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.
In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, and drink harder. I was their first child, born to them when they were still young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love. When I was a little girl I would shyly study my mother’s face … her wide eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star in hiding. I wondered what she was doing in this little life, in this house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and one parched sapling in the front yard. Even at five, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, I took on the job of laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. No one. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal,’ so imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families have no foxhole at all.
I lurched through the decades, reinventing myself over and over, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. It took over forty years, and one spectacular betrayal for me to stop, and turn my attention to the whisper of truth. It was there all along, but I hadn’t heard it before, because I wasn’t ready. Not only had I become ready, I threw up the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. And I was exhausted.. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
I remember the date. May 12, 1991. My attorney’s call that morning woke me up. She was calling to let me know the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I got off the phone, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought surely I would feel … something. Relief? Excitement, maybe? All I got was silence. I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared in the mirror. I looked into my own eyes, searching for … someone. Who will I be now? I whispered. I had no idea.
Ever since I was a tiny girl, there’s been … something … like a tiny thread … woven deep inside me. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have broken, or suffocated, or disintegrated. It never did.
Like a flower finding its way to the sun through a crack in the stone, that shimmering little strand found its way back to me.
The very thing I feared would be most difficult has become easy, feels natural. Coming home to myself is simple, and honest. I am moving back toward the center of someone I’ve always known. It warms my heart, settles my belly, and brings perspective into sharp focus. I know where home is now. And I see that I was right here all the time.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought be here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.
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.”