Painters and Poets: A Final Farewell to My Mother
by John C. Krieg
Painters and poets are the odd and tragic lot of human kind. This I always suspected, but it was unequivocally verified when I picked up a copy of Break Blow Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of The World’s Best Poems. None of mine were included among them. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because the most revealing thing about the book is the short yet harrowing biographies that appear in brief one paragraph form in the back.
Sylvia Plath and Percy Bysshe Shelly both died at thirty. She committed suicide in the belly of her kitchen’s oven. He drowned while sailing, but not before scandalously leaving his wife, who committed suicide, and taking up with Mary Goodwin who wrote Frankenstein. Poets, you see, are monsters of their own making.
Paul Blackburn, George Herbert, and Frank O’ Hara didn’t make it out of their forties. Blackburn was abandoned in youth when his mother won the Yale Younger Poets series when he was three. A classic example of life imitates art if there ever was one. Herbert toiled in anonymity before releasing The Temple, a collection of 160 religious poems from his death bed when dying of tuberculosis. Predictably, his work became popular and profitable posthumously. O’Hara was swash-bucking, handsome, and gay with the height of his career occurring during the late fifties and early sixties, paradoxically the worst decade and the best decade in which to live an alternative life style.
Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Theodore Roethke, and William Shakespeare all checked out before their sixtieth birthdays. Dickinson and Marvell lived their lives unpublished, their collected works not brought to the light of a printing press until they were in their graves. Over 1000 of Dickinson’s poems were found in a locked box after her demise, perhaps the ultimate case of the ravages that the fear of failure can wreak upon a psyche.
William Shakespeare received notoriety as a poet late in life when 154 of his sonnets were published seven years before he died. He is, of course, probably the most recognized historic literary figure in textbooks today.
Of those who lived, or are still living into their sixties, two: Langston Huges and Wallace Stevens got the credit they deserved for their talent while still living. Hughes is recognized as a leader in the Harlem Renaissance while Stevens received critical acclaim for his Collected Poems one year prior to his death. Robert Lowell was clinically treated for ongoing manic depression, a condition no doubt exacerbated by being jailed during World War II as a dissident conscientious objector, and his avid protests of the war in Vietnam. Joni Mitchell is considered a great poet by Paglia and myself, and I frequently refer to her as the poet laureate of my generation.
Of the 20 poets cited in Paglia’s book, eight lived into their seventies. William Butler Yeats is the most famous having won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 and so inspiring the afore- mentioned Sylvia Plath that she rented the home that he died in when she was in London, which subsequently became the home she died in. Life imitates life.
Age 80 was a milestone for two of the 20 poets and one that wasn’t exceeded. Both William Carlos Williams and William Wordsworth died at the doorstep of their eighth decade of life. Wordsworth, it should be noted, met Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he was twenty-five and Coleridge was seventy-three. They co-wrote Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Coleridge, definitely the grand old man of the poetry world, enjoyed its critical acclaim for 39 more years until his death at the age of 112! Coleridge lives in infamy for being afflicted throughout his life with severe bouts of depression, which he combated with massive dosages of opium. At least, he didn’t commit suicide.
Paglia deserves the reputation she’s earned as an intellect and critic. She’s one of the very few I can stomach. She can dissect eight lines by Rochelle Kraut or twelve by William Carlos Williams and write two or three pages about their meaning, all the while, making perfect sense. You see, poetry is completely logical, as well as emotional, if one is sensitive and intellectually attuned enough to simply read between the lines.
As wild and wacky as the poets have been, they pale in comparison to the painters. Oftentimes, a phenomenally talented individual is both. Ralph Pomeroy (1926-99) was accomplished enough to be an exhibiting artist in New York City the town that chews up artists and spits them out. Joni Mitchell has always viewed herself as a painter first and song writer/poet second. That the public may feel differently is of little consequence to her as she identifies herself and her preference in “A Case of You” off the “Blue” album when she sings, I am a painter, I live in a box of paints.1 It kind of lets everyone know where she stands in no uncertain terms. John Mellencamp has also succeeded in this genre. I, of course, have wallowed in obscurity in both disciplines leading me to wonder whether I have any talent at all, or should I just up and die in order to get discovered?
Considering the painters, there are two artistic periods that mean anything at all to me, those being the Renaissance of 15th century Italy, and the Impressionist period of 19th century France. The former represents the birth of classical art while the later freed itself from convention and tradition and lived on its own merits.
Titan, Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael represent the height of the Renaissance while Rembrandt, primarily because of his remarkable ability at portraiture, is mentioned with this group although he came along a century-and-half later during the High Renaissance. Without advances in the manufacturing of pigments and their suspension in oils there may never have been an artistic Renaissance. This is because paint could now be applied to canvas and while it doesn’t seem like a very big deal to us in modern times, at the time, it was huge. The artists of this period were exacting in proportions and color rendition. Subjects were primarily of Roman Catholic religious origin and the reigning nobility. Some fine work was done, but it transcended the reach of the common man making him even more insignificant then he already was. Art was for the rich, and the rich literally patronized artists.
Post High Renaissance, the Baroque period slipped in which was basically more of the same except the paintings got darker, drearier, droller, and more pompass. As a backlash to this 17th century glitch, the 18th century art world returned to the Renaissance period and this movement is referred to as the Neoclassicism period. The paints lightened up, and the painters loosened up but they still concentrated on the same lame subject matter. One great thing had happened however, an ism was born, and isms birth other isms faster than rabbits. The events of the nineteenth century, particularly those in France, were about to turn the art world on its bourgeoisie ear. The country that had just waded through the bloodiest internal revolution in history was rife for artistic and social upheaval. During a rare period in history these upheavals were one and the same. Neoclassicism was followed in rapid succession by romanticism, realism, naturalism, impressionism, symbolism, post-impressionism, and neo-impressionism. In the eighteen hundreds, every time the art world experienced a schism it invented an ism but the only one of any real importance was impressionism.
Impressionism was based on changing light and color which, by necessity, brought the artists outdoors where conditions were under a constant state of change. The term impressionism came about from a painting by Claude Monet. His “Impressio: Sunrise” (1872), a view of the port of LeHarre set in the early morning mist caught the attention of hostile critic Louis Leroy who wrote, “Since I am impressed it must contain some sort of an impression.”
Impressionist paintings capture moments in time and how the light at that moment affected (above all else) color. Easels were set up outdoors where transitory light conditions forced the painter to attack the canvas fast, furiously, and with a passion that spoke to form and mood as opposed to object and exact representation. Brush strokes were quick, decisive, and heavily laden with paint, which could now be squeezed from a tube lending swiftness to a genre based on speed which was an absolute necessity in capturing a moment in time before it passed. Bold, often broken brush strokes, lent a feeling of air and light to impressionist paintings and gave pictures what they here-to-fore had never possessed – life.
Subjects were slices of everyday life on the streets, in the fields, or at the bars and brothels. Christianity took a back seat to the artist’s desire to depict and capture the truth of who they really were and how they really lived.
The earliest members of the movement were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, and Alfred Sisley. All were represented by the official French Solas gallery which categorically rejected their work and let it be known among critics that these artists had officially gone mad. The artists banded together and displayed their work at the studio of the photographer Nadar which they dubbed the Salon des Refus΄es in the spring of 1874. They continued to defy the conventional entrenched art establishment for a decade. Henri de Toulouse – Lautres, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and even isolationist loner Paul C’eranne displayed pieces at subsequent showings. No one was more alone than Vincent Van Gogh who revolved around the periphery of the movement, perhaps as distantly as Pluto revolves around the sun. At the time no one, least of all himself, knew what Van Gogh was all about.
Early on, all of the impressionist painters were starving as the art world turned a cold shoulder to their efforts at breaking away from its shackles. His brother Theo, who could barely afford to support himself as a curator of a Paris art gallery, supported Van Gogh. Theo believed in his brother’s talent and must have felt unrelenting rage and frustration at seeing Vincent’s work repeatedly criticized and passed over by people who didn’t know which end of the brush to apply paint to. Vincent Van Gogh wallowed in obscurity while his bouts with an incurable disease that was driving him to madness increased in frequency and lengths of duration. Theo brought his brother to Paris in 1880 with mixed results. Vincent Van Gogh did meet all the impressionists in vogue at the time which inspired him to more deeply commit to his calling which was a plus, but city life just made him more unpredictably volatile and deeply depressed.
After a two-year period in Paris in which Vincent painted over 200 pictures, Theo sought to isolate him so that he could concentrate on his work without the distractions of urban life. Theo sent him to the small rural town of Arles in the south of France where he took a studio in a building that came to be known as the yellow house. Theo also represented Paul Gauguin and twisted his arm to join his brother in Arles. It was a match made in hell. Some biographers suggest that Gauguin was secretly jealous of Van Gogh’s talent, but in fairness to Gauguin, Jesus of Nazareth would have had difficulty living with Van Gogh at this point in time. After announcing that he was returning to Paris, Gauguin was followed about Arles one evening by Van Gogh who wielded a straight razor in a threatening manner. Gauguin slipped away and spent the evening in a hotel while Van Gogh slipped the razor across his earlobe – thus the famed self-portrait of his bandaged head.
He then voluntarily entered an insane asylum in the St. –R’emg-de-Provence and spent a year there trying to regain confidence and mental stability. The violent mental attacks continued. The impressionists stuck together, and on the advice of Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh went to Arles-sur-Oise where a doctor Gachet volunteered to look after him. He entered an extremely prolific period cranking out painting after painting in rapid-fire succession. He may have survived for years at Arles – except for an ill-fated visit to Theo in Paris where he discovered what a financial burden he was upon his brother. The mental anguish he felt caused the madness to return with a vengeance. He went back to Arles, and out to paint in the fields just like he always did only this time he took along a gun and shot himself in the chest. Initially, like all the other times in his life, it appeared he would survive the incident relatively unscathed, but something had changed. Vincent Van Gogh hadn’t sold a painting during his entire life. His record remained intact as on July 29th, 1890 he died. Dead at 37. I mention this, not because he is frequently cited by those expert enough at such things to do so, as the world’s greatest artist, but because he was my mother’s favorite artist. You see, my mother was a painter and a poet – or so I was told. So this one’s for you mom. It’s about time I got this off my chest.
During the brief periods of my life that I spent with my mother I also spent time with the work of Vincent Van Gogh. His 1887 “Self Portrait” hung in our living room. 1888’s “Sunflowers” (her favorite) hung over the kitchen table. 1889’s “Irises” were displayed in the bath while “The Stormy Night” hung above her bed. Mom was sure into Van Gogh, which was a mystery to me because everyone said she was one terrific artist, and if that was so, why would she like these amateurish paintings obviously done by someone in the eighth grade? It would remain a mystery as we permanently parted company when I was ten. In my entire life I would not read a single word she had written or gaze upon a single brush stroke laid down by her hand. For the better part of my life I viewed this as some sort of tragedy because she was a terrific painter and poet – or so everyone said.
She was born Mary Ellen Lundquist on March 28th, 1928; crazy eights for the most part. The fortunes of women in America in general were on the rise in the roaring 20’s as the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution enacted August 18th, 1920 granted them the right to vote. So it can be said that my mother was born into a period of an unprecedented female renaissance. That would only be fitting.
She was also born during the height of prohibition, which causes me to wonder why alcohol came to play such a pivotal and destructive role in her life. Prohibition was instituted January 16th, 1919 as the 18th Amendment to the constitution. While the religious right in America sought to drive the country back to its puritanical roots, the whole plan backfired and birthed bootlegging, speak easies, looser morals, and the entrenchment of organized crime. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Lundquist’s were furniture makers from Sweden who came through Ellis Island in the late eighteen hundreds. From 1895 to 1924 twelve million immigrants flooded into America, the home of the free, the land of the brave. Grandfather Lundquist was born on American soil in Jamestown, New York in 1898. He fought in World War I as a fighter pilot in aircraft less than two decades in existence. He loved to tell stories of control columns, and later, steering wheels coming off of planes during battles. He spoke with reverence of the legend of Manfred von Richthofe, Germany’s top gun, the renowned Red Baron, and although they never squared off in battle, grandfather Lundquist was sure that he would have given the ace a run for his money. Grandfather Lundquist was fearless, driven, and destined to be financially successful.. He married my grandmother, an English beauty and precursor to what we now call a trophy wife, upon returning home from the war in 1919. The stock market crash of October 29th, 1929 did little to dampen his enthusiasm as he founded Lundquist Hardware in a three-story building in downtown Jamestown. It stood until the 70’s as the tallest building in town. So while the rest of the country was thrown into destitution almost overnight, my mother lived a life of relative prosperity while her mother sought to see that she became educated and cultured. Daily she painted canvasses resembling the works of the impressionists. She studied the post impressionistic work of Matisse which evolved into fauvism. Fauvism championed less detail but more color which she was definitely for. Before the genre made a splash the art world shifted gears and rallied around Pablo Picasso and cubism. Mother felt cubism too rigid and fell back to impressionism. She didn’t feel any other ism was worth much of her time until Jackson Pollock came along and lead the abstract expressionism movement or as mom told her art friends, “anything goesism.”
Mother, by all accounts, was a voracious reader, and while grandmother pushed Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and James Joyce, mother invariably went for Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Faulkner. And while grandmother rolled her eyes at young Mary Ellen’s literary selections, it must be pointed out, that the later two did walk off with the Nobel Prize. Mom must have known something. It wasn’t long before she leaned towards radical political poetry especially the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a free-spirited, rebellious beauty who lived life on her own terms, took many lovers, and died before reaching sixty. Mom loved The Harp Weaver and other Poems and Make Bright the Arrows. Both works illustrate Millay’s increasing involvement with social issues and disillusionment with human mortality. Not-to-surprisingly mom became rebellious, disillusioned, free-spirited, hard drinking, and wild which completely explains why she was so attractive to my father.
My father was born into a completely different and more familiar set of circumstances. The Krieg’s suffered mightily during the great depression. In fact, if you were to ask my grandfather, there was never a time within the reaches of his memory that the Krieg’s didn’t suffer. He was four when his father and mother fled the potato famine in Germany, crossed the Atlantic, and came through Ellis Island in 1898, an experience he could recall in vivid detail. My grandmother, Monica McLaughlin, left Ireland with her parents again fleeing a potato famine, and came through Ellis Island in 1904. Both families settled in Saint Mary’s, Pennsylvania, a town that was once recorded as having more bars per capita than any town in America. Needless to say, they were hard drinkers and prohibition didn’t much slow them down. In their youth, the German and the Irish school children walked to separate Catholic schools on opposite sides of Main Street throwing out taunts and insults in fall and spring, and well aimed snowballs in winter. He lusted after her from afar and welcomed high school graduation, which was an event that apparently ushered in a thawing in the cold cultural war and allowed the two nationalities to intermingle. He summoned up the courage to ask her out, and eventually, to marry him. She traveled with him from small town to whistle stop as he embarked on his initial career as a minor league baseball player the zenith of which was when he was called up for two weeks in 1917 to pitch for the Cleveland Indians.
When the US entered World War I in 1918 he was not called up. They must have been remarkably adept at the rhythm method for birth control, which was considered taboo and evil at that time, and was discouraged by staunch Christians. For example, Margaret Sanger, an ex-nurse was twice sued in 1916 for perpetrating the hideous crime of distributing pamphlets describing birth control techniques. The charge, of course, was obscenity. Better to have six to ten kids that you couldn’t feed than to be immoral. He gave up on his professional baseball aspirations at age 26 and settled in Bradford, Pennsylvania where he worked on the railroads when my father, their first born, came along in 1925.
My father inherited grandfather’s athletic ability and starred in baseball and basketball during his foreboding high school years. Young men in high school during the late thirty’s and early forties kept a watchful eye on Europe as Hitler waged his Blitz Krieg and western European countries fell like dominoes. My father was 15 and a freshman in high school when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as president primarily on a platform of continued economic recovery from the great depression (his New Deal) and the commitment to keep America out of the war across the Atlantic. Dad and his jock buddies were already suffering from acute “war jitters” when Roosevelt’s hand was forced not to the east but to the west in the Pacific Ocean when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The following day President Roosevelt petitioned Congress to declare war on Japan calling December 7th, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” Hitler, never one to pass on ill-gotten opportunity and feeling that America couldn’t fight a war on two fronts, declared war against us on December 11th. Greed, more than anything else (including fanatical hatred) is what did Hitler in for history would unfold to reveal that it was he who couldn’t fight a war on two fronts. Dad and his buddies lived in tenuous and turbulent times which they responded to with acts of great courage and there is no argument from me when they are referred to as, “the greatest generation.” He led the region in scoring during the basketball season of his senior year in 1944, and immediately enlisted in the Air force after graduation. That athletic skill was put to good use, and he became an airplane pilot and was part of a special unit known as the “ski troopers.” Off to Western Europe he went jumping out of airplanes, skiing into enemy territory, conducting secret reconnaissance missions. Who knew what he saw and experienced. Who knew what a toll it took on him. What a toll it took on all of them for that matter. American casualties at the end of the European and Japanese conflicts totaled just under 300,000. With all nations counted 20,000,000 military personnel and 6,000,000 civilians were killed. What mental damage could carnage such as this do to the human psyche? War correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese sniper fire near the end of the war. In his pocket was found the last report he intended to file.
There are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedges throughout the world.
Dead men by mass production – in one country after another – month after month and year after year.
Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. 2
Most of the combatants who came home from World War II came home with emotional scars. Germany surrendered on May 7th, 1945 and Japan followed suit on August 10th, 1945. Dad came back from Europe in early 1946 ready to blow off steam. He never got flying out of his system. In order to keep up his love affair with aviation he then flew jets for the National Guard.
An avid trout fisherman and sail boat captain he lived to be out on the water. Lake Chautauqua was the largest lake in the area and Jamestown lie at its southern end. Grandfather Lundquist, now one of the wealthiest men in town, had a house on the shore. Dad was sailing there with friends one fine summer day in ’46 when he met mom. Sparks flew. Love at first sight. Neither of them ever did anything half-assed. When they went for something they were all in. On that fateful day they went for each other.
Straight-laced grandmother Lundquist nearly had a coronary when she first set eyes upon my father. My mother was about to enter her second year of art school at Rochester Institute of Technology and was showing great promise. She was even contemplating running for sophomore class president which, in the forties, was unheard for a woman in a mixed sex school. Mom went against convention at every turn, and I like to think she would have won. Grandmother Lundquist was certain her daughter would marry well and set up a cultured household with someone of a similar, or hopefully, better station in life. Then along came dad. Rugged, brawny, tanned, handsome, confident, and unafraid of anything, least of all the disparaging glances and remarks of Lillian Lundquist. It was hate at first sight. She loathed this lower-middle-class fly boy who drank whiskey by the gallon, caroused all night, sailed and fished all day, and stole her daughter’s heart within seconds of meeting her. He didn’t much care for Lillian either, but rather than bad-mouth her he opted to avoid her.
Mom immediately dropped out of college. My parents married quickly and had their first child within a year. Then in assembly line, baby boomer fashion, they pumped kids out like clockwork every two years. I came along in 1951. Their marriage was on the rocks by then. Their different socio-economic backgrounds, their temperaments, their drinking, and dad’s infidelity drove a wedge between them. Dad split for the first time shortly after my ass was slapped in the delivery room. He went missing for months on end. Grandfather Lundquist took up the economic slack in mom’s household. The Krieg’s assumed their son was on some secret government mission such was the status of his noble pursuits. It was believable because in the town where he grew up my father was a bonified grade A hero. Nobody ever suspected that he would do something so ignominious as abandoning his wife and kids; so imagine the surprise of one of my distant (and disliked) uncles, who when on vacation to Las Vegas, Nevada ran across my father working in a casino as a shill. Dad could sell snow cones to the Eskimos. He could woo women and delight men. He could easily make naive casino patrons believe that the luck was in the room. He had a new life in a town given to always creating the new, the unbelievable, the illusion that the unattainable could easily be achieved. He was living a fairy tale life in fantasy land so imagine his disappointment at being brought down to earth.
Grandfather Krieg had this distant (and disliked) uncle drive out there and shame him into coming back. After that their marriage went from bad to worse, but it didn’t deter them from pumping out three more kids. One, a brother four years younger than I, died of pneumonia. I have vague distant memories of him. If the truth be known, I have very few memories of my life up until age six. That’s when we moved to Lake Skaneateles, New York. Dad had a sea scowl sail boat. Wider than more traditional boats with a larger main sail and no jib sail, it was built for straight away assaults and was perfect for dad’s temperament. Those other boats dug into the turns quicker during races but he reeled them in and passed them on the open stretches of the course. He was a dare-devil and wouldn’t back down from anyone. He would cut them off or ram their sterns if they tried to keep him from getting to the front. He was the most disliked sailor on the lake and he could have cared less. I have memories of family outings where we would sail from Skaneateles, at the base of the lake eleven miles north, to the end of the lake. Dad would invariably get in a race with someone. He was overloaded with all of us and another couple one day when a racing adversary who was sailing alone challenged him. Dad said he would accept when the odds were better. The other guy laughed. Mom didn’t like it and told dad, “You’re not going to let this guy go home and tell his wife he beat a sea scowl.” The race was on. We kids bent deep in the hull. Mom and the other couple laid down on the bow. Dad was a madman. Dad was dad. Dad never lost.
In spring there would often be trout he had caught swimming in the kitchen sink. I marveled at their beauty and dad’s skill as an angler. He took me skiing with him in the winter of ’57 and left me on the bunny slope. I stayed out there all day freezing my ass off. I didn’t want him to come back and find me in the lodge. Not that there was anything to worry about because when he hit the slopes he wouldn’t come in until sundown. When he came in it was dark. He took me into the lodge and bought me a hot chocolate with one marshmallow. I nursed it for a half-hour. I never forgot that marshmallow. Whenever I have coco this memory comes back to me. My father and I in a ski lodge laughing; him asking me if I was ever going to eat that marshmallow. The problem with this memory is the one that immediately follows it. As much as I’d like to forget it, I never can.
When we got home mom was mad about something. Probably being stuck in the house all day without a car to get to the liquor store. She went ballistic, breaking glasses and dishes in the kitchen, shouting obscenities, charging at him with a knife. He wrestled it away from her and walked out. I never saw him again. I never liked skiing after that. I hated to go on the slopes. I avoided the sport of skiing like the plague. No one knew where he was, or if they did, they didn’t see any necessity to tell me. I wondered about him. I missed him. Not many memories of my father have I. I mostly remember that he was always gone. Never home. Never around. I hadn’t seen him in over two years. Then something happened. Something I’ll never forget.
The small town’s people of Skaneateles were coming to our house in droves, and bringing plates of food, mostly baked goods, along with them. There were hushed conversations in the living room, which we children were excluded from. Everything was very secretive, very adult, and very serious. Later in the day, when everyone had left, I found out what the fuss was about. There on the black and white TV screen were pictures of destroyers at sea with those old fashioned monochromatic letters flashing the message, “Airman lost at sea.” They pulled up a picture of my father and I turned up the volume. They were talking about dad alright. His plane went down in the Atlantic off Long Island. He and it were never found.
Why couldn’t you have told me mother? I was almost eight. When you couldn’t find the words, why didn’t you turn to your writing skills and simply jot down a few lines? A quick clean little poem explaining that troubled times had come to our troubled lives. Unrhymed and unmetered free verse would have sufficed. You could have employed iambic pentameter and hissed the words across the page. Perhaps a little sing-song onomatopoeia would have gotten the message across. You never said anything, even after it was obvious we all knew. Perhaps you were still mourning the premature death of Jackson Pollock. I guess you were lost in some deep-seeded artist’s pain that I could never be expected to understand. Either that or you were smashed. You really went over the deep end after that. For three months I hardly ever saw you. I don’t know how we survived. I stopped going to school entirely. I just wandered around Skaneateles checking the boat docks for dad’s sea scowl thinking that perhaps he could miraculously sail home.
Ours’ was a family that never talked about any real issues. Everything was hunky-dory and full-steam-ahead. When it wasn’t, we sat idle in our moorings and did nothing. Dirty little secrets spawned dirty little lies, which would be taken to the grave before suffering the horror and truth of being exposed to the light of day. Finally, in my late thirties, I guess when they thought I was old enough to know, they sent me an article about it. Yellowing paper in clear laminate with dad’s clean-shaven heroic face smiling out at me from a lifetime away. It was the internal trade paper of Brown and Bigelow called “The Page” that was published on Thursdays by The Hudson Star Observer newspaper. B&B was a lumber yard out of Syracuse and the article read:
Thursday, March 19t, 1959
B&B Salesman Lost On
Air Guard Training flight
A new Brown & Bigelow salesman, father of five and a National Guard jet pilot, was lost over the Atlantic on a return flight to his base at Syracuse, N.Y. last week.
Air-sea rescue operations failed to locate the plane or the pilot, First Lt. William J. Krieg, 34, who joined the Brown & Bigelow Syracuse district February 16. Krieg and his wife, Mary, and their five youngsters ranging in ages from 3 to 12 live at Skaneateles near Syracuse.
Krieg presumably was lost at sea on the return flight of a F-86 jet fighter from Myrtle Beach, S.C. to Syracuse. He was on the last leg of his journey Monday, March 9 when he checked in by radio at 3:20 p.m. He was over Atlantic City and was to have landed on Long Island a few minutes later, his last stop before heading home.
There was no indication by radio of trouble or possible ditching because of weather which was favorable at the time. He was believed to have been at about 30,000 feet when he last radioed and his route to Long Island was mostly over water.
Krieg was a World War II Air Force veteran.3
The article was typical of the repressive fifties. It was not indicative of any in-depth reporting. On the surface, it appeared that dad was a real up-and-comer, and that this was a human tragedy of epic proportions. A few more of the base facts of the gossip-driven back-story, which older family members refuse to verify or deny, even to this day, were left out. There was no mention, for instance, of his other family, the one he lived with in Auburn, which lay at the tip of Lake Cayuga, the middle finger of the major Finger Lakes. Lake Skaneateles was the little finger and much smaller. So dad had better water to sail on and more trout to catch less than thirty miles away. He had a better woman and a better family, which were hardly things he made any concentrated effort at hiding from us. Cayuga represented the middle finger alright – the one he shoved in our faces. There was no formal funeral, or if there was, I wasn’t allowed to go to it. Shortly after the search was called off three uniformed service men were standing on our front porch. They handed mom a triangularly folded American flag, stepped off the porch, and fired seven shots each into the air. A twenty-one gun salute, and a flag in exchange for a father. Big fucking deal. Mom really tied one on that day.
I was sent off to live with my aunt and uncle in Olean, New York, which is an occurrence I’m convinced saved my life. Mom and my older brother went down to Tampa, Florida to stay with her parents and regroup.
Growing up I heard the rumors, the sordid details, but sons are tied to their fathers, especially those made more noble in death. I worked the whole scenario out in my head. Dad couldn’t live with mom. I mean, who could? He wanted to make sure that we were taken care of and was probably so morally responsible that he looked after the needs of his other family as well. Ergo, I surmised, he headed out over the Atlantic, ditched the plane seconds after activating his ejection seat, and landed just mere yards from where a pre-arranged life boat was waiting. We, his primary family by marriage, would receive Veterans Administration assistance while his secondary family most likely cashed in on a lucrative life insurance policy. Selfless dad took care of everyone in one dramatic fell swoop and probably headed off to Africa or South America to collect precious gems and/or hunt big game with Ernest Hemmingway. I fully expected that he would reappear during my adult life to explain how complicated it all was back then. How severely divorce was frowned upon. How this was his only option at a free and happy life so he exercised it – no hard feelings.
During the initial ten months that I stayed with my aunt and uncle, I communed with nature, forged some lasting friendships at Saint Mary’s of the Angels Parochial School, and frequently wondered what mom was painting and writing about down there in Florida now that she was free from the stress of raising us and dealing with dad’s demise. With her art career back on track, it wouldn’t be long before she would send for me and my sisters, and we could all be one big happy family again.
At last she did send for me, and when I arrived in Florida things were somewhat different than I had imagined. Grandfather Lundquist had set her up in the guest house on his property which was quaint and clean if somewhat cramped. There were the Van Gogh’s occupying their usual positions on the walls. Mom was gone. There were no signs of artist’s easels. No paint smears by the kitchen sink. No notebooks of poetry lay lingering on the dining room table. It looked as if she barely lived there. Come to find out, she didn’t. Mom had taken up with a fellow who lived over by the beach who had a one room apartment, three sons, and a million pet cockroaches. A real go-getter, he mowed lawns for a living on those days when he wasn’t too hung-over to get to them. Within two weeks we were all moving out of the guest house and out of his apartment and loading ourselves into the bed of a pickup truck that looked like it wouldn’t make Tallahassee much less the state of Michigan, our final destination. Mom was ecstatic as alcoholics frequently are when in the throes of a relocation. Grandmother Lundquist, always and somewhat deservedly portrayed as the ice queen, blew the whistle on our ill-conceived, ill-planned, ill-fated get-away, and the car from child protective services roared up and blocked the truck from leaving. The police arrived next. There was a heated argument, and mom was carted off to jail acting for all the world like a noble political prisoner being repressed by a totalitarian government.
By nightfall, my older brother and I were in a three bedroom foster home with eleven other kids. Foster parenting in Florida at that time was a profit-laden cottage industry on the rise. Castro had recently sent over his first wave of boat people and those hardened Cuban children were being shuffled off to anyone who would take them for a price. There were two such children in this home. I got my first inkling that this was a house without love when our foster father burst into our room, pinned my brother’s neck to the wall, and viciously swiped a leather belt across his face. The crime, of course, was for talking after curfew, and after that I hardly talked at all. Needless to say, our foster home experience was one of sheer trepidation and terror, and I prayed daily to be delivered from the place immediately after it was consumed in flames, and the last of my foster father’s tormented shrieks were heard.
On weekends we were hauled off to the beach or the public swimming pool as the season dictated with twenty-five cents in our pocket, and the helpful reminder to spend it wisely as we were going to be there all day. I begged not to go to the pool on Christmas day because my mother had told me that she was coming to pick us up and there would be presents – lots and lots of presents. Even my older brother didn’t believe it and he left with the others. I waited by the mail box all day not wanting to go into the house and hear the jeers and disparaging remarks of my foster “parents.” My heart leaped at the sight of each approaching car and fell with a thud as they passed. I was out by the mail box still waiting when the crew came home and can attest to the saying that, “children can be cruel.” My brother was the worst, and this was the day that marked the fact that I truly and totally hated him.
So where were you mother? Were you overcome with literary passion reading Keats, or Yeats, or Shelly, or Shakespeare? Did the light streaming through the window of your cheap hotel room onto a spent wine bottle give off such a radiance that you just started painting and lost track of the time? Was there a special on “Old Crow” whiskey that necessitated spending the Christmas money and you just couldn’t bring yourself to see the disappointment in my eyes? I waited for you for the entirety of Christmas day, and when you didn’t show up, I decided at the ripe old age of nine, that I would never wait for you again.
Well at least mom stayed true to her aspiring full-time lawn mowing boyfriend. Passion consumed the two of them one evening or perhaps they had moved up to “Canadian Club.” They decided then and there to get married and eloped across state lines to consummate the sacred union. They were unexpectedly and unceremoniously pulled over for drunk driving and sent off to jail. Undeterred, oblivious to her surroundings, mom petitioned the warden to smile upon their good intentions, marriage at that time perhaps being the most sacred institution in the south save for gator wrestling and stock car racing.
I have to hand it to you mother. You knew how to attract attention. You got married from a jail cell in Georgia dressed in a white bathing suit. The pictures run in the papers. “Look! That’s my mom!”
Less than a year later it was over, mom. The day is etched in my mind like a wood burning. Ended on the front lawn of the block house grandfather Lundquist had bought you so that you could get us out of the foster home. You wanted to leave. I guess one hand-out check or another had just arrived. He didn’t want you to go out drinking. At least not without him. He opened the hood of your car and removed the coil wire from the distributor cap, and dangled it in your face as if to say, “What are you going to do now?” Big mistake. No one ever got between you and your drinking; least of all your kids. You picked up a bicycle tire pump lying on the lawn and swung it at him. The thin open tubular metal handle hit him on the side of the eye socket. It gouged out a huge gapping piece of flesh. Blood spurted like a geyser. His eye was half-in half-out of its socket. I couldn’t decide which was more ugly; what you did, or how he looked. It sickened me to the core. Ten years old and the worst violent act I had witnessed up to that point. You held the pump threateningly in your hands ready to swing again if he came back at you. He didn’t. He just slouched down on the lawn, put his head in his hands, and sobbed. Broken. You sure could break people. I knew, if given the chance, you would break me. I turned and walked away. You didn’t notice. You watched him like a hawk fully expecting retaliation, which didn’t come. I heard later that like me, he finally left. People were always leaving you mom. And you hated them for it. I’ll never know if you died hating me. I broke into a trot, and then a full sprint. I ran until I thought my lungs were going to burst out of my chest. Then I slowed to a lost disoriented gait. Sometimes, in my worst moments, I still walk like that. One foot in front of the other, aimlessly moving forward while not knowing where to go yet knowing I can’t stay.
Eventually, I happened upon a drinking friend of yours who lived in a rundown hovel of an apartment at the beach. Darkness had fallen. Loneliness hung with the humidity in the air. There were a dozen men in her front room. She would come out of the bedroom with one and go back with another. Between trips she told me I had to go home. I refused. Finally, she said she had called you, and I left. I figured out years later that she was a prostitute. She sure was a whore that night. Sending a ten year old kid out into the darkness knowing he was lost, alone, abandoned.
There are angels in this world mother. You must have called the one you always did. Grandfather Lundquist finally found me after searching every shore-side dive and honky-tonk you frequented. I was on the Clearwater Bridge. Jumping seemed less of an option and more of a solution. I didn’t think I could take it anymore but it’s amazing what you can take when you have to. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get in his Cadillac. I think that he sensed it. He drove slowly alongside me gently calling my name out the window. “Chris, Chris, Chris, Christopher.” I hated that name. I hated the sound of it, the reminder of where it came from. Family continued to use it, but with everyone else I was John C. Krieg after that. He coaxed me in, and I collapsed wailing in his arms. I cried every tear I had in me and thought I had cried you out of me. Of course, I was wrong. Mother’s have a hold on their sons. The umbilical cord is invisible but always present. It tugs at me from your grave.
I told him, “If you take me back, I’ll just run away again. I’m never ever going back.” And I didn’t. So how would you paint that scene mother? What colors would complete the canvas? A little red for blood lost literally and figuratively? Some cold foreboding blackish-blue for the water I wanted to jump into? A salty translucent yellow for tears? Being an impressionist what impression would you have imparted upon this scene? If you could have pulled this one off of the raw edge of life Van Gogh would have looked up to you.
By the grace of God I was sent back to Olean, New York. My aunt and uncle tried, but she would never let them adopt me. She would never do anything that hinted at disrupting the flow of cash into her coffers. Mom was an accomplished double-dipper utilizing welfare checks and Veterans Administration checks to assure that the whiskey tap flowed uninterrupted. She had a master’s degree in bounced checkology. Before I finally left, she had even developed other less lucrative yet always dependable profit centers by rifling my Christmas, Easter, and birthday cards. I initially thought my aunt and uncle had forgotten me and then thought it cruel that she couldn’t have at least left the cards in the mailbox. That she couldn’t have made some half-hearted attempt to reseal the envelope, but she didn’t. Perhaps she was jealous, but most likely her alcohol-addled brain felt she needed to dispose of incriminating evidence. That was my mother though. No matter how wrong the things she did were, she was never wrong. There was always someone else to blame for her dire set of circumstances. Life had dealt her a shitty deck of cards but she would stoically play them. Good for you mother. And right you are too. Keep a stiff upper lip mom.
We basically lost contact with each other while I waited around for my father’s athletic, and her artistic genealogies to kick in. Life in Olean, New York brought one rude awakening after another.
There was nothing evident in my youth to remotely suggest that I was the son of a painter and a poet. Art teachers saw nothing special in me. I saw nothing special in myself. I briefly embarked on a flurry of short story writing, even enjoyed the work, but was inevitably told I wasn’t very good at it. I put down the pen in disillusionment and disgust. Perhaps genealogy had skipped a generation, or perhaps they had switched babies at the hospital.
In athletic endeavors, I didn’t rise to the stature and legend of my father which was a bitter disappointment in that eighty percent of the girls in Olean aspired to the lofty stature of a varsity cheerleader, and failing that, at least to the station in life that one occupies as girlfriend of a star jock.
My astounding inability to be very good at anything marred my high school experience, and by my senior year I couldn’t wait to leave it and Olean, New York behind. I began thinking of my mother again as graduation day, and the terror of leaving the womb it entailed, began to approach.
I was going off to college, not to appease the pull of academic longing, but to avoid the war in Vietnam. It played out in our living room on TV every night in living color that depicted death, destruction, and despair. For shock value, no television show writer could have written a better script. My uncle, the World War II veteran, thought that enlisting would make a man out of me. I, on the other hand, wanted to live long enough to become a man. I sensed that I would learn and accomplish a great many things if my life weren’t cut short defending whatever it was that we were supposed to be defending half a planet away. Then a friend from another school that I played summer league basketball with came home from Vietnam in a body bag. He was a good guy, three years older, fun to be around, full of life, full of potential. Now he was dead. No, that just wasn’t for me. Somewhere within the deepest reaches of my psyche, or perhaps contained in the blood coursing through my veins, I wanted to create, express myself, and above all else, live to see my potential, that only I felt I had.
Was it like that for you, mother? Did you sense you had potential? Or was it a foregone conclusion by your senior year in high school that you had transcended potential and gone straight to talented. Having achieved that lofty rung on the ladder, were you now expected to drive on into accomplished? Potential unrealized is a waste, but talent unutilized is a curse. Once you’re labeled as good you’re expected to be good all the time, or worse yet, to constantly get better. Is that why you turned your back on your craft mom? Is that what did you in? Expectations ran too high, did they? No matter how well you did everyone knew you could do better. Everyone, that is, but you. Did you sit in terror in front of your mediums afraid to get started knowing that when you finished it wouldn’t be good enough? Is that what happened? Did the weight of their expectations, which soon become demands, press down upon you and eventually suffocate you? Well let me tell you mother, it’s not so great on the other side of the fence either where nothing is expected, where no one sees talent in you, and you’re free to fail, and no one’s surprised when you do.
In junior college I stumbled across landscape architecture, more by accident than design. I wrote some articles for a counter-culture newspaper which garnered no critical acclaim. I expressed creativity in acquiring girlfriends and surviving for months without any money. I acquired an associate’s degree in horticulture and would have settled for it only Vietnam forced me to press onwards towards a bachelors degree. Upon entering a four-year program in landscape architecture, it was quickly determined, by condemning evidence, that I was the worst in the class. Since I couldn’t drop out, there was nowhere to go but up.
You see, that’s the thing mother. That’s what separates you and I. That’s the chasm that exists between us. Not physical. Not intellectual. But potential. I struggled mightily just to be good. You were already great. Where was there for you to go but down? Why did you allow it? Artists are misunderstood. Misunderstanding breeds persecution and persecution breeds contempt. Why did you give them the satisfaction of seeing you fail? Were you too preoccupied with grief, overcome by the death of Pablo Picasso to care?
I limped out of college, vacillated in odd job mediocrity, and coughed and sputtered my way into my professional career. Here I found the rungs on the ladder to be well defined, and the pay scale commensurate with the climb. Everything I did was studied and measured, accepted or rejected, assigned a score, compared against the work of contemporaries, and more often than not, found severely lacking. I don’t know how I improved. I stopped drinking entirely thinking it wise to at least give myself a fighting chance at success. It seemed like I struggled for years on end just to tread water and hold on to a job. But I must have improved for I eventually became registered which is the bench mark for a minimum level of proficiency in my trade. I climbed one rung on the ladder and held on for dear life.
I thought about you then mother. About how you never much placed any importance on something as mundane as an everyday job. That would have choked the artistic tendencies right out of you. Did you suspect somewhere in the furthest reaches of your mind that you would return to your work? Did you think that you would paint and write poetry again, and that when you did, that everything would turn out fine? Why didn’t you then? What was the hold up? Why can’t artists just be artists? Why does criticism, self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-destructiveness get in the way? Why are the truly great required to pay for their position in life with misery and pain?
I struck out on my own, hung out my shingle, learned how much I didn’t know by having it shoved in my face. Always struggling. Always one step behind the eight ball. Always robbing Peter to pay Paul. Never enough. Designers routinely demonstrate their lack of self-worth in their fee proposals. I repeatedly slit my own throat. I was low bidder. I got the job. I battled my way through the job against clients, cities, contractors, and critics. I could well have been the most hired and fired landscape architect in all of Phoenix. My life was a revolving door of commissions and dismissals. Eventually it dawned on me that something was wrong. I came to realize that there was always tension. Tension seemed to follow me all of my years. It seemed as though I should be able to get rid of it since I was the one who created it in the first place. Then it occurred to me that I liked to be tense. Unfortunately for those around me, this was my comfort zone. John Mellencamp once stated that he was comfortable with his anger. I’m glad that someone was honest enough to admit it. And so it is with me, and the tension that permeates my life. Without tension nothing gets done. And, above all, I was a doer.
I could burn lead and push ink and always make a deadline. A client called me, “the fastest gun in the west,” and speed became important to me. It also pigeon-holed me in my career. Half-a-decade into my professional practice I started to hate what I was doing. I was timid, never a good thing for anyone who wants to get ahead. I was cautious and afraid. I started contemplating a parallel career in real estate development not being willing to wing too far from the nest.
The more things I failed at the more I resented all the things you failed at. I tried to forget about you mother. I Prayed to God to help me forget. When any relatives asked about you or had something they wanted to tell me, I said I didn’t want to know, and I meant that I did not want to know. I found out though. That’s what sisters are for.
That’s when you died mom. Basically, your liver just gave out. Jill called unexpectedly one night to say you were nearing the end, and by morning you were gone. Didn’t quite go out in the blaze of glory that everyone expected you to, did you mom? Van Gogh shot himself at 37 and hung on for two days before expiring. He’s buried in Arles not far from where he did himself in. You’re buried somewhere in Florida. I don’t even know where. Nor do I really want to know. I’ll place no flowers on your headstone. I’ll shed no tears on the ground that covers your casket. I cried for the last time the day you died. I wailed at God about how meaningless and empty your life appeared to me. About how I was denied the opportunity to reconcile with and forgive you as if my or anyone else’s forgiveness would have meant a damned thing to you. But, deep down inside I always intended to make the effort. That’s the similarly between you and I mother; our good intentions that we just couldn’t seem to act on. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Actually, I waited too long. I wanted to make a grand entrance and impress upon you how accomplished and successful I was. Trying to impress someone is the reverse osmosis of envy and it’s just as ugly. Your death taught me a lesson. Never wait to tell someone you love them. So I’ll admit that I love you mother, for all the good it does either of us now. You were gone before I got my chance to mend fences. Dead at 56. For a belated eulogy I’ve chosen a passage by e.e. cummings:
Little Effie’s Head:
here is little Effie’s head
whose brains are made of gingerbread
when the judgment day comes
God will find six crumbs
stooping by the coffin lid
waiting for something to rise
as the other somethings did-
you imagine His surprise
bellowing through the general noise
Where is Effie who was dead?
-to god in a tiny voice,
I am may the first crumb said
whereupon its fellow five
crumbs chuckled as if they were alive
and number two took up the song,
might I’m called and did no wrong
cried the third crumb, i am should
and this is my little sister could
with our big brother who is would
don’t punish us for we were good;
and the last crumb with some shame
whispered unto God, my name
is must and with the others i’ve
been Effie who isn’t alive. 4
You could have picked up the brush or the pen again at any time in your adult life mother, but you didn’t. You could have, should have, would have, but you didn’t. What might have happened if you had?
Another half-decade ground on. My passion for my craft waned. There were times I hated to sit at the drafting board. Times I dreaded the thought of doing this for another day. And times I didn’t. I got so fed up with my mediocrity that I tried to become a painter. I bought huge canvasses thinking that proportion could mask a lack of ability. I painted the mountains I hiked in Phoenix, romantic naïve by-gone images of the west, and a portrait of my mother. I tried to sell my paintings in my own art gallery but no one was interested. I eventually sold, at drastically reduced prices, or gave away all but one of my paintings, and threw the portrait of my mother out. Then I recommitted to my career and headed off to California, the cradle of landscape architecture.
I wrote a book on landscape architecture, which proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how little I knew about the subject. I wrote books on the environment, which demonstrated unequivocally, that I’m a terrible environmentalist. I wrote an autobiography, which begins at my high school graduation, proving I wasn’t ready to deal with my youth. And now I’m sitting here and writing this because I have to. I have to lay this beast that torments me to rest and move on.
Do you hear me mother? I’m breaking free of these shackles of the memory of you. I’m sorry that you had to go through whatever it was that caused you to live (and die) the way you did. You chose to wallow in it, and it sucked you under and suffocated you. I’m moving on. I want more. I want to live and breathe during the years I have left. I’ll say goodbye mother. Once and for all. Goodbye and good riddance. I’m sorry for the things you endured and that you couldn’t rise above them. And I’ll thank you for your legacy. I write poetry every now and then and have even started painting again, but not for you – for me. I’ll give credit where credit is due mom. This didn’t come from just anywhere. If came from you. So thank you.
As I spin through the mental roll-a-dex of things I could have been I come to realize exactly why I wasn’t any of those things. My life, to some extent was predetermined, before the day I was born. As the son of a painter and a poet, I was bound to experience misery. I seemed to seek it out, and if misery is what you’re after then painting and poetry are the perfect mechanisms for finding it. Stevie Wonder said it in “Songs in the Key of Life”:
Sometimes I know you get in trouble
That makes you wish that you
Were born in a different time and place
But I’ll bet you this
And that it’s double
That God knew exactly
Where he wanted you to be placed.5
So, if what I’m doing with my life is God’s will, I embrace it. Late in life everything makes sense. This was meant to be.
Goodbye mother. Rest well. I wish you would have left a body of work behind you that I could proudly point to. Look, see, that’s my mom. That’s where it comes from. But you didn’t. You lived the life but avoided the work. Not me. Bring it on.
Thank you mother. God bless you mom. Good-bye.
John C. Krieg is a retired landscape architect and land planner who formerly practiced in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He is also retired as an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist and currently holds seven active categories of California state contracting licenses, including the highest category of Class A General Engineering. He has written a college textbook entitled Desert Landscape Architecture (1999, CRC Press). John has had pieces published in A Gathering of the Tribes, Alternating Current, Blue Mountain Review, Clark Street Review, Conceit, Homestead Review, Oddball Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Pegasus, Saint Ann’s Review, and Wilderness House Literary Review.
1). Joni Mitchell. “A Case of You” – “Blue” – Reprise Records 1972
2). Ernie Pyle. Article intended for a “Victory Day” column. Circa 1945
3). Anonymous reporter. “The Hudson Star Observer”by The Brown and Bigelow Public Relations Department. March 19, 1959
4). e.e. cummings. Selected Poems. “Little Effie’s Head” New York. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-87140-154-1
5). Stevie Wonder. “Songs in the Key of Life.” Portrait EMI Records 1976