I didn’t know about her for years. Never heard of her. Then, one day, in the period I would soon dub ‘the dark night of my ex-husband’s soul’ she came. A light dawned.
I’d always been a creative girl, a passionate teen, then while wedded I morphed into an unsure and eagerly accommodating woman. When I finally acknowledged the “past due notice” and filed for “the divorce,” I realized I couldn’t speak. No, listen, I could string words together, I could even sound coherent on occasion, but the kernel of “me” at the heart of it all was missing. When did I grow so soft?
There I was, plowing through the molasses searching for my focus when, at a Screen Actors Guild Directors’ meeting, I met Nat Benchley. ‘Benchley, Benchley, let me think,’ I thought as I smiled that smile and shook his hand.
Nat immediately had me smitten, as most brilliantly eloquent men do … I do love a great mind. And his was incredible, I thought, until … well, his nickname for me was a little off putting. “Reverend Gorgeous.” I can barely type it even now. It makes me blush, and warms my heart. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Nat was sharing with me stories about his grandfather Robert, and how this woman, Dorothy Parker, was his sidekick and best friend.
Well, I’d never heard of the woman, and you already know exactly what I did. I looked Dorothy up, bought her books, checked her out … and thought, ‘HEY! I recognize that voice … that irreverent, brilliant, hysterically ironic voice. It . Sounds . Like . Me .’
So that was the first step, learning about Dot. The next meeting Nat and I attended was in New York, and he decided we should go some place called the Algonquin Hotel. Over martinis with three fat olives he educated me on the infamous “Vicious Circle” and — as we sat at that very same round table, regaled me with tales of how his Grandfather and Dot would hold court there everyday at lunch. And so, we and our colleagues sat. We laughed. We drank. Because, you know. Dot and Robert.
Hirschfeld drawings of Benchley, Parker, and company lined the walls. The more I learned, the more I was convinced: Nat and I should do a two-person show, Robert and Dot. I mentioned it to him. He loved it. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and we never happened.
That was years ago, and I only remembered these things when reading a piece this morning by Dorothy Parker. I’m much older now, and am not sure I still have the swagger necessary to deliver a good “Dot” onstage. But I love my warm memories of Nat Benchley. I continue to relish Parker’s writing, her voice, and the very clear knowledge that it was she who, thanks to Nat, helped me find my own.
When I was five or six I was drawn to the microphone at the Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners. My Uncle John would step up on that stage and use it when he introduced Monsignor Fletcher to say the blessing. And when he announced the three piece band, made up of parishioners. Ladies with blue hair played the stand up bass, the accordion, and the saxophone. Their pearls and ear bobs swayed or bounced to the rhythms while the grownups danced.
But it was when they took their break, and the microphone stood up there all alone that I felt the pull. I wandered up. I sat on that stage, just a low riser from the floor. I pivoted and suddenly, I was there. I wandered over. I looked out at the people seated at long tables, talking and laughing. The microphone was about a head and a half taller than I was. No way could I reach it. So I stood.
Years later I would actually use microphones, in the studio and on stage. For years I worked in an industry where people think if you haven’t “sold” a song or gotten famous, you’re just a wannabe who didn’t quite have the stuff.
But the truth is, the fame part was never an issue. Never a goal. It was always about the music. And music is its own thing. Fame is about politics, and strategy, and not just a little bit about the dark side of our nature. There are those who squeak through to the main keylight unscathed, but it’s not a huge percentage.
Looking back on my years in the “microphone” business, I know that every prayer I ever prayed about it was answered. But the picture looked quite different than I had imagined. The clarity I have, and the perspective given by years of experience, make me grateful for being blessed to do what I’ve done, and am doing, without ever having sold or being driven by anything but the music.
A recent checklist:
Have you locked in on who you were put here to be?
Are you accomplishing all that you were put here to accomplish?
How much longer is your life’s to-do list?
How’s that memoir coming?
Will your work projects pay off?
What will be written on your grave marker?
Will you have a grave marker?
Will your grands know how much you loved them?
Will you have made a difference in any positive way?
What is the one thing, if you had to choose, that you’d want to be remembered for?
How will your children carry on once you’re gone?
What will happen to your writing?
What will happen to your artwork?
What will happen to your design work?
Once you’re gone, will you even care about any of this?
Questions that, once posed, tend to send me into one of two places: a deep and thoughtful period, or a moment of ironic flippancy where I say, “Who cares about that? I can only handle ‘now’.”
And really, those questions generally pop up only when I’m down. And I’m down so seldom that I had to conjure to bring them up at all.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, and my heart in Gilead. My path is my testimony, marked by my feet, which I put one in front of the other each day.
It is a varied, and a beautiful life. Trouble? Yes, we see trouble all around us. But we are not the trouble itself. No one is. We are the very love we seek; we are the center and the stillpoint of this amazing planet. And what we focus on increases. Think about that.
So, as I look back on this list of questions I raise, I can quietly and with blessed assurance say,
“It is too soon to tell. But I’ve read the Book. I know how this ends.
“And it is beautiful.”
When the season turns crisp and cool; when there’s the tiniest bit of frost on the lamp post; when I grab a wool scarf on my way out the door “just in case,” and end up glad I did … those are the days I relish.
They take my mind a hundred different directions: shore up the house, bring in the wood, stock up on dry beans in the pantry for soup. Visualize where the garland will go, begin gathering little goodies to fill the “Christmas shoe boxes” that are shipped to children far away.
It’s the time of year when my eyes shine brighter, my step is quicker, and my to do list is longer. I have so many things to accomplish, and so little time to do it in!!
The Christmas movies start early for me — sometime just after Halloween. I keep them playing in the background as I move through the day. And, soon after, comes Christmas music. I know most people don’t want to hear those songs played outside the “four week Christmas window,” but I play them off and on year round. It’s like stepping back inside my favorite season anytime of year.
So yeah, it’s November 9th, and the carols are playing in my house. Flannel pajamas are being sewn for all the Littles, and calls are out to handy-workers to get things done on the house before winter sets in.
Once the cold snap hits hard, “first fire” night arrives. Wood blazing in the fireplace, chili in the slow cooker, and friends gathered ’round for music, stories, and laughter. These are the things and the people that warm my heart.
Christmas tree – at least one, there have been as many as five – is installed, decorated, and the halls festooned with holiday swag. To me, too much is never enough. Let’s do more!!
Christmas cookies rolled, cut, and decorated by small hands. The gingerbread man’s leg broke off, tears start, but hey! Here’s an idea, buddy! Let’s give him a cast, and a crutch! A laughing little boy, proud of his cookie. Problem solved.
Fudge making in the microwave, homemade pecan pies, peanut brittle, and my special “Nanny-Boo cookies.”
Holiday tins filled, ribbons tied, but no one enter the dining room! The sign on the swinging door, in big red letters, reads: “Nanny Clause’s workshop; boys and girls keep out!” The Littles are excited, but they grudgingly obey.
Advent wreath, three purple candles and one pink, marks the waiting for the Baby’s birth. Nightly prayers, with candles lit, keep us mindful of the meaning, and take us through each day.
A Birthday cake is made, white with white icing. Writing on the cake, “Happy Birthday Jesus.” The candle is a star.
On Christmas day, family gathers, and – just as it should be – children are the center of attention. Of course. It’s the Baby’s birthday, after all. Let us all be as little children this day; allow our hearts to fall open like old gates with loose latches. On this day … and every day henceforth … let’s hold on to what we’ve found in these moments. A feeling of connection, of love, of knowing that, while we’re part of something bigger, there is nothing bigger than Love. And that is what we’re made of.
But for today, I run out the door and grab my wool scarf. I smile, because there’s a nip in the air. I sense the beginning of something familiar and wonderful; I know it’s pulling me, and I go willingly. I love every step of this journey.
It sat in the back corner of the house. There were two doors, one off the kitchen, and one into the boys’ bedroom. The windows were on two sides, big and drafty. In the winter, Jack Frost made icy paintings on them. I loved it. Sometimes I would lick the ice, and watch it melt.
The wallpaper in my room was from Swinney’s hardware, my uncle John’s hardware store.
I loved that store. It had hardwood floors, front to back. There were wooden stairs to a catwalk that ran all the way around the at the second floor level. The walls up there were a checkerboard of colorful wallpaper samples. Lift the flap of paper, and the rolls of paper were stored in the cubbies behind.
My grandmother chose the wallpaper in my room. It was white, with loose bouquets of wildflowers tied with trailing blue ribbons. During the paper selection process, I was asked if didn’t I like this, or didn’t I think that was pretty. I loved looking at the samples, and leafing through the big wallpaper books. But I didn’t know what I liked. I was eight. I just wanted to make the adults in charge happy; I wanted whatever it was they wanted, because that makes everyone happy, right? Then I don’t get it wrong. That’s what you think when you’re eight.
Later, I would decide that my room looked old ladyish, I was silently disgruntled that my grandmother had picked it out … though even at ten or twelve, I didn’t know what I’d have chosen. Thinking back, I can see it was a sweet, cheery space in that stark little house. I wish I could see that paper now. I’d probably love it.
One of the things in my room was a wicker desk that had belonged to the mother of my other grandmother. My great grandmother. White wicker, with a wicker chair. That little desk has followed me all over the country, throughout my adult life. And it currently sits int eh bedroom at my house that is used by my granddaughters.
I wonder if it will some day be taken, and treasured, by my granddaughter, Gabby. There’s no way to know … but I hope so.
Meanwhile, thinking back, I love picturing that little white desk in my childhood bedroom; the wallpaper of flowers and the white dotted Swiss Priscillas. It’s where I laughed, cried, prayed, slept, and dreamed.
It was my room.
I’ve heard there’s a way to live that is without pressure, or obligation. A way to avoid the mundane requirements of life; electric bill, rolling trash bins to the curb, changing batteries in the smoke alarms. I’m not real clear about how one achieves that no-pressure life without ending up under a bridge somewhere. I do feel pretty certain that there’s a way to find balance along the nothing/everything continuum.
I was watching Hoarders the other day. In fact I was watching Hoarders back to back. I was sort of hoarding the Hoarders series. I keep thinking about those people and wondering, what was their trigger? What was the last straw that caused that interior designer to pile her historic home so full of crap that she ended up living in the driveway, in her dilapidated van with her dogs? That when the cleanup people were climbing over the piles inside the home, she was cheerily bragging on it being her design studio? In her mind and eyes, there was no problem.
She literally hoarded herself out of her home. She crowded herself out of her life with stuff. And though she declared the high value of it all, much of it was … nothing but garbage.
Another woman’s home was over run with cottage cheese cartons, rubber bands – which she had huge piles of, and wouldn’t let the cleanup people touch – plastic bags. Anything. Everything. It appears that too much everything flips over and you get nothing.
I’m thinking balance. It’s a great term, most of us use it, and most of us think that, in some way, we have some sort of balance in our lives.
Those hoarders think they have balance too. Like the woman whose house was so filled with crap she was living in the makeshift aviary with her cats. She couldn’t live in her house. She cried. She didn’t want to let anything go, but at the same time knew she had a problem.
Not sure why I’m writing about this. What I’m sure of is, I need to hire a couple of teenagers to help me clean out my garage.
You never know when that last straw’s gonna show up.
This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”