Written by Pat Schneider shortly before Elizabeth’s death.
I sit at her old desk, my laptop computer awkward between antique lamps. For me, this is a holy place, because it is a place of my own origin. A part of me was born here, raised here. The part of me that became the adult, separate me. The part of me that first believed I might become an artist with words. The part of me that became a woman in the world, rather than a girl from a tenement.
I am sitting in Bye’s desk chair. Before me are two shelves – a bookcase made to fit the desk. The back of the big desk and the two shelves are stacked with orderly boxes, notebooks, envelopes clipped to box edges. There are cans full of Number 2 pencils, and looking at them I remember Bye, one foot up on a low stage, another foot bearing her weight on the theatre floor, a pencil held poised above the clipboard on her knee, her face intent in thought as she looks into the space of the stage.
The pencil was her tool of choice. All around me are pencilled notes to herself, but among them, on a big bulletin board, there is a three-by-five card with a typed quote that I sent her. I know this because she has penciled in a corner, “From Pat Schneider c. July 9, 1987.” It is by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting
still has a shape in the kingdom o
ftransformation. When something’s let go of,
and though we are rarely the center
of the circle, it draws around us its
unbroken, marvelous curve.
A small bulletin board at the side of the desk holds eight cards and pages of paper, all of them filled with her penciled words.
On the desk, back under the shelves, there are great notebooks full of her handwriting and her typed pages – the manuscript of the last, unfinished play. On the top shelf, three portraits stand back behind boxes of books and papers. The faces look over the boxes, and meet me eye to eye when I stand in front of the desk. One photo is of two little girls. It would have been taken about 1922, when Elizabeth was two and her sister, Anne, was four. Another is Elizabeth alone, about four years old. She has told me how the two of them went into the grape arbors near their home. It was so hot in Modesto in the season of ripe grapes, they went into the shallow irrigation ditch that ran under the grapes, opened the “trapdoors” in the back of their coveralls, put their bare bottoms into the cool, damp earth, and reached up over their heads to pick grapes. They had contests to see who could get the most grapes into their mouths. “Anne always won,” she finishes the story exactly the same way each time she tells me, “she had the biggest mouth.”
The third photograph is of someone she loved.
Clipped to a box on the bottom shelf, under notes about giving the theater archives to the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, lists of phone calls, and a note about looking for some quilt blocks that her nephew “was speaking of when he was here recently” (the note is dated seven years before this moment of writing) — between penciled notes that say “Where did I put the lyrics to ‘Double Sky’? – Look for” and “For Project (w) reunion GP Paul Newman outfit” there is a small note that reads:
Ted Gill’s expulsion
Those are two separate subjects. The first is the story that brought about the loss of her second and last theater, The Festival Theater. The second is the story of her loneliness, and of a face that looks at me over the stacked papers and the line of books with all their little markers sticking up between pages. Elizabeth is 82 now, recovering from surgery for cancer and lens replacement to restore vision in her right eye. Her left eye is blind. I wish she had written those two stories.
I write again now the words from Rilke, for they come to me this time from Bye. I write them to hold on. I do not want to let her go. I remember her strength, how the whole theater shone with her light, her intelligence, her personal charisma and power. The first production that I saw of Bye’s was Maxwell Anderson’s Lost In The Stars, the musical version of Alan Payton’s Cry, The Beloved Country. The year was 1959. I was a student at Pacific School of Religion, two years married and pregnant with my first child. I “held the book” for the production, following the lines in the play script as actors began to say them by memory, prompting them when they needed it. I learned like a dry sponge soaking up water.
The production was a stunning event. We were trembling, as a nation, on the cusp of our civil rights revolution – but it had not happened yet. No bus boycott. No hoses aimed at black children. No little girls blown up in church. There was a simmering quietude about race. And Elizabeth walked across the great divide into black churches and auditioned for the African roles. It was unheard of. And to be involved in it, even at the level of holding the book, was exciting beyond anything I had ever experienced.
Cry, the beloved country . . . .
We’re lost out here in the stars –
Big stars, little stars,
falling through the night –
and we’re lost out here in the stars.
On the small bulletin board beside the desk, written in Elizabeth’s hand are several cards: one holds eleven questions by Arthur Miller about defining a character in a play. Another holds eleven questions by John Osbourne. The last card lists fifteen questions of Bye’s own. She used them in writing for theater – one could do worse than to use them in writing fiction.
Her mind is crystalline; her memory blazes. Not only stories, but names and histories and references from reading – all are accessible to her, and she delights in remembering and in going to check on any details in her worn dictionaries and reference books. Among other things, she taught me the importance of being parented by someone who is old – being taught how to grow old, and how to die. She did not always teach me by action that I wanted to follow. Sometimes she taught me by action that I want to avoid, as in the years following the loss of the theater when she became reclusive and agoraphobic. But even in the choices I do not choose for myself, I learned from her, and modeled myself after her or over against her choices. In this, my own old age, I want to parent my children in that way. I want to live boldly as she lived boldly most of her life, taking chances, being faithful to the people I love, and wrestling mightily with my own demons when they collect into what seems an overwhelming army.
Maybe what I am doing is less than admirable. I am sitting at Bye’s desk, reading and copying her notes to herself. But she invited me here. And I have not opened a single document, nor turned over a single page. I am only trying to capture what is visible here, has been visible before when I have slept alone in this room, because the day will come when it is no longer here, save in my mind and heart.
Elizabeth is greatly loved, I know that. I see it and hear it and touch it tangibly this time, as I see her nieces bringing her gifts and overhear her friends calling. Her niece Nancy had made a huge spinach spanikopita and a great batch of wonderful chicken soup for us to eat – already three days here have passed and I have not had to cook anything. Nancy came today with a dozen hot cross buns, and another niece, Elizabeth (“Elizabeth Junior,” Bye calls her) is coming this evening. Bye is cherished, and I do not have to be anxious about her. No matter what happens, she will be tenderly cared for by people who deeply love her, and whom she has loved long and well. My seeing that for certain may be the greatest gift I have received in these days.
Today I drove her in her ancient automobile down from the hills into downtown San Anselmo. In its day her car was considered a “compact” – now it seems a great ark of a vehicle. It has a standard shift attached to the steering column; it is ultimately simple. And big. She has been driving it since 1969 when she and her assistant, Casey (Marjorie Casebier McCoy, my roomate at Pacific School of Religion, my best friend) bought it together for use in Festival Theater. Together Bye and I tested the air in the tires and put 35 pounds in each tire. She checked the oil and the water, rejoicing because for the first time in such a long while she was able to see the indicators herself. She has been unable to drive it for months because of her decreased vision; she wants it in running order in the hope that this surgery will restore enough vision to make it possible for her to drive again. I hope – I truly hope and pray – that it may be so.This morning I was reading aloud to Bye from Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, and came across this line from Tuesday’s With Morrie — “Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship.”
It will be so. Already it is so.
— Pat Schneider