We were together when I entered this world, and we were together when she left it forty-nine years later. In between, she, in loving partnership with my father, Alfred, gave me life and shaped my very being. Her name was Alice, Alice Helen Kubitz, to be exact, and this is my personal tribute to her.
Within this blog of mine, I have written extensively about my father, Alfred, and his influence on my life and attitudes. The aviation legacy he left behind is a special aspect of that influence. Now, I wish to speak to the life and the example of my mother, Alice.
The intention of this blog and its many posts is not only to share my thoughts and life-experiences with others, but to serve as my personal memoir, a collection to be passed along to our daughters, our grandchildren, and their offspring. These posts are my attempt to put my life and times on record for posterity regardless of who might care to read them.
The daughter of my Polish-immigrant grandparents, Albert and Bernice, was born in Chicago, Illinois, in the year 1920. Alice’s father was a short, stocky, no-nonsense young man who became a barber in “The Loop,” the political/business hub of downtown Chicago. During his decades-long tenure at the City Hall Barber Shop, many of Chicago’s prominent pols spent time in my grandfather’s chair. He had a robust repeat clientele and undoubtedly knew many of them well.
Bernice was a stay-at-home wife, the mother of Alice and her younger brother, Edwin. I do not recall that my grandmother ever went off to work, but the stories of Bernice’s addiction to alcohol were well known to me after we had moved to California in 1948. I was seven at the time. The reports involving my grandmother portrayed a lifelong alcoholic – a self-immersed, often vindictive drinker who made life quite miserable for her husband and two children.
Often, my mother would come home from school to find my grandmother sick and passed-out on the floor, empty vodka bottles nearby. Alice knew from experience that, should Albert return home from work before she could sober-up her mother and clean up the mess around her, he could once again fly into a rage and slap his wife around. He had done that before, when, totally exasperated and unable to control his anger at his wife for lapsing into alcoholism yet again, he became physically abusive. This went on for years while the dark secret of the mother’s alcoholism was carefully kept from close friends and family. Bernice, for her part, often contacted friends to relate to them how cruel her husband could be to her, all the while hiding her addiction and irresponsible behavior while playing the innocent victim at her husband’s expense.
My Uncle Edwin once described to me the reports he had heard that, as a young woman, my grandmother was a real beauty, a party girl. My grandparents stayed married to the end which came with Albert’s death in 1956 from a heart attack. That he never left his wife and abandoned his children is a tribute to my grandfather’s rigid sense of duty and responsibility. I can still picture him from my early boyhood days wagging his finger and saying in effect, “You have made your bed and now you must lie in it!” The specific version of his contention that was usually directed at me in my early Chicago boyhood when I was sometimes underfoot and misbehaving could best be paraphrased as, “I told you not to do that, and now look what has happened!”
Alice’s troubled childhood affected her deeply throughout her life. Although my mother was outwardly a gregariously social person with many friends in her adult life, deep down, she was a very private person, not given to personal revelation or sharing intimate feelings. I, later in life, learned through counseling that family members forced to deal with alcoholism in the family circle often live their lives behind a curtain with limited transparency, a curtain never fully drawn, even in later life. Both my parents guarded the privacy of their inner selves although alcoholism was never a factor in my father’s family to my knowledge. My parents were products of their time, a time when social convention and public opinion were far more important and influential than the rampant transparency and self-expression that prevail in today’s society.
Alice experienced two events early in life that literally opened the door for her to the possibilities of a rich and happy life despite the turmoil of her childhood. The second of the two major turning-points in my mother’s life occurred when she met my father on a blind double-date with another couple. Irma, her good friend, had arranged the evening and paired my parents together. Although Irma and her boyfriend broke-up soon afterward, the other half of the double-date clicked. Irma was in the wedding party at my parents’ Chicago wedding on July 8, 1939!
My father had already discovered my mother’s dark secret at home well before the marriage. I am certain Alice was terrified that her new beau might pack-it-in and leave once he realized the truth about his potential mother-in-law. Instead, my mother’s terrible situation at home dealing with her mother’s drinking only fortified my father’s love for and admiration of Alice, no doubt. My mother sensed from the very beginning what a wonderful man my father was. For one week short of fifty-years, their marriage thrived until we lost Alice to breast cancer in 1989 – her second time around with the disease. My sister Karen and I are the tangible results of that union; lucky we are to have had such parents.
Meeting and marrying my father was, as mentioned, the second major turning-point in my mother’s life. The first came years earlier when Alice was sent to a nearby Catholic convent boarding school. Sister Constance was both my grandfather’s blood-sister and a nun in the Church. I believe she was affiliated with the convent boarding school at that time and was undoubtedly influential in convincing Albert to send his daughter to live for a few years in the care of the sisters. I believe that very act was the singular event which enabled Alice to ultimately realize her full life-potential. It literally saved her. My mother always looked back on her days at the convent school with the happiest of memories. They were the best years of her young life.
There, she was away from the ugly realities of her mother’s alcoholism. There, she was taken in by the sisters and exposed to the worlds of literature and academics. She relished the expansion of her intellectual horizons and rejoiced in the solitude and beauty of the convent grounds. I believe the seeds of her ultimate capabilities were already planted via the mysterious miracle of genetics, but her subsequent growth resulted from the disciplined and kindly nurturing of the sisters.
Alice’s younger brother Edwin found his solace by spending most of his time away from home, even to the extent of sleeping over at his friend’s homes for days at a time. His waking hours were spent mostly with his friends as he endeavored to push away the unpleasantness of life at home. He related to me that this pattern was established even before his teen-age years. I conducted an extensive audio interview with Ed some years before he passed away in order to document, first-hand, the childhood experiences of himself and his sister. I am thankful that I did that, for much of my family history on that side had been heavily veiled through the years.
A very poignant chapter for me, personally, in the Chicago story was brought to light when my grandmother passed away after living alone in that very same little brick house in the western suburbs of Chicago which my grandfather so proudly purchased (new) in 1938. My family of four had been living in California since 1948, my father having been transferred from Chicago by United Air Lines. Uncle Edwin followed us to California in 1951, fleeing Chicago and his own bad memories.
Upon the death of my grandmother, it befell my Uncle and my father to travel back to that little brick house in West Chicago to make final arrangements and to sell the house. Inside what was once my grandfather’s pride and joy and the source of many memories for me, they found filth and they found garbage. In the attic upstairs, they went through many dust-laden trunks containing numerous photographs and artifacts, most of which had not seen the light of day for decades. As I understood the scene, there were at least a few photographs of my grandfather with knife-cuts through his images, likely the retribution of a drunken and bitter wife giving vent to her rage at his reaction to her alcoholic helplessness.
Sadly, virtually none of the family history returned to California: sad for us descendants interested in that history, but necessary to protect the healing for both Alice and Edwin that moving to California had already enabled. There was one item (that I was aware of at the time) that came back with my father and Uncle Ed: the wonderful aviation scrapbook that my father collected and assembled while emerging from his teens in the early/mid nineteen thirties. When my father married my mother in 1939, he gave Edwin, his young brother-in-law, the scrapbook to keep. Dad had told me about his prized scrapbook years later when I was a boy, but it was presumed lost during all the intervening years. While in Chicago closing-up the house for sale, Dad and Ed found the scrapbook stashed in the attic, probably in one of the many trunks. When they returned home to California after finishing their business in Chicago, I could not believe that the one thing that survived the attic purge and came into my hands was the legendary scrapbook that I never expected to see.
Not only did I have the scrapbook, but, tucked inside the pages, were paper cutouts from aviation pulp magazine covers. Some of these were the very images that dad painted on the back of glass as a teenager depicting a World War I aerial dogfight. That painting has been one of my most prized possessions for as long as I can remember. Decades ago, Dad had explained to me that he garnered the painting’s images from old aviation pulp magazine covers. How often I wished I had those original images: then, suddenly, there they were!
The two airplanes featured on these Battle Aces covers from July and September, 1931 prominently appear in Dad’s painting. I now possess the actual panels Dad cut from covers that were used by him in his composition – a wonderful example of aviation folk-art!
I was told that everything else in that attic was destroyed, left behind in order to help erase the painful memories that still haunted the deep recesses of my mother’s mind – even decades later, even as far away as California!
When my Uncle Ed passed away, Bonnie, his wife, presented me with significant items relating to my Grandfather Albert. They included his U.S. naturalization papers from 1921, his Illinois Barber’s License, and a few other illuminating documents. I am certain that these items must have originally been brought back to California along with the aviation scrapbook.
In writing this memorial to my mother, Alice, I debated going into the details of her childhood experiences and my grandmother’s alcoholism in these opening pages. After careful thought, I felt it best to do it this way in order to fully illuminate the special person she became in adult life – against great odds. At the same time there are other important storylines in the overall account – such as discovering the aviation scrapbook, so I decided to include those as well even though I have covered them in other posts.
Here Is Alice Helen Kubitz… As I Knew Her!
My mother, like my father, was blessed with an innate notion of common sense, an attitude likely forged by their childhood experiences. In addition, Alice was somehow blessed with an exquisite sensitivity for the finer-things life can offer, and I do not mean the material things of this life. Yes, she could discern material quality, but more importantly, she had an instinctive feel for the beautiful and sublime, whether it be Swan Lake as performed by the legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn or the incomparable art depictions of Norman Rockwell. She was fortunate enough later in life to attend several of Ms. Fonteyn’s ballet performances, and I recall distinctly the inability to curb her excitement when describing to us what she had seen. My younger sister, Karen, took ballet lessons in her pre-teen years from Madame Olga Ziceva’s School of Ballet in San Mateo. Madame’s one-of-a-kind local dance studio back in the nineteen-fifties was a long-time fixture in San Mateo and nothing like the watered-down dance academies one readily sees around town these days. Madame was someone special: her emphasis was on disciplined conditioning, form, and precise execution – Russian style. Madame Ziceva was her own Exhibit-A, a perfectly groomed woman, eighty-some years of age with the grace and posture of a former dancer. She had danced with the Russian Kirov Ballet in her younger years, and she knew her art.
My mother was no expert in the dance, but she quickly learned from watching Karen’s lessons that there is no short-cut to ballet as taught by someone like Madame Ziceva. My mother also had the ability to understand that true talent in a discipline like ballet [or athletics, or music] is best expressed by precise and difficult performances made to look easy by the performer. Alice developed a critical eye for style no matter whether it be in ballet, art, literature, fashion, or décor. Her opinions had nothing to do with snobbery and everything to do with an appreciation for excellence. Alice had the ability to recognize quality, talent, and beauty when she saw it, and, always, she retained plenty of enthusiasm to express her appreciation of whatever passed the test for her. In that latter respect, she loved to share with others the things and the experiences that she deemed special. She was very warm in her enthusiasms and her desire to share – an endearing quality which attracted many woman friends.
Where did she acquire such a love of beauty and a reverence for excellence? I believe her world view was heavily influenced by the contrasts she experienced in her youth: the unpleasantness at home versus the higher plane of existence she experienced in those few critical years at the convent school. She always spoke so highly of the nuns: she had one or two favorites who really mentored her, perhaps quickly recognizing an empty vessel, at once so ready and able to be filled. I believe the convent school and the nuns nurtured the best Alice had to offer!
I had my own experiences with nuns during my brief sojourn at St. Williams Catholic School in Chicago where I attended first grade and half of second grade before coming to California in 1948. I can accurately recall and relate how discipline and order were paramount among the teaching nuns: many were the times I was out of place in the back-to-the-classroom line-up after recess because I was talking to one of my classmates. Suddenly, without a word, my earlobe was firmly-grabbed. and I was silently and steadily pulled back into line – and that ended that!
My second-grade classroom picture shows sixty-three students neatly dressed (me with tie and vest) all sitting and attentively facing the camera (unheard of today) with hands folded on the desk! The three schoolteachers in my family cannot believe how the nuns could deal with such a large class of students. The answer, of course, was discipline and perfect control of the class by the nuns. I believe that Alice benefitted much more from the benevolent, nurturing nature of the sisterhood in her convent setting than I did at St. Williams! Nevertheless, I always felt I came to the California school system in 1948 very well prepared by the nuns.
Alice and Common-Sense: She Had It and She Trusted In-It
I mentioned my mother’s inherent abundance of common sense: she had it, and she trusted in it. Trusting in one’s common sense is a virtue so long as experience has validated one’s judgement over time. I would also add that it is imperative to know that one cannot always be right or cognizant of mitigating factors that should be considered. My mother had a good track record when it came to the application of common sense, but she could be somewhat oblivious to the mitigations involved in a specific outlook, or contention of hers. Put simply, my mother could occasionally be stubborn and persistent once she formed an opinion!
For example: early in my teen years, our local Catholic Church had a youth group which met regularly and periodically held informal DJ dances for the local teen church members. My mother’s common sense told her that it would be good for teenage son, Alan, to get involved in the youth group and make new friends. Teenage son, Alan, being a quirky mix of both shyness with strangers and a yearning for attention ultimately decided that the effort needed for rewarding social interaction in such a group was not acceptable given the other demands on his time – activities such as building model airplanes, learning to the play the trumpet, playing sports, etc. Alan pushed back, usually stalling such conversations when they surfaced. My mother would not give it up easily and continued her persuasive ways. Ultimately, Alan won, leaving mother somewhat frustrated because her common sense told her that it would be good for teenage son, Alan, to join such a group…and she did trust her common sense! She eventually resigned herself to the possibility that teenage son, Alan, had his own good personal reasons (like shyness at that age) for not enjoying such group involvement!
Alice, thanks to her firm convictions, could be very persuasive and pugnacious in her determination to do what is “right.” Always, she was looking out for Karen’s and my best welfare in such matters, even though we were not so sure at the time.
My mother, Alice, was always my biggest fan and supporter. Her love for me was unconditional. The same was true with sister Karen. Is that not the ultimate hallmark of a fine mother?
Would that our own youthful mother could have been as fortunate as we were.
One Humorous Example of My Mother’s Indomitable Will
This involves my father; it happened in the mid-nineteen eighties when my parents were in their mid-to-late sixties. Linda and I were visiting them in their Burlingame home. At that time, Dad was in the garage working on one of his impeccably constructed radio-controlled model airplanes. We had spent a nice afternoon with my parents, but it was about time for us to gather our things and head home. Alice made the comment to my father that he badly needed a haircut and should head for the barber shop before it got too late. He argued that a haircut could wait for a few days; he did not want to go that afternoon. It soon became evident to my wife and I as we got ready to leave that the happy mood of the afternoon was deteriorating. We cornered Dad in his garage workshop and asked what was the matter? He confided that Alice was badgering him to get a haircut, and he did not want to. Finally, we were ready to leave when Dad headed out the door with car keys in hand. When asked where he was going, he replied, “To get a haircut!” End of story.
Beware the Laugh Machine!
Alice had a great sense of humor and a laugh which came naturally, but there was an extra “gear.” She also had a great sense of irony and a mind which could quickly lay-bare ridiculous situations for what they were. An event would come along periodically which would tickle Alice’s funny-bone and set her laughing hysterically – for long periods of time. She was typically the catalyst which had all four of us and anyone else nearby laughing helplessly until there were tears. Oh, how therapeutic some of those laughing seizures proved to be once the tears subsided and we all regained our composure enough to take a deep breath. Dad was a great laugh-assistant to Mom during most of these “exercises.” He could get going quite well, himself, once Mom ignited the initial spark.
The Warm, “Refined” Lady Who Was Mom
Alice, in her adult life, was a curious mix of sophisticated lady and vulnerable person. I use “sophisticated” not in the usual sense which invokes images of a tall, slender, well-dressed woman who moves about with inherent grace and confidence. In fact, Alice’s stature was on the short side, with narrow, slender shoulders but fairly heavy hips and legs (my father often affectionately called her “fattie;” she called him “Affie”). Nor was she notably graceful in her movements. Rather, her grace and warmth radiated from an informed intellect and a warm smile. Setting aside topics involving science, engineering, or mathematics, she was very aware of and knowledgeable about most everything else – especially the arts and literature.
To reiterate: my mother and father both shared proven common sense and, closely related, a firm conviction in their judgements. They were both committed to that wise admonition expressing the key to a good life: Know what is right; do what is right. As a result of these inbred convictions, it was my observation through the years that Alice was, on a few occasions, unfairly mis-judged as an “elitist” by people who did not really know her well. Against many obstacles, my parents both embraced, and achieved, excellence in their lives while demonstrating a charitable attitude to those less fortunate in our society. Both Alice and Alfred inherently recognized the personal dignity inherent in every one of God’s human creations, and they made it a point to unfailingly respect that inherent dignity no matter what the other person’s “status” in life. I attribute that attitude to the influence of our Catholic faith. My parents did not easily relate to those who failed, in turn, to exercise personal charity toward others and did not exhibit a willingness to work hard to better themselves. My parents epitomized “the work ethic” and the notion of personal responsibility and accountability.
I will say that my parents set a very high bar for my sister and me. I wrote what is in the previous paragraph because I know what is in that paragraph – in my bones.
As stated earlier, despite her capabilities and seeming sophistication, my mother had a very vulnerable side which was visible to those who knew her well: she liked order in her married life and often became rattled when life got rocky. Here is a rare, first-hand, account written to my parents many years ago by my father’s sister, my Aunt Antoinette:
Dear Alice and Al, May 29, 1979
Remember the time Al came to Grandpa’s [radio repair] store on Diversey Ave. in Chicago and asked if they had enough food for everyone for supper? (Antoinette was there that day). Alfred said it would be good for Alice to get away from the house for a while.
It seems that on that particular day she answered the phone and the iron burned through what she was ironing; also she had temporarily left a bucket of water on the kitchen floor when Alan came home and accidentally knocked it over, meanwhile the supper was burning and so was she. When Alfred came home from work and walked in the door, Alice burst into tears; the whole day had been a little too much!
So much for my mother’s worldly sophistication! She was first, last and always, a sensitive and loving wife, mother, and homemaker.
Nylon Stockings: La-De-Da!
Alice’s sister-in-law, Antoinette, may well have been present during another Kubitz family incident which likely occurred in the early nineteen-forties. A Kubitz family gathering had assembled at the residence of my grandparents, Elmer and Martha Kubitz. According to the account I recall, Dad’s siblings and spouses were in attendance. My Grandfather, Elmer, had quite an earthy sense of humor by all accounts and, presumably, Alfred’s three brothers were not above razzing one another and having a little fun. Aunt Antoinette once told me on a phone call to Chicago many years ago that my dad was always “the peacemaker” in the family – the more serious of the brothers.
That evening, Alice showed up at the party wearing the very latest fashion statement: the original style nylon stockings with the seam down the back! Not able to resist the opportunity for some fun, the group proceeded to razz Alice saying things (presumably) like, “Well, look at Alice and her new stockings! La-de-da; How fancy is that?” As related to me years later, my mother was extremely embarrassed being singled out like that, even though the razzing was surely not mean-spirited. Although my parents came from different circumstances, they were happily married for all of their fifty years together. Alice’s unhappy youthful years at home followed by her enlightened stay at the convent school forged sensibilities which made her initially vulnerable to light-hearted fun and razzing, at first. Fortunately, Dad was “the peacemaker” in the Kubitz family and, perhaps, the most serious-minded of the four brothers. As for Alice, she was quickly recognized by all her in-laws as the fine person and wife to Alfred that she was.
Always, My Number One Fan!
My parents gave my sister and I the greatest gift possible on this earth, the gift of unconditional love. We both knew it, we always knew it, deep down, inside – within our bones! Not that we were not held to account throughout our youth: we were. We knew when our parents were displeased with us, but we knew that they would always be there for us. Believe me, there was a disciplined understanding implicit in the relationships within our family of four. Karen and I understood that, coupled with unconditional love, came the understanding that children were to be seen and not heard most of the time when adults were present. How unlike today, when the world and even adult conversation seemingly revolve around youngsters in this society.
My sister and I were “unspoiled” by today’s standards. We had few luxuries growing up, yet we were never wanting for necessities, and we were happy! Our parents lived paycheck-to-paycheck during many lean years in order to raise us. Mom and Dad were scrupulously honest and conscientious people: Karen and I could readily see that. We also sensed that the confidence they had in their convictions was firmly based on and reflective of their unwavering common-sense. Yet, they were generally wise enough to know what they did not know, and, therefore, watchful to maintain an open and inquiring mind.
My father, Alfred, was an amazing man and as fine a father as a son could ever have. My mother, Alice, was, always, my number one fan! That is, seemingly, what nature intended as the ideal bond between mother and child. She knew me pretty darn well – probably better than I cared to realize! When I was a young teenager, she loved to relate the latest adventures of her favorite son, Ol’ Alan, as she often referred to me with a smile.
We were together when I entered this world, and we were together when she left it forty-nine years later.
Rest in Peace, Mother: I Love You!