BY NICOLE HOLLANDER
2 years ago I took a residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest Illinois. I was a given a huge studio with enormous ceilings, and a view of the prairie all around.
I had been thinking about working on a graphic memoir telling the story of my childhood in Chicago from age 7 to l4. I lived in the courtyard section of a 6 flat on the west side of the city.
During the time I lived on Congress Street an expansion of the Eisenhower expressway was planned. The opposite side of the street disappeared, victim to the expressway below. The neighborhood as we knew it was destroyed, but only as we knew it. It remained to house other families. When I googled my street, it appeared intact, exactly as I remembered it with one exception.
The ma and pa grocery store on the corner was gone…a large Citco station in its place. I found that without that grocery, the visual key to my memory, I couldn’t get past the corner.
Memories of my block came flooding back, but they stopped at the cross street.
I drew on a long narrow sheet of paper with charcoal. I drew without stopping. If I changed my mind about the language, I merely crossed out the offending word or sentence and wrote above it. It was exhilarating to draw without taking a breath.
Now I’m working on another section of the memoir and I find myself taking my time, making sketches, slowly thinking about the story.
I’m working on the images and the story sometimes together, but often separately.
When I grew up I realized how little I really knew of what happened. It’s a child’s view.
Surely the adults knew a great deal that they weren’t sharing with me…
(The following segment exists in written form. The images haven’t yet appeared. It’s about my section of the building, and the 3 families that lived there . It’s the part of the story that I observed as a child.)
We lived in a 6 flat. The front apartments were bigger and more expensive, the owner of the building lived there. All her furniture matched and all of it was blonde wood. We lived in the courtyard. One bedroom apartments. Some of us slept in the dining room. I was one. Of course the Royal apartment was at the very top. The Queen and Princess Marilyn were always found there in the throes of dressing for a ball. My mother and I were allowed to watch. We were suitably awestruck and they in turn accepted our admiration graciously. My mother would ask Queen Bess impertinently “Why aren’t you dressed yet? Won’t you be late?” and the queen would reply: “We’re all dressed underneath.” They wore robes over their underwear. People on our floor in middle earth, had no use for robes.
Princess Marilyn was the only daughter of Queen Bess and Mr. Grimson. She was not a child; she was an adult, quite a tall woman who towered over her powerful parents. They didn’t need height. Her father didn’t even need a first name. He was Mr. Grimson, forever in the shadows, glimpsed on our way into Marilyn’s room. Marilyn was a maiden and therefore not allowed to live on her own. She would leave home only when safely married to a wealthy man. She was to be protected and coddled by her parents until such time as she would be passed on to an appropriate man and protected and coddled by him. If she couldn’t have her own apartment, she could have her own chamber in their one bedroom apartment. I don’t know where her parents slept. To ask would have been rude. I slept in the dinning room, possibly they did too.
Marilyn’s bedroom had heavy grey silk Shantung drapes that matched her bedspread and wall-to-wall carpeting and a vanity dresser with a huge mirror and perfume with atomizers in fancy bottles. Evening in Paris was in a cobalt blue bottle. I don’t remember what it smelled like. I remember White Shoulders. Because my mother wore White Shoulders, perhaps commoners weren’t allowed Evening in Paris.
Once, late at night when I was sleeping in the dining room of our apartment, I heard sounds through the kitchen door…I heard Marilyn sobbing. A boyfriend had taken nude photos of her and was blackmailing her. The conversation was muffled and frustrating. I was afraid to stand too close to the door, afraid of being caught. I heard my father reassure Marilyn. He would take care of her problem. My father had a temper. He frightened my mother and me; surely he could take care of a sleazy boyfriend.
One of my mother’s most annoying qualities is that she is dead and beyond the reach of my questions. I want to ask: “Where do you think the photos were taken? Was it Marilyn’s room? That would have been wonderfully ironic. How did she elude her minders. How is Marilyn posed in the pictures? Is she completely nude or wearing panties?” Everyone confided in my mother. Even I, who knew how untrustworthy she was, told her things. And my mother would have repeated everything that went on in the kitchen because it would have been a great story and she couldn’t help but tell it. Everyone spilled their guts to her. She was clever and funny and you so wanted to hear your story transformed by her magic.
Years later I was overcome with the need to know more. Just More! About everyone in the building. I found Marilyn and took her to lunch. I asked her about the men in her life. She looked at me coyly. She still had great legs. She must have towered over her tiny father and mother. Her hair was thick and dark red, her makeup perfect with moist bright red lips. When she spoke her voice was surprisingly loud, coarse. She said, “I was always crazy about men.” She smiled and said no more. She was not curious about me. I had nothing to trade with. I’d been a child when she knew me, a worshipful child. There was nothing she wanted to know about me. She didn’t ask about my mother either. She was still the center of the world, just as she had been the center of her parent’s world.
Harry and his wife Florence and their scary son Stuart lived in the apartment below us. Stuart forced me to play endless games of War. A card game completely controlled by chance, a game that I never won.
His mother,Florence was thin and ladylike. Harry was crude, a Brooklyn bad boy and a small time gangster loaning money to small time gamblers at exorbitant rates of interest. Harry and Florence had loud fights. My mother listened through a glass pressed to the floor. I liked Harry. I worked for him. His loan business didn’t quite pay the bills. Florence wore a fur coat. She probably wanted things. We sat at his dining room table with the shades pulled down and put together the magic tricks that he sold by mail. My job was to stuff buffalo nickels into a brass cylinder. He gave me a cubic zirconium ring that I have still, hoping it will turn into something, a frog into a prince, a cubic zirconium into a precious stone.
One day they disappeared. The entire family gone. Harry had stolen from his boss. We heard he was beaten with a two by four. He and Florence and Stuart resettled in Washington D.C. They came back once to visit her mother. No one seemed embarrassed. The first floor remained empty. No further need to put the glass on the floor or our ears to the glass.
Nicole Hollander created the cartoon character Sylvia in 1980. The strip was nationally syndicated for over 30 years. Sylvia, Nicole, and, in fact, all the characters in the strip are blatant feminists and love good food, prepared by others. In 2008 Nicole retired Sylvia and started a 6 day a week blog featuring drawings, opinions, politics and classic Sylvia strips. She welcomes contributions by friends and sometimes mere acquaintances. Nicole teaches the graphic memoir, fiction and non-fiction in Chicago and has an introverted cat named Toots.