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The Eternal Optimist

1922 | 1934 | 1939

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Gram tied Dad’s outdoor shoes and he began to whimper.

He was sweating under his bundled blue woolen coat and matching snow pants. Gram carried him out the back kitchen door into the early spring breeze, cautiously down the wet wooden steps and into the tall prairie grasses of the park next door.  All around them they could hear construction, the hammering and sawing of Oak Park’s spectacular housing boom.  Affluence was in the air. Gram nodded with pride at the house going up across the street and set her baby boy down.

Gram and Dad often made their own space in the tall grasses of what would be called Fox Park.  This was their private space. In the flattened grass, they nibbled crackers or watched soft snowflakes melt on skeletal leaves. As she spread a blanket under the three burr oaks he gazed up into the leafless branches swaying in the cold wind.  Here in the midst of a booming town of progressive and prosperous neighbors, Gram beamed at her bright, blue-eyed baby who, with a frozen mist coming from his perfect nose, picked up a fallen stick. She watched as he turned the stick over in his chubby hands. Then he poked it into the dirt and threw it down. He picked it up and tasted it. Then he hit his pant leg with it. It hurt him, she could see, but she didn’t take it away.  He rolled the stick, then turned it over and turned it back.  He drew back in pain when the stick hit his other hand. Then he started to cry. The stick had not broken the skin, but his hand was red where it had hit. Gram poured a little water on the spot and picked him up.  She never said no to little Mac. Everything he did was just so; there was no need to correct him. The most she might say to him was, “I don’t think so,” or “maybe later, honey.” Gram often noted and sometimes mentioned to others how content and happy her son was. “All right, Mac, everything will be fine now,” she spoke to his tears.  When she took the blanket up, the grasses bounced back tall. Their space remained only in their collective memory.  No one else would ever find it.  She was happy.

Possible Grandparents
Possible Grandparents
Oil paint, encaustic on Masonite.
22”  x 16”

Dad’s last encaustic painting,
c. 1990. Oil paint, encaustic on Masonite. 4’ x 3’
Lake Forest Boy
Lake Forest Boy
Graphite on paper. 22” x 30”



“Santa Monica Pier or bust!” the bus driver called out as they passed Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain.

Mom, what does ‘Or bust’ mean?” twelve-year-old Dad looked up from his cartoon perusing.

“It has to do with pioneer days when settlers went west hoping their wagons and oxen would survive the travels,”Gram stated after a thoughtful pause. Dad was flipping through New Yorker cartoons, reinterpreting the style in the cartoons in his notebook. He showed his mother one cartoon that had a jalopy with a family parked on the side of Route 66 with a handwritten sign, “California or bust.” The caption below read, “Go West Young Man?”

“Mom, what does this mean?” he asked.

“There is a migration to California of farmers who have lost their land during the Dust Bowl. We may see some broken-down cars along the way.” He started to doze off, leaning his head against the window, as Gramma and her sister Flo chatted about the Beverly Hills neighborhood Grandpa had chosen for them.

How about that Cad’, Flo?” Then she'd see a '26 Buick, or a Ford Model A Victoria. The high and snotty Model T or a '25 Dodge occasionally passed. This long concrete path wound over red and grey gray soil from the Mississippi River to Oklahoma City. After Texas, they'd cross the Continental Divide and down into the New Mexico desert.  My dad was trying to draw the scene, but the bus was going too fast. The fence was two strands of barbed wire strung between crooked willow poles. Where there was a crotch at the right height, the wire hung there. When there was no crotch, rusted baling wire lashed it to the badly trimmed willow post. Behind the wire fencing, the dust-covered corn attempted to grow but was mostly beaten down by wind, heat and drought. He started again, this time sketching the whole scene, then filling in the details as he spotted them—much better. The drawing worked.

Gram learned the Buicks, Nashes, DeSotos. Plymouths, Chryslers, Rocknes and Stars came in a parade of rolling, rusting junk. “Flo, is that really an Apperson?” “Bess, those haven't been made for at least ten years.” Gram glanced again at Mac's drawing. The fence looked much better, and he was gesture sketching in dried corn stalks behind the wire fence. The sun had burned down on the green corn that for awhile had grown darker green to protect itself. The surface of the earth crusted over, becoming as pale as the cloudless and dusty sky. The leaves of the young corn lost their strength for want of water and tilted downward. Dad saw as he drew the bent stalk that it was bent over like the farmer he had watched walk into the cafe. He drew another stalk gestured to seem worn out like its caretaker, then another and another. The drawn field of corn became an army of bowed over, worn out, hungry farmers. Brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in to the central ribs. On occasion there appeared in the sky a high wispy cloud that gave no rain. Dry stream beds taunted the farmers with the memory of captured and flowing water. The sun pierced this world brutally. He was attempting to capture heat on paper with pencil. He wanted to show his father what they had seen when he got to California. The inventiveness in the drawing came from an inner, non-coercive order created by the trust between him and his mother. She allowed him the confidence to experiment by not interfering, while offering protection and continuity. 


Farm Sunrise
Farm Sunrise
Encaustic on Masonite. 1956. 65” x 31”

Old Chevrolets
Old Chevrolets
Graphite on paper. 14” x 34”

Horse Racing
15” x 22”
    1939Amongst the Oaks

Dad had a lilt to his step as he strolled to another Sienna Dance with a handkerchief peeking from his shirt pocket. He was impressed with what a little moonlight could do and decided it was now or never with Irene. She was a sophisticated young lady that had gone to his head, and he needed to let her know. Mom honed her endowed grass roots organizing with Saul Alinsky’s Catholic Youth Organization at her parish. She discovered that through her natural political ability she could take control of her own Our Lady of Sorrows Parish community and destiny. It was radical. By way of Dorothy Day, she discovered the Catholic Workers Movement to give aid directly to the poor and homeless. A good shepherd emerged from this combination. One who could cheerfully bring stray sheep into the fold by bringing out the best qualities in anyone. Rolled in Dad’s back pocket was his first published cartoon in Collier’s magazine. He was amazed at what these few pennies from heaven could do for his confidence. Mom was chatting with Mary, Len and Charlotte.

“Why would you, Len, it’s not America’s problem?” Charlotte was begging for a reason.

“What’s bigger than a world war…?” Len replied in his riddling way.

“Lo and behold! If it isn’t a long drink of water!”Mom smiled at Dad.

“Hi, Mac,” Mary and Charlotte said at the same time.

“Hey, Mac, what’s bigger than a world war and smaller than a thumb?” Len redirected his question to his cartoonist friend. “The bullet that you dodge,” Mac replied, a bit peeved to be talking about Europe’s war. He had no interest in it and was tired of the constant conversation about it.

“That's it, Mac, better than the one I had… I was going to say the bullet that gets you,”Len laughed.

Just then, Billie Holiday’s rendition of Porgy and Bess’ “Summertime” started playing.

“Irene, would you like to dance?” Dad took her gloved hand in his. Their blue eyes met, each clearly seeing the other. They turned and dipped to their living that was easy, becoming slowly more oblivious to their summertime surroundings. “Your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’, so hush, little baby, don’t you cry…”

Dad twirled Mom. The world was just the two of them.  He held her waist in his arm, his right drawing arm. Thoughts of their graduation from high school melted away, the giddy expectations of what they’d do next evaporated into a misty future. This one moment was their entire life.

“Dance me to the blue-eyed children who are asking to be born, dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn,” the music carried them on.  Love had never been so easy nor so close before. It was as though they had both reached the sheer precipice of childhood’s plateau at the same time. Hand in hand, they moved from dancing to light caresses and gentle kisses.

“Goodnight, Irene…goodnight, Irene,” the music signaled the end of the Sienna night, as the two walked arm in arm to the Washington Ave bus. “Goodnight, Irene, good night, Irene…I’ll see you in my dreams…” As the song faded into the distance, the lyrics amplified in their minds. Dad escorted Mom to Central Park Boulevard, careful to walk on the street side in case a car splashed water, his handkerchief in his pocket just in case.

This moment my parents fell in love came clear to me when I heard Madeleine Peyroux channel Billie Holiday in her recent rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” a song reflecting on WWII. “Dance to your beauty with a burning violin. Dance me through the panic, until I’m safely gathered in. Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove… show me slowly what I only know the limits of, dance me to the end of love."


Rank Fenwick Cartoon
“Rank” cartoon, The Fenwick Wick
1938. Dad was Fenwick’s cartoonist in high school.

Fenwick 1939 Calendar Cartoon
The Fenwick Wick
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