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Articles by Jane Elkin

How handwriting analysis helped me forgive my mother — and myself

A Mother’s Day story by Jane Elkin
 
        On March 3, 2004, I boarded a plane for New Hampshire to sit vigil at my mother’s deathbed. Waiting at the gate, I wrote this page in my diary. It’s the lyrics to Nella Fantasia (In My Fantasy), a Sarah Brightman song that haunted me for two months and was the last music my mother ever heard, my final gift before singing at her funeral. 
       I didn’t want to do it, but Mom insisted, and she usually got what she wanted. So I fixed my eyes on a stained glass window and focused on my job — because you can’t sing and cry at the same time.
      In my writing, you can see what depression looks like: black, blotchy, and  sinking. I remember consciously choosing the marker because it matched my mood that day. Normally, I wrote optimistically rising lines in a fine blue ballpoint. “Keep on the sunny side” was more than a cliché in my life. It was how my mother raised me.
      As a toddler, my favorite song was about seven little girls sitting in the back seat, kissing and a-hugging with bread, or so I thought. “Mama, sing Snoopy Eyes,” I would prompt, as in “Keep your snoopy eyes on the road ahead!” Always she complied. It was our special car song. Sometimes I even got a slice of buttered bread sprinkled with sugar. 
        We had a song for everything. When I couldn’t remember her birthday, she said to remember Alan Sherman’s liverwurst: been there since October 1, and today is the 23rd of May! We climbed Mt. Washington to the theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai. When I started dating, her soundtrack became In My Little Red Book. 
      I adored her for 13 years and, because of her influence, wanted to be a singer and music teacher. It was all I thought I was good at. But she feared I’d wind up broken, like Billie Holliday or Judy Garland, and she was threatened by anything that didn’t fit her parochial vision for my future. A Catholic education seemed safer than public, so she transferred me without notice from the best performing arts school in the state to the worst. I resented her for months.
       That was the first of several dramas in a struggle for autonomy that led me to leave home at 18. Yet I never cut her out of my life, and she never stopped trying to pull my strings. Then she’d go and do something unpredictably wonderful like giving me voice lessons for my 25th birthday. It was complicated.
       When I began singing professionally at the nation’s largest Catholic church a decade later, I don’t know which of us was more proud. But by then, her spirituality had turned to fanaticism. When she asserted the point of my vocal studies was “to better praise God,” I wanted to say “No, I do it for my sake, not His,” but I couldn’t.
      Her snoopy nose was into everything from my music to my wardrobe, parenting style, even the way I changed a trash bag. Had I known her escalating control and petulant rants were symptomatic of an illness, I might have been more understanding. But by the time she was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors, she had just two months to live, and I was torn between grief and relief.
 
Her Hand and Mine
       After she died, I became a certified handwriting analyst. Applying the method to her journals, I saw that she was motivated by a lifelong fear of abandonment and a midlife loneliness I had never realized. I began writing a book and wound up pursuing a degree in creative writing to do the story justice. But I couldn’t move past my own guilt at never having properly mourned.
        “Good writing comes from forgiveness,” my teacher said. “Have you tried looking at your own script?” I had not. I felt sure I knew what I’d been feeling all the time. But there is a difference between being in the moment and reflecting on the moment. What I discovered set me free. 
      Here is my journal entry from the day I learned of my mother’s illness: 
Worse than I’d realized. The Drs. still don’t know the cause at this point. It could be a virus, a disease, or even cancer or a tumor on the brain. He [Dad] was supposed to call me back tonight, but it’s 10:30 …
         The first thing that struck me was the vertical “rivers” of white space between my words, reflecting a sudden loneliness. It was the same isolation I had seen in my mother’s writing when she was my age. The second surprise was the crashing letters in the right-hand margin, a phenomenon common to suicide notes because the right represents the future. The tendency is subtly evident here in the way the words appear to step off a cliff. Considering what lay ahead, I was literally staring death in the face and shrinking from it.
 
Final Gifts
         Four times I drove home, once with a broken tailbone, and was always surprised at her rapid regression. One weekend she was the adult bibliophile I knew; the next, a giggly teen swooning over movie heartthrobs. I felt privileged to meet my mother ‘pre-me’, even when she resembled a toddler, dangling her feet from an invalid’s pottychair and singing Daisy as my own girls had done.
       She liked old hymns, and one day when she no longer could join in, I sang her an original composition. It was my first and had taken years to write. I was nervous about sharing, but still craved her approval and wanted to give one last gift that was uniquely mine. But what if she didn’t like it? It was a bluegrass waltz, and she’d always hated country music. 
      She listened silently to all three verses, and as the final guitar chord died away, I dared ask her opinion. For once, all she said was “beautiful,” and that was her final gift to me. 
      Three weeks later, as she lay semi-comatose, I crowned her with my earphones and played Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and Nella Fantasia, the most heavenly moving-on music I knew. She ahhhed as one sinking into a hot bath, her feet quivering like those of an infant smiling with her whole body. 
       Within hours her sporadic breathing turned to a death rattle that drove me from the room. I was ashamed of my weakness and kept the baby monitor low that night as I slept in another room, only to be awakened by the grey buzz of its mechanical silence and the fleeting sensation of her presence, which I felt as a slumbering child feels a goodnight kiss. 
      The purge of beige fluid trickling from her mouth when I found her told me all I needed to know. I closed her wide and vacant eyes, kissed her warm forehead and moved trancelike to the phone where the hospice number was posted in fat black figures. With shaking hands I misdialed three times. Then a voice answered, and I lost mine.
 
 
Jane Elkin is a former music teacher, chorister at The Basilica of the National Shrine and co-founder of The Renaissance Singers of Annapolis and Trinitas. She expects to complete her MFA at Bennington Writing Seminars in January. 

Practically Perfect in every way

It’s always dangerous to take on a classic; the chances of disappointment are so great. Who could ever compete with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews as Bert the Chimney Sweep and Mary Poppins? Popular brother-and-sister team Nathan Bowen and Emily Mudd, that’s who.

            And what about this new script (2005) with its added plot twist and songs? Won’t the audience revolt? No. They gobble it up like a Spoonful of Sugar. This is a story that never grows old and hands down the most thrilling and professional amateur musicals I have ever had the privilege of reviewing.

            “Sometimes families are upside down for a time,” Mary Poppins says, and that’s when she comes in to help right them with her magical ways. Poor Jane and Michael Banks (Sophia Riazi-Sekowski and Nathaniel Burkhead) have a nanny problem. Or more precisely, nannies have a problem with them.

            Their mother Winifred (Mary Schmidt Wakefield) would just as soon have no nanny at all. A former actress, she would rather play with her children than host society teas. But husband George (John Dickson Wakefield) is nothing if not proper. All the best families have nannies; they ensure precision and order and quiet in a way that the housekeeper, Mrs. Brill (Penni Barnett), and the butler, Roberts Ay (Davis Wooten Klebanoff), cannot.

            Mary Poppins answers a want ad the children wrote but never posted for The Perfect Nanny. After beginning her mission, though, Mary Poppins — in a major digression from the film — goes AWOL for a time, replaced by the horrid Miss Andrew (Alexa Haines), the holy terror of George’s childhood and a woman so evil her medicine bottle billows noxious fumes.

            A half dozen new numbers like Miss Andrew’s Brimstone and Treacle enhance the hallmark standards, which on this stage are as much about dancing as singing. Choreographer and Broadway veteran Andrew Gordon can’t help being a center of attention with his stylized prancing, leaps and high kicks. He leads a fine-tuned ensemble of 30 additional cast members in such spectacular group numbers as Step in Time; Let’s Go Fly a Kite with Alan Barnett as the park keeper; and Jolly Holiday, spotlighting the phenomenal Tyler White as the dancing statue Neleus.

            Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, featuring Lydia West as the venerable storekeeper Mrs. Corry, is — well, you know — complete with a Cancan chorus line and pictograms. Carole Long as the Bird Woman delivers a sweet Feed the Birds under a laser-light flight of white doves and accompanied by a church choir worthy of St. James of Piccadilly. The bankers’ theme, Precision and Order, led by the Chairman (Thom Eric Sinn), is seriously funny. This show has more energy than BGE, and at a fraction of the price.

            Visionary imagination and meticulous attention to detail help make this production enchanting. Watch for magical touches like Mary Poppins’ bottomless bag of furnishings and a kitchen disaster that cleans itself. A cadre of hooded Druid-looking figures lends a mildly sinister tone as stagehands moving props and occasionally people — perhaps even to death in one case. There are six opulent sets and over a hundred stunning Edwardian costumes.

            And what splendid casting! Mudd is indeed Practically Perfect, and Bowen’s sweet gentility is crystal clear. The husband and wife team of Wakefields exudes domesticity and testiness as only true marrieds can. All of the leads, even the children, are poised and possessed of charmed voices. In fact, young Riazi-Sekowski performs like a pro rather than a budding scientist entering Greenbelt’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Burkhead, an Alexandria sixth grader, has the pure voice of a choirboy. Their presence on an Anne Arundel stage is testament to the drawing power of 2nd Star’s excellent reputation for musical theatre, which will no doubt be recognized again for this production come awards season.

            The show’s only weakness is an under-rehearsed and over-enthusiastic orchestra that sometimes drowns out the actors, a problem that should abate as the Pygmalion effect kicks in.

            If you enjoy musical theater, you can’t afford to miss this tour de force.


            Mary Poppins: a musical based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, Julian Fellowes, George Stiles, Anthony Drewe and Cameron Mackintosh. Runs two hours and 45 minutes.

            Director: Fred Nelson. Music director: Sandy Melson Griese. Choreographer: Andrew Gordon. Producer: Gene Valendo. Stage manager: Joanne D. Wilson. Set: Jane B. Wingard. Costumes: Linda Swann. Makeup, hair and hats: Sascha Nelson. Lights and Sound: Garrett R. Hyde.

            Playing thru July 1: FSa (except July 1) 8pm, Su and Sa July 1 3pm, 2nd Star Productions, Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr., $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Spread the word about this haunted place of miraculous possibilities where the crippled are made whole, body and soul

“I’m sure there is magic in everything,” says the invalid child Colin in The Secret Garden, “only we have not sense to get hold of it.”
    If you want to believe in magic again, see Colonial Players’ production of the children’s classic that has been delighting musical theater audiences for 25 years. With award-winning songs, clever staging and an animated cast, it delivers all the haunting magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Edwardian original and then some. Like a dream in black and white, this show blurs the line between this world and the next in spinning the tale of headstrong Mary Lennox (Madi Heinemann), orphaned in India and shipped home to her miserable Uncle Archibald’s (Justin T. Ritchie) English estate. It’s a haunted place of miraculous possibilities where the crippled are made whole, body and soul.
    Colonial’s tiny theater-in-the-round is perfect for the show’s musical narratives enhanced by sharp choreography and an imaginative set. Dance takes center stage as a plot device in the seamless prologue when a scarlet silk handkerchief passed among dancers illustrates the cholera epidemic that orphans Mary. One by one the victims fall, starting with her parents, Captain and Mrs. Lennox (Heather McMunigal and Kory Twit).
    Accompanying the dance is a sterling chorus of neighbors who provide back story and commentary on life at Misselthwaite Manor: Major Holmes (Cory Jones), Alice (Kaelynn Miller), Betsy/Mrs. Winthrop (Erin Branigan), Lt. Shaw (Kyle Gonzalez), Claire Holmes (Kaitlin Fish) and Lt. Wright (Greg Anderson).
    The manor is crawling with ghosts, primary among them Archibald’s wife, Lily (Lindsay Espinosa), who worries over him and their invalid son Colin (Reid Murphy), despite the ministrations of Archie’s jealous physician-brother Neville (Kevin Cleaver). But Mary has the company of a sympathetic maid, Martha (Ella Green), her young brother Dickon (Samuel Edward Ellis) and the gardener, Ben (Danny Brooks). With their help, she discovers Lily’s secret garden and brings its healing power to all the sick and restless.
    With just one piece of furniture, some tissue clouds and myriad special effects, this show conveys a better sense of time, place and action than more opulent productions I have seen. Innovative lighting evokes a full moon, thunderstorms, a skyline of minarets suggesting Mary’s homeland and a robin flitting overhead, symbolized by migrating red chaser lights. Three projectors broadcast films around the theater to simulate actions from the mundane act of opening the curtains to a bucolic train ride and the inner sanctum of the garden beyond its imposing walls.
    The costumes range from drab English earth tones to the tropical whites and lacy gowns of India’s ruling class, where only the turbaned Fakir (Aubrey Baden) and sari-clad Ayah (Fish) dazzle in color. Attention to detail is evident from the housekeeper’s (Cristina Shunk) magnificent key belt to the red trim incorporated into Mary’ dress as she warms to her surroundings.
    Among a cast of talented singers, Ritchie and Espinosa thrill in A Bit of Earth and How Could I Ever Know, and Green delights with her fine Yorkshire accent in A Fine White Horse. Cleaver’s duet with Ritchie (Lily’s Eyes) is unforgettable, and Ellis delights in Wick with a presence that feels metaphysical. Heinemann’s signature song, The Girl I Mean to Be, is charming but difficult to hear over the taped accompaniment — a dilemma common to the other children’s soli and the sole technical problem of this production.
    See this chestnut with someone you love, young or old, and bring a hanky.


By Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, based on the novel by Frances ­Hodgson Burnett. Director: Lois Evans. Musical Director: Wendy Baird. Choreographer: Carol Cohen. Stage Manager: Andy McLendon. Set: Laurie Nolan. Sound/Effects: Julien C. Jacques. Lights: Eric Lund. Costumes: Jean Carroll Christie. Dialect/Vocal Coach: Nancy Krebs. Musical Accompaniment by Right on Cue Services.

Runs two and a half hours: Thru May 8, Th-Sa at 8pm, Su at 2, Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $20 with discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.
 

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