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