February 20, 2015
First the backstory: In 2005 I spent three months traveling and camping out in the northwest. I visited a number of national parks and a number of places associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I had no RV; I slept in a tent. I was by myself and I had a grand time. But it was in Grand Teton that I met a young woman who had a very large impact on my life even though I only exchanged a a few words with her. On the edge of that park a family has a horseback riding concession that they have operated during the summer months for years. I wanted to ride and, after going down a few wrong trails, I found the place. They had no other customers but they greeted me and I explained what I wanted. The first person who spoke to me to inquire what I needed was a girl in her late teens. I wanted to ride, I said. Yes, I knew how to ride. I had experience owning horses. I was not a beginner. What she said next was, “Oh, you remind me of my grandmother. I lost her a year ago. I miss her so very much.” It was simple and it was commonplace but I was struck by the openness and intimacy with which she spoke to a complete stranger. I had lived in large cities all my life and that was not something one would often encounter in a chance meeting in an urban setting. Years later I realized how very frequent such a response is among country people who grow up in communities where everyone knows everyone, either personally or at least by sight, and where it is still quite safe to treat everyone as a potential friend. “My brother can take you out for an hour, if you like.” she said. Brother was delighted. He would much rather go for a ride than help other family members vet mules which was his assigned task that day; he did not much like mules. It was not a quiet ride as he was one of the most garrulous people I have ever met. I heard his life story and answered innumerable questions as to where I was from, what I was doing traveling alone, my family, and on and on. Beautiful trail, gorgeous scenery, slow pace on one of the most placid horses I have ever bestrode, but that was okay. There was not much room for a gallop anyway on a steep and winding trail through the lower wooded slopes of the Tetons.
Fast forward a few years: George retired and we moved to the Ouachita Mountains in southern Arkansas. We bought a tumble down house on two acres in Montgomery County. At one point I wandered into a business in Mena that did repairs and remodeling simply to inquire as to prices and the availability of help. The woman in the office, who was, together with her husband, the owner of the business, offered coffee and coffeecake, and visited with me in a friendly manner. As it transpired their services were beyond my budget, but she clearly wanted to be helpful and offered the names and phone numbers of several local carpenters and handymen who might be able to serve me. In country communities one still meets with a strong tradition of helping one’s neighbor and this lady was obviously distressed that she could not do more on my behalf. Suddenly she asked, “Do you need a light fixture?” Now how on earth does one answer that one? The phrase “light fixture” covers a very broad territory and what one person thinks beautiful and another thinks hideous is nowhere more apparent than in the area of lighting. In addition there is the problem of what will fit the style of the interior and the space. However, as she so very much wanted to be useful, and I thought that if the offered piece didn’t suit I could always pass it on to someone who could use it, I said, politely, “Why, yes, that would be lovely.” She disappeared into a back room and presently re-emerged pushing a very large cardboard box along the floor, labeled “Schonbek.” Now those in the know will recognize that name. They make, and have for years, a very expensive line of light fixtures, chiefly chandeliers, most of them hung with cut glass. A bit startled I said, “Surely you aren’t offering me a Shonbek.” She beamed at me and said, “Oh, I knew you were the very person for this; you know the name and what it is.” She opened the top of the box and I was staggered to see a huge, solid brass, traditional chandelier, with a dozen lights. It was also brand new and would have carried a hefty price tag in any lighting showroom.Later I measured it. It is 23 inches wide and has a total drop of 33 inches. That’s huge and ridiculously oversized for any room in my house. Nonetheless I accepted happily and graciously. Together we wrestled the unwieldy and heavy box out to my car and got it loaded.
I couldn’t bear to give it away, firstly, because it is beautiful and, secondly, because it was such an incredible gesture from someone I only met once. Obviously it was not designed for a small country cottage with eight foot ceilings. I hung it over the table in the dining room, which is a misleading description of the small semi-enclosed area off my kitchen where we eat, simply to put it in a place where there would be no likelihood of anyone running into it. Bang your head on that thing and you will be laid out cold on the floor. It’s super heavy and we had the devil’s own time hanging it. George worked for hours reinforcing the supporting ceiling structure to take the weight and getting it up involved both of us, two ladders, and some strong language. It’s completely out of place in my tiny rustic house but it certainly is very elegant. It is partnered in elegance in the dining room by my mother’s gold framed mirror, also large, formal, and out of place in a farmhouse. She bought the frame for a song in NYC during WWII and I can’t remember a time it did not hang wherever we lived. Frame is in the Victorian High Renaissance style and when my Fort Worth framer repaired it he commented, “Looks like it should be holding an Alma Tadema, not a mirror.” Over the past seventy years the mirror has acquired some marvellous vertical streaking as the silvered backing has aged and begun to deteriorate adding to the entire decayed chateau ambiance. Present owner is likewise falling apart but we won’t go there.