The Pull of the Earth
Set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West
We depend too much on outward forms and are too careless of the spirit beneath them.
— Frank Lloyd Wright
My first memories of stained glass are really of my mother, Brigitte. She leans over the light table and gazes at a glass piece so thick and textured it could be a tangle of multicolored yarn. I stand watching, unnoticed.
Like in the old Madonna painting in our living room, her face is illuminated by rays emanating from the object of her devotion. In that painting, maybe in all Madonna paintings, it was a baby. But for Brigitte, the fullness of her attention was reserved for Tiffany window glass. Even my father couldn’t compete.
Our studio had been built around that glass, starting generations earlier in the late nineteenth century, when the American Opalescent movement took the industry by storm.
My great-great grandmother went from working with for Tiffany’s, the famous jewelry store, to working for the glass company of the son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to starting her own studio, American Atelier. The atelier made windows for libraries, restaurants, and residences.
By the time Brigitte was in charge more than a century later, the studio had evolved. Its twenty-plus artisans now focused on restoring the remarkable windows of Louis Tiffany. Also ones by my namesake, Gracielle Brigitte LaRouge, and others who thrived in the heyday of opalescent glass.
But while my mother found them to be the greatest thing in the world, to me they seemed old-fashioned and overly complex. Even she had to admit they were also heavy as hell to work with.
Giving tours was part of the studio tradition, so by the time I was twelve, I was parading visitors throughout the eight thousand square foot space laid out in orderly rows of worktables.
Everyone wanted to touch the glass sheets that were grouped by color to make a rainbow of the room’s perimeter, but I stopped their inquisitive fingers mid-air and showed them the scar on my palm. Seventeen stitches.
I pointed out the tall kilns where vitreous paint was fired to permanency on glass—a specialty that eventually would become my own preferred focus.
On the tours, we watched artisans skillfully wrap glass pieces with metal cames and then solder it all together into a single panel of glass. And that was but one part of a whole window that would come together again upon reinstallation.
People marveled at the unique environment of the stained glass studio and how the techniques had barely changed in a thousand years. I heard, “This is amazing. You’re so lucky!” on every weekly tour.
Sometimes, Brigitte was at work behind the stained glass walls of her office, and people would strain to see the figure inside, powerful in stature but clearly a woman with the braids she always wore, along with her other constant, work boots. I only ever saw her bare feet once. Her toes spread wide on the floor, like tree roots.
If her door was open, people would peer in and be struck by her big, melting pot beauty—red Irish overlaid with Germanic blond. Some needed to interrupt, I came to observe, to make a bid for her attention.
They didn’t know they were going about it all wrong by commenting that she looked like a certain actress, a Valkyrie, or a Druid. Personal appearance was a superficiality. Her deep-ocean gaze would crash over them like a twelve-foot wave in the Irish Sea.
Seeing their apprehension would remind her she had a job to do here, though. She would put on a smile and say something brilliant, or deep, or complimentary, to make them fans of the studio for life.
I believe she only continued with all of it for as long as she did because of the glass. It was worthy of her attention in a way nothing else could be.
When I’ve tried to understand why the glass was everything, I come to its steadfastness, the way the iridescent whorls of color on her favorite pieces remained ever the same even while the world around her changed and changed again. Glass could last forever—if only you could protect its tensile weakness.
My early memory of Brigitte at the light table is indelible not just because the scene was beautiful, and it epitomized my childhood, but also because of what happened next.
I tried to shift her radiant gaze onto me, calling, “Mom?” I realized my error even before she began turning toward me. I wanted to look away and not see her visage shift from radiant to shadowed.
I didn’t want to know that not only was I not the object of her adoration, but something that came between her and that. I was a fly on the window, a shadow on the glass.
The scene repeated itself over the years until it was clear to me that I was an annoyance, a problem to be dealt with, maybe the biggest mistake of her life.
And later, I wondered whether her lack of affinity with me was prescient, or I had become a self-fulfilling prophecy when I became the catalyst for her early death. When during the reinstallation of a Tiffany window gone wrong, she and a panel of his Tree of Life crashed three stories to the sidewalk.
I had been trained to tell tour groups how prolific Tiffany studios had been, producing hundreds and hundreds of windows during the years 1878 to 1932. Then one day an art history scholar spoke up to say, “But one designer of stained glass produced even more: Frank Lloyd Wright.”
That evening, I asked Brigitte about it, and she made a face. “His windows are just part of the buildings. But—” she raised her glass so the red wine caught the light and glowed—“Wright’s estate is magical. We went there once, remember? Taliesin.”
The architect was never mentioned again until the day she died, when Taliesin was one of the last words she ever spoke.
Maybe that was why I agreed to go there, in the end. Even though when the call first came, I was aghast and thought someone was playing a devilish joke. Because what the woman on the other end of the line said was, “When I saw the news about your terrible accident, it made me realize what we need here. To have our Tree of Life window restored. The one by Frank Lloyd Wright.”