Saturday, May 31, 2014

Nancy Calhoun Cain

August 17, 1940 - May 29, 2014
She was as pretty as a picture every day of her life, and when we were both 16, she was a knockout. But Nancy Calhoun had so much more about her than her looks—she was fun, honest, kind, and interested in everything.

There was never anything ordinary about Nancy. One of those people who is universally beloved, she attracted friends with her personality, her kindness and her sincere concern for others. We could rely on her to listen and hear us, to laugh with us, to care and empathize with what we cared about. She was always ready with a piece of good advice or a personal affirmation. Being her friend you never hesitated to ask and she was never less than generous in her praise and her pride in your success.

Nancy married Ken Cain, the local dreamboat, in her early 20s. They were married for 53 years. As he rose in his business dealings to great success he showered her with everything she could wish for. They own magnificent houses in Santa Fe and Fairhope with a view of Mobile Bay. She loved decorating and her homes were always designed in the highest level of good taste.

She had many enthusiasms—from animals to books, travel, the arts, and fine food. I think she valued her friendships above them all. In her teenage years she had a horse she had raised from a colt and a fine black lab named Knight. She and Ken always had little dogs and elegant cats, and she treasured them like children. Not having children of her own she loved her nieces and nephews as if they were her own offspring and opened her home to them and all her relatives at every opportunity.

She had a lovably quirky mind, which prompted her to explore everything in life she found interesting. It was a way of educating herself, on her own terms. Her curiosity took her to the pyramids of Egypt and on photo safaris in Africa, to English villages, to London, Paris and all of Europe, for all I know. She and Ken traveled to many unknown spots in the U.S. as well, in the big RV they bought when he officially retired. It was their plan to drive to every arts festival in the country, and they did try that for as long as the interest lasted. She enjoyed the local events in Fairhope and musical presentations everywhere. She read omnivorously, and was in more than one book club while reading whatever struck her fancy on her own. Many a weekend she and I drove the two hours to Montgomery to catch a play (or two) at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, chatting, giggling and gossiping on the drive up and discussing the intricacies of Chekhov and Shakespeare on the way home.

She was great at conversation because she was so interested in other people and what made them tick. Many came to her with their troubles; she was never less than sympathetic and understanding with any of us, no matter how great or trivial the crisis. She enjoyed nothing more than a good laugh and a good talk with a new person. She could be exasperatingly silly in conversation about politics or movies, or she could engage in heated contrarian debates about literature, history or the existence of god.

Perhaps the neatest trick in her arsenal was her ability to make her own life look as if she didn’t have a care in the world. She could joke and enjoy herself in spite of a congenital heart condition that had taken her father in his early 60s and a niece at age 20. At least 17 major heart procedures were sprinkled throughout her life, plus a mastectomy and probably other medical situations nobody knew about but Ken and her beloved brother Chuck. She never discussed the trips to the Cleveland Clinic, M.D. Anderson, and other prestigious hospitals where her surgeries took place. She simply bounced back and planned another party or trip to study the gardens of England or the hills of Africa.

She was determined to live as good a life as humanly possible. And, until the final hospitalization was ended by a trip home because nothing more could be done, she did as good a job of living that life as any human being could. She exemplified the phrase joie de vivre, always ignoring the pain that lay beneath for her. She was brave in the best way; she made it look easy.

She showed us by example how to choose the happiest option in front of us, how to slay the dragons by simply shoving them aside and moving on to something more fun. Yes, the world is a darker place for us now that she’s gone, but those of us who remember seeing her deal with grief have a better way to handle it. We have her transcendent joy to remember.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A New Year

Seventy years ago
May 28 may not be considered New Year's Day by all, but it is by me. On this day in 1940 I first entered this life, and at this poing every year--every day even--offers a new start. "The first day of the rest of my life" and all that.

Blog writing is the creation of my open letters to the world, sometimes with harsh assessments and sometimes with benign rumination. It's an avocation, maybe an obsession, noting all the blogs I've started. Now I've consolidated them all into this one, which will encompass my adventures in my new home. I haven't moved there yet, but in my mind I'm furnishing all the rooms and batting around in them making changes and seeking furniture. I've made a stab at meeting people, and look forward to establishing a presence in a new place.

I'll let my hair evolve to its natural tint and say "This house has turned my hair grey!" as I see the looks on faces of people who forgot that I'd started coloring it in 2007. I'll get involved as I can in the local amateur theatre group and continue to work with Rosendale's indie cinema. I'll turn the TV off as much as possible and stay away from Facebook so that I can focus on things that matter more in the long run. I'll adhere to the diet and stop talking about it. I'll give my next book a real shot and stop fretting about it (I started a book and then one day just dropped the project as my mind couldn't grasp the enormity of the concept I had laid out.) Before my next birthday I'll at least be able to put my finger on how to proceed.

I've come to accept that we simply don't know what's ahead. I have a couple of grandsons and a daughter who light up my life, and I look forward to watching them all surprise me with their choices and their stories.

Contemplating the meaning of life is a tradition on my birthdays. I decided to check out some old blog posts I'd made on this date in years past, and came upon this anecdote from 2006:

"Visiting my mother in the nursing home yesterday, I said to her, 'Mama, tomorrow I'll be 66 years old.' She was quiet for a moment and I wondered if she understood, or even heard me. Then she said, 'If you weren't so young, you'd be old!'"

I will do what I can to stay that young for a few more years.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Few Thoughts About Memorial Day

Memorial Day, I was taught, was started in the South after the Civil War. Widows, mothers, and others who loved men who had lost their lives in the defense of the South in that tragic war went to cemeteries often and put flowers on the graves of their beloved men. It became institutionalized as Confederate Memorial Day, in a few years co-opted by the bereaved on both sides. At first the women of the North had their day for decorating graves, and they called it Decoration Day; but over time the two sides came together to honor all who died in the Civil War under the appellation of Memorial Day, and one day was set aside.

In the South, where many diehards still reside, there are pockets where Confederate Memorial Day is observed on various days in the year, but let us face it, there have been many more men lost in many other wars, and the memories of the Southern cause have been blurred by so many re-inventions that there is absolutely no point in defending anything about that particular war.

Imagine my surprise in reading this in an article by Adam Cohen in The New York Times a few years back:

Memorial Day got its start after the Civil War, when freed slaves and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, S.C., to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. The holiday was so closely associated with the Union side, and with the fight for emancipation, that Southern states quickly established their own rival Confederate Memorial Day.

He gets his information from an impeccable source, Dr. David Blight of Yale University, who has written several award-winning histories espousing this theory. In fact, Dr. Blight's take on that particular war has helped shape our perceptions of our wars, our history, and our racism.

Well and good, and I hope I'm not considered a racist (but I feel certain I would be by Dr. Blight) because of what Memorial Day means to me. I don't love the holiday except that it falls, since the observance was adjusted to be on the last Monday in May, on or near my birthday. I like that there is a national holiday on my birthday.  I certainly don't love the Civil War or the Southern cause.

I found an article on Snopes stating that there were many versions of Memorial Day, following wars through the centuries, and that the origin of the American one are not clear. This one I found quite fair and balanced, partly because it re-tells the old old story I grew up with, true or false. Don't miss the page on Mrs. Logan.

Let us observe the day with not receiving mail, finding the bank closed, thinking of the real meaning of each and every war, and also not forgetting that my birthday is not far behind.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An Outing with Andy

Now that I know I have a new old house, I am aware of all the furniture of my past that I've given away, sold, or scrapped in my downsizing days.

I sold a really nice Danish teak dining table that was bought in Geneva and made a lifelong friend of the buyer--but until this particular house I never had a need (or the space) for that particular item of furniture. I have no idea what the friend did with the table--I never saw it in his domicile.

But the Queen Anne in Kingston has a full-fledged dining room, quite airy and light, perfectly visible from the parlor which is at the entrance of the house. It cries for a special table. I found this candidate on Craigslist, purported to have been created in Italy especially for Bloomingdale's, at a nice price. I couldn't get it out of my head. Its classic design would go well with any decor and would set off that new dining room very well. I contacted the owners and set up a date to look at it, with the proviso that if it was as nice as the picture I would pay for it and arrange to have it picked up when I actually was in the house.

Then I got the idea for a special excursion. The couple live in a nearby community called Germantown, some 34 minutes north of Kingston. As usual I didn't know anything about the town or  how to get there but was game to find out. The bright idea was to enlist my 16-year-old grandson Andy, who has a learner's permit and is eager to drive anywhere he's allowed. Alison said he would be up to the trip; it was a beautiful drive, and that it would be good for both of us.

On the sunny morning designated for the drive, I grabbed a couple of CD's I thought he could tolerate--I know he's not really a Frank Sinatra fan--a little Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, and a Crosby, Stills and Nash from the Woodstock days. When he got behind the wheel, Andy said to me, "Do you have any Frank Sinatra?" My heart leapt.

Andy was a good navigator, even though we had the GPS narrating and sometimes getting it wrong. He had never been to Germantown, but he pays attention to the road signs, watches the road carefully, and is a delightful companion for his grandma under all circumstances. He pulled over to the toll booth and I gave him the $1.50 to pay. As he drove on he said, "That was my very first time paying a toll!" and I said, "Is this a milestone?" and he replied, in a crescendo--"It's a MAJOR milestone!"

The table lived up to expectations. The couple selling it were most cooperative, even volunteering to deliver it when I was ready. They recommended a place to eat in Germantown, a little deli-gourmet grocery, and we decided to try it. We looked at the list of sandwiches, and yet Andy said, "That salmon looks good..." With the choice of barbecue, grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches and such,  I was proud of him for selecting the healthful alternative. I got the same thing--except that he got the potato salad and I got cole slaw. He suggested we sit outside and said, "Eating outside makes me think of Italy," while we ate. I hadn't even noticed that it wasn't yet 11 A.M.

Driving home we listened to a little Frank Sinatra, and he even sang "Fly Me To the Moon" ever so softly. Andy is in the high school chorus, but we never hear him sing a note. This was something of a breakthrough.

The closing day on the house will be June and then comes the chaos of the move. I keep reminding myself that not only will I have a major house project, I'll be that much closer to my family. That thought promises more adventures, for sure.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Making an Entrance Again...with My Usual Flair

As the maid Sidonie in Gigi, age 19 and looking about 11. I stole the show.

Starting over in theatre in a new place, my mind goes back to past glories and a few past flops. As it happens, I'm not going to tread the boards in The Second Time Around at the Coach House Players, but maybe sometime in the future, in some more suitable vehicle, I shall again. I was flexing atrophied muscles at two evenings of auditions, and it felt good.

I didn't expect to get the leading role this time. But the next best thing (or maybe even the very best thing) happened. I acquitted myself fairly well in a cold reading, came back for a second one and was even better. I spied a lady I suspected was my main competition and I thought, "I'm not going to get this, but if she doesn't I'm going to be very disappointed."

And the director apparently agreed with me, because she came away with the role. She has a natural, unaffected quality; is probably a few years younger than I, and certainly fits the role better than I would even if I acted it all to hell. Plus, she had home court advantage--as it's clear she's already a stalwart of the Players and I am a total unknown.

At any rate, this is no time for me to take on a large role in a play--after all, I will be closing on a house, working with movers, contractors, electricians, and plumbers for the next couple of months, and learning lines is hard enough for this brain these days. No need to overload the circuits if I can help it.

I like the feel of my new neighborhood, and I'm told it's one of the hottest real estate areas in town. It's historical, charming, and chock-a-block with cute little cafés and shops. When walking through the house with the contractor and plumber yesterday, a handsome man came by and introduced himself as my next door neighbor, saying how happy the neighborhood was to have somebody move in and rescue the house. Well, that's not an exact quote, but that was what I took from it. He was friendly and welcoming and he assured me the couple in the house on the other side were very happy to see a new face too.

There will be a reading of the play Monday night and I'll drop in on it to learn who did get cast and maybe stay and hear the whole play for once. I'll see what I can do to help. I haven't been inspired to start at the bottom in a long time, but this feels right. The Coach House Players are friendly, down-to-earth people who love what they are doing and want to fill their ranks with others who love being in and around plays. It's low key and low pressure, and if my hunch is right, the drama is mostly on the stage.

This is the way to make an entrance in a new city!

I think it's just what I need.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Finding a Place in My Heart

The Coach House, a theater in my new town

In a new location, some of us gravitate to churches, some to waterside or woodland retreats. Others look for the best theater. I belong in the latter category.

Live theatre has always done it for me. And yes, Spellcheck, I intended to use a different spelling of the word in that instance. Pet peeve: I was taught in college that the word for a theater building was spelled with an er at the end, and the word for the art itself was spelled with an re. I daresay this is archaic usage now and it would probably behoove me to learn to spell it with an er for all aspects, but I'm not there yet. I have observed that the English use re for both--so I know I must settle on one or the other eventually.

Back to the story. Once it was established that I shall move more or less permanently to Kingston in a few months, I decided to find out if there was a local amateur theatre group. I found the web page for the Coach House Players and discovered there was a show in production, so I installed my GPS and found the location. The building is impressive, nestled in an upscale residential neighborhood I hadn't yet discovered. This had been the coach house of the large estate of one Samuel D. Coykendall, a one-time prominent citizen of the city.

Last night I attended a play in the cozy-yet-elegant 99-seat theater. My excitement mounted as I found the door (and if you're in the neighborhood, you'll see that finding the door is a bit of a challenge.) I knew I was going to see a show that was far from my usual cup of tea, one of those English mystery-farces so chock full of plot that there is almost no way to wade through. But as always when I'm inside a theater, awaiting the opening of the now-nonexistent curtain, I was optimistic and envisioning all the ways I might get involved, even if not transported by this particular production.

Alas, the play itself really didn't work for me. The attempts at English accents jarred me to the point I worried that there might actually be somebody English in the audience, who could be laughing for the wrong reason entirely. Of course the play was full of the kind of sight-gag hokum that marks such endeavors and intrudes on the suspension of my disbelief. I didn't want to be a snob, however; the rest of the audience were laughing as the play went on, and there were a couple of performances I was quite astonished by.

At the intermission, I was even more astonished to learn that refreshments were complimentary, and they included wine, coffee, and fresh homemade desserts. I have been in many many theaters in the U.S., England and Switzerland, and I have never seen this. There was a table to one side with about ten bound copies of Broadway playbills. My late husband is the only person I'd known to do this, and I was fascinated. The sign gave the name of the owner. I said to the friendly lady behind the cupcake table nearby, "Somebody went to a lot of plays," and she responded, "Yes, he did. And his father did as well."

The program revealed that my favorite actor onstage, portraying a bumbling inspector whose lines doubled back on themselves with malapropisms and puns, "has been in more plays in the last 30 years than he can remember." It also said he was a retired fire captain with the Kingston Fire Department. Besides making this totally incredible character rather endearing, he managed to sustain a comic performance with long sections of dialogue full of non sequiturs for an almost relentless two hours. It was an admirable feat.  

This is my tribe. As I watched the rest of the play I asked myself if I were up to getting involved again. Do I have the capacity to learn lines, to work until late at night (I've discovered in my retirement that my body clock gives out naturally at about 10 P.M.), to take on the stress of working in a play, even in a minor capacity?

There is an audition Monday night for the next play. It's about an elderly couple who fall in love but cause family crises on both sides when they decide to move in together without getting married in order to keep collecting Social Security checks. Driving home, I thought it over. I'll go--not necessarily hoping for a role, but to meet some like-minded people and spend some time on familiar ground. Even if I'm really retired from the theatre, I know where there is one. I've found my way.