71. A little girl among the mansions: Clare of Belle Meade neighborhood Nashville.

November 2019: Clare left me a card today. In it was a photograph of her son Ben’s dog and the dog’s friend, the cat that recently died. Clare was always amazed by their connection, she knew it amazed me too.

It feels like a picture of Nashville. A city where friendships are true and deep. I came here on an assignment but Nashville has made me into a friend.

From the Journal: 25 October 2018

Drinks with Clare last night at Seema’s restaurant, Miel. Took her the gift of the woven socks the shepherd’s wife gave me in Upper Omalo on the border of Chechnya and Republic of Georgia. Also took Seema the prayer bracelet I bought as a remembrance of the shepherds—Muslim and Christian wear the prayer bracelet in the Caucasus.

Clare wanted to hear the stories of course. And I was happy to recount my most recent adventure. But I was anxious to hear about her and Nashville and moved on from my stories to hers as quickly as I could.

Again it is her father and his life and opinions that emerge in her stories, especially the opinions she believes he had of her. His memory looms large in her even as she approaches her 90th birthday. “Father could have been anything,” she said. “He had opportunities. He lived in Washington for a while.” But circumstances brought him back to Nashville.

Her father’s father built the apartment building in Belle Meade across the street from the Belle Meade Country Club. As far as I can follow, Clare’s grandfather died after building it, just before The Great Depression. “The family lived in a house on the West End then. But they either didn’t want to keep up the house, or couldn’t,” Clare said. “They moved in to the apartment building… Then the Great Depression… Daddy moved in with mother…. He was in his early twenties.”

A picture emerges. A young man of intelligence and means. Brought home. What life he could have made, what power perhaps or glory, Clare wonders out loud. But it wasn’t to be, she said. Life asks things of us that we are obligated to give. 

She said her father would… well… she was being self-deprecating again. “We girls woke when we wanted. Daddy couldn’t say a thing.” Implying she had no drive or ambition. Saying she slept in and did whatever she liked. She said her father would ask her, “What are you deep thinkers thinking today?” 

Misunderstanding I asked, “So, he thought of you as a deep thinker?” 

“Well, no!” Clare exclaimed. “Not at all.” She laughed.

The picture expands. Clare’s view of herself as whimsical, lacking in ambition and vision, not like the towering men of her personal history. Even now approaching 90, she is still a little girl, still admiring the medals worn by the ones who surround her and choosing not to see all the medals people would like to pin on her. The public thinks quite differently of Clare than she seems to think of herself. So do I. It is easy for us to see her as she really is—regal, an influence on people’s behavior and attitudes. But Clare humbly sees her life through a different prism, this prism of great people surrounding her.

As conversations will go, it isn’t an autobiography that emerges as much as it is a potpourri of remembrances, retrospective judgements, and current events in light of past learnings—these are what come through when you dine with a friend. We drift in and out of exchanges: The horror of the violence of the shepherds and dogs I have just spoken about has Clare wondering about current events: “How does someone torture and kill another person like the Saudi’s did that reporter?” She asked.

But still a picture of Clare the Nashville woman pieces itself together and it is lovely and interesting. And I wonder what it teaches me about Nashville and about America—not just in the past but presently. What does Clare teach us about the values of a place?

I asked about the apartment building. Why was it built? It seems strange even now—an apartment building in a neighborhood of mansions—and directly across from the country club. Was it built for workers? 

I still don’t know what it’s purpose was. But now I know something of what happened there.

“As soon as it was built, the Depression…” Clare said, “All these families had nowhere to go so they all moved in to the apartments. The Ingrams…” and she listed a string of prominent Nashville families.

Clare described the families coming with their workers. “She had five maids!” She said of one family. She described how the cramped quarters of apartment living didn’t change the social society. “Every night they would socialize like they were back in their houses. They would wear their dresses and dinner jackets and crowd into an apartment.” Each night a different host in a different apartment.

What was that time like, with people of privilege crowding together in an apartment building? People of means. Deep bonds are formed in times of need.

Our conversation bounced from the past to the present along the theme of dogs, strangely enough.

So we talked about dogs. She described her son Ben’s “old” Labrador who Ben brings to her house on walks around the country club and leaves at her place after the walks. “She comes and has two golf balls hidden in her mouth. When she leaves I will find one in a corner here, there. She just comes in and plops down like a queen and doesn’t move.”

She spoke affectionately of the dog. She described the dog when it is at Ben’s home, saying they have a cat and the cat—an unfriendly beast—curls up and sleeps inside “the curve of the sleeping dog.” She described the scene with a sense of wonder. “Have you ever seen a cat do such a thing?!”

As she described the behavior of the dog, and the dog and the cat, I found myself choosing silent agreement rather than sharing a cascade of thoughts pouring into my mind. For indeed I have witnessed this behavior between beasts. It is the behavior of belonging. And it seems beasts do this easier than we humans sometimes do. Need brings beasts together. They form unbelievable alliances. Need has brought me close to the shepherd dogs, and perhaps it has been their need that has brought them close to me. It seems need has also brought people close to Clare, whether she sees it this way or not. The apartment building is like a picture of cats curling up with canines. People of influence who have lived behind walls now suddenly vulnerable and together–holding each other up, even if through dinner parties.

But I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of her stories with my philosophy. I was learning so much more about her. And about Nashville.

She said they were not allowed to have dogs in the apartments. But dogs came when all the families crowded together back in that time, and “we had a dog too.” And she painted a picture of a young girl playing in a sand pile beside the house where she now resides, what was then the carriage house to the apartment building that was built among the mansions–a girl among the mansions.

I don’t know why but I was surprised to learn she likes dogs. Clare is mannequin-perfect in her dress and demeanor. Her poise is perfect and she seems smart about limiting anything that can disturb her equilibrium. But then when I really consider her, she is actually quite adventurous and even a bit mischievous—sort of the traits of a dog lover in my thinking.

The conversation bounced around and we arrived at The Swan Ball. I told her I definitely want to attend this year, knowing what I know (the secret that she will be honored this year). She said, “You want to come?!” I said of course I do! “Well, then you are coming! I will tell them.” I said I had better get a nice suit. She quickly responded, “No, honey. A tux.” And she frowned as if my lack of understanding of society norms was a wall between us that can’t be climbed, maybe a wall she had momentarily forgotten about. But then she lightened quickly, as if she is now modern enough to accept differently, or just not care what others might think any longer, even her own self.

And she moved the conversation to fashion, lamenting that “No one wears clothes anymore.” And somehow in a poetic swirl of ideas and remembrance she took me back to 1967 and LIFE Magazine coming to cover that year’s Swan Ball and how the story was in the end not published because “That war—The Six Day War” happened and the story was shelved, permanently. “We arranged everything for them. The meals, the bed and breakfasts. They were a lot of fun to be with. Afterward they sent us the photos. I have given almost all of them away over the years.” 

And talking of the Swan Ball she randomly asked me about jet lag, confessing travel has always been difficult for her and she is faced with a decision—do I have an opinion to offer her? Her son went and organized a week in Italy for the entire family but didn’t consult her schedule. And it is the same week as next summer’s Swan Ball. “I just don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can handle traveling there and back in a week.” And somehow this led to remembrances of travel and Europe and we arrived again at the place where she and I first began, the story of the room in Bordeaux, France, the first story of her life she ever shared with me.

“I wish we had camera phones back then. I would like to have had my own photos of that room. It wasn’t like our rooms. We buy curtains and throw them away and replace them with new ones. That room never changed. They covered the furniture with cloths to protect the furniture from fading in sunlight. The curtains, everything was always the same.”

Then she told the story again of the room and the family and their relationship over the years. Adding new details of her father meeting the winery owner on the train to Bordeaux during his Army leave during… it just occurred to me, what must have been world war one, not two!—and the room that they made his room that they insisted he use for the duration of his leaves during the war. He was eighteen, a young American soldier scooped up by a concerned father who felt Bordeaux was no place for a respectable young man to go wandering during that time, so the family took him in and cared for him. And when Clare was eighteen she went and spent a summer in that same room! And when her son Hunter was eighteen he went for a summer too! 

This is the magic. This is the magic of lingering in your own story. When you linger, when you come back to people, when you are allowed the time to just watch and listen and be present, stories enlarge themselves–each time they are told. And relationships always lead to the retelling of stories. And with each retelling new impressions emerge, and new details. The story builds itself. And it becomes real, alive, breathing. The city Nashville ceases to be its own caricature and comes alive as people come alive.

I said to Clare, “No, I am glad you didn’t have cameras. Too often I fear I only remember a photograph I have made rather than allowing my memory to return to the place and the real experience.” I told her I think her memories give the world a far richer picture, for her memories are a living thing she goes into to describe for us. I said I was glad because I am able to go back to that place with her in her memory. 

“Yes,” she said. “But a photograph lets you see what was, exactly as it was.”

And now she is interested again in seeing the room in Bordeaux, an idea she had seemed to grow cold on. She said she will call her friend Martin Brown this week to try to reconnect with the family and see if maybe they will send her a new photo of the room. Or maybe we can go together to France to see it.

And I said, “New photo? Let’s go make the photo!” 

Clare at 91 in downtown Nashville.

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