The door that could not be ignored

“I bought the place because it had the door in the patio, the one I’ve painted so often.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of my favorite artists, and not just because I like her paintings. I admire her as a person. She lived in a time when women were expected to fulfill certain roles — as wives and mothers — and she charted her own path. She did marry, but she spent a good deal of time away from her husband, painting in her beloved New Mexico.

In the early 1930s, she discovered a house in remote Abiquiu, N.M., and was drawn to it because of its door. It took her more than ten years to buy the property from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, but she finally moved there in 1945. In the surrounding desert and mountains of New Mexico she painted some of her most famous landscapes.

My door

I like the image of the door that captivates. For me, there is a similar door, but it is a metaphorical one. It is a door that beckons me to pursue a story that must be told.

I opened that door three years ago when I began writing a memoir about my uncle, who had an intellectual disability. I didn’t know he existed until I was a teenager, and I didn’t meet him until I was in my 40’s.

He was a tiny man. I’m not sure how tall he was, because he was doubled over with scoliosis. But he weighed only 122 pounds. His head was misshapen because of microcephaly and his eyes were crossed. He could say only a few words — his favorite was “No!” — and he needed help with almost everything.

But he didn’t need help with friendship. He and I became buddies. We went for walks and drives and to get hamburgers. We sat next to each other on the porch and watched the cars go by. He had a profound impact on me and helped me find healing for some of my deepest personal wounds.

My father’s eyes

One of the most remarkable things about Uncle Melrose was that he had my father’s eyes. He and Dad were brothers, and when they were growing up in San Antonio, Dad took care of his younger sibling. The two of them didn’t really look much alike, but if you saw their eyes, you knew they were related.

I’ve never seen blue eyes like theirs in anyone else — they were like gleaming pale blue crystals. There was something honest and without pretense in them.

Originally, I intended to write Uncle Melrose’s biography. But there was so little information available about his life. Dad would never talk about him and most of his family had passed away. The state institution where he lived most of his life claimed his records no longer existed.

Eventually, it became clear that the story about Uncle Melrose was as much about me as it was about him. It has been hard to write this tale — it’s the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken. But it’s a door that beckoned me and would not let me walk away. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, I saw that door and knew I had to walk through it.