Showing posts with label widows. Show all posts
Showing posts with label widows. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chicago, Widows and All that Jazz

It's tech week.  That means the cast of Chicago is gearing up for opening night on Friday.  And it means I'm not seeing much of my husband, Steve, these days, since he usually goes right to rehearsal from work, and I'm often asleep by the time he gets home.
(In fact, last week, we didn't see each other awake at all from Wednesday evening, when he left for rehearsal, until Friday evening when he got home from work.)

I usually get pretty irritable by the time a show has progressed to tech week.  I get tired of not spending any quality time with Steve, tired of shouldering the day-to-day parenting responsibilities alone.  I think my mood is sunnier this time partly because the kids are older and more independent, and partly because I have so much going on for myself; I'm taking a weekly writing class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis with my friend (and Chicago cast member) Myrna Mibus, I'm writing my column for Minnesota Parent magazine, I'm writing this blog.  Or maybe it's because I'm going to yoga twice a week.  

But it does get to be a drag.  And yes, that does have a double meaning, which you'll understand if you go see Steve on stage in Chicago with a cast of murderous women.  Or if you saw him four years ago when he played the emcee in Cabaret.  (WCCO-TV even did a story about him, Doctor by Day, Cabaret Emcee by Night).

Two months before he performed in Cabaret in spring 2006, Steve (and Louisa) had performed in The Jungle Book.  It was a long winter for me, but it did inspire me to write my first and – so far – only play for the Northfield Arts Guild's Very Short Play Festival (submissions for this year's festival are due March 15).  I wrote, directed and acted in the three-minute play, and cast two other people whose spouses had recently acted in or directed NAG shows.  It was called The Widows and was about the frustrations of having a spouse who devotes so much time to community theater.  Hearing the crowd's reaction to the twist at the end was extremely fulfilling. 

I don't want to give the impression that I think experiencing the inconveniences of having a spouse involved in community theater is anything like being an actual widow.  There is no comparison.  It also is nothing compared to the burdens carried by the spouses of men and women who serve in the military (I'm talking about you and yours, Sherpa).  I don't want to come off as a whiner, because I really do have a great life.  It's kind of like going to a parenting class to talk about the difficulties you're having in getting your child to sleep, and hearing another mom say that her child has been diagnosed with cancer.  We all have our challenges, and there's always someone worse off than you.  It's all in how you look at it.

That said, I think the way spouses get through tough times, whatever that means for them, is pretty universal: with humor and a great support system.

My mom has been great a role model, as the wife of a man who has a passion for performing music.  My parents were both teachers, but my dad has played in jazz and big bands since before I was born.  My first memory of him is seeing him standing in front of the kitchen sink, cleaning his trumpet in preparation for a gig.  My mom has always been supportive of his need to have this outlet, but she also takes care of herself.  She has her own friends, her own passions, and a wonderful sense of humor.

I've discovered that my great-grandmother Islea, who was married to Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, also dealt with this issue in a similar way.  Islea was an accomplished musician herself.  After she graduated from Aledo (Illinois) High School in 1892, she went to Chicago to study piano with Emil Liebling, a pupil of Franz Liszt.

Islea Graham Riggs as a young woman

I often think of Islea when I'm reading about concerts G. Oliver gave, or about all the time he put into rehearsing his bands.  I doubt he could have accomplished all that he did if he hadn't had her support.  During the Jazz Age – the time the musical Chicago is set – Islea played piano accompaniment for G. Oliver's bands, she played the organ at churches and movie theaters, and she taught piano lessons.  She also was active in women's music clubs in the cities where she lived.  I don't know nearly as much about her as I do about G. Oliver, because the newspapers didn't track her activities as extensively.  They never even referred to her by her first name; she was known as Mrs. G. Oliver Riggs.

I wonder if she ever felt constrained by society's expectations for women.  I wonder how she juggled her music and her family life.  From the few letters I have in her handwriting, I get the impression that humor and a sense of purpose got her through periods of loneliness and doubt.

I love what she wrote in October 1936 to Eleanor Johnson (my grandmother), who at that time was dating my grandfather Ronald.  Islea apparently had spent the day alone, because G. Oliver was at the lake cabin, and she'd gone to see a movie called "The General Died at Dawn."

Islea wrote, "I saw 'The General died at dawn' – and did not care for it.  I kept wishing dawn would come, so I could leave!"

When I read that, I knew she and I could have been friends.

She may have had a different outlook by the time she died in 1942, but I hope she maintained the sense of self worth and confidence she exuded as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, encouraging her peers in her commencement speech to pursue a calling that suits them.
    Having found out what you have to do – whether to lead an army or sweep a crossing – do it with all your might, because it is your duty, your enjoyment.  Remember that life’s battles cannot be fought by proxy, be your own helper, be earnest, be diligent, and if success is not soon, you will have done the next-best thing – you will have deserved it.
 Well said, Great-Grandma.