Director, Vanguard Theatre
"What completely surprised me was a new and overwhelmingly strong sense of myself as a writer. Performer, yes; director, certainly; teacher, hopefully. But writer? It wasn't art of my self-portrait. Gently and subtlety, Professors Ahlshwede and Schopp led us through exercises and discussions that tapped a vein in me. Don't get me wrong, I have no intention of applying for a Pulitzer but, honestly, the confidence that I'm feeling today as the project comes to an end has made the entire week worthwhile."
When I met her, he was already Puddin'. He was ten. She had come back to Memphis to take care of her aging parents. We showed up at the same 12-step program one balmy evening in June and caught each other's eye. By the time one thing lead to another, we'd been acquainted for three months.
A few weeks later, she brought him around. He'd been Puddin' most of his life. And, by this time, Puddin' already had his blue-eyed Husky, Mac. And Mac had already lost his right front leg.
Estelle and Puddin' and Mac moved in during the holidays two years after we'd met. Her Mom had died and her Dad insisted that he'd be fine in the condo. Estelle was organized but not militant about it and Puddin', willing and able. We decorated the Christmas tree first then tackled the job of unloading the moving truck and both our cars. We were a moving machine. A comforting snow began to fall as we passed each other on the sidewalk, unloading the last boxes.
We gave in to the pride of our one-day accomplishment and began to chant "smooth move, smooth move" with Puddin' throwing in an occasional "Ex-lax". It's the day we became a family. He finished putting up his Star Wars poster and called downstairs, "Hey, Mom, what else?"
"We probably ought to record a new message on the machine, don't you think?"
Mac was one of those dogs who could be coaxed to "talk" and Puddin' had taught him to sing along sometimes when he practiced his guitar. They raced to the answering machine and closed the door. I laughed when I called the next day and was greeted by a very clever rap announcement accompanied by rhythmic howling. It was that machine which would three years later be an element in a major teenage passage.
The wedding was limited to a few dear friends and what family we could scrape up-her Dad, my Mom and brother. Puddin' was our collective attendant so it was the three of us and the preacher at the altar, which we'd arranged under one of the towering oak trees in the back yard. We had coordinated our ties and cummerbunds with the pale yellow of her dress and made quite a trio as we came into the outdoor chapel through the dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom. The vows were simple and honest and, of course, not complete until Puddin' had also promised to "love, honor and mind."
Watching him grow into a truly interesting individual-bright, funny, strong, smart, loving-and being a part of that journey, helping it along, proved to be more rewarding than anything I could have wished for or even imagined possible. So much that's good in life is intangible and, more often than not, completely unexpected. Almost daily, Estelle and I marveled at our great good fortune in having each other and him at the same time.
To balance things, though, the road is often as bumpy as it is smooth. Being a teenager can be pretty treacherous and the lessons hard. By the time he was a junior, we had enough confidence (in ourselves as well as him) to leave him alone some evenings.
Estelle and I had remained active with our 12-step group and had gone to a long meeting one Saturday night in January. Arriving late, we were greeted at the door by a yawning Mac who wagged his entire body then curled up in front of the smoldering coals of the fireplace. We looked in on Puddin' and went straight to bed. Sunday mornings were generally leisurely and often included a special breakfast-waffles, French toast, Eggs Benedict. The three of us were just sitting down to heaping plates of corned beef hash and poached eggs along with pan-fried potatoes, English muffins and a jar of my mother's peach preserves when I noticed the light on the answering machine was blinking. Estelle reached over and hit the replay button. Out came Puddin's voice in conversation with his soccer buddy Stevie. He had picked up the receiver just after the record tone and the call had been preserved.
"Damn, you were drunk last night, Dude", giggled Stevie's voice.
"How much you think you drank?"
"I don't know. Probably, maybe almost a half a pint."
"Damn. Whoa, gotta go Mom's calling. See you."
The tape whirled to an end.
The light stopped blinking.
The tears rolling down our cheeks were as hot as the coffee in our three cups.
Estelle was the first to gain enough composure to speak. "Puddin', would you go up to your room for a while, please. We'll call you down in a little bit."
After more tears and a great deal of discussion, we decided to give him some options with regard to what his punishment would be and how it might be administered. In the end, he chose to attend some Al-Anon meetings (we decided how many) and to be grounded (we decided how long). Painful though it may have been for all of us, this crisis created a sense of maturity and responsibility in him that can only be gained through life experience and honest self-examination. A boy was becoming a man.
And, of course, there were girls. Puddin' was turning into a handsome fellow. Not especially tall, his body was well proportioned and graceful, his curly blond hair framed his already chiseled face and his easy smile reflected the light of an inner goodness. He averaged a girlfriend a year until he was sixteen.
Then he met Becky. No love is ever as intense or as important as first love and Puddin' and Becky were in first love. During their junior and senior years, only the fact that they lived in separate houses parted them. At that, there were countless nights when he'd sleep on the sofa in their den or she'd end up in our guest room.
The gentle spring rain that fell on prom night didn't dampen their enthusiasm for the enchanted evening ahead. He had picked Becky up early so they could come back for his mother to take photos with the new Nikon he'd gotten for graduation. Once again, he had coordinated the color of his tuxedo with her gown and made sure that her gardenia corsage-"something exotic not one of those same old, same old orchids"- was just right. They seemed literally to glow in the misty twilight as they came up the front walk holding hands and lost in each other's eyes. The photos were taken and as they were leaving, Becky suggested a shot of the two of them with Mac. Mac hobbled happily into the picture then barked them goodbye as they left to pick up Scottie and his date.
Cracking thunder woke me only moments before the phone rang, galvanizing us both into instant attention. Outside the lightning was attacking the night sky. The great trees in the back yard strained in the wind, like dancers unable to complete their leaps. Estelle turned on the bedside lamp as I reached for the phone.
Our eyes met silently. I lifted the receiver and listened. None of them could have suffered much or for long the officer at the police station had said. The wet pavement had caused the semi to go off the edge of the overpass and land directly on the roof of the car as it came from underneath. The truck driver lived but not longer than the ambulance ride to the hospital.
Our lives became heavy and aimless. And though we continued to breathe, to move, to somehow function in the world, nothing mattered nor had meaning. At home we seldom spoke or even stayed in the same room together. When we were out in public, an invisible shell of sorrow separated us from others as though a parallel universe was holding us captive and no one knew.
After weeks of living in a kind of slow motion void, we began tentatively to bring him up in conversation, though never speaking his name. Only mentioning his things-what to do with a guitar, should we keep this soccer ball, how about painting the front bedroom. The thing that finally brought some light into the aching corners of our souls was the feeling we shared about the dog. He couldn't stay. Though we loved him and continued to feed him, his presence was simply too painful. Too absolute a reminder of what we couldn't yet approach. The more we discussed it, the more urgent his departure became. Following many tears and prayers, we came to the guilty solution of abandoning him.
Ignoble but efficient. Besides, we knew that if we chose the lake resort across the river, there'd be plenty of families to take care of him. Making that decision gave us a purpose, a goal, a reason to go on.
The next Saturday morning off the three of us went for an outing to the lake. That afternoon two of us returned. Whether it was Mac's absence or simply Time doing what it does, Estelle and I began to slowly and carefully reestablish our union. Eventually, there were smiles again and intimacy and life continued. We'd been through a lot, we decided, but we also had a lot ahead of us.
After three years, we talked about finding a weekend place, a cabin in the woods or maybe a lake house. Some friends had a small fishing cabin on the lake and one fine Sunday in May we made an exploratory visit. We discovered a wide range of houses as we drove around the perimeter of the lake, getting out from time to time to look into windows of vacant places.
After one such stop, we wandered down a shady little lane that led to the water's edge. A warm breeze was blowing; light danced on the water and sparkled on the undersides of leaves. In the distance we saw three children race from around the corner of a house. They hurried to an old canoe then squatted down in front of it, holding their arms out toward the house as though beckoning for someone to come. We couldn't make out what they were chanting but as we drew closer we looked toward the house and there, appearing in a shaft of dazzling sunlight, was the beloved three-legged Husky loping happily toward his playmates. Then we heard their chant. Heard them call his name.
"Come, on" they coaxed. "Come on, Puddin'. Catch up, Puddin'." He reached them, howling with joy. They circled their arms, surrounding him with their love, laughing and skipping, joining in an ancient game we could no longer play.
Who We Are
Read samples of writing from past faculty participant's seminars.