Sunday, July 3, 2011

Father Harrie's Seat At The July 4th Parade

I've been fortunate to have been friends with some extraordinary people, brilliant, creative and kind. Most of them aren't here anymore, like Mom and her best friend, Harrie. Mom, from Korea, my father, from India and Harrie, from Holland, all met when they were students living at the University of Chicago's International House in the late '40s. Harrie and Mom were classmates in art history, and he became close to our family after Papa died.

Harrie at my wedding in 2000

Most people called him Father Harrie, since he was a Catholic priest, but I did not. Mom didn't either.  Ever the rationalist, at dinner she would suddenly ask: "You don't really believe in God, do you?" To which he would simply answer "Yes" and ask for more potatoes. He liked potatoes especially, and cheese, being a Dutchman, and we always had a nice bottle of Scotch at the ready for when he visited.  He lived in the United States for over 60 years and never became a citizen. But he loved and respected his adopted country and he always looked forward, like a little kid, to the local July 4th parade.

To describe Harrie as "a kid" is a bit unusual. Besides being a priest, he was a beloved and esteemed professor of Chinese and Japanese art history at The University of Chicago and generations of his students now teach all over the country. He taught us how to look at a great work of art. He'd take a detail, like a boulder at the bottom of a Chinese landscape painted by a master, and show us how the smallest sequence of brush strokes was full of vitality, whereas the same boulder in a later copy by a lesser artist would just sit there like a dud. I treasure the many happy times we went to museums together, peering into paintings with his pocket viewer, discussing what each of us liked best, me wishing I had his superhero-level vision for art.

He and Mom both shared a gift for recognizing authenticity and they loved to go antiquing on Midwest country roads, looking for early American objects like tools and toys. They often discussed loudly - in Japanese - the quality and price of a potential find, though it was obvious what they were saying to everyone in the store. It was usually "No Good!"

Harrie painted a postcard "The Big Apple" when I moved to New York City in 1995

Harrie had a deep love for the simple and real. He was born into a Dutch farmer's family of 11 kids - one daughter and 10 sons, with Harrie chosen to be sent off to the priesthood, which is what landed him in China before the revolution. He loved to work with his hands, repairing antique pocket watches or restoring a deserving old chair. He painted still lifes and drew whimsical cartoons. Mom and Harrie's best friends were not academics but a retired butcher named Roger, a gentle, large man with a bald head and an anchor tattooed on his massive arm, and his wife Pearl, with whom they shared a love of well-made and well-worn objects. They'd go over to see Roger and Pearl for coffee after dinner on Thursdays.

Harrie's self-portrait "thank you" card to me for a subscription to The New York Review of Books

On the day before the local Independence Day parade, Harrie would be full of excited anticipation, planning on where to set down two little fold-up chairs for him and Mom, worried that they would arrive late. It's not that Harrie and Mom had much grasp of American history. Visiting Gettysburg for me was as close to a religious experience as I can imagine. I was deeply affected by the carnage and Abraham Lincoln's perfect, healing words urging the divided country to unite. Mom's response, with her characteristic Korean directness, was: "Nothing! Nothing there!!" On the other hand, to me a local parade in Evanston, Illinois was nothing special - some local pols and Realtors in open cars followed by a few marching bands. But to Harrie, it was a valued tradition, every year the same ritual that brought people together to enjoy the simple joys of life, with barbecue after and then fireworks by Lake Michigan. Never mind that he and Mom argued about the barbecue - she wanted the fire blazing hot for bulgogi, he wanted to tone it down for the chicken.

Harrie died peacefully of a heart attack in his sleep in 2007, a little over two years after Mom passed. I miss them both. I will not be at the parade in Evanston, but I can still imagine his smile of delight as the bands march by, and I can almost hear the two of them arguing about how hot the grill should be. The meal was always fabulous, even if the chicken was a bit too charred.

Happy July 4th.  I love this country.


  1. Because I "know" you in a way that writers understand each other - I also miss your Mom, and Harrie. I am always enriched by hearing about the people in your life.

    He loved potatoes and God. How I love that.

  2. This is such a beautiful remembrance. I don't know your name, but I feel I know certain facets of you through your expressions on Twitter, and who & how you illuminate the people of your life, and other experiences on your blog. I always look forward to these.

  3. This is an exquisite piece. I feel like I now know your mom and Harrie. And now I miss the too.

  4. What a special family friend and a lovely remembrance, enhanced by Harrie's amazing art work. Thank-you for sharing it with me.

  5. What a beautiful tribute to Harrie. So many memories you have lovingly evoked for us. He lives on in all his students, his family, his art, and this wonderful piece. Thank you.

  6. A great little memory. Thanks for sharing.

  7. A wonderful, touching piece! Thanks for sharing your experiences about such a vibrant, extraordinary person with such a talent for interpreting art and the world around him!