March 20, 2012 was the Vernal Equinox http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/03/090319-vernal-equinox-2009-spring/
The faraway, exotic locations made me wonder what related rituals exist in Central New York: what can I honor in my own backyard (so to speak). I realized that my personal vernal equinox ritual is to remember two men who died last March and were important in my life’s journey. Each in their own way nudged, at times jostled, me into and through a graduate program in landscape architecture that sent me on a new trajectory into the future.
My Step-father Bill Van Atta
“My Mother, Bill Van Atta and Me”
By: Deirdre Cunningham May 2011
In September 1980, a friend and I stopped in at Brevity Court to say hello to my recently widowed mother. An unfamiliar, squeaky-clean Buick sat in the driveway, next to her new indigo-blue Buick sedan. I didn’t recognize the car. Little did I know, that I was about to barge in on Bill Van Atta’s first date with my mother. Little did I know, that the sight of two Buicks in the driveway would become a familiar one. I found my mother sitting in the living room with a middle-aged man wearing a jacket and tie, nervously chewing the ice cubes from his glass. He was giving her a Bridge lesson. Years later, he loved to tell the story of the courtship of “The Widow Cunningham.”
How Nelson encouraged him to get out of the house, to start dating after his wife Jean had passed away. How nervous he was about the idea of it; so nervous that he couldn’t bring himself to make that first move. He’d not been on a date for over 30 years. He’d forgotten how it was done. It was Nelson who looked up “The Widow Cunningham’s” number in the book; it was Nelson who picked up the phone, dialed her number and handed him the receiver. As we all know, Bill got through that first phone call and that first date.
A few weeks later, I took the Greyhound from Ithaca to see my mother. This time I met her at Stevens Square Art Gallery on a day when it was her turn to “sit” as a co-op member. There was something different about her; she was glowing: blue eyes bright, rosy cheeks, smile toothy and broad. As she was telling me about her engagement to Billy, I realized something monumental. I’d never seen my mother so happy – almost giddy, girlish. After a two-week courtship, he’d proposed. She’d thought about it for a week and accepted. They were married a month and a half later. Word spread quickly around town – the telephone wires must have been smoking with the news. In preparation for the ceremony, he said that he needed to spend an entire morning in the confessional with a priest…it’d been that long a time since his last confession. He endured it for my mother.
Bill once mentioned that he wanted to be my mother’s husband longer than my father’s thirty-five years and he nearly made it. It was an ambitious goal, considering they got their start during their sixties. They had a good run together and I’m glad they found each other. Bill Van Atta was a special person to not only my mother, but also to me: he was to have a major impact on my future. He’d already impacted my life, before that initial meeting at Brevity Court. It had to do with my mother and her car.
My mother was fifty-three when she acquired a tangerine-colored Opal GT from Schumann Van Atta Buick: a two-seater with a tiny black-carpeted space behind the bucket seats. Being the youngest, I found myself scrunched into that wee compartment on many a ride around town and out to the farm. Hot orange and sleek like a cat. It suited her to a T; she drove that wasp-shaped, orange rocket-ship for six years. That Van Atta–dealt car made it possible for me to pursue horticultural studies at SUNY Cobleskill and a native plant internship at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts. The following spring, after my father died, she traded it in for a more conservative indigo-blue Buick sedan that would eventually share the driveway with the Buick dealer’s Buick.
When Bill heard that I rode a ten-speed bicycle to my gardening jobs in and around, up and down, the hills of Ithaca, he told my mother that I, car-less, was “going through life with one arm behind my back.” He talked her into buying me a Buick. I selected a “four on the floor” Skylark (dark sandstone) which served me for eleven years. That Buick, along with several conversations with Bill, enabled me to move forward career-wise: starting with the Ithaca gardening jobs and volunteer-work at Cornell Plantations; to Amherst Massachusetts for a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture; and then, on its last legs, to Rochester for a fabulous job in public horticulture as landscape curator at George Eastman House. What a great ride: all those years, it got from A to B. My mother went on to drive several Buicks and, at ninety-one this month, still drives one.
It was an honor to have known and loved Bill Van Atta. I’m thankful that he and my mother shared mainly happiness and fun. But thanks ought to go to the catalyst that made it all happen.
Nelson: Thank you for dialing that number and placing the receiver in your father’s hand. He was a great guy.
Last summer, perhaps by way of synchronicity, while chatting with some B&B guests I discovered they were in town for Zevi Blum’s memorial service at Sage Chapel on June 19…two days before the Summer Solstice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer I decided to attend and was glad to have had the opportunity to remember and honor him.
During my early-twenties, I first became acquainted with Zevi Blum while working at Café DeWitt, as he often lunched there. Our paths crossed a few years later when I took a job at L’Auberge de la Cochon Rouge. My work at the restaurant ranged from seasonal gardener to office assistant to serving dinner to guests. During one of the late night sessions that Etienne often hosted for Zevi, Steven Barbash and several other “local lights,” Zevi cornered me at the bottom of the stairs for what turned out to be a pivotal conversation: he merely asked what I wanted to do with my life. I told him that I was interested in applying to graduate schools for landscape architecture, but lacked a portfolio. He encouraged me sit-in on his “Still-Life” drawing class, which I did. He taught me to look differently at objects: each week in his classroom studio in Sibley Hall, a centrally-placed long table, draped in white linen, was full of randomly shaped (cylindrical, oblong, rectangular, trapezoidal, square) objects made of glass, pottery, wood, various metals, juxtaposed with lemons, oranges, apples, flowers, etc; it was different each time. He also incorporated several nude drawing sessions as well. The most memorable class for me was when we students were at our easels “in the round” working in charcoal; each of us focused on a different perspective of the male model. Gently circumscribing the circle, he paused at each easel and commented on the work in progress. When my turn came to listen to his words of what I hoped would be encouragement, he stood quietly next to me for what felt like several, very long, moments. Leaning in toward my drawing, he said, “Well, the nostrils are a bit enlarged. Is he hunting for truffles?” I looked again at my work, recognized what he meant and burst out laughing, while he softly chuckled. He knew he could say that because as a server of fine French fare such as foie gras and truffles at L’Auberge, I would immediately get the “la Cochon” reference. I loved his playful sense humor as a warm human being, a teacher and a very fine artist.
When I look back on my life, especially this past year, I realize extraordinary people have appeared at just the right time: when there’s a new threshold to cross.