Remembering My Friend, Liese Kuehn
By John M. Clark
My best friend died recently, and I’m still working through my grief. Maybe telling you about her will help.
Liese Kuehn was 92 years old and had lived atop the three-story commercial building on City Park Avenue, across the street from Jan and me, for the past 71 years. She and her husband Edmund, who died in 2011, would often smile at us on their many walks around German Village, and once even briefly attended a garden party on our back patio.
But that was the extent of our relationship until several years ago, during a particularly bad winter storm. I was sitting in a local coffee shop, looking at the snow, and it occurred to me. I should call Liese, now widowed, to see if there was anything she needed. Her answer was a polite, “No, but thank you for calling. I think I have everything I need.” I hung up the phone, but less than five minutes later, Liese called back. “John…” “Yes, Liese?” “I don’t need anything right now. But if you’d like to call and talk once in a while, I think I would enjoy it.”
That’s all it took to start a friendship that lasted for years – one in which I rarely saw her, but spoke with her almost weekly. Liese was an intensely private person. She never invited Jan or me up to her apartment. The closest I came was a few years ago when she needed someone to carry out her trash. I trudged up the three flights of stairs to her door, where she had
deposited a small, plastic bag of refuse. I smiled to myself and carried the bag down to the trash can – stowed at the rear of her long, narrow driveway.
Thinking about it now, it’s difficult to remember exactly what we talked about during those many phone calls, some of which lasted almost an hour or more. She was highly intelligent, spoke several languages and her mind was sharp to the very end. I enjoyed just hearing her pick up the phone. “Hello?” Sometimes, I would answer with an old gag from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” The first time I used that joke,
she immediately came back with, “Lily Tomlin! I remember her!”
In fact, Liese remembered a lot. She and Edmund often traveled to Paris, sitting in cafes and passing the time with famous artists like Marcel Duchamp. I loved those stories, and the ones about her husband’s connection to arts philanthropist Frederick Schumacher and Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson, who would drop in on Edmund while in town for a stage play at the Hartman Theater.
Liese was intensely proud of her husband and often told stories about him impressing the staff at the Columbus Museum of Art, for whom he worked as one of the institution’s earliest curators, and later as assistant director. She especially enjoyed telling the story about how her beloved Edmund got his first job at the museum by pointing out a mistake a gallery staffer had made in identifying an artist. She even attempted to encapsulate his life in a book, but gave up under the sheer weight of what she considered important about his life and his contributions to art.
Liese often glossed over her own life accomplishments – escaping Nazis during World War II, coming to America and becoming a well-respected teacher at both the high school level and at The Ohio State University. As a child, she lost several family members to war. But that’s about all she would ever tell me about her early days “It doesn’t matter,” she would say. “That’s the past, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Let’s talk about the present.”
Of course, Liese spoke German fluently and maintained a slight accent for the rest of her life. She could quote Schiller and Goethe at length and often spoke about their contributions to society.
These discussions would lead to our talking about philosophy, and sometimes religion. Liese never spelled out her views on a higher power. But I know she believed in an afterlife, and she held onto the belief that she and her Edmund would be united again someday.
Liese loved animals – especially our little dog, Ruby. Occasionally we would take Ruby to see her in her backyard or – more recently – in one of the several care facilities that tended to her as her health began failing. Because of Jan and me, she developed a love for Cracker Barrel fried chicken and chocolate cake from Lavash. Jan would leave flowers at her backdoor, for her
caretaker to deliver. And I would occasionally take over a magazine with an article I had written. She loved the attention, and we loved bestowing it upon her.
I had my last conversation with Liese a week ago Sunday. We spoke for about 15 minutes about the latest movie her nephew and his wife had brought over to show her. She mentioned how delighted she was to hear that our next-door neighbor’s three-year-old grandson had begun taking little Ruby for walks to Schiller Park. And, sadly, she told me once again that she was ready to leave this world.
The past year had seen Liese in multiple hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Her eyes and hands no longer worked the way they were supposed to. And she had trouble walking. But, as a proud, old German woman, Liese would not hear of installing an elevator or chair lift, or moving to a lower floor in her building. As long as she was destined to live in this world, it
would be on her own terms, in the only home she had known since 1952, two floors above a former nickelodeon, where her beloved Edmund created many of his celebrated paintings – some of her – and where she, herself, had danced the ballet as a young woman.
I’m quite sure I’ll never know another person with whom I’ve had such a close, personal, friendship. Liese and I could talk about anything. She didn’t suffer fools lightly, though. And I had to keep myself on my toes during every conversation, lest I, too, say something that might offend her strict sensibilities. Luckily, that rarely happened. Liese and I decided long ago that
we shared a special bond. The last words we spoke to each other were, “I love you, Liese” and “I love you, too, John.”
I am so grateful for that last conversation … and for the many wonderful conversations Liese and I shared over the years.
WHO LIESE KUEHN by JOHN M CLARK ISSUE XXXI