Monday, May 16, 2011

Tribute to a Friend and Artist

Our friend Steve Larrabee passed away April 5. May 13th would have been his 61st birthday. I wrote the following essay and sent it to him about four years ago. He called me after he'd read it and told me I didn't need to worry, that things were not as bad as I seemed to think. That wasn't the truth.

Dear Labs,

I wrote this piece with the greatest love in my heart. We want you to be happy and inspired and well.


Hi. My name is Lea and my friend Steve is an alcoholic.

I worry. When we talk on the phone, his voice does not sound the same. When I ask what he’s doing, how he’s doing, he pauses too long. He is a talented artist - is art always linked with torment?

The power of Steve’s craft inspires. Both my husband Dave and his brother embarked on their woodworking efforts after admiring Steve’s projects. Undulating shelves, multi-colored lamps, and inlaid chopping blocks – he rendered even everyday items extraordinary.

Testaments to his talent and love abound in our house. In the mid-eighties, three watercolors of our children arrived unexpectedly in the mail. There was no occasion – they were just a gift. Casey at one or so, Tucker at three. Steve captured the light in their eyes and the roundness of their kissable cheeks – a moment for us to hold on to, now that the kids have grown up and left home.

We have a dulcimer of black walnut that Steve made in the seventies. It is sinuous grace carved in chocolate wood. We don’t know how to play it, but it’s a beautiful accent, leaning against the wall behind the dining room table and Windsor chairs that Steve also made.

Our house was built in 1783. We love antiques of that period, but could not afford authentic chairs to go with the table we’d purchased at an auction. While the idea of making eight of one thing must have grated a soul fueled by novelty, Steve agreed to the project… and I love my chairs. New as they are, they speak of the centuries. For all of their hard wooden-ness, they are as comfortable as if cushioned. Steve’s caring and craft are in each spoke and leg.

In the mid 1980’s, Steve cut off four of his fingers at the first knuckle. He was guiding a plank through a joiner and somehow, his hand slid into the machine too. A chill touches my spine in picturing the scene. The shock. The realization. The trip to the hospital. “I need those fingers,” Steve said at the time.

But it turned out he didn’t. He healed, at least outwardly, the skin closing over the wounds, and he learned to make do without those fingers.

We have undertaken several house projects over the past thirty years, an addition in Clinton, a kitchen and porch here in Easton. Steve drew plans and “made boxes” that became cupboards and shelves. There is as much of Steve in our home as there is of Dave and I. He is in the etchings on the wall in our bedroom, in the drawers, knobs and wainscoting of the kitchen, in our living room built-ins, in our dining room chairs.

We have photographs documenting these various stages. Steve grinning as he posed, drill in hand, on the roof at Clinton, his beard sawdust-speckled, his eyes behind plastic safety glasses.

I should say something else about Steve’s eyes. When he smiled, his eyes danced; they were crinkly and kindly. You could not help but love the man you could see through those eyes. The last few times I saw him though, his eyes were shadowed. He would tell me he was not drinking, but they say alcoholics lie.

When we spoke, before he moved away, he would tell me of his pain. He could not seem to meet the Mount Everest of a standard that he’d set, even though the rest of us saw him bravely scaling that peak. He said he was a bad friend… and I’d run through the long list – all the help, all the love, all the inspiration, all the art, all the CUPBOARDS! But I could not convince him, even with tangible proof. He dwelt in a dark pit, sealed away from the truth of his contributions. As much as they were a light for us, he would not let them shine for him.

He moved to Easton with Joan about thirteen years ago. Together they built a house that was more than a house. Two artists, they brought their touch to its moldings, its beams, its railings and floors. We have a picture taken of the two of them standing on the poured concrete foundation, tarred brushes in hand, mugging for the camera. They lived in a trailer on the property, working at their day jobs as well as the new house. Despite all the work and the stress, they were tight. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” they would say to each other.

What happened?

Was there a tipping point? Steve had been sober for twelve years. What happened?

Even now, Joan wonders if an intervention could save him. She still loves him… and we do too. Dave has heard from addiction counselors that the only thing that could reverse the course would be if the person he loves most tells him that his choices are ruining them both… and turns away.

“He lost Joan and he lost Moo,” I remind Dave. “Who else would that most beloved person be?”

We worried when Steve moved to Vermont, to a 250 acre farm. It’s a big responsibility for a man who worries about money and duels with demons. We hear he dates a woman who fights duels of her own. We worry; it sounds like another set of hands digging his pit deeper.

When we built our porch, two years ago, Steve came with his backhoe to dig holes for the posts. Like the New England farmers of the seventeenth century, he discovered a healthy crop of boulders impeding his way. It was laborious work, but being our friend, he helped us, as he had done many times before, and dug them out, adding them to the ancient wall behind our house, laid by those long-ago farmers.

Steve is here in the stonewall and the porch where we sit, overlooking the woods while spring peepers sing. He is here in the kids’ portraits and our dining room chairs – and in the kitchen, the dulcimer, and the etchings hanging on our bedroom walls.

And in our hearts – did I say that? He is in our hearts too….

We miss you, Labs… and we worry.

Monday, May 2, 2011


As soon as I returned to my car, I regretted what I’d said. I’d lost an opportunity, a moment I’d not even recognized as an opportunity. But of course, that is what every moment is.

I’d almost passed the service station when I remembered I needed gas. I cut the wheel sharply and drove in. One pump was free, but because my tank’s on the driver’s side, I had to pull around the other pumps to align the hose and tank. By the time I was in position, a young man in a white sedan had scooted in from the other side. Grill-to-grill we idled, eyes locked through the barrier of our windshields, waiting to see who would back down.

I’d been in high spirits when I swung into the station. I’d finished a big project at work, the air was soft through my open window, and daffodils beamed yellow against pale green grass. I’d received the results of a clear PET scan the week before and was still basking in that joy, in the promise of a future newly confirmed.

If that wasn’t enough, K.C. and the Sunshine Band were rockin’ on the radio and I was tappin’ my boogie shoes right along with them.

So I felt strong, a feeling rare enough that I relished it. And this little showdown at the pump roused a cockiness that felt good. I did not toss my head defiantly or jut out my chin in a show of obstinacy, but I felt that energy and it was as glorious and novel as the spring evening. I was there first. He could move.

But he didn’t. Beyond our two windshields, he appeared young and muscular, with short, dark, curly hair, a handsome youth of twenty or so. He looked a little tough in fact, and I read his expression as saying, “I’m stayin’ right here, lady.”

As a rule, I am easily cowed, and would have wavered almost immediately – out of timidity or graciousness, it’s hard to say - but on this occasion of spring air, new hope in the future and boogie shoes, I had a right to that pump and was not going to be intimidated.

But I’m also fifty-seven and it became clear the kid was not going to budge. Staring him down made no impression, so eventually, I shifted into reverse, gave him the pump, (take it, brat!), and wound up one stall over. We emerged from our cars simultaneously. Loving the brazen, fearless, boldness bubbling within me, I met his eye and said in a tone too close to a sneer to make me comfortable now, “I’d wondered if you were going to be a gentleman, but nooooo…”

I’m not proud of that, but I wasn’t finished. The boy smiled sheepishly (he probably wasn’t a bad sort) and walked toward the Medi-Mart. I called at his retreating back, “What would your mama say?”

It sunk in quickly, my poor behavior, and I winced as I slunk to my seat behind the wheel.

I fuel myself regularly with the wisdom of self-help books about being loving and kind. I know, very well, that everyone has a story and a hard life or a sad morning can lie behind pursed lips or shadowed eyes. I am mindful of ripples, of how the good or ill in a moment flows on and outward, a continuing current of impact. So how had my joy and energy so misfired? How did feeling strong become cocky and snide?

As I drove away, I wished I could re-wind. What if I’d stepped from my car, and said with quiet humor, “Okay, this time, you win”? - a jolly encounter to send us smiling on our way instead of this mutual shame.

My husband, Dave, is ever my defender. When I confessed to my lapse, he said, “The kid should have backed down. Maybe he needed the reminder.” But I know better: this wasn’t for the boy; it was for me. It felt good to snarl, to say exactly what I felt, and I hate that, unguarded, I was a bitch.