A Remembrance of Barbara Juster Esbensen
by her husband, Tory Esbensen

Barbara was born on April 28, 1925, in Madison, Wisconsin. Throughout her life it remained the geographical center of her personal universe.

Barbara came from Jewish ancestry. Her father, Dr. Eugene Juster, was the dominant influence during her childhood years. Barbara was the eldest of his three children - all girls - and he treated Barbara like a son.

"Bobby, run out for a pass!" he would shout as he tossed a long spiral for her to catch.

On her 71st birthday, Barbara demonstrated for her grandchildren how to dropkick a football and throw a shovel pass.

Barbara adored her father, a man of strong opinions concerning everything in the world and with a vocabulary to match his views. She loved recalling instances of what he had said or done.

For example, he not only followed Jewish customs, he celebrated Christmas with gusto. When this apparent contradiction was pointed out to him, he replied, "I don't give a damn whose birthday it is!"

He taught Barbara the game of golf. On Sundays, they often went golfing - father and daughter, teacher and pupil. One year, as a birthday present for Barbara, Dr. Juster secretly purchased a new set of golf clubs. To make the situation into a little game - although he was sure he already knew the answer - he asked Barbara which she would rather have: a bicycle or a set of golf clubs.

"Oh, Daddy," exclaimed Barbara, "my very own bicycle! How wonderful!"

The next Sunday, when Dr. Juster climbed into his car to go to the golf course, Barbara rushed out of the house, saying, "Daddy, wait for me. I want to go too."

Her father simply looked at her and said, "Go ride your goddamn bicycle."

Dr. Juster was a sharp-eyed observer of the world of nature. He wanted Barbara to be the same. And she was - a real noticer of all things - birds, rocks, trees, flowers, fish, people - everything. Her father encouraged her in this by testing her on whatever he may have recently pointed out to her.

When Barbara was seventy years old, she once remarked that if something was being explained on television, she still felt she must pay careful attention in case someone was planning to test her.

The playful aspects of life always appealed to Barbara. Many years ago, the good sisters at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, made her an honorary Benedictine. Barbara took delight in mentioning this fact. Whenever anyone asked her how this could happen, she would nonchalantly reply, "Oh, in the usual way." - which is the only explanation ever offered for this event.

Barbara's career as a writer was determined when a beloved high school English teacher, Miss Eulalie Beffel, said concerning something Barbara had written, "Barbara, you are a writer."

Nineteen books later - with two more still waiting to see the light of day - she has underlined that judgment.

In recent years, I suggested many times to Barbara that she write a book, or at least an article, about her childhood.

"Look," I said, "you have practically total recall. And so many of the things you keep telling me about from your past would be charming for others to read."

I tried exciting her memory.

"Remember, as a little girl, the sign you put on your bedroom door: WELCOME TO CASTLE AFTERGLOW. KEEP OUT!"

"Remember how you didn't want to drag your younger sisters around with you when you wanted to play with your older friends. And then, one day, you were finally dragooned into taking one of your sisters with you. But you rose to the occasion. You gave her a special role to play. She was to pretend that she was a rock. And she was to stay absolutely motionless in one spot, just like a rock...."

But my urging was to no avail. Barbara merely smiled, shook her head, and commented that no one would be interested in reading about her childhood.

"I had a great time growing up," she said. "No conflicts. No bad things in my life. Who would want to read about that?"

This ended the discussion.

Writer and Teacher

Barbara was not only a gifted writer, she was a superb teacher. She taught young people at numerous grade levels - elementary school children, high school youngsters, and college students.

She also worked with teachers, librarians, and parents.

Here are three small anecdotes from her work with children at the elementary school level.

One time when she was working with a group of first graders, she told them that they would put all the words in the world on the blackboard.

Said Barbara, "I want you to think hard. You see, I am one hundred years old, and I've seen a lot of words in my life. I want you to tell me as many new words as you can."

During lunch break, one of the teachers came up to Barbara and said, "The children want me to ask you a question."

Barbara laughed and said, "I suppose they want to know whether I am really one hundred years old."

"No," said the teacher, "They believe that. They want to know whether you use Oil of Olay."

A second story has to do with the time that Barbara was working with some fourth graders. They were using what she called her word boxes.

Barbara was always pushing her students to use words in fresh, new ways. To help this along, she would sometimes have two boxes filled with slips of paper. In one box, all the slips of paper would have nouns written on them. In the other box, the slips of paper would have adjectives written on them.

Each student would pick at random one word slip from each box. In all likelihood, the two words would not fit each other in an ordinary way. The task for the student was to create an interesting word image using the two words together.

Barbara remembered how one of the students drew what was obviously such a nonstarter, such an ordinary combination - WRINKLED and GOWN - that she told the youngster he could draw again. But no. He said he would work with these two words.

A short time later, he showed Barbara what he had done. He had written:

"Under the snow, the river freezes like a wrinkled gown."

Many professional writers would give their eyeteeth to have this kind of word imagery at their fingertips. And to top it off, Barbara later discovered that this boy was an EMR (educable mentally retarded) student who had been mainstreamed into the class.

This third story concerns a group of sixth graders who worked with Barbara on the task of writing a poem together. It happened on an April morning when, at long last, a dreary Minnesota winter seemed to be disappearing over the horizon.

The poem is called APRIL, and it emerged from a clutter of words written helter-skelter on the blackboard as discussion raged concerning the characteristics of that blessed season we call spring.

Here it is, just as the children wrote it and approved it:


All winter long
I have kept the trees
in the broom closet
Now robins announce
the rain
Restless, the trees
scratch at the locked
This key of thunder
lets them out
to sweep the open sky!

How, time after time, and with such apparent ease, Barbara was able to get this kind of stuff from kids, always seemed to me to be a minor miracle. And yet she did, and believed she could teach others how to do it too.

The Long Goodbye

Although Barbara was never willing to document the years when she was growing up - they would be of no interest to others, she claimed - she did give us the essential flavor of those days in the following poem she wrote in memory of a cherished friend.

The Long Goodbye

Written Memories

Barbara Juster Esbensen Memorial

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