Myrtle Hilbruner, 1924 – 2013

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When I was small and my parents were struggling to establish themselves in business, my Aunt Myrtle gave me the ‘educational’ presents they could not afford. She was single, worked for a bank, and still lived with my grandparents. I recall an Erector Set, many books and, above all, painting supplies. It was her mission to nurture in me something she thought my parents did not see. I probably would not have started painting without her encouragement.

My Aunt Myrtle was a feminist pioneer in her own way. Born on a farm, with only a high school education, she went to work for the local bank. Her organization and plain-spokenness — she had after all killed chickens and waited tables in my grandfather’s diner during the Depression — led to a position as the chief teller after a decade. After another 7-8 years she became the manager, effectively running the branch for the owners. But even she did not expect what happened next. A Big Bank bought her little bank, and the Big Bank was slapped with a gender discrimination suit. As part of its settlement the Big Bank had not only to promote women, but to add one to its Board of Directors. It looked around — there was my Aunt Myrtle. She apparently doubled or tripled her salary, all guaranteed in writing, and had her expenses to and from meetings paid, if only she would serve on the board for ten years. She stayed at work for a graceful period, then bought a farm in Arkansas and made the bastards pay her way to Chicago once a month.

My Aunt Myrtle married late. She married her mailman. He was a great guy, with a brush mustache and an amazing garage workshop. He smoked a pipe and was interested in everything and could fix everything. It mattered not the least to them that she was on the Board of Directors of the Big Bank and he was a mailman.

My Aunt Myrtle was our family genealogist, tracing family roots back to flat farm hamlets in gray north Germany, traveling to them to copy birth certificates, and then compiling family trees in her precise longhand (both she and my mother wrote with that beautiful hand that seems now forever lost). Without her work my generation would have no idea of who we are.

From time to time I updated my aunt on my painting. The canvases never amounted to much, but they connected us in spirit — in the honoring of the creative bond. Last year she slipped and fell, which led to a stroke. She recovered and I sent her pictures of 3-4 paintings I had done in the last decade.

This afternoon she died. This painting is for her.

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