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.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I believe in the inherent goodness of people. I believe that, when we’re born, deep down at our core, even in the worst of us, goodness abides. Time, and relationships, and places; experiences we have can, in many ways, play a role in determining whether that goodness blooms and flowers. Or not.
There are very few people that I’ve allowed into my inner circle; to know my story. They each hold parts of it, but nobody’s privy to all of it. I’ve always thought it too heavy a burden for anyone else to carry: abusive alcoholic parents; rape; a marriage where emotional abuse was so pervasive, the final betrayal so breathtaking, that it’s taken me almost a quarter century following the divorce to even get back to square one. Those are the highlights. Every creative dream, save motherhood, sabotaged. Save motherhood. Motherhood saved. It saved me.
I sit here on this chilly November morning, coffee in hand, and think back on the chapters I’ve lived through. They’ve been difficult; the few close friends who know some of the intimate details swear I should be dead. They look at me in awe. And I laugh. No, I should be alive. Very MUCH alive. In my dreams, I should be twenty seven and feeling this way, but I’m not. Time marches on, and so have I.
I’ve come to realize that the people in my life who betrayed me through the years−while they never should have been so abusive or cruel−needed something I couldn’t give them. They were coming from their own pain. I know that. And pain takes many forms: anger, judgment, cynicism, betrayal, violence, addiction … and too many more than I have space to list here.
It took me a couple of self-examined decades to arrive at this philosophical place. I’ll admit, I don’t always like being here. It would be easier to sit in judgment, to make those who hurt me “wrong.” But the thought that always rings in my heart when that judgment creeps in is: “Finding their way.” They were finding their way.
When my father died in March, I went home to Oklahoma. My daughter came here to Tennessee from Atlanta and we rode together.
I’d dreaded the funeral gathering for decades. A quarter century, to be exact. Since my youngest sister and my husband had their very public affair. Yes. That. But the time that stretched between then and now was made up of the self-examined decades I mentioned earlier. The woman-of-me who arrived at the funeral home that Friday evening was not the same sleepless woman whose hair and eyelashes had fallen out from the betrayal back in 1990.
I was in the viewing chapel with my children when I saw my sister come in. I walked over to her and wrapped myself around her. I took her face in my hands and whispered to her that everything’s okay. I had no preconception of what would happen; I’d just kept asking the Holy Spirit to take over. And He did. It was probably the hardest and the most natural moment I’ve ever experienced in my life. After twenty five years, we stood together to bury our Daddy. In each of our worlds, with a relationship broken by choices that could not be undone, we’d known this day would arrive. And now here we were. We’d found our way.
So getting back to me, sitting here with my coffee. I have to chuckle, because I started writing this morning as a way to share my thoughts about the whole kerfuffle surrounding a cup. A coffee cup. A red coffee cup. I haven’t heard from anyone who’s actually upset about that cup. But I’ve heard plenty from people who are upset about the people who are upset.
First, I think the company whose cup it is (and I won’t mention their name, because wow! Their “anti-campaign campaign” is already off the charts successful) has executed this brilliantly. And a cup with no graphics is cheaper than a cup with graphics. Another win for them. Just … genius.
Second, the ingredient at the center of this branding creativity is the required manipulation of people. It’s the use of “human capital” and their proclivities, in order to achieve “trending” status; instigating the posting, and the pitting, of people against each other. Persons of one “group” calling those in a “group” with opposing views names. Really? This is not who we, at our core, truly are.
But yes. It’s happening. Over a paper cup. And unnamed coffee company is LOVING it.
There’s even rumor that one presidential candidate called for a boycott of said coffee company. I checked before writing, to make sure I quoted him accurately, and discovered there was actually no call. In fact, his first words on the subject were, “Maybe we should,” and his last were, “but seriously, I don’t care.” Again. It’s a coffee cup. Yet so much faux sturm und drang. Smart people of all stripes are embroiled in this non issue. Well played, unnamed coffee company.
And as things do, I’m reminded that this, too, shall pass. Next week there will be yet another deliberate media manipulation of well meaning people. Good people, on every “side;” people who are finding their way.
What I’m saying, in probably way too many words, is that part of the “finding” of our way that’s required is the brutal task of self examination. The minute I think I’m better, holier, smarter, more evolved, more caring than you or any other thinking person, I’ve entered the ranks of the Pharisee. My daily call, first thing in the mirror, and at various times throughout each day is: “Check yourself.”
For today, part of finding my way is collecting shoeboxes to fill with goodies for children who might otherwise get no Christmas. I’m going to fill as many as I possibly can. I’ll do it because it’s fun, not because I’m wonderful. I also do it because I enjoy the thought of making the lives of children somehow better. So I have to be honest about the fact: I do it mostly for me.
And during the course of days I’ll make my own coffee. I’ll drink it in my own cup. I’ll pray for my Daddy. I’ll love my sister. Yes, I do. And will. I’ll wish my ex well, though I have to admit, sometimes that still has a glitch to it. I’ll love my children and grandchildren as big as I possibly can, which is the easiest thing I do in my life.
It’s just the story of me, finding my way. And praying for you, that you are finding yours.