The following essay was written in 2002 by Jim Kincaid and was originally published in the book titled "Anna's Eyes - The Story of Theo the Artist." The publisher is L'Art de Theo, Ltd., 990 Sulphur Spring Road, Prospect, VA 23960. The essay is rekeyed and reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of L'Art de Theo, Ltd., ISBN 0-9742541-0-X. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you would like to obtain a copy of the book, please contact L'Art de Theo, Ltd. directly through either this phone number or web address:
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War is a monumental event, and always confusing. As we learn in the examination of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, different witnesses can remember things in different ways.
When the time came for deciding how to compensate the citizens of Grevenmacher for their losses, it was decided that the job could best be accomplished by the courts, and the lawyers who infest them, to execute the American will, so to speak, in such a way as to reward community opinion rather than actual loss.
The stage was set for this farce during the German occupation. When the Germans came into Luxembourg during the dead of night, unopposed, the citizens of the country were faced with a simple choice. Cooperate and survive, or oppose and be jailed, or worse.
As it happened in neighboring France, most citizens reluctantly made the former choice. If they had plans to oppose the occupiers, they laid them quietly and carried them out in secret. Thus, any opposition that went unexposed by the German authorities would also be quite invisible to the general public.
Theo engaged in such underground activities, helping some to secure art treasures out of sight of the Nazi collectors, assisting others in escaping to friendlier climes, and using his friendly relationship with some German officers to convince them that some people who had come under suspicion were really quite harmless.
Fortunately, some of those he helped survive the war remembered his efforts in their behalf.
Madeleine Fischbach-Jost, a member of the resistance in her teens, was among those who did know of Theo's activities. Nearly a half-century later she related her memories to me during that tour I mentioned early on in this narrative.
The look and the sound of Madeleine's closing comment in that interview are etched forever in my memory. Eyes glazed with honest tears were looking off into the past as she almost whispered, "he helped so many people."
But Madeleine was not called to testify when Theo and Anna's case was heard.
The witnesses who did show up had not been privy to Theo's activities during the German occupation, but they remembered things. Whether they had happened or nor. They remembered them with the certainty that comes with knowing that while this may or not be the truth, it should be.
One witness recalled seeing Theo wearing a Nazi uniform which he never did. Never even had access to one. Didn't care for uniforms anyway. Any uniforms.
Another, backed up by community rumor, declared that it was well known that Theo had helped guide the advance parties of the Germans across the Moselle and into the Luxembourg countryside on the night they came.
Fortunately, Theo and Anna were miles away in another village, attending the wedding of friends. But even though the charge was clearly false, it remained in the summation of the case by the public prosecutor. As did numerous other accounts, some actually true, that he had been seen in conversation with German officers. It didn't matter at all to the judges, or to the lawyers, or for that matter to anyone in a position of power that conversations with German officers were common among those Grevenmacher business owners who stayed in business.
In the end, evidence of Theo's collaboration with the enemy, whether non-existent, outright falsehood, or merely based on misunderstanding of outward appearances far outweighed any facts that he and Anna were able to present as to their innocence and their very real losses.
In his conclusion, his recommendation to the judges as to Theo's right to be compensated for those losses, the public prosecutor acknowledged that he had not established legally that Theo was a collaborator, but should be given as little as possible of the American funds.
At this point, Theo, having watched the powers that governed Grevenmacher gladly heap the destruction of his reputation on top of the destruction of his home and business by the German and American artilleries, rose and shouted in his accustomed scorched earth fashion, "why don't you give the bastard nothing!"
Which is precisely what they did.
Theo came away from the experience with bitter memories of this compensation hearing which still burned brightly fifty years later when he transferred them to canvas in his stunning painting, "The Judgment." No mere words, however cunningly crafted could ever convey his impression of the Law and its Majesty even half so well.
But, even with this new disadvantage piled on top of the wartime losses, Theo and Anna had little choice but to continue trying to rebuild their home and business. Anna's elder brother had fallen ill and died shortly after the war. No help could be expected from that direction. Clearly, the days of prosperity were at an end. The road back was far steeper than it had been in the beginning that followed their self-imposed exile in Paris. Anna, large with child, and Theo, pregnant with bitter resolve, picked up their two young children and their meager remaining possessions and departed for the more benign and anonymous atmosphere of Luxembourg City.
In Luxembourg City Theo and Anna faced the prospect of starting on a shoestring, but there was hardly a shoestring available. They found living space, not quite on a fashionable street, rather in the alley behind.
With winter coming on, and the birth of Jacques imminent, the prospects of establishing a new business were slimmed even further by the real and present necessity to feed, clothe, and warm the family on an income hardly sufficient to provide for one person.
My wife Catherine (spelled with a "C" once more since the departure of the Germans) remembers vividly the unending cold and the inescapable hunger. On many occasions, she recalls, there was nothing to eat but hard, dry bread. Theo would often take his small daughter into his lap, soften a crust of such bread in milk, if milk was available, and explain to her that this was "bunny" bread. This was very special bread and only available to very special children such as she. She remembers too, that she allowed her father to believe that she bought the story. It seems she had inherited her instinct for diplomacy from her mother, since the art was still one her father had yet to exhibit.
Theo hoped, in these rigorous times, to wrestle his way into the antiques business since he had learned something about it while in the employ of Count Trotti. He believed, if he could get a start that he might recreate the prosperity of the better years in Grevenmacher.
The problem was, antique dealers need stock with which to deal. Credit for supplying a dealership was not scarce in Luxembourg, it was non-existent.
At times Theo obtained old picture frames, restored them to their former glory and sold them for whatever the local market would bear. He was good at it and had customers. However, the customers didn't pay until the product was delivered, so any expense involved in the restoration was Theo's to pay up front. This included the glass, which Theo bought a piece at a time, cut to measure, and therefore more expensive than that most picture framers buy in bulk. All this meant that most, if not all the family's grocery money was tied up in the project and not available until delivery was made.
Catherine recalls the care Theo took with these reframing jobs right up until the final phase, the insertion of the glass, and securing it with tiny nails all around the perimeter. Unfortunately, this phase of the job was often done in a hurry, since delivery to the customer would mean that at least part of the profit would appear that night on the Wildanger dinner table. And that hurry, on more than one occasion left the dinner table bare since Theo could never resist the urge to put just one more nail in place to secure the glass. And that urge would misdirect the hammer. The sound of breaking glass was an unmistakable signal to the family that "bunny" bread would be on the night's menu, if there was a menu at all.
But Theo and Anna, with hardly any capital beyond hope, and constant need, struggled on. In time they established a very modest stock of antiques and developed an even more modest body of clients.
Theo's ambitions with regard to Mathis's future art career were as bright and strong as ever. Lessons and materials were considered fully as important an item in the family budget as food and housing. Having yet to imagine a career in art for himself, Theo spent all the time he could spare transferring all the knowledge he had acquired in Paris, and since, to Mathis. It was a dream fully shared by Anna, who had chosen Mathis's name with such a future in mind.
In Theo's own childhood, he had experienced little if any parental warmth. His relationship with his elder son was quite the same. Less a loving father, and more a demanding and uncompromising tutor. It was a strained relationship that would remain so for the balance of Theo's life. Theo was able to tell me, many years later, of his abiding love for his son, his admiration of his talent, and his concern for his happiness. He never managed to get that message across to Mathis.
Anna adored her son and showed it. Mathis returned her affection, openly and enthusiastically. I can't be sure, but it's reasonable to suspect that the strain between father and son was due, at least in part, to a sort of undeclared rivalry for the love of Anna.
Financial needs forced Theo, at one point, to take a night job in one of Luxembourg City's finer hotels. His job as a concierge was not as satisfying as art and antiques, but provided a larger and more reliable income. It wasn't the old prosperity but it was better, and enabled the Wildangers to strike "bunny" bread off their menu for good.
Mathis soon followed Theo into the hotel business, Theo having secured him a job as a porter. It was a less than glamorous job, but the largely American clientele of the hotel was made up of people who go to Luxembourg for the quality of its banking industry; so tips were frequent and generous. Mathis often returned from work and emptied his pockets on the dining table to the wonder of Catherine and Jacques, who couldn't imagine such treasure.
Mathis's money, however, was not to play much part in the day to day life of the Wildangers, earmarked as it was for Mathis's passage to Rome to study at Italy's Academy of Fine Arts (Academia del bel Arte).
An elder sister of Anna's had married well, her husband a minor Italian diplomat, and had agreed to provide lodgings for Mathis during his studies. At a price. That being all that Theo and Anna could send for Mathis's room and board. Mathis was allowed no part of this regular allowance for such frills as transportation. He had to make his daily trip of several miles to the academy on foot.
After a brilliantly successful course of studies in Rome, Mathis returned to his parents' home with a surer hold on their mutual dream for his future.
Having conquered Rome, in his way, Theo now turned his attention on Paris.
He arranged for Mathis to go to Paris to study with a prominent artist, Johnny Friedlander, who operated a small academy. Having accomplished this, Theo turned his attention toward finding an exhibition hall for Mathis's first one-man show.
In his characteristic kick-down-the-door fashion, Theo approached the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, an old and well-respected house that commanded the attention of Paris's art world. Bernheim-Jeune had the well-earned reputation of exhibiting the works of great and established artists, allowing lesser lights to shine in galleries other than their own.
Theo, having the same respect for old reputations that he had for opinion divergent from his own, took examples of Mathis's recent work, and the curator liked them enough that he reluctantly agreed to rent Theo a room for the exhibition. The trouble was, the room was not the gallery's main exhibition hall, but behind it. Besides, the main gallery was already committed to an exhibition by some Spanish fellow named Dali-Salvador Dali.
Well, it was a back room, but a back room in the Bernheim-Jeune. Nonetheless, it would be a neighbor to Dali's show, just a room away in fact. Thus it was to be desired above even the most prominent room in a lesser gallery. The deal was signed.
What Theo hadn't reckoned with at the time was that Dali would arrive to manage his show and change the rules.
Dali, for reasons of his own, decided that the main gallery was unsuited for the show he was about to mount and that the back room would suit his purposes better. So he demanded-and got his way.
All this meant that art lovers and patrons who chose to visit the Dali exhibit would pass through the hall where Mathis's paintings were hanging, both coming and going. And thus it happened. The Dali show opened to a crowd that included the movers and shakers of the Parisian art community.
The show was a stunning success!
Not Dali's, the young man in the front room. What's his name-Wildanger-must be from out of town.
For whatever reason, the art community of Paris didn't care for the stuff Dali had brought with him this time. I don't know what it was about it they didn't like-they just didn't like it. And the French don't spend much time hanging around something they don't like.
Besides, it wasn't a wasted evening after all, there was that new fellow's stuff we passed on the way in. Let's go see if it's as good as we thought.
And it was.
In addition to the Dali crowd that had just become a Wildanger crowd, Theo had seen to it that everybody in Paris who might have a positive effect on Mathis's career was invited to the show. That they might not be enthusiastic about Mathis's work wasn't an issue. Of course, they would like it! Theo had never a doubt about that.
That Theo's confidence was merited, even modest perhaps, was proved by the outcome of the show. Mathis was awarded the Official Medal of the City of Paris (Medaille Officielle de la Ville de Paris). It was an unheard of achievement for a young artist with his first show; even more so when you consider that he wasn't from Paris. Wasn't even French! Just the eldest son of the son of an iron miner from Lorraine.
It was, for Theo, a success far sweeter than even the prosperous years at Grevenmacher and the first chapter of his life that ended on a happy note. Things seemed to be working out like they were supposed to.
And they were, in some respects.
But indifferent fate has this nasty habit of picking a fellow up on one occasion, and slapping him down on another. As the prophet said-man plans, God laughs.
With Mathis's career well and happily launched, Theo and Anna were able to turn their attention toward building a new one for themselves.
All they really knew was the art and antiques business, and any hope of success in that demanded that they get into a better location, one inhabited by people with the means to gild their homes with beautiful things. Whether they really needed them or not.
Their move to a more fashionable and prosperous neighborhood was risky, but necessary. Theo finally was able to rent ground floor rooms in an old and shabbily grand house on one of the city's best avenues.
Separate living space was well beyond their means. Theo, Anna, and the children set up housekeeping among the collection of antiques they hoped to sell.
Daytimes, the children were encouraged to move among the precious, and somewhat delicate furnishings with great care, insurance being non-existent, and damage being a financial disaster. The only relief from these restrictions were those occasions when the parquet floors needed dusting and polishing. At such times, with polishing rags around their feet, they were encouraged to "skate", very carefully, through the open spaces, spreading wax and bringing the well-worn surfaces to a high shine.
Theo strove mightily to augment his stock with frequent scouting trips to the countryside where he hoped to find ancient treasures.
He soon learned that he was not the only antique collector who used this method, and those treasures he did find were of two sorts.
One, old but well kept pieces whose owners were either very fond of them, or too acutely aware of their provenance and value. These were beyond reach.
The second sort was the occasional good piece that had outlived its usefulness in the farmhouse, and perhaps its history as well, and had been relegated to the barn or chicken shed for use as a storage cabinet for harness, tools, or just to get them out of the way.
These were available at reasonable cost.
The problem was, to find them, to recognize the nobility of a piece under multiple layers of old paint, dirt, chicken droppings perhaps, and assess the possibility that it might still be structurally sound enough to withstand the rigors of restoration.
Having located such an item, Theo's next maneuver was to convince the owner that it wasn't really worth fiddling with, but that he would take the chance, and even remove some of the other "junk" piled on and around it at no charge to owner whatsoever. When the ploy worked, Theo would have a restorable antique, and often a supply of old lamp parts, tools, and other items that might be useful in some future project.
Theo had learned well enough from Count Trotti to buy low and sell high, with the result that these trips to the country were somewhat profitable.
First, however, he had to restore his finds to marketable condition, which meant additional expenditures for paint and varnish remover, glues, lacquers, sandpaper, and spare hardware. For Theo, it was a job made even more expensive by his inability to compromise. It had to be perfect.
On one occasion Theo found the remains of a sofa from the period of Louis XVI. All that was left of the once fine piece was the wooden frame. Theo's sure eye had spotted its royal breeding, and he took it home in pieces. In months to come, he cleaned and reassembled the frame, reupholstered the seat and back, had Mathis paint the outline of the floral design he interpreted from scraps of its old upholstery, and enlisted Anna and Catherine to needlepoint the flowers.
The sofa, a triumph of the restorer's art, brought the price of about three hundred dollars, a grand sum at the time, and a joy considerably tempered by the departure from their midst of a thing of beauty in which the whole family had invested their best.
Such stories were few and far between, but the Wildangers struggled on persistently and gradually got the ends, if not to meet, to at least be in sight of each other.
Just as prosperity seemed within a long reach, Anna's health began to take an uneasy turn.
Pain, a constant feeling of exhaustion, and some uncomfortable swellings in her neck sent Anna to a hospital operated by the order of nuns with whom she had studied as girl.
The nuns, nurses at best, saw immediately that something was quite wrong, something beyond their power to deal with, and sent Anna to a medical doctor.
The doctor was experienced in such matters, but quite as helpless as the nuns as to a cure. The diagnosis, no, the verdict was inescapable--leukemia, untreatable and certainly fatal leukemia.
Slightly less than a year was to remain for Anna to desperately try to fill her children with the knowledge and sense of honor that she had expected to have years to accomplish. Her ability to perform these tasks in an upright position faded rapidly, and she took to her bed, but continued to persuade, cajole, and teach through her almost constant pain.
Theo, facing the prospect of life without his Anna, turned to being a nurse, companion, and adviser, serving her meals and medicine, coaxing her to eat and drink, pleading with her to be strong and beat the unbeatable enemy within her steadily wasting body. Refusing to believe in the inevitable outcome, he was unready, totally unprepared when it arrived.
Scarcely a year after the deadly verdict, sentence was carried out. Just after a final and tearful visit with Catherine during which Anna had admonished her daughter to be strong, to realize that she was about to take on responsibility to take care of the family, especially her little brother, Jacques. Then she closed her eyes. The eyes that had captivated Theo in his youth. The eyes that he would one day immortalize in oil. Those eyes simply closed in a last merciful sleep.
Anna was laid to rest in the Grevenmacher cemetery on a beautiful Easter Sunday.
There would be no rest, no merciful sleep for Theo. He had been on the outs with God before, more particularly with his representatives in the church, but this was too cruel. How could God do such a thing? Give him a reason for living and struggling for so long, and then, just when the goal of a happier life was in reachable distance, take away that irreplaceable reason forever. If God had deduced that it was Anna's time to die, then God was wrong. It was monstrous, unforgivable. In years to come, Theo was able to make peace with God on some lesser subjects, but not on the taking of Anna.
The children, of course, were also devastated by the death of their mother. Jacques, whose tender years and frail nature had commanded so much of his mother's daily attention, was inconsolable. Catherine had lost not only her mother, but also her only trustworthy friend and confidante. Her grief was further deepened by nagging doubts that she had lived up to Anna's expectations, and that Anna died with questions in her heart about Catherine's love for her.
For Mathis, his mother, his gentlest critic, and the only buffer between himself and his father was gone. Too, he found himself the breadwinner in the Wildanger family, just when his own fledgling career was demanding all the time and attention he could afford.
But Theo was so deep in his own grief that he scarcely noticed that he was not alone.
He never contemplated suicide, his remaining religious belief ruled that out, but oblivion was quite another matter. He sought it, as so many grieving do, in the bottle, and began keeping company with the sort who seek that destination for themselves. His days were spent in half-hearted and unsuccessful efforts to keep the antiques business going, and his nights in the cheapest, and therefore dingiest, bistros Luxembourg had to offer. This, in turn, had the effect of deepening the rift between himself and Mathis.
Mathis had also discovered the deadening effect of strong drink, and the two of them quite often arrived home at indecent hours and found such encounters the perfect occasion to vent doubts about the other's worthiness as husband, father, artist, breadwinner, and human being in general. It was not impossible for the two to find each other somehow implicated in Anna's death. "In vino veritas?" Perhaps, but wine has the ability to make the lie, fueled by grief and frustration, to appear to be the truth. Such wounds do heal, in time, but the scars remain forever.
Theo's anger and grief continued to drive him for several years. Anger with God, anger with Mathis, even anger with Anna for leaving him. But most of all, anger with himself at having somehow failed to save her.
Gradually he came to realize that the punishment he was inflicting upon himself gave him no peace. Indeed, its worst effects were being visited on his family. This realization over time convinced him that a retreat from the life he had shared with Anna was necessary. Mathis's income was sufficient to care for the children now. Catherine was developing into womanhood and capable of taking on household duties and some degree of mothering for Jacques.
The business of buying, restoring and selling antiques still occupied his days, and the excesses of his nights diminished over time. Theo began to dabble with painting. He knew little about technique, but like the natural musician, who has never learned to read music, he has a perfect "ear". He was able to use his instincts to educate himself. His lack of formal training, in fact, worked to his benefit since he was able to develop his own style without being bound by the conventions that restrict trained practitioners in many fields.
It was a slow beginning since Theo had not yet entertained serious ideas of pursuing painting as a career. He wasn't sure he wanted to do anything. If he had goals at all, they were fuzzy dreams of getting through his life as quickly as possible and joining Anna in death.
Barely into his fifties, he already considered himself an old man and would remember himself that way in years to come in paintings inspired by those sad times. His search for consolation in the bottle and wild company would appear in "The Bistro", a haunting self-portrait of an old and hopeless Theo surrounded by women, some genuinely concerned for him, and others enjoying and exploiting his agony.
Finally, Theo decided that, if there were to be a life without Anna, it would have to be somewhere else, somewhere in a place not haunted by vivid daily reminders of their short and eventful life together.
He chose Brussels as a retreat and moved himself and Jacques, who was the only one of his children still too young to be on his own, and with a modest stock of antiques set up shop in a small street near Brussels's venerable "Grand'Place". It was a good choice since visitors to Brussels in search of antiques were naturally attracted to that part of town. Grand Place is the oldest part of an old city, adorned by the Guild Hall which has stood there since the middle ages, and numerous equally old architectural antiques. It was the natural environment for the antiques hunter to search out his quarry, and Theo willingly provided those who came his way with just the perfect kill. His success was modest, but it kept him busy and while it didn't diminish his grief, at least it gave him the opportunity to direct his thoughts elsewhere.
Theo enjoyed the old city, drifting into the more "Bohemian" social set and relishing the "Left-bankishness" of it all. He formed many friendships in the arts community, among them a warm comradeship with Jacques Brel, the noted Belgian singer/poet, and the equally noted surrealist painter Rene Magritte. In later years, when Theo was told that Brel was "gay", Theo refused to believe it. But then, if he had in Theo's opinion, opted wrongly, Theo still enjoyed his old friend's music. Besides, Brel had his political thinking straight, that is, he distrusted politicians in general and wasn't the least bit reluctant to sing about it.
Magritte was also unbound by convention, and Theo's conversations with him led to an increased awareness of his own painting talent and greater willingness to explore the field and develop, if not a career, perhaps an avocation. As he found his "voice", in a manner of speaking, Theo would use the knowledge he gained at the hands of Magritte in his own work. Not that he copied. Theo never copied any other artist, but he did study them, Magritte and a host of others. His future compositions often included "variations on a theme" to use the musical analogy again, but never the melody itself.
This friendship with Magritte resulted in the added bonus of a small painting by the artist which remained among the necessities he carried with him the remainder of his life. The painting, passed on to Catherine, still adorns a wall in her bedroom at Elam.
The years in Brussels, while not exactly prosperous, enabled Theo to heal to a greater degree than he thought possible and his newfound goal to be an antiques dealer who paints gradually evolved into a dream of being a painter who sidelines in antiques.
His plan was simple. He would train himself to paint and to become a master painter. Again, his inability to compromise was the determining factor. Anything he did had to be done all the way, amateur status was for amateurs and he had no interest in being numbered among them. He also had to be the master of his own fate in the art world. Therefore, he would have to maintain complete independence, paint only what he chose to paint and paint only in the style he chose. He had seen, closely and personally, what commercial success could lead to by watching Mathis, whose paintings were technically perfect and readily saleable. Mathis, in Theo's view, was becoming restricted in his repertoire, producing images that pleased the eye, but were aimed at the eyes of an art consumer, rather than the artist. To avoid this influence, Theo determined at the outset that he would approach painting as a profession, but sell no paintings.
He knew that Van Gogh had sold only one painting during his abbreviated career, and ignored the fact that Van Gogh had not set out to withhold his work from a buying public, he just wasn't nearly as good a salesman as he was an artist. Nevertheless, Theo admired Van Gogh and believed firmly that his countryman had rejected success for complete freedom of expression. He didn't discuss this with Van Gogh. He never even met the man. But he modeled his business plan on him because of his accomplishments as a painter. His failure to ever enjoy the fruits of his talent was merely a side issue, and none of Theo's business.
He would simply have to make his day to day living in the antiques business and let any profits from his art career pass to some future generation. His choice, in this regard, was being made for him. Even though he was unaware of it.
Catherine, fully grown by now, had completed her schooling and found a position in the bureaucracy of the beginning of the European Common Market. Her position was humble, but secure. When possible, she visited Theo in Brussels, and the two developed a warm father-daughter relationship that had been wanting in Luxembourg because of circumstances. Now, however, they were able to talk and share dreams.
Having reached womanhood, Catherine was now a person with whom Theo could communicate. A relationship, no doubt, enhanced by the fact that Catherine had inherited Anna's beauty and warmth. As a visitor in Brussels, Catherine was treated to the best that Theo could afford. It wasn't much, but it was his best. Catherine recognized that and appreciated it. Her love for her father, which she had found little opportunity to express in earlier times, was now evident and returned in full measure.
Jacques, now achieving his own maturity, found employment in the restaurant trade, beginning as a busboy and finally working his way to a position as buyer, steward, and seller of fine wines in Brussels's world famous restaurant "Comme Chez Soi". More on that subject later.
Back in Luxembourg, Catherine's circle of friends, mostly young functionaries in the Common Market crowd, had discovered the bar scene. The lights, the music, and the lively conversation had had the same effect on them as it has everywhere on this disorderly planet. And Catherine was no exception.
It came to pass that a young American airman, on a pass from a nearby air base, drifted into one of these scenes, and in a scene not unlike that in Grevenmacher many years before, was captivated by a stunning young lady who happened to be Catherine.
He wanted companionship, and so did she, and so the mistake was made within a matter of weeks. The two married, much to the consternation of friends and family on both sides.
Before the two were able to learn that they had nothing in common but a common need to be loved, they were man and wife, and wondering why. He was shortly thereafter transferred to an air base in Texas. She followed and soon found herself about to become a mother.
When Caroline was born, Catherine found herself in the awkward position of needing to stay home and take care of her, and the equally important necessity to work, and provide an income.
So, she turned in the only direction that seemed to hold out any promise of success. She called Brussels and asked her father to come to America and serve as a full time baby sitter for his first, and only, grandchild.
Theo willingly agreed, closed his business affairs in Brussels and, in spite of an almost pathological fear of flying, arranged passage to America.
Joining his daughter in Texas, he gladly learned the art of child rearing, and in his spare time, collected images in his mind that he would one day translate to canvas.
A few months later, Catherine realized that Texas, while wonderful in its own Southwestern way, offered little opportunity for her to exercise her secretarial skills, and her fluent command of three languages, French, German, and English. About the only jobs available involved being a waitress.
The next logical move was to go where such skills might be marketable, and Washington D.C. came immediately to mind. So, Theo, the infant Caroline, and Catherine soon found themselves in the nation's capital. Catherine was not jobless for long. She had applied for many positions. The director of the political department of the United Mine Worker's Union actually read her resume. He realized that if she was really as accomplished as the resume claimed, she would be invaluable.
She was that good, and Meyer Bernstein never regretted selecting her. He raised her salary almost immediately to a quite livable wage. Thus, Theo was finally in a position to pursue his art, with no need to provide a living, and with only the very agreeable job of baby sitting a grand-daughter he had quickly come to adore.
Catherine found living space in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, and Theo found a vocation in carrying his tiny charge through wooded areas nearby and relating to her the names of the wonders she perceived on all sides.
When she imitated the sound of birds she observed, Theo began to call her "Peepchen", a nickname she carries until today, well into her own maturity.
More importantly, Theo had found his heir. One day "Peepchen" would be the beneficiary of his painting, subject to the stewardship of his beloved daughter Catherine. Now, the only task remaining was to produce a worthy legacy. It became a full time job. His head was filled with images, beautiful images, and he had only a finite amount of time to record them.
The time and circumstance that would make this monumental task possible was approaching from an entirely unexpected direction. This is where I was about to assume a direct and personal role in the life of Theodore Wildanger.
As the writer of this narrative, the time has arrived to introduce myself and the happy chain of events that brought me into the story.
At the time Catherine, Caroline and Theo were settling into their new life in Washington, I was plying my trade as a news correspondent in ABC's Midwest Bureau in Chicago.
Having returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam about two years previously, my assignments had included extensive coverage of America's coal fields, primarily those in West Virginia, where I had developed a goodly number of contacts in the United Mine Workers' organization.
This explains my presence in Pittsburgh for the annual convention of the UMWA.
Catherine, in the early stages of her service to the mineworkers, had been sent to that same convention to man an information booth in the convention hall.
And so the stage was set.
When I passed that information booth, I spotted Catherine, and suddenly found myself in urgent need of information. She had had the same effect on me that Anna had on Theo at that village dance in Grevenmacher.
The rest is history.
Having failed at two successive marriages, I had given up on the institution and determined that a career that involved almost constant travel and periodic danger was incompatible. My wives had come to the same conclusion. But, it was what I did, and the only thing I knew how to do. You see the problem?
Catherine had made a similar decision in her own life, for different reasons. But we had met, fortuitously in the early going of the convention, and before it closed several days later we had formed a union of our own.
In the days that followed I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade ABC to transfer me to the Washington Bureau. When they insisted that Chicago was where I could serve them best, and that the Washington Bureau was fully staffed and needed no additions, I did the only logical thing. I transferred myself. I called the chief of correspondents in New York and announced that I would be moving to Washington that weekend. On Monday morning I would call the Washington Bureau and inquire as to whether I had a job. And I proceeded to do just that.
Happily, by Monday the powers that be had concluded that I could travel from Washington just as well as I could travel from Chicago, and that all that would change, really, would be where they had to call to give me marching orders.
The new arrangement worked so well that the higher-ups at ABC concluded that it was their idea in the first place.
A few months later Catherine and I were married in a church across the street from the White House with Theo and "Peepchen" in attendance beaming approval. We had already established ourselves as a family of four.
Catherine and I were in love, of course, and remain so more than a quarter of a century later; but my relationship with Theo was never that of a father-in-law and son-in-law, rather more like two interesting friends in the beginning, and evolving into a brotherhood. We had a lot in common. Catherine and Caroline as the two most important people in our lives. A deep interest in each other's line of work. A common doubtful view of politicians in general, and strong opinions about practically everything. We had some lively conversations, and arguments, and enjoyed them thoroughly.
The language I alluded to earlier was a curiosity in itself, being a blend of Theo's German, French, and smattering of English, and my own "street" German picked up when I was in the Army and busily researching the social possibilities of the gamier sections of Frankfurt-am-Main.
Gradually, we became fluent in this "pidgin", and the conversation around the dinner table often sounded like a committee meeting at the United Nations.
These dinner table meetings usually lasted far into the evening, beginning with a fine meal, the result of Catherine's early education in cookery by her mother, accompanied by the finest wines we could afford, and followed by French cheeses and crusty bread, and quite probably another serving of wine.
A forgotten art in most American homes, the dinner was considered essential in our house, necessary not only for the wholesome food that nourished our bodies, but for the intellectual food we passed among ourselves to nourish our minds and souls.
Caroline, just three in the beginning, was a fully vested participant in these meetings, leaving the table only when it was noticed that her bedtime was overdue. We learned only much later that she had a ritual of her own, involving going upstairs, making the expected noises of washing and preparing for bed, then returning to the head of the stairs, sitting down on the carpet and listening carefully for her name to come up in the continuing conversation at the table. When she was mentioned, which was often, it was invariably favorable. While her parents and grandfather disagreed on some things, there was common opinion among them that she was, without doubt, the most beautiful and talented child yet to appear on this planet. We have yet to find cause to doubt this conclusion.
It was there, at the dinner table, that I heard the first of those stories that invariably opened with the line "In ze times". At that point, Catherine and I usually sat back quietly, absorbing yet another account that would be filled with colorful detail. A painting in words that would often explain the origin of a painting in oils. Sometimes, the theme of a story was a painting yet to be, but always, the soul of the painter was exposed. Unlike some old stories that one hears again and again at the hands of an elder family statesman, Theo's stories were not boring. The mental pictures he drew were more like a favorite movie that one can watch again and again, repeating the actor's lines to oneself, and anticipating the changes of scene.
Free now of the pressures of making a living, Theo was able, for the first time, to give his entire attention to painting, and he went at it with gusto. Catherine and I were able, financially, to provide materials in plenty, but hard pressed at times to stay ahead of his production.
His florals and still lifes came off his brush with surprising speed. Stacks of fresh canvas board would dwindle visibly. And when canvas was not available, sketchbooks would be filled with oils, Theo barely allowing the paint to dry on one page before flipping it and beginning another.
I was to be amazed many times in those years to see Theo take a blank space and simply make a painting appear. And he was not limited by the brush. Theo's tools for these creations might include the serrated edge of a steak knife, a section of broken comb, the thumb and two fingers remaining on his left hand-anything that would transfer his colors to canvas with the effect he intended.
If he had self-doubts about his work, he never provided evidence of such. If I happened to be nearby at the finish of a painting, his announcement of that fact was invariably the same. "Zhim, kom schnell, I haf mak a beauty thing!" And there, where blank space had been, would be a thing of beauty.
It bothered Theo not at all that his flowers sometimes differed from the ones God created. They were beautiful flowers, and the fact that he had thought of them before God did was not his concern. It seemed also, to Theo, that God had often put the wrong foliage with some his creations, adorning the rosebush with leaves that more properly belonged with peonies. When he noticed such errors, he corrected them, no apology necessary.
Theo's room in our suburban house in Silver Spring soon was filled to capacity with Theo's paintings, and he expanded into my basement workshop, finding in the process, that some of my tools, such as screwdrivers could be usefully employed in the painting trade. Files, scrapers, rulers, and such soon found employment with Theo, and once gone from my tool bench, stayed gone. A fine set of box wrenches was mercifully spared, and survives. Most of my other tools were acquired post-Theo.
Meantime, Catherine was beginning to come to the same conclusions about my profession as had my earlier wives. Happily, this time I was coming to the same way of thinking, growing daily more resentful of the assignments that kept me away from my family, and at the same time discovering that I had developed a whole new set of priorities. Catherine, Peepchen, and Theo headed the list, and a career as a correspondent hardly made the list at all.
At about this same time, the family had made an excursion into Southern Virginia with some back burner notion of finding a place in the country. We didn't really expect to find one, just to toy with the dream of living far from crowded urban life and expressways.
With our habit of falling in love at first sight still unbroken, we were taken by a real estate agent into the countryside of Prince Edward County, to an old log house. A very old log house. It won all four of our hearts in seconds. We made the deal in our hearts on the drive back to Washington and on the phone with the realtor as soon as we got there.
The next major change in Theo's life was in the making.
The iron ore miner's son from Lorraine was about to become "The Baron
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