Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Certain Kind of Person

In an interview my grandmother gave to a newspaper once, she said acting takes "a certain kind of person."

She elaborated on this to discuss rejection. How a person who wants to be on stage needs to be okay with being told "no." You need to be hungry enough for the "yes" that the people who say "no" don't dissuade you, and you need to enjoy what "yes" brings enough that the pain of rejection is worth it. She also said you have to be willing to "give up a lot."

So many of the articles written about my grandmother discuss with surprise the balance she managed in her life--how she was able to be a wife, be a mother, be a teacher, but also be an actress. One even said, "If Marceline Decker's life story were ever turned into a movie, it could be called 'I Led Two Lives.'" As if these aspects of her were necessarily separate, or as if chasing your dreams and living them is not compatible with having a family or an alternate vocation. 

In helping to write her obituary and looking over her life, I've been reminded of so many details about who she was--how passionate she was about her singing and her acting, how much she loved performing, how she always knew that was what she wanted to do. I showed a friend what my family had written, and he said, "She did so much. She's like an early twentieth century version of you."

I see what he means, even though our passions landed us in different places. The more I learned over the years about how she lived and how she thought, the more I see where I got the pieces of me. She lived an exciting, dramatic life full of performing under the lights, but the photo albums tell the real story: Her life was full of people. People she touched and people she entertained; people she taught and people she loved. Sacrifices are sometimes necessary in the pursuit of art, but for her, human connections were not one of the things she had to give up. In another newspaper quote, my grandmother said the thing she missed the most when she was away from the stage was the people she worked with. When you do it right, your passions connect you with the ones you love. She did it right. 

In a memory book my grandmother left to me and my sisters, a prompt asks her "As a wife, I tried to be . . . "

She answered: "An individual, and I suppose I still do."

That really struck me the first time I read it. My grandparents were the most adorable couple, so genuine with their affection and such a wonderful model for how people can live in harmony. So sometimes it surprised people that they were so good at supporting each other while chasing such different passions. They didn't limit what each other wanted to do and they didn't let other people's expectations of what their marriage should look like affect how they should live it. What they did works. They were married for 67 years. She was allowed to be "an individual," even though people expected her life as a wife and mother (and grandmother, and great-grandmother!) to transform who she was. It didn't make her less. It made her more.

Even today there's the expectation that women should "give up" their careers and passions for their family, and I can only imagine in my grandmother's day that expectation was stronger, but my grandmother knew it took a "certain kind of person" to do it all. We who were nurtured by her have all the memories of food and family, of celebrations, of togetherness. Her life was full--she found a way to have it all. She did it shamelessly, fearlessly, proudly, without letting society's expectations tell her what she should settle for. And in between everything she lived for and everything she achieved, she still managed to give back--she taught future generations all her lessons from the stage and beyond, to the point that she had students writing to her for years after learning from her. She made a huge mark on their lives--on the lives of everyone she touched.

She knew about rejection from the perspective of auditions, while my version was rejection letters for my writing. Like her, I knew the only thing to do was keep trying, but there was also another piece of wisdom she laid down besides refusing to give up. She recommended going to school for acting, but also recommended community theatre for experience. You can't get there just by learning "techniques." You also have to practice. 

When I was just starting with my writing and my grandmother offered to look over my work, she gave very little direct criticism (even though, looking back, I definitely needed it). She gave broad comments on what to work on and told me how delighted she was with it, and told me to keep writing. She knew only making more work would teach me about how to make work. But she also knew enough not to come down hard on my writing to beat it into shape. It was too early for that. We have to develop our own voices in art--we have to find our own way, and we don't learn that by having another person tell us strongly what to do in what order. I've learned how important that "keep writing!" comment was even though I didn't think much of it at the time. It's vital. It came from a person who knows why we create and where that comes from inside us.

She was a certain kind of person. Passionate. Brilliant. Unforgettable.

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