Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Scenes from Silver Creek: Mrs. Liddle

Mrs. Amelia Liddle was the most theatrical person in all of Silver Creek. Rumor had it she had once been a Rockette and had appeared on Broadway. Rumor was wrong. But somewhere in her dim past she developed a love of the theatre (with an “re” always with an “re”).

She was costume mistress for every production Silver Creek High ever put on. She wrote and directed plays for children at the Rec Center. She put on puppet shows, pantomimes, even some of the worst Shakespeare ever performed. (Picture Romeo and Juliet where Romeo was a foot shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Juliet.) Every Halloween she would dress up in the most amazing costumes and pass out homemade caramel apples. And every Christmas she directed the pageant at every church within a 15 mile radius.

And above all, she instilled in every child who came into her orbit with a love of all things creative. She gave the artistic cheap sets of watercolors and thick pads of butcher paper. She gave the musical free singing or piano lessons. Every budding Olivier got a chance to perform on the stage she set up in her garage. And every would-be Astaire got tap or ballet lessons.

When I was about six or seven and decided I was going to be the next Katharine Hepburn, it was Mrs. Liddle who gave me free scripts to non-royalty plays and taught me to project to the second balcony. She gave me my breakthrough role as Rabbit #2 in an Easter play. I still remember my first line “But what will we do if it rains?” I moaned that line with such intensity, such depth of feeling that I’m sure everyone in the audience (except for my brothers, on whom such passion was lost) wept with total and absolute fear that it would, in fact, rain.

She was my first and only singing teacher. In her booming, Ethel Merman-esque voice she’d lead me through selections from Oklahoma with decreasing enthusiasm as she and I both slowly realized that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But once she got singing, it was hard to get her to stop and often our lessons would end with her belting out her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with such force and depth of feeling you could feel the windows rattle. Her voice was an almost physical force, emanating from her giant prow of a bosom, typically covered in layers of costume jewelry.

Mrs. Liddle, much to her disappointment, had three athletic but entirely talentless sons. She loved them all, but never quite got over the feeling that God had somehow misplaced their parentage. She was sure at least one would win an Oscar or paint a masterpiece. But, alas, all they wanted to do was run around a track or throw a football. All were tone deaf and had two left feet. Each failed miserably at piano, drawing, singing, or acting. Her youngest, Eddie, at least felt enough filial affection to try out for school plays. But his intense stage fright would render his lines inaudible. And for boys thoroughly coordinated on the playing field, each was tremendously and surprisingly awkward on the dance floor. The middle boy, Simon, tripped up his date to the winter formal and she broke her ankle (and the romance).

Mr. Liddle was something of an enigma. His sole contribution to theatricality was being the news director of a local AM radio station. He had a commanding voice, which seemed to absorb the whole of his personality as he was physically almost invisible. I often saw him at church and five minutes later couldn’t possibly describe him. I don’t know if it was because Mrs. Liddle was so larger than life that she overshadowed him, or if it was because he truly was unremarkable. But, as Mrs Liddle once said “he doesn’t ever get in my way” so he perhaps he was used to standing in the background.

Most unexpectedly, in my senior year of high school. Mrs. Liddle died. She’s gone into the hospital for a routine operation but her huge heart gave out and she died on the table. The entire town went into mourning. When news came, the principal made the announcement over the loudspeaker at school and then dismissed classes for the afternoon. Stores on Union Street closed or taped up hastily made RIP signs. I saw big, tough high school athletes cry at the memory of Mrs. Liddle helping them to survive the terrors of the church choir or the summer musical.

Our Lady of Angels was packed for her funeral mass. It seemed as if every child in town, and half of the adults, had come into contact with Mrs. Liddle. The choir seemed lost without their director, and quieter without her soaring soprano. And those of us who had benefited from her generous expertise, her enormous talent, and her Halloween caramel apples sat a bit lost, feeling as if all of Silver Creek had gotten quieter.

Which it had.


Duke said...

Nice story, thanks.

Fo said...

That was a great one! "But what will we do if it rains?"