The Honor Project is a living history of stories and images—portraits of older adults we admire.
We met Brenda Webster, novelist, critic, and translator, at her home in the Berkeley hills where she lives with her husband Ira Lapidus, author and Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic History at UC Berkeley. Her home, filled with light and art, is the same house she bought in 1963, where she and her first husband raised three children, and where Brenda’s five grandchildren often visit today. Much of the art hanging on the walls is by Brenda’s mother, the abstract expressionist painter Ethel Schwabacher, whose work will be exhibited in June at the Denver Art Museum.
How did you become a writer?
When I was a girl, I wanted to be a painter like my mother—but I was completely without talent. So I started to explore my creativity by writing, first in journals then much later in novels. I’ve written five novels in this house.
What inspired your most recent novel?
It’s called After Auschwitz: a Love Story and it’s based on real people who live in Rome. It’s about an old man in his 80s who’s becoming demented. In order to keep his life in his mind, he starts keeping a journal, looking back at the early days of his marriage, looking back at his whole life with his wife. I loved writing this novel because it’s based on a true story of a marriage. And I relate to his character.
Are you still writing?
I think I may be done. I have Parkinson’s and I’ve tried to start writing about it. I wrote a sort of comic five pages but found I was stuck. It was narrated by a dopamine molecule. It was very funny but also contained a serious subject. I stuffed everything into five pages and then I didn’t know what to do after that.
Do you have a favorite room in your home?
I like my study a lot, but it’s not big enough to hold all the books that keep coming in. I’m a little frustrated now because I can’t buy any more books. It’s a small space but it has wonderful light coming from the windows and the skylight. It’s a nice place to be creative and to write. And it leads out to the patio where you can see Mt. Tamalpais.
I also like the kitchen. It flows into the dining room where I sit every morning and read the paper.
What’s the most unusual thing about your house?
This view is amazing. It’s like a perpetually changing painting of the sky. From cloudy, like today, to red, blue, orange, purple—just wonderful colors, especially in the fall. You look over the tops of oak trees trimmed down so you can see the view. Beyond the trees, you see the Bay and two bridges, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge, and then Mt. Tam in the distance.
How old are you on the inside?
Oh, about 35. Actually, I’m thinking I could be 10. Or maybe a little older, like 12 when I was going into adolescence and starting to think about boys all the time.
Has your perspective changed as you’ve gotten older?
Yes. It suddenly hit my husband and me at the same time. “My God, we’re getting old! How can this happen to us?!” It sounds funny, but we didn’t ever think of ourselves that way. It’s a challenge, especially if you have a disease like mine and have all these medications to take. But my husband manages to feel that way too without having anything wrong with him. He helps me with my medications, putting them in pill boxes for the week and then on four saucers for different times of day. I just have to remember to take them.
What are you looking forward to?
Watching the grandchildren going through their various stages. It’s fascinating and very lively. Thinking about my grandchildren cheers me up if I start thinking I’m getting too old.
How old is too old?
Well, it might be just about now. (She laughs.) I don’t know.
Is it important for you to stay in your home?
I do want to stay in my home. I’ve joined a thing called Ashby Village. They’re great, very interesting, smart people. They’re all volunteers, they drive me to cardio class, and my Parkinson’s dance class. They’re all very helpful, which I appreciate. I’m now at a place in my life where I don’t mind asking for help for some things.
Photography by Wesley Verhoeve