Tirza, As I Remember Her

"My mother Thetis Silverfoot says, that two different fates are carrying me on the road to death. If I stay here and fight before the city of Troy, there will be no home-coming for me but my fame shall never die; if I go home to my native land, there will be no great fame for me, but I shall live long and not die an early death."
Achilles in Homer's Illiad, as translated by W.H.D Rouse

San Michele, Venice, Italy

I have walked through cemeteries looking at the grave stones, reading the dates and the few lines that sometimes attempt to describe the person who died. As I read these inscriptions, I have wondered who these people were and what their stories are. I ponder the purpose of the beautiful monuments to the dead. Do they exist so that the dead will not be forgotten? But stone is silent. The truth is that the dead live on only in the memories of the living.

For most people, memory is episodic and fragmentary. Even when we think back on our own lives, we just remember scattered events and images. I am writing here of a few of my memories of Tirza, my sister, who died of a cerebral aneurysm on Wednesday, June 28, 2006. Tirza was born April 25, 1962 and was 44 when she died. She lives on in our memory and in our hearts.

Sourdough bread with kalamata olives for pannini made for Tirza's memorial

I was very disappointed when I first saw Tirza. When my mother, Betsy, was pregnant with Tirza I was excited because I thought that a live-in playmate would be arriving soon. Instead of a fellow four-year-old, what arrived was a baby. I was shocked to realize that I would be almost ten, an unimaginably old age, when Tirza finally reached my age. From that time until she was in college I thought of Tirza as my little sister.

I am a home chef and baker. I started cooking with Tirza. Tirza was given an Easy-Bake Oven baking set. The Easy-Bake oven is a tiny baking oven heated by a light bulb it came with some pre-packaged cake mixes. Tirza was probably about four-years-old and the first steps on my path as a cook started out with her baking set. I would like to think that I was helping Tirza, rather than just coming in and taking over. I do remember that we ate the cakes together. The truth is that I soon feel in love with it and Tirza and I ran through the cake mixes that came with it. We got our mother to buy more, but I suspect now that they were wildly over priced. I graduated from the Easy-Bake oven to the stove oven and Betty Crocker cake mixes and finally, years later, to cake recipes in The Joy of Cooking and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Tirza and I were born in San Francisco, so we grew up eating Chinese food. When Tirza was younger you always knew what she would order: sweet and sour pork. In High School I worked my way through the Time-Life Chinese Cookbook. I remember Tirza cheerfully making wontons with me for wonton soup (the soup had a chicken stock base, bok choy and the wontons).

When ever I think of Tirza, I think of her with glasses on. In fact, the few times I saw her without them, it seemed like she did not look like my sister. Tirza grew up with Strabismus, which is a condition where the eyes don't track together (for example, one eye turns in). I remember doing eye excercises with Tirza from the time she was a little kid. Betsy (or mother) or I would move our finger in front of Tirza and she was supposed to concentrate on tracking the motion. Tirza's eye doctors encouraged her to be active and I remember that Tirza had a Big Wheel Trike that she loved to ride around our drive way. The old farm house we lived in had a separate garage in its own building. I painted a track on the old redwood planks of the garage that Tirza would ride her Big Wheel on.

When people talk to you, they frequently look into your eyes. We have all of this mythology around eyes: "eyes are the window of the soul", "a warm, welcoming gaze"... I think that anyone who has strabismus instinctively knows this and it is easy to be self-conscious. Tirza's eye condition may have made her somewhat more shy than she otherwise would have been. For me, Tirza's eyes were just part of who she was. I never thought that her eye condition made her any less beautiful and it took me years to understand that it might have made her self conscious.

Memory is episodic and fragmentary. Tirza had eye surgery at least twice. I remember her going in for surgery as a kid and how scary it was for her. Her final surgery was as an adult, when technology had advanced sufficiently to correct the condition.

When Tirza and I were growing up we had an old black and white television. Someone once commented that no one looks back on their childhood and says "Boy, I wish I had watched more television". I'm embarrassed at some of the mind-numbingly stupid television shows I used to watch (not the least of which was the British Benny Hill which I avidly watched as a teenager for the chance of catching a brief glimpse of a woman's bare breast). Our mother never wanted the television in the living room. It briefly moved into the kitchen where it invaded dinners. Finally the television was exiled to Tirza's room where it lived for many years. I remember sitting in Tirza's room watching various cultural classics like Gilligan's Island. The Wizard of Oz was one of Tirza's favorite movies and she watched it every year.

Someone, my uncle perhaps, gave me a Heathkit electronic kit. You could build a radio, an alarm and several other things. I remember that I built an alarm for my bedroom door, with a little microswitch that would be triggered when the door opened. I recall telling Tirza that if she ever tried to go into my room the alarm would catch her. The only problem was that she had no interest in going into my room and would have respected my privacy in any case. The alarm only served to scare my mother on a few occasions.

Tirza and I spent most of our childhood in an old farm house in Woodside that Betsy rented. It was an amazing place to grow up in. The house was on three acres of land. There was open land for miles around the house and my friends and I used to walk through the hills when I was growing up. I have a vague recollection of walking with Tirza on one occasion. For most of our childhood we were separated to a degree by our five year age difference and gender.

Triza and I grew up during the Vietnam war, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon (Nixon: the second worst president we've ever had). Jessica McClintock is a major clothing label, famous for lovely gowns. When Tirza was eleven or twelve, Jessica McClintock was popular for her Gunne Sax line of clothes. I remember that Tirza had a few of these dresses.

If you were to walk into my office, you would find papers, books and computer monitors scattered all over the desks. Unlike her brother, Tirza grew up to be a very organized and neat adult. But when she was a kid, her room as a disaster area. Those lovely Gunne Sax dresses would end up on the floor of her closet and her things would be scattered around her room, some on the floor. I suspect that most people who know our mother cannot imagine her ever losing her temper. I've succeeded in provoking Betsy on a few occasions, as did the state of Tirza's room.

Tirza and I attended Peninsula School in Menlo Park (Tirza's son Jared is also now attending Peninsula). It was at least a half an hour drive from Woodside to Peninsula. Tirza and I would carpool with David G., one of the Peninsula teachers. David lived up in the mountains, in a small town called La Honda (made famous by Tom Wolfe's Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test). I remember David in that era as being a mountain man, with a big red-blond beard and red-blond hair. David would drive us to Peninsula in his old VW Bug and we would talk about books and other things.

Betsy taught at Peninsula for some time (it helped pay our tuition). Her classroom was near David G's, and the two of them were also friends. Jared will be in David's class at Peninsula in the coming year, which closes a sort of circle.

Now that I have lost Tirza, I wish that I could write that I treated her like a princess when we were growing up. But the truth is, I was a selfish beast. I would do something cruel to Tirza and she would go running to our mother ("getting me into trouble"). When I was in High School I came to the realization that Tirza really loved me. It was at that point that we stopped fighting. I will never cease to be surprised and grateful for the depth of her love for me. I can't think of what I've done to deserve such love, but I was very lucky to have it.

I went to High School at Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto. I had some wonderful teachers and there were some exceptional programs. Ravenswood had some serious racial tension and violence. I spent three years studying martial arts. One of the most memorable experiences for me was being hated for the color of my skin. It took a couple of decades for the anger from this to subside. So that Tirza could avoid this educational experience, Betsy "smuggled" her into Palo Alto High School by using a friend's address. By the time Tirza was starting high school I had already headed off to college at UC San Diego.

Palo Alto High School is one of the most academically rigorous schools in Northern California. The Peninsula School of that era had fantastic crafts and art programs (which continue to this day), but was somewhat loose academically. I think that Palo Alto High must have been a difficult adjustment for Tirza as it was for other children from Peninsula School of that time. Tirza was never one of those girls who went boy crazy and I don't recall any high school boy friends. As I wrote, Tirza tended to be shy. Even in that era, before prices for homes in Palo Alto started in the million dollar range, Palo Alto High School had some students from very wealthy families. Perhaps money and expensive clothes were factors that separated the "in" girls from the other girls.

Tirza went to UC Los Angeles. I don't recall if she applied to other schools or why she choose UCLA. Tirza's degree was in Graphic Arts. Our family all have talent in the graphic arts and I was a decent artist when I was younger. But I never worked to develop my talent. Tirza did work to develop her talent and she became a excellent artist.

When Tirza started UCLA I had just graduated from UCSD and started work at NCR, in San Diego. I am sure that I saw Tirza during holidays, but I recall only a few things about Tirza from this period and the years immediately after she graduated. I remember Tirza's friend, Jaime and Liz, who was the daughter of one of my teachers from High School. I recall that Tirza went to Europe with some friends, including a friend from college, Jim. I remember that Tirza said that she was hammered by jet lag.

Tirza had a close friend named Keith who was also a graphic artist. Keith was gay, but his family background was such that his sexual orientation was something he kept secret. Keith was among the first wave of people infected with the HIV virus. At that time there was very little in the way of treatment (I'm not sure if AZT even existed then). Tirza really cared for Keith and I remember how deeply his decline and death affected Tirza.

When my son, Alexander, was born, Tirza was very excited. When Alexander was a baby and a toddler, his best clothes were gifts from Tirza. Even though she had a graphic artists salary she used to buy him outfits from Baby Gap. When Alexander got older Tirza and Mark took Alexander camping on at least on occasion. I remember one year we all went camping at Lake Barryessa where we went water skiing.

Our father, Ellis Kaplan, is an architect and was, back in the day, a prominent architect in San Francisco and the co-founder of the architectural firm Kaplan McLaughlin Dias. Tirza got her Master's degree in architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCIArch).

As I write, I am reminded of how imperfect my memory is. I believe that it was when Tirza was attending SCIArch that she met Mark. I remember how devoted he was to her and how he used to drive down to Los Angeles to see her almost every weekend.

My mother, father and I attended Tirza's Master's project presentation and graduation at SCIArch. SCIArch has a warehouse, or art gallery-like building that it uses during the year for student projects and at the end of the year for the Masters project presentations. SCIArch, at least at that time, had an avant-guard leaning and I found some of the Master's projects either bizarre or impossible to understand. There were models that hinted at building structure made from wax or plastic. One wooden model was of a whorehouse and heroin "shooting gallery". The masters committee went around to each project and the student would do a presentation explaining their work. Some of the more obscure and bizarre projects were well received by the Masters committee. Tirza's project was one of the more practical ones (if I recall, it involved beach area housing). Apparently Tirza's practicality rubbed some of the SCIArch professors the wrong way and she had a tough project review.

I think that it was during that time in Southern California that we went to the Killer Shrimp, a fantastic and very simple shrimp restaurant. Their signature dish is shrimp in stock, served with french bread. I hope to return and peel shrimp in Tirza's memory.

I was introduced to the remodeled Ferry Building in San Francisco by Tirza. The Ferry Building has several restaurants and many stores selling gourmet food of various kinds. Every Saturday there is a "farmers market". I have come to hate the Bay Area traffic, but getting to the Ferry Building is easy on weekends, since it is only a few blocks from the BART station. Tirza and I met at the Ferry Building for lunch several times. Only a few days before she died we talked of meeting there in the next few weeks.

Tirza had a brush with death that had nothing to do with the cerebral aneurysm that killed her (the aneurysm happened without any warning). Everything had turned out well, but I know that the experience scared Tirza, as it would anyone. The last time we had lunch at the Ferry Building I asked Tirza whether having the shadow pass close by had changed her outlook on life. Tirza said that her experience reminded her of how important her family was, how important Jared was in her life.

I will always remember Tirza on her "Big Wheel" trike and I will always remember the woman Tirza became. I will always carry her in my heart.

July 2006
Last modified: Mon Jul 3 13:10:58 PDT 2006