Susanna Salk



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Home Fires
Saturday, December 16th, 2017

When I heard about the Ojai fires I felt a particular sense of despair. Could these fires be impacting Patina Farm, a real life paradise created by Brooke and Steve Giannetti which @quintessence and I were lucky enough to visit last year? On that magical day, Brooke came out in jeans to greet us with her beloved Shih Tzus, hundreds of pale roses blooming around her. The home the Giannettis had created from scratch was as much stylish oasis as working modern farm as envisioned by a designer architect duo who happened to be married. Goats frolicked in a space nestled alongside Brooke’s serene home office, a resplendent chicken coop felt like a dinner party you wanted to join and Sicilian donkeys roamed the property with Zen like purpose. Lush garden vegetables practically pushed themselves into your hand as you walked past. Post shoot, I swung on their swing from the branch of a giant tree and soaring through the warm air, I saw a linen chair perched outside the master bedroom facing the hills: a gentle wind scattered rose petals down around it. And now Brooke’s Instagram showed those same hills licked with hungry frames. I was aghast at Patina Farm’s sudden fragility: surely the devotion and determination gone into creating it could stop the fury of this fire? But there were pictures of the animals being evacuated and Brooke and Steve leaving with no more than hope that when they returned Patina Farm would still be there. I went to bed in Connecticut wishing my snow fall could blanket those fiery hills. A few days later Brooke was hosting a live feed from her backyard. Fires were still burning and ash was omnipresent but Patina Farm was still standing. Relief was pouring in from all over the world in a steady steam of comments. It was a privelege to be able to be in the nerve center along side her even if it was only through phone screens. Brooke’s appreciative voice was still uncertain. Technology could connect all of our prayers for her in live time but all we could do was watch the fires burn together and collectively wonder. But Brooke made us feel like that was enough. Paradise doesn’t exist after all, unless it is shared.

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

At Thanksgiving we went around the table and shared a favorite memory of a grandparent. I knew that I wanted to share a story about my mother’s late mother, Anne Weld. Her unique style and confidence were dazzling to me but never intimidating, even though I was very much an awkward duckling to her swan-like being. She never wore makeup but was always the most beautiful woman in the room. She crossed her legs with the confidence of a general and drank a cocktail with the grace of Garbo. My love for baths, dogs and gardens comes directly from her DNA. One time I told her about a bad boss and she merely said with a sweep of her hand: “What an utter jerk,” and I never let the idea of him bother me again. When I was a child, I picked out the ugliest glasses I knew in hopes I’d convince people I wouldn’t have to wear them. She arrived at my door the following week to pick me up to go shopping, wearing the same pair. “Aren’t they fabulous?!” she said as we climbed into her Peugeot. To this day I don’t know whether she was just being kind or whether she really believed that they were fabulous but it doesn’t matter. But last week I shared the story – even though it was just a moment- about a dinner party at our house when I was thirteen. I had just gotten the new Vogue and I wanted more than anything to share my impressions of its exotic pages with her. Children were not part of the evening festivities but I wormed my way into the noisy, smoky dining room and stood next to her in my pajamas. She stopped immediately listening to her dinner partner and made room for me. We then turned the pages together as if the world had stopped. Relaying the memory last week, I burst into unexpected, persistent tears. My beloved young nieces put protective arms around me like doves’ wings. I didn’t leave their sides for the rest of the night. May we all realize who needs us to witness their days and may we remember to share ourselves with those who may look up to us. May we convince them they matter. The small moments bloom inside us over and over even when we don’t know the seed has been planted until much later.

Fresh Old Eyes
Sunday, November 26th, 2017

They say you should view old things with fresh eyes but how about new things with fresh eyes? Today I had the honor of a visit from an enchanting eight year old girl whom I met by happenstance a few months ago at our neighborhood hair salon. Within seconds we established that she loved dogs and design and dahlias and so we immediately set up a play date through her mother. She arrived today and we perused every item around the new house. She spotted a bouquet of flowers in an an old oil painting I had just bought and hadn’t taken the time to really peruse so quick I was to hang it. She ran her finger along the carved wood figures of a vintage mirror and I told her what Chinoiserie was and said that was “exactly my taste.” Old things new in my house were new yet again and I finally felt sure of their placement under her enthusiasm. She held a gingerbread cookie in one pink mittened hand and pointed out a parrot with delight on a pillow with another. She asked if a crocodile resided in our pond and I teased her that was impossible. Then outside, I told her to suddenly stop inside the crux of a trees’ majestic branch shadows to snap a picture. Suddenly I turned the camera sideways and it appeared as though she was between the jaws of a giant creature. I went to show her hoping she’d see what I saw. Before I could explain she smiled and said: “There’s your crocodile.” Of course it was there all along.

Sweet Dreams
Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Picture a nothing room, the only redeeming feature being a window facing a beautiful country lawn. A space so small there was no closet and only room for a twin bed. My husband wanted to turn it into a closet but my 17-year-old son fervently claimed it for his new bedroom and immediately sent me a picture he found on Instagram of how he envisioned its transformation if I was game. Straight from the Swinging Sixties, an amorous couple luxuriously lounges on a day bed of red velvet a curious screen tilted above their heads. He then texted a sketch: the room would be a continuous structure built along the wall: a queen bed in the middle and window seats on either side of it. A computer screen would be hung on the opposite wall. I sent it to our incredible carpenter Carloman who understands all the possibilities of wood and design. He suggested adding lots drawers for storage below. I ordered a custom mattress pad and my son and I agreed that blue velvet would be more suitable for our Connecticut house. The drawers would be painted in the same glossy gray as the kitchen cabinets with brass handles. I needed three people to help me load the enormous upholstered pad into the back of our pick up truck. I incurred many stares driving the dusty pick up truck home, the blue velvet bobbing alluring in the back. I felt protective of it and couldn’t wait to get home and finally place it down onto the structure that Carloman had so carefully crafted. I had added an Italian light fixture above as a bid to the vintage mood my son loved. An oil painting we had found at Goodwill last year of the Italian riveria for $25 was suddenly moved home from the dorm room. At Thanksgiving he will finally sleep there and understand how amazing design can be when it involves so many artisans and inspirations along the way. Sweet dreams indeed.

Friday, October 20th, 2017

When a detour took me down a road I have not traveled in a number of years, I passed a driveway to a property my husband and I had seriously considered pulling up roots nearby to renovate and live in “forever.” Our children were young and we were exhausted and busy and we did love our current house and yet… One drive up its seemingly endless stretch of driveway bordered by hundred-year-old trees and we were thrown into the fever pitch of possibilities of what if…as we researched and met with contractors and architects we discovered that the Rolling Stones had rented it one summer to rehearse there and my best friend’s mother‘s boyfriend had also rented it and she remembered smooching in front of its grand fireplace which also enamored me. And yet…the numbers just didn’t add up and the what ifs could never satisfactorily be answered. So we walked away. Driving by today was not unlike passing an old lover on the street: the memories flare but the reminder of why it didn’t work ultimately burns brighter. This house which once fervently occupied our daytime and nighttime dreams ultimately was forgotten. We did end up moving only 5 miles away to the lake which we love and in fact are renovating a new place which is maximizing our emotional bandwidth. We have moved on as one does. Still I drove up the endless driveway eager to see if the house had stayed more less in the same shabby chic state it had been when we had known it. Workers were planting bushes by the entrance and a snappy SUV was parked in the driveway. The house looked the same just slightly spiffier. The exterior have been painted a rather gloomy beige as if to tame the funky architecture that had once so intrigued and ultimately proved too challenging. I wondered if what really had enthralled me was the dazzling approach: my grandparents had lived at the end of a luxuriously long driveway near the ocean and the sense of drama every time I visited never got old. How clear everything seemed in hindsight. Or did it? One of workers looked up and waved. I waved back as though I had lived there all along and was just running out and would soon be home.

Curb Appeal
Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Local legend refers to him as Cadillac Joe even though he was always spotted driving a Lincoln. For decades it was said that this former demolition man drove every Sunday to visit and complete the road side folly he had erected stone by stone single handedly over the course of decades. It looked like a drip sand castle Scarlet O Hara would have constructed as a child…if Salvador Dali had been her father. You can Google “abandoned stone house in Woodbury, Connecticut” and many posts pop up, often by fascinated people determined to understand the houses’s story by detective work or through taking their own photos or even videos. The best part about reading these posts is the enthusiastic chain of comments that always follows by equally obsessed people. One woman named Chrissy said that she had snuck onto the property and taken pictures, reveling in its beauty. An anonymous comment immediately followed, warning: “I am watching you, Chrissy.” Was it Cadillac Joe? Or some creepy individual, enjoying the game of speculation? The house seemed to have a magnetic pull both on people who had made pilgrimages from towns far away to see it, to people who passed it on a regular basis. In a world where curb side appeal is measured in tidy window boxes, plush lawns , its intrigue seemed to lay in its unapologetic state of constant construction and deconstruction. Staring at it is like the Esher drawing of the stairway that never goes anywhere yet your eye longs to follow its infinite path just the same. Now that my son was back in school, I passed by today after several months away and suddenly noticed a For Sale sign tacked on its exterior. For Sale signs and houses usually have a codependent relationship but here the pairing felt completely inappropriate and I wanted to rip it down. How could something from the real world have anything to do with something that was obviously so far beyond maps, monetary transactions, and logic? Had Cadillac Joe gone and died or had he finally given up?
Of all the comments online I could find only one person had ever met Cadillac Joe. She had wanted to take pictures of her daughter’s ballet troupe in front of the house for professional purposes. He had happened to be there and although had denied her the picture, gave her a tour. She described him as eccentric but kind. And then there was me.
Five years ago my older son had been scouting for a backdrop to a key scene in his student film and knew he wanted to shoot there, having passed it countless of times on his way to childhood play dates. The house had always seemed deserted whenever we drove by and he’d only need a few minutes to capture his actor walkig by its exterior. On the day of the shoot a light snow was falling which made the bare winter afternoon feel even more cinematic. As we drove up to the house we saw a car pulled over in front: a wisp of smoke was curling out of one of the three stone chimneys that looked like something out of a Grimms fairytale.
As my son and crew expressed frustration I told them to wait in the car and I walked inside. A man in his late 70s was hunched over a small fire in a giant stone fireplace, feeding it sticks in a repetitive, rather than contemplative manner. Stacks and stacks of newspapers crowded around him in the rubble. The top of my head felt wet and I looked up and could see the darkening sky creamy with snow, as at home here as the fire. I said hello and asked permission to quickly shoot outside his property.
When he saw they were just teenagers he nodded and offered the interior as well. As the boys scrambled out of the car I remained by his side and listened to whatever he wanted to tell me. He had built this place for his late girlfriend who died of cancer and he intended on finishing it. “I’m finishing up that stone terrace over there and inside will be a garden.” I looked over to where he gestured and all I could see were more stacks of newspapers, stones and weeds. In the next room giant shadows lay like sleeping house cats. “Are those cars? ” I asked, almost more to myself in amazement than as a question to him. He had once collected cars and watches.
He then inquired if I knew a place where he could sell his watches and I was foolish enough to suggest an online web site. He nodded blankly and I felt a strong sense of powerlessness surge through me.
I don’t know if the house will ever sell and if it does whether it become monument or a McMansion. All I know is up until today every time I drove by it, I still looked to see if the terraced garden had been finished.

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

For years I’ve had pipe dreams about taking over the abandoned boat house near our dock and turning it into an office. I approached the owner and it was soon clear his agreeing to meet was just politesse on his part. Eight years have gone by and for some reason I finally peddled my hydra bike over tonight and entered via the water entrance with a certainty as if I was visiting a dear friend waiting upstairs. Inside lay two beautiful but cobwebbed wooden canoes. I marveled at the patience of abandoned objects that exist only to give us pleasure. Eventually there was nothing else to do but back pedal out and go home. Time does interesting things to our wish lists: it unexpectedly bumps up things from the bottom to the top and things at the top soon become as amorphous as reflections of the hills in the lake water itself. Their magnificent colors- especially this time of year- are magnified yet dissipate as soon as we pass over them with a current of our own creating. I also got to thinking how working in such a splendid spot might change my work and written word. Perhaps for the better but also perhaps for the worst. Delivering our dreams to ourselves does set the bar higher. I’m looking at the boathouse now as I write this from my own dock. I feel lucky to have it in my view. Somehow just knowing those two canoes are there, is enough.

Baby Steps
Saturday, September 9th, 2017

En route today to a memorial service in Brooklyn Heights, I went out of my way to visit the Cobble Hill brownstone where I made my first grown up home post college with my now husband. We had the whole ground floor which seemed palatial. We strung chili pepper lights around the kitchen and always kept them on. Large bay windows overlooked a back garden which we couldn’t use but we didn’t care: the view was enough. We shopped for fresh spices on Atlantic Avenue, we entertained the same friends with wine and fish we used to share keg parties and pretzels with; we bought a giant Christmas tree that showed off our tall ceilings and commitment to mark seasons together. Today when I got off the subway after several decades, I moved across the familiar streets with the certainty I used to possess coming back from my first magazine job in Manhattan, when alI I worried about was a cranky boss and what time our landlords- who lived above us- would allow their newly-walking toddler to practicing running noisily above our heads. The neighborhood looked surprisingly the same: charming and cozy and flush with families. I faced our old facade as one does a familiar but forgotten friend at a wedding. First from across the street, as I needed some emotional distance. Then I crossed over and stood near the front steps. I once scooped up my mail here and barreled inside. I was not yet a wife or a mother or even a home owner. In fact I was as separate from my future life in Los Angeles and Connecticut and as a young mother to two boys as I sometimes feel now. I felt the undertow of the past suddenly try to pull me under so I did what I often do to steady myself: I took a picture. Then I noticed them: a pair of tiny red sneakers were on the first step. It was only back at my current home going through the images from today that I realized I had also captured my tiny shadow on the side: whether a symbol of my inclusion in the past or my recession from it, I am still not sure. One thing is for certain, that child once toddling above our heads, is now grown and gone and another has taken its place.

Collective Children
Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

After dropping off my oldest son at JFK for his post-college life in LA, I am now packing my younger son for his last year at boarding school. In the basement, I couldn’t help open my box of letters and mementos tempting on the shelf next to where his dorm bedding has been all summer laying wait. It’s so easy to save relics from our past but far harder to revisit them this time of year when change seems to resonate for so many of us in different ways, especially for parents dropping off children for the first or last time at school. Three things were at the top of the box: funnily, a picture of Dwight and Holly Dando and me in London for those of you who read my story about that wonderful summer spent working for him in Martha’s Vineyard during college, can now can put a face to his storied self. Also a letter home during the first days of my freshman year at boarding school: I beg my parents not to come home, but rather to please save every copy of Vogue for my weekend return. Then I slip in that I’ve just had a friend put a second piercing in my ear but that it was good she did it because it saved spending money. Finally a copy of my eighth grade play Anne Frank. I was lucky to play Anne but far too young and myopic to even begin to grasp the irony of how her teen life was wrenched away just as mine was beginning. Tomorrow I’ll drop my son off at school and then the next day our wonderful exchange student from Sweden we’ve been hosting will begin his year at Taft. Soon my house will be empty the way his parents’ home has been for the past three weeks. I think of his mother’s email to me thanking me for taking him, her deep sadness at his departure only made easier by his known eventual return. I think how we’re all lending our children back and forth to each other over and over. It’s a boundless and boundary-less trust. I’ve never met his mother but I already feel like I’ve known her all my life.

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

You would not have wanted me to clean your house or make your meals when I was a junior in college but I did just that at the summer house of a man named Dwight. There I learned everything I ever needed to know about hospitality As I soon as I pulled up to the imposing house overlooking Edgartown harbor with a red MG convertible parked in the white graveled driveway for the interview, I turned around: I was no more qualified to work here than orbit the moon. But Dwight then appeared-wearing a bathing suit and a Tina Turner World Tour t shirt – beckoning me inside. Dwight’s sailboat was called Incorrigible and he loved how girlfriends would often call him that without knowing the name of the boat. My job was to feed and quench the thirst of the dozens of people who pulled up to the house either by boat, car or bike, day and night. “All I care about is that you are game and know how to use this…” and he gestured to an enormous wine opener bolted to the wall with hundreds of corks collected in a glass bottle beneath. My best friend Holly who was painting houses a couple blocks away would come over in the afternoons in an old hearse her friend was using as his summer wheels and Dwight poured us all shots of Aquavit and listened and laughed at our childhood stories like he was at the theater. Artists, bankers, scurvy sailors, and a countess or two were all welcome at Dwight’s table. He was in his late 40s but he had a childish spirit that was both nurturing and immature exactly at the right times. I would often find him sacked out on one of the many hammocks along the white porch after a flurry of lunch guests had departed. I’d look out onto the harbor and a yacht would be headed our way as if drawn to a magnet. Sensing it in his sleep, Dwight would jovially cry out “Incoming!” and another crazy cycle began. On my last day before I had to return to college, a storm suddenly felled the electricity. “Ever cooked swordfish for 50 in a fireplace?” he said. It was dark but I could see his grin like a lighthouse beam. I never answered. After all, my knowledge had never been the point.