Thank You, Mrs. Leuth.

Every three weeks or so my parents would escape the gravity of our parochial small town, and like moths, would make for the big cultural lights of Chicago. Kankakee, two counties south of the big city, had been on the Vaudeville circuit, where Harpo and his brothers had played, but by the 1950’s the last remnants of live entertainment had played out with a once-a-year visit from the Grand Ole Opry. Chicago had first run theatre, night clubs, the Art Institute. My folks liked things that looked good, sounded good and tasted good. Escape velocity gained from the tedium of provincial life, they would high-tail it to their box as season ticket holders to the “Great Performers” series at Orchestra Hall.::: Van Cliburn, Andres Segovia, Jascha Heifetz. We’d get taken to a “children’s” concert a couple times a year, :: the Moisiev Dancers, (Yikes!! Communists!!) Judy Garland and Ray Bolger doing their Dorothy and the Scarecrow routine, live, on stage.  

As life-long members of the Art Institute they’d spend long weekend afternoons trying to parse out the confusions of modern art. At breakfast one morning they reported on an Art Institute lecture the night before. Allen Kaprow had come to talk about “Happenings” and when asked to define his terms (we were told in excited detail) he hauled a weighty suitcase up to the lectern and opened it, spilling its full load of marbles skittering, bouncing into the hall. Shirlee reported a wag from the audience shouted…”he’s lost his marbles!”

When she was 17, my mother won an audition to become the decorator of the splendid and sumptuous windows at Marshall Field’s anchor store on Michigan Avenue. Ever true to the good life, even in death, my mother’s ashes are scattered in the courtyard of the school of the Art Institute. 

Restaurants came with the deal-me-in-to-beauty, like the super glamorous Fritzel’s, where flambé cookery, rustled up table-side, lit the twilight dimness into a theatre of good eats. Fritzel’s was where celebs in town were seen to be seen. Gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet, Chicago’s Walter Winchell/Herb Cain, had his own table at Fritzel’s. The Maitre d’ Paul, greeted my father—who always palmed Paul a $20—”Hello Doctor.”  When we got old enough we’d sometimes tag along, to attend their church of pleasure, attendance required as we got older, but as youngin’s Mrs. Leuth would show up to tend my brother and me. Mrs. Leuth fit my parents agenda of expanding our universe—she was a retired 5th-grade teacher. She’d gone to college.

Her hairstyle was vintage 1940’s—a chignon with what they called “Victory Rolls” —hair rolled up in a penumbra around her head. Victory Rolls, so-called to keep hair clear of war-time Rosie the Riveter machinery. It became a style signifying you took the world’s woes seriously and you were not to be messed with. It became the look of choice for 1950’s school teachers. In the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Big Nurse Ratched’s white cap rides a crest of Victory Rolls. Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine, the prim Ma Bell operator appeared in Victory Rolls.

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Mrs. Leuth + Me

Since my folks were going “out of town” it was important to hire a no-nonsense pro who drove her own car. No distractible adolescent hormone-addled teen would do. Mrs. Leuth, her significant cheekbones and high forehead gave her that just-off-the-saucer, alien commander look. She emanated otherworldliness, eyes focused on a spot just above your head. We liked her because she was a tireless bedtime story reader, with a practiced knack that was capable of holding a classroom of ten year olds quietly attentive. She could lasso up all the terror and joy lurking in a kid. Her stories of choice were Grimm’s in the original translation and Hans Christian Anderson. The Jungle Book—life and death among the beasts. No Disney-fied cutseyness, these stories were tough — full of blood and heartbreak. The little match girl lighting all her matches trying to keep warm, fearful of the empty-handed return to the ogre stepfather, dies of hypothermia. Cinderella’s step sisters end up with their noses bitten off,—”snapped off” by crows, as the story goes. No cheery, comic animated mice in sight. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi had us checking under the bed for cobras. “Nag come up and dance with death.” We minded Mrs. Leuth. “Let’s wash up for bed. Now, don’t make me cross.” —Oh, boy, that was about the last thing you’d want to do, but she emanated a big love. Something washed over her as she read, a different modulation of tone striking up the band, as characters marched through our minds. She was a homespun artist, theatrically astute—every character individually voiced. The little match girl speaking of her fear of going home to an ogre made us glad we were home in the warm wash of Mrs. Leuth’s reading—our throats tightening as the last match was lit and burned to a black stub. Death-sleep washing over our lovable little girl. 

Real life characters living in our neighborhood filled out in human form, the players in the fairy-tale. Table flat, fence-less, lawns melting into one another, made for an intimacy house to house. Cinder alley-ways behind back yards were for coal, later fuel oil delivery and garbage pick-up As the front doors seemed like the face of the house, the alley seemed like the guts, the intestines connecting the neighborhood, house to house. Here where trash was perpetually burned in wire basket drums—an eternally smoldering land—it wasn’t hard to drift off into thoughts of some vivid, post-something, doom. The alley where  you would sometimes see, slouching along in a black coat and black pork pie hat, a bent old man wracked with tremors, pulling a rusty Radio Flyer wagon. He was working the alley. On the hunt, he collected scrap metal, old lamps, anything that would turn a dollar. You could count on his pockets being full of thrilling  contraband to sell to kids with a few quarters…firecrackers, and even M-80’s that could blow your hand right off. I’m remembering him on a frigid day selling surgical tubing for professional-grade slingshot making, watching a single viscous drip of snot leaking longer and longer from his nose, a metronome keeping time with his tremors. Would it drop? Then sniff, and the foot long drip shot back into his beak, to reemerge immediately. 

A block from our house was the slow, brown Kankakee River, the banks lined with Oaks and Maples. Riverview Park. On the opposite bank a five-story blond limestone clock tower loomed over the trees. It was the marker for the “looney bin” —Kankakee State Hospital. A dreary castle from a foreign kingdom, housing  the suffering “mentals.” Being sent “across the river” meant you’d “lost your marbles” (certainly not the jokey Allen Kaprow version). 

Kakakee River sepia
Kankakee State Hospital Clocktower from across the river

In the freezing winter, when ice blanketed the river, one of the deranged might cross over, heading for our neighborhood park. (The fire department would spray the vacant tennis courts in the winter for skating, keeping kids from the dangerous river. If you were out on that ice there was a chance you could break through and be swept under by the current. A boat equipped with outsize fish hooks on long ropes tucked in the fire-station boat, sure caught your eye. It was used to retrieve the bodies drowned under the ice. Every school trip to the firehouse, the “rescue” boat was pointed out, the retrieved dead “felt like a jellied ham” we were told). The icy tennis courts encompassed by chain link, newly sprayed by the fire department, offered descent enough fun. On the icebound court, we found ourselves trapped one day, cornered as in a cage, by a guy in institutional denim wanting to sell us “candy”—what was really a rumpled pack of Chesterfields and matches. With bulging eyes, ice blue, and an extra long incisor dug into his lip, this guy was a storybook nightmare. He finally wandered away leaving us in a mist of terror. He wandered back toward the river, across our park, climbed into a car, leaned onto the horn and was soon gathered up by the white coats. “Just don’t look in his eyes next time—their eyes can make you insane yourself.” 

Our Elm Street, a Norman Rockwell Post Magazine cover, had its own brand of havoc swept under the manicured carpets of lawn. Two doors down from us was Art (of the Perfect Lawn)and his wife, who had lost her marbles. In his yard was a prolific tree of pie-cherries and we were allowed to pick if we could endure the shoutied gibberish at phantoms — Art gently leading her back to the house. We’d see her laden with bags of deposit bottles going back to the store covering more distance side to side than forward, shadows of Elm leaves passing over her like in a submerged dream. A bike ride away there was a real “woods”, a woods with straight temple columns of Oak trunks. We’d park our bikes and sneak up a narrow dirt trail to a clearing to spy on the “hermit” living in a tiny cinderblock house — smoke always pouring from a stovepipe. Rarely, you’d see him out of his shack hacking away at his garden with a hoe. There was Doctor, wife and two kids, Jewish refugees from the Nazi chaos who built a Bauhaus-inspired safe-harbor — a blond brick fortress with a creeping bent lawn, golf green smooth, requiring a special lawn mower to maintain the precision. Both the Doctor’s children were musical prodigies, brilliant and a wonder to us. How did that complex  of notes on a staff translate to the magic we heard? Mystery. In a horrifying accident, the daughter fell into the rattling lawn contraption, cutting her hands badly, snuffing a promising career on the concert stage.

A notorious pair of dogs prowled the neighborhood, hunting for squirrels, always coming up empty, until one day they happened on an escaped pet bunny. Pieces of the hapless rag of a thing went flying as they tore it to bits. The terrors of the fairy tale were right at hand. You poked an opossum by the road to see if it really was playing dead. Poke poke poke and it erupted with a boiling fester of maggots.

While our parents were enraptured by Vladimir Ashkenazi or maybe Tosca, eating Steak Diane at Fritzel’s, we were in the thrall of The Snow Queen: a journey towards love, betrayal, longing, revenge. Supernatural beings, injustice, captivity and heroic rescue served up — in the casual peace of bedtime. Our dinner was prepared á la Leuth — hamburgers with ketchup mixed in before cooking. The beef mixed with the sugar in the ketchup would fry up to make a crispy crust. I still make hamburgers this way. She hated the TV and occupied us with games. Before our story time we played Sorry and Monopoly but mostly card games. She knew the meanings of the cards in a regulation deck and could tell fortunes systematically laying out the cards in a cross shape. I’m remembering her reporting that December 7 (my birthday) meant that I was a Jack of Spades, the memory master.

We knew she had magical powers and unbeknownst to our parents she had practiced as a professional medium telling fortunes, plus psychic counseling to bump her meager teacher salary. One night she practiced on my brother and me, when we had a fourth for a card-table seance—a neighbor, Ricky Wurtzel was over—with all the lights off she put a candle in the middle of the table and we imagined our dead great-grandmother (“can you think of anyone who’s passed away recently?”) appearing as a glowing shadow. We all put our hands palm down on the table and chanted in unison up table up, rise table rise, rise table rise. It rose. It really rose!

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Great Grandmother Ella Greenberg

Some kind of Houdini parlor trick to be sure, and it could have knocked our young minds off base if it weren’t for the balm of her relaxed power. We were in the arms of protection, we could face the ghosty-thin beings her seance brought into our living room. Think of the nightmare spirit-world shapes by Giacometti—when I saw his retrospective (1965) I recognized them as a brilliant retrieval of beings from the other world we’d seen in the seance. Poor Ricky Wurtzel, though, didn’t feel the protection of Mrs. Leuth and whined to his folks that Mrs. Leuth was a witch. The next evening Mrs Leuth was a goner—so sad, no amount of wheedling, none of our promissory skills (we’ll do anything…) could make her return. I don’t have a recollection of what our mother said, but I can still see her earnest face leaning in to give us the sad news. The amazing Mrs. Leuth was replaced by a series of dull, chubby girls worried about their skin, from Olivet Nazarene College, uninterested in story time.

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A few years after the seance, I filled in on a sick buddies’ paper route… Ding-dong!… “Collecting for The Journal….” My skin shrank two sizes too small. “Mrs. Leuth!” She seemed not to know me, that horizon-line-across-the-river stare, looking straight through my skin! 

Kids don’t need much of a push to evoke the mysterious, gawking wonder of the loosed imagination. These days, half a century later, it’s taking less and less time for me to unstick from mental gravity. 50 years of indulgant imagination in my studio, making pictures, has pretty much permanently pulled aside the curtains hiding the inner life. For me, Mrs. Leuth is ready and waiting, still there, commander of the creation rocket, ready to launch…

Fifty years, and I can bring the wonder we feIt, right into my chest—a nervous tightness and a flock of birds rising all at once. It makes me think of the Mrs. Leuth era as a kind of Fanny and Alexander magic time, when we were’t very far removed the Golden-Child Age, when animals could talk and strange beings lived in the patterns of the woodwork. It was clear the imagination she evoked in the stories needed her brand of generosity—a proper, formal sort of kindness. The thought of our sad, forced graduation from the embrace of story-telling fills me with with the longing I feel, the compulsion, really, to finish my own work of story telling in my studio. I often feel like I did then, dreaming of a world empty of us, as if I am standing on the edge of a wilderness mountain lake, far away from everything and anything except itself. Hey, guess what?…

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