Emma Bee Bernstein

For Emma Bee Bernstein

Ten years ago, Emma had her Bat Mitzvah on a day when the atmosphere was volatile, threatening to storm. As the service went on, the sky darkened, clouds lowered. But when Emma was called to do her Torah portion and took her place before the open scroll, a huge bolt of lightning cracked and an enormous clap of thunder broke right over the synagogue. Emma had a flair for drama.

I saw Emma in Chicago last summer. We had breakfast on a hot, sticky morning when the glaring light was unkind to the gritty urban neighborhood around the stop on the subway where we met. A neighborhood not so much abandoned as left behind, it was almost entirely deserted, but near to new galleries and a place Emma was going for a symposium in the afternoon. When we went into the breakfast place, however, it was, improbably, teeming with people. From the back room three fully frocked Roman Catholic priests appeared, dark ravens with winter skin, one tall and sallow, one small and round with a fringe, one swarthy, heavily built. They were not just characters, but types, as was the hash-slinging slangy hello-dearies-honeys you are lucky you are getting anything to eat waitress who treated us with exaggerated familiarity. And there were children crawling over tables and under chairs, picking up massive amounts of foot stuffs and sticking things all over their cheeks, in their hair, screeching, cooing, caterwauling, crying. In the midst of all this, a leprous homeless man, dancing in and out among us. These were not just figures, types, but stereotypes, archetypes. Emma and I spoke about art, her work, photography, fashion, the avant-garde, and critical views in some semblance of a sane exchange of common interests in the midst of this mayhem. Later I realized that it was the theater of Emma’s vivid imagination we had entered into, conjured according to the exaggerating principles of her psychic universe.

Emma, our dear beautiful Emma, we will miss you as much as we love you.

—Johanna Drucker, 31-XII-08