On March 19, 2005, I married my best friend, lover, confidant. It was almost exactly one year after Lita died.
At the start of the ceremony, we lit a unity candle we would later use to unite with each other, and with our children in a family unity candle ceremony. We also had two more candles lit, one for Lita, and another for Kathleen Howland, who had lost a several year battle with ovarian cancer, at the age 77, of September of that same year.
Kathleen was a long time family theatre friend, mentor, actress, director, and teacher. She is one of only two or three directors I can think of, ever to afford my mother and me the opportunity to "play" our real life roles onstage. In 1997, mom and I auditioned for Kathleen for The Glass Menagerie at the then newly started Louisville Community Theatre. I had an advantage this time. Not only was Laura Wingfield the type Kathleen had known me to be my whole Players Guild Youth Theatre career, but, I was also the only actress Laura's age to show up for auditions. There was, however, another actress auditioning for Amanda. Kathleen was one of two directors who always thought of mom's type as "Marmee" in Little Women ever since, well, ever since mom played Marmee and I played Beth. (I was Beth twice for the same director. Beth/Laura = my type!) Unfortunately, Kathleen went with the actress she didn't know, thinking her over the top comedic talent could be channeled into an overbearing, over the top Amanda Wingfield.
The two clashed from day one, and rehearsal was a bit strained and stressful. Along with myself, the rest of the cast- Keith Berger as Tom, and Tom Bryant as the gentlemen caller- had known and/or worked with Kathleen for years, as well as all of us knowing each other from the Players Guild. The other actress worked primarily at a smaller, more laid back theatre in town, in which the directors were so laid back that if you announced at one rehearsal you couldn't come to the next, it was no biggie. Kathleen was a professional though, community theatre or not. At times she could come across as a little brash when she thought someone was dropping the ball, but for those of us who knew her or had worked with her, we knew it came from that place of professionalism and perfectionism regarding her craft. But, the actress playing Amanda decided one night not to return to rehearsal, over two weeks in!
I will never forget walking into that rehearsal, a few minutes late myself. Noah, who was only about 3 or 4 months old, was still nursing, and I hadn't been feeling well on top of that. Kathleen was very generous with those extenuating circumstances, but I always worried when late that I might have over extended her sympathies. So that night, I climbed the rickety stairs to the rehearsal area (a dingy old nearly condemned set of apartments over the old Hardware Store on Main Street in Louisville) five or ten minutes late again, worrying about receiving my own arse chewing by Kathleen. I was greeted by Tom saying, "OH- Kathleen! HERE's JENNIFER!" and thinking "Oh crap...they're all standing around waiting on ME."
Kathleen rushed up, a determined and irritated look on her face and exlaimed, "Little Zen Zen! Thank GOD. Do you think your mom would still like to play Amanda? Or will she be offended I ask after not choosing her like I should have in the first place."
Ummmm.... my mind had to switch gears. Then they told me that Joan had decided to leave the cast.
Well then! YES I do believe my mom would like to play Amanda!
Mom took over Amanda Wingfield with little over two weeks of rehearsals to go. Anyone who knows that iconic character from the Tennessee Williams classic knows exactly how challenging that character is, how many fat monologues there are to learn, and just how impossible 2 weeks would be to accomplish that.
Joan asked to re-join the next day, but having already re-cast, and working with my mom in one rehearsal, Kathleen said no. I remember one scene in particular, where Kathleen realized my mom was the perfect Amanda. It's where someone on the other end of the phone hangs up on Amanda, shocking and offending her. Joan and Kathleen had worked and worked on this scene in particular, with Kathleen trying to get Joan to do something to show her irritation, and Joan continuing to try to do this through her line only. The first night my mom read that scene, she got to the part where the woman hung up on her, and held the receiver away, glared at it, then said, "That woman HUNG UP ON ME!" The gesture of first glaring in disbelief at the phone was exactly what Kathleen was hoping for. She stopped my mom right there and said, "OH Janey! That's PERFECT! I tried and tried to get that Joan woman to understand that, and you did it on your first try!!!!" Kathleen was never more smitten with my mother than after that show. And they had a decades old friendship already.
Kathleen was a tough director, and being her former student made it hard to voice my opinion. One difference we had was over Laura's reaction to the gentlemen caller's rejection after he kisses her, when he tells her that he has a finance. My Laura wanted to cry, Kathleen was directing me to be really happy for him. Night after night I tried to give her what she wanted. Finally, one night, she said, "Zen honey, why would Laura want to cry when she just got her biggest wish- a kiss from him?" I said, "Well, she had a fantasy about him all through high school, then he shows up in her living room years later, shows he really likes her, enough to kiss her. In that moment, Laura thinks that maybe she will have a normal life, get away from her mother, and the fantasy has come true after all. Then in the next moment, Jim tells her he can't call again. She is crushed, confused, yet is still caught up in the moment of that kiss. So when she says, "You won't...call...again?" She is hoping that she's misunderstanding what he's saying.
Kathleen simply said, "Well then honey, you've obviously thought all that through. You go ahead and cry, and let's see how it goes."
She was an actor's director. (Those are the best.)
Kathleen and I did one more play together. She played my overbearing, crazy mom. Jodi Wilson and Pat Burns, actresses I had worked with in my teens, joined me as my sisters on stage. And Carla Derr directed.
The play was called Independence, by Lee Blessing. It was one of only two times in my life I was asked to be in a show, no audition required. Those opportunities are so hard to turn down, especially when you hear the rest of the cast are some of your favorite actress around.
Oh- and the title appealed to me since I had just finalized my divorce the month before.
Kathleen struggled with her lines, but this was not due to ill health or getting older. Kathleen always had a knack for challenging her co-stars with interesting choices in dialog. I remember another director/teacher/icon/ and best friend to Kathleen, Bill Fry, telling a story from when they were in their 40's or so. I forget the play, but they had a scene together that one night Kathleen started giving Fry dialog from the third act...in the second act. This went on for sometime before they exited, and Fry was frantically trying to get her back to the correct sequential dialog before the end of the play was given away. They walked off stage for intermission, and Fry said Kathleen turned to him, narrow eyed, and hissed, "I saved your ASS out there!" She was totally unaware that she was the one in the wrong act! Fry loved to tell that story and would laugh and laugh when telling it, "There-ha-ha- there-ha-ha-there!!!!!!" (Former Bill Fry students will enjoy the "there-there" inside joke!)
But all of this history, is really not why we lit a candle for her at our ceremony. It was her amazing marriage, one that I was privy to in a family way having spent so much time with them during my adolescence.
I spent almost every weekend at their home in the months following my brother's head injury. On several occasions, I remember getting up in the morning to a lovely breakfast at the Howland's breakfeast nook. Kathleen and Bill would be sitting there, exchanging terms of endearment with each other. TACKY at times. She called him Pookie or something similar I can't recall now. And he called her his own pet names. Once she told me I should pinch his earlobe, because it was so cute. "Isn't that just the cutest ear lobe you ever saw Zen Zen????" I remember thinking they were odd, but cute. I also remember thinking I had never seen two adults, in their fifties, in love, but evidently this must be what it would look like.
Kathleen and her husband Bill (or Doc) had the most amazing marriage, worthy of a whole blog all its own. But let’s just say, that I never met another couple like them. They ran off to get hitched at 17 or 18, and never stopped showing each other how much they loved each other. I remember the last time I saw them, when Kathleen had already been ill for sometime. They were at a play, it was intermission, and a 70 plus year old Bill had traversed the spiral staircase down to the concessions to pick up a package of M and M’s (evidently her favorite) to bring back up to her since she was too frail to make the journey herself. I will never forget her saying, “For me???? Oh Skippy! How I love and adore you!” In the most joyful tone, as though he had just given her the moon on a silver platter.
When I heard she was nearing the end, I had sent a letter to her and Bill, telling them how much they meant to me, how when my family suffered the traumatic accident that paralyzed my older brother, she and Bill took me in every weekend for several months, while my parents stood guard by my brother’s hospital bed. I told her how much she taught me about acting, theatre, kindness, love, marriage, all by example. How I would never forget them and loved them so.
A few weeks later at Kathleen’s calling hours Bill hugged me exclaiming “Little Zen Zen is here!” It is what Kathleen and Bill always called me, and he still will today even though "Little" Zen Zen is now 40.
We invited him to our wedding. He sent a wedding present and regrets that he couldn’t attend because, “I’m just not ready to go to celebrations in public without her yet, please except my apologies…”
In our wedding program we wrote, "We lite these candles in memory of Lita who inspired my search for happiness, and Kathleen who showed me what it looked like."
Sometimes I think I should send him that program, now that it’s been a few years and it won't be as raw. I want to let him know once more how much their example helped me to know that Rick was the man I should spend my life with. But then again, it will always be raw to Bill. My mom saw him recently with a group of writer friends, and they all had coffee together. She told me that a friend told him, “Bill, you really must find a new love to enjoy your life with.”
To which Bill responded,
“Oh….no. You only really get that once, and I already had it. My love with Kathleen was enough to last me forever.”
Once upon a time there were two exquisitely ordinary, every day, creative, giving, fabulous, people, who were supportive , nurturing, romantic, and passionately in love for over 50 years.
Now that's the fairytale I want to tell Anna every night before she goes to bed.
Right after I've told her the tale of a young warrior princess named Lita Elizabeth Schrock, who fought the dragon Cancer and in doing so with such bravery, inspired others to live in the moment and search for happiness. Though Lita's life was brief and the dragon cancer won in the end, her lite burns on in all who carry her memory with them. None more so than her name sake, Anna Elizabeth, whose parents meeting, marrying, and having their baby girl, was directly inspired by Lita's brief and courageous life.
And so the Fairy Princess Anna Elizabeth was born to a home filled with love and gratitude. A home with a mommy and daddy, devoted to their marriage, and to all their children-
Tanner, Noah, Adri, and Anna.
And they lived happily ever after.