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Kerstin Schulz 


Homestead Farmhouse in Oregon by Jack Edward Barber


Beulah Balsiger smelled like cigarettes and her house had the stale after-party smell of smoke. She was part of a small cadre of people who befriended my parents when they immigrated to Klamath Falls from Germany. My parents in their correct German way always called her Mrs. Balsiger.  I called her Auntie Boo.  And Auntie Boo collected owls.

There were owl ashtrays and owl clocks, owl calendars and owl paintings. Owl statues sat on every surface and owl plaques touted such sage advice as “Owls well that ends well” or “Love with owl your heart”. There were plastic owls, ceramic owls and decoupage owls. There were owls with googly eyes and eyes that winked. There were avocado owls, teak owls, burnt sienna owls and harvest gold owls. During the day, when I saw them, they slept but as soon as the sun set they began their night of boozing, hooting and hollering, smoking and jiving.

Kitsch,” said my mother as soon as we were all safely in the car again. “Kitschig,” they’d say together, this super polite German couple shaking their heads and rolling their eyes like the clock in Auntie Boo’s kitchen. Then we would drive over to Omi and Opa Kirkpatrick’s.

Opa Kirkpatrick in his overalls and FDR glasses, collected oil stains and car parts and stayed mostly in the garage. Omi Kirkpatrick collected bells.  They clingled and clangled in regional tongues of porcelain and silver, of brass and of glass, of Japanese, German, and Sahaptin in finely syncopated beats.  They were precious and I was allowed to dust them. My mother approved.

If the bells were the grace note in Omi Kirkpatrick’s living room then the melody was carried by the wooden TV console, the cattle drive painting over the sofa, the giant Naugahide recliner where I ate ice cream after dinner. The western theme carried over to their son Rich’s house when he married. Images of horses, horseshoes and wagon wheels, cowboy boots and spurs crowded their tiny home. The faux wood paneling was covered with a collection of black velvet paintings. Heartbreak and hope twanged from every Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard soaked country stitch. “Kitsch” came up again.

Around the time Omi Kirkpatrick took my parents under her wing another family moved into the neighborhood. Emmy Jo and her mother Michiko shared a single-wide trailer on the property next door. Emmy Jo and I were the same age and played together every summer, but never with her doll collection.  Her dolls were for admiration only. Most of them came from Japan and stared benignly down on Michiko and Emmy Jo like domesticated samurais. These dolls lived in the open, unlike their feral cousins at the U. of O. Art Museum where you had to find a narrow stair hidden in the Asian Gallery then climb to the boxlike room where the fierce, mustachioed, enamel armored warriors and their steppe ponies glowered at visitors behind glass. You couldn’t play with those either.

All of this took place a long time ago when people took their collections seriously. It was before high art and NPR muddied the waters of a small western town, before “Give a hoot, don’t pollute” became Woodsy Owl’s motto, before rawhide lampshades and aqua ashtrays found their way to second hand stores. It was back in the days when people still remembered that Germany, Italy and Japan were the Axis of Evil. This was when generous people raised in the Great Depression still reached out to their less fortunate neighbors. This all happened way before irony was invented.


About the writer:
Kerstin Schulz is a German-American writer living in Portland Oregon. Her essays can be found in Herstry, Ruminate’s Readers Notes, Raft’s Art is Essential series, Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith and Wanderlust: A Travel Journal. Schulz’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in River Heron Review, The Bookends Review, Fireweed, and Cathexis Northwest Press, among others.

Image: Homestead Farmhouse in Oregon by Jack Edward Barber (1918-2003). Oil on canvas. No size specified. 2017. By free license.

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