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Monday, June 20, 2022

Revisiting the "Old Vienna"

In Leland, many years ago

"Ah, but that was the old Vienna!” One of the Artist’s favorite phrases. Yes, life brings change, day by day and year by year, but if we are among those fortunate enough both to have known many happy times in our lives and to remember them, the latter years are saturated with rich memories. 


On Tuesday, June 14, family and friends of the Artist gathered in Kalamazoo to share stories of the man we all loved, David Grath. The weather was hot but the venue (Bell’s Back Room) large and comfortable, and David’s daughter Carson had outdone herself with the arrangements. I took a couple of the memory boards I’d put together and also the bust of David done by John Martel of Kalamazoo. Carson had many memory boards of her own, including a marvelous one of the legendary “House in the Woods” down on Shell Lake in Leelanau County. Our dear friend Laurie Kaniarz (who also provided me with room and board overnight) was emcee for the evening, and James Burkett led off reminiscences (of which there were many) and played music and encouraged others to jam with him after the talk became more informal. 

Photograph of family in Kalamazoo by Susan Kallewaard

I drove home the next morning, after picking up Sunny Juliet at the kennel where she had stayed overnight (Was that puppy glad to see me! You would have thought we had been separated for years!) and was happy to make the trip by myself, with just the pup, because it gave me quiet time to reflect on conversations from the night before, as well as all the changes I’d observed in burgeoning Kalamazoo. I took a different route home, too, west on M43, north on M40 through Gobles and Allegan, and so on and so forth, providing occasional commentary to Sunny on places her daddy and I used to visit, such as Crane’s Orchard in Fennville (for apple pie in the fall), before falling silent once more.


My sisters from Illinois had driven to Kalamazoo and came on up to Leelanau County afterward, so Wednesday evening found the three of us gathered on my front porch, and by Thursday all three of David’s kids and their spouses and three of our four grandchildren (one sick with COVID in Maine) and my son had arrived, and we got everything set up at the Old Art Building (OAB) in Leland for another memorial gathering that evening. And let me say that right from the beginning, when I called the OAB from Arizona to secure a date for the building, and throughout the planning period and the event itself, I felt extremely well cared for by staff Becky Ross, Sarah Ross Mills, and Abby Chatfield, while Board president Dan Lisuk was another pillar of strength. Great people, great place, full of David Grath memories and connections over the years -- we could not have gathered anywhere more appropriate.


Although in my mind I can see on Thursday evening, from the front (southeast) corner of the room, people filling rows of chairs and standing all around the back and clustered in the doorway, none of us in the family took photographs of the evening. Carson had arranged for a photographer in Kalamazoo, and I could have done the same in Leland but didn’t think of it, so all I have are those few (above) of our setup earlier in the day, one of the Jeff Haas Quartet taken by Pam Yee (which I stole from Facebook) before many people had arrived, another of Laurie Kaniarz with Jeff Haas (who took that?), and a lovely shot of the building from back toward Main Street by photographer and long-time bookstore customer Angela Wolney. But that’s okay. We were all “being present in the moment,” as one of my sisters put it, and everything came together almost perfectly: Everyone loved the beautiful music (JHQ), raved the artistic and delicious catering (Island Thyme), and enjoyed the wine (Verterra). David Chrobak’s floral arrangements were fabulously colorful. Laurie Kaniarz once again acted as emcee, and all of David Grath’s old friends who spoke of him to the assembled crowd shared meaningful and often emotional memories. 

Jeff Haas Quartet (photo by Pam Yee)

Jeff Haas and Laurie Kaniarz

Photo by Angie Wolney

James Burkett told of how he had met David Grath when he, James, was only six years old and David was 23. Cris Telgard talked about old days at the Bluebird, including the autumn when David talked Cris into giving him a temporary bartending job and invented two legendary drinks (recipes were lost long ago, but their names live on), the “Muscovy Duck” and the “Cosmic Crowbar.” Charlie Hall spoke of a unique friendship built on caring and absolute trust, and Charley Murphy addressed the life of an artist and how David told him to “revel” in it. [Correction: what Charlie said David told him was to savor living the life of an artist. Savor.] There were lots of connections made through art and through the Bluebird, but Joe Tiedeck met David when he, Joe, came to Leland as David’s mother’s hospice nurse, providing a different perspective on David and his gift for love and friendship. Susan Ager asked at the end of her remarks, “Who will enchant us now?” Of course, there was much, much more, including Will Case from the sidelines and Bob Adler from the audience.


The kids and grandkids and I agreed afterward that we could have listened to people talk about David Grath all night, but as the crowd was S.R.O. it was only kindness to the people who didn’t have seats (and some who did but were probably tired of sitting) to adjourn for food and wine before the evening got too long in the tooth. And then I began to make the rounds, although I did not get the chance to speak to everyone, which is the way such times always are. Finally, as they had with setup, family and friends pitched in to help put everything away.


“Are you happy?” I was asked by two people. The question took me aback. Happy? Now a widow? But I understood what was being asked, and yes, I was very satisfied with the occasion. It was beautiful in so many ways, and people kept saying, “David would have loved it!” and that had been my goal all along: to put together an evening for him


The next day, Friday, was a family day, at David’s gallery and in our farmhouse yard, under the trees, for a big family dinner – another time we were simply present to each other and not documenting with phones or cameras. By late Saturday morning everyone was gone. I spent a couple of hours mowing grass. It was a beautiful day....


But ah, yes, books! On Tuesday night at Laurie’s house, instead of reading either of the books I’d packed (for less than 36 hours away from home), I started into a book from her shelves, the title having caught my eye. Grief’s Country: A Memoir in Pieces, by Gail Griffin, could not have been more pertinent to my week. 


In the past 15-1/2 weeks, I’ve read several books about death and loss and grief and mourning and bereavement, but this one, although the circumstances under which Gail was widowed were vastly different from my own, jibes most closely with my experience. That is to say, this particular widowed writer expresses feelings that most closely mirror my own. That is not to say that she describes general feelings on losing a beloved partner better than anyone else, because responses to such a loss vary widely from person to person, but that she writes, for the most part, of feelings I have known myself since David died. She is a beautiful writer, too, which never hurts. 


I am paralyzed by contradiction. It is impossible that this has happened, yet I know this has happened.


Some part of me seems to be functioning as a kind of emissary from the unavailable remainder of myself. 


I tried to quiet and calm myself viscerally, as if I were a traumatized animal in my own care. 


I want to be put somewhere safe until I am fit to live.


My house is the only safety; it feels like a cave of comfort and protection from a random and terrifying world.


My mind is still a minefield. I move around it cautiously.


I can’t bear to tell the story …, and I can’t bear not to.


That is a sampling, fewer than the number of lines I copied out in my journal but illustrative of passages that resonated with me. 


It turns out that my friend Laurie is friends with the author, who lives in Kalamazoo, and that the book was published by Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan series, so I will be ordering it for my bookstore soon. 


“One foot in front of the other.” That’s my answer to the unanswerable question, “How are you doing?” 



So, looking back, there was my old life with David in Kalamazoo and our more recent life together in Leelanau County, first in Leland and then, since 2001, at the farm. It was, as he would say, the "old Vienna." On Sunday morning I found photographs from our drive north from Avignon through central France. Blesle! That village in the Auvergne where we spent a magical evening, night, and morning! I also found announcements and invitations David had saved from artist friends for their shows, a literary magazine containing half a dozen poems by an old friend, letters, cards from his children, more and more photographs. It was/is the “old Vienna,” over and over -- here, there, and everywhere -- and it is priceless.


I’ll close today with a poem the Artist himself wrote. It’s called “Eschewing.” At least, I consider it a poem and suspect he intended it as such, but the scrap of paper is undated and contains no additional notes beyond these lines, and when I found it I was seeing it for the first time. Sorry I can’t seem to type in the numbers he used without having Word insert a number at every line break, but this is as close as I can come to transcribing. 


“Eschewing,” by David Grath


I’m taking time out

of nothing to practice

the practice of eschewing.

I will become expert at:


The laying off of hands


Pissing behind doors

while the dinner

parties quack on


Having several or

no meals a day


Not acknowledging

months like January

June and July


Will “feckless” cover me

When I get good at it?


There was no one else like him, ever, and there never will be again.

Photo by David Brigham


Karen Casebeer said...

Sometimes I forget how important Kalamazoo was in both of our lives. And how it has changed, even Bells. But when you mentioned the fall ritual to Cranes, my memory became palpable with tastes and smells.

P. J. Grath said...

Karen, thanks. Oh, those apples and that pie! I should also add that David knew Larry Bell back when Bell's Beer was only a dream, and David encouraged Larry to follow that dream.

Karen Casebeer said...

My Crane's favorite was the apple crisp! David's encouragement of Larry was sure on target. I remember when Bells was a little hole-in-the-wall brewpub at the bottom of the hill..and you know which one. When my great-niece got married a few years ago and held her reception at Bells, I was shocked and delighted at the empire Bells had become in the craft brewing business.