Thursday, 4 June 2015

On a bleak anniversary, a tribute to two souls from the Little Apple

Way back in the early eighties, visiting old friends in South London, I was introduced to a visitor from the States, a certain Jeune Kirmser. There followed three hours of some of the liveliest conversation I’d ever had, ranging over any and all subjects. I remember she spoke of cases fought up to the Supreme Court about prayer in schools, she spoke about the pleasure she took from visiting London, she spoke about the wonderful people she knew back in her home town of Manhattan, Kansas – the little Apple, to distinguish it from its big brother, Manhattan, New York.

I later learned that many of these wonderful people were victims of misfortune, some of them immigrants, who’d she meet living in dire circumstances, and take under her and her husband’s wing.

Jeune Kirmser: remarkable and from Manhattan, Kansas
She also put me firmly in my place. I smoked in those days and she gently, but firmly, explained that my never-ending chain of cigarettes had given her a headache. It was the first time, I think, that I learned to be ashamed of that appalling habit, not for its effect on me, but for its effect on others.

She was good at that. She knew how to use words effectively, without aggression, but so that one understood precisely what she meant. 

I’ve since found out that her skill with words, as well as her openness to other nations and other cultures had deep roots in her. When she was twelve, she wrote:

I walked the street that night alone 
Fearing I should be seen or known. 
I’d not meant to do any wrong,
But that is always the bad man’s song.

Did anyone see me take that pear? 

The devil thrust upon me a dare 
That made me go against my will. 
But he, the Devil, is laughing still.

Said God, “My son, you must take care 

Lest you walk into the Devil’s snare.” 
The Devil whispered “Don’t take heed 
you know you’ve got yourself to feed.”

I pondered. “Let the pear decide.” 

I brought it from my coat inside 
And held it up to see it better.
Then ’twas done. I wasn’t God’s quitter.

I took it back to Toni’s stand 

But Toni grabbed me by the hand 
“I did wonder if you’d bring it back.” 
He gave me the pear and an apple in a sack.

I went home that night to my bed of straw

And knelt upon my knees before my God, 
And felt I had been saved from a quitter’s mission 
By Italian Toni. Who wasn’t a Christian.

Many years later – in 2009 in fact – I started blogging and enjoying it. And I began to notice that I was getting a few comments from another inhabitant of the Little Apple. This was how I came to know Bob Patterson, the man who could, for instance, mark his forced early retirement through ill health with the remark:

Retirement has changed my world in so many ways. Before I retired, I would set the alarm clock for 7 a.m., but I'd rise at 5:30 a.m. Now that I'm retired, I set the alarm for 8 a.m., and I rise at 5:30. It's a brand new world.

After many exchanges on Facebook, Twitter or simply by e-mail, I felt I really ought to ask Bob about the other person I knew form Manhattan, Kansas. It was probably my desire not to be taken for the kind of person who asks “you live in New York? Do you happen to know Mark?” that had put me off enquring before. However, the Little Apple doesn’t have the population of the Big one, and civilised people probably gravitate together.

“Jeune?” he said. “Of course I know her. Or knew her. She died a few months ago. She went to the same Unitarian Church I attend.”

I’ve never been to Manhattan, Kansas and don’t know the Unitarian Church. But I felt better for knowing that such a place existed, and that it had contained two such people as Bob and Jeune. Even though I’d discovered rather too late that they knew each other.

Sadly, Bob has gone too now. One of his final posts was “Popsicle sticks are made from the wood of the white birch. Go back to bed,” showing that his taste for the whimsical, the off-beat never deserted him. His last words to me were “…you shouldn't take this as a sign of anything but my fatigue, but it's time for a pre-prandial nap. Thanks to you and Danielle for getting in touch.” There was nothing to thank in the concern my wife and I both felt – rightly as it turned out – but Bob always made sure that friendship was properly recognised.

Two fine people, whose lives touched and enriched many others. Today, 4 June, is the third anniversary of Jeune’s death, which struck me as a good occasion to remember them both, and salute the Little Apple which nurtured them and which they graced. 

There’s no better way to close than with another of Jeune’s poems:

Death swept in, graceless and arrogant, 
Taking from me a gentle love, 
While snapping that I couldn't have the world.

Angered, I reminded him 

That he emptied not my world 
By snatching bodies. 
That for every stolen love 
I would cherish another.

He looked at me and smiled. 

I turned from him and cried.


Deb Nuss said...

Thank you for such a nice remembrance of both Jeune and Bob. I find it hard to believe that she has been gone so long and I miss seeing posts from Bob on Facebook when I login each day.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for your kind words, Deb - and it's sad indeed not to have them around, isn't it?