Friday, June 5, 2015

POST #88: Stay Away From Memories

click on picture to enlarge
"Backstage at the Theater (Waiting for a Cue)", Mikhail Zwibak, pen and india ink, c.1935 8"x10"
A few weeks ago a friend with a very colorful past told me a wonderful story about something that happened to him when he was in his mid twenties – fifty or so years ago. I suggested he write a memoir since he has lots of other stories and he writes well, but he shook his head. “Nah, no one is interested.” “Not true,” I protested. But now I think I know his real reason and I agree with it. Once you open Pandora’s memory box, there’s no telling what will turn up. Better, as they say, to let sleeping dogs lie; too much remembering isn’t good for your mental health. It’s one of the reasons I don’t approve of psychoanalysis; concentrating on past unhappiness only makes the present worse. Recent studies of holocaust survivors show that the one’s who make the best adjustment, remembered the least. My best friend, Dina, who spent her teens in a German work camp refused to participate in Steven Spielberg’s SHOAH project; for her, the past was past.

"Development Team", Renee Kahn, India Ink wash, c.2000, 8"x10"

The memoir issue came up again a few days ago when my daughter asked me to write down what I remembered about my Uncle Mischa, an opera singer who ended up composing music for the Yiddish stage. It seems the Museum of the City of New York has a large Yiddish theater archive and was looking for memoirs of people who were around in its heyday, the nineteen twenties and thirties. Since he died when I was twelve, I didn’t have a lot to offer, but I did as I was told and wrote down the little I remembered.  Unfortunately, she was correct when she said it would come back to me; it did, and more than I bargained for. This was a really dreadful time in my life, one that I had put behind me for good reason. Within a year of Mischa’s sudden death, two of my mother’s remaining brothers died and she collapsed, physically and mentally. I became her “caretaker” (at twelve) and remained so for the rest of her life. What saved me was going off to the High School of Music & Art where I discovered the “high” of being an artist, a joy I still live with today.

"Planning Board  Meeting, Renee Kahn, pen and India Ink, 2005, 8"x10"
Anyhow, the story has sort of a happy ending. After I finished writing my recollections of Mischa and the little remembered about his life, I went off to see Bob Callahan, my graphic designer, to work on our preservation newsletter. I was crying and had trouble getting out of the car, but finally calmed down and went in to see him. When I sat down, his cat, a Russian Blue named Duby, who normally refuses to play with me, rushed over, climbed into my lap, put her face next to mine and her paws on either side of my neck and began to purr. I was so touched; the mood lifted and Bob and I went to work.

Now, since this is an “art” blog, let me tell you about Uncle Mischa the Artist. It seemed that he constantly sketched the theater life around him, both when he was with the Chicago Opera Company and when he came to New York to be involved with the Yiddish stage. He did hundreds of satirical drawings of backstage which my relatives threw out after he died. There is only one left and the amazing thing is that it looks just like my work. Everyone who sees it asks me if I did it. I sit at endless meetings and sketch.  Is it possible to inherit a line or a satiric outlook? I’m sure someone, someday will discover the gene for it.


1 comment:

  1. I think what you are saying about having similar genes is true. I have two cousins on my father's side who both trained as graphic designers, as I did. I am in correspondence with one of them and quite frankly, what she talks about might as well be coming out of my mouth…..she even wears black all the time! Her thought process regarding work is almost identical to mine and she is twenty years younger……it's scary.