Jacomena van Huizen Maybeck’s life began in 1901 on a Javanese sugar plantation and ended ninety-five years later in her house in the Berkeley hills. I met her in 1977, as my boyfriend and I followed the rumors of a unique cottage for rent. From the time of our first encounter, I knew she was special—a lean older woman with a shock of white hair, outfitted in a halter-top and shorts and perched on the roof of her rental house, toting a tar pot and a trowel. She would be my mentor over the next decades as I tried to balance work, family, and creative projects in my thirties and forties.
Jacomena was the last of a clan of bohemian artists and the steward of the legacy of her father-in-law, the great architect, Bernard Maybeck. She navigated her eighties and nineties with a special grace, caring for the small houses she had helped build, and then inherited. She carved handrails from fallen branches, cleared brush, and made sure neighbors got along.
At the outset, Jacomena was a little Dutch immigrant girl, blown from Java to Holland and across the Atlantic to New York, by the itinerant career of her father. After many more moves, the family of four settled on a remote bluff west of Ukiah in Northern California where Jacomena wielded an ax, gaining physical strength and confidence, working beside the men to build a house.
At age ten, Jackie, as she called herself, developed a crush on a boy named Wallen Maybeck whose famous family was camping near Ukiah. She knew she’d marry him. Attending college at UC Berkeley in the roaring twenties opened a whole new chapter. To the mix of her European and ranch-girl background was added the excitement of a world where the expectations of what women could dream of and do, (and even what they could wear) were rapidly changing. Jackie’s college years started with a jolt—the catastrophic 1923 Berkeley fire burned around her, destroying five hundred homes.
Jackie wrote seductive love letters to Wallen, the couple married, and soon became pregnant. It was not until she was in the delivery room that anyone knew there wasn’t one baby; there were two. It was wonderful, and it was overwhelming. Jackie’s post-partum depression improved with long stays on the ranch. Perhaps in an attempt to help settle the new family down, Bernard Maybeck designed a unique house for them. But Maybeck’s efforts only partially resolved Jackie’s restless drive for changed circumstances. She needed more privacy, and chafed under the critical eye of her mother-in-law, “Little Annie.” Several times, the family packed up and left Berkeley, and lest Jackie believed she’d gained some space from her in-laws, the senior Maybecks moved right into her house as soon as the young family had left it!
At age fifty, Jackie discovered a new container for her restlessness––“creative work”—that she pursued through an advanced degree in ceramics. She would work with clay the rest of her life.
In relatively short order during the 1950s, the senior Maybecks and Jackie’s parents passed away, leaving Jackie and Wallen to manage the legacy of several family houses. And then, unexpectedly, Jacomena lost her husband too: Wallen died at age sixty-four, plunging her into a long period of mourning. She would live another thirty-four years in her home without a partner.
In the last third of her life, Jackie’s flexibility and adaptability allowed her to move out of the shadow of Wallen’s premature death. She treasured her friends and family and became the matriarch and historian of the Maybeck clan. She went from “feeling like half a person” to “finding ways to be happy again.” Her creativity nourished her; she talked about the privileges of old age where one could calibrate the work against the pleasure, with a different goal than she’d had in her fifties and sixties.
Jacomena exemplified the good things about aging—a sense of what to take seriously and what to laugh about, a deep pleasure in natural beauty, and occasional flashes of startling wisdom. Her uncommon approach to life inspired me to write her biography—Blooming in Winter: The Story of a Remarkable Twentieth-Century Woman. Her zest for growth, art, community, and dynamic living makes her a woman worth knowing.
Pamela Valois is the author of a new book about Jacomena Maybeck, Blooming in Winter: The Story of a Remarkable Twentieth-Century Woman. After growing up in Sierra Madre, CA, Pam Valois moved north to attend UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. After almost flunking out due to political rallies and other interests, she returned to Los Angeles to become a dental hygienist and, in her free time, a quasi-hippie, selling macramé and her photos at weekend craft fairs. Pam married psychologist Lloyd Linford on the lawn of Jacomena Maybeck’s Berkeley cottage and studied photography with Ruth Bernhard in San Francisco. Her book Gifts of Age: Portraits and Essays of 32 Remarkable Women, a bestseller inspired by Jacomena, was published in 1985. After immensely enjoying mothering two sons, Pam earned a master’s degree and started a new career in health care. Now at age seventy-five, she’s been retired for ten years. She enjoys walking in the woods, reading, and hanging out with friends and family. She lives in Berkeley, CA. Learn more: https://pamvaloisbloominginwinter.com