Isolde Schmitt-Menzel

Uncategorized December 17, 2013

I have been hearing for some time, from many people -friends and otherwise, this tour represents my life’s mission.  When the assistant curator at the Jones Library asked me back in early May -a week into my tour, if I was on a spiritual journey , it was a question not entirely unexpected.  I had been feeling for some time that I “had to do this”.

Coming to Boerne Texas opened my eyes and mind (and heart) even more.  The portrait tour has become an experience, a journey of a lifetime.  Part of traveling is meeting new people and experiencing new things.  Though I was a product of the seventies: peace, love and all that stuff, much of it in a haze of pot smoke, I remained a wary, fearful, middle class young man, untrusting of things unfamiliar.  “Change” -that ugly word for most of us, loomed large.  I was not comfortable with change.  For some time now and especially since coming to Texas I have allowed those fears and critical judgements to fall by the wayside.

It started with my meeting Willie Nelson aka Rick Taylor -a transplanted Canadian who just celebrated his 84th birthday.  A man who’s childlike spirit and energy would challenge a person half his age and younger.  Part of that equation is his German wife Esther, twenty-six years his junior, a power unto herself.  Living next to them, connected by a long walkway through the trees is Esther’s mother, a former children’s book author and illustrator Isolde Schmitt-Menzel.   Eighty-three years young as the saying goes, Isolde was for our first few meetings, a quiet presence.  Her face hidden beneath the ubiquitous cowboy hat, long hair flowing, she seemed to be an unapproachable being: quiet and guarded.  When she spoke, it was with a thick German accent.  Slight of figure, she was more the observer than participant around me.  Until the other day.

Out of the blue, Sunday morning she told me she wanted to read my Tarot cards.  Esther had earlier mentioned that her mother was good at it and maybe I’d ask for a reading.  I was, as she knew, in a state of flux.  I later found out Isolde approached me on her own.  Did she sense something?  In the afternoon sunlight Isolde and I sat outside on the deck in the warm sunshine to begin the reading.

I had returned to Boerne confused.  The high of the summer and early fall had been replaced with doubt.  No future plans after April.  How could this be?  I have had many say to me “trust that it will work out”.  But that insecure young person growing up full of doubt, was resurfacing.   Now, I sat with seven cards pulled from the tarot deck awaiting Isolde’s interpretation.

As I sat there listening to her, I had this vision of being in a fairy tale.  This dark mysterious woman, face lined with years of experience as a child in World War II’s Germany, could have been right out of a book.  Surrounded by dense foliage, I felt I could’ve been Hansel and Gretal lost in the forest, mesmerized by this mysterious older woman.  But Isolde’s intense expression and deep-set eyes grew loving and kind.  She started laughing during the reading -not in a mocking or foreboding way, but because she was interpreting the cards’ hopeful and positive messages.  “You vill havf nuzzing to fear,” she said over and over.

When the reading ended, I asked questions of her.  How did this woman who grew up the oldest of three children in a remote area in Germany, come to live in Boerne?  Her daughter had told me that she was a very shy and quiet child, immersed in books constantly.  She was a dutiful child and because her brother was seven years younger and sister double that, she was in many ways like an only child, a first child who never rebelled.  Her mother, she said, was like a zen master.  She was a Yoda of sorts knowing when to speak and when silence worked best.  She told me of the one time she disobeyed her mother.  Involved in her book, Isolde said she ignored repeated requests to help her mother in the kitchen.  Finally Isolde blurted out “Stupid cow!”   ZZZsst CLAP!  Her mother slapped her face, startling a young Isolde.  My ‘muzzer only hit me once,” she said.  Her mother also never spoke of the incident again.   A lesson on respect was made.

Isolde went on to write and illustrate children’s books making a tidy sum off of a mouse character she had created.  That money allowed her the freedom to travel and now own three houses: one in Germany, one in France and one here in Boerne.   To look at her, one would have no clue to her unique life.  I have since sat and listened to her talk about life and god and the humanity.   When I think of our time on the sun-dappled deck, her voice coming to life for that hour, seeing joy light up her face, I chuckle at how wrong I was in my assessment of her.  How far off the mark I was.  It is a reminder of how we sometimes prejudge and if we don’t reach out, let someone who is seemingly very different from ourselves, we stand to be very big losers.  In a few days I leave Boerne for points west.  I leave that much richer and wiser.

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For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

Comment 1

  1. Kate Boyle says on January 8, 2014

    Hey Chris!

    I’m so glad you’ve found that mysterious side of life again – so glad you have a friend in Isolde! My heart feels lighter just having read this post. I miss your energy here – hope we meet again someday. Kate

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