Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Our Storytelling Angel: Remembering Barby Britsch

Our Storytelling Angel, our Barby Britsch.

My dear friend Barby Britsch died yesterday afternoon, 3 December 2012, at 85 years old.   Whole chapters of my life have been  ripped out, and it pains me.  Barby and I shared a love of teaching and learning, music, art and theater.  She got her PhD in her 60s, Dr Britsch. Then she taught literature for 15 years at Lourdes College, a dedicated teacher and mentor, an expert in children's literature, a  professional storyteller.  I admired her.  She also volunteered with Arts Unlimited  (among many other cultural activities) for many years. Nothing made her happier than telling stories, with music and great drama, to both students and teachers, in Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, North  Carolina and Massachusetts. She traveled with stories in her heart and soul, stories that created “a sense of wonder,” that “connected people across cultures,” as she herself put it. It’s what she loved to do.   

In our time, Barby and I went to concerts and plays together; to Stratford, Canada, a few times, for the summer Shakespeare Festival. I remember especially The Mikado we saw, because she loved Gilbert and Sullivan.  The last play we saw together was here at The Rep in Toledo, a lovely production of “The Secret Garden.”   Around this time she also introduced me to the Blair Lithophane collection at Crosby Gardens, and gave me a fantastic guided tour of this historic art form, alive with beauty and light (see blog below).

Way back when, we shared a few summers in Nantucket, when her husband Jim was alive; we walked the beach and the moors, had fresh  fish dinners, ran to the beach to catch the sunset, cocktails in hand, and played memorable games of scrabble. It was a great joke that one of us got away with the word “twink” in one of our joyfully competitive scrabble duels, and didn’t catch it until after we were done with the game and reviewing the board. “Twink?!” Barby asked, increduously.  She had great fun with this super blunder for a long time. "Twink!" she'd say from time to time, with mock dismay.  Her son David remembers Nantucket, too and, sweet as he always was and is, comforted me with the memories.

The Carys and the Britschs also co-hosted an authentic Nantucket Jared Coffin House brunch one Christmas holiday, complete with cold cherry soup, at my home on Robinwood Avenue in the Old West End, down the street from where Jim and Barby had once lived. We were the “Brunch Bunch,” and met once a month for pot-luck meals, always delicious, a feast for the senses, an intellectual feast as well.  Neighbors and friends gathering. Our Nantucket brunch was  fun to prepare together, getting secret recipes and trying them,  and it was really super memorable to serve the  food, display it, savor it. It seems that a special holiday rum  punch was a big hit and added to the festivities.  

Then there were the times Barby and Jim saved our children, Elissa and Michelle.  Once when the kids were “running away,” suitcases in hand, Jim and Barby spied them from their grand front porch and invited them up for hot chocolate.  They girls jumped at the chance.  Jim and Barby took their’suitcases, fed them, and gave us a call.  Our girls were rescued, and not for the first time, or last!  Barby and Jim were such dear friends to all of us, and my girls adored them as special grandparents.   

Barby gathered together and created a fabulous photo album for my 40th birthday, a “This is Your Life, Fran” album, which I cherish to this day.  Full of old photos and funny text, no one could have done it better than Barby.

I also remember some notable Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners hosted by Barby and Jim at their place on North Cove, under a great neon work of art by Phil Hazard, an old family friend and a friend of their son David, both living in New York City at the time.  These were truly the best turkey and rib roast dinners ever, with all the trimmings, served on a beautiful table, with Barby’s special dinnerware, silverware and glasses.  She loved Christmas and her Christmas decorations were beautiful.  I loved her tree, and her collections of  this and that and jumping toys; so did my kids.  And she was always knitting that last minute sweater or scarf for her beloved sons David and Marty.  They were always in her heart, and will always be.

She and Jim visited me in Washington, DC, one year. A memorable time.  We walked the entire city, including an amazing visit to the Washington National Cathedral, which they loved.   Jim died not long thereafter, and Barby and I both wondered how he had kept up with us, sometimes having shortness of breath. He never said anything. Never complained. We just stopped and paused.  Oh, he was missed.  Jim’s great love of life, his wide reading, his compassion, his lovely baritone voice, his dedication to helping those less fortunate, especially in the area of housing, moved us, and it still does. 

Barby carried on: a brave, determined and engaged senior citizen to the end.  She did some of her greatest creative work with children’s literature and storytelling. She rocked!  She poured her heart and soul into it. Her knowledge of hundreds and hundreds of stories, from all time, from all over the world, fascinated.  It was like life-lessons in Joseph Campbell and the great power of myths across the ages, even better. 

No one could tell a story like Barby.   An incomparable spirit came through her as she spoke, a light, a spark of immortality.  

So many memories.  Such a rich fabric. All woven by the incomparable, the talented and special Barby Britsch.   “Tell me your story,” the message on her answering machine says, in her distinctive voice.   There’s no one like Barby to whom I could tell my story.  And no one like Barby who could tell our stories, our universal human stories, the stories that connect all of us, forever.   

Below is a blog I wrote after visiting Barby at the Lithophane Museum at Crosby Gardens, where she volunteered as a docent.  She was not walking well; her knees were a mess and needed replacing; she was in lots of pain, but always the trooper, she took me on a wonderful guided tour.   

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


A lot of the Lithophanes look like quaint illustrations from 19th century texts (and, Barby says, "may well be!"). 

I went to Toledo Botonical Garden on Saturday, formerly known as Crosby Gardens, which most of us still call it, to visit with my old friend Barby, who is a docent at The Blair Museum of Lithophanes, a museum on the grounds of the Garden.

I had heard of this collection years ago, when Mr. Laurel Blair lived on Robinwood Avenue in the Old West End, near the Art Museum.  We were living a few blocks up the street. He would open his h ome every now and then so people could view his ever-growing collection. I never made it inside, although I told myself a thousand times, every time I passed the old Victorian mansion, that I should do it.

Better late than never. I had a lovely tour of the precious collection, bequeathed to Cosby Gardens upon Mr. Blair’s death. What a gift. As the brochure tells us “Lithophanes are three-dimensional translucent porcelain plaques which when backlit reveal detailed magical images. First created in Europe in the 1820s, the largest collection of this 19th century art form in the world is now on view at the Blair M useum of Lithophanes.”

Right here in Toledo, in our own backyard, like Hines Farm and the Blues. The Blair Museum has a varied collection of lithophanes mounted and framed in stained glass, lamps, daily housewares, and craft and art pieces, mostly made in Europe between the 1820s and 1890s. There’s a rare lithophane portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a young man, created in the late 1860s to commemorate his assassination. The lithophane of Mount Vesuius erupting is beautiful. The lamps shimmer. There is also a special summer exhibit of lithophanes by contemporary artist Hannah Blackwell, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and spent time in Hungary perfecting the 19th-century methods, which involves painstakingly cutting wax, making a plaster mold, then casting and firing porcelain lithophanes. A book by Museum curator Dr. Margaret Carney, an excellent and informative art history, is on sale in the gift shop area as you enter the cottage museum. The website is fascinating, too (www.lithophanemuseum.org).

Great surprises come in small packages. The Blair Museum of Lithophones is among them. Light, art and imagination come to life in these magical lithophanes, which Mr. Blair had the foresight to collect, preserve, and make available to the public.   

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