Photo and essay by Janet Grace Riehl
Dateline: Central West End, St. Louis, 2013
As I drift awake, I wonder for a moment where I am—in my world in the city, or in my father’s world in the country? Then, I look to my right and see the marble-topped walnut bedstand–transported from my girlhood room to the city. No matter where I am, I carry my childhood home with me, mostly inside. I’ll always be a country girl.
On my way to my galley kitchen I pass my front room dubbed the Goddess Gathering room which I’ve designed around circled chairs. It’s my life in objects. Layers reveal antiques from the homeplace, beloved artifacts from Africa, paintings and sculpture from art school, rattan furniture from California, and art deco furniture I bought when I moved here in 2007.
In a flurry I dress for my exercise class at Santé, my health club housed in the lower level of a landmark hotel. At 64 I am perhaps in better shape than I’ve ever been. It’s a brisk walk on sidewalks lined with trees and elegant homes before I reach the cluster of boutiques and restaurants, and then cross the brick street to the side door of the historic Chase Park Plaza. Built in the 1920s it’s welcomed celebrities of all stripes—from movie queens to foreign kings, from popular singers to political leaders. And now me.
My neighborhood is my village. I greet strangers and friends alike on this daily two-block walk. The valets at the side door are my guys. We greet each other with hand jive we’ve invented. Then I stroll into a palace of marble floors, a domed mural, and a gigantic bouquet of flowers placed on a round table in the lobby. Along the way I greet the concierge from Barcelona in Spanish, and get a hug from another of my favorite guys who valet at the front door. Then, I dash down the stairs to enter the sliding doors—my portal to Santé. This is not just a health club for me; it’s a casually elegant social club where I’m known. A. J. at the front desk says, “Good morning, Miss Janet”—a nod to a private joke. I stash my stuff, and hustle to the group exercise room where, as it turns out, I’m the only one there.
Beau’s kick-your-butt class is driven by a mix of retro music—depending on how you define “retro.” A tune catches my ear and I ask him who does it.
“Incubus,” he says. “They’re an eclectic band. Jazz. Funk. Grunge.” I’m not up on my funk and grunge, but I nod anyway.
“They were popular when I was in high school,” he says a look flickering across his face. I know that look.
“Does that seem like forever ago?” I ask.
“Well, yeah, it’s a decade ago.”
“About a third of your life, right?”
“I know. I think of things that happened in the 1980s. They seem just a flash ago. Yet, when I do the math, I can’t believe it’s 20 years ago. I guess it’s a matter of ratio.”
“Sounds right,” he agrees, and we set up the weights, bar bells, and kettle bells. Strength training with bells on.
Time intertwines. A song—whether from Incubus or the Andrew Sisters—washes what it will to the shores of memory. When I leave this class, I’ll travel across the Mississippi River to Daddy’s world.
Dateline: Evergreen Heights, family homestead, on the bluffs above the Mississippi, 2013
My father, at 97, lives in the past. Not just his own past of nearly a century—but the past of six generations who’ve lived on the land since the 1860s. This place is the place where—with the exception of World War II—he’s lived his life. It’s more than a backdrop. It’s interwoven with all that he is, and all that he wishes to pass on. He’s grown up here, cared for his aunties, raised his three children, farmed the land, nursed his wife before her death, and now drifts towards his own death with a grace that defies all odds.
My brother and I split the week in caring for Pop. Gary is mostly outside fixing things and tending to the business of the property. Me, I’m inside, especially this winter, in the parlor that has become my living room, just a call away from my father’s chair in the next room.
Here, and throughout the 150-year-old house, each room is stuffed with memories. Some of these are mine, but many are family ghosts that hover over everything. Pop says, “Janet, sometimes I feel a presence, and then when I open my eyes, no one is there.”
“Yes. It’s as if they are calling me.”
Stuffed birds fly around the living room walls—my mother’s touch—an artifact of her fascination for birds in whatever form. A painting of the Riehl family compound in Alsace Lorraine links us back to a Germany of the 1800s. A wood-burning stove inserted in the fireplace hasn’t burned wood in decades. Where the fire would have warmed our hands, there is no hearth.
On the mantle above the fireplace I’ve arranged what I now see as an altar to my mother, gone 6 years now. Pictures from her 20s through her 90s trace a life well-spent. In one she holds Julia, her first-born—who died way too soon 8 years ago. In another mother smiles softly next to my father on their 50th wedding anniversary.
My favorite family photo hangs opposite their anniversary picture above the mother mantle: Julia, Gary, and me in stair step threes. Let’s say we are 11 (Julia), 7 (Gary), and 5 (me). This picture captures a cultural moment—even if it’s a moment before we were born. Julia and I wear detachable crocheted collars. These delicate and intricate testimonies of patience emerged under the needles of our great aunties. They sat in this very parlor entertaining the likes of Mary Baker Eddy (and other luminaries of their day) who came for the renowned Sunday dinners of the Misses Riehls.
Those indomitable women are part of the chain of strong women on both sides of our family. The Aunties are heroines of many stories that have risen to the status of myth over the years. Strong men, sure, but increasingly it’s the women who raised him that occupy my father’s thoughts. And, increasingly my father shares their frailties which makes their strength more real. Maybe even with my own frailties I could be one of those strong women in the family chain.
But in this front room built a century-and-a-half ago I am frozen in time as I carry out the role of generations of younger daughters who stayed on the homeplace to care for aging parents. I am more than that, I know. But it’s hard to remember. Remember it I must, as if my life depended on it. Because, it does.
Learn more about Janet’s work at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century at http://www.riehlife.com. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.