Monday, February 8, 2010

My Other Mother

On January 29, 2010 Marian Barnet passed away. When I was 16 years old I met Marian for the first time. She was sitting at her kitchen table reading a book with some sort of whiskey concoction and a More 100 cigarette. I don't ever remember the cigarette being burned down, they always seemed to just burn at the end. Probably because those Mores are like 6 inches long. Marian was always researching recipes, waiting for the New York Times weekend crossword puzzles, and cursing at the family dog Freddy who had a goiter and understood better English than most people. He would lazily sit on his couch and act humiliated. She was always reading something, I would estimate a book a day. She loved to cook, she was obsessed with it. She would make daily trips in her old Volvo to the one and only Trader Joes in the area and put together something for dinner that we often failed to understand. A gazpacho for instance. We'd sit around the Burke Saarinen dining set and talk about the world. This is where she started shaping us.

When I was 18 I thought I was Bob Dylan, I bought a harmonica holder, and started smoking so I could put the grits in the holder beside the harmonica. Upon seeing me in this state, she held her cigarette and drink in one hand and peered over her book telling me in her mostly British accent "HA!, the world already has one Bob Dylan and we certainly do not need another." She was famous for these well intended but hurtful one liners. It may not seem like much, but she was a master of spotting pretense and folly , and flat out calling it what it was. This brutal honesty sent people cowering and lost her many would be friends. Ironically she was the best friend of all, the one that would tell you the truth about yourself. For those of us who would listen, it changed our lives.

Marian had only one son, Alex, and she pretty much adopted myself, and our friend Jules de Balincourt. She always took an interest in us kids and made it her business to push and encourage us in our artistic endeavors. Up to the bitter end, we were finishing our works, and then taking them to her in Mal Pais, Costa Rica where we would sit on her balcony and talk about what we were doing, our ideas, and life in the states. How the Barnets ended up there is an interesting story. She came up with the idea to sell their house in Seal Beach, load everything in a Volkswagon, and drive to Costa Rica where her and Murray would buy land and build a house. Sometime in 1994 they bought beach front property in Mal Pais and Marian designed 2 houses with her son and husband Murray. Alex lived on the beach under a tarp for a year and built the damn things with Murray and some local Ticos. Below they are pictured.

I was broke in the mid 90's, I did freelance photography for a living, and played in a band that got me out on the road for almost a decade. When the Barnets (my adopted family) moved to Costa Rica, we all lost touch for few years. Mal Pais had no telephones and had only recently gotten electricity. 4 or 5 years went by and one day I got a scratchy call from Alex who demanded I come down and visit. I saved up a little money, packed up my surfboard, and went to Costa Rica. Alex made the 6 hour drive from Mal Pais and picked us up in San Jose. It was like seeing a sibling after being apart for a long time. When I finally got to meet up with Marian again, she was so happy. She had developed emphysema at this point, and was marooned in her lovely home, but hell if she didn't still have one of my photographs on her wall, as did Alex at his Mal Pais restaurant. This was the most touching thing I could imagine and even now it brings tears to my eyes, this woman who believed so much in my vision that she would drag my art across all of Central America.

I got to enjoy another 7 years of visiting her in Mal Pais and going on all her scavenger hunts to acquire a David Lynch movie, a Charley Trotter Raw food book, various herbs, dried berrys, cheese, booze and spices etc. I would listen to her stories of working for James Dean, Jane Fonda, meeting Elvis, this woman, stuck in Costa Rica and in her mid 70's, was turning me onto stuff in my own country. I could go on for days with stories about our youth and Marian's interactions with us, and perhaps some day I will. For those of you who did not know her, this brief description will have to suffice, and this article, one of the very few she wrote, will surely confirm that the world rarely has the privilege of hosting such a great woman. She wrote this as a letter to the Los Angeles Times when Alex and I were still in high school. Murray photo copied it and read it at her funeral at the beautiful graveyard in the village of Mal Pais, Costa Rica. Click on it and read it.