Thank you to raconteuse for editing, advice, encouragement and more.
It will be nine months, tomorrow.
Nine months since Ava passed.
She was 83 years old when breast cancer took her.
By the end, that lively (at times, almost fierce) spirit of hers took a beating.
So, when she finally surrendered the fight, it was something of a mercy.
I won't try to tell you how much I miss her.
I couldn't anyway.
That language hasn't been fashioned yet.
What I will do is introduce you to her. The Ava I first encountered, unbowed by time or disease.
In May of 1956, I had just graduated from the School of Industrial Art in New York. It's moved since then and changed its name, but it was (and still is, as far as I know) a high school for training commercial artists. I wanted to be, of all things, a newspaper comic strip artist, which was a tough row to hoe for a female back then.
Upon graduating, Mr. Dylan, one of my favorite teachers, had arranged for me to apprentice with an acquaintance of his. Her name was Ava Parker and she was a freelancer for several New York comic book publishers. It wasn't exactly the sort of prestigious newspaper venue that I aspired to, but as Mr. Dylan had said, "Everybody's gotta start somewhere". Besides, he had assured me that she was very good at her job and would provide an excellent springboard for the career I wanted to pursue.
When I initially voiced some hesitation at the arrangement, Mr. Dylan put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, "I have tremendous faith in your abilities. You've got talent to spare. All you need now are the skills and polish to match. Believe me, Miss Parker will see that you get those."
To prepare me for the interview, Mr. Dylan told me a little about the artist before I went to see her. "So long as you give her your best effort, you couldn't ask for an easier person to get along with. She takes a lot of pride in her work and she'll insist that you do the same. But knowing you", he touched his index finger affectionately beneath my chin, "I don't anticipate any problems on that score."
"By the way", Mr. Dylan went on, "Miss Parker is a pioneer in more ways than one. Not only is she one of the few females currently working in comics, she's also one of the only negroes in the business. You've gotta have a special brand of single-mindedness to persevere through some of the crap she's had to put up with."
I am ashamed to admit that upon hearing that information, I felt a hint of trepidation. You see, I had grown up in a small village on the lower Wisconsin River. Almost everyone there was of German ancestry and the few who weren't were certainly not colored. In the short time since my family had moved to New York I had little time for socializing and none of that had brought me into contact with any of that race. Those of you reading this in the 21st century may find it difficult to believe that any of us were so insulated back then. Just remember that this was decades before the Internet and in the small town I was from, most of us listened to the radio regularly, but only a couple of families had television sets.
I was somewhat intimidated by my ignorance. Even though I felt like a complete hayseed, I voiced my apprehension to Mr. Dylan. He laughed in response. Not a caustic, condescending snicker, but a warm chuckle. "Don't worry, Stephanie. You don't need any special knowledge. Miss Parker will have you feeling like an old friend in no time flat. Besides, she'll keep you too busy to worry about anything. Just don't forget your old teacher when you're a famous cartoonist."
This is how I found myself at the entrance of a five-story walk-up on a beautiful spring morning in the lower east side of Manhattan. The building was an old, but well-kept brownstone row house and her apartment studio was on the third floor.
Before I knocked on her door, I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves. I was still quite shy back then and this would be my first job interview ever. I desperately wanted this to go well. "Okay...", I thought, "here goes nothing".
When Miss Parker opened the door, my first glimpse of her took me completely by surprise. I knew she had been a professional cartoonist for a number of years, so I hadn't expected anyone so young. She couldn't possibly have been thirty yet. She was also the most breathtakingly beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life, before or since.
Her eyes were what snared your attention first. Large and expressive, they were shaded by long lashes and glittered with a lively intelligence. The irises were amber flecked with gold. Above them, her eyebrows were not plucked and redrawn into the artificial arches so popular then, but were natural, full and gently curving. Her skin was a light golden brown unadorned with make-up. The symmetrical slopes and planes of her visage seemed designed especially to seduce the eye into lingering there.
This was a face on which nature had lavished exceptional care. It was framed by a dark, lustrous mane which she had pulled out of her way into a pony tail, though a few stray tresses draped across her brow.
As if my astonishment at her loveliness was not yet complete, she upped the ante by smiling. A smile that suffused those already breathtaking features with a warmth and kindness that had me liking her instantly. Extending her hand in my direction, she said, "You must be Miss Kendall. I'm Ava. Won't you please come in?"
The apartment had no foyer, so stepping through the entrance put me directly into the living room. It was simply, but neatly furnished. Miss Parker gestured toward the sofa and asked me to have a seat. "Please excuse the state I'm in. I've got a job that's due the day after tomorrow and I'm a little frazzled."
The state she's in? Did she mean her attire? Miss Parker had on an untucked blue plaid men's shirt and dungarees. But she filled that plain garb with voluptuous curves that would've made a movie star envious.
A closer inspection revealed ink stains on her hands, blouse and slacks. Maybe that's what she was referring to, though it's hardly surprising to find such smudges on an artist at work.
Seating herself in an armchair that was diagonal to the couch, Miss Parker clasped her hands under her chin and looked directly into my eyes. "I realize that this was supposed to be an interview for a job as my assistant. But, I find myself in a bit of a pickle and I wonder if you'd be willing to give me a hand?"
"How so?" I asked.
"Well, do you think you could dive right in today? If you could do background inking, panel borders, filling in black areas and erasing, it would be a great help. Paul... that is, your Mr. Dylan, showed me some samples of your work and I know you're more than capable. Otherwise, I don't see how I'll make this deadline. What do you say?"
I stood up and gestured down at my clothes, "Well, I came dressed for an interview, not..." Before I finished, Miss Parker chimed in, "Not to worry. I've got some things you can wear. I'm a little taller than you, so they won't fit perfectly, but there's nobody here except us, and we'll be too focused on getting the job done to care much."
'Won't fit perfectly'? Now, there was a hell of an understatement. Don't get me wrong. I had a good figure, but I couldn't come close to filling out the simple shirt and overalls she gave me the way she did. But, as she had pointed out, who was gonna see me?
Miss Parker's apartment had two bedrooms, the second of which, while it did have a bed, served primarily as her studio. It contained two drawing tables that faced each other, both with an adjacent taboret for art supplies. She sat me down at one of them and handed me a small stack of original comic book pages in various stages of completion. Some were simply rough layouts in which figures, backgrounds and word balloons were only sketched in to suggest the panel compositions, but none of the details were yet nailed down. Others were tightly rendered pencil drawings with completed lettering and some or all of the main figures inked.
Sometime in the 1960's, the size of the original comic art gradually switched to one and a half times the size of the printed page. But, in '56 nearly everyone was still working twice up and the artist, if he or she was so inclined, really had the room to do detailed linework. And, believe me, Miss Parker was definitely so inclined. The quality of her line was lively, fluid and graceful. There was also a bravura quality that I found somewhat intimidating. I wondered how the hell I was ever supposed to match this kind of skill, spirit and sheer daring.
Miss Parker leaned over my shoulder as she pointed to the pages, giving instructions. I found her nearness oddly distracting. First of all, there was her fragrance. No perfume, I think, just her natural scent combined with whatever soap and shampoo she used. Whatever it was, it smelled wonderfully fresh and alluring.
There was also the matter of having such loveliness so close at hand. I had to resist the temptation to turn and look at her with a more leisurely gaze, giving my eyes time to tarry on the details. But that would've been weird and rude at such close proximity. I became annoyed with myself for acting like a starstruck schoolgirl when I needed to be focused on the task at hand. "What the hell is wrong with me?" I wondered.
Thank God, I did manage to pull myself together and pay close attention to the rest of her directions. When she was done, Miss Parker (I guess I should refer to her as Ava from here on out, because she told me that's what she preferred) sat down at the other table and we spent the next several hours there in relative silence interrupted only by my occasional questions.
Each of my queries was answered patiently, clearly and concisely. At one point, Miss Par... I mean Ava... came around behind me to observe while I was inking a page. While I was in school, I usually preferred to work with a brush, but Ava had asked me to use a crow quill pen to try to match the style of the pages she'd already inked. After watching me for a few moments, Ava told me "Don't be afraid of that pen, sweetie. You're not gonna hurt it."
"I didn't want to break the nib or spatter ink everywhere."
"Let me sit there for a moment." She took the pen from my hand. "You're moving the pen slowly, carefully... never varying the pressure you're putting on the nib. The result is exacting, but dull."
Ava dipped the pen into the India ink, then made a mark on scrap paper to get rid of the excess ink. After that, with a quick swipe of the pen, she began a thin delicate stroke which morphed into a bold and voluptuous thing that might have been made with a brush. "Do you see how much force I brought to bear here?" Ava interjected. "Don't fret about the nib. It can take a lot more than you're likely willing to dish out." The line became slender again as it made a roughly ninety degree turn and then curved faintly and widened slightly. "Varying the line weight can suggest form and volume." I watched in astonishment as a beautifully rendered human arm began to appear on the paper. The grace and variety of the strokes she used was a revelation!
When she was done, Ava stood up and handed me the pen. "I know we're on a tight deadline, but I want you to spend at least half an hour with scrap paper and this nib. I want you to attack that paper. No timidity whatsoever. Find out what this pen is capable of. Loops, dashes, cross-hatching, feathering, thin to thick and back again. Really test it."
I began to think that Mr. Dylan had been right. Ava was going to be an excellent teacher.
In fact, the art she had me working on was instructional in and of itself. Aside from the brilliant linework, about which I've already sung praises, her compositions were fresh and dynamic and the panel-to-panel transitions were clear and fluid. Her figure work was never limited to stock poses, but consisted of believable, well-observed postures and gestures that always enhanced the dialogue. Miss Parker later told me she thought of this as 'acting with a pencil'.
If this was the kind of work she turned out in a hurry, I couldn't wait to see what she could do when she had more time.
My thoughts... and the room's stillness... were eventually disturbed by a long, low growling which emanated from the vicinity of my tummy. I grinned sheepishly at Ava over the top edge of the drawing table, "Sorry. I haven't eaten since lunch."
A stricken look troubled Ava's lovely features, "Oh, honey, I'm the one who should be sorry. I can't believe I was so thoughtless."
Rising from her table, Ava moved to the room's doorway, "Do you like spaghetti?"
"Yes, ma'am. I..."
"'Yes, ma'am'? How old do you think I am?" Before I could answer, she continued, "That was rhetorical, sweetheart. Relax. Remember... it's just Ava; not Miss Parker and certainly not ma'am.
"Yes, ma'a... I... I mean... okay. Oh, gosh! I'm so sorry. It's just that my parents really drilled this stuff into me. Everything was 'sir' or 'ma'am'. They were pretty strict and kind of old-fashioned. They definitely stressed how important it was for me to respect my el..." I blushed and covered my face with my hands. "I should just stop talking now."
Through my fingers, I could see Ava cock her hips jauntily with her arms akimbo. "Well, Stephanie, once you've hit bottom, there's really no point in continuing to dig."
"Now", she went on, "that we've established that you're okay with spaghetti, do you enjoy broccoli, as well?"
"Yes, m..." I caught myself, yet again, then sputtered, "Yes. Just plain 'yes'."
Ava laughed and headed off to the kitchen. I continued working on the pages she'd given me while the clatter of pots and pans and, eventually, a heavenly aroma, wafted from the kitchen.
Ava called for me to come eat and showed me where the washroom was. In the dining room, I sat down to a sumptuous plate of spaghetti in marinara sauce, broccoli and garlic bread. After I'd said my grace, I noticed Ava watching me with curiosity in her eyes. "Are you Catholic?"
I caught myself this time before uttering the forbidden response and simply mumbled, "Mmm-hmm." which was easier with my mouth full anyway. After I'd swallowed, I asked, "How about you?"
"Well, I was raised Catholic, but I guess it didn't stick."
"What faith are you, then?" I asked naively.
"Truth is," she answered between mouthfuls, "I never could find much use for faith."
I digested this in silence, thinking of the Freethinkers Society back in my hometown. My mom had always been suspicious and disdainful of them, but I remembered several of their number as good-hearted people.
The meal Ava prepared was delicious and provided a gracious means for me to change the subject.
"The sauce on this spaghetti... it's a-MAY-zing! Where on earth did you learn to cook like this?"
At my praise, another of those breathtaking smiles lit her features. "My pop. He was a carpenter when the depression hit. Things got so bad that white men couldn't find work, so there sure as hell wasn't any he could find. Well, dad was orphaned at a young age and raised by an Italian family that were friends with his folks. Pop always said that Mama Agostina was a genius in the kitchen and she taught him everything she knew."
"When work in carpentry dried up, he applied for anything he could get. All he could find were short, temporary jobs. Eventually though, he landed a spot as a chef in an Italian restaurant. Do you know how good (and how lucky) a colored man had to be to get something like that?" Ava spoke with obvious pride.
After many twists and turns, our conversation wound its way to our working arrangements. She was pleased with the work I'd done so far, but she warned me that the hours were long and the pay was low. She did point out, however, that both of her previous assistants had moved on to freelance careers of their own. One of them, in fact, had landed a syndicated newspaper strip of his own, which, for those of you who don't know, was a much more lucrative and prestigious field than comic books.
"Have you ever thought of going to the syndicates?" I wondered aloud.
"The money's good." she admitted. Our meal over, Ava began to clear the table. "But, I've ghosted a few times for newspaper guys who were sick or had some other kind of deadline crunch, and I didn't care for it much. The size restrictions are just too claustrophobic. I got into this business 'cause I love to tell stories with pictures, but there's just no elbow room in the paper. I don't know how you're supposed to spin a decent yarn in just three panels a day."
I was impressed. I knew that Ava had been working in the field for nearly ten years and yet, somehow, she hadn't lost her idealism. It occurred to me how fortunate I was that Mr. Dylan has recommended me for this job.
While scrubbing our dinner dishes, Ava asked, "Where do you live?"
"Hmmm? Oh... with my parents in Queens. Why?"
"Well, it's gotten pretty late. I'd hate for you to try to catch a bus or ride the subway alone at this hour. Why don't you take the spare bed in the studio room? There's no bath, but you can shower and I've got spare clean pajamas."
"Thanks. I'd definitely prefer that to traipsing around out there at this hour."
"You'd better give your folks a call and let them know where you are. No sense worrying them sick over nothing."
When I finished my shower and exited the bathroom in Ava's ill-fitting PJ's, I found her back at the drawing board.
She heard me in the doorway and looked up, "Oh. If you're ready for bed, I'll get out of your way."
"No, thank you. The shower woke me up a bit. Maybe I can get a little more done as well."
Ava gave a grateful smile and lowered her head to draw again, "The deadlines are always awful, but this is worse than usual. When I went in to work on Monday to pick up my check and a new script, the editor was crying the blues because one of his regular pencilers had left him in the lurch. I let him talk me into taking an extra script home. So, now I've gotta get two stories done in the time it usually takes me to finish one." Ava wagged her pen at me in mock admonishment, "Don't follow my example. Make sure you're not anyone's doormat. Learn to say 'No'."
A couple of hours later, I was yawning for the tenth time in as many minutes. I told Ava, "I'm sorry, but I don't think I've got another brush stroke in me."
"No need to apologize, sweetie. I'm truly grateful for all the hours you've already put in. This is way above the call of duty, especially since we hadn't even come to a formal arrangement when I asked for your help. I should be able to get this in on time now without turning in a really crap job. Thank you."
"Glad I could lend a hand." I cleaned my brushes and tidied my work area a bit before shambling over to plop down on the double-bed.
"Will it keep you awake if I continue working for a while longer?"
I gave her a bleary-eyed smile, "I don't think anything could stop me from sleeping at this point. But, aren't you exhausted, too?"
"Not really. I often work the whole night through and go to bed around seven or eight in the morning. I do some of my best work between one and five when the world is still and there's very little to distract me."
Crawling under the blanket, I turned my back on the swing-arm drafting lamp that illuminated her toil. A momentous yawn mushroomed in the middle of my, "Good night" and, before I knew it, I was fast asleep.
I woke the next morning, momentarily disoriented by the strange surroundings. When I remembered where I was, I noticed that Ava had thoughtfully closed the blinds and shut the curtains so that the early sunlight wouldn't disturb my rest. A truly mouth-watering aroma had made its way under the closed door of the room. That and a healthy morning appetite inspired my quick exit from bed.