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H Victoria Mielke

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Mamah (1869-1914)
by H Victoria Mielke

Friday, September 27, 2002

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Turning from the heartland country
And going east to Chicago’s fringe
A family of six
One girl in dreams of books and wisdom
Among Oak Park’s churches and tree-warmed streets

Her father had earned his way
From transportation –
Crafting carriages
Keeping the railroad’s machinery abuzz
She would labor for knowledge
She knew lay beyond
Oak Park’s high dudgeon

Mamah was a scholar
Michigan’s university beckoned
Two degrees and satisfaction
Her laughter was said to ring about the campus
She loved companionship and vigorous debate
The young academe
Spoke foreign tongues and charmed many

Edwin, the thin, diffident man
Loved her deeply, might have praised her in song
(He was a glee club man)
Over and over on figurative bended knee
He wanted her hand
Mamah went to Lake Huron’s shores
To dwell among her beloved books
As the century closed
She finally said “yes” to him

Mamah’s tears the cold river
Family becoming shadow images
Mother, father, sister –
Graves enclose them in fast black parade
Then Life returns finally to warm her
On a shaded street on Oak Park
Two children to round out their home

Mamah and Edwin, spinning through the city
Kitty and the whirlwind Frank
Together bonds knit together the tapestry
With lightheartedness
Yet pain is the taut weft that follows

Motherhood, words on paper,
Translations and hearth
Mamah’s life defined
Radical words and new ideas
In a fresh-born century
Love not just for those linked by rings
A woman can stand alone
Or by a man’s shoulder
Proud, her voice heard and accepted by all

Frank’s lightning steed
Bright yellow custom roadster
Edwin and Frank found
In horseless carriages, common passion
Horsepower in the century’s turn
Frank offered to craft Edwin a home
Central hearth burns for lovers and two children
Edwin smiles as Frank’s hands
Jump to life and raise the walls

Two fires emerge
And trace their way
Frank and Mamah cannot deny
Synchronicity and passion
Love’s never immoral
If true and sincere
No matter from whom it springs
Two souls dare to cross iron boundaries
In the leafy streets of Oak Park

So contented rides in bright roadster
Light words traded in a parlor
Slipping away to build a union
Voices chatter in Victorians and his low-slung works
They say: Edwin and Mamah’s walls are standing
But still others are still falling down

Frank steps away, his life limned by close walls
So opposite the lack of them in Prairie homes
A Herr Wasmuth calls from Germany
His work famed beyond Oak Park’s genteel streets
Mamah calls Edwin to take the children
She turns east again
At New York’s port, they board a steamer
Into shock and scandal
Into sublime and daylight dreams
Their choice cast wide
Lovers on the continent no longer hide

In Germany’s capital
More academics for Mamah
Frank at his board unspools his life’s treasures
For Herr Wasmuth’s pages
In Italy, soft walks on rustic roads in the twilight
Hand in hand till only nature’s faintest contours appear
In daylight walking among Renaissance grandeur
A future master connects to works of the Masters

The lovers part, Frank to Oak Park’s tree-studded streets
Mamah in Berlin, awaiting Edwin’s consent
Man putting their union asunder
Frank turns west to the ancestral valley
Here is where he’ll lay their cornerstone
On the hill where a boy learned from his uncle
The straight and narrow

Kitty alone with children
No hope for Frank’s homecoming
She will not release him
Once the home rises from the hill’s brow
Mamah and Frank’s threads cannot be unbound
Nor preaching or admonishing scorn
Rhetoric over sullied love
For the two it is crystal and pristine

Years together in a verdant valley
He draws a Chicago garden of music
And more homes to delight
His heart held by Mamah
Who coaxes her own gardens
Blooms rising like mute, sweet words
From their hearts

With the high heat of summer
Frank at his great garden in Chicago
In the house on the brow
Flames expand and rush into the butler’s bloodstream
God has said no man and woman should
Mingle love in sin
He must gird himself with God’s blade
Erase the sinners’ blot so others will see

Their lunch before them
Mamah and offspring
Workmen and artisans and a son
The butler’s inner inferno
Doors and windows secured against intervention
He unleashes against heathen assertions

The Shining Brow yields to scorching appetite
They run, only to fall to the icy blow
The ax takes away Mamah
Her brood and Frank’s loyal hands
A boy’s body lies in a fountain
While his father battles back
Against the madman
The butler flees; the stricken father
Ends the flames’ sinister luncheon

Near Lake Michigan Frank learns
That perfect thread is shredded away
With boulder heart he returns
As Edwin also peers out a dim train window
Heading for the far valley
The men will join
Weaving a carpet of grief
For Mamah
The one they both so deeply loved

Frank and his men form
The bare white pine box
He trims away the flowers she roused from the earth
Places beloved Mamah upon their bed
And encircles them about her
Sorrel ponies lead the wagon
And final walk for Mamah
Frank and Edwin, night spent talking
Into morning
March together for their once laughing star

Alone, Frank says
And they leave him desolate
In the graveyard by the chapel
The first building he ever helped raise
Now he stares at the earth
The ground newly mounded
Sign of what was his and was razed

Mamah, you never departed him
He rested next to you until another love’s allies
Took him to the west’s arid sands
Your laughter once in the campus
And later in the parlors
Along the close streets of Oak Park
Still courses through time

As you put into your own tongue, Goethe’s words:
Nature wants only for men and women to take the path
Not worrying, for she knows the way
You did her bidding
Your fortitude your partner
On your amazing journey





Perhaps the most tragic figure of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life was Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, a socially progressive wife and mother who fell strongly for the architect while he designed and oversaw construction of her family home. Mrs. Cheney was highly educated for her time, holding a master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan, and worked as a writer and translator while raising her two children in Oak Park, Illinois.

The Wrights and Cheneys were good friends and part of the social circles of middle class Oak Park. Mrs. Cheney and Mr. Wright began an affair around 1905; their relationship ended with her terrible murder. In 1909, Mrs. Cheney left her husband, Edwin, an electrical engineer; Mr. Wright deserted his first wife, Kitty, and their six children. The two could not marry, because Mr. Wright’s wife would not give him a divorce, though Mrs. Cheney’s husband did end their union. They spent a year in Europe while Wright helped prepare illustrations for two portfolios of his work for Ernst Wasmuth, German publisher. Mr. Wright returned to his ancestral home in Wisconsin, where by 1911 he had completed a house he dubbed Taliesin, after a medieval Welsh bard.

In August of 1914 Mamah, her two children, three Wright workmen, and one of their sons were bludgeoned to death by a mentally unbalanced butler wielding an ax. He also had set Taliesin ablaze. Mr. Wright himself buried her in a grave that went unmarked for many years. Some have said that Mamah Borthwick was Mr. Wright’s one true love, though he also spent over 30 happy years married to Olgivanna Milanov Wright, his third wife.


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Reviewed by maria mamah 4/22/2003
there are my family
Reviewed by mary kerr 11/9/2002
Wright would not have become the architect he is thought of today without her influence. Her true contribution to his artistic growth is only beginning to be understood
Reviewed by Lori Moore 9/27/2002
Thank you for the beautiful poem... and for the history.
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 9/27/2002
super write!!
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