The Grenells
Bob and Barbara

It really does seem like yesterday...

When my folks moved to Franklin Lakes in 1961, the summer before senior year, I left all my roots behind. That first day walking into the cafeteria was terrifying. Me, the new guy, doesn't know anybody, where anything is, what's going to happen next, where I'm supposed to go. Silent prayer, "Please don't screw up. Just don't let anyone notice me." Ken Erdman was on the bus, and he showed me the way, and pointed me to my "homeroom," at Mr. Woods' table. There was one empty seat. There was a girl on my left, (turned out to be Barbara Hyunga), someone on my right, (Bob Pachella?), but on the other side of table, right in front of me, was this incredible, absolute knockout, most beautiful girl I'd ever seen. Short blonde hair that framed her face perfectly… with these incredible, sculpted eyebrows that made me want to stare into her eyes, and she had the softest, warmest smile and this incredible laugh. She seemed to know everyone. I couldn't speak.

Later, we would laugh at our two versions of what happened when the bell for first period rang. For me, it was the signal to grab my books and race to 1st period History to be the first person in there. She, of course was frustrated by the big jerk that ran out instead of walking to class with her. What could I do? I was a nerd. It took months before I got the message.

Later, we became a special trio: Barbara Meyers, Bruce Knapp and Rob Grenell. Bruce was Mr. Conservative, I was Comsymp or Pinko. Barbara didn't care. She really just wanted to be around wherever I was. And I still didn't know it. Even when she drove her dad's big, white Chrysler 300 convertible to the bottom of our hill, and I climbed out the window of my room, onto the roof, over the other side of the house, down onto the garage roof and then jumped into the woods and met her at the bottom.

Not even when we didn't go to Trenton to the mock student government convention, but instead went to Atlantic City and Island Beach with Jill Jacobsen and Gary Fiedler and Bruce and Billy Sprague on a cold, windy, bleak, gray, rainy day in February.

By May, after many long drives together, parking at the overlooks along the Palisades, looking over Manhattan and the river, and to a cemetery in some monastery, (whose name I can't remember), heading up to Suffern, and to that private lake somewhere in Oakland, (does anyone know where I mean?), and the total frustration of Mr. LaConte's term paper assignment: "Contrasting the Cathedral af Chartres and the Works of Henry James," (I never got beyond the first paragraph and he was NO help at all), and the mutual disclosures of all of our parent's sins of omission and commission, and the day Barbara dove into the icy water of the lake at the girl scout camp to retrieve my matching antique, Arabic coin, (we called them our “lucky shekels”), while Kathy Sockett made sure I kept my back turned so I wouldn't see her naked. Torture... And the night before the prom, out on her porch until so very, very late, and I finally left and started home when Freddy and his three huge Navy buddies pulled me over and tried so hard to beat the living shit out of me... and I wouldn't get out of my car and fight and just kept talking and talking and talking until I talked him out of it... I finally got the picture, but it was still a dream.

So, that September, Barbara went to Philadelphia College of Art, and I went to Antioch. Once again though, I was so blind. I didn’t know I was such a lovesick puppy. It certainly is a characteristic male thing, this not being in touch with your feelings. Even though Peggy, from Knoxville, and then Susie, from Chicago, and the local girl, Linda, from Yellow Springs, all tried so hard to be my girl friend, I was totally miserable and distracted, and didn’t have a clue about what I should do. But, Barbara was having a great time in Philadelphia, with Tony, and Bob, and George, and Julia, and Carol, and Margie, and Nancy and Billy and Katie and Margot and really and truly loving art school ... And, later, I met all of her friends, and we became friends, too, to this day.

But first I dropped out, moved back home, tried another college, told the algebra teacher to go to hell when she refused to cancel class the afternoon Lee Harvey changed the world, tried another girl, kept my radio show, enlisted in the Navy, then got rejected for bad kidneys (which have never bothered me then or since, but which probably saved me from Vietnam), and eventually went to work in NYC as a recording engineer, ultimately working at Atlantic Records-- but I’m getting ahead of myself...

We didn't see each other for about a year. I moved into the city, to 12th Street between Avenue "A" and "B" on the lower east side. I kept producing my radio show of international folk music on WFMU. Sometime in 1964, I began to break through. I wrote her an audio letter, something I could do since I worked where I worked. I just started talking and recorded it. Then I cut in sound effects, favorite songs, wild folk music from all over the world and bits of weird music, and funny songs and finished it all off by "cutting" it onto a 12" lp record, complete with label and mailed it off to Philly. It had the desired effect. She wrote back. Pretty soon I had a record club with one member, and I sent out one or two new records a week... And then I was 6 feet behind the Greyhound buses drafting along doing 75 mph in my VW on the Turnpike to Philly every Friday after work.

We went to Mexico that summer, driving from NYC to Oaxaco, where I bought her a jade and silver necklace like no other we’ve ever seen. And then back to New York, through Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi in that VW convertible, in the summer Goodwin, Schwerner and Chaney were killed in Ole Miss, and they tried to run us off the road, and slashed our tires in Memphis while the sheriff ate lunch and watched, and we were just in love and passing through. The next summer, Barbara got a scholarship to this craft school in the mountains in western North Carolina, called The Penland School. She took weaving and natural dyeing. And did not know that she had determined our lives.

Because, after we were married, in 1966, and Barbara was working as a studio assistant for Mary Frank, already recognized for her work as a sculptor and artist, and I was at Atlantic when they were at the absolute top-- "We've only got 15 of the top 40 songs this week!," with Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, Led Zeppelin, The Cream, the Rolling Stones, Bee Gees, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dusty Springfield, and Tina Turner, and, and, and... and Martin Luther Kind was shot, and Bobby Kennedy was shot, and all the GIs were shot in Vietnam, and New York was bankrupt, and everybody couldn’t do anything unless they were all so totally stoned, and in the summer the city streets were covered in dogshit...

And you ask, “Why is he going on and on about all this?” This is too tediously self-centered and boring; and besides you will not like the ending, because Barbara's name is now on the other list.

And so, on the weekend of Woodstock, we hitched the smallest uhaul trailer to the old, red Volvo 122 and headed not north but south to Penland, NC. Billy, now a resident glassblower at Penland, and Katie, (remember, from Philadelphia?), steered us to a house in Celo, (see-low). It was in the middle of a meadow surrounded by woods with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. We had to wade across a creek to get to it through a field of waist high hay. There were no windows, doors, plumbing, electricity or water, and it was full of fresh cut hay. The deal was this: the owner, a doctor who had worked in Africa with Albert Schweitzer, would supply the materials to fix up “The Hay House,” and the choice was ours: pay seven dollars a month rent if his carpenters did the work, or it would be rent-free if I did the work. So naturally, I became a carpenter, plumber, stonemason, concrete finisher, roofer, electrician, contractor and architect/designer..

Barbara became a weaver. Life was so simple, peaceful. The first two years, we lived on $1,800 total. We grew an amazing garden and planted organic green peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and tobacco (for Indian pipe mixtures, Kinikinick, that we sold to some place in Connecticut). In the winter storms we were cozy listening to The Band and the Stones while the fire crackled in the woodstove and we cuddled close under our snuggly comforter. In June, after the river warmed up, we went skinny dipping almost every day with our friends and our faithful Dachshund, Hohner. Only once did we see anyone else— two guys in a canoe who almost tipped over when they came around the bend and, “Must of been a dozen naked hippies just lying about on them rocks down below the old Walt Gibbs place.” We just waved and waved and laughed at their amazement. And on Sundays in the summer, a steady stream of the after Church curious crowd would drive down the gravel road to see that girl in her black leotard standing on her head doing that “Yogi” stuff up in the doorway to old man Grindstaff’s hay loft, (Chipper, a carefree visitor from Berkeley).

In 1971, our first baby was stillborn. No explanation, total shock. The next year, we again were picking names. Boy or girl, every name reminded us of someone we didn't like, until Barbara remembered ***Thea Martucci ***. I vaguely knew who she was, but did remember her dramatic, dark, Italian great look. Barbara said she was one of the coolest girls at Ramapo, independent and strong willed. So Thea was born August 14th and now lives not too far away in Brevard, NC.

Again, the next baby was also stillborn; also, apparently normal and no apparent explanation or warning. Just that sudden moment at full-term when the heart stopped beating and it was too late. Times have changed much since those days. We were a long way from family, and people were afraid of death and did not know much about grieving. There was little support or help to guide us through understanding our feelings-- or how to cope. But we intuitively understood, that what came to be known as "closure," is a word for those other people who have not had the loss directly but are trying to understand someone else’s pain. A loss like this is truly forever; there is no end to the sadness and loss. But we learn to go on. Or we don't. We did. We were good for each other, although it was hard. Maia was born in 1977. So we have two beautiful, wonderful girls.

(But there was no Maia at Ramapo you say. Right you are. Maia is a star in the constellation Pleides, and her great-grandmother is named, May. Once again, Barbara found the way, like she always did.)

Thanksgiving week we moved into the new house I built. It has a large studio space for Barbara and an even better view of Mt. Mitchell, and the seven peaks in the Black Mountains, and, when the leaves have fallen in the winter, the river. Barbara first did all of her dyeing with natural, "vegetable," dyes that she gathered locally. She used the old, traditional and reliable recipes, passed down from the Scottish/Irish settlers in Appalachia, as well as those from older cultures, like Brazil wood, fermented Indigo root, Cochineal, insects from central America, and certain lichens. In the fall, she would be out at her dye shed, stirring her iron and brass cauldrons bubbling over wood fires with the pungent fragrances of Rhododendron, Goldenrod, Black Walnuts, Dog Hobble, Dodder, and Coreopsis. Gradually, she shifted to using commercial dyes, because she would have exhausted our local sources of natural materials.

There were several things that were essential to her success as an artist working in fiber: her background of technical training as a visual artist, her sense of composition, and her ability to draw the figure and landscape so well. It was sensual and exciting just to watch her sketch a landscape. Every gesture with a brush, pen, pencil, charcoal or pastel was effortlessly controlled but fluid and directed. She would lightly hold her brush at the very end of the wooden shaft, and it would float like a conductor’s baton. As a result, the earth forms revealed in her landscapes have the same intimacy lovers share regarding their bodies when their love is beyond lust.

It is the sense of our natural, innocent, shared humanity without shame or embarrassment. Barbara had the ability to catch the essence of shape with an understated suggestion of the form that projects the image into the imagination. In the actual weaving of her landscapes, she did not have to rely on off-the-shelf yarn colors; by doing her own dyeing, she could mix the specific color in her choice of yarn like she was mixing paint on a palette. She used a variety of weights and yarn textures, plying several fibers together to make a complex blend of shading and color. The effect was heightened by her use of the simplest basket weaving technique that allowed the natural linen warp to become a softening, visual element in the design; nothing tricky, just basic, honest and straightforward.In time, her work evolved into large-scale, landscape tapestries, often based on the view from her studio at different seasons and particularly under different cloud and weather conditions. She developed a unique, three-dimensional construction method that has two separate tapestries in one piece. The effect is kaleidoscopic and very dramatic, because as the viewer walks past the tapestry, the first landscape scene dissolves from one view into a totally new one as you walk by. Their sizes range up to 50 feet long, (for the Wake Forest Univ. Medical Center). (I might get around to posting some of these in future email). I became her studio assistant, built the basic framework for these and helped with the installations. We had found a way to work together and raise our kids together at home.

Over the years, she received commissions for her tapestries from a long list of major corporations, banks, hospitals, law firms, etc., nationally and internationally, as well as by private art lovers for their homes. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the first weaver to get this award, taught weaving and dyeing, served on many boards of directors of arts organizations, got a state arts council project grant, and served as a judge for art competitions and scholarships. In the last few years, she started painting again, did a series of some 200 small pastels of the same view of our Mt. Celo. We couldn’t keep them on hand; they are exquisite and sold too fast. I have only 11 left. She was planning to give up weaving totally for painting and drawing.

In 1991, I gave up building totally, and became a registered nurse. I’ve since been working at our local hospital, in Spruce Pine, as a medical/surgical nurse. I have advanced certifications in Medical/Surgical Nursing and Gerontology and have been the team leader of our pain management task force for six years. I love nursing, and am very good at it, (according to the many former patients I meet in the supermarket!) I am a strong “patient advocate.” That means that I answer all my patients questions and give them all the information they need to understand their problem and make informed decisions. Yes, the doctor is supposed to do that; but, come on, you know they don’t— they’re always too busy to really spend the time it takes. But it is so easy to do, and patients and their families really need this and appreciate it.

But, even with all my experience, and all the counseling and comforting I have done for people when their family experiences the death of a family member, I was not ready for Barbara’s death.

She had never been sick until she developed asthma in 1999. It wasn’t bad. She never was hospitalized, she just used her inhaler and the shortness of breath would pass. Then in August 2000, she had sinus surgery to correct inflamed sinuses. Her recovery was slow from this. She became weakened, lost some weight and then had a gall bladder attack in October. She had a laparascopic gall bladder procedure, went home the next day, and seemed to recover well. But the surgeon thought her liver looked a little funny and did a liver biopsy. It took over a month to finally get a diagnosis from the pathology department at the Mayo clinic. But the night before we got the result back, we came home from the specialist in Asheville. She was tired and went to bed early. I went to bed soon too. I woke up at 5 AM and heard the sound of her breathing in the darkness. From the sound alone, I knew she had had a stroke and that she would die..

 She never woke up. EMS took her to my hospital. I was with her when we did the CT scan of her head, and I saw the extent of the cerebral hemorrhage. All of my friends were there with me, especially Cynthia, and Connie and Mary Pittman. They shared my pain with me and they understood. I called Maia in New York and she got a plane in time. Thea came in time too. We flew Barbara into Asheville to the Hospital and to the neuro surgeon. Charlie, our oldest friend in NC, who also went through nursing school with me at the same time, was there too. Charlie is also an RN and works in the neuro ICU; and we had brought Barbara to be on his unit. Maia and Thea were both there when we made the decision for her to be an organ donor. The ICU nurses were surprised when I asked them to start the process of donation; it is usually very uncomfortable to approach a family about this. But I knew what Barbara wanted and I knew the procedure, so we didn’t waste time. There are three people alive today because they received her kidneys, and liver. The date was January 23, 2001.

It is over a year now. Maia was at work on 9/11 and saw both planes hit the twin towers. She knew people who died there. She left NYC in November and now is living and working in Detroit with her boyfriend. Thea is still in Brevard; we get to see each other a lot. I’m still working at the hospital, thinking about going back to school to get the credits so I can also work as a nursing instructor. (The nursing shortage is very bad; but the nursing instructor shortage is critical.)

But I think about all the families who lost someone on 9/11. I hope it didn’t happen to anyone from Ramapo ’62. I can truly understand what that sudden loss means— how truly, unbearably painful it is. When I count from September 1962, from the cafeteria at Ramapo, we were together forty years. I cannot imagine what lies ahead for me, but I go to work and carry on. Both of our fathers died 20 years ago. Barbara’s mother is in a nursing home here, and I just put my mother in too. So I look after them; love my kids and think about change.

After all, when I lost my roots 40 years ago my life changed beyond any wildest dream. Forty years is a pretty good run. So maybe it’s time again… ?

But, to finally wind this up:

I was only at Ramapo that short, short time. There were some wonderful people there that I was only just beginning to know, and wished I had more time to know you better and make more friends.

Reading some of the bios, I never realized that some of your friendships go all the way back to 1st grade! And while Barbara was there only 3 (or was it 4) years, some of you knew her well, and she loved some of you too… so I owed you the telling of all of her story. My apologies if it is too long and too maudlin.

But I heard Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court Justice, talking about her new autobiography and growing up on a 10,000-acre ranch in Arizona. After her dad died, her mother gradually had to sell it off until it is all gone now. They asked O’Connor if she wanted to go back and visit where she had such wonderful times growing up. She said of course not. She wanted to keep her memories intact and not spoil them by seeing the changes time has brought.

Me too.

So I won’t be back for the reunion… too many powerful memories now:

…Miss Kivett, in Chemistry, “Easy enough?”-- the day after Bob Pearson saw her drinking in Greenwich Village with a sailor. The night of our first, real date: dinner at The Kashmir on 45th St., then The Fantasticks, (and the show just closed after all these years), and backing up on Rt. 17 when we were laughing so hard we drove right past the bowling lanes, and 376 Butternut Lane, and laughing in hysterics at Mr. Perrault across the street, drunk again, playing the Hammond organ at full volume and howling, “Marie, the dawn is breaking…” to his poor wife, Marie;

And the June morning, at 4 AM, when we left to drive to Mexico, without our parents permission, but with their unspoken consent; and how I got Mr. Meyers to finally say it was all right for me to take his only daughter, his only child, away…

All I said was, “Well, Mr. Meyers. We’re up before TV.”

It made Barbara laugh, and she hugged me and we kissed as the dawn was breaking…

And he knew in his heart that Barbara would be all right with me.

Rob Grenell

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