Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Falling Flat on My Face

When I turned off of Route 39/51 and onto Route 20 going west to Freeport in northern Illinois, I was greeted with bright clusters of blooming redbud trees—something that had faded from our southern end of the state a month ago. Arriving at daughter Jeannie’s house, I saw Rick mowing the side yard. Their big lilac bush was blooming beautifully behind him. Then I opened the car door, and in between the driveway and the neighbor’s yard was a carpet of short green grass decorated with multitudes of tiny blooming violets. I had to hope that Rick did not mow that far, and because he didn’t, I was able to enjoy the violets all weekend.

Gerald was not feeling up to driving the long length of our state, but my desire to see grandson Elijah in his last high school theatrical performance gave me the courage to make the drive. (I am always nervous and unsure of myself when I leave the comfort and simplicity of driving familiar roads.)
When I got up the nerve to decide I was going, I threw clothes in a suitcase and carried outfits on hangers to lay in the back seat and head out for a road trip. I have been wanting to see my brother Jim and wife Vivian at Mattoon; and for years when I stopped to see them, I wished I had a little more time to run over to nearby Charleston and visit my childhood friend Shirley Karraker. I decided to treat myself to those two visits, which would make a nice break in the long trip up to Jeannie and Rick’s.

I left on Wednesday—later than I meant to, of course, since my last minute planning caused me to have a list of things I needed to do before I left the farm. Gerald was tied up with Erin, who had brought her dog Sadie over to stay while she went by bus to their conference tourney, and Gerald was to take her to the team bus and her car to her Uncle Louie’s who was going to fix her brakes while she was out of town. So despite my dislike for GPS gadgets and all the ugly things I have said about them—yes, there are some stories that caused that dislike—I decided I better drag the GPS out from under the seat and put my friend’s address in.

Gerald wasn’t home to help me, but anyhow I wanted to feel competent and independent enough to travel on my own. I thought surely I could figure out this ubiquitous 21st century guidance technology. However, the problem was that I could never figure out where to plug the thing in.

But what are cell phones for? I could call my friend when I reached Charleston and let her give me directions to the retirement condominium she and her husband had moved into shortly before his death a few years ago. (I had been to their other home, although I could not have remembered how to reach it either.)

Shirley was out to morning coffee with friends when I phoned that morning, but I talked to her daughter and the daughter thought there would be time for a visit before an evening appointment. Long before I reached Charleston, Shirley had called my cell and said that the directions to their new place were simple. I said I’d call when I got to town and let her direct me.

I arrived in Charleston in plenty of time for a long afternoon visit. However, I went into town a different way than I had thought I would when Shirley and I talked on the phone enroute. Thus, when I told her I had pulled into a shopping mall to phone her with my pencil and paper in hand, she thought I was further west than I was. (Or was it further east? I am directionally challenged.) Anyhow because I was not where she thought I was, when she said make a left turn, I should have made a right turn on to University Drive. There were a couple more confusing phone calls with her saying, “Sue, where are you?” and me saying, “I’m not sure.” But I did make it to her home, and once I did, I could see she was correct that the way there was simple.

Our visiting time was reduced, but we still had a good catch-up visit. I enjoyed this new place that exhibited so well Shirley’s decorating finesse just as their earlier family home had done. I can remember a time in high school when she wanted to be an interior decorator, and she certainly would have been good at it. But she was good in many things and became a chemistry major. Then came her housewifery years, but when her daughters were older and computers were new, she had headed up the computer lab at the university where Robert taught. She explained to me once that career was the reason she deliberately chose to have little to do with computers afterwards. She was bored before many of us had our first computer.

In retirement, she and Robert had always gone to way-down south Florida after Christmas each year where he relished the abundant bird life. (Some of the sleek birds this chemistry professor had carved were there in their new retirement home.) During the grandchildren’s spring break each year, their daughter in New Jersey would bring the children down to enjoy the Florida sun and sand before Shirley and Robert came back for the summer and fall and holidays at their Charleston home when they were not away on travels or Elderhostel activities. Shirley continues the Florida tradition, so I was able to hear about her new first-floor condominium there, which of course she had enjoyed decorating.

Reflecting on this more than 70-year friendship, I drove back to Mattoon to visit my brother, a retired school administrator, and my sister-in-law, a retired elementary teacher. An added bonus was having my niece Judi Jines there when I arrived. Judi has done considerable free lance writing, so I have always felt close to her. She has helped her daughter and son-in-law with their daughter Willow while they were at work. Jim and Vivian were chatting excitedly about Willow’s recent musical program to celebrate her moving from that building which houses only pre-school and kindergarten children and onto first grade. So I am eager for Judi to find time to freelance again, but we had so much to talk about that I failed to even mention that.

There was much anticipation of their other great grandchild’s second birthday party coming up, which was being held in conjunction with a graduation party for his parents, Sean and Payge Jones, both of whom just finished their bachelors at Eastern Illinois University, while holding down multiple part-time jobs. A beautiful hand-made quilt, which Vivian had just finished for him, was displayed on the sofa waiting to be wrapped for little Vincent Indiana Roland Jones, better known as “Indy.” Judi finally had to go, but we three talked until almost midnight knowing we’d sleep in the next morning although they had appointments and I would have to get on the road again.

In the guest bedroom, I enjoyed the framed baby photo of “Indy,” whose mature vocabulary I had heard about and which made me eager to meet him one of these days. Of course, I heard news about the other children and grandchildren also.

The next morning I enjoyed cereal with fresh strawberries and a choice of pumpkin, banana, or apple nut bread with the coffee Jim made for us. He and I visited while Vivian kept her appointment, and she came in as Jim had to leave, so we had our girl talk too before I needed to leave if I made it in time for Elijah’s play. I made it and even settled in before we had to leave for the Jeannette Lloyd Theater. I soon heard Cecelie in her bedroom practicing her violin, and I enjoyed that all weekend, but I knew not to ask for a performance.

A deer head on the wall above the fireplace was spotlighted when we entered the theater and found our seats after collecting the tickets Jeannie’s friend Jean Kimpel had picked up for us. . A stuffed turkey and a scary looking bear skin rug with the huge bear head intact made us know we were in a hunting lodge. Elijah was playing Charley Baker in Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, and we did not have to be told he was pathologically shy when he fearfully entered the lodge behind his old army buddy Froggy LeSueur.

Froggy had brought him over from London, to give Charley a respite from his hospital duties attending to his dying wife. Froggy knew the talkative warn-hearted widow running the lodge, a long and dear friend, would take good care of Charley while Froggy fulfilled his assignment teaching explosive devices to men on a nearby army base there in Tilghman County, Georgia. He had not anticipated that Charley, his former army officer, had become so painfully fearful of ordinary conversation after twelve years as a magazine proofreader that he became panicky when it was time for Froggy to leave.

To solve the problem, Froggy told the widow, who wished she had traveled the world like he had, that Charley was a foreigner who could not talk English. The widow was thrilled with this exotic guest and intuitively believed the louder she yelled, the more likely the foreigner might understand her. This ruse seemed unethical to Charley but before he had a chance to tell the widow this was all a mistake, he overheard various private conversations of other lodge residents and only having the widow explain that he had not been able to know what they said saved Charley from their fury.

The predicament provided one hilariously funny episode after another because these kids under Tim Conners’ direction are marvelously talented. All six of the play’s characters were main characters, and all six had the ability to take an audience with them wherever the improbable script took them. We were sad, happy, shocked, and most often laughing with these performers just as they wished. When the Klu Klux Klan entered, we were even afraid just as the late playwright Larry Shue wanted us to be.

But even that scene too soon became hysterically humorous as Charley put the bear skin rug on and scared them away with made-up sorcery. The sweet-talking fiancĂ© of the beautiful young woman, who had just inherited big money, was revealed as the evil plotter he was and ordered away. Charley, whose wife in far-off London managed to get up off her death bed and wire him of her latest and 24th dalliance explaining she had run off with the hospital proctologist. Charley got the beautiful girl, the widow’s lodge was saved from the scheming fiancĂ© and building inspector and everything ended hunky dory except our sides hurting from laughing. We knew that Charley’s extreme shyness had been cured.

My desire was to be able to attend all three nights of the production, seeing the difference in audiences’ reactions, hearing the funny lines that I didn’t catch the first or second night, and watching the cast grow increasingly adept with both the slapstick and the subtle character development.

On Friday afternoon after a long week of her very difficult teaching schedule in different classrooms at different schools, Jeannie learned at 4:30 that Elijah was planning a cast party at their house after that night’s performance. Rick was away coaching at the sectional track meet, so there was no parental help there. Jeannie pulled it off with amazing ease, however, after feeding us homemade potato soup. She hurriedly made her signature chocolate chip brownies (chocolate chip recipe spread in a pan and baked to just the right gooeyness) to go with other store bought cookies, everyone’s favorite burger/cheese, salsa dip in a crock pot for chips, iced-down colas, and a generous order of pizza delivered to the house after the play.

We hurried off to the play where we were to meet Jeannie’s mother-in-law and her special friend who always drive over from Rick’s hometown for the grandkids’ plays. We were almost to the door dashing through the rain when somehow one minute I was walking uprightly and the next minute after stubbing a toe, my nose was down on the concrete, my glasses thrown off ahead of me and my Birks somewhere behind me.

Jeannie looked around and saw me lying on the concrete and was horrified. Seeing and hearing her fear, I was quick to assure her I was okay. I knew I wasn’t exactly okay with a slightly bleeding forehead and skinned nose, but I also thought except for the breath knocked out of me that I was probably okay and that was what she needed to hear.

Jeannie said with relief, “Oh, here is Dr. _____...” (I never did get that name, but hearing that felt good.) Immediately a man and woman were hovering over me along with Jeannie, retrieving my glasses that fortunately did not break, helped me upright, and put the shoes back on my feet. (Jeannie blamed the Birks and she may be right about that although I have worn them for years because of nerve damage in my foot and I have never fallen with them before.)

When the woman asked me if I had hit my head, I was still addled enough to say no despite the skinned place on my forehead. It was only while Jeannie and I talked and watched television in my bedroom that night while the cast laughed and enjoyed the living room that I learned the man and woman were not a couple but two individuals who just happened there at the same time. And the woman was the doctor--revealing my own sexism that I had assumed the sweet caring man was.

Jeannie provided me with antibiotic cream and tried to give me something for pain—but as long as I did not touch my nose, I had no pain whatsoever. I slept very good when Jeannie left to put up food and hang around until the last guest left. They were still laughing in the living room when I drifted off around midnight. Cecelie and her over-night friend were playing music and giggling in their bedroom.

Saturday was restful with late sleeping in for everyone. At noon it was off to Jeannie’s friend Jean Kimpel’s RN pinning at Highland Community College. We picked up their mutual friend Diane, and after the pinning, they presented her with a beautiful bouquet Jeannie had acquired that morning from her favorite florist. (Watching her skillful work is an artistic treat Jeannie gives herself.) Jean’s daughter Lauren was the comical widow in the play and she along with the beautiful girl were Elijah’s leading ladies. That afternoon Elijah went after the other two lovely bouquets Jeannie had ordered since his tradition was to give flowers to his leading lady and in this play there were two equally important cast members.

Rick took us all out to dinner except Elijah who was already at the theater long before that. Again it was raining lightly and we hurried in, but I watched that I did not fall flat on my face a second time. Cecelie looked very pretty carrying the two bouquets in to the theater for Elijah. Once again I had a great time watching the show with perhaps the most enthusiastic audience yet.

The final handclapping and standing ovation ended and the audience dispersed. In addition to the relief and great happiness that the play had been successful and that six weeks’ work was over, it was sad as always back stage after the final performance—especially so for the seniors. I heard sadness too in Tim Conners’ voice as he walked among the cast and said his last speeches to these very special kids he has worked with for four years. After the hugging, visiting, and flower presentations were over in the hallway back stage, the cast traditionally goes back on stage for cast pictures, and we watched that too before separating with Elijah going to the Saturday night’s cast party.

Again on Sunday we slept late. In fact, I slept so late that Jeannie had to wake me and I did not have time to pack my car trunk as I had planned to do before church. I’d told them the night before that I’d like to leave immediately after worship so that I could be on the road and use the lunch time as a break from driving since I was planning on driving home without stopping over night at my brother’s or Mary Ellen’s as I did last year.

By now my face is not only skinned, but quite discolored with bruises. The outline of my glasses, which evidently only flew off after I hit the concrete, is etched on my face with bruising under my eyes and across my nose. Maybe by tomorrow, I can cover it up with enough makeup that I won’t get the sympathy that my face now inspires. I will miss that.

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