Thanksgiving

Good wishes for a peaceful day today, friends. I am grateful.

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Sam and Arrow

I’m sitting in my Dover, NH home near the bay window where Arrow snuggles in an over-sized chair, peeking out at the snow just now starting to fall. Candles are lit. Pot roast on the stove. Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis playing throughout the house. Jan and Gil’s 1984 Nonesuch recording, the delicate solitary melodic line in Gil’s hands mirroring the slight snow outside. I am grateful.

Sam is here, and Brian, and we are spending this holiday together even in the face of a changing marriage—this long-term separation Brian and I have agreed to and seem to be flourishing in. We are all of us in this nation steeped in the concept of binaries, polarization, and here, where we decide to spend the next six months separated.  Yet, we connect, because we’re family and we love each other. It is strange and sad and good. I am leaning into the good. img_4008-002

Look, I am just saying that I learned a long time ago to embrace the and in life. To see all things as existing aside each other and to allow for it all, good, bad, sad, joyful, and all colors in between.  It is the only way we will move forward as a national community and the only way I know to move forward in my life.

I’ve been silent this week. I’ve been struggling with how to approach my blog posts, even after I settled on a format. I talked with several folks this week, eliciting help about this. The common thread? Honesty. I must figure out why I feel inclined to present myself in a certain light in these posts. To edit myself. I worry still what all members of my audience may think. So much happens daily as I walk this journey of this book and my life at this moment. I suffer over what to say to you all, how much to write about what I know will find its way into the book, and yet, this was this blog’s purpose: to narrate this journey—all of it, my travels, my research, my marriage, my thoughts and feelings.  I want to keep reaching for honesty in the face of all my fears.

Anyway, I’m sitting here this morning, reveling in my good fortune, my peace, all the love in my life and clear thinking and art and hope, and I wanted to tell you I am feeling this as I listen to Jan and Gil. That I’m certain this is the only way to move forward through this national moment: Don’t give up. Struggle. Say hello to the recognized fears. Be honest. Live in the and.

Here’s some writing about high-school aged Jan and the production of The Mikado she and her sister Lou and Arthur Burrows performed in at Washington High School in Massillon. Today is excerpt day, after all.

Be well, friends. Find peace.

 

From Chapter Three: Mikado mikado-prod-2

Word had it Earl D. Ruetz was a stern man. That he was repressive. Domineering.

Clues: Relentless church activities and attendance. Perfect grades. Jan’s plain, dark, knee-length mono-colored skirts, blouses. Shoes. Daughters fleeing as soon as is legally possible. Vera married and gone before Jan graduates high school. Lou, graduated the year before Jan, moves to New York to attend Juilliard. But she comes home not even a year later, stories of scandal and impropriety in her wake. She couldn’t or didn’t pass her courses. She preferred popular music, show tunes, and young men. Lou returns to Massillon and marries Dick Snoddy, her high school sweetheart, who takes her to live in Chicago where he is a student. Before the dust settles. She’s barely nineteen.

The sisters have made Jan feel things. Some will say embarrassment. Shame. Sadness. Responsibility. Some will say the older Ruetz girls were jealous of her. They were annoyed by her sweetness, kindness. They said when opportunity arose, pest, less than swift, pain in the neck. For what they lacked, for what they perpetrated, she would amend.

The parents, befuddled, disappointed, bereft, let their middle daughter make amends. All on her now. Good girl.

Maybe she saw one afternoon Lou leaning in toward Dick against the brick at the back of their school. Kissing. Maybe she saw a cigarette dangling from Lou’s lips. Maybe she wondered at Lou’s confidence, audacity. Maybe she loathed it. Maybe she secretly swore she’d follow her sister’s footsteps to New York, but in no other fashion. Maybe she thought none of this, sewn still in the fabric of her upbringing. Prim. Proper. Reserved. Sweetness and Light. Her mother’s daughter.

Word had it Earl D. Ruetz expected the world from his offspring and it seems Jan was the one to give it to him.

A darkened living room somewhere in retirement, Florida. Middle of the night. An old man sits, still, bending at the chin, eyes closed, listening, listening to her voice rise and fall against the shadows. Peace and resolution. Not sadness. Not at all. The cardboard record jacket slipping from an arthritic hand. 

Jan has no time for these explorations, indiscretions. Jan wants to sing. Everything. She wanted straight A’s in school. She wanted her spot in the advanced school choirs, in student council, at Girl’s State, All State at Ohio Wesleyan University. She wanted her face in the circle of senior girls’ photographs named to the “Burt Lancaster Selects” contest. [The year before, someone writes in her yearbook: You are such an active and swell girl that in 1951 you may be our future Miss Massillonian.]  She wanted to please Miss Boyer, Cleo Ressler, her school choir director. When Miss Ressler suggested she quit cheerleading, she never looked back.  She wanted to know and learn and experience everything she could. Her enthusiasm for life, visceral, palpable. Infectious. She was quite pleased with herself. She wanted the world.

The Red Shoes. Brian Easdale writes the lush score for the romance drama about young artists, a dancer, a composer and conductor. A story which in the end is a love story.  A story about art.

Would Jan have seen this movie—with friends? Alone? Would she have sat in the darkened theater on a Saturday afternoon, popcorn in hand, her feet crossed at her ankles below her, and registered the opening scene of the film?

A throng of young people—students and artists studying in London—waiting outside a massive theater, smoking, gibing. The crowd of them jostling, jockeying for position as the ushers pull open heavy doors. They scramble up, up, up the stairs to the balcony where our young protagonist composer Julian Craster, passionate and intense, sits in the center of the first row, hanging over the brass rail. His wavy hair flopping to one side of his brow. Impassioned. [They care! They care so much about what is about to happen and that they are there!]  The orchestra begins the overture. A new ballet will ensue. Our young composer Julian lifts his chin and stares in the direction of the conductor below in full dress, arms dramatically slicing the air. His gaze intensifies into something twisted and distraught just below the surface of his youthful, round face. Then, deflated.  The conductor, who is also Julian’s professor at the conservatory, has lifted his compositions and put them into this score. Young Julian stands, crashes his way out of the first row, flings himself up the balcony stairs as if suddenly sick, or incapacitated, or drunk.

The cost of making something also cheap, earthly, profane.

Would she have sat in that theatre and felt a stirring, a knowing, if even without name: Oh, yes, this is where I live; this is my world, too.  Did she leave the theater, eyes blinking at the day’s light, and walk the few blocks home, slowly, thinking about passion and risk, love and art? Asking, which do you love more than yourself? Which would you die for?

“Braid the Raven Hair” opens Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera The Mikado, presented by Washington High School in 1949 under the direction of Cleo Ressler. Jan and Louanne, who’d been singing together their entire lives, won solo roles: Jan sang Pitti-Sing, a secondary character.  Bud Burrows, Pish-Tush.  Louanne was Katisha, the older, jaded woman who is set apart from this funny little community of love-crossed lovers.  She seeks revenge. Schemer.  All of them, the maidens, the misguided and sometimes wishy-washy men, playing out their little dramas under a complete and total authoritative hand: The Emperor, whose word is all, creator of justice and order. mikado-prod

Jan sang in group numbers, often with a solo embedded. Louanne had one spotlight moment, an entire aria fronted with recitative. Literally alone on the stage, lamenting.

Alone, and yet alive! Oh, Sepulchre!
My soul is still my body’s prisoner!
Remote the peace that Death alone can give —
My doom, to wait! my punishment, to live!

Come, tell me why,
When hope is gone,
Dost thou stay on?
Why linger here,
Where all is drear?
Oh, living I!
Come, tell me why,
When hope is gone,
Dost thou stay on?

It was Louanne’s Katisha sung worthy of the Evening Independent’s good review.  It was she who garnered individual recognition.

Questions: Had Lou poured into Katisha her own longing, the whisperings of a caged spirited soul even she didn’t understand? Had she felt the character’s repression as her own, her father’s face the image as she sang the aria’s opening lines?

Answer: It didn’t matter. She was going. Going to New York. Away.

Question: How like were the Ruetz sisters to their counterparts in this operetta? Pitti-Sing, one of the crowd—a leader, yes—and boisterous. But part of.  Towing the line. Katisha, separate. Alone. Wishing. Wanting. Coming to terms before the younger, naïve ones could even imagine such self-reproach and resignation.

Answer: Perhaps.

 

About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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