Tuesday, October 20, 2020

About the Clara's Stories

 The Clara’s Stories are a blend of fact and fiction. The stories are an imagined memoir told in the voice of my aunt, Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory. In these stories I have embellished the facts, and I imagine that Aunt Claire would have given me permission, using the words of the fictional character Carme from Isabel Allende’s book A Long Petal of the Sea. Carme says, about making up most of the travel accounts in her journal, (It’s ok) to embellish the facts, because … life is how we tell it.”

 And taking my imagination even further, I like to think that if Claire were able to talk to me from the grave, she would say:

 “Betsy, I was a non-fiction writer and often made up parts of stories to fill in the blanks. About my own life, I held onto some secrets to protect myself but it no longer matters. I’m dead. What do I care! My stories are your stories now and you can embellish them however you want."

 ****

Claire LeBrint was born in Chicago in 1914. In 1967, she married for the first and only time at age 53 to Rolland Metzger of Dixon, Illinois. She died at age 88 in 2002.

 Claire was my mother’s younger sister and she was our family’s eccentric aunt, different from our mothers and most women of her generation who married young, made a home for their husbands and embraced – more or less – being housewives and mothers.  Unlike them, Claire was a single woman, working in various office jobs. After she married Rolland and moved to Dixon, she became a free-lance writer and got some pieces, including play and book reviews, published. Every once in a while, she would send me copies.

 But the real attraction for me and others started with the smile that lit up her face when she was with anyone, friends, acquaintances, people she met briefly and especially – so we felt – with her seven nieces who lived near and far.

Yet, as open and loving as Claire was with so many, there was no getting around it – Claire’s parents and four siblings didn’t appreciate her life choices and her animated personality. They wondered about Claire, like the nuns at the convent wondered about Maria, in the opening song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music:

 How do you solve a problem like Maria? / How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? / How do you find the word that means Maria? / A flibberty-gibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

Unlike the Mother Superior in Sound of Music who helped Maria follow her dreams, the LeBrint family mocked Clara, as the family called her, for what they considered her fanciful ways. If they had the words, they would certainly have identified her derisively as A flibberty-gibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

When we were growing up, we nieces didn’t know Claire. She would show up now and then for family gatherings. But she didn’t engage with us, nor did we engage with her.

Then in 1969, when I was twenty-five and newly married, I sought out Aunt Claire who was also (somewhat) newly married. She and Rolland welcomed me and my husband into their life, and I embraced Claire for the very reasons the family rejected her. Claire brought life and joy and silliness to us and eventually also to her other nieces. She laughed easily at the little stories we would tell her and qvelled over our little and big achievements. She gave us silly birthday gifts, tchotchkes (trinkets) that she had around: cheap necklaces with plastic beads, scarves with odd patterns. Nothing we ever would wear. We loved those presents because they were so-Aunt-Claire.

Rolland and Claire called each other “Dearie,” which we thought was wonderfully sweet, since no one in our families used any endearments with each other or with us.

We had an open invitation to visit Claire and Roll (pronounced Rahl) in Dixon, especially in summer for the annual Petunia Festival. And on your first visit to Dixon, you made the compulsory visit to Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home, while they would groan about Reagan, “that horrid man,” and his disastrous trickle-down economic policies.

Besides visiting them in Dixon, Claire and Roll frequently came to Chicago and stayed in the cottage in Lakeview that Roll inherited from his parents. They would grab me or one of their other local nieces and take us to plays, using the comp-tickets play-reviewer Claire got. As the two aged and became hard of hearing part of your responsibility at plays was to whisper, loud, so they could hear some of the dialogue.

 ****

 Roll died in 2005, three years after Claire, and I got the 36” x 40” oil painting of Claire done during her pre-Rolland years, by her friend the painter, Yasha Kaganov. The painting features Claire wearing a light-colored blouse with rolled up sleeves, a plaid skirt, and a summer hat perched at an angle on her head. She’s sitting with legs crossed, gazing out dreamily. The painting hangs in my living room and I often meditate on this young woman, the Aunt Claire I didn’t know.

I also got Claire’s photo albums and scrapbooks along with boxes and files containing a jumble of undated photos, as well as the stories and articles Claire wrote, some typed and many more clipped from newspapers and magazines. The task of looking through this mess of papers, and what Claire would have called “what-nots,” was daunting and I set everything aside.

A number of years later, when I started to look more closely at “the Claire stuff,” by chance (to this day I don’t know how) a small undated graying newspaper article, titled “The Painting Went Up” and authored by Claire LeBrint, came to my attention.  It was about Kaganov’s painting and this is what Claire wrote:

     


I reflected. Who was this woman who, in her thirties or forties lived “in a closed up little office and (had) a tight little career girl apartment… and tight thoughts, too?” And what was the dream she once had?

I hoped in Claire’s writings, photos, and “what nots,” I would find the answers to these questions and much more about her younger years. I found some answers, some hints of answers, but much remained unknown. And with Claire’s posthumous permission, I have filled in the blanks.

 Betsy Fuchs, October 2020

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Clara's Scrapbook: Early Memories of My Siblings*


           
In the early decades of the twentieth century, some professional photographers traveled the neighborhoods, bringing ponies to fancy up the pictures. Families paid extra to show off the kids on and around the pony. “What a photo to send back to the family in the old country,” my mother would say, adding “Won’t they be impressed!”

After our family got a Kodak camera in 1924, we took our own photos, at home, at Lake Michigan, anywhere and everywhere. But before then on a few rare occasions, we had formal photographs taken by a professional photographer. In one, I’m sitting happily on a pony with a tooth gapped-grin on my face, wearing a long-sleeved slightly oversized white dress with a peter pan collar.


In front of me and the pony, my older brother George stands, wearing a white shirt, dark colored knickers and athletic shoes. Next to George are my “twin” older sisters Mary and Rose. They weren’t twins, but that’s what I called them. They were one year and a few months apart in age and different in stature and looks, but like twins they lived in their own shared world, to the exclusion of everyone else, especially me. The photo isn’t dated but I would guess I was 3 1/2, George 5, Rose, 6 1/2 and Mary 8. The twins are both in white knee length dresses, with white stockings and they are holding hands.  Around the same time, the twins, at the insistence of our fully Americanized same-age cousins, learned how to stop speaking English in a Yiddish sing-song kind of way. And the cousins taught them how to dress properly for school, in bright white starched and ironed blouses, clean pressed skirts, with their shoes polished daily. 

In another professional photograph, taken before I was born, a very young Rose and Mary stand side by side. Rose has a serious look on her face; Mary’s is more quizzical. Rose is fair skinned favoring Father’s coloring and has a chubby baby face and fat arms. Mary who is a bit taller than Rose is swarthy, taking after Mother and if once she had baby fat, it’s gone. They are wearing not-quite-matching white dresses that hang almost to their ankles and large white bows in their hair. Most likely these dresses, and the ones we girls are wearing a few years later in the pony picture, were bought to last through growth spurts and were saved to wear only on special occasions. Mary and Rose have almost identical brown leather high-top shoes and are holding little porcelain dolls, also dressed in white. Just like the pony, these dolls must have belonged to the photographer. At home all we had were Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls that Mother made out of old flour sacks.

The twins got to hold the dolls. I got to sit on the pony. Lucky me! Or maybe lucky them because in 1921 Mary and Rose had a second professional photograph taken of the two of them, dressed like twins in matching outfits, looking self-assured and a bit smug, especially Rose with her head cocked to the side.

Neither George or I, nor three-year-old Perle had our pictures taken professionally in 1921.

The twins had each other and I had George, who allowed me to tag along as soon as I could toddle after him. And shortly after George went to full-day school at age six in 1918, I had baby Perle who was born a few months later. From then on until I went to full-time school in 1920, I had Perle to play with. When she was a baby, Mother let me feed her and dress her and rock her and when she got a bit older, Perle toddled around after me.  Perle was so much better than a borrowed porcelain doll or the home-made Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.

So, in our family among the siblings, Mary and Rose made a twosome. And for a time there was me and George, then there was me and Perle.

Thinking back to this sibling configuration, I realize this is how we stayed into our adult lives. Mary and Rose together, the married women with husbands and children. George the only boy making his way on his own. And me and Perle, the two unmarried spinsters palling around, that is until 1965 when Perle tragically died too young at age 47 and 1967 when I finally married for the first and only time at the ripe-old-age of 53. 

*Note: This is another story from Clara’s Scrapbook: An Imagined Memoir Inspired by the Life of  Claire LeBrint Metzger.  At this time Clara's memoir ian on-going work in progress by Claire's niece Betsy Fuchs. 


The Clara Stories are dedicated to
Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory 

b 1914 - d 2002

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Spaciousness of Books (in the time of Covid)

Twenty-first century clutter traps me
fills my time and in a daze my days disappear
What with Facebook and Messenger and FaceTime, Twitter Email YouTube Wikipedia Blogs Podcasts Texting Internet Research and now due to Covid Zoom Gatherings and Facebook Events 
Twentieth century paper clutter is still around still abounds 
mail delivered daily: donation pleas, advertising come-ons
-- tossed out
magazines mailed monthly: AARP, Consumer Reports and more
-- kept in baskets
handouts printouts notes from classes, events, workshops, all on Zoom!
-- kept in files and piles (like my emails, maybe to read or to need later)


Yet in my house there are books
  on shelves
    on tables
      on night-stands

many old 
a few new

some purchased
-- before my library re-opened

now thankfully some from my library

some from friends
 -- cautiously carefully borrowed


Books with their solid feel
and their sometimes temporary status
I read them now
(unlike my Kindle long gone, its electronic books unread)


Books in the twenty-first century are
unique      a treat      rare

and when I curl up in a chair
  and hold a book
    and feel the paper
      and turn its pages

when I read and reread and mark parts I love
  with sticky notes or paperclips or highlighting
      or when I underline

my life is spacious and slow

in the old-fashioned twentieth century way



This poem published November 2018 at https://www.poetsandpatrons.net/
Revised Summer 2020 to reflect changes brought on by the Covid Sequester


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Clara's Scrapbook: Webbed Fingers*


I was born with webbed fingers and my immigrant mother was sure she had been punished by the evil eye for having left her mother Rosa Menkes in the “old country” at age eighteen, to come to America. Mother believed this even though Rosa insisted that she leave because pogroms against the Jews were getting worse.

I was the fourth child born to my young immigrant mother in six years. Her eldest two daughters, Mary 4 ½ and Rose 3, were finally able to watch out for each other. But her only son George was not yet 2.

I was born at home, in our cold-water flat on Chicago’s Jewish West side. The midwife announced, “It’s a girl!” Mother must have been disappointed that I wasn’t a second son, but I was healthy – wasn’t I? After the compulsory cutting of the cord and the slap on my tiny behind to get me breathing, the midwife counted my fingers and toes and it became apparent that the evil eye was present.

My tiny hands might have been closed into fists and if so, the midwife would have gently opened them and seen a pinkie finger, a tiny mass of finger/bone/skin and a thumb. The index, middle, and ring fingers were conjoined; the same with my other hand. Conjoined! Even if the midwife was familiar with this condition, she most likely would not have said it out loud to my exhausted mother. Perhaps nothing was said and there was some surreptitious pointing, or the midwife quickly wrapped me up in a blanket and handed me to Mother and figured that the awful truth would come out later.

My fingers were joined each to the next by a thin layer of skin, like the webbing you see between the bones in a bat’s wing. Each of my webbed fingers had two joints, not the “normal” three.

As early as 1902 surgery was being done to separate conjoined/webbed fingers . Some years later, it became the practice to do the surgery on children between 6 months and 2 years old. I must have had the surgery as a young child because my earliest memories, from age four or five, are of having ten fingers. But on each hand there were three stubby fingers, a few with nails, others without.  

It was my reality and I never asked nor did the family ever talk about my fingers. I’m sure the kids in the neighborhood and at school made fun of me. I don’t remember, or more likely I repressed the memories. I’d rather imagine that friends and strangers instead looked away and no one asked due to fear, embarrassment, politeness, whatever.

With my ten fingers, I can do most everything anyone else can including writing a readable script and typing the manuscript for this book! And still to this day, no one asks or talks about my fingers, which I must admit look a bit odd.

My fingers were the first of many disappointments Mother had with me. For her entire life I remained a single working woman and a dreamer, and as Mother frequently reminded me I never did anything she could kvell about to her family and friends.

It was sad very sad for me and Mother and for our relationship. I’ll get into the details along the way, but for now I’ll end my finger saga with an assessment of the two of us that I wrote in my journal in 1982, “I inherited my mother’s uncertain nervous system. In fact, a teacher, in about my second grade told me to tell my mother I was a ‘nervous wreck.’ And I did.”

Those who have known me a long time would tell you that I often get “nervoused up” over little and big things. But please don’t worry. To quote from that wonderful lyricist Steven Sondheim:

Good times and bum times
I've seen them all and, my dear
I'm still here

Yes my dears, I’m still here!

I finally married at age 53, two years after Mother died. In Dixon, Illinois, where I live with my husband Rolland Metzger, I’m a minor celebrity: a published writer, a newspaper reporter, and a gad-about who tries (and sometimes succeeds) in helping my fellow Dixonians with their life-problems.


-------

*Note: This is another story from Clara’s Scrapbook: An Imagined Memoir Inspired by the Life of  Claire LeBrint Metzger.  At this time Clara's memoir ian on-going work in progress by Claire's niece Betsy Fuchs. Claire, the narrator of these imagined stories, writes them at age 80 in 1994 .


The Clara Stories are dedicated to
Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory 

b 1914 - d 2002