sydney airport to drive to visit you. After a few hours in Sydney with Robert and Jamie, we left in the late afternoon to drive up North and discovered that the car was stone dead. Jamie helped us – somehow – get another one from somewhere. In any case, it was dark when we finally left and we got as far as Newcastle when the new car started acting up. Paul carefully nursed it along, dark mile after dark mile, as I became increasingly apprehensive, contemplating a night on the road in what seemed to me a very remote part of New South Wales. Finally, we crept into Coolongalook, at some awful hour, and the car gave up the ghost. You came and fetched us and later loaned us your car to go back to Sydney.

I would not remember Cecil or the kookaburra that followed him around, after he resurrected it from electrocution, plunging it into a bucket of water. I would not know anything about the ox teams that logged the forests around there. And I certainly would not remember anyone like Cecil. I can recall him so clearly.   He kept an eye on Peter and Alex, who were still quite young then, watching us as we sketched on the back porch overlooking his garden one afternoon. Peter drew airplanes, Alex drew maps, and I painted blue lotus flowers from your dam.

Then, too, I would not remember eating the world’s freshest fish and chips on the wharf at Foster Tuncury with the pelicans gliding nearby. I would not have seen flying foxes in the Bush or mangrove swamps along the coast. And I would not remember that beach and the story of the crippled pelican.

Your limousine would never have picked up Paul and me at the Metropolitan Museum to be taken to a poetry reading. And so I would not remember meeting Marie Poinsot, as I did that night, when you read at Queen’s College. I never would have known that she and I had a great friend in common. This particular friend and you and Valerie also have something in common: you never say anything boring.

I probably would never have attempted to write had it not been for you. You remember, you asked me to write a review of Ossie White’s book, Conqueror’s Road, because I had known him and his family when I was a child in Melbourne. You liked the review and that gave me confidence. So now I write a bit, both for pleasure and for professional reasons, and I enjoy it. I also know if I show you anything, you’ll be totally straight with me about it. That’s something. Besides you, only the cats and Paul are always honest with me. Even the poor dog was a little tricky sometimes.

I would not be able to remember that my brother Dennis had a particular friend in you. You once said you and he both had double-jointed minds. That was true. And I wouldn’t remember the poetry reading at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival in ’95 where you met my mother, Chris. Paul launched Philip Hodgins’s book, Up On All Fours. Philip’s wife, Janet, was pregnant with Helen then. Chris loved poetry, and Den and I had grown up with it. We would run around the house yelling, “And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy”, until it drove her nuts and she’d tell us to stop it. You know, in those years, the ‘fifties, that was about all we knew of Australian poetry, a bit from here and there. And we didn’t hear about it in school.

I had gone as a teenager to the opening night of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with Ossie and his family in Melbourne and listened to the talk afterwards about how one day Australia would have its own great literature. I wonder if you were writing that night? Chris watched that literature develop with immense interest over the next decades. After a difficult time in the beginning, after leaving New York, she came to love Australia. Although in her later years she read Brodsky and Akhmatova and Mandelstam and Auden, she continued to love to read you as well. Poetry—literature—was her lifeblood in her old age. She loved to hear what we could tell her of you. She admired your spirit.

So Les, we’ll be seeing you and Valerie soon in Mildura again. Maybe we’ll have time for another trip up the Murray to see the rookeries or just time to chat or drive around a bit. I hope so. Maybe you’ll come see our volcano near Clunes, or maybe next time, when we have some shelter there and a couple of trees and something to offer you besides a great view.

This evening, late February, it is snowing again in New York. Looking out the window, in the early twilight, I can see the bare bones of a lilac tree by the old outhouse. The snow is fine and falls over it in a light shroud. There’s something about each of those flakes that’s utterly unique. Isn’t that what they say, no two snowflakes are identical? I don’t know how anyone could know that for sure, but I’ll go along with it for the sake of attempting a metaphor.

Let’s say each snowflake is a crystallized memory. Let’s say the lilac tree is life. The snowflakes collect where the branches intersect. Memories collect where lives meet. So much of my life I do not remember—those memories have disappeared. That was the snow that fell to the ground and melted away—as the old poet said, les neiges d’antan. Where indeed? Maybe that’s where the outhouse fits into my metaphor.

I wish I were a poet. But I’m not. I wasn’t born to it, and I probably couldn’t have paid the price anyway. But if I were, I would do something with this metaphor. So, instead, I offer it to you, with thanks for all the poetry, for all these memories and for many more as well. Please come again some day to see the snow on the bare trees.

Ciao Les,



[from Letters to Les: A Collection of Prose & Poetry in Celebration of Les Murray]



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