Blanche had a hand in it

Like old Hollywood screenplays, the scripts of our lives are never the work of a single source, but are cobbled together by many hands, and sometimes quite  disparate sensibilities. Yesterday, mine was Tennessee Williams, at his best, (momentarily off the sauce), or more likely Blanche DuBois. So much of it had to do with the kindness of strangers.

The day glistened with a luster of encouragement from the moment I opened my eyes. Deep Spring, with lighting that flattered lawns and softened shadows. Nothing had fried or frazzled yet, just primeval green everywhere, with not a split end of grass to be found. The breeze caressed the skin like the breath of a playful friend, and, despite the intensity of the sunlight, the temperature, far from withering, stimulated.

The doctor’s appointment I thought might tie me up all morning (last time, I waited over an hour to be seen) was done in a matter of minutes and most reassuring (nunya). I was dispatched before I could complete my crossword puzzle.  Instead of driving home, I went to Van Kelker nurseries for more plants. They had a lovely Martha Washington, white with maroon tracery, and the trailing snowstorm vine and dark and light geraniums with which John always liked to fill the wall pockets by the gazebo.

What I had really come looking for, though, was a variety of trailing plants for the urn that sits high atop the sycamore stump. Enter kind stranger number one, a uniformed employee, busy with watering. She remembered me and asked about John. It pains me to say I didn’t remember her. As to how someone could recall a once-a-year customer, John used to say that we must have three heads or something. I explained about him, and she commiserated. She had already dropped what she was doing, and was steering me toward sweet potato vines, (eggplant and key lime), green and white wojo, and an enchanting flower called Tropical Sunset with delicate rings of all the colors such a name suggests. All that remained was to find a spike for the center. I’d taken so much of her time that I asked her just to tell me in what aisle I’d find one, but no, she came along, produced three quite different spikes and said, “Now, let’s go back to your cart, group everything around them and see which one works the best.” Buoyed by the unexpected sweetness of the encounter, I memorized her face for next year.

Back at home, I tried to access John’s Spothero account to get a parking space near Steppenwolf where I have tickets for a farce Sunday. If you don’t know Spothero, you should. It is the least expensive way to park, and they have spaces all around the city. That said, I was having trouble. John’s password wasn’t working, or I wasn’t reading it properly, and when I tried to set up my own account, they kept wanting to do it through apps. I’m not an appy person. I found a phone number for Spothero. Enter kind stranger number two. He was the soul of patience without ever letting it seem that he was being so. He talked me through every step, and stayed with me to make sure I had it right. Several times I didn’t. Had he been sighing or gnashing his teeth at my ineptitude, or simply tossed me to the wolves, I would have understood. But he didn’t. He really wanted me to be able to do it. It was as though he were dealing with his saintly grandfather, not some exasperating doofus stranger. And, at length, I dood it.

I’d been in good hands all day, and there was yet another pair to come. Greg, a friend and masseur, had been under the weather. He called to say he was now available, and I wasn’t about to say no. Greg is a wizard when my back, or leg cramps are bothering me. When they aren’t, he is a purveyor of deep tissue, muscular bliss. He makes house calls, and doesn’t watch the clock. Who could ask for anything more? Well, yes, but I don’t.

When he was through, I was ready to sleep, not that I wanted this golden, well scripted day to end. On to tomorrow, with the hope that Edgar Allan Poe has not been taken on as a temp.

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Luke

Luke was here today, and the garden was, as always, in far better shape when he left than when he arrived. 33036196_342587312931674_849976875441717248_nLuke is one half of my treasured set of Dutch boys. He came at 1:30, on the dot, as promised. I don’t know how they do it. He and his brother, Adam, are eerily punctual, like alien beings, but less scary. If I had a grandfather clock, (a great idea, though where would I put it?), they’d arrive at the first stroke of the hour. If they didn’t, I’d know the clock was fast.

I was lucky to get him today. He spent the morning helping a neighbor in the next block prepare to move. I sent him home at 5:00. SENT him. He’d happily have worked another hour or two. He loves to plant, and told me once that, when he has his own house, he’d like a garden just like ours. He’ll certainly know how to achieve it; he soaks up every scrap of instruction I give, the first time around. I’ve never had to tell him anything twice.

In the three and a half hours he was here, he planted and potted twenty some shrubs, dug out a large dead bush, fertilized, mixed and applied root stimulator, shlepped a half dozen weighty plants outside and repotted them, weeded, cleared away mounds of last year’s stalks, and, most impressive to me, moved a very heavy bench into the garage. When I suggested he wait until his brother was available (it sure looked like a two man job to me), he smiled and hoisted it almost over his head. I told him he needs a cape to go with his deeds.

I like to watch him work, but I don’t much. I trust his instincts, really his artistry, and I’d rather he not feel that I think he needs supervision. Instead, I busied myself pruning, deadheading, and, of course, taking pictures. There’s a delirious amount of color at the moment, fat begonias of apricot and blazing red-orange, geraniums of scarlet, red flecked white, and purple, bright saffron coral bells, blue streptocarpis, pulmonaria and Jacob’s ladder, purple striped yellow pansies so loud they almost buzz, and snowball and lilac bushes in full, scented bloom.

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And then, there is the plant most dear to me of all, a vivid magenta geranium, so positioned last September that John could watch it from his hospice bed in the family room. It was the only bit of the garden he could see. In the fall, when he was gone, I brought it inside and tended it over the winter, trying to convince it it was a perennial. I pressed the last of its blooms in a book, and when they had dried, I placed them in a cobalt blue dish, with yellow rose petals from an anniversary gift of Bob and Mary Thornton. Now, it is blooming again, and I placed a bright sprig of it in a bud vase before a picture of John.

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I’ll go on doing this all summer. I know it can’t last forever, but I’d love for it to last as long as I do.

Luke would have toiled into twilight if I’d let him. They both seem to like it here. But he’d been up early, hard at it all day, and I thought he should go home, have supper, and find out how Adam fared at his swim meet. So I paid him and thanked him. One day, I’ll write him a killer reference. Tonight, I just gave him a cookie.

In the driver’s seat, with Leon

John used to say that I could get lost crossing a room. Such an exaggeration. Unless it were a very large room, circular, with multiple exits, and crowds of people in my path, and mirrors. Then, I guess it’s possible. At an airport? Probable. Oh, who am I kidding? I have to admit that when they passed out geographical smarts, I must have had my nose in a good book.

None of this mattered when John was around. Even in foreign countries, he was utterly at home behind the wheel. He could get us anywhere, with me ensconced in mindless bliss in the passenger seat. The thing is, he’s not around any more, and pretty much the last place I choose to be these days is the driver’s seat. Oh, Dimitrios and I have worn a few comfortable paths, to my cousin Donna’s, to the grocers, to the health club, to the bank, to some local eateries, to the movies, and, on occasion, to the Hammond train station where I happily escape the expressways and the imminent demise I envision as I attempt to merge but am blindsided by a speeding texter.

Throw in night, headlight glare (brights should be reserved for woodland paths in horror movies), and the possibility of rain, and my anxiety multiplies to the point where I consider giving up my beloved season tickets at the opera. Consider . . . though at the moment, I’m still trying to weave a network of courageous chauffeurs. A free ticket? Roomy box seats? This amazing offer can’t last long. Unless it does.

In any event, to my great dismay, this morning found me hurtling haplessly down an expressway trying to get somewhere I’d never been. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I needed to get as many pot-worthy plants as I could before Saturday when the Dutch boys return. I asked our friend, Leon, if he could help, and he obliged but said he’d need a ride. Fine. Leon had been living with a girl friend close by, and I knew the way. Leon, however, is a man of many ladies, and his life is head-spinningly complex. For reasons irrelevant here, (but fascinating), he currently resides with a cousin. Hmmm. This doubled the number of new places to which I’d be driving. I wasn’t sure how to get to the greenhouses on Joe Orr Road (quite the best local garden spots). Oh well, there was no turning back. Determined to spiff up the garden for John’s sake, (and my own), I asked the cousin for directions, repeated them, and set off.

As extra insurance, I spoke the address to google so my smartypants phone could give me verbal warnings when to turn. Huge mistake. The estimated arrival time was fourteen minutes. An hour later, Leon was still waiting. Too late, to my horror, I realized Madam Google was determined to get me onto an expressway. All right, I wouldn’t fight it, time to grow up. It was a bright sunny day, and after all, her voice would be guiding me every step of the way. Wrong! Once on that hellish highway, the roar of whooshing traffic muffled the googular instructions to an indistinct babble. Only by a nerve wracking last minute scramble across what seemed liked forty lanes did I avoid winding up in Detroit. Never again.

Leon is an agreeable, soothing soul. Thanks to him, we made two successful plant runs, (Dimitrios doesn’t hold all that Doris used to). In between, we had a tasty, crispy Mexican lunch at Casa del Mar. Thanks to him, I now have a foolproof, no expressway route to get back to his place. And back home! And to Joe Orr Road! Thanks to Leon’s electrical expertise, the back garden fountain is now running again.

By the time I dropped him off, I was ready to kiss him. I settled for a hug and a hearty handclasp.

Sundown

The title of William Faulkner‘s short story, “That Evening Sun” alludes to a line from an old spiritual that is echoed in “Saint Louis Blues,”: “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” It’s a powerful tale, prescient and frightening. A black woman desperately tries to cajole the children of the family for whom she works into keeping her company. She is terrified that, when the sun goes down and she is alone, her husband is coming to slit her throat. The story ends before that happens, but we know that it will.

It’s sixty years since I first read “Sun,” but I’ve never forgotten it, and the other night, as the sun went down and forced me inside, I found myself thinking of it again. I’ve never had reason to fear the coming of night; in fact, I tend to welcome it and what it brings, calm, quiet, moonlight, starlight. Lately though, I’m more aware of what night takes.

Since John is gone, I’ve been advised on all sides to “keep busy.” Since childhood, I’ve never been enamored of that phrase. It smacks of frantic make-work, like reading to the deaf. But I know what they mean, and I try to follow their counsel in my own way. The nicest way I know of keeping busy is tending to the garden that John and I created and fiddled with and added to until today it wraps around the house.

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I could spend the day planting, watering, feeding, pruning, deadheading, even weeding (I value my back too much to bend down, but I found a marvelous device that I can step on and twist until it slaughters dandelions and plucks them up roots and all). And then there’s the sitting, and looking, and smiling. That’s my idea of keeping busy.

Thursday, Lois drove me out to Sunrise Greenhouse, a gardener’s heaven. Acres of everything green that blossoms and buds in a myriad spectrum of inexhaustible hue and shade from palest fainting pink to ultra violent purples. I found so many treasures that on the ride home there was barely room for the two of us in the car. They’ve yet to be planted, but I have other greenhouses to raid before I rest.

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But that takes sun. And the sun goes down. I came inside, and as darkness settled around the house, I looked at John’s picture and strange notions nipped at me. Was there really such a man in my life? Did I dream it all? Am I dreaming me? Why is this house so crammed to the brim with quiet?

The sun goes down, and so much else is snatched away in its wake.

 

 

Sound and fury in a great new space

I was just out of high school when I saw my first play, in 1955. It was Teahouse of the August Moon with John Forsythe and, I believe, Burgess Meredith. I saved the playbill from it and from every play I’ve seen ever since, boxes and boxes of them. John kept saying we should sit down and go through them to see what bit players and walk-ons became stars in later decades. We should have. It’s high on the bittersweet list of things we should have done but didn’t. Happily, the list of things we should have done and did is much longer

I took my brother to a play when we were at polar extremes of our teens, The Matchmaker, the basis of Hello Dolly, with Ruth Gordon, unforgettable in the lead, and Robert Morse as the baby faced ingenue, Barnaby. I couldn’t wait to share with  Steve my discovery of that magical thing, live theater. Every year that I taught, I took my students to a play, or several. I didn’t want them to wait even as long as I had to experience the excitement that can happen on stage.

John had been doing the same thing, and organizing adult theater outings, (I don’t recommend it, It’s like herding eels). After we met, we subscribed at different times to different repertory groups, most recently to Red Orchid and Chicago Shakespeare. I’ve kept up CS, but now my seatmate is our friend, Tim. Our friend, Ann, is also in the Sunday matinee audience, and the three of us have taken to driving to Greek town for supper afterward at Athena. We fold Ann up like origami and cram her into Dimitrios’ tiny back seat.

I was looking forward to yesterday’s production of Macbeth not only because it was directed by Teller, of Penn and Teller, who made such a dazzling affair of The Tempest, but also since this would inaugurate the large new theater on Navy Pier, The Yard. From the moment you enter the lobby, you feel the unique stamp the designers have put on this space. The sun shielding windows bathe everything in such a blue caste that it’s as though you’re wearing shades. It’s not dark, just pleasantly other worldly.

The set up is streamlined for convenience. At the old theater, I would run up two flights of stairs, get my parking ticket validated, run back down to pay, and run back up to see the play. Yesterday, we strolled in, and everything was transacted within the space of a few yards. The auditorium is a spaciously sweeping venue, with a towering ceiling, and reconfigurable walls, that still somehow conveys an intimacy that knits the audience into a conspiracy of hundreds.

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The sight lines and legroom are a physical treat. We were in the balcony, where I’m content to stay, because we were aware of the ghostly, talented percussionist playing high above the stage, while Ann, in her main floor seat, was not, and probably thought the music was taped.

The production was full of magic, and sleight of hand, thanks to Teller. The three witches were onstage throughout, chillingly draped here there and you never knew where next. The effect was fascinating. The swords seemed frighteningly sharp and real, and the fights credibly robust. The Macbeths were younger than usually played, and why not? It made a lot of sense. The acoustics are pristine; every scrap of dialogue could be heard and understood. Tim was surprised at how many well known phrases and titles were coined in this play. The afternoon flew by, so well paced was the direction. The final image sent a collective shudder through the crowd. Were the individual performances the most compelling I’ve ever seen? Maybe not. But was this the most satisfying Macbeth I’ve ever sat through? Indeed, yes.

It was all new to Tim, and won him over. Ann is a discerning connoisseur of classical theater. I’ve seen her flee more plays at intermission than most people see in a lifetime. Her reaction? “It was entertaining.” I waited while the unspoken “BUT” echoed about the lobby. “Clearly, they’re aiming it at a general audience.” Shakespeare’s groundlings. Yesterday, I was a groundling, I guess, but I don’t think Will would have been disappointed.

Larx with Lois

My favorite Dickens novel is Great Expectations. I’ve reread it more than most books because I used to teach it. As to whether it’s a good idea to use a work that you love in the classroom, the jury is still out. On one hand, yes, it will get your passions and juices flowing, which can make you and it more interesting to your audience. On the other hand, there’s often this one kid . . . and you wind up wanting to hose off the book and offer it an apology.

One of the things I love most about GE  is the relationship between young Pip and his uncle, Joe Gargery. In a tale crammed with relationships twisted by secrets and deceit, the bond between Pip and Joe is one of strong affection, true and uncomplicated. In a letter to Pip, the barely literate Joe refers to the good times they will have when reunited. “Wot larx then,” he writes. This phrase spoke to John too, and whenever we would plan a trip, or an event, we’d wind up hugging and say, “Wot larx!

I had just such a larky day this week with my friend, Lois. She had talked me into returning to the Hammond BMV for the final battle in my quest for the elusive Real ID license. She pulled up wearing blue, and when she saw my shirt, she said, “You got the memo.” Needing stamps, she requested a side trip to the post office, where it turned out the memo had been widely read. Save for the two clerks in blue, we had the place to ourselves. Lois took my hand and announced, “We’re coming the wrong way, we’re disobeying the sign and no one can stop us!” No one did, but one of the clerks fled, laughing, into the back room.

I love stamps, and they had some beauties. I wasn’t in dire need, but wound up buying some Lena Hornes, some florals, and a sheet of Mister Rogers. As we left, a lone customer entered, wearing blue.

Determined to brook no nonsense this time at the BMV, I had stuffed an envelope with bills galore, bank statements, invoices from my dentist, my doctors, my insurance agent, a pension stub, everything but Publisher’s Clearing House (though they did say I might have won …). When my number was called, Lois said, “I’m coming with you. This should be good.” She reminded me to start out with the same bills that the Wicked Witch of the West had rejected last time (see “The Raw Fist of Power at the BMV“). As we neared the desk, Lois whispered, “This one’s wearing blue, it’s a good omen.” It was. I blandly handed over only the two previously rejected bills. Without even being unfolded and inspected, they were recorded and we were out of there like a shot.

So it was true! The other woman had just been messing with me, wasting my time, or else was woefully incompetent. Relieved but still ticked, I said, “Well, at least now I’ll be able to enter a federal building.” “Good,” said Lois, “I’ll drive you to jail.” Just then, a man came storming out with smoke pouring out of his ears. As he threw himself into the car next to us, he yelled, “F**k the Hammond BMV!” I wonder who’d been waiting on him?

Armed with my gift certificate from thoughtful friends Barb and Al, we set out for a sinful lunch at Chef Klaus in Frankfort. The ambience there is heavy World War II. The good Chef doesn’t believe in concealed carry. There is enough weaponry hanging from the ceiling to warm the hearts of the NRA.

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It was our stomachs that needed warming, as we listened to the loud, hyena-like cackling of a man at an adjacent table. A quick trip to the BMV would have done him, and our ears, a world of good.

When the food arrived, it was, as always, lip smacking scrumptious: homemade liver sausage, glorious soups, copious slabs of delicately breaded viener schnitzel with wrapped lemons, (their duck is also a treat), potato pancakes with sour cream, red cabbage, and for me, a towering beaker of pale ale. It was difficult to stem the gluttony, but I had warned Lois to save room for the airy, homemade apple strudel with real whipped cream. Our waiter brought boxes. He hadn’t told us his name, so when he retreated, we christened him Karl. He seemed more like that than an Otto. If you saw him, you’d know what I mean.

Stuffed to the gills, we waddled out and headed home. Wot larx, eh Lois?                                                                      

“Let me Entertain You”

We loved to entertain. Hospitality was one of our greatest pleasures. We just approached it from different angles. My idea of a really good evening was an intimate sit down supper for eight people, tops. Six was even better, no more than could support a single thread of conversation. John relished things on a far grander scale. Our Labor Day Fest swelled over the years from a half dozen guests to just under 200, a milestone he yearned to reach. Despite his failing health, he wanted a last hurrah, and, if at all possible, I wanted him to have it. He insisted I draw the invitation and have it run off. He got to see it, (it featured the Dutch boys), but they were never sent out. Since then, I’d  lost the desire to play host . . until last Sunday.

It was a command performance of sorts. My cousin and godchild, Kay, let me know that her daughter, Deanna, wanted to bring her boyfriend, Martin, around to meet me, an idea I found absolutely enchanting. I was flattered, and tickled, and motivated. They were coming here for lunch because, and at this point, Kay said lovely things about the house. How could I refuse? But this needed to be a special occasion, and I bestirred myself. I carted bales of newspapers and clutter out to the alley. I enlisted the Dutch boys to hand down the good dishes and glassware from their alpine shelves. The cheery, Italian china was a gift from Frank and Katy, favorite guests of many sprightly evenings. I had the DB’s hand up the chest of gold flatware, (it weighs a ton). I had them police the garden and clean the fountains, should anyone choose to set foot outside, (no one so chose). I sped to Bed Bath and Beyond where I found the perfect place mats to compliment the deep blue dining room tablecloth.

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I sped back to check the larder. I had promised Kay ham, of which there was plenty, thanks to my kindly supplier, Leon. I had also promised her some delicious cheesecake, thanks to my sister-in-law, but I’d forgotten just how delicious it was, and how much I’d already consumed. I sped to Timbrook Kitchen and told Chris, that prince among bakers, I was in desperate need of a superior cheesecake. He was out, but said he’d have one Sunday. I moaned and carried on about how busy I’d be Sunday morning. He told me not to worry. Sunday, the doorbell rang at 7:45. I threw on a robe and hurtled down the stairs. Chris handed me an exquisite lemoncello cheesecake and said, “Go back to bed.” I sped back to the bedroom.

After the briefest interval of slumber, I made the bed, something I seldom do, (never is such a harsh word), should Deanna choose to give Martin a tour upstairs, (she so chose). I also tossed bales of (oh never mind) into the closet, but, curses, forgot to close the closet door. I gently scrubbed the Venetian champagne flutes to a sparkle and was still cutting thin lemon slices for the ice water when my company arrived. It was 12:26. They had said 12:45. Stupefied at this breach of etiquette, I told them to circle the block a few times, but when I saw they were bearing food, I admitted them.

Their treats included three crisp salads, potato, spinach and artichoke, greens and tomatoes, strawberries (crimson all the way through), exotic cheeses including a truffled gouda, and my cousin Donna’s exemplary lemon bars. While the three women mingled in the parlor, I got Martin aside and asked him to uncork the champagne. I didn’t need his assistance, what I needed was to see if, once away from the rest, he would actually talk. The Kingsmill-Kivland women have a tradition of choosing men who, how shall I put this? While outstanding husbands, fathers and providers, I don’t think anyone, not even they themselves, would call them chatty, back slapping bon vivants outside the family circle. So I didn’t know what to expect of Martin, or how many hen’s teeth I’d need to pull to get a conversation going.

I should have had more faith in Deanna. She’s always been different. So is Martin. I told him he was a good sport to come, but he protested that he’d been eager to meet me since Deanna not only talks a lot about me, but was reading him my book. I had to admit the fellow was off to a promising start. It got better at the table, where Martin said something so funny, so dry that I almost spat out an artichoke. He just quietly threw away the funniest line of the day. He has my sense of humor. I want it back.

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Later, in the family room, he edged still further into my good graces when I went to take a picture of Deanna. In a flash, he was out of his chair, kneeling beside her, beaming at her affectionately, wanting to be part of the picture, wanting perhaps, to be part of the family.

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Deanna, of course, will do as she pleases. I hope, if only for my own amusement, that she pleases to keep him around.

It’s always a treat to be in the company of three of my favorite women in the world. To have a beau brought around, particularly one who seemed bent on making a good impression, as if my opinion mattered? Delicious.

No one was in a hurry to leave. Everyone was settled in and comfortable. Even Martin. When, at last, it was time for them to get on with their up-in-the-morning work lives, there were mountains of dishes, heaps and scads. They offered to help. I declined. I’ve never minded doing dishes. This time, least of all.