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.


Morag said...

My heart aches for your sorrow and hope as the safe-keepers of his creations, they help you remember him with joy.

Alice said...


Joanne Perlman said...

"Alcohol is a rapacious creditor." I'm so sorry for your loss.

Lea said...

I have received several wonderful reflections about Steve by email in response to this post and will add them here.

Hi, Lea - thank you for sharing this information - I am sad beyond belief - I too have pictures of my children that Steve had done - they hang right on my wall in my bedroom - they are such a perfect replica of my kids - we all know he had his demons - a tragedy - he was truly a gifted artist - we all have benefited from knowing him - I only hope that he is at peace now - love, Noni

tootsielala55 said...

Well, Lea, you did it. You captured the pain, the joy, the exquisite torture of loving an alcoholic. Steeped in the knowledge of alcoholism from multiple-level angles I know the pain in your soul of loving him, wanting the best for him and knowing that he is just a hair's breath from your grasp. Never met a dumb drunk. And clearly your friend, such a sensitive soul and spirit, did not break that mold. Hold in your heart those moments when Steve was there, is there, and know that those moments, those memories were indeed that lifeline he needed. While you and Dave have physical, tangible artifacts of his talent, his beautiful labored soul, you and Dave, perhaps unwittingly, left your mark on his soul. Eased his pain in a way that only you can do. You honor Labs in loving him and his art. He will live on forever in your stone wall. And how fitting is that? He so long ago began to work feverishly at walling off and tearing down and walling off again against the pain of his own internal demons. But, in the end, the beauty seeped out anyway. And it lives on.

Lea said...

Hi Lea,
Thanks for sharing those beautiful and painful memories. I didn't have that many face to face encounters with him, but when I needed some custom bookcases for my studio Steve S suggested I call Steve L, which I did. I certainly didn't share a "history" with him, but being a friend of his friends was enough to merit an unsolicited and hugely generous discount. If I had bought standard shelving at a discount furniture place it would have cost me at least $200-$300, but Steve wouldn't take more than $100. Probably the cost of the wood alone. To this day he is still the most talented and versatile artist I have ever known, who constantly caused me to re-examine my own definition of what it meant to be a true artist. I have read that in Bali they have no word for art because they do everything as well as they can, just like Steve. Miggs

Dori said...

Lea, another beautiful, heart warming piece. Thanks for sharing your pain and joy at the same time.


Lea said...

Oh Lea, What a beautiful tribute to your friend. And so heartbreaking that he could not combat his demons. I have been fortunate enough to have sat upon one of the dining room chairs he made you and I can attest to the comfort of his artistry. Next time I visit you and Dave I'd like to study those watercolors of his and have you point out to me his other handicrafts in your home. I'd like to walk along the wall he contributed to as well. My heart goes out to you and Dave on the loss of a cherished friend. My father's father and my father's brother were alcoholics and I know from a very early age the pain they not only suffer but the pain they give those who love them. May Steve rest in peace. And good Lord, he was one year younger than me, much too young to die needlessly. Just tragic. Love you Lea. David

Tyler said...

Thank you Lea, I have not words.
Here is a poem that I found.

How do we forgive our fathers?
Maybe in a dream?
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often?
Or forever, when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all?
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?
or for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning, or shutting doors?
for speaking into walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs?
Or in their deaths, saying it to them, or not saying it.
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?

"Forgiving our Fathers" by Dick Lourie


Katrina said...

Lea, as a newbie to your blog I must say.. write, write and write more! You are a gifted writer and your blogs speak as if you are right in the room here with me. What talent!

I am so sorry about the death of your friends, through your words I felt as if I knew him and am truly sorry about his passing.... what a true friend he was!!!

See you soon at some EH function, and in the meantime -- ECRIVEZ !!!

Laurie Stone said...

So many can relate. We all have a Steve in our lives, someone who leaves an indelible mark but is gone too soon. Beautifully written.