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.
Talking with my mentor today about flailing. Actually, we were talking not only about our own, but also about a mutual friend’s flailing. The friend’s really good at it. God bless her, she’s begun so many careers, projects, ideas, but somehow nothing ever sticks. Add all that to the list, and she one of those who looks real good on paper. But her specialty, if she was going to be honest with herself – which, at this point, not so much – is flailing. As I said, and I mean it … God bless her.
We all flail. Some of us flail occasionally, some do it daily, as a normal response to living, period.
I love the show ‘Good Witch’ on Hallmark Channel. Martha Tinsdale, the town’s Mayor, is a flailer. She’s skittish and going off about something pretty much all the time.
Cassie Nightingale, the owner of the little shop, “Bell, Book, & Candle,” is calm as the lake on a still day. She’s direct, thoughtful, and soft spoken.
She almost never shows her flailing. So she’s the one many turn to when they feel their own flailing going out of control.
I can identify with both Martha and Cassie. I feel the skittish “Martha” energy kick in when things take a troubling turn. Unlike Martha, my flail is usually internal. “Closet flailing” … like what goes on in deep water. Surface calm to the naked eye. All hell breaking loose below. It doesn’t often last very long, just a few minutes. An hour or so at most. But there’ve been periods in my life when, being under assault, I’ve experienced active “peripheral flailing” on a twenty four hour basis. For weeks at a time. Months, even.
But my exterior is generally calm. When I’m in that scrambling space, very few people know it.
I’m always striving to zero in on the path to calm. To my “Cassie place.”
There are those who seek shoulders, and those who are the shoulders being sought. Shoulder seekers tend to be the flailers, the Marthas of the world. Those who offer shoulders are the ones who present calm, dependable energy … the “Cassies.”
And, you know, life is messy … it tends to flail on its own from time to time. Traffic, crowds, water pressure … it all flails. And that’s okay.
Because there is a point at the center of it all where the quiet reigns. And all the flailing, the flagging about, is a misguided attempt to get “there.”
So my mentor and I, having chatted this subject through, are laughing about our own scatter shots, our flailings … and are glad that we have each other to hold the peace.
We’ll call it, “Holding Peace While Flailing.” Cassie and Martha would be proud.
“Where’s Hudson?” I looked around, the other kids were heads down on their iPads. “Hudson?” I got up off the sofa and walked to the hallway. “Buddy? Hudson?”
I looked out the window, maybe he’d gone outside. Nope. I lifted my chin and called into thin air,
“HUDSON!!” I caught Gabby’s eye. She gave a head check toward the couch, mouthed the words, “He’s over there.” I nodded and went to see.
Sure enough, there was Hudson, crouched behind the sofa.
“What are you …”
“NannyBoo! I’m busy! Go! Go!!” He waved me away, his face beet red. I got the message. I went around, lifted him up, said,
“Buddy, there’s nothing for you back there,” and – in spite of his wailing objections – carried his stiff, folded body to the bathroom.
By now, he was sobbing.
“I do not want to go in there!”
“Well, Buddy, you don’t have a choice. This is where big boys – and all civilized people – do their business.”
“I … I’m sort of a big boy, but … I’m not with those civilized people.” I peeled his pants and underwear off, and sat him on the toilet.
“Well, you need to be with the civilized people. Life’s gonna be tough if you’re not.”
He glared at me.
“Okay, now will you please get out. I need my privacy.”
“Okay. But I’ll be right outside if you need …”
“Yes, I get it. Go. Please go.” I went.
Five minutes later,
“NannyBoo.” I cracked the door and peeked in.
“How you doin’?”
He was sitting there stripped naked, and shot me an exhausted look. Big sigh.
“Good job, Buddy.”
As helped him get his clothes on he asked, “Am I one of those civilized people now?”
“Yes you are!”
“Do they get treats for pooping in the toilet?” I took his sweet little face in my hands, kissed his forehead.
“Today they do.”
If three year olds can be gang members, I was one. We had a pack of kids in our neighborhood on North Marion Street. Each morning, as early as any parent would allow, a youngster drifted out the front door of his little clapboard house, and stood in the yard wearing nothing but a pair of rumpled camp shorts. Maybe he’d wander the length of the driveway, bend down, pick up a rock, survey the street for signs of life, and head back to sit on his porch stoop. And wait.
Almost immediately, sets of young eyes threw quick glances out picture windows. Front doors opened, and small, tan feet ran or skipped or sauntered to assemble where the child was planted.
Thinking back, it gives new meaning to “the gang’s all here.” But we were. The men in our gang wore shorts; the women, bloomers. We were brown as biscuits, the soles of our feet well seasoned from weeks of running around bare.
We played all day, moving in a raggedy clump from one yard to another. Bill’s dad had left the hosepipe hooked up on the front spigot, so we all ran over because Shorty and Margo were thirsty. Mitchell and Bobby turned the handle, and the water spurted out. It went quickly from hot as fire to so clear and cold that suddenly we were all thirsty. Everybody got a chance. About eight or ten three year olds bending over spouting water, slurping it down their throats and bellies, all of us clamoring for more.
I don’t remember every name from back then, but I remember that water. It started in Lake Spavinaw, and came pouring out of that front yard hose icy and sweet, flavored with a touch of rubber hose and a dash of brass metal. We all loved it, and kept drinking until Bill’s mother came out on the porch to shake the dustmop and caught us.
“You kids turn that water off and go play!” she hollered. She gave us the hard eye till Bill went over and cranked the handle. By that time we were soaked, but we didn’t care. In fact, we liked it. It was 90 degrees in the Oklahoma shade, which there wasn’t much of.
Our gang lasted till we all started school, then life its own self took over and we drifted into our separate worlds. But if anyone ever asks me about gang membership, I can tell them, quite honestly, that I was a gang member very early on. And I’m proud of it.
Birthdays are interesting benchmarks. They roll around on the same date, year after year. As a kid, I generally looked forward to them. It meant “something” would happen; in the earliest years there were celebrations with cake.
Birthday number one was The Event. As the first-and-at-that-point-only child, family gathered round. Photographer Wilmot Dahlem was summoned.
I was put in the highchair, a cake was placed in front of me. I reached for the single candle and literally remember being told, “Nono, don’t touch that.” So, I did what any thinking one-year-old would do: I picked it up with my mouth.
Wilmot documented the moment
The next Birthday I remember is number three. I had a baby brother by then. That’s also the year I found Mama’s scissors when I was supposed to be taking a nap; I cut half my long hair off. Mama documented that one. The expression on that lady’s face tells the story.
My grandmother (Nanny) crocheted me a dress, with hat and purse for my Birthday that year. Wilmot took pictures of me in my dress.The short curls peaking out from under the crocheted hat … made my Mama cry.
As I got older and the number of siblings grew, it became more of a day when — eventually — all eyes glanced at me at some point during the day with, “Hey. It’s your Birthday.” Yes, I knew. I was “waiting for sixteen.” Then, “waiting for eighteen.”
When you’re a kid, waiting and pining to be older seems to be part of the M.O. But there’s a point; a moment. There’s a place in the sequential order of annual things when a body feels the urge to say, “I’ve had quite enough. Let’s stop this now; can we?” Well, no, comes the answer. Not really. Time, and tides, are gonna roll on. The only known way of stopping is leaving. And that’s generally not what one is thinking when it crosses the mind, on some advanced Birthday, to say, “Check please.”
I had such a Birthday yesterday. I felt full ready to call for the check … until a guy at the grocery store started chatting with me. I was standing in the aisle with the motor oil, and reached for the 5 W30 ‘high mileage’. The young man (and I say young because, at this point in my life, isn’t everyon else?) asked me a question about my car. I did a little fake laugh and told him my car needs the OCV replaced. That stopped him for a second; a woman who knows what an oil control valve is … rare bird. Then he complimented me on my sweater. Oy. I could see where this was going; I felt my face flush. I couldn’t look him in the eye. But I knew he had to have been born some year after my children. Holy crap. Nope. Moving on.
I grabbed the jug of oil, mumbled “Have a good night,” and went to self check out. I spied him heading toward the produce section, and was able to get a good look at him. Damnation; he was tall, a bit swarthy, he must work out. He was eye candy-ish … in a much-too-young-for-me-but-god-help-us-all-look-at-you sort of way.
I paid for my oil, walked out to my car, got in, and sat there for a minute. Just breathing. I considered how old I ‘am’ compared to how old I ‘feel’ … and pulled out of the parking lot thinking maybe, just maybe, I don’t need the check after all.
I see a giraffe. Big quiet eyes. Ears just so. Soft little horns. I can’t see his long neck. I know it’s there, beyond the card.
His neck that stretches high into the trees, so he can nibble on the tippy toppest leaves.
He’s a likeable giraffe. Loveable, even. But it’s hard to know that. His head is so very high up, one can barely look into his eyes to see his personality.
And it’s quite difficult to kiss a giraffe. The process goes thus:
You stand by the tree trunk, look up into the leaves, and you shout, very loudly,
“Mr. giraffe, I would so love to kiss you.” You hope he hears you. His head is buried up there in the tree, and you hear munching. You shout again, louder:
“Mr. Giraffe, I would really very much love to kiss you.” Still, no response. Munch munch. Try again. In fact, this time, try a slight English accent:
“Hiya, Mr. giraffe. Seems I’ve a kiss here wif your name on it. What say you, good sir?” You wait. He eats. You sigh. You walk away from the tree, to the sidewalk. You don’t see one sly eyeball peak at you through tree leaves.
You stand on the sidewalk, looking at the giraffe … you study his spindly legs, his switching tail, his long, long neck. You suck in as much air as you can hold, and you shout out. the loudest of your louds one last time. Oh, and the English accent has become quite thick:
“Mr. giraffe, is a bloke allowed to plant a kiss on your jaw at any point in time?” After waiting for what seems like forever but was really about a minute and a half, you shout, “Crikey!” as you turn and walk across the street. This, you decide, will never work.
“Uh. Excuse me.” You turn, and look. The giraffe is looking right at you. “Were you talking to me?”
“I … I would very much love to kiss you.” You’re on the opposite side of the street by now, but you start walking back toward the giraffe when he bellows,
“STOP!” You stop. “Back up!” You step backwards and onto the opposing sidewalk. “Wait.” You stand and stare. You wait.
The giraffe himself backs up, away from the tree. He swivels his head around on top of his neck. Then, ever so slowly, his neck bends down. Down. Down. He brings his neck down till it stretches across that street and he is face to face with you. You can feel his soft giraffe breath.
He leans toward your ear and whispers,
“You may kiss me now.”
We called them bread heels. The ends on loaves of bread. Once a loaf was opened, it was each user’s responsibility to keep the end slapped up against the next slice inside the plastic bag, so the remainder would stay fresh.
When there were no slices left, the two heels took on a life of their own, and a sort of bread heel caste system was born.
Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my daddy would slather two heels with Miracle Whip, and make a sandwich with slices of raw potato and purple onion. This was the working class life of bread heels.
Then there were the heels that were lined up on a baking sheet, covered with cheese product, and slid under the broiler just long enough for the yellow stuff to char around the edges. Middle class bread heels lived through fire in a gas oven to become the cheesy toast served with potato soup on a Friday night.
Other times they were thrown into the skillet with the broken handle that lived in the oven. The ones that piled up in that skillet got hard as a rock. When there were enough of them, my mother clamped the food grinder to the kitchen table, and ground the petrified heels down to a powder.
She took that bread heel flour, mixed it with eggs and vanilla, buttermilk, molasses, spices, raisins, poured it into a cake pan, and baked it in the oven. This was bread crumb pudding; dark, dense and moist, it was just about the best thing you’d ever want to put in your mouth.
It’s been said that bread heels the world over have talked amongst themselves, and considered with reverence the fact that the heels of breadcrumb pudding had indeed lived the upper crust life of bread heels everywhere.