Little Quaker Chairs
A memoir excerpt by
“Look far and wide,” Marcelle said, “You will not find me at the wedding.”
I would not want to. This refusal to rejoice was her Calvary, but without total surrender. I would not expect to find her, our mother, among celebrants. I looked far and wide, high and low, and found my own heart reflected in Irish actress Siobhan McKenna the winter I was seventeen. The room becomes empty as a church when I think of her, for never will there be exuberance, union, surrender, consummation, such as there was in her presence.
Remember? From Galway, the North, the rugged west of Ireland. With a mellifluous voice, wide cheekbones, a large grin, and hooded eyes. Siobhan, with whom I was head over heels, who shaped my seriousness with language, testing each syllable, vowel, and consonant, waiting until I was home alone to put her rpm’s of Irish poems, The Caedmon recording, on the plug-in Victrola that came, in the poverty of the 50s, in the shape of a suitcase brown and tan. I snapped it open, on my double bed—my sister Rachel’s was across from mine—put it first on low, then higher, and higher as I became bolder. The Alphabet Angel had won my heart. I was riding out on my white horse.
So it struck me like a dagger when I learned she had died at the age of 63, two years younger than I now am. I wheeled down the hall to the letter from her dated 1956. I was, yes, sweet 17, absorbed by music writing, and in all the spare moments I could cadge, listening to Saint Joan.
I see Siobhan with wax-on-glass impressions when I hear from Kenny’s Art Gallery that she died after a hugely successful run of Bailegangaire by Tom Murphy at the Druid Theatre in Galway.
It seemed only yesterday I saw her photograph as Joan on the cover of Life Magazine, cut and framed it on my wall. Only yesterday I learned her history, Abbey Theatre-trained, sailed over from Bremerhaven to New York to open in Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden which was for some reason was delayed, so she played the Cambridge Drama Festival and was acclaimed the “Joan of the Century.” I read these facts carefully, like I’m stepping over the grids of my heart that are thousands of feet above ground.
I look up her picture and find she has been photographed by Josuf Karsh and Cecil Beaton: those wide cheekbones, the planes of that expressive face with wide-set, coal-blue eyes, most dramatic in black and white. The younger portrait was done in 1953, only two short years after I became paralyzed, before I saw her in Saint Joan. Hers was a certain shade of persimmon that set off her talc-white skin, ink-black hair, sea-blue eyes. When s he wore the smock of a medieval peasant girl—long sleeves, high waist, orange wool—it was like a match struck. Suddenly she stood on stage, barefoot twisting one foot in the manner of an ecstatic child, head bent, hair bowl-cut, sloe-black, and shining. Applause burst forth like a canon. When it died down, she delivered her first lines, “Good morning, Captain Squire,” and from there, carried the play through to its splendid curtain line. We were all spellbound.
I saw a small notice in The New York Times that she was giving a reading at the Public Library. When I told Marcelle she said she had already earmarked that evening. Siobhan came on stage in orange, but this time chiffon, not wool. Before she read she looked down at her hand, and said, “I’m trembling.”
The incandescent performer is at the core of the family. There was a seriousness that governed the very light and darkness in our home while my parents were still married. They conveyed a sense of history. “Ed,” Mother would come into the room, “The war has taken a turn,” she’d say and both would sit down and look at each other, then at me, as if to say “we have this child and now we have this terrifying condition in the world.” It was the same gravitas that carries its own darks and lights, a quality of mind clear to me when they greeted each other with a handshake—I never saw them greet each other with an embrace or kiss. Marcelle said, just having heard of Adlai Stevenson’s death, “Another great man gone.” He nodded.
While it is true that an atmosphere of gravitas enveloped our home, it had unexpected highs. We were pitched on waves of emotion: we rode out of the browns into golds, which created a chiaroscuro. “Life is more than not being stone dead!” said Joan.
At sixty-five, I slip on a black turtleneck. I can smell the flax. Today I must be like the bull in the maze, the Minotaur’s puzzle, finding my way back to safety for I have misplaced the emergency button I wear on my wrist if I fall. I am captive to this purpose. Yet, like a raptor, I will fly, my jesses freeing me just so much, my leather hood giving me room to blink if not to turn.
Siobhan never reached the age I am today.
In the autumn of my life, almost winter, my eye slides open on day like a panel on a scene of great trial and suffering, yet with inherent joy. To the left of my writing space, heart-side, hang the perfect pair: two pears, reminding me of when Rachel and I were young, the two pears on a branch, now mature, throwing dark luminous red shadows, a tinge of mortality, a hint of blood. Like Siobhan, Rachel’s coloring called for garb with a splash of persimmon. That perfect pitch of the violin matured into the viola. Mahogany: color of her hair and eyes.
She played one of those Bach violin lines that just soars into the sky.
When is memory not a lantern show?
I am the doctor’s eldest. It is I who can be left at home with such dilemmas as a dying bird on our terrace, blown on his back by a stiff wind, or a broken emergency button, and trusted that when the others get home, the state of disrepair will no longer exist.
Siobhan. Those wide-set eyes hooded like a falcon’s, that finely sculpted mouth. I close my eyes and bear the imprint. That would be the mouth to have the first kiss. I have spent this whole spring studying the Beaton and Karsh portraits. At 17, I had no one else.
Siobhan, did your laughter ricochet off walls, you who created the role of Mommo in The House Without Laughter ?
Siobhan, we never met but your Christmas card to me with Bambi I’ve framed, under glass down my hall. Imagine, Siobhan, they have sold the bust of you to the Galway Corporation. It’s now in the foyer of The Town Hall Theatre, Galway. Your last role was a “hugely-successful run of Bailegangaire,"--The House With No Laughter.You were private, hugely alone, but I imagine your spiritual home was resonant with laughter. The Galway Corporation!
That winter twilight, in the decade when I caught polio, I had determined to see you. I waited by the stage door so long, alone, my passion intensified by the wait, the grueling cold.
I stood on crutches and braces after my third viewing of Saint Joan, outside the side-street stage door, until a woman, 33, your height, your weight, moved quickly, down the back alley off the Phoenix Theatre, like Bede’s sparrow shooting in and out of the ale hall. Your pancake makeup gone, traces on your complexion, right hand driven into the pocket of black coat—a direct foil to the pomegranate wool peasant dress you’d worn on stage. The other hand cupped and lit a cigarette. Dusk soon turned to night. In a few hours, you did it all again. Broadway was just lighting up, water towers were invisible on the horizon. My great uncle Nat had gone home. Marcelle would call this stepping up to the plate. Perhaps it all occurred in ten seconds. This was the Calvary connection. Total surrender. Then I took a deep breath and swung myself out to the curb. I squared my shoulders and raised my hand and hailed the first Checker cab. There’s a Chinese saying, “Go out looking for string, and you will find string.”
The beautiful, wild birds fly over me, I give them names. One would have to look far and wide for happiness in Marcelle’s world.
Seriously in love, at variance with my home life, needing highlights and ardor, I’d followed my bliss. Home: where the loves and hatreds vied, back to the cluster of brown rooms, Rachel, mahogany, eyes and long hair, the intense lamplight, the violin. That cascade of notes, that nobility. We all want to stand in relief, to roll back the stone of our lives. For a moment the beautiful names of the birds fly over me, then curtains.
The h is a little chair to sit on.
The Quakers put things in a spin: a top, whirling. White lights turned on and dimmed lanterns. On the small chair, one sits observing all things: the eye of the cyclone. One observes wild birds fly, a mother who refused to rejoice and threw the shadow of her cross upon her two young daughters who followed her as the moon follows the tides.
Lynn Strongin was born and raised in New York City, and moved around a lot during World War II. She writes: "Polio in 51, the experience of living in a children's ward has never left me and I have spent large portions of my creative life trying to capture the isolation of hospitalized children." The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy, Lynn's first anthology, will be published next spring by the University of Iowa Press.
Little Quaker Chairs is an excerpt from Lynn's memoir Indigo, which is being published in installments in various venues. One installment recently was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The excerpts My First Polio and Miss Mary's, also are available at VerbSap.
Photo "Birds in the Strait of Hurmoz," courtesy of Dania Lolah, Dubai, UAE.
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