Mamah Cheney sidled up to the Studebaker and put her hand sideways on the crank. She had started the thing a hundred times before, but she still heard Edwin’s words whenever she grabbed on to the handle. Leave your thumb out. If you don’t, the crank can ﬂy back and take your thumb right off. She churned with a fury now, but no sputter came from beneath the car’s hood. Crunching across old snow to the driver’s side, she checked the throttle and ignition, then returned to the handle and cranked again. Still nothing. A few teasing snowﬂakes ﬂoated under her hat rim and onto her face. She studied the sky, then set out from her house on foot toward the library.
It was a bitterly cold end-of-March day, and Chicago Avenue was a river of frozen slush. Mamah navigated her way through steaming horse droppings, the hem of her black coat lifted high. Three blocks west, at Oak Park Avenue, she leaped onto the wooden sidewalk and hurried south as the wet snow grew dense.
By the time she reached the library, her toes were frozen stumps, and her coat was nearly white. She raced up the steps, then stopped at the door of the lecture hall to catch her breath. Inside, a crowd of women listened intently as the president of the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club read her introduction.
“Is there a woman among us who is not confronted—almost daily—by some choice regarding how to ornament her home?” The president looked over her spectacles at the audience. “Or, dare I say, herself?” Still panting, Mamah slipped into a seat in the last row and ﬂung off her coat. All around her, the faint smell of camphor fumes wafted from wet furs slung across chair backs. “Our guest speaker today needs no introduction . . .”
Mamah was aware, then, of a hush spreading from the back rows forward as a ﬁgure, his black cape whipping like a sail, dashed up the middle aisle. She saw him toss the cape ﬁrst, then his wide-brimmed hat, onto a chair beside the lectern.
“Modern ornamentation is a burlesque of the beautiful, as pitiful as it is costly.” Frank Lloyd Wright’s voice echoed through the cavernous hall. Mamah craned her neck, trying to see around and above the hats in front of her that bobbed like cakes on platters. Impulsively, she stuffed her coat beneath her bottom to get a better view.
“The measure of a man’s culture is the measure of his appreciation,” he said. “We are ourselves what we appreciate and no more.”
She could see that there was something different about him. His hair was shorter. Had he lost weight? She studied the narrow belted waist of his Norfolk jacket. No, he looked healthy, as always. His eyes were merry in his grave, boyish face.
“We are living today encrusted with dead things,” he was saying, “forms from which the soul is gone. And we are devoted to them, trying to get joy out of them, trying to believe them still potent.”
Frank stepped down from the platform and stood close to the front row. His hands were open and moving now, his voice so gentle he might have been speaking to a crowd of children. She knew the message so well. He had spoken nearly the same words to her when she ﬁrst met him at his studio. Ornament is not about prettifying the outside of something, he was saying. It should possess “ﬁtness, proportion, harmony, the result of all of which is repose.”
The word “repose” ﬂoated in the air as Frank looked around at the women. He seemed to be taking measure of them, as a preacher might.
“Birds and ﬂowers on hats . . .” he continued. Mamah felt a kind of guilty pleasure when she realized that he was pressing on with the point. He was going to punish them for their bad taste before he saved them.
Her eyes darted around at the plumes and bows bobbing in front of her, then rested on one ersatz bluebird clinging to a hatband. She leaned sideways, trying to see the faces of the women in front of her.
She heard Frank say “imitation” and “counterfeit” before silence fell once again.
A radiator rattled. Someone coughed. Then a pair of hands began clapping, and in a moment a hundred others joined in until applause thundered against the walls.
Mamah choked back a laugh. Frank Lloyd Wright was converting them— almost to the woman—before her very eyes. For all she knew ﬁve minutes ago, they could just as well have booed. Now the room had the feeling of a revival tent. They were getting his religion, throwing away their crutches. Every one of them thought his disparaging remarks were aimed at someone else. She imagined the women racing home to strip their overstuffed armchairs of antimacassars and to ﬁll vases with whatever dead weeds they could ﬁnd still poking up through the snow.
Mamah stood. She moved slowly as she bundled up in her coat, slid on the tight kid gloves, tucked strands of wavy dark hair under her damp felt hat. She had a clear view of Frank beaming at the audience. She lingered there in the last row, blood pulsing in her neck, all the while watching his eyes, watching to see if they would meet hers. She smiled broadly and thought she saw a glimmer of recognition, a softening around his mouth, but the next moment doubted she had seen it at all.
Frank was gesturing to the front row, and the familiar red hair of Catherine Wright emerged from the audience. Catherine walked to the front and stood beside her husband, her freckled face glowing. His arm was around her back.
Mamah sank down in her chair. Heat ﬁlled up the inside of her coat.
On her other side, an old woman rose from her seat. “Claptrap,” she muttered, pushing past Mamah’s knees. “Just another little man in a big hat.”
Minutes later, out in the hallway, a cluster of women surrounded Frank. Mamah moved slowly with the crowd as people shufﬂed toward the staircase.
“May-mah!” he called when he spotted her. He pushed his way over to where she stood. “How are you, my friend?” He grasped her right hand, gently pulled her out of the crowd into a corner.
“We’ve meant to call you,” she said. “Edwin keeps asking when we’re going to start that garage.”
His eyes passed over her face. “Will you be home tomorrow? Say eleven?”
“I will. Unfortunately, Ed’s not going to be there. But you and I can talk about it.”
A smile broke across his face. She felt his hands squeeze down on hers. “I’ve missed our talks,” he said softly.
She lowered her eyes. “So have I.”
ON HER WALK HOME, the snow stopped. She paused on the sidewalk to look at her house. Tiny iridescent squares in the stained-glass windows glinted back the late-afternoon sun. She remembered standing in this very spot three years ago, during an open house she and Ed had given after they’d moved in. Women had been sitting along the terrace wall, gazing out toward the street, calling to their children, their faces lit like a row of moons. It had struck Mamah then that her low-slung house looked as small as a raft beside the steamerlike Victorian next door. But what a spectacular raft, with the “Maple Leaf Rag” drifting out of its front doors, and people draped along its edges.
Edwin had noticed her standing on the sidewalk and come to put his arm around her. “We got ourselves a good times house, didn’t we?” he’d said. His face was beaming that day, so full of pride and the excitement of a new beginning. For Mamah, though, the housewarming had felt like the end of something extraordinary.
“OUT WALKING IN a snowstorm, were you?” Their nanny’s voice stirred
Mamah, who lay on the living room sofa, her feet propped on the rolled arm.
“I know, Louise, I know,” she mumbled.
“Do you want a toddy for the cold you’re about to get?”
“I’ll take it. Where is John?”
“Next door with Ellis. I’ll get him home.”
“Send him in to me when he’s back. And turn on the lights, will you, please?”
Louise was heavy and slow, though she wasn’t much older than Mamah. She had been with them since John was a year old—a childless Irish nurse born to mother children. She switched on the stained-glass sconces and lumbered out.
When she closed her eyes again, Mamah winced at the image of herself a few hours earlier. She had behaved like a madwoman, cranking the car until her arm ached, then racing on foot through snow and ice to get a glimpse of Frank, as if she had no choice.
Once, when Edwin was teaching her how to start the car, he had told her about a fellow who leaned in too close. The man was smashed in the jaw by the crank and died later from infection.
Mamah sat up abruptly and shook her head as if she had water in an ear. In the morning I’ll call Frank to cancel.
Within moments, though, she was laughing at herself. Good Lord. It’s only a garage.
Mamah woke to the sound of Edwin moving through his daily ablutions. Clink of his shaving brush against the porcelain cup, soft thud of a collar on the dresser. Snap of cuff links. It was Saturday morning, but he had a day trip planned to Milwaukee. In a few minutes he would be out the door with his derby and attachŽ.
The next sound she heard was John’s bare feet pounding down the hall way.
“Mamaaaa,” he shouted, leaping into the bed and ﬂopping his skinny little body on top of hers.
She feigned sleep, then ﬂipped the elﬁn boy suddenly onto his back, tickling until he was helpless. “What’s the magic word?”
John squealed deliriously.
“What’s the magic word?”
“I don’t remember!”
“Hint,” she said. “It’s a vegetable.”
He moaned. “Can we have a new word?”
Mamah pondered for a moment. “All right, then. Pirate.”
John registered surprise. “I like that.”
“Everyone likes pirates,” Edwin chimed in, “no matter how bad they are.”
He kissed the tops of their heads. “See you around eight tonight, if all goes well.”
She got out of bed, put on a robe, and went to get the baby out of her crib. Martha was standing at the rail, bobbing and babbling. Mamah changed her diaper, then set her feet on the ﬂoor. The girl grabbed hold of her mother’s thumbs and walked haltingly down the hall toward the living room. This time of year, the west windows and the heavy woodwork conspired to make the living room dark. Mamah aimed her daughter toward the adjoining library, where sun streamed through a south-facing window. There she paused to stand in the light. The warmth felt like joy itself to Mamah. It seemed that sometimes, when the sun hit her face in just this way, her skin had its own memory. She could be ﬁve years old again, looking out at the summer ﬁelds from the window of the Iowa farmhouse where she’d been born.
Dear God, how she loved the sun; this past winter had been the darkest, most paralyzing one she could remember. It was nearly April, but no spring was in sight. The usual soggy sadness would have to run its course for another month. All she really needed, she thought, was just one ray coming in. She could sit in this place and think about the day ahead, make a plan. Maybe she could accomplish something for a change.
Lizzie was in the dining room, still wearing her nightgown and studying the morning paper, her hair loose around her shoulders. “Huge sale at Field’s today,” she called to her sister.
“Nobody died?” Mamah picked Martha up and carried her to her high chair.
“Well, actually, the Cat Woman? Over on Elmwood? She died.”
Mamah settled Martha, then nuzzled her niece, Jessica, who was eating cereal next to John. She enjoyed the sense of reprieve that Saturdays brought, with the children in their slippers and nightclothes all morning, the help gone, and Lizzie at home, reading the obituaries out loud over breakfast.
“How was the Cape’s speech yesterday?” Lizzie asked.
“Oh, you know Frank. He charmed everyone to death.” Mamah laughed. Her sister had private nicknames for people whose foibles she found amusing. Lizzie was pretty in the same way Jessie had been, with delicate features and fawn-colored hair. While Jessie had been the den leader and cockeyed optimist, though, Lizzie was the dry wisecracker. “You are wicked, you know. Who would guess the sweet second-grade teacher from Irving School has a stripe of meanness as wide as a skunk’s?”
Lizzie lowered the newspaper and ﬂicked her limpid eyes in John’s direction. “I think your mother just called me a skunk.” The dark-haired boy bent over in giggles. “Do you need anything from Field’s?” Lizzie asked Mamah.
“We could use some new sheets for John and Jessica’s beds,” Mamah said, tucking a napkin around Martha’s neck. “But I can’t go. I have something—”
Louise came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel. “I could take the children,” she offered.
“You’re not even supposed to be working today,” Mamah chided.
“And what was I going to do?” Louise planted her ﬁsts on her hips. “Go swimmin’?”
“You can’t push the pram in this mess.”
The older children looked up from their cereal. They sniffed an adventure.
“I’ll go along, and we’ll take turns carrying Martha,” Lizzie said.
“You should take the car if it will start, Liz. Let me see if I can get it going.”
“All right, then. I’ll be dressed in ten minutes. What about the rest of you?”
In a heartbeat, John and Jessica were on their feet, scampering down the hallway.
When the house was empty, Mamah went to the bathroom to ﬁll the tub. Sitting on its edge, she stared at the ceiling, furious with herself. Why on earth did I invite Frank Wright to come over here?
It was perhaps six months since she and Ed had gone to the theater with Frank and Catherine. For a period after they’d built the house, they had socialized with the Wrights fairly often, perhaps once a month. Now a friendly distance had developed. Frank’s reputation had grown considerably since those early days when they’d consulted on the house. Not since then had she and Frank shared a private conversation.
During construction, with some building detail as a starting point, they had lost themselves time and again in deep discussion. Those six months of collaboration seemed enchanted to her now. Frank Lloyd Wright had ignited her mind like no other person she’d ever met. At ﬁrst their conversations were about ideas. They talked about Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson, Nietzsche. Mamah told him of her passion for Goethe. He spoke reverently of his years working for Louis Sullivan, the great architect he called “Leiber Meister,” dear master.
They began to see each other as fellow outsiders, making jokes about “Saints’ Rest,” the name Oak Park had earned for its church spires and absence of taverns. In the village, there was no question that people perceived Frank as an artist on the fringe. What fascinated him was that she saw herself as an outsider, too.
“I’m like the trunk of a cactus, I suppose,” she told him. “I take in a dose of culture and time with friends, then I retreat and go live on it for a while until I get thirsty again. It’s not good to live so much inside oneself. It’s a self-imposed exile, really. It makes you different.”
Their deep discussions were a stark contrast to her discourse with Edwin. It was when Mamah found herself saving up insights to tell Frank—thoughts she never would have shared with her husband—that she knew they’d grown too close.
By that time the two couples were good friends. When she understood how near to the edge she was walking, the house was nearly built. She had turned then toward Catherine to cultivate a closeness with her.
It was at the housewarming party that Mamah had invited Catherine to give a joint presentation on Goethe to the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club. She understood now what she’d been doing. She had been using Catherine, quite unawares, as a buffer between herself and Frank.
Sinking into the bathwater, Mamah recalled one of her last meetings with him. The memory of it had been a private place she’d gone to again and again during the past couple of years. It was 1904; the house was nearly ﬁnished. She and Edwin and John were living in it by then. Frank was in the middle of building Unity Temple, far too busy to come by to settle the last few details of the house. Nevertheless, he had appeared one morning, plopped down some plans on the table, and said, “Let’s settle a few things.”
She had looked back at him innocently, though she’d been terriﬁed that he might come forward with some declaration of his feelings.
“First of all, where on earth did you get a name like Mamah?”
She’d burst out laughing. “Strange, isn’t it? Well, my real name is Martha, but my grandmother started calling me Mamah when I was quite small. I think she made it up because it sounded French. She was French, you see, and descended from Philippe de Valois, Marquis de Villette—a decorated ofﬁcer of the Royal Military Order of Saint Someone or Other.”
“Is that where your gift for languages comes from?”
“That’s where it started. She insisted we speak French in the house when she was visiting.” Mamah had leaped up then. “Would you like to see her in a ball gown? I just came across a photo in one of the boxes.” She went into the bedroom, where the movers had put their things, and carried a box out to the dining room table.
Frank had laughed out loud when he saw the portrait. A delicate Marie Villette Lameraux sat in front of a painted backdrop of Mount Olympus in some long-ago photographer’s studio, her girlish personage festooned with garlands from the swirling braids over her ears to the loopy ribbons draped between rosettes on her gown. She stared grimly at the camera.
Frank was grinning when he stood up to peer into the box. “What else is in there?”
“Just some of my old things. Papers . . .”
He sat down again and looked at her. “Tell me everything,” he said.
Tell me everything. He might as well have said, “Take off your dress.” She had pulled one thing after another out of the box. She’d shown him her master’s-degree thesis and her graduation photograph. She’d talked of her years in Port Huron, teaching English and French at the high school with her college friend Mattie. She’d shown him photos of her family in front of their house on Oak Park Avenue.
“This must be you.”
“Uh-huh. This is my sister Jessie. She was the oldest.” Mamah pointed to the smiling sixteen-year-old and felt the familiar sad squeeze in her chest. “And Lizzie. Well, she looks just the same, doesn’t she? She’s the middle girl.”
Frank went back to the black-haired girl who struck such a conﬁdent pose, one hand holding a croquet mallet, a leg crossed jauntily in front of the other. “How old are you here?”
“Such pluck for a girl so young.”
“Oh, I was at just the right age then, I think. Smarter than I ever was before or since. There were no grays. I worshipped my father. I loved my dog. I adored reading.”
Mamah stared at the family picture. The sight of her and her sisters wearing middy blouses jogged another memory. “We were wild children, really. You see, my father was as an amateur naturalist. That was his great love, even more than the railroad. In summer he would take us down to a dry stream near Kankakee to hunt for fossils. It was an area where there had been a shallow sea in prehistoric times. He taught us to look very closely, and my eyes—at least my near eyesight—became quite acute. Nothing made me happier than crawling around the streambed for hours on end, looking for tiny patterns of shells in the rocks. My father always brought along a hammer. And when I cracked open a rock that looked promising—when I actually found imprints left by creatures that lived there ﬁve hundred million years ago—well, it was like opening up a whole world and falling right into it.” Mamah laughed. “It worried my mother to death.”
Frank looked surprised. “Why?”
“Because she preferred ﬁnding God in the second pew of Grace Episcopal Church. It unnerved her to see her daughters smashing rocks with hammers. She was wary of trilobites and Darwin and my father’s talk of the ‘human animal.’ And she thought I was far too . . . dreamy, I guess, or suggestible. I remember when my father brought home a telescope around this time. It was a good one, and he was excited to show us how it worked. That night we all went outside, and Jessie and Lizzie got to look through it ﬁrst. They were awestruck by how many stars they could see with it. But after my mother had a good long look through it, I heard her say to my father, ‘Don’t show Mamah. It will be overwhelming for her.’ ”
Frank stared at her thoughtfully.
“It wasn’t too long after that that my mother took me in hand. My rock-smashing days ended, and dance lessons began. But by that point I was a bit of an odd one, not really interested in what most other girls cared about. I became something of an introvert, a bookworm, I guess you’d say.”
Mamah felt giddy at Frank’s attention, and a little embarrassed for revealing so much about herself. Yet she continued pulling things out of the box. “Another of my mother’s ediﬁcation projects,” she explained, showing him the little German readers she had started with when she ﬁrst learned the language. And then she showed Frank her birth certiﬁcate.
He held it up to the light. “June nineteenth, 1869,” he read. “Interesting. I was born June eighth of the same year.”
At any other moment, the remark might not have seemed unusual, but that afternoon, as they sat at the dining room table in the new house they had planned together, the coincidence struck Mamah as preordained. She wasn’t a superstitious person or particularly religious, but it seemed a kind of proof that they were meant to know each other, that fate had spat them out into the world at the same time, in nearly the same place, by design.
He looked at her graduation photo and spoke with sadness in his voice. “I wonder what my life would have been like if I had run into this young woman twenty years ago. To ﬁnd someone so . . .” He paused. “I was a boy when I married Catherine—just twenty-one. She was only eighteen. The marriage never should have been permitted, really. Now . . .” He looked away, sighed heavily.
When he turned his face back, it was etched with tenderness. He took her hand. “You are the loveliest woman I have ever known,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her cheek.
She let his mouth stay on her skin for a heartbeat before pulling away.