Last Thursday we celebrated our 59th anniversary. Cornish hens, a good Chardonnay, a fire in the fireplace, and Elizabeth suggested a challenge: that we each speak of times—make it seven, as something to aim for—when we recall the other being especially vivid . . . something like that.
For me, speech is a challenge. I’m a terrible writer, a great rewriter, but you don’t get to rewrite the spoken word. It’s just out there kicking and flailing. But I gave it a try. I came up with seven gerunds, picked them out of my old leather hat, and hoped for the best.
LOVING – Difficult to speak of, as the hundreds of embraces over the years blend into one embrace whose sweetness amazes. What separates itself in memory is the first. November ‘60 in the back seat of a decrepit Chrysler, Evanston IL, heavy frost on the windows. Done in a minute and lasting a lifetime.
FEEDING – 21,535 dinners on the table or over the cowling of the touring van or in a bowl around the campfire. Well, subtract some where we’re fed by a host or the very few times we eat a restaurant meal. (I do the dishes, at least.) The most vivid memories: in our undergrad days, when she cooks daily for eight fellow students in a summer rooming house. And in our teaching days, laying out a sumptuous after-show meal for our student cast on a South Carolina beach. And conjuring up a delicious soup out of scraps our first night in Poland.
SPEAKING – At Quaker meetings, pagan circles, other gatherings, she would rise to her feet, often with great reluctance, and speak words that flowed from a depth and touched the depth in others. Reluctantly, as afterward she berated herself for “showing off”—a persistence of childhood trauma. Offering gifts is often at a cost, but she offers them.
NURSING – The years I would see my wife giving breast to our infants. Sensing both the pleasure she took in it and the challenge of finding place and time amid rehearsals, travel, performance, and the deadly office work that supported the craft.
MAKING – She’s been the composer, electrician, carpenter, accountant, and general jill-of-all-trades for our complex existence. What I recall mostly are the impossibilities. At the top of a 10-foot ladder, threading electrical conduit among rafters to its fixture. The all-nighter laying out transfer type on a verbose show poster, only to see it peeling up in the dawn. Composing music for 70 songs in three weeks for our 1966 staging of THE BEGGAR’S OPERA. Drilling bolt-holes for a wildly-asymmetrical pipe set for our MEDEA/SACRAMENT. Rebuilding the interiors of our touring vans—well, no, those were pretty straightforward challenges compared with the complexity of a sales-tax form.
DANCING – A rarity, but the memories are vivid. Dragged by another woman into a dance, the two of them circling a candle with madcap ferocity, driving the drummers on and on and on. And a month ago, at a concert by a friend, moving onto the dance floor like the waves we watch in our weekly lunch at the ocean.
ACTING – Dessie, Medea, Liddie, Miss Bleep, Jenny Diver, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Lear’s Fool, Mary Tyrone, the Flounder, dozens of others, all offering vital parts of herself to strangers. And with skills you don’t learn in an acting class: surviving a 12-week tour; coping with a thunderstorm leaking into the center of the auditorium midway through the show; the four-hour setup and two-hour strike sandwiching the 90-minute show; playing a dozen characters in one ten-minute sketch; holding an audience at 9 a.m. in a high school gym; making the five hundredth performance of a piece as fresh as the first.
And she had beautiful things to say to me. A good time was had by all.