Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Barnaby Conrad March 29, 1922--February 12, 2013

Being in the living room of Barnaby and Mary Conrad's home gives you the sense of being inside a Faberge egg.  Over the years and your times of being there, you acquire some sense of the dozens of items, drawings and paintings from their honeymoon in Paris, a set of Modern Library  classics he was given for being a guest on some radio show, small and large carvings from blocks of sugar pine, photographs of persons and events so eclectic that even Aristotle would not have been able to classify them, Mary's needlepoint made into pillows, real things looking exaggerated and magic, magical things looking preternaturally real.

More often than not, the only times you remained in this room, other to be taken in by Conrad to be shown something relative to a conversation, was on Christmas days, where you balance a plate of turkey, stuffing, and occasional specialty dishes brought by one or more of the guests.  Your own plate was light on everything but a mound of green peas, mashed potatoes, and Mary's gravy, brought along over the months leading up to Christmas, a blending of stock and some giblets, and a great deal of what you once heard Mary's cousin, Julia Child, refer to as "pure cookery."

In that room, you were surrounded by children and grandchildren from Barnaby's and Mary's first marriages, then, later, from their one daughter, Kendall.  Carmen, herself an eclectic mix of maid, cook, and housekeeper, would appear with the gravy boat and a large salver of the greenest peas you could ever wish to experience.

Christmas seemed to be the only time cold enough to dictate indoor living, although there were in fact Christmas dinners when you were out on the deck, where the traffic flow seemed to have some agenda toward socializing or roaming out to the beach, for walking off the intake of food. The deck was also the place to reminisce with Conrad and Sandy Vanocer, sometimes with Stewart Granger, who always seemed to need Conrad to listen to him figure out why some new romance had not worked.

One Summer, when the Marine Layer brought excessive cold, you balanced on your lap a large, bright bowl filled with Mary's gazpacho, amused by the irony of taking its pungent tang in the living room instead of the outer deck.

These past few weeks, there has been another event in the living room.  Instead of lunching with Conrad at the Villa Real Market or the Taco Grande in Carpinteria or the Pharmacy Lunch Room in the upper Montecito Village, you visit him as he resides in the Hospice hospital bed, installed there so he can face out toward the slough and catch the afternoon and evening sunlight.  Earlier, there was a television set, turned to capture the news, its sound turned off, the figures seeming to report activities that were too mundane and manufactured for this room of wind-up toys and old memories, and the residue from the years of lightning-in-a-bottle flashes of wit and nostalgia.

At whose order or suggestion or initiative, the tv set was moved aside.  Conrad had clearly begun to retreat from its constant need to be relevant, to be in some kind of motion.  Sentences grew shorter.  The ambiance of the room seemed to move off the walls, out of the paintings of Mary as a young woman, of Conrad's bullfighter friends, of the flotsam of a life of creative reach and the savoring of inquiry.  

You like to think of him savoring those long, bed-bound hours by revisiting conversations had in this room, relishing the connective tissue of the dozens of items in it, reminders--sometimes photos or drawings--of friends.

Once, when you were in a hospital, he came to visit you for a few moments.  "I had to see with my own eyes that you would recover,"  he told you, then was gone.  Later, he spoke of friends who had not managed to get out of the hospital, of the bullfighter, Carlos Arruza and his longtime chum, Herb Caen.  "Hospitals are not comfortable places to be,"  he said.  "I am never comfortable in a hospital."  At the time, he was drinking an iced tea out of a tall glass, which he pressed against his forehead for a long moment.

This living room was a good place for him, a place, you like to think, where if he closed his eyes, he could hear the hum and chatter of conversation in counterpoint to the tinkle of ice cubes.

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