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The Art of Being Mother

 Here's the house my mother grew up in. It's on Mercer Street in Princeton, N.J. Albert Einstein lived next door!

Here's the house my mother grew up in. It's on Mercer Street in Princeton, N.J. Albert Einstein lived next door!

I am eight “c” words into my series of 10 for this blog. Each describes something that is going on in the $170 billion traditional building industry. So far I have covered conservation, compatibility, content, control, competition, capacity, certainty and choice. I’d like to insert an additional, 11th “c” word that wasn’t in my original lineup: “catharsis.”

My mother, Patricia Hicks McNitt, 1926-2012, died peacefully and painlessly on February 19. You may remember her walking the show floor at our Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference. Maybe you rode the bus with her on one of our architectural tours or sat next to her at our annual dinner honoring winners of the Palladio Awards. She was a regular at Restore Media’s events and always insisted on buying a yearly subscription to Clem Labine’s Period Homes magazine, even though I would have sent it to her for free.

She has a different name from mine because she married Admiral Robert W. McNitt in 1973, a union that took her to nearby Annapolis, Md., where she and my stepfather bought and restored a historic house, which I painted one summer years ago.

Her health had not been what she wanted it to be so she set off on what she called her “next adventure.” The official cause of death was pneumonia, but, knowing Mother, I think she just didn’t want to be a burden to anyone any longer. She was anything but that, ever cheerful and always eager to support me and my career in architecture, interior design and construction media. In fact, she indulged it.

For example, several years ago, when Restore Media acquired Old-House Journal magazine, my mother celebrated the occasion by making one of her famous scrapbooks, which she called “Peter Miller’s Old-House Journal.” In it, she pasted photographs of every old house our family had lived in from 1953 to 1973, including an early-1900s design created by Stanford White himself in Kalamazoo, Mich. Receiving that book from her was the first time in my career that I realized how honestly I came by my passion for historic architecture. 

Mother was good at helping me understand myself.

Whenever I asked my mother what she wanted for Christmas, she would answer, “Give me the gift of time.” So every year we would hit the road to look at architecture and art. These trips together included visits to Taliesin, Fallingwater, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, Longwood Gardens, Monticello and countless historic chapels and institutional buildings. Her enthusiasm for what we saw was contagious, and she would gleefully point out architectural detail with a professor’s aplomb.

When I was remodeling a Sears Four Square built in 1924, I asked my architect to design a new fireplace. He drew up a firebox with a gable roof and a circle of plywood in the gable’s peak. It looked like a headlight on a train, but I deferred to the architect and approved it. Later, my mother came to visit. She took one look at the design and said, “Oh, that’s sooo Postmodern! It will be out of date next year! You should take that headlight off!” When I told the architect, “Mother doesn’t approve,” he resisted, but only faintly, then removed it. He knew better than to argue with a grand dame of architectural correctness.

A few days after my mother died, I saw a cherry tree in full bloom. In the past, such an observation would have been the occasion for a phone call from her. “Can you believe it?” she would have exclaimed. “Cherry blossoms in February! Let’s take a picnic and go see!” That cherry tree brightened a gloomy day and reminded me that no matter how grave a situation, my mother was ever cheerful, always looking at the bright side of things. She saw the best in everyone and never complained. Sometimes this trait could be aggravating, I must admit. If I disparaged something or someone, she would invariably take the other side and remind me to see things from that point of view. She could be contrarian in this, like a cherry blossom in February.

My sisters and I have been sorting through Mother’s belongings, dividing up the family heirlooms. As you can imagine, this has brought back many memories, too many to share here. We struck gold when we emptied our mother’s file of paintings, drawings and prints, art she created while a 70-year-old student working on her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Maryland 15 years ago. There are block prints and nude drawings, colored paper collages and abstract acrylics. I knew she was talented but had no idea how prolific she was.

Besides her family and architecture, her passion was art. In recent years, however, her eyes had gone bad so she could not read, write, paint, draw or even revel in the colorful glory of her garden. It’s a cruel irony when an artist cannot see. But she was never blind when one of her loved ones walked in the room. She would light up like the sunrise in her painting and make you feel as though you were her work of art. Thankfully, we all are.

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