In San Francisco, a handsome old Lutheran Church is for sale. My “Beat Generation”, progressive, bohemian, intellectual, Jewish, left-leaning, scholarly, non-conformist, art professor parents, Leonard and Helen Breger, are deeply devout prolific artists. They buy the church.
It promises walls galore for hanging their growing bodies of artwork. The basement Sunday School classrooms will be large open studio spaces.
By now, my little sister, Michelle, has come along. We need a bigger house for the Breger family. We needed a bigger house for art.
The move into the church house includes both parents, we two girls, grandma Mutti, and three cats. Across the street from our new abode is the elementary school Michelle and I will attend. My parents look forward to Michelle and me playing with the rest of the children of far-far-far-left San Francisco liberals in our new neighborhood.
Dad and Mom sit us down and tell us “We’re going to have an exciting new adventure.”
The adventure is, that we are now going to live in church.
Dad is an artist who paints boldly-colored post-modern abstracts. His paintings, he intends, will become massive and floor-to-ceiling once he sets up his new studio in the church’s basement. He often gleans his paintings’ subject matter on family outings to Muir Woods or car camping in Yosemite. His habit is to bring large sketchbooks, and lots of wooden matchsticks. These he lights, blows out, and uses as black chalk to sketch his surroundings. Once home, he lets the sketches inspire his paintings.
Mom, on the other hand, is a skilled printmaker as well as a sketch and watercolor artist. She delicately chronicles in fine detail her solo trips through Europe and Mexico. Her lines are refined, careful, accurate. Yet, she captures on paper, the absurdity of a dentist’s shop in Guatemala advertising dental work in Spanish, the doorway crowned by a huge sculpted set of false teeth, the center tooth in gold. In Italy, she sits on the edges of fountains drawing passersby, a cluster of nuns holding up their skirts just enough to wade in a fountain piled sky-high with peeing putti, caryatids, and mermen. She fills sketchbook after sketchbook. And her portraits, though precise, more importantly, capture the very essence of the people she draws. She sketches them as though her hand deeply understands the person she is drawing, even complete strangers. The results are breathtaking and her subjects are in wonder at how they feel so clearly seen.
Our move to the church is looked upon as a way for my parents to start over. My parents envision a fresh start for their irksome marriage. For one thing, at our old house, before my sister came along, there was supposed to be a baby brother after me. Mom decorated a tiny spare room with baby paraphernalia, mobiles, “blankies”, stuffed animals. She bought me a “Tiny Tears” and a “Betsey Wetsey” to have a baby to play with when she has a baby to play with.
When it is “time”, Dad takes Mom to the hospital to have the baby.
When Mom comes home, there is no baby. I could tell from her dead face and silence, that Dad and I weren’t to talk about that baby….ever.
Mom and Dad plunge deeper into producing their art which, in turn, results in even bigger bodies of serious work. By now, Dad is no longer a window dresser at Macy’s, but instead he gets his first teaching assignment teaching art at the prestigious private Town School in San Francisco.
Dad, on a whim, gives grandma Mutti her first set of paintbrushes and canvas, even a “studio”. Surprisingly, even though Mutti has never had a lesson, let alone made art, she begins to paint intricate scenes from the Jewish Shtetls of her early childhood in Poland before she was reluctantly sent to Vienna to become a cosmopolitan “arranged” bride, Mrs. Esther Hammerman.
Dad insists on protecting Mutti from any well-intended efforts by others who suggest that she take lessons to become even better. Mutti is prevented from learning that there is a daytime T.V. show where an “artist” in a smock and beret “teaches” viewers poised with pallets in hand how to paint a landscape or a tree or a flower so that anybody in America can paint the exact same landscape or tree or flower just like the T.V. “artist”. This is how I first learn how to recognize bad art. And this is how I begin to understand what an artist is NOT.
Flashes of delight over uncovering Mutti’s hidden talent as an artist, occupy Mom and Dad, as even Mutti soon has work at The Whitney in New York. And little grandma Mutti, Esther Hammerman, is even listed in the Encyclopedia Of American Folk Art.
We take Mutti to the opening of the show at The Whitney, guiding her right up to and in front of one of her own paintings. “Look, Mutti, look,” says my mother. Mutti looks. She is silent. Then she smiles, and replies, “it’s like mine…only better!”
As for the church our family now inhabits, little sister Michelle and I are too young to be embarrassed that we now live in a house with tastefully understated cathedral-shaped windows, an enormous glass cross built into the facade, and an occasional hint of a dormer, the church was Lutheran after all. Embarrassment will come later, when we develop pimples. We don’t fully grasp the subtle meaning of the windows and cross, and, for that matter, neither does ancient grandma Mutti, and nobody plans to break the news to her that she is a Jew now living in what was previously Jesus’ house.
My sister and I get to decide which room will be each of our respective bedrooms. There are quite a few choices of what were formerly the church offices. I settle in on the room farthest away from any family member. I want to be able to close my door and be out of hearing range of parent “discussions”.
One of these “discussions” has to do with the large glass-encased sign left over from the Lutheran Church. Our spacious front lawn is inhabited by the sign, inside which there are interchangeable white plastic letters. When we move in it reads: “Sermon Of The Week…Coping With Happiness”.
Mom thinks leaving any kind of sign will invite past parishioners to come to church not knowing that it has been sold. Dad insists that the sign remain. He changes what it says. Now it reads: Whoever Controls The Images, Controls The Culture…Allen Ginsberg”.
If past parishioners do show up, Dad views that as an opportunity to maybe sell a painting or two. To counter a potential insult to our Jewish God, “Adonai Elohenu, The Lord Our God”, Mom screws a silver mezuzah into the wood casing trim on the side of our front double doors, outside. This is a traditional small silver case, which holds inside a tiny piece of blessed parchment containing, among other things, the biblical Old Testament command that we Jews always honor God in this house. Thus, mezuzah protects us, but even its presence is uncharacteristic for our undevout family.
However, though it may remotely seem that we as Jews, are possibly “practicing”, the silver mezuzah is merely a decoration without an explanation. Or perhaps the mezuzah is a stop-gap measure in case there is a God, and he is made angry by a family of Jews living in a church. Another possibility is that Lutherans coming to church at what is now our house, will see the mezuzah and instinctually understand that the church is now Jewish. Would Lutherans even know a mezuzah from a can opener?
Soon, Dad is teaching art at San Francisco State College. An art student of Dad’s gives him a “house-warming” of several larger than life-sized welded metal sculptures of wild animals sporting sharp iron fangs, also claws. Now the sculptures inhabit our immense front lawn. Mom is ambivalent about the beasts.
It’s already odd enough for a family to move into a church without flaunting that artists are causing an eyesore in the middle of this upscale St. Francis Woods neighborhood. She just wants peace and normalcy. But the wild animals must remain. Mom has rocks in her jaw. She hires a nursery to install a bank of tall manicured bushes, curbside, an effort intended to hide our beatnik-ness. Nevermind that she also throws in a few cartoon animal topiary intended as a counter balance to the ferocious metal jungle animals. Now the front of our church house really looks conspicuous.
I am too young to understand that Dad has “a history.” Not too many years earlier, he had gone to meetings of the Communist Party to see what it was all about. That was toward the end of The McCarthy era. Mom had not long prior emigrated to America from Vienna. She is still irked that Dad’s visits to those meetings might have threatened her hard-won citizenship here. She and the rest of her family of Jews had already been interned for five years during the war, and she was vigilant about protecting her new freedom in America from the likes of McCarthy.
Now she tells me, “Your dad’s a troublemaker. Don’t always side with him.”
The church house preoccupies Dad as his massive personal art project. He attaches one of his own creations to the front of the house, replacing the glass cross, a fifteen-foot tall stainless steel scarecrow with numerous rusting long jagged metal triangles jutting from its center. These points shiver in the cold San Francisco drizzle. The scarecrow has cut-out eyes that look like no eyes. And it can be seen above the bank of tall bushes mom has had installed. To Dad, the church house is his “Breger Holy Church Of Art” project. Besides, the large metal scarecrow should leave no doubt that, to any passerby, in this church, art trumps God.
Thus, in a year’s time, both parents and Mutti are beginning to gain a bit of notoriety as artists. There are write-ups, a flow of sales, group shows, solo shows…The De Young Museum, The Legion Of Honor, even a few prestigious galleries in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
On approach, our large wooden front double-doors open first onto a carpeted vestibule with an archway. This, in turn, reveals the chapel, a 90-foot long wood-floored runway of a living room.
Michelle and I slide in our socks down the length of the living room floor, “Slip ‘n Slide” style. We repeat this over and over and over, until Dad becomes irritated with our loud squealing and barks at us to stop. Dad’s fuse seems to be shortening.
As to transforming the once-chapel into a now unwieldy vast living room, the “pulpit” end Mom lines with long very low Danish-Modern bookshelves, to break up the space into smaller “living rooms”, but still preserve the grandeur. These shelves are crammed completely full up with sketchbooks, as well as numerous over-large hardcover art books, the bibles of our household. Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, they are like relatives.
Soon, Dad surprises us with a huge old carved rickety wooden player-piano with its tattered paper rollers, and three of four lion-shaped feet missing. Dad finds the piano at the Salvation Army and drags it home and all the way up our curving front steps with the help of a couple of his teacher colleagues.
Our living room becomes filled with ragtime tunes which play all by themselves on the piano. Michelle and I peer inside a piece of the cracked wood front of the piano that is broken away. Many brass pins in a pattern rotate and “ping” as they pass by an arm that strikes notes. Since many of the pins are bent, the piano plays lopsided syncopations. The old upright offers hours of comic relief for we two little girls in matching white and red flannel pajamas. Each time we pretend to play the player piano that plays all by itself, we fall to the floor laughing.
Mom is amused, though she was never asked if she wanted the new addition. It doesn’t fit in with her decorating plans. After all, she wants to have company, though the “company” my parents entertain are just as offbeat as we are and will be perfectly at home in a Lutheran church that has become an art house, a rickety player piano crowning the living room.
Thus, Mom maintains her efforts at making a home for us and is in a better mood whenever she buys a “new” piece of furniture at The Salvation Army. Mom sets up small seating areas to cozy up the “hangar”. A freestanding space-age oblong black metal fireplace is installed mid living room. Dad and Mom commission a trade with a woodworker friend of an enormous oval dining table that looks like an exaggerated surfboard, great for entertaining guests. The table is placed at the entry end of the “chapel”.
The piece de resistance of Dad’s decorating contributions is a plaything of infinite worth…He makes a trade with a funeral home acquaintance: one of Dad’s paintings in exchange for a grand plush red velveteen upholstered wheelchair that has the added feature of being able to recline into a luxurious flat gurney. It’s capable of being rolled from one end of the living room to the other in one smooth shove, with its passenger either sitting or laying out flat. Michelle and I view the new toy as an ideal addition to our living room playground, though, secretly I wonder if a rich dead person had been displayed on the gurney. When it’s Michelle’s turn to be rolled, I pose her with arms crossed on her chest, and I insist that she keep her eyes closed while “traveling”.
The church house is made for parties, and there are many…parties attended by our artist, and theatre, and musician, and writer friends. When one comes out with a newly published book, we celebrate. When another gets rave reviews for a new play, we celebrate. A reading of poetry at City Lights Bookstore merits a party. We celebrate. A sculptor has a one-man show. We celebrate.
Mom and Dad become friends with the originators of The Actor’s Workshop downtown, Herb Blau and Jules Irving, painting the programs and signage for each play performed there. Mom’s watercolors of the actors in their costumes are displayed in the lobby’s gallery before each new opening.
Whereas most families might have a “latch-key” child, or hire a sitter or rely on grandma, I, as a child, on the other hand, attend all manner of events: gallery openings, poetry readings, college art courses, play openings.
My favorite play, which I experience in various stages of rehearsal, is Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”. Although I am only a child, I understand the saga. It is a play-within-a-play which culminates in two women insistent in their claims that each is the mother of the same small child. The “Governor” draws a circle of chalk and places the child in the center. The mothers are instructed to each pull on an arm of the child at once. The result, it is explained, will be that each mother will have a “half”. But the one mother cannot bear to tear the child apart and refuses. She is deemed the “real” mother. I love this love.
Before the parties, we host in the church that has become a house, my sister, Michelle, and I, enthusiastically help with food preparations. It’s a time when we get a break from what has become our usual fare of peanut butter sandwiches and scrambled eggs, though we are not interested in the lox and cream cheese.
Guests always have a good time; good food, good friends, good conversation. We two girls always perform one player-piano duo before we are off to bed.
It is notable, that a long lineage of cats live with our family. They sit in bookshelves, or on the naturally left-leaning piano. A cat can always be found curled up in the most highly coveted of spots, the egg-shaped rattan swing chair that hangs mid living room.
Customarily, every cat in our family is named “Minka”, even when there have been numbers of “Minkas” in the past, or there are several “Minkas” at one time. Confusion ensues when attempting to identify exactly which “Minka” has peed on a rug. One doesn’t want to rebuke the wrong “Minka” for fear of sending the message to the “Minka” who hasn’t peed, that he or she is screwing up by not peeing, and thus, should now do so. Besides, rebuking is frowned upon in our family…….in theory.
To continue adding warmth to the cavernous living room, Mom rounds out the far corner by placing a handcrafted six-foot tall teak tri-sectioned Japanese Shoji screen.
And I begin to make a habit of snuggling down behind the Shoji screen with a “Minka”.