I just heard that my friend Julia’s mom, Karla Kuskin, passed away yesterday. I never met Karla, but I once had perhaps the best night’s sleep in my life in her bed in Brooklyn Heights under a hand-stitched quilt. Julia and I had a wonderful meal at a tiny restaurant in the Meatpacking District, and then returned by cab over the Brooklyn Bridge and to the four-story brownstone in which she’d grown up.
It was mid-June 1994. OJ had just been caught. I’d seen Angels in America the night before on Broadway. I was in the city to look at old baseball photographs at the Associated Press–three days of sorting through the contents of old walnut files in the pre-digital age. Heaven. That night, exhausted and full with gnocchi, I curled up in what seemed like the most perfect bed in the most perfect room. After three days of feeling adrift in the city and anxious, I felt incredibly safe. Under that quilt and with the roof slanted over me, I was protected from the bloodstained glove, from AIDS, from pre-Giuliani’s subway system. Nearly as hypnotic as the ocean, the screened door gently rattled in the cool breeze, opening to a roof deck that was filled with pots of geraniums and petunias which glowed in the moonlight. Could I just stay for ever? I thought before falling hard.
Karla was the author/illustrator of more than fifty children’s books. She was a friend of Maurice Sendak and Milton Avery. I remember the latter because there were original Avery paintings in her living room. I’d loved her book The Philharmonic Gets Dressed from when I was kid with its illustrations by Marc Simont of supposedly stuffy adults — violinists and bass players — in states of undress. There is nothing quite like underwear to make a kid laugh. And her illustrations had that certain 1950s NYC quality that really did it for me as a kid (and now); I was also a huge Lyle the Crocodile fan.
When I started working at Microsoft, there was a graphic designer on the same project–Microsoft Complete Baseball (?!)–who was MAYBE a size 2 on a day when she ate a lot. I was big-boned and shy. She was tiny and loud. Julia (now a photographer who I wrote about here) had the biggest and possibly best laugh I’d ever heard. Small but enormous, she turned out to be Karla’s daughter. I was smitten. (Always a fan of “minor celebrity sightings,” I was way more excited when I bumped right into baking goddess Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery in LA than when I saw Brad Pitt sitting at an outdoor cafe that same afternoon.) It was fun to hear about Karla from her daughter, and then a huge treat to stay in her house that summer night. Her life seemed rich in a way that few lives are any more — embroidered with art from the ground floor up, filled with friends and music and colors.
I’d heard in recent years from Julia about how much her mom’s life had shrunk due to assorted health issues. I was sad to think that her lovely bed was no longer there – the brownstone rented a few years back. It made me sad to think of all of the kids out there reading her books, unaware that she was sick and would probably have been incredibly heartened by a card or two. How under appreciated writers sometimes are – their voices with us but their actual presence far away and even forgotten. Sill, though, there is the naked bassoonist. I’m going to get a copy of the book again tomorrow so my kids and I can tee-hee over pantyhose and the boxers. Thank you, Karla, for your beautiful beautiful books. Your spirit continues in their pages.