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The Lamp Was a Clue to a Life I Didn’t Know My Mother Had

  • September 15, 2020

I asked if he remembered her being elated.

“I do,” he said. “But also it was a project with a lot of problems. Stress. Deadlines. It was a design challenge, but also a business challenge. She had to get the project done. These things had to be manufactured.”

She traveled to San Juan twice, the second time to supervise the installation. Among the attic discoveries was a Caribe Hilton postcard that she sent to her in-laws in Cleveland in January 1963. “Here on business — working like mad but enjoying the warm weather,” she wrote, signing it “Lonesome Helen.”

The casino project was a triumph, but there were setbacks. While she was working on it, or shortly after, my father lost his job as the editor of an advertising media guide when the publisher folded. With her encouragement, he enrolled full time at Columbia University to finish his bachelor’s degree while she supported them. They downsized, trading their one-bedroom apartment at Bleecker and West 10th Streets for a studio in the same building.

My mother was also — unsurprisingly, for a young working woman in the early 1960s — a victim of workplace sexual harassment. One of her colleagues, an engineer, had a habit of getting in her personal space and saying inappropriate things, my father told me. There was no human resources department to deal with such things, which were more or less accepted then, so she was left to manage them on her own.

By 1965, my father had his degree and had been accepted into the Foreign Service. And just like that, my mother’s career in lighting design was over. They moved to Martinique, and then to Paris, where they hung the Caribe Hilton fixture in the dining room of their apartment overlooking the Seine. It was packed away before I was born, and shifted in and out of storage as we moved from Virginia to Brussels and back, then again to Paris before we came home.

My mother returned to work for a few years in the 1970s, taking a job with a company that planned office space. And she found various creative outlets, learning to silk-screen as part of an artists’ collaborative in Marblehead, Mass., in 1969 and 1970, while my father was pursuing a master’s degree at M.I.T. (Her handmade Christmas cards from that time survive, as do three silk-screened op-art shadow boxes.) Mostly, though, she threw herself into her role as a mother and, later, the spouse of a United States ambassador.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/realestate/interior-design-lamps.html

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