Far From Empty

Rene: “The power of Harvard is absolutely immense."

An enormous iron emblem hangs on the wall just inside the curlicued wrought-iron door that leads into the atrium formed by Rene’s single-story U-shaped house. A ship, rather like an Irish bark or a Viking warship, sails in the center of the circle, the Celtic-scripted words “Historia Ex Epigraphia” form the outer ring. The Epigraphic Society whose emblem this is was founded by Rene and her late husband Barry many years ago when they were still living in New Zealand, before he won fame as a decipherer of ancient inscriptions, before his consequent theories regarding Celtic settlements in the Americas some 3000 years ago had gained recognition, before he moved to the U.S. and became a professor of biology at Harvard University.

Rene, who saw a fair portion of the 20th Century but remains trim, tanned, and bright of eye, tells the story of the founding, traces of both New Zealand and Boston accents creeping into her speech, especially on drawn-out “a” sounds. “He’d written a paper about language and Maori [New Zealand’s original inhabitants] influences, and he sent it to the Royal Society, which published learned works in New Zealand. They sent it back and said it was a lot of nonsense. He was annoyed.

“Our motto in our house was ‘If you haven’t got one, make one. So I just said, ‘Make your own society. Everything you write will be published.’ So, we made a society. We made everyone in the family members, and I said, ‘You’ve got a society. Now publish.’ That was just for fun. The Epigraphic Society [epigraphy being the study of ancient inscriptions] is now worldwide, which we never intended. It has branches in every country.”

The house is quiet now — Barry died four years ago, and the children have moved away. Classical music hovers just above the silence, a silence magnified by the rambling size of the place — four bedrooms, office, living room, dining room, kitchen — so much space for one. Rene, conscious of this, muses, “It’s funny how things work out. So many people who need space don’t have it, and here I am with all this room. But that’s how the world works sometimes.” She has no plans to leave, perhaps because, though the place is quiet, it is far from empty. Clay pots from an archaeological dig (“If it’s got accession numbers, it’s the genuine article”) fill the living room fireplace; great hunks of furniture crowd the dining room.

One bedroom seems almost entirely given over to embroidery, which, to judge from the works on display, is the medium in which Rene is most accomplished. (Several paintings, mostly still-lifes of flowers, are also in evidence.) Against one wall stands a handsome library-card catalog, in which she stores her yams and threads. It used to stand in the Harvard library. “At Harvard,” she explains, “anything that’s out in the hall is up for grabs. ” An imposing wooden chest of wide, shallow drawers — another Harvard donation — dominates the garage.

The house — and especially the bougainvillea-hedged backyard — is peopled by sculpture, but the deepest impression is made by what hangs on the walls, and how much of it is hanging there. Rene expresses what sounds like genuine envy when I tell her that my own home still has several blank expanses — “You’ve got possibilities!” Rene’s possibilities have been reduced to actualities; her walls are full. And like the Epigraphic Society emblem, many of those pieces have stories to tell.

The most prominent subject is Barry. Two pictures of him occupy the space between the fireplace and the sliding glass door in the living room: the upper, a black-and-white movie still of Moses holding the Ten Commandments with Barry’s head imposed on the prophet’s; the lower, a pen-and-ink sketch of Barry looking slyly out of the tops of his eyes from under a black beret. In what serves as the guest room, a large terra cotta disc bears his profile in relief, his proud nose pressing ahead.

The latter picture, crafted at the suggestion of his colleagues, exudes an air of accomplishment in matters ancient, and Rene is unabashedly proud of his work. Around her neck, she wears a polished white trapezoidal pendant on a leather cord. “It looks like polished ivory, doesn’t it? It’s whalebone. Among the 36 tribes on Rappanui, this is a chieftain’s mark; only the chieftain wears this. They gave him one when he deciphered the rongo-rongos of Easter Island,” hieroglyphs that had confounded researchers for years. “It took him 11 years, but he figured out that they were sounds, not words,” and that it was the sounds that served as cues for the words. “They made him an honorary chief” These days, she spends a fair amount of time trying to assemble a collection of his letters for the Harvard archives.

But that noble picture hangs in the guest room; inconspicuous compared to the two in the living room, which give a different impression: one of mischief and fun. “Oh, yes, he was a horrible person,” she smiles. “Always playing tricks on me. When we were on our honeymoon, I went into the bedroom one night and the bed had a person in it, and up on the pillow was a skull. He’d gotten a flashlight and put a green filter on it, so that there was green light shining on the skull. That was a good beginning, that was. We stepped off on the right foot. He was always playing practical jokes on me.” Her tone is fond and only a little wistful.

Between work and play, there are signs of Barry’s own artistic skills: two landscapes hang in the dining room. His true love, she tells me, was sculpture, but his writing ate up his latter years, and he never managed to pursue that passion. He did, however, find time to cook. “He would come out of the study and say, ‘I’m sick of looking at words!’ Then he’d go into the kitchen and bang pots around, and there would be dinner.” He also played cello and even built one when his own instrument was lost in storage during World War II.

Another photo of Barry, this one in the sewing room, shows him in conversation with Colonel Kaddafi. Rene accompanied Barry on his travels (“Who would carry the bags?”) and has positive memories of the meeting. “Kaddafi was a very intelligent man, very well educated.” She was impressed with his success in preventing harm from coming to the Italians when they were deported from Libya and with his decision to leave a Catholic cathedral (and maintained) standing in Tripoli, since he thought “it was a work of art. Also, one day, Libya would be a tourist country,” and such a structure would be useful. “It’s all politics, it’s never people,” she argues, anticipating mention of the man’s reputation. "China used to be our enemy, now they’re our friends, because our policy has changed. It’s all politics. A while ago, Time ran a picture of Kaddafi with the headline, ‘No More Mr. Bad Guy.' "

A small photo of Rene and Kaddafi hides among the larger frames in the living rooms. The colonel is clad in his caftan. “They wear business suits every day except Friday, on Friday, they wear their robes. It looks like we’re very chummy, like I’m leaning into him. But what you can’t see is that I’m holding onto the fabric of his robe in back. He couldn’t feel it because the caftan was hanging down, but I wanted to see what the fabric felt like — I loved it — so I grabbed a big handful of it.”

Fabric is everywhere on the walls, much of it embroidered by Rene. Tucked into a corner, a series of flowers — she used to teach stitching techniques. On the dining room wall, beside an elaborate, purchased depiction of Christ and the Samaritan woman, an Eastern blue jay, stuffed with the hair of a late beloved cat, bulges forth from a stitched background. (She chuckles when I remark on the reversal of having a cat inside a bird.) Below an antique pastoral scene, crafted at a time when faces were painted and then stitches used to surround the visage, a simple St. Francis. And on the wall to the right of the couch, two needlepoint houses — the top, a historical attraction that stood at the bottom of her street in Boston; the bottom, her Boston home, a stately Colonial.

The houses are the lightest reminder of the Harvard days; elsewhere, it hangs heavy on the less substantial walls of her airy, smaller-scaled California home. A grand 1715 American Chippendale mirror faces a large, gilt-framed oil portrait of a woman, itself surrounded by works that seem to have been lifted from dim and elegant Eastern parlors. (Rene once taught art history at the college level.) Here and there, elements of Colonial elegance and Mexican rusticity strain against one another — memory against life — both offset by occasional concessions to functional modem American.

Invited to indulge memory, Rene speaks of Harvard with a touch of wonder. “The power of Harvard is absolutely immense. It’s a world totally to itself. If you’re in Harvard, you don’t need anybody else; you’ve got everything. They make sure that their graduates are going to be the fat cats, the leaders in the world. Of course, you’ve got to have the brightest. If they see a little Einstein coming their way, he’ll get a scholarship up to his eyebrows. In the future, he’ll be a Harvard man.”

She relates one of her own encounters with the advantages of knowing “a Harvard man.” “We were trying to go somewhere, and they wouldn’t let me into the country, because I had had tuberculosis, and they were trying to keep it out. My husband said he wouldn’t go without me. They said, ‘No problem. The President is a Harvard man.’ It was Kennedy at the time. The passport came. Harvard taught me the verity of the principle, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ ”

It was at the suggestion of a Harvard colleague that she and Barry came to San Diego when Barry took early retirement so that he could concentrate on writing books. She had chosen Santa Barbara but was wooed by the prospect of the near-rainless climate.

Though Barry is gone and Rene has fled west, the university has not lost sight of her. Besides Barry’s letters, Harvard is also interested in her journals. “The Schlesinger Library is trying to assemble a history of women in the 20th Century. They want letters, journals, anything that’s written. They have a lot of libraries — the biggest library in America after Congress. It’s a city block in size, and it goes underground eight floors.”

The mention of the library recalls another story, one ripe with academic symbolism. “I went down there once to get something, and I thought I’d never find my way up. I couldn’t find an elevator or anything. You read about these people — they find the skeletons. Oh, gosh, I was getting frightened.” Happily, she found a student studying in an alcove who showed her an escape route. She never went down again.

Moving from the walls to the sculpture: a large wooden Madonna and Child stands on a small table in the entryway, Our Lady greeting arrivals with an almost childlike grin. The carving is rough, and there are pieces of lint, or perhaps paper towel, hanging on the sharp folds and buried in the crevices of the Virgin’s robe. “The domestic help is not the greatest,” sighs Rene. “I had a Mexican lady for 20 years, and then she finally retired. She didn’t have to be told what to do, she just did it. Now I have a group of three, Mexican again. They’re not doing the job that she did. She would take all the lampshades off and take them outside and brush the dust off. They don’t even look at them. What can I do? It’s the best I can find at the moment.”

In the living room to the right of the entryway, another Madonna — this one ceramic and oddly crude, considering the quality of the finish — stands amid an array of artifacts and figurines inside a glass cabinet. “That was brought out in 1850,” explains Rene. “There was tremendous anti-Catholicism in England at the time — now I don’t think they’d care at all — and so they didn’t make very many of them. It’s much more valuable now because it’s so rare." (Among other things, the glass cabinet also houses part of a china set brought out by Royal Doulton in 1907, featuring a swirling black, white, and red Maori pattern, to celebrate New Zealand’s becoming a dominion.)

These two statues serve as heralds for the host of paintings and figures that surround her bed on three sides — some of angels, but mostly Mary. This is but a small part of her collection; she rotates various items in and out of display. Sunlight washes in through a long, narrow skylight, preventing the dim, subdued air of a shrine, but the pieces are placed too closely together to create the atmosphere of a museum. The effect is entirely personal.

“Collecting the Madonnas was a phase. A woman I know had a Madonna, and it was very beautiful. I used to admire it and say, I wish I had one like that.’ The first one I got was wooden. It was one of a pair in an antique shop, and when I could afford it, I got the matching one.” Two became three and so on.

“The cheapest cost me 25 cents at a barn sale in Maine. The most expensive was $1200. The American ambassador to France was retiring and getting rid of all his stuff. My husband bought it for me. The guy bought me things all the time. The last thing he ever bought me was this gold chain. He bought it for our anniversary, and almost immediately afterward, he died. He put it on, and it stays on until I drop dead, and then it goes to my daughter.”

The Madonnas vary wildly in size and style. Two are painted squares of tin, imaginatively bordered “They were painted by Mexicans who went to cathedrals and saw beautiful things they couldn’t afford, so they went home and painted them on pieces of tin. I bought two, but then the actress Leslie Caron started collecting them, and the price went way up.” Some, including the Ambassador’s, are exquisitely detailed; many are simple bordering on primitive. One is Japanese, one is modeled after the Black Madonna. A favorite is a simple, spare French piece crafted from some sort of soft stone. Several have been glued to the shelf on which they stand, in case of earthquake.

Shifting sculpturally from the sublime to the whimsical: a ceramic cat crouches by the bathroom door, guarding the extraordinarily ornate gold wallpaper around the mirror. Cat pillows, embroidered cats, stuffed animal cats, even framed cat slogans (“All I Needed To Know...”) have curled up and laid claim to the house. Over all of these imitations reigns Marius, a Himalayan Persian who rarely leaves Rene’s side, except for an occasional sortie into the backyard. When he returns, Rene strokes him and quietly exclaims, “Beautiful, beautiful! Never a party without Marius.” Sensing that all is well, Marius stretches out on his side near Rene’s feet.

“We’ve never been cat-less. I can’t remember ever not owning a cat. The first cat we had when we were married was a stolen one. This was in our first house in New Zealand, a little rented one. One day I was washing dishes, and I felt this softness going past. There was this beautiful Persian cat. I gave it a drink of water, but I never fed it, because it obviously belonged to someone. One day — we had a gardener who came with the house; we had one and a third acres..." As if feeling an explanation is required for how she managed to begin married life in such grand accommodations, she breaks from the cat story and takes up the account.

“It had belonged to a wealthy woman who lived there while she built herself a big palace next door. My music teacher heard I was engaged and asked me, ‘When are you going to get married?’ I said, ‘We can’t, because we can’t find anywhere to live.’ She said, ‘My aunt knows somebody who’s got a little cottage.’ The next thing I got was an invitation on a very lah-de-dah card asking me to morning tea. [The owner] wanted to look me over, she didn’t want to have [just] anybody on her property.

“We didn’t speak about the house; just talked of generalities. It was right there between us, but no one said a word. When we finished tea and the maid had taken it away, she said, ‘Come and see my garden.’ It was a beautiful garden, with a stream that went through it that went down to a river. After we had walked ’round the garden, she said, ‘This is the little cottage. Go in and come back over to the main house when you’ve seen it.’

“So I went in, and it was all furnished with antiques, the things she’d had before she moved into the bigger house. I went back to the main house and still nothing was said. Then I got a little note from her lawyer saying that if we would like to have it, it would be so much and so on. Of course, I wrote and said yes immediately. We got married and moved in, and she said, ‘Treat the whole of this property as if it were your own. Pick the flowers.’ Talk about starting at the top. The gardener grew all the flowers; I just picked them. Now, I’ve got to grow my own.”

The cat turned out to be the property of a woman living two doors down, a horse person who rarely if ever gave the cat “the soft talk” that Rene heaped upon him. She continued to refrain from feeding him until the gardener “came up on the porch and said, ‘You’d better start feeding that cat. He’s not going home. He’s catching birds in the garden, and I don’t like that.’ So I got up and fed him, and he moved in.” When World War II ended and Barry got out of the Army, the couple decided to move, and the cat’s owner gladly gave Rene the Persian. “He died 20 years later — grew up with the kids. It got to the point where they were fighting over him — ‘You had him last night!’ — so we had to get other cats.”

(The children are three — two boys and a girl. One son is an engineer in Ohio, one a writer in Canada. The daughter danced with the Boston Ballet Company and other companies for years and now lives in North Carolina. Her husband sings opera. Besides Barry, it is she who appears most often in household photos, usually in costume.)

The patio door is left open in order to give Marius the freedom to come and go as he pleases, but the thought of his imminent arrival does little to frighten the swarm of sparrows that dot Rene’s backyard, pecking at invisible crumbs. A jay, the poorer Western cousin of the cat-stuffed Eastern jay in the dining room, swoops down onto the patio table and begins pulling pistachios from a bowl. With practiced thrusts of his beak, he opens the shells and gobbles the soft interior.

“That’s one of my two jays. They come for their nuts. There’s a couple of them, and they sometimes fight. He’s very careful about how he picks all the bits out. He’s the one who will come in the house if the bowl’s empty. First he sits on the back of that [patio] chair, and then, if there’s no action, he’s in. I took a picture of him sitting on the lampshade.

“We’ve always kept bird-feeders. My daughter has a lot of cardinals on hers in North Carolina.” By a happy quirk of the developer’s plan, the space behind her backyard is undeveloped, which makes for quiet as well as good birdwatching. “I watched two ravens. First they were looking at real estate; they build right up on top of that far pine. I saw them mating. Then they were in and out of their nest; it seemed to me that sometimes they were away for a long time. And I saw the chick, when its parents were away, it suddenly jumped up on the edge of the nest and started to go like this” — Rene sticks out her elbows and flaps her arms. “I had mourning doves that twice built a nest in the hanging fern in the atrium. It used to swing in the breeze, but it didn’t seem to bother them.”

The sight of Rene flapping her arms is striking; just as when, to indicate being overwhelmed, she topples in her blue-and-white checked wingback chair, never losing her splendid posture, merely sending it sideways. Striking because it is only through the contrast provided by such violent movements that I become aware of how she carries herself, how she holds herself — head erect, shoulders back, spine straight. The correctness is obscured somewhat by casual indulgences — her feet are bare, her shorts are denim cutoffs, her tank top is relaxed — but meshes with her lipstick and earrings, without which she “isn’t dressed,” and so will not face the public. By now, these things are firmly entrenched in her persona, but they hint at training.

Rene attended “the usual snob school,” as a youth in New Zealand. “Quite frankly, they just wanted to turn out educated ladies,” emphasis on ladies. She gestures at her crossed legs. “You wouldn’t [do this]; that would be actionable. You were allowed to sit with your ankles crossed, but no lady crosses her legs. Detention would be instantly ordered if you did that. Oh, there were a lot of rules. You weren’t allowed to run — you walked.

“And of course, if your uniform wasn’t absolutely right, that was dynamite. Even your panties underneath were made of the same stuff as your skirt; if you didn’t have matching panties, that was detention. And gloves — leather gloves in winter, white gloves in summer. It could be boiling hot; if you were caught with one glove off, that was detention.” Shorts were permitted on campus, but off campus, in public, the full regalia, including hats that identified you as a student of the school, were required. “The first thing you’d do when you got home was peel it off.”

Detention, while frequently assigned, “was always something for your benefit, like learning poetry. I don’t know why, but Shelley’s Ozymandias was very popular.” Sometimes, the teacher would assign a particular poem, “and you’d have to learn a 14-line sonnet overnight. If you didn’t get it right, you’d have detention again until you did. But some of the teachers would say, ‘Oh, learn a sonnet,’ and of course, you already knew Ozymandias, so you trotted that out. There were one or two mistresses who would trot out a big piece of Shakespeare. I can quote lots of Shakespeare.”

The afternoon wanes; it is time for dinner. “I never cook,” says Rene, meaning hardly ever. “I cooked for an army when the boys were teenagers. I’m tired of it.” Her kitchen, pale blue and white, narrow and immaculate, instead leads us out into the garage, so that we may travel to a tiny, tastefully decorated Thai restaurant tucked into a strip mall. While we eat, she steps partly out of memory — only partly, there are still stories to tell — and into the routine of her daily life.

“The day is not long enough. I hate it when I have to go to the supermarket; it takes my time. I start with coffee in the morning to get the engines going. I give myself three hours in the garden first, while I’m still with it, to keep my figure. According to the Harvard Medical School Book of Women's Health, 100 calories are burned up if you walk smartly, 400 calories if you do gardening — ah-ha! So that’s my gym.” Heirloom tomato vines line the side of the house, and the entire front garden is given over to roses.

In the afternoons, she works as a librarian at St. Catherine Laboure parish — a job that grants her an active social circle — and she writes. After attending her “snob school,” she studied fine arts in college. Upon graduation, she sought a job with local newspapers but was told that only men were reporters. The only woman on the staff wrote the children’s page on Saturdays.

She got a break filling in for a friend who wrote for a magazine. The friend had been assigned to write a piece on a grand tapestry that was being made for the new Coventry Cathedral — the one being built next to the bombed ruins of the first — and turned to Rene for help on the subject. Rene wrote the piece and, to her surprise and delight, got the byline. From there, she progressed until she was eventually given an entire page, to do with as she pleased. She has been writing ever since, placing articles here and there, running a couple of homespun embroidery magazines, and making entries in her journal

“The TV set does not go on in my house until 6:00 in the evening. I don’t care what’s on; I have too much to do. At 6:00, I get myself a nice drink, put my feet up, put the TV on, and watch the news, just to see how far we’ve gone to hell in a handbasket.”

Likely as not, the drink will be a glass of wine, and this observation brings with it one last story. “We once had an open house before school started at Harvard, just for parents to visit, come and see where we lived This blue-blood, daughter-of-the-Mayflower type marched in, and she was going to tell Barry exactly what he was going to do for her son,” all manner of restrictions and allowances that she deemed fit. “Barry very politely told her [no]; she didn’t get a thing she asked for. The guy was so grateful that Barry had protected him from this great domineering woman that he’s sent a case of wine every year ever since.”

As I pull out of her driveway after dinner, Rene gives me a smile that catches something of my impression of her. A gentle tugging at the comers of her mouth, radiating an open, good-natured warmth but still self-possessed, still swathed in calm. (That self-possession allows a kind of holding back. Her demeanor indicates oceans of knowledge and experience, held gently and without need for acknowledgment — talk of Gainsborough slips easily to talk of jays.) The material anchor of her belongings may be part of the reason she does not plan to leave her house, but surely, there is also the fact that she is at home there.

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