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Elizabeth (Bye) Berryhill, 1920-2002

Elizabeth (Bye) Berryhill, 1920-2002

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,

it circles;

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. 

(I offer her list to you by clicking here.)

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.

Elizabeth and Pat

Elizabeth and Pat

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


21 Responses to I SIT AT MY MENTOR’S DESK

  • Catherine Bennett says:

    I love this. It is like a painted picture of the exterior but also the interior. Wonderful.

  • Elizabeth Brick says:

    This is so rich and beautiful, Pat. Thank you.

  • Jan Haag says:

    Oh, Pat, what a lovely piece of writing. And how wonderful for those of us who didn’t know your dear Bye to see photos of her… and you! I love the image of you driving her “great ark of a vehicle” to put air in the tires. And I can see you at her desk, copying only what you can “capture what is visible.” Thank you for sharing this!

  • Jan Haag says:

    And I love her list of Questions to Ask in Developing a Character. I can use that right now as I revise a novel! Thank you for this, too!

  • Aaron Zimmerman says:

    This piece is exquisitely written and beautiful. Grateful that you decided to share it now.

  • Peggy Fisher says:

    Thanks so much for this writing. It says so much about life and its meaning .For me, it brings back memories of the mentors in my early life who keep me on my path of writing to heal myself as well as others. Growing old can be difficult, pains and failing eyesight may be problematic, but staying focused on your evergreen spirit gives you new paths to follow.

  • andrew r sparks says:

    Pat, thank you for sharing your friend.
    Her beautiful hair is like my aunt’s who i recently lost.
    My Tia/ aunt who was 104 years young.
    Had you asked her “how are you doing” her TexMex reply was “pues super” which translates “super, how can you think otherwise?”
    I hope to also share her through writing.

  • Don Fado says:

    I never knew Elizabeth, although I met her and saw a play of hers. You enabled me to sit at her desk with you and feel her presence and experience her as Bye. I am enriched. Thank you for touching my life with hers.

  • Pat, such a beautiful piece of writing. I felt like I was in the room with you. I remember seeing Lost in the Stars and also Oh, What a Lovely War.
    I also recall your poetic style in your play:

    “I saw him standing with the sunset at his back
    As we pulled closer to the shore.
    Where often evening hours called a man,
    Who was too weary to be feasting, and too poor.”

    Blessings, Bud

  • Janet Johnston says:

    Thank you for sharing, Pat. Love seeing you so happy with Bye. The love in the photo is palpable. And the story of putting air in the tires of the great arc and the quotes. Thanks for letting us “sit” at Bye’s desk and see her working and you with her at the theater. A slice of the grace in your life. In my heart I know it doesn’t end.

  • Ruth Liukkonen says:

    Beautiful window into her soul! Thank you Pat. You write just like we are sitting together chatting. Ruth

  • berta cohen says:

    Theater, books, and poetry build character when they are done by women as accomplished as you and Elizabeth. Thanks for the memories–any day when Casey is mentioned brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face.

  • Terry de Grace-Morris says:

    This writing is a wordscape, a painting of many years, a planting of memories, a creation of ancestor, a tribute to love, a song of gratitude. Thank you, Pat, for writing and sharing your heart and gifts.

  • Holland Harpooll says:

    At another time in my life I would have had the words to tell you how deeply I am moved by that which you have written.
    If there should be an afterlife, your friend and mentor must be smiling a grateful and loving smile.

  • Helen Sears says:

    This beautiful tribute, pure organic poetry, is a gift not only to your mentor, but to those of us whose lives you’ve changed with your soul-feeding work. How wonderful to get to glimpse the lady who inspired you! Thank you.

  • Ngaire Gee says:

    Such is a friendship. Pure gold and gifted.
    Having an older mentor to ‘parent’ or model the role ahead resonates with me also. You took me to that room,, at that desk, thankyou.

  • Henri Bensussen says:

    Thank you for this wonderful gift, an example of her own list of questions.

  • Myriam Leyden says:

    Pat, what a lovely piece of writing. A wonderful memory to cherish. Thanks for your generosity.

  • Beverly Dale says:

    Pat, I had saved your post to read at my leisure so I could savor it. Yet as it turned out i am reading it the day after I have learned of the death of the deepest friend I have ever known…also one I met in seminary. This is comforting to me on several levels but also reminds me I can write this, or rather, our-story. Thank you.

  • Jay Leach says:

    Like the little girls in the arbor, you’ve picked the grapes of your decades of experience and, in this tender tribute, transformed them into a fine memorial wine for us. We receive it as a holy vintage–a Eucharistic eulogy–with gratitude.

  • Conrad Knudsen says:

    Dear dear Pat,
    How very beautiful! I do find it difficult to read, however, with tears running down my cheeks and dropping onto my chest. I carry you and Bye in my heart in that special place reserved for incredibly lovely people.

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Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) is the organization that is carrying on the work Pat established and carried on for more than 30 years. To discover how you can write with an AWA Method Group, or become trained as an AWA facilitator, please click this link.