By Wendy Wallace
Perched in a cozy alcove beneath the stairs, Caroline Flohr taps away at her laptop, her feet gently resting on her steadfast companion, Brooke, a Labrador retriever. Two walls of windows and French doors surrounding the kitchen and family room offer Flohr a spectacular view of Puget Sound in those thoughtful moments when she glances up from writing. In this glimpse, her life seems idyllic—living in a comfortably elegant, waterfront home with her husband, two young daughters and loyal dog. But as is often the case, appearances can be deceiving. Designs for this house were born after the tragic loss of Flohr’s 16-year-old twin daughter Sarah in a 2004 car crash.
“I couldn’t go downstairs to Sarah’s room. I had moved [her twin sister] Caiti upstairs and realized that we had to move from our then-current home as part of our survival as a family,” Flohr recalled. The couple, through their residential construction company, Anson Brooks Development, worked with Bainbridge architect Devon Johnson of Johnson Squared to craft their dream house, which includes myriad local sustainable materials and technological efficiencies.
“We wanted a traditional but modern home, like something you would find on Long Island, with 10-foot ceilings and lots of light,” Flohr said. Keeping busy with house plans gave the family something to look forward to and helped Flohr navigate the darkest days.
“For me, building the house was like therapy. It occupied my mind and gave me the creative outlet that I needed. It also gave me energy to focus on my children and family,” Flohr said. Feeling a stronger desire for family bonding after the accident, Flohr intended certain areas of the home to invite gathering. The open floor plan of the kitchen and casual living room, with abundant natural light, a high, coffered ceiling and a 5-by-10-foot absolute black honed granite island, is a natural spot for homework, snacks, crafts and entertaining.
With four active children then living at home, organization and clutter control also became a design focus. Every room features custom built-in cabinetry by Bainbridge Island master cabinetmaker Dave Sutter. Flohr has been especially pleased with the mudroom, a central destination for all the family’s gear with radiant floor heating that quickly dries soggy clothing and equipment. Baskets, drawers, bench seating and a wall of coat hooks get frequent use by this busy family. Both before and after the move, Flohr held family foremost in her mind as she kept notes on index cards and paper scraps of details related to her daughter’s death and subsequent events. She later planned to organize that information to create a written record for her surviving children, who were 16, 10, 18 months and 6 months at the time of the accident. As Flohr began work on that labor of love, she found their newly built home offered several inspiring writing locations, both inside and out. The alcove under the stairs, the sitting area in the master bedroom, the roofed porch overlooking Puget Sound, and even a private window seat in the master bath all allow Flohr the solitude a writer needs.
“I love the space under the staircase. It’s like a ship’s nook,” Flohr said. The turret-like sitting area in the master bedroom is another favorite writing space. Island architect Devon Johnson puzzled over the ceiling’s details. “Figuring out how to connect the curved wall and higher ceiling of the ‘turret’ to the rectangle that is the rest of the bedroom was a fun and interesting challenge,” Johnson recalled. The end result is an upward, elliptical swirl in the ceiling segueing between arc and square. “It feels like a nautilus shell to me,” Flohr added.
On a recent afternoon, as she sat on her porch to write beside the Tenino limestone fireplace, Flohr expressed appreciation for the surrounding marine life of the Northwest, including the loud croaks of great blue herons and the occasional whale spout. “The abundant wildlife, waves, marine traffic—the view is constantly changing, as are our lives,” she said.
After over a year of writing, she still kept her memoir secret, telling only one trusted friend who read the manuscript while recovering from breast cancer surgery and then encouraged Flohr to publish the book to help others going through difficult times. After much considering and rewriting, Flohr agreed, and “Heaven’s Child” was published in 2012. A soft-spoken, naturally private woman, Flohr felt exposed by her own candidness in the book and even avoided shopping for groceries at Town and Country Market immediately following publication. But the outpouring of gratitude from readers experiencing similar sorrows has fueled Flohr to promote her book and speak publicly on the topic of love and loss.
“It’s been a humbling experience that I’m very grateful to be able to share,” she said. Flohr has been startled by an unexpected group of readers —teenagers and college students—and hopes her family’s tragedy, the result of a teenagers’ joyride, will act as a cautionary tale for young people to be aware “that what we do affects not just us, but ripples out to others… and those consequences aren’t just your consequences, they are a ton of people’s consequences.” Although she has begun working on a fictional story about the first class of girls to attend a traditionally all-boys boarding school (based on her personal experience), Flohr remains focused mainly on promoting “Heaven’s Child” because this book, she acknowledged, “is the most important thing I’ll ever be able to write.” She has two engagements this spring to speak on the spiritual journey of loss and love at the Seattle Women’s Show and at Seattle University’s Search for Meaning Conference. Moving toward a more mindful life perspective, Flohr recognizes that what really matters in the end is the intimate, human connections we create. “Whether it’s a joyous moment or a sad moment,” said Flohr, “the more we reach out and share, the more our hearts fill up.”