Implosion, page 1
“... poetic and incisive... Many readers will see aspects of their own family histories in this powerful saga of trauma and healing. An alternately wistful and searing exploration of a troubled legacy.”
—Kirkus Reviews starred review
“In Implosion, Elizabeth Garber has voyaged far into the complexities of memory, navigating the treacherous currents of shame and confusion, and returned, rowing stroke by stroke, sentence by sentence, with a beautiful, clear, heartbreaking tale. Courageous, horrible, terrible, and wonderful, this is a dark and tragic beauty of a memoir that could only be written by someone determined to be fiercely honest in her remembering and her art.”
—Richard Hoffman, author of Half the House and Love & Fury
“Implosion is a remarkable feat. Garber allows us to revile her brilliant and destructive architect father as fully as she did when she was coming of age in the 1960s. She also allows us to forgive him as she ultimately does in this wise, searching book. Her story is an echo of the tumultuous cultural revolutions that define her generation. As an architect does, Garber constructs her story room by room, filling the space with both shadow and light. This is a beautiful book written by a new and exciting writer.”
—Meredith Hall, author of Without a Map
Elizabeth Garber’s elegant and limpid prose resembles the transparency of her father’s stunningly beautiful house, where moments of tyranny and abuse creep upon us with a shock.”
—Patrick Snadon, Architecture Professor Emeritus, University of Cincinnati
“Elizabeth Garber writes with searing clarity about the years she spent living under the oppressive reign of her father. But this isn’t just a book about a deeply troubled father-daughter relationship. Rather, it’s a story about a family, an art form (architecture), a generation, and a decade in American history that we’re still trying to understand. By reading Implosion, one not only gains access to the intimate, tragic details of Garber’s broken youth but also to the public world outside her father’s realm: one of parallel turmoil, complexity, and yes: implosion. A finely wrought narrative by a brave, unflinching writer.”
—Jaed Coffin, author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir
“Elizabeth Garber’s memoir drives as well as her dad’s fine sports car. Sleek, modernist sentences, high-power clarity of perception, bold telling it like it was. Garber never loses touch with the forms of pain caused by her dad’s illness. She honors the vulnerability of the whole family, including him, while they are in its grips. In the end, at the heart of the matter is compassion and the kindness of unconditional love, in spite of it all, and the simple beauty of gathering stones found on a clean, sandy beach.”
—Alexandra Merrill, international women’s leadership consultant
“... the story of [Garber’s] escape, her fight to regain control of her life and to become a loving mother. It is a beautifully written but heartbreaking tale.”
—Pur Sang magazine
Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth W. Garber
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, digital scanning, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please address She Writes Press.
Printed in the United States of America
Print ISBN: 978-1-63152-351-9
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017958502
For information, address:
She Writes Press
1563 Solano Ave #546
Berkeley, CA 94707
Cover design by Julie Metz, Ltd./metzdesign.com
Book design by Stacey Aaronson
Cover Photo of Garber house:
credit George Stille @ University of Cincinnati
She Writes Press is a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.
Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of certain individuals.
my mother, Jo,
and my brothers, Woodie and Hubbard
Revisiting modernism today is like visiting a foreign culture—... the past’s vision of a Utopian world can hardly be grasped or understood. For many, modernism was something visited upon them, unasked, unloved, and unmourned when its demise was prematurely announced in the 1970s.
—ADA LOUISE HUXTABLE, On Architecture
We are all fixing what is broken.
It is the task of a lifetime.
—ABRAHAM VERGHESE, Cutting for Stone
Prologue: The Architect’s Daughter 1959
The Mirror Glass House 1965
The Tower 1967
Villa Savoye 1967
Monday Night 1968
Racing Cars and Wine 1968
Summer of ’68
Summer of ’69
The Hippie 1969
Intensive Care 1969
First Love 1970
Mirror Glass 1970
Under Siege 1970
The Ship 1971–72
Pressure Cooker 1972
Le Corbusier 1973
Odysseus’s Daughter 1975–76
Parker Street 1976
Last Words 1994
Epilogue: Nantucket 2011
Woodie and Elizabeth on Nantucket, 1959
The Architect’s Daughter 1959
Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.
ON A VAST SMOOTH BEACH ON NANTUCKET IN 1959, my father slipped a grey stone into my hand, saying, “Close your eyes. Feel the stone.” The stone was cool and silky like Grandmother’s kid gloves. He asked, “What color is it?”
Any child might say grey, or think this was a silly question and say, “Oh, Daddy, let’s run” and laugh as she left footprints in the sand. But I was not any child. I was Woodie Garber’s little girl, a modern architect’s daughter, and I knew he did not want a simple answer. At five years old, I had already found comfort in the private way we saw the world. I had to discover a magic answer that would please him.
I scrunched my eyes together. How could I feel a color? My fingers stroked the stone but all I could see was a flashing darkness behind my closed eyes. I searched for any color in this little rock the sea had pulled across the sandpaper beach day after day. Suddenly I saw in my mind the colors of the sunset I had drawn the night before with thick oily pastels on textured paper. Confused and amazed, I opened my eyes wide and gasped, “It’s bright red with orange streaks!” Behind his black-framed glasses, his eyes beamed approval into mine.
Breathless from this discovery, I ran into the wind, my hair whipping across my face. I scanned the beach until I found my own sea-smoothed stone. Running back, I took his hand and placed the stone into his palm. “Close your eyes,” I said, my voice urgent and serious. “Tell me the color you feel.” I watched his wide thumb moving in a small circle over the stone. I stood beside him, my tall father in white shorts and a Mexican woven shirt with carved bone buttons. I wanted to see what he saw.
The others were far ahead, my mother with her short wavy hair holding the hand of my three-year-old brother, little Wood. Our friend Ruth carr
My mother had said, “I can’t leave our sick little girl at home.”
Ruth said, “Someone can take care of her. She’ll be fine. All of you need a break.”
At home in Ohio, we tossed on sweaty sheets, the summer heat keeping us awake. In a bassinet next to my bed lay my two-year-old sister, Bria, who never grew or moved. She was a limp bundle like a baby Jesus in the crèche scene at Christmas. Her grey-blue eyes fell into mine. I put my finger into the curled petal of her palm. Her tiny fingers flickered against mine.
“Hi, Bria.” I spoke softly. Her lips fluttered in what I knew was her smile.
I felt my mother’s presence behind me. “Saying goodnight?”
I nodded. “I wish she could talk to me.” Mommy had told me Bria had a hole in her heart and would never grow up.
My mother nodded wearily. “She’s our little angel.” My mother was so tired. All day long she steadied herself by talking out loud to me. “Where did I put my wallet? Hold onto your brother’s hand. Hand me the bottle for the baby. What would I do without you? You are so helpful.” She managed objects, children, and food. We were fed, warm, and clean. But I wasn’t interested in her ordinary world. I was smart, learning to read fast while she struggled to read and mispronounced words. I was filled with hubris, the pride of being my father’s favorite.
On Nantucket I woke to the breathing of the waves sliding across the sand, in a house where everything felt fresh and cool. In 1952, my father had designed for Ruth and Bob the first “upside-down” modern beach house on Nantucket. The living room was on the second floor, high above the dunes, while the bedrooms on the ground floor were quiet and shady, tucked in between the dunes and surrounded by windswept tall dry grasses. Under wooden ceilings, we leaned into a white couch while the sound of the waves smoothed us like the stone my father slipped in my palm.
Back home in Cincinnati, in our 1860s Victorian house, our life was confined by hallways, French doors, a formal dining room with a chandelier, a library with a medieval paneled ceiling, bookcases behind glass doors, a pantry, and back kitchen. There, my father’s voice boomed with excitement when he talked about Modern Architecture. As a child, I knew there was an exciting time coming, when no one would build cluttered, decorated buildings anymore. Everything would be designed with clean elegant lines. I listened closely to my father. Modern was Truth and Simplicity, and it followed Rules. When we stayed at the house on Nantucket, I knew we were living in the Modern, where the roof lifted up like a wing to glide over the long beach below.
One evening on Nantucket, when the others washed the dinner dishes and my mother put my little brothers to bed downstairs, my father and I lingered at the table as the room grew dark. Beyond the glass floor-to-ceiling windows, the sand beach and sky streaked blue-purple on a forever horizon. “This is what we want to create,” he said as he gazed out the window. “Spaces with no boundary between the inside and outside.” The wooden structure holding the windows in place became a grid of black lines framing blocks of color: the dark sea, foaming white surf, and indigo sky.
I suddenly remembered an artist who painted like this, black lines and squares of colors. My father brought home to us little booklets on Modern Art that he set on a stand at the kitchen table at home, so we could turn the page each day to a new painting and study modern art at meals. I could identify Miró’s happy floating shapes, Picasso’s sad blue faces, Modigliani’s lovely ladies, and Kandinsky’s jagged lines and bright colors. I turned to my father. “It looks like a big Mondrian painting.”
My father roared with laughter, patted my back. “That’s my girl!”
I lived for these rare moments when I basked in his attention, these moments he claimed me as his special child. From the way everyone else looked at my father when he spoke, I knew he was special. I once heard someone say he was brilliant. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew the room felt electric when he walked in and everyone turned to listen to him. I hungered for the moments when he shone his brilliance on me. I was my father’s daughter, a devotee, a serious girl studying what he loved: the radiant play of light and space in architecture and art, the thrill of riding in sports cars and appreciating tiny sips he gave me of fine wines.
When we stood on the beach that day, my father holding my stone, he knelt down so his head was even with mine, his knee touching the dry sand. He ran his fingertips over the surface, his eyes closed. I studied his big face, the mole on his cheek, his bald sunburned head. I waited for the color he saw in my stone.
He smiled, opened his eyes, looking into my face. “It’s turquoise, Navajo turquoise with a streak of silver in the groove.” I nodded, smiling into his beaming gray-blue eyes. Oh, my Daddy. I felt more alive with him than with anyone else.
Garber family: Wood, Woodie, Hubbard, Elizabeth, Jo, 1961
WE RETURNED HOME to the house where our family had lived since the 1870s, where, soon after my father was born in 1913, his mother went to bed in a darkened room for three years. Forty-five years later, at the end of her life, ghostly and addled, she had drifted from room to room, pulling down shades to hide from imaginary strangers, until my mother, home alone with four small children, couldn’t take it any longer. My grandmother was moved to a home for the elderly until she faded away.
In that house, in the room at the top of the stairs, I fell asleep, as I had for two years, to the faint rustle of my little sister’s breathing. Yet that winter Bria grew weaker until she could no longer take in formula. My mother decided not to have our baby kept in a hospital. Bria began to starve, etching the hallway with her tiny whimper, until she became too weak to make a sound.
One day the doctor came to our house. His shoes slowly brushed up the stairs. I watched as he held the silver stethoscope to my sister’s crumpled chest. He told my parents, “She is still a tiny bit alive. It will just be a matter of time.”
My tall bald father gazed out the window, his thin lips pressed. He glanced at his watch. There was important work to be done. He was designing the Modern world. His polished shoes rushed down the steps. Far below, I heard a zoom in the garage, before his red Alfa Romeo backed out and he drove away to his office in the city.
My mother and I stood together looking down into Bria’s translucent face in the bassinet. My mother held onto the wicker edge as if to hold herself up. Finally she turned, gathered up a pile of laundry and walked downstairs. The washing machine began to shake the old wooden floors of the house. I smelled coffee and knew she was sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette.
I continued to stand in the pale grey light next to my sister in the bassinet. Outside the tall window, a light sprinkling of snow coated the ground in our village of old houses. I stared as a white horse crossed our backyard, coming to stand below the oak tree, before looking up at me inside the house. I gazed at the horse’s white mane, the long curving back, the hooves in the snow-flecked grass, while I listened for any trace of my sister’s breathing.
When I went downstairs, little Wood drove a truck on the rug, making vroom noises next to baby Hubbard, who gnawed the railing on the playpen. I continued down the dark basement steps to help my mother. When we climbed up the bulkhead steps to the backyard, carrying the basket heavy with steaming clothes, the horse and snow were gone. I pulled diapers out of the basket and handed them to her one at a time. Our hands grew red and stung with cold. She pushed down the wooden clothespins until we emptied the basket.
IN THAT HOUSE of tall ceilings, I grew used to mysteries I didn’t understand. In that house with heavy curtains, my father sometimes went to bed and stayed there for weeks. Reading, sleeping, not talking, not going to work. Other times his heart pounded so hard and irregularly that the bed shook and he went to the hospital for days or weeks. My mother explained to me that the doctors were trying to get his heart to go the rig
But one night, a year after my sister died, the doctor called to say they had tried everything, but our father had thrown a clot. I watched her talking on the phone. Her eyes grew wide and her face looked white. Each time he said something, she repeated it. She spoke slowly, like she couldn’t understand what the words meant, repeating what he said. “The clot can go to one of three places, the heart, the brain, or the lungs. If it goes to the first two places, he will die.”
I had learned the heart pumped blood, brains were inside our head and lungs were how we breathe. She said with a strange thin voice, “Call me when you know something.” She sat so quietly. I took her hand.
Then she said to herself, “Okay, now. I’ve just got to buck up.” She looked at me and smiled a thin smile. “Let’s give those little boys their bath.” I helped her get them undressed and filled the tub with warm water. They splashed, holding the red tugboat under water and then laughing when it splashed back to the surface. We thought about my father but we didn’t say a thing. I was a girl who had to help her mother.
When I went to bed, I watched the hall light, and prayed, “Please don’t let my Daddy die.” And he didn’t.
But after that, I felt responsible for keeping him alive. I was no longer a girl who simply adored her father; I was the girl who had to save her father. I would keep him alive and happy by talking about what he loved: art and architecture. I knotted myself into a strange bond of loyalty, binding myself to him, no matter what happened, for the rest of his life.
In the Victorian house, my father and I waited for the Modern. I believed him, that the Modern would release us from the smothering confines of the Victorian world, not knowing what legacy would follow us, even into a glass house.