Research

No turning back now or then

I turned in a bullshit story for the first time in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, the facts were adequately checked, the research was done, but the story I turned in wasn’t about the real event. I turned in a biography of the wrong woman.

My final assignment for the semester was dished out, and I had a few ideas immediately – stereotypical Colonial-quaint ideas about Christmas and holly and spiced cider and mulled wine and cinnamon-spiked food that shares a flavor with every goddamn candle in every store.  Something sweet. Something sharp. Something fresh. The best things in life can be described in an edible fashion.

The idea that got my professor’s seal of approval was going to take much more time than my original three pitches – a profile piece about Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the first female architects in the country.  It wasn’t my first, second or third choice, but I started researching Theodate immediately.

Thanks to the wide-open, robust freedom of information online, I was able to track down one of the few biographers to ever tackle Theodate’s life story. She was a professor at the University of Hartford, not far from my parents’ house in Connecticut.

As luck would have it, the professor was giving a lecture on the biography she’d written about Theodate the following night. I had the ironic luck of being tied down in upstate New York for the next few days, so I did the only thing I could think of – called my dad, the history buff who works with architects for a living, to see if he wanted to go to this lecture and take some notes to aid my cause. Maybe it was cheating, but if I couldn’t make this lecture, I needed to dispatch some willing ears.

Now would be a good time to mention that, in spite of the peace I’ve made with my father since starting grad school, he and I have never really bonded. I never ask him for personal favors or get him involved in my work. He’s the guy who gave me a name and made a face at my paintings like he’d smelled the Limburger drawer for too long. We’ve been civil, but not involved.

The whole daddy’s-little-girl thing? Yeah. About that. No.

So, that being said, this was the first time my dad got a chance to help me with something I’d really sunken my teeth into. He and my mom both went to this professor’s lecture and recorded it so they could send me the video. They really went above and beyond the call of duty, hiking halfway across the state (which, even though it’s roughtly the size of Marthat Stewart’s honest streak, is still a bit of a haul) in the rain to record this lecture for their crazy, f$%&’d up journalista daughter. Like, major props to ma an’ pa.

At that point, my history-loving father became very open about his interest in my article. Fascinated by architecture (he is a structural engineer and an absolute genius with complex roof and stair designs) and always nose-deep in history books, he was exactly the audience I was looking to reach with this article. What I hadn’t realized, however, was that he’d done renovation work on some of Theodate Pope Riddle’s structures around Connecticut. He did work on the new dorm buildings at her most famous brainchild, the Avon Old Farms School.

It was so lucky I felt like I should pitch a different article to my professor, just to be fair. No journalist EVER gets connections that good by accident unless his name is Daniel Ellsberg. OK, that was an overstatement, but you can imagine my reaction to this information.

Being a proud type of man, my dad was more than happy to get me in touch with architects around the state who would be good sources for the article. I had a few weeks to piece it together, so I made a trip down to Connecticut to do some research and schedule some interviews. My dad had contact information in his back pocket that would have taken me weeks to dig up on my own, and took a day off from work to show me around Farmington, where most of Theodate’s buildings still stand.

After a key interview with architect Jack Kemper ( http://www.kemperarch.com UNDENIABLY BEAUTIFUL WORK), my dad took me aside and asked if I “was busy.”

This is dad-speak for “I’m going to be suave by taking you somewhere to do something that might be interesting somehow, and the fact that I refuse to give you details is suppose to be charming. Be grateful, be quiet, and get in the damn truck.”

I shrugged, anxious to start writing my article but appreciative of all the help my dad had given me so far. Playing along with him would mean the world to him; besides, I might get more useful material.

We went to the Avon Old Farms campus and he showed me around. I snapped pictures, distinctly aware of how I grew up watching him do exactly the same thing. The camera… I associate them with fatherly love. To this day, I love being photographed because it was the closest thing to approval I had from my dad when I was young.

He watched me take photos, took it all in.

When we were done poking around, he drove us through the hills of Farmington and Avon, showing me the houses he’s worked on. All of them looked like castles. The joker in me wanted to make a crack about him contributing to the Connecticut stereotype, but I kept quiet and let him talk, rambling on about the challenges and rewards that came with each design. He knew all the owners’ stories by heart.

My dad is old – a good ten years older than my peers’ parents – but his memory is perfect. He could tell you the formula he used on a Kemper house fifteen years ago. I listened.

He pulled off on a construction site at the top of one of Avon’s baby mountains; a mansion, still in the framing stage, stood like a skeletal prince facing west. He got out of the red Chevy pickup and beckoned me to follow. Knowing my dad’s adventure-seeking, often trespassing ways, I’d worn boots that could handle the mud of the site and put my feet in his footprints.

We climbed up the ladder-like stairs to the would-be attic of this mansion. Suddenly, my 64-year-old dad was roughtly nine years old. It was sunset and the wind was bitter with only the faintest trace of heat left on its fringe, but to him, this framework was a jungle gym.

My dad told me what all the rooms were going to be – master bedroom, childrens’ playroom, kitchen, et cetera. For a moment, I knew where I’d gotten my imagination. However different I may be, my imagination has a father.

The sun went down and we headed north, back up to worn-down tobacco country and away from the elegantly contrived estates of Farmington Valley. Over the course of the next few days, I pulled several all-nighters in order to type and edit my article about Theodate, polishing it enough to submit to Yankee Magazine, or any magazine that might take it. Since finishing the piece, I’ve moved on to others and pushed Theodate Pope Riddle from my mind.

She was very close with her father; they shared a love of Impressionist art that is still able to be seen at the Hill-Stead Museum, not far off of I-84 in Farmington. My dad loves Thomas Kinkade and I still argue that Rothko is a fucking visual orgasm. When I wrote the article, I was almost jealous of her. Almost.

Except, you see, because of that article – because of Theodate Pope Riddle – I got to see through my dad’s eyes for once.

I don’t really need a camera to feel like my father’s daughter, anymore.

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