Wednesday, March 16, 2011


“When Mom Was My Age” is an interview series between daughters and mothers that appears in the blog of writer/editor Jane Friedman. This interview appeared on March 14th.Photos: Evie and Bob in 1985 when she was 63, Evie, today at nearly 90 years old. Unbelievable!

When my mother, Evelyn Schwartz, was my age, in 1985, she was still working as a public elementary school reading teacher.

What was your typical day like?

I awoke at six-o-clock, went for swim, took a shower, dressed for the day, prepared Bob (my husband’s) breakfast and my lunch (a sandwich, tomato, and apple), carried my books, papers, and folders to the car, and drove to school.

I made sure to get there extra early so I could write the lessons on the blackboard before the kids arrived. (My students were difficult kids, the discipline problems and the underachievers. I couldn’t afford to turn my back on them when they came to school.)

After several hours of teaching, I had lunch in the teachers’ lounge, and when I returned to class, I would read or tell a story, complete the school day’s lessons, then stay after school to grade papers or go to faculty meetings.

I was always proud of my bulletin boards, and often stayed on to create the month’s newest theme. One of the nicest compliments I ever had was from the music teacher: he told me my classroom was the most creative of all he’d been in.

I usually brought home a lot of work because I couldn’t get much done in class. After preparing and serving dinner, I graded papers or contacted parents or whatever the school day required. I know I brought home more work than the other teachers.

If I had the energy, I’d watch TV with Bob before going to bed.

Laura: Evie is nearly 90 years old now. She still lives in the house that our family moved into in 1961 from our original house, where Rick and I were born and raised. The “new” house was/is her lifelong dream-come-true—open, sunny, custom built in a new suburb, with a pool overlooking a waterway and big rooms with sliding doors that open onto views of the waterway. Evie has lived here on her own since my father, Bob, died eight years ago, but she remains almost as busy she ever has been, teaching reading skills in her home office, attending her many literacy and Jewish organization meetings, and entertaining her beloved girlfriends and relatives. As a child, I found Evie’s list of professional activities and social obligations not simply daunting, but formidable—how was an introverted child with unconventional passions and a vast plague of insecurities supposed to find a place on it?

What did you worry about most?
My biggest anxiety in those days was what to make for dinner before I went grocery shopping on Friday. After growing up with the privations of the Depression, I learned to live life day by day, to say my prayers at night and hope things would work out well. Bob and I felt that everyone in the family was coping in their own way, handling their own problems, and seeming pretty independent. No one came crying on our shoulder.

What did you think the future held for you?
Who had time to think about it! I was always optimistic. Life takes you on its course: You finish one phase and move on to the next.

How do you look back on that age now?
I look back on all of it with satisfaction. We did the best we could do. Compared to the Depression years, the later years were not filled with anxiety because we had a steady income.”

From Laura
During this era, when Evie was 63, I was 37 and had recently (finally!) moved into a nearby house with my six-year-old son after our living with Bob and Evie for several years following my divorce.

This house (near enough that my son and my father could still see each other daily) was my dream house—dim and cozy, on an acre of pines, with a fireplace and cedar-lined closets. I’d always been a little house-mouse, reluctant to leave home or go out and socialize, and moving into this wooded nest was the perfect balm to my shredding confidence.

I was supporting my son and myself (insufficiently) as a freelance writer while struggling with clinical depression, anorexia, extreme PMS, and migraines—the typical distress list of overwhelmed single mothers. In addition, my son’s attention span was as depleted as my income, and the school reports on his conduct and performance were mortifying. I could sense that his aggressive behavioral momentum was unstoppable, but I kept delving, seeking, applying whatever knowledge and strength I could garner to learn and simply cope. More than anything in world, I wanted to sleep.

As a kid, I truly hated school—the hours, the routine, the incomprehensible social structure, the fears of getting roughed up, the unbending authority, the monotonous texts, the patriotic pabulum, the unopenable windows. Being an honor student made no difference.

Each morning, Evie, the robust, unstoppable, perpetual motion machine, would wake me with a cheerful bedside recitation of: “Here is now dawning another new day. Think, woulds’t thou let it slip useless away!” Even then, the only place I wanted to slip was deeper under the covers.

I still sleep a lot. Evie still swims every morning. I survived public school, single motherhood, a parade of predatory men, and the vicissitudes of a writer’s career.

Evie flourished and continues to flourish among her books, students, Jewish philanthropies, literacy efforts, lifelong friends, and relatives. She loves the life she created for herself, and I have grown to love it for her. I praise her lists of plans and teaching activities as well as her extraordinary good health. What had been a cursed agenda for this daughter in youth is a blessing for that same daughter in late middle age.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


We can thank the ancient Romans for plumbing, paved highways, and the Julian calendar. But of all their contributions to Western civilization, the most important, as far as I’m concerned, is the introduction to Europe of the free-standing chair. Until approximately the seventh or eighth century BC, we were still tucking in on the floor with the animals. The utilitarian bench and stool and even the floor cushion may have raised us marginally off the floor, but it was the anthropomorphic free-standing chair that marked humanity’s elevation from subsistence to “civilized” living. With its articulated arms and legs and seat and back, the chair denoted our abandonment of animal habits and postures in favor of comfort and symbols of power.

The Pharonic Egyptians were the first to develop the chair – for ceremonial use. In the sixth or seventh century BC, the Greeks modified Pharonic proportions to create the most elegant chair in history -- the ineffable Klismos.. With its low, concave backrest shaped to the human body, and splayed legs that allowed the sitter to lean back, the Klismos is as sculptural as a Brancusi and as comfortable as a contour. As the Roman Empire spread across Europe, the Klismos became a fundamental part of the scenery for the theater of Western life. . .at least for a millennium or so.

Having climbed to such a pinnacle of civility, how, we must wonder, could humanity could return to a life of squatting. Indeed, if anything was dark about the Dark Ages, it was the return to eating off the floor. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD the free-standing chair was all but forgotten…and for more than a thousand years!

Not until the dawn of the 16th century, as the earliest domestic interiors of Europe’s town-dwelling bourgeoisie evolved, did houses began to fill again with rudimentary furnishings. These took the form of built-in and portable chests for stage, seating, and sometimes sleeping as well as stools, folding benches, and trestle tables for eating and working. The nobility traveled among their many residences carrying their portable tables and collapsible chairs with them (hence the words for furniture in Italian, French and Spanish are mobili, mobiliers, and muebles). The poor lived wretchedly in huts of mud and straw. But city-dwelling merchants and artisans enjoyed their relative degree of medieval prosperity in long, narrow, two-story townhouses where they combined living and working. Although they were still virtually camping inside, this proud population began to think about something resembling permanence and, equally astonishing, comfort.

The chair connoted stability, affluence, and religio/civic authority. The earliest free-standing examples were X-frame chairs made of an X-shaped wooden frame across which canvas, webbing or leather was slung as a seat and stretched as a back. (It was derived from the X-shaped folding stool.) By the 17th century, an increased control over materials and expanded expertise in production enabled furniture pieces to be used as part of the decoration of a room. Fabric and padding were customarily attached to a chair frame with nails, the fabric and nails lending ornament and the padding comfort. Furniture, for the first time since the Roman era, came to be considered a valuable possession.

With this consciousness, the medieval X-frame chairs grew into “chairs of estate” and achieved throne-like prestige with expanded proportions, luxe upholstery, and decorations of with fringes, tassels, needlework, and large ornamental nails. This macho opulence ultimately gave way, toward the end of the 17th century, to a refinement of line and form. As the frame grew graceful, the seat and back grew commodious and intimations of the Klismos appeared. Ultimately, the abundantly cushioned and graceful fauteuil, the classic French open armchair, grew so desired for its elegance and largesse, that it was sustained and copied in most European countries throughout the next century. During the 18th century, which was the pinnacle of chair design, the chair came to mirror fashion. In France, for example, chairs were created to accommodate the fabulous heights of ladies’ wigs or to accentuate the simply cut gowns of the favored Grecian style.

Regardless of its age or condition, a beautiful chair is a work of art. In my garden, a half-wooded, subtropical Giverny, a collection of old wrought iron garden chairs suggest a poetry of ruin. Although each chair possesses some arabesqued element – a scrolled armrest, a fanned backrest, a splayed foot -- they are more Giocommetti than Brancusi, skeletal and rusting into a deterioration of sculptural glory. Poised for visitation, their assembly begs curiosity – who and what are they waiting for out there in the elements as if in silent anticipation of a Quaker meeting.

Inside the house, my oval-back dining chairs are upholstered in a leopard pattern print on which my Bengal cats, curled in slumber, become almost indistinguishable. At the head of the dining table sits a Klismos-like armchair with silvered finish and ram’s-head finials. If such a thing were not oxymoronic, it could be considered a modest throne.

My friend, the illustrator Barry Zaid has an actual throne in his “sitting” room. It is one of only nine reproductions that exist in the world of a chair made for Sitamen, daughter of Tuya and Yuyu, aunt and uncle of the Pharoah Tutankhamen. The original was discovered when Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1903 and is now (we hope, still) in the Cairo museum. The modeled gesso and gilt decoration on the back panel of the chair consists of a winged sun disc below which appears a scene showing a dual image of Sitamen receiving gifts of gold necklaces from female servants. The accompanying inscription above the seated princess gives her name: "The eldest daughter of the king whom he loves, Sitamen." The text inscribed above the servants describes the offering of gold from "the lands of the south."

Barry bought his throne from an antique dealer in 1976. Today it sits in his South Beach apartment among his collections of mosaic urns and obelisks, glass globes, and examples of his own art. It looks right at home. His spotted Bengal cat Chitta and her companion Penny long ago claimed it for a napping spot.

You can read more about the Treasures of Yuya and Tuyu at

You can see Barry’s graphic design, illustration, and packaging art at