The Woman with All the Answers

In honor of Mother’s Day.  A gentle reminder to spend time with the people you love~

The Woman with All the Answers

As a child, I loved going to the movies and live theater with my mother.  Though neither happened often, the experiences captivated me.  The Sound of Music became an obsession, Fiddler on the Roof almost did me in. I knew that ‘Sunrise, Sunset‘ would be sung at my wedding the very first time I heard it.

I also learned other important things that have come in handy in life. Such as: there is nothing like a dame, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, Gary, Indiana is the place where I belong, the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, Oklahoma is where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, when you’re Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, and the Phantom composes the music of the night.

I shock my family, sometimes, when I belt out a few stanzas from show tunes we might inadvertently hear on on the radio as we are searching for something more hip.  “How do you know that song?” Matt would implore as I channeled my inner Carol Channing.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped going to live theater, other than school plays.  I stopped seeking the magic of performance for no good reason other than it cost money, and I was too lazy to plan ahead. I stopped spending art filled afternoons with my mother because I was busy with important things like shopping at Walmart and Home Depot.

Yet, any time I would fill out some silly questionnaire or worksheet that would ask for my hobbies and likes, I would always include theater.  And every time I checked that box, I would smirk to myself, ‘Big Fat Liar! You used to, but who are you now?’

When the theaters in town sent out their pre-season info this time, I made a conscious decision to put this experience back on my priority list. Why do we do that? Why do we stop doing the things we loved to do when we were growing up? I met my mother for coffee and we made an afternoon of it, poring over the glossy brochures deciding which performances we’d choose.  We decided to be sophisticated and choose three dramas we had never of, wrote out checks on the spot, and sent them in before we could come up with reasons why it was an unnecessary extravagance.

We met on a Sunday at the Phoenix Art Museum where my mother had been a docent for many years and dined in their café.  An artful, fitting start  to our year of theater.  Afterwards we followed our map-quested directions further downtown to the Herberger Theater, a lovely venue in downtown Phoenix. We were seeing The Woman with All the Answers, a one woman play about Ann Landers. Okay, it wasn’t exactly Phantom of the Opera, but it was a start.

Once settled into our seats we looked around. The place was packed.

“I’m the only one younger than seventy,” I whispered.

“More proof,” she began with a knowing nod, “that older people know how to enjoy life on a Sunday afternoon.”

I had a flashback of the two of us, thirty years earlier, side by side on plush red seats in a theater on Broadway, my patent leather shoes barely scraping the floor.

“I feel like such a lady.  Don’t you?” she said as she smoothed her skirt and patted her hair into place.  Her eyes were gleaming. I did feel like a lady, dressed in my Sunday best, hands folded, waiting for the curtain to rise once more and take me on a journey.  I loved this feeling of doing something with my day other than chores and ‘getting ready’ for the week. Getting ready for what? Being busy? How many Sundays had I passed up the opportunity to feel like a lady? How many Sundays had passed in my life without taking advantage of quality time with my beautiful mother?

Suddenly, the lights dimmed and onto the stage waltzed Nancy Dussault, an award winning actress of stage, film and TV, looking every bit like the photo of Ann Landers that graced the cover of the brochure.

We were transported to her living room, June 30, 1975 as she was trying to pen her infamous column about the break-up of her thirty-six year marriage to her beloved husband, Julius.  Because she was utterly heartbroken she found all sorts of other topics to talk about rather than writing the column.  And through her humor and the reading of letters and conversation with the audience, we learned about Ann Landers, the woman.  Eppie Lederer, the sister of Pauline Lederer, the double-crossing identical twin who went on to become her adversary, Dear Abby.  A simple, yet complicated human story that reminded me that all of our lives hold opportunities for greatness and none of us escape sorrow.

We learned of her rise to fame, how she won a contest to take over the column after the death of the original Ann Landers, and became a trusted advisor to the public for many decades. But though her life was full and exciting, it also had its share of pain and betrayal. Though her words held great power in society at the time, she was powerless in situations that deeply plagued her.

There was one particularly moving scene in which she recalled speaking with President Johnson, personally begging him to end the Vietnam War.  To drive her point home, she traveled to the war torn country for three weeks, visiting the bedsides of wounded soldiers, a few thousand by the end of her stay.  She recalled the moments sitting by those bedsides, holding the hand of one and touching the forehead of another, asking about their homes, listening to their stories. Her mission was a powerful one, to stand in for the mother they desperately needed.

This was the moment in which I remembered why I loved the theater when I was young. It connected me to a life bigger than my own, broadened my understanding of the human experience, made me a better person. In the glow of the stage lights I could see tears glistening on the cheeks of many, cloth handkerchiefs lifted to eyes and noses; a powerful silence filled with a grief so real I could reach out and touch it. Like the whole place was afraid to exhale, afraid to unleash long buried terror.   This audience bore those memories in a deeply personal place, some of whom may have been in Vietnam themselves.

Finally Ann finished her sad letter to her fans, humbly admitting even she, the lady with all the answers, after all of her years of preaching against divorce, could not hold her own marriage together.  She asked, “How did it happen that something so good didn’t last forever?”  I could see a thousand heads nodding with her in the darkness. Acknowledging that good things in our lives do end, and it hurts.  Living proof that memories do not stand all alone in the moonlight.

When the curtain came down, I did not want to move. I wanted that feeling of human connection to last. I wanted to think about the reasons why we let things that are important to us slip away.  Why is it always a shock when the very things we stop paying attention to end?

“Maybe we should sign up for a few more of these,” I said as we searched for our purses and waited for the majority of people to file out.

“I was thinking the same thing,” my mother said as she buttoned her jacket and adjusted her grey silk scarf.  “That was wonderful.  I didn’t want it to be over.”

“Me, neither.”
“Let’s make sure that these Sunday outings together continue.”

“Well, you’ve already convinced me that older people know how to have more fun on the weekend,” I began as I looped my arm through hers and walked slowly out of the theater.

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4 Responses to The Woman with All the Answers

  1. What a beautiful post Susan. It is so important to spend time with your mother while you can, and you wrote so wonderfully about the thing that had connected you and your mother in the past now connecting you again. I find any live performances are wonderful – there’s just something fresh and living about them that a film can’t compare to. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Elizabeth, Thank you for your comment. I feel so blessed to have my mother living close by now. Spending time together is a joy and add the theater to that and it is magic! You are so right. The excitement of a live performance could never be dupicated on film. Have a great weekend!

  2. Diane Owens says:

    Like you, I have such fond memories of growing up going to see musical theater–we were so privileged to have that experience as children! But also like you, I let life get in the way (and sometimes the high price of tickets!), failing to treat myself to something I so enjoy. Why is that?

    Thank you–with your beautiful description, you reminded me that going to the theater is a priceless experience!

    • Hi Diane,
      Yes, why do we feel that treating ourselves to things that we love is “optional”? Perhaps we should arrange a Wise Women Write event at the theater!

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