Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sue Belle

In my artistic process prior to creating a new piece, sometimes I will reminisce of my past. I think of people or situations that made me uncomfortable as a child, and put a new spin on my memories. I will work myself up into a frenzy of creepiness to develop a new character. When I begin to feel a certain way, the path is clear for me to create.

Sometimes I don't have to try so hard.

My grandparents were very religious people. They attended a small church in town, and had a tight group of friends. As a child, I was taken to that church every Sunday, so I knew most of the church people by sight. Sometimes the "brothers" and "sisters", as it was customary to call the fellow worshipers, would be invited to Sunday lunch at my Grandparents' house. One couple that seemed to be extremely close to the family was Lawrence and Almeda. ( Brother Lawrence and Sister Almeda.....can I get an Amen?...AMEN!)
Well, anyway, this pair really creeped me out. Seriously. Lawrence was a tall thin man who wore brightly colored leisure suits on Sunday and cardigan sweaters the rest of the time. Lawrence didn't wear pants, he wore "slacks". He had the burr haircut of a shop teacher, extremely large and rough hands, and always smelled of tobacco. Lawrence mostly left us kids alone. Almeda, on the other hand....she was a short, round busybody with hairpins always falling out of her sparse curly hair, always wearing knee high stockings and a tattered dress (in church and out of church) She was a cheek pincher, if you know what I mean, and I made it a point to stay as far away as possible. Her nickname was 'MeenieMoe'...god only knows why.

My Grandmother worked at a place called Riverside. I'm sure it had a different name than that (probably Riverside Rehabilitation Facility, or something very clinical like that) When I was growing up, politically correct wasn't even thought of yet, and Riverside was the running gag among the grade-schoolers as the place the retarded kids went. The short bus would load them up every day, and cart the retards off to Riverside to make pretty colored hand prints on craft paper and spend the day smearing themselves with tempera paints and drool. So Grandmother worked at Riverside, and MeeniMoe's daughter Sue-belle attended Riverside.

Sometimes we would visit Brother Lawrence and Sister MeeniMoe at their home. My mother insisted. I suppose she thought it would build character, and looked at it as an enrichment activity. She may have thought it would win her points with my Grandparents...."isn't that nice....Judy took the boys to visit Sue-Belle." I don't know why she did it, and really don't want to know. We always entered the house through the kitchen...that's what friends did...the front door was too formal. Thank God for small favors gave me time to adjust to the climate. I remember the smell of natural gas...not the good cooking smell I recall from Grandma's house, but the oppressive death smell....(honest officer, I never knew there was a leak... I wonder?...) I remember a dusty, forgotten smell of old books and magazines, an oily smell of slick wood floors freshly Lysol'd. I remember entering the living room ( could they call it that?) "Come on in Davy....Sue Belle wants to say Hello" (sue belle wants to say anything) I didn't want to, but I couldn't go anywhere else. Never mind Lawrence and his dark socks and his vinyl chair and his aluminum tumbler with some very heavy and numbing liquid in it....never mind the black and white tv with the rabbit ears and re-rerun episodes of the Bob Braun show....never mind the slick wood floors and the black furnace grates that seemed to go down forever. never mind the hand-made felt clowns and teddy bears with eyes that were much too large. Never mind the natural gas smell of Auschwitz in Ohio....There was Suebelle to say hello to.... She had her own chair that her enormous body exceeded. She looked way too happy. She was much too large to be anyone's daughter. She drooled and made strange guttural noises. She smelled like dried vomit, or stale bedsheets, or roadkill, or perhaps a lovely combination of them all. She moved in a very unnatural way that made me think I was about to be eaten.

Why in god's name would any sane person put a kid through that? why?


  1. My Grandmother (who came from Austria) had friends she made me visit from time to time as a small child: The Baumgartners. Same vibe: smell of old people, a husband who didn't seem to like kids. I know this because he would make the most foul-tasting "cereal," and make me eat the whole thing. I would tell him I wasn't hungry. No, thank you. Really, I don't want to trouble you. None of it worked. Foul, mushy, disgusting food. And he'd stand over me to make sure I ate evry bite.
    I freakin' dreaded visiting them. And I have always loved old people.

  2. I remember long-repressed memories of Sunday Visiting but most of all the much dreaded Family Reunion. I had a kinfolk that was born without sweat glands and he had scaly, splotchy skin that I couldn't keep my eyes off of, kind of like a horrible accident, a mixture of fascination and horror at the same time. I too remember the smells of liniment, gas vapors, and other old forgotten dusky smells.
    And my folks wonder why I start preparing for Halloween in February.

  3. I could riff off the images here for months. Just "Auchwitz in Ohio" is so awful & perfect...

  4. It was when I was a youngster.. I just couldn't say "Aldema", so what came out of my mouth was "Mennie-Mo".... and it stuck. They were an interesting family... Lawrence was a school janitor. One memorable thing about him was he always had a huge set of keys mounted on his belt with one of those chains that winds back into the sliver round case. I found it fun to pull them out and watch them go back in. Another creepy thing about Sue Belle, was she always sat in that chair next to the window, looking out at what ever moved. She seemed happy to see me when Mom dropped me off for the day while she went to work. I DO remember the black furnace grates that went into the basement.....Good Times!