I first heard about Asheville when my good friend Stephen suggested I move there. At the time, I was in the midst of plotting my escape from big city life.
“What’s Asheville?” I recall asking him.
“It’s a small town – artsy and progressive, and in the mountains,” he responded simply.
He knew my hot buttons. Those words had instant, visceral appeal. Something emotional clicked deep within me, but at the time I didn’t dwell upon it.
Instead, I took immediate action, ringing up my mum to suggest an adventurous long weekend in the mountains. Being my mum, she immediately agreed, and a few weeks later, we packed up the car for a roadtrip to Western North Carolina.
We were about an hour away when she commented, “You know, your sister wanted to move to Asheville.”
No, I didn’t know that.
My older (and only) sister, Karen, had died five years earlier. We had chosen this particular weekend for our trip to acknowledge what would have been her birthday, October 28th.
The Blue Ridge Mountains would be a lovely place to spend time with our memories of her, we thought.
“Yes, that was her plan,” my mother said. And left it at that, leaving me deep in thought as I continued driving west.
Although her name was Karen, the family called my sister”Skoo,” almost from birth. (Nobody’s quite sure how that happened; it didn’t really mean anything or have any particular significance – although when she was a teenager, she did find out at a party in Copenhagen that it’s a mild swear word in Danish.)
Skoo was my big sister. She was my counselor, my mentor, my friend, and my best critic. At times, she was my other self – the older, wiser, more confident, more artistic me I dreamed of being. We were ten years apart, but crafted from the same genetic pool and bound together through the shared cultural experiences of a common, and uncommon, upbringing.
It was a mutually satisfying relationship. I looked up to her and she looked out for me.
All my life, she had been my teacher. She was always there before me, guiding me, giving advice, suggestions, ideas – all of which were cleverly hidden in the guise of telling me what to do. From boyfriends, to clothes, to makeup, hairstyles, potential husbands, and, of course, anything to do with how I set up my home, she always had an opinion. In fact, I can’t really remember anything she didn’t have an opinion about.
Ours was a joyous rivalry. Our constant taunts to each other – the competition in differing fields of creative endeavors, but always – despite the ten years and the peripatetic ways of our family lifestyle – we always found batches of time to spend together.
In 1964, our family moved from a fifty-acre tree farm in rural New Jersey to the heart of London. And London in the 60s was magic –
Mary Quant & miniskirts, Carnaby Street, the mods & rockers, the Beatles & the Rolling Stones – and my sister took full advantage of it.
Once, when I was just eight or nine years old, she and I were walking along a street in Chelsea when a car full of young guys drove by. They leaned out of the window, whistling their appreciation.
Honeybunch, she said to me, laughing, they’re looking at you!
For a hopeful minute, I was excited. Me?!
And then, as the car passed by, I realized that of course they were admiring my sister. I think that’s when I first realized how beautiful she was.
Skoo left London (and me) to go to Pratt Institute in New York City to pursue her interest and talent in design. Before leaving, and perhaps as consolation to a sad little sister, she came up with the idea that we would exchange letters using fake names.
We chose Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, our favorite comedians at the time. Not only but also. I was genuinely surprised when the first airletter arrived from New York addressed to Ms Dudley Fellows, and my mother without hesitation gave it to me. “Pete” was a better correspondent than I, writing to me often about art school, fashion, and boys.
In the late 60s, while she was still living in New York, Skoo invited me to spend a week with her. She took me to Greenwich Village to see the artists, and to Central Park. We shopped at her neighborhood grocery stands and she took me out to restaurants. Being a very practical older sister, she also taught me to clean her “loo” (her idea of rent for the visit.)
In between my high school years, we lived together one summer at mom’s beach house on Long Beach Island. Skoo took her responsibilities (me) very seriously and monitored any possibility I had of a social life quite fiercely. She taught me how to make macaroni & cheese (from a box) and we started what would become a decades-long ritual – hand-me-down fashion shows, both of us collapsing in laughter at how I could so easily make everything that looked so stylish on her, look so awful on me.
(I kept the frog t-shirt, though.)
After I graduated from college, she visited me during the years I worked in Georgetown, Washington DC. We watched the latest French foreign films and decided to dress like Catherine Deneuve in “The Last Metro.” I remember her excitement in a vintage clothing store as she tried on a black cocktail dress from the 40s that seemed tailor made for her curves.
I really missed my time, she said. I look great in these clothes!
Skoo was capable of spontaneous and overwhelming generosity, despite her somewhat unpredictable artist’s income.
Some time after my marriage ended, and I was living by myself with my two young kids in Alexandria, she came to visit. We spent an afternoon at the Torpedo Factory – a collection of artists’ studios in an old munitions factory – and both fell in love with the same painting.
You got it just right! she told artist Connie Slack, who clearly didn’t appreciate the significance of just who was bestowing this compliment upon her.
The price tag? $3,000. We sat in two chairs for some time, gazing at the canvas. You really like it? she asked me. Two hours later, it was hanging in my living room, a riot of colorful flowers lighting up my little house.
Why don’t you take care of it for me, she said. I don’t really have the space.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, we increased the frequency of our visits, but our patterns had changed. Gone were the big adventures. Instead, we talked and walked her dog, Cloudy Day. We watched Frazier and HGTV, talked some more, and admired Cloudy. We played cards and played with Cloudy.
She showed me a design project of hers that she had kept from the Pratt years. Can you believe I still have this? she asked, surprised – she who kept almost nothing. She sat for a few minutes lost in thought, admiring her design boards – four elegant interior elevations of a New York City brownstone.
“Wait a minute,” I said, looking closely at the neatly rendered drawings. “You’ve got tons of bookshelves, but where are the toilets? None of the bathrooms have toilets!”
She examined the boards one by one, searching. Yeah, you’re right, she finally admitted. They must not have looked too good, maybe that’s why I didn’t put them in! We had a good laugh over that. Just think! she said happily, those people would have paid all that money for this brownstone and would have had to go next door to pee!
Things like that delighted her.
Art was her gift and she was always eager to share it. In her final months, she taught my son, Leif, to paint and fire clay. And just weeks before she died, she and Zoë spent time painting shells they had found on the beach with watercolors.
Her cancer was capricious, at times giving us false hope. But when she told me it was no longer in remission, all I could do was promise to visit her every month, despite the distance between us, even if I had to borrow money to do it. With tears in her eyes, she told me that would be the best present I could ever give her.
We stayed faithful to this schedule, and it was during those last six months of her life that I finally got to know her, not just as Skoo, but as “Karen.” Up until then, I had seen her through the eyes of a younger sister. But watching her handle her last months took me by surprise many times.
Five months before she died, she moved from Tampa to a little apartment in Sarasota. I told her it had the faded aura of Hollywood in the 40s, but she didn’t go for the sentimentality. She knew it was a bit of a dump and fussed about its appearance, but was by then too ill to do much about it. I, who had always thought design was what was most important to her, realized there was a priority in her life which went beyond design, beyond an artist’s desire to create. She had chosen the sad little apartment so she could keep her dog with her and be near the water. But she had also chosen to return to Sarasota to be near her friends and our mum. And fuss as she might about its appearance – and she did – what came first was to be closer to her special people.
During my last visit with her, I kept watch over her at night as she struggled for breath, torn between wishing her peace and my own ragingly selfish desire to keep her with me. I wanted to continue our visits, there was still so much to do. We had talked about visiting the art museums in New York City together and photographing the tiles and mosaics in Ravenna and Turkey, places I had seen while working on a film and now wanted to show her.
I had always had it in the back of my mind that there would come a day when, together as old ladies, we’d be sitting in our rockers on the front porch of a purple house, drinking Jack Daniels or Campari – a vision I stubbornly clung to.
But it wasn’t to be.
And so here I was on the highway, moments away from the town where she had apparently wanted to live, without her.
Mom’s comment turned out to be just the first of a number of strange and surprisingly serendipitous happenings that were waiting for us in Asheville that weekend.
It was almost as if someone had planned them…
[vintage color photo of me & Skoo courtesy of Bob Lundegaard]