BeBe Barrett
by Suzanne Stroh

She is a stunning figure as she strolls serenely, smiling, always smiling. She says that she draws energy from the flowers, the trees, and the ground, solid under her feet. Seven, eight hours a day of walking are not unusual for her, she says. She carries a bag with her that includes a folding chair. For a time she also carried a box cutter and when her shoes began to pinch, she would unfold her chair, sit, and cut away the offending part of her shoe and keep walking. This she no longer does, substituting better shoes and a routine of massaging her feet with camphor and aloe vera. She is always dressed colorfully in a long dress or skirt. Her hair, bright white, is always in braided pigtails, which she sets off with ribbons (today they are red). Necklaces, including a turquoise scarab, and bracelets add to the effect. At times she perches a beret on her head at a jaunty angle. She tells me (proudly it seems) that she is 74 and her name is BeBe. Her face is exquisitely smooth, almost completely unlined, and her only makeup a swath of dark eyeliner which accentuates her round, chocolate brown eyes. She tells me that she does a daily 7-minute stretching routine that she swears by. She offers me her “card” and I expect a standard business card. Instead, I get 4 small printed cards with colored pictures, poetry, and an odd looking notation along with her name. They look a bit like Tarot cards. Interesting.

I may have first noticed her a few years ago walking in the neighborhood with her two large black dogs, one a standard poodle. We exchanged poodle talk a few times. But I was still working then and didn’t pay much attention. But now her dogs have grown old and died. She continues her walks alone but ever serene. Two days ago, as Mellow and I returned from a long walk ourselves we encountered BeBe and stopped to chat. She invites me to visit her at her studio home and see her work. She is, after all it turns out, an artist. Am I surprised? For some reason I am intrigued and decide to do it. Turns out that she lives just up the hill from me in Kensington on the same street where I used to live just 2-3 doors down. She laughs when I ask directions telling me that I will recognize the house. It’s blue and white she says, her eyes twinkling. And so is her car.

When I arrive I see why she said that I would recognize the house. It is white with patches of blue in the same odd-looking notation that is on her cards. Her car is dense with the same, spidery designs. Her house is amazing. It reminds me, at first, of Victor’s with the density of objects, the swirl of colors, shapes, the energy. But it is also quite different. This is not a decorated house exactly. No, it is a celebration of an individual’s particular life and of life itself.

BeBe, with her French accent, was born in Egypt, in the “Pyramid District.” She was once a Muslim but married a Jew who was the U.S. Consulate to Egypt. She respects all religions and has two altars in her living room. One has icons and everyday objects representative of various faiths. The other is an altar to art. She meditates daily. The walls reflect her life and art and they run together seamlessly. Small pictures of her, her husband, her son, various combinations of her family have been cut out and pasted there almost like wall paper. None are exactly square or rectangular. Many are from quite a few years ago. There are also paintings she has done and many of the small cards she makes with colored pencils. These include quotations she likes from many sources as well as that curious notation. She tells me that the notation is a language that came to her. It is all her own and she writes in it. It looks like a combination of hieroglyphics and perhaps Farsi or some other Middle Eastern language. It has a feel like the dense filigree of some Islamic art I recall from Art History classes long ago.

She shows me a small album of her work. She is a trained artist and her subject matter, color, and sense of form are fascinating. I’m not sure I catch where she took her art training, perhaps UC. She likes to do pictures of dancers, loves to dance herself, she says. She also makes collages with found objects and shows me a box with some wonderful shapes, textures, and colors- a curled length of palm bark, a dried artichoke thistle, a smooth ivory colored husk. She is clearly delighted with these simple objects.

In the kitchen, her blue parakeet chirps enthusiastically as he makes love to his mirror. This is the room where BeBe makes life masks. She had told me about them when we talked on the street, asking me if I might like her to make one for me. She shows me one that she has just finished. It is very life like but I feel creepy about it since I think of death masks. She assures me that these are very different and opens a book she put together that lays out the process, which involves many pieces of gauze soaked in a thin Plaster of Paris material. In this room there are many pictures of people having life masks made. She tells me it can be a therapeutic process, the results surprising. She has made over 940 of these masks, sometimes several for the same person over a period of time.

I ask her to show me her 7-minute stretching routine, which she graciously does. It is surprisingly thorough, hitting all major muscles and joints. It is mostly stretching, but there are also a few moves with 5-lb weights, a pole, and a ball. I see a blue djembe and she mentions that she likes to drum and to dance. She puts on some African music with a fantastic beat and begins to dance. She is graceful and her face radiates complete joy. She encourages me to join her if I like but I am already on my feet. We dance around the small, cluttered living room. The music is wonderfully alive. She tells me I am a wonderful dancer. I just hope I can move half as joyfully as she does when I am her age. After the African piece, I sit down and she proceeds to dance to Irish music grinning and twirling.

By now, an hour has passed and the sun has sunk behind the brow of Richardson Rd. I had almost forgotten what a magical street this is. Quiet, with a feeling of being remote and outside of time. It seems the perfect setting for this amazing joyful spirit.


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