I was born October 20, 1924, the third daughter of Hattie Mae Whirshing and Walter Gabriel Hay. They named me Maxine Lucy Hay – Maxine for an exotic French celebrity and Lucy for my mother’s beautiful baby sister… who married her first cousin (whoops).
I loved my Auntie for her free spirit and her love for her husband, Vernon Barlow, and her funny bone, and because she is part of one of my favorite memories: June 10, 1949, my wedding day. The wedding was held at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia on a typical, steamy Williamsburg day. The ceremony was set for 3 pm, and we were gifted just in time with a 2:30 pm tropical thunderstorm that caught most of the guests as they were coming in to the church.
To get inside, everyone had to splash through a huge puddle that formed in the old brick walkway. Now the bridesmaids were waiting for me in the vestibule, and the groom and groomsmen were stuffed and waiting in the ante-room of the pulpit area.
I began to navigate the rain and wind under an umbrella and managed to completely soak my organdy gown and bridal veil before entering that storm-drenched vestibule. As we prepared to walk down the aisle, I was now wearing a soaking wet organdy wedding dress and a wet and shrinking veil.
And I became distraught and on the verge of tears. I was always the sister most likely to cry, and my younger sister, Ruthie, turned and saw my distress. So Ruthie leaned in and helpfully whispered in that she would walk out of the church if I cried!
So, trying to quickly blink away my tears, I tried to focus on the congregation - to find friends and relatives. When that didn't work, I began to focus on the architecture of the beautiful Bruton Parish Chapel.
And it was then my Aunt Lucy saved the day.
My eyes floated up, way up, and there was Aunt Lucy: my happy, loving, hard-working Aunt Lucy was sitting in the Bishop’s Chair, looking all the world like the Queen of England in her Minnie Pearl hat and farmerette dress. She’d found the perfect spot to enjoy her niece’s wedding.
And I began to smile. How could I not be made joyful?
Now I was now ready to enhance my beautiful moment by heading up the aisle to join my precious man... who didn’t notice my condition at all! Never mentioned it once.
But another Aunt had enhanced the day as well: my Aunt Evelina – the practical nurse who had delivered me in a difficult birth. I was the third daughter in four years, and, yes, it was a risky delivery. My Auntie, who must have been in such a state, promised my mother she would give this little niece her diamond engagement ring if she survived.
And I wear that ring today.
So to Aunt Lucy and Aunt Evelina, Thanks for everything!
- written by Maxine Lucy Hay Bean, "for my children and my children’s children, etc. etc., with confidence this will not be posted on a Bulletin Board, Police Station, Church Hall or Psych Ward and that it will be met with the same generosity of spirit in which it is given."
Maxine and Lee... heading for the honeymoon!
This was written by my mother, Maxine, in 2011. She passed away in 2014 and is deeply missed by all who knew her.
"And a Straight-Jacket for the Editor": Three Pro-Union Women Journalists Living in Confederate Virginia
A Union commander, to take charge of the Rebel Conscripting Officers.
A plaster for the [Second Street] mud-hole, it is breaking out again.
A straight-jacket for the Editor, who was bent on having her own way.
The Waterford News - 11 Mo. 26th, 1864, Vol. I, No. 6
In 1864, a young woman of Waterford, Virginia named Lida Dutton decided providing meals to Union soldiers and helping the wounded was not enough. She had to do more for the Union cause. Never at a loss for bold ideas, Lida soon came up with the concept of an underground newspaper for Union soldiers and promptly roped in sister Lizzie and friend Sarah Steer as fellow-editors. Thus was born, The Waterford News, quite possibly the only newspaper ever written by Union women to be published out of Confederate Virginia.
What kind of women begin such a conspicuously dangerous work? Why, the kind bent on having their own way, of course — ones whose story you are about to learn.
Lida (L) and Lizzie Dutton of Waterford, Virginia
When Barbara Black was a very little girl, her grandfather would sit her upon his knees and tell her the story, and, although she’d heard it a dozen times, she loved to hear it once more:  A handsome soldier in a Confederate uniform approached a pretty young miss for the purpose of asking her directions. His name was J. William Hutchinson, and he was actually with the 13th New York Cavalry, acting as a Scout in what he thought was enemy territory. The young lady was Lida Dutton, a Quakeress living in one of the only pro-Union villages in Lee’s Virginia.
By his uniform, she assumed he was a Confederate soldier. By the fact she was standing in Virginia, he assumed she was a Rebel. He politely asked her the way to a certain place, and from there things took an interesting turn.
Being a Quaker, Lida wouldn’t knowingly lie, but she also wouldn’t knowingly help a Confederate get where he was going any faster than he should, and so she cheerfully gave him directions using landmarks used only by the locals: “Left at Brown’s stump, right at Uncle Harmon’s well, left at Zilpha’s Rock...” As the end of the impossible-to-follow directions, Hutchinson quietly asked, “Miss, which side would you like for me to be on?”
Momentarily flustered, she finally blurted out: “If you’re a Rebel, I hate you, but if you’re a Northerner, I love you!” At this point, he introduced himself and showed her his Union insignia.
And that is how Lida Dutton met her match.
In the first three years of the Civil War, Lida and Lizzie Dutton and Sarah Steer could be found caring for wounded Union soldiers, hiding them from marauding Rebel troops, and managing to hold together the farms and businesses their fathers and brothers had had to leave behind to avoid conscription into the Confederate ranks. But in the spring of 1864, they decided they would do more, and nothing — not the lack of goods nor the abundance of Confederate soldiers — was going to thwart their good efforts.
At least eight issues of The Waterford News were published before the spring of 1865, and in each edition’s four, small pages these young women neatly packed a tidy meal of patriotic editorials, poetry, riddles, local news and humor, a sample of which reads as follows:
"The next day or two the rebels again visited this district and appropriated to their own use several horses and two wagons loaded with corn, belonging of course to Union citizens. They also visited the tannery of Asa M. Bond and arrested thirty-five dollars worth of leather."
A few stores... with Dry-Goods, Molasses Candy and other stationery, suited to the tastes of the community. Young and hand-some Clerks not objectionable.
The soldiers ate it up... to put it mildly.
Not only did it boost the morale of the troops, it also brought in subscription fees – monies which the girls turned right around and sent back for soldiers’ aid.
The Waterford News was even perused by President Lincoln. Private Schooley of the 11th Rgt., Maryland Volunteers sent a letter to the President with this introduction, “To His Excellency Abraham Lincoln. Will your excellency please accept the two enclosed copies of ‘Waterford News’ and excuse me for taking the liberty of sending them to you... You will see by the Sending, the intention of the Fair Editresses in editing the Paper under the difficulties which they do. ‘Tis for to aid the ‘Sanitary Commission.’ They have already made up nearly 1000$ [sic] for the same purpose!”
To understand the nature of these exceptional young women, we must understand their social context: the history of Quakers (also known as “The Religious Society of Friends”) has been marked by unusual bravery and strength of character. Students of Quaker history find evidence of the persistent influence of a people of faith who helped change the course of American history, as well as evidence of America influencing the nature of Quakerism. These competing influences are best exemplified in the history of Loudoun’s Quakers — a people who found themselves struggling to maintain a pacifist tradition in the midst of Civil War.
By the early nineteenth-century, most Loudoun Quakers associated themselves with the Hicksite faction of the church which espoused a more liberal point of view than Orthodox Quakers. By the time of the Civil War, they were still pacifists, met twice weekly for Meetings, disciplined their members, and encouraged plain dress, but further assumptions are destined to break down. They had been living in the middle of a heated political situation for several years, and their pacifism had been sorely tested. When John Brown’s Raid occurred so near to Loudoun, local militias were formed. Quakers were told to show up for muster or pay a fine. At the beginning of the war, the Confederate army took Quakers for laborers or jailed them for use as bargaining chips. As a result, most headed north, but several risked church discipline and joined the Union army. One of those men was young James Dutton, brother to Lida and Lizzie. By 1862, Lizzie had fallen in love and become engaged to a Lieutenant Holmes of the 7th Indiana Regiment. The matter had become personal, such that when it came to a choice of allegiance between country or faith, Quaker women like Lida, Lizzie and Sarah stubbornly chose to support both. A Waterford News editorial boldly stated, “Christians make the best soldiers.”
At every turn, Loudoun Quaker women refused to be categorized. Regarding the tradition of Quaker “plain dress,” for example, there is this interesting notation in the very first edition: “Great distress is felt by the ladies of this vicinity at not being able to appear at meeting in new bonnets, dresses and wrappings, owing to the stringent blockade.”
These women were very well educated and strongly encouraged to express themselves. Only a few years before the war, Lida, Lizzie and Sarah had been active members of The Waterford Literary Society, writing essays whose topics ranged from a thoughtful, “What is There Left to Write About?” to a hilarious ode “On Chickens.” Essays were read aloud to the group, gently critiqued by the members present, and then recorded in a large bound book. Thankfully, the Society’s volumes survived the war and rest in the archives of The Thomas Balch Library of Leesburg, Virginia. One of the anonymous notes in the Society Essays reads, “Take life as it is, a real matter-of-fact thing, and do it justice,” and it is easy to imagine the “Fair Editresses” of The Waterford News taking the sentiment to heart.
Although the Literary Society provided a place for young ladies to sharpen their wits as well as their pencils, their excellent educations began at home. Several years before the war, Sarah Steer had been sent north to a Ladies Academy, and John and Emma Dutton had always encouraged their four daughters to exercise full use of their minds. In a letter written in 1864 to his youngest, Anna Ellen, John Dutton wrote, “I take great pride in my childrens’ writing. I want each to exert themselves in this particular branch of learning and now is the time whilst thy little fingers are limber... Make it a rule to study — to think — weigh thy thoughts well for thy self. Don’t conclude things are right just because the mass of the people say so.” As a result of such parenting and the Quakers’ insistence on female education (all this despite 19th century ‘Woman as Shelf-Ornament’ thinking), Lida, Lizzie and Sarah’s writings are a treasure of womanly expression:
The young ladies of Waterford, Loudon [sic] Co., Va., are hereby notified to meet the first opportunity and lend their mutual aid in filling a large mud-hole with stone, said mud-hole being located in the middle of Second Street... the men have driven around it so much that it is extending each side. Being fearful the gentlemen will get their feet muddy, the ladies will try and remedy it.
While the state of the Second Street mud-hole made itself useful as a running joke (c.f. opening quotation), the young women knew how to turn a joke on themselves, as well. The paper contained a marriage column, but it was always empty. At the bottom of the column, a sad little footnote would appear, such as, “Words are inadequate to express our feelings on this subject.” Edition number three contained this note of surrender: “We think there is no prospect of having this long-continued vacancy filled until after the war: so we will discontinue it for the present.”
And how did the soldiers react to the news? In a word: quickly.
The very next edition reads, “After the marriage column was closed, the young gentlemen became very patriotic, volunteering to serve a lifetime, and proposals numerous flocked in. We will make them feel that delays are dangerous.” All humor aside, letters from Union soldiers which appear in the paper make it clear they had a serious appreciation for the young ladies’ efforts. And, make no mistake, it was an effort.
With no paper and no money, getting a newspaper out of Confederate Virginia was no small task. Draft copies of The Waterford News had to be smuggled north across the Potomac River. The Baltimore American voluntarily printed the newspapers for them. Subscriptions were handled through the Federal Post Office at Point of Rocks, Maryland; the active Confederate troops made it impossible for the girls to distribute the paper from their homes. For their efforts, the young women risked severe “discipline” by the Confederate army, as did all of Waterford for its pro-Union sentiment.
The worst Confederate attack on the villagers occurred in 1862: Confederate troops arrived to forage and announced when they were through they intended to burn the pro-Union village down. The wife of Samuel Means of Waterford ran to the only person she knew who still had a horse: a farmer who lived just outside of town. She asked him to ride to Union General Geary, stationed just a few miles away, and tell him to send Union troops to save the town. The fellow flat-out refused. She then asked him to lend her his horse so she could make the ride. Again he said “no.” She then said, “Then I will steal thy horse and go myself.” And so she did. General Geary promptly dispatched troops to the town, and Waterford was saved... for the time being.
With war literally at their doorstep, Lida, Lizzie and Sarah chose to publish the newspaper, despite personal risk, and even personal tragedy.
The July 2, 1864 edition of The Waterford News encouraged its readers to press on:
"Let not kind words, loving tones, and love of good deeds cease to find a place in our hearts. Now, if ever, is the time to ‘cast bread upon the waters,’ when tired and weary ones are all around us, and starvation stares so many in the face; when loved ones are struggling with pain, and joy and happiness are hidden in the distance; when hope leaves us and misery looks at us with hollow eyes. Let us be up and doing — old and young — we have no time to idle; every quickly flitting moment is to be improved, every space filled up."
This editorial, which might be dismissed as nothing more than flowery patriotic sentiment, becomes poignantly descriptive when we discover it was written soon after Lizzie received the news her fiancé, Lieutenant Holmes, had been killed in action.
Doing life justice means that much more when life isn’t doing you justice in return.
In late November of 1864, General Grant authorized a raid on Loudoun County. It has become known as “The Burning Raid,” but The Waterford News called it “The Fury Order in Loudoun.” Frustrated with the seemingly unchecked activities of Colonel Mosby’s Rangers, Grant’s concept was to burn out the farms still able to provide forage to Mosby and his men, and to this end a multitude of barns were burned and livestock was killed or driven off. In addition, men under 51 capable of bearing arms and any slaves remaining in the area were to be taken.
At this point, political sentiment was unimportant. Mosby gathered forage from whoever had goods, thus the Union army visited whoever had goods.
So, in a sad twist of fate, Pro-Union Loudouners had the unpleasant task of watching the Union army destroy in less than a week what they’d been protecting from bushwhackers and Confederates for four years. Between November 27th and December 2 of 1864, the skies over western Loudoun were dark with the smoke of hundreds upon hundreds of fires.
And, again, Loudoun’s Quaker women persevered. Major J.B. Wheeler of the 6th New York recorded that, “At Waterford, Loudoun County, Virginia, two young ladies perched on the wide gate posts in front of their home, waving American flags and said as their hay was being destroyed, ‘Burn away, burn away, if it will keep Mosby from coming here.’ ” Tradition holds that one of those young women was Lida Dutton.
An editorial in the Jan. 28, 1865 edition of The Waterford News had this to say about the ‘Fury Order:’
We do not believe, if our Government had been as well acquainted with us as we are with ourselves, the order for the recent burning would be have been issued; but having suffered so much at the hands of the Rebels ever since the commencement of this cruel war, we will cheerfully submit to what we feel assured our Government thought a military necessity.
It should be noted not everyone reacted as stoically. When Union soldiers demanded matches from Quakeress Ruth Hannah Smith for the sole purpose of using them to burn down her barn, she quietly held the lucifers in the steam from her teakettle before handing them over. Her barn was saved.
We know that the effects of war did not alter Lida, Lizzie and Sarah’s resolve, so it should come as no surprise that when peace came they continued to “do life justice.” Sarah Steer applied to the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Philadelphia Meeting and to local Quakers for the funds to open a school for the children of freedmen. The school was built in 1867, the first of five in the County, but Sarah didn’t wait for the walls to go up around her. She began teaching in 1865 and so became the “first teacher of black children” in Loudoun County.
The building, an historic property now known as “The Second Street School,” is owned by The Waterford Foundation and is the site of a unique living history program. As part of the Loudoun County’s Third and Fourth grade curriculums, children are able to spend a morning in the one room school house taking on the identities and responsibilities of the African-American children who attended in 1880.
An excellent summation of the trials and tribulations of Waterford Quakers is beautifully detailed in the Waterford Foundation book, To Talk is Treason, by John Souders, Bronwen Souders and John Divine. Most of the story of Lida and Lizzie Dutton and Sarah Steer is contained therein. It is abundantly clear from their histories, each of these women were capable of being that Editor referred to as “bent on having her own way.”
And what of Lizzie and Lida Dutton after the war? Both continued to write, submitting poetry and articles to local newspapers on occasion, but life still had a few surprises left for them.
Lizzie continued to live in the now quiet village of Waterford, and we could forgive her for assuming the exciting portion of her life was over. There had been one fleeting correspondence between herself and a Lieut. James Dunlop of the 7th Indiana - a friend to her fallen fiancé and the very man who’d written her with news of his death - but, after the war, Lieut. Dunlop had gone home to Indiana to marry his childhood sweetheart.
But fate decreed Dunlop’s wife would die within two years of the marriage. He never remarried, and for years he let the thought nag him: “Whatever happened to Lizzie Dutton?” In 1881, he came to Washington on business and used the excuse to send a card to the Dutton home. The reply was a letter from Miss Elizabeth Dutton.
He took himself straightway to Waterford. An account of the event reads, as the two renewed their acquaintance, “matters flowed on so easily, smoothly, and naturally, that in a few weeks Mr. Dunlop found himself at his Indiana home busily engaged in preparing for the reception of a new mistress, and soon the little town of Waterford was all a blaze of light and a scene of general rejoicing, for the lady was popular and beloved by all.” Joseph Dunlop and Lizzie Dutton were married January 22, 1882.
Last, but not in the least least, there was the matter of strong-minded Lida. Was she be able to square things with her Union Lieutenant after her bold attempt to hood-wink him? Yes, but not before he winked right back.
Lieutenant Hutchinson followed his surprise introduction by telling Lida he planned to hold her to her bold promise — her promise to love him if he were a Northerner. When she regained her composure, she told him she believed she’d said “like,” not “love.” He strongly disagreed and promised to return for her after the war.
Well, like him or love him, when Lieut. Hutchinson came back for her, she married him. Apparently they continued the happy argument of “like” vs. “love” with their children as audience... their grandchildren... and, eventually, their great-grandchildren.
The two were man and wife for 53 years before William passed away. 
Heroes are the simple creation of continually choosing to do life justice in the midst of trying circumstances. Thanks to the preservation of Loudoun history, we’re able to celebrate the heart of these three heroes: Sarah, Lizzie and Lida... three women editors who were, thank heaven, absolutely bent on having their own way.
And they must have the last word:
Many threats have been made
about burning our houses over our devoted heads,
but Waterford is still standing.
And we trust it may stand long in the future
to remind other generations that in its time-honored walls
once dwelt as true lovers of their country as ever breathed the breath
of life-long-suffering but faithful... to the end."
- The Waterford News, July 1864
This article was first published in Citizen's Companion Magazine The author, Meredith Bean McMath is an award-winning historian and prize-winning playwright who resides in Loudoun County, Va. Her Civil War novel, Pella's Angel, is set in Loudoun County, Virginia during the Civil War and is available on Amazon and via Kindle.com
 Letter of Barbara Dutton Conrow Black to Ladies Home Journal dated Feb. 4, 1962 (copy in Waterford Foundation Archives, Waterford, VA)
 Waterford Perspectives, Education Committee of The Waterford Foundation, Waterford Foundation Archives
 To Talk is Treason, Bronwen and John Souders and John Divine, The Waterford Foundation, Waterford, VA (1997) p. 56
 The Waterford News, Vol. 1, No.’s 1-8 (copies in “Civil War File” of The Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA and The Waterford Foundation Archives)
 ibid, Vol. I, No. 2 (Nov. 6, 1864)
 “Robert Todd Lincoln” papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (referred to in Oct. 6, 1955 article from The Blue Ridge Herald, “Lincoln Papers Reveal Waterford Had Newspaper During Civil War;” copy in “Civil War File,” Thomas Balch Library).
 To Talk is Treason, et al
 The Transformation of American Quakerism, by Thomas D. Hamm, Indiana Univ. Press (1988), p. 52
 “Girls Published Civil War Newspaper,” by Emma H. Conrow, Baltimore American, February 5 1922, p. C-3 (copy in “Civil War File” at the Thomas Balch Library and The Waterford Foundation archives).
 The Waterford News, Vol. I, No. 6 (Nov. 26, 1864)
 ibid, Vol. I, No.1 (May 28, 1864)
 Essays of Friends Literary Society, Waterford, 1857-60, Rare Manuscripts — Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA
 To Talk is Treason, p. 87
 The Waterford News, Vol. I, No. 1 (May 28, 1864)
 The Waterford News, Vol. I, No. 3 (July 2, 1864)
 Waterford Perspectives
 Hillsboro: Memories of a Mill Town, Hillsboro Bicentennial History Ctte, Pub’d by the Hillsboro Community Association, p. 25 (The Thomas Balch Library)
 To Talk is Treason, p. 92
 Ye Meetg Hous Smal, Werner and Asa Moore Janney published by Werner and Asa Moore Janney (The Thomas Balch Library) p. 42 - insert
 Friends Intelligencer, vol. XX, pp 250-251 (copies in Waterford Foundation Archives)
 The County of Loudoun, by Nan Donnelly-Shay and Griffin Shay, The Donning Co. (1988) p. 53
 Camp & Field, Sketches of Army Life, by Wilbur F. Hinman (Cleveland, 1892) (Ref., The Thomas Balch Library) pp 422-423
 “Commonplace Book” by Mary Frances Dutton Steer (collection of letters and memoirs), Waterford Foundation Archives, p. 15
Written by Meredith Bean McMath - first published in the former
“This is Martha at the Hill Tom Market. There’s a... This is kind of unusual, but there’s a woman here who... says she’s been walking all the way from Washington...”
“No… Washington State.”
“She says she’s been walking across America, and she’s looking for a place to put up her tent for the night.”
O—kay. Martha is asking if I’ll let a lunatic stay in our backyard overnight. We have a son...
“She seems really nice. She and her dog...”
“She said her dog can stay outside.”
Great. Our dogs will hate her. They’ll bark all night. They’ll...
“I was trying to think who might, you know, think it was okay to have her in their backyard, and I thought of you....”
What should I do? Haven’t heard about her on the news. But what if she really has walked all the way across? How could I let her walk past my house? Surely we’re only going to get a chance like this once in our lives...
Think, woman. Think...
Ten minutes later, my son and I were standing in the doorway of our home in Hillsboro, Virginia, watching for the arrival of a perfect stranger - with a zillion questions still running through my mind. What kind of a woman would do this? My husband and I had read Peter Jenkin’s book, Walk Across America, and he’d convinced us America was better off than we thought. But that was in the ‘70s. Had she found a different America? Wouldn’t it have to be different for a woman? Which brought me back around to.. Was she insane?
Then up she came. Her long brown hair sun-streaked and shiny; her skin not too darkly tanned; a full backpack swaying behind her, keeping time with her strong measured step; a sleek black labrador trotting happily beside her. I smiled when I saw the dog had packs, too — one on either side. When she was close enough to shake my hand, I caught the scent of fresh fields and road dust.
Her name is Ananda Woyer, and she was 26 years old when we met in November of ‘96. Her plan was to plant her toes in the Atlantic Ocean on the Delaware shore by Christmas and then fly home to Seattle, Washington. Seattle — where she’d begun her trek almost two years before.
She said the whole thing began when she was having lunch at a bar and saw a poster — an advertisement for people who wanted to walk across America. To this day she has no idea why it appealed to her, but she couldn’t get the thought out of her mind. Two weeks later, she quit her job and signed up.
Just like that.
Eighteen months later, she'd lost her fellow travelers, gained a sprightly black lab named Roxie, and walked all the way from Washington State to Virginia.
Right away I realized I could not possibly have this woman sleeping in our back yard. No way. She was going to have to stay in the guest room.
“Ananda, would you like to sleep in our guest room?”
She laughed and nodded. “Love to.”
Something about the laugh made me ask, “How many times have you been asked to stay in people’s homes?”
“Quite a lot, actually.”
Sometimes folks hear about her on the news, but usually they don’t know her from Adam. Still they take her in.
“And that’s the way it’s been all along. Sometimes I have to ask if there’s a place I can put up my tent.” She smiled. "But then I hardly ever need to put up my tent. Oh, and then some times someone knows someone in the next town and calls ahead for me.”
“Ever been in danger?”
“I got followed once, but eventually they left me alone. Of course, having Roxie along helps.” At this, Roxie perks up, presents a lovely grin and plants a wet kiss on my son’s face.
My son is enchanted. At seven year’s old, Palmer doesn’t understand the magnitude of Ananda’s walk, but he sure is impressed by her dog. As far as he’s concerned, only great people have great dogs, so Ananda has to be great. Actually, this makes sense to me, too. Roxie bounds around the house like a puppy and runs off to wrestle with our pooches: immediate best friends.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in awe of our surprise guest. “So, what do you when you get sick?”
“I got a cold once back on the west coast. But that’s it. I haven’t been sick a day since. We walk about eighteen miles a day.”
“How does Roxie like the walk?”
“She loves it! You’ll see tomorrow morning: she can’t wait to get out on the road again.”
“Do you feel the same way?”
“Pretty much. Only now I’ve started thinking about what I’m going to do when I get back.”
“Will you write about it?”
“I’ve definitely been thinking about it.”
“So, if you write a book, what’ll you tell us about America?”
She grins. “That it’s safer and more friendly than you think. Especially in Kansas. Ever since I left Seattle, I’ve heard the same thing over and over, ‘Our town is terrific. Perfectly safe. Great people, but watch out for that town down the road.’ Same story in every town.”
“That’s funny, ‘cause I was just going to warn you about D.C... Hey!” I whacked my hand on the kitchen table with the suddenness of inspiration. “I just remembered I have a good friend in D.C.! Want me to give her a call and see if she can take you in?”
“That,” she said with a smile, “would be wonderful.”
Which is how Ananda met my friend Peg Grant... who had a friend in Annapolis, Maryland... and on and on Ananda walked...
And she was able to put her toes in the Atlantic Ocean by mid-December and eat Christmas dinner with her family back in Seattle.
Soon after that, she moved to Kansas.
Looking back, I can honestly say that - as much as Ananda taught us about America during her brief stay - she taught us even more about ourselves: how a split second decision to do something different and scary can lead to something wonderful — if we’ll just finish reading the poster on the wall... or allow yourself say:
“Sure Martha. Tell her to come on up.”
You know this one? The dream where you’re being married to someone you don’t like – by your history professor – while standing in your pajamas? Yeah. That one. Nightmares involving public humiliation are the worst: Didn’t study for the test? Don’t know where you are? Forgot to put on clothes!?!
This is why actors amaze me. For the joy of bringing a play to life and a chance to bring an audience to their feet, they are willing to face the possibility of public humiliation. Forgot a line? Missed your cue? Your skirt fell down!?! Yep.
Actors are the bravest of the brave. When the army is forming a front line to charge the enemy on the battlefield, bring up the actors. Tell them just beyond that row of critics holding semi-automatics there’s an audience waiting, and off they’ll go. And in community theatre, they don’t even get paid to run that gauntlet.
Many, many years ago, I became a volunteer in the acting army when I joined the cast of a Growing Stage production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
I hadn’t been in a stage play since college, where I was cast as Angel No. 2 in Medieval Plays for Christmas. I had one line. What I learned from that experience is that when the moment arrives to speak that one line, and you’ve practiced that one line four thousand times, it is virtually impossible to make that one line sound normal.
Next acting I tried was live radio theatre here in Loudoun County, Virginia. Radio Theatre is the Laz-E Boy Recliner of theatre experience: it involve no memorization, very little rehearsal, and no costumes, set, publicity or lighting. You can wear your polka-dot pajamas, if you like - a definite plus. But it has no audience — a fairly large drawback.
And so, after all those years I dared to "tread the boards" again, going out for a local production of Taming of the Shrew. I was hoping for at least two lines this time but was scared to have too many. Highly respectful of my wishes, Tim Jon, the Director, gave me very few lines — and four different roles.
We began rehearsals mid-July, a cast from every conceivable walk of life with one very important thing in common: no free time.
Planning a rehearsal schedule in which everyone is there for certain scenes takes the skill of an airline pilot (But it was pure coincidence our co-Producer and fellow actor, Stokes Tomlin, was a retired airline pilot). Tough as that scheduling turned out to be, the real fly in our ointment was a missing actor: we had no Hortensio (the original cast member bowed out due to illness).
If you’re not familiar with Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio is is the one who winds up marrying The Widow. Have I mentioned one of my roles was The Widow? Oh, fine, there’s a little more to Hortensio than just the marriage. He plays a huge and very integral part of the play — and it was six weeks from Opening Night.
All of us called every actor we knew that fit the director’s description, which by that time had narrowed to “Breathing — possibly male”. I had no luck at all: one guy was gone in August; another had a lead in a different Shakespeare play; another was called out west to fight forest fires for the National Park Service (the nerve...).
Days ticked by. The Widow began having nightmares about history professors and polka-dot pajamas. Practices were unsettling: half the time I was reading for Hortensio. You can sprain an acting muscle that way.
And that is why four weeks before opening night, I came to rehearsal depressed. But acting is an amazing thing: once practice begins, you somehow come to believe that everything will turn out right. I easily lost myself in the beauty and the humor of Shakespeare, the blocking of the movement in scenes, the characterizations, the thrill that is live theatre. Not to mention getting to work with the best of people.
I’ll bet most folks think of acting as speaking lines, but acting is mostly listening: its reacting to each other’s lines, working together when someone drops a line to bring a scene back on track, helping everyone stay in character when the set falls down. You hang together or you die alone. As a result, you make friends for life with some of the most caring, intelligent, creative and generous people you’ll ever meet. And when you get together, you share war stories like old veterans.
However, in order to bond properly, you also need a full cast — which brings us back to our missing Hortensio.
There we were on a lovely August night, practicing our lines in the courtyard of Leesburg’s Market Station (A very cozy Globe Theatre-like space, as it happens), when a very tall, mustachioed fellow in a three-piece suit stepped out on the balcony from The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant. Lots of diners had been watching us rehearse from the window above and we'd just gone on, show business as usual, when he called down in a friendly tone, “So, what are you doing?”
“Shakespeare!” we called up in unison.
“Taming of the Shrew,” our Director, replied.
And then a bit of a miracle occurred. The fellow nodded, stepped up to the railing and began quoting from the play.
And we stood below, dumbstruck. But when he kept quoting, we began nodding and smiling among ourselves, and our Director - who looked as though he’d eaten the proverbial canary cage and all - said, “Well, there’s our Hortensio.”
When the fellow was done, we applauded loudly and asked for more. He laughed and shook his head. “Funny. That’s not the response I usually get.” Then he said something about loving Shakespeare and launched into Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Tim offered him Hortensio on the spot. And he was brave enough to take it.
Four weeks later we opened the show, and I’m pleased to say we sold out every night; few lines were muffed; no sets fell, nor any rain, nor any costumes; Shawn Malone, former co-manager of The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant, had a blast playing Hortensio, and the cast bonded, just as they should.
If Shakespeare was correct and all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, I'm certain theatre is the best of all possible worlds.
Give it a try sometime. And be sure to look around for me... I’m the Director in the polka-dot pajamas.
Article first appeared in McMath’s "Good Neighbor Column" in the former Loudoun ART Magazine, published by Gale Waldron. Although she is no longer with us, her work and inspiration live on, and this is updated and posted in Gale Waldron's honor.
First published in The Piedmont Virginian, 2008 as
“Out of the Ordinary: Life in Hillsboro, Virginia”
In late summer of 1862, a fellow named Tom Syphert made his way into Hillsboro, Virginia with two things in mind: round up some horses for the Union Army and visit with old friends. The son of a Lovettsville blacksmith, Tom knew the area and the people well – or so he thought...
Before the Civil War, Hillsborough (as it was spelled then) was the second largest city in Loudoun County behind Leesburg and contained some twenty businesses, around 100 voting white males, their families, and a large population of slaves and freedman who, for the most part, lived along the Short Hills Mountain. Before the Civil War, the town was bustling with two flour mills, a textile mill and a dozen other businesses that kept Loudoun wagons rolling with fashioned clothes and furniture, cobbled shoes for humans and horses, and provided three different spots for gentleman to “belly up to the bar.” And over and next to these shops were the homes of the shop owners and behind them, the outbuildings: barns, chicken coops, pigpens, smoke houses, springhouses, and icehouses. Imagine the soot and smell from these concerns and then add one more distinct odor: the tannery smack in the middle of town. The smells could not have been pleasant to the students of the Hillsboro Ladies Seminary a mere four doors down.
This bustling, noisy village would be the Hillsborough Tom Syphert knew as a child - but not the one he found in 1862. By then, both armies had passed through several times and most of the businesses were shut fast due to the inability to re-stock shelves. Yet most of the people remained, and Union uniform or no, they didn’t mind bending Tom’s ear with the latest on all the neighbors.
After being there, Tom updated his brother in a letter: “Amy Ann – formerly Spates – now Fritts, is living in Hillsborough and is rampant Union, while Eliza Hammerly lives right across the street from her and is as rabid secesh [secessionist]… Dick Tavenner still lives in Hillsborough and is Union, while his wife and two girls are violent secesh. Amy Ann has two sons in the rebel Army, while a third who went to Illinois… was in the 68th Illinois and was here in the Army of the Potomac… and was often in skirmishes with [Colonel Elijah] White’s Rebel Cavalry, to which his two older brothers belong. The two older ones, however, were forced into the ranks. But this will give you some idea of how the demon of rebellion has sundered old friends and severed families.”
The next day, Tom rose up early and walked on to Snickersville, “for there are no horses in the country – the war has swept them all.” Oddly enough, his overnight accommodations were provided by the “rabidly secesh” Eliza Hammerly, who thoughtfully packed him a lunch but failed to mention where Tom might find horses: Hillsborough’s remaining steeds were safely tucked in “Jockey’s Cave” west of town in the Short Hills Mountain.
I like to imagine that during Tom’s stay at the Hammerlys, he took a moment to step next door for a drink at Birkett’s Tavern. John Birkett passed away before the war began, but his sons-in-law were still managing the business. Tom might have walked through the front door into the taproom, the air thick with the smell of smoke and liquor and the faint smell of hay from the mix of straw and sawdust lying on the floor to catch whatever fell there, be it liquor, spit, blood. He might have glanced around the room to see if any there would acknowledge his presence without sneering. If he saw no friendly faces, he might have stepped through to the back dining area, remembering the beer and fresh oysters served there (Oysters and beer used to come to Hillsborough fresh from Washington, D.C. via C&O Canal deliveries to Harpers Ferry - hmm, probably ceased by then, come to think of it).
But if the day wasn’t too warm, he might have preferred to step on to the Tavern’s wide side porch – the one standing at the crossroads of Main Street and the old road to Purcellville. Sitting down, he might have viewed the stone house across the way with its chimney marking: “I.H. 1827” and admired the stonework, not knowing the house was serving as a Confederate Post Office. If his eyes then strayed to the backyard, he would have seen some empty animal pens. Before the war, men known as “Drovers” would make the two day walk from Loudoun to the markets at Alexandria, but during the Civil War, Drovers couldn’t cross the line of Union pickets – if they still had animals to take to market. So, at that point, Tom might have realized he was going to get a good night’s sleep – no sheep bleating in the night, no turkeys gobbling from the tavern’s roosting tree. When Tom was ready to order whatever the Tavern had on hand, he might have been served by one of Birkett’s slaves. According to the 1850 census, Birkett owned eight slaves, a 32-year old woman, an 18 year old man, and seven younger children. While their names are not provided, I do not doubt where they lived: three small rooms on the second floor were separated from the rest of the house, accessible only by an outdoor stairwell.
It is likely the woman was the Tavern Cook, and she would have been working in the stone kitchen at the back of the tavern, separated from the house by a “dog trot” walkway. A five-foot high, four-foot wide fireplace with a swing arm was the heart of that kitchen, and the fire there generally never went out. The roof was covered with slate tile, so that if the kitchen burned, the tavern would still have a fighting chance.
Tavern fires were so legendarily frequent that at nearby Harpers Ferry the government bought a portion of White’s Tavern and forced the owner to re-locate the tavern to the back of the building - and as far away as possible from the Armory and its touchy contents. The danger wasn’t just tavern candles burning day and night, nor the straw and straw dust underfoot, nor the drunkards warming themselves by the fire: it was the barrels of alcohol. When the server went for a new barrel at Birkett’s Tavern, he walked out of the dining room, down the back stairs and right under that dining room. There he could stand up straight and choose a new barrel to send upstairs. So, think of a tavern (or “Ordinary” as they were known up north) as a collection of various forms of fire overtop a number of barrels of liquid fuel, separated only by straw, sawdust and a few creaky floorboards.
I'd think about that whenever I changed the fire alarm batteries in the home. I'd think about other things as I walked through the living room, built on the foundations of that old tavern porch. And I'd think a whole different set of thoughts when I grabbed the railing of the 1870 stairwell, built after slavery was abolished and the slave quarters were opened to the rest of the house. I'd think about all these things, because my family and I lived in Birkett’s Tavern... for 30 years.
My husband and I bought the ca. 1819 building back in 1987, determined to restore at least one old home in our lifetime. Turns out that one was quite enough. When we moved there, Hillsboro had transitioned from that long ago mill town to a quiet village of 33 homes and 122 residents, give or take a baby or two. The devastating economic effects of the Civil War and the Great Depression were hard on the residents of Loudoun County, but the homes were basically intact and ready for restoration.
By the time we bought Birkett’s Tavern, it had changed hands seven times. The previous owners were the first to turn the building into a true single family home, but there was plenty left for us to do: electric switches hanging from the living room ceiling, live electrical sockets jammed into cutouts along the baseboards, and our telephone wires coming in over the windowsill (we had a choice in the winter: close the window for warmth or enjoy telephone service). But they’d done some fabulous things, too: like establish baseboard heat and raise the kitchen up from dirt floor level to meet the rest of the house.
We set our own priorities and went right to work removing the rotting Victorian porch from the front of the home. And that’s when it began to happen: neighbor after neighbor came and introduced themselves. They told us all about our house, their own homes, the neighborhood, the history, and then invite us to supper or the next community association meeting. When the old porch finally came down, we received a bottle of champagne from the lady across the street: “With thanks for improving my view.” After another grueling day of clearing away debris, a couple invited us over for cocktails. We were too tired to even think of showering and dressing and began to decline their kind invitation. They smiled and laughed. “Come as you are! We insist!” My husband and I looked at each other and thought to ourselves, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more.
Two years later, our son was born, and then, when my father passed away, we invited my mother to come and live with us. For the next sixteen years we busied ourselves with family, work and restoration. And suddenly 30 years were gone. Our son moved away, my mother had passed, and it was time to move to a smaller home… one that required a lot less loving attention.
But I think Tom Syphert would like what we did to the place. The floors are polished, the building has electricity, no need to chop wood to heat the place, the kitchen is actually inside the house, water comes right in and goes right out, and there’s a different sort of horsepower in the driveway. Oh, and I'll be the drinks are free, if you're nice to the new owners.
Tom would like the look of the whole town, too. Hillsboro survived the Union Burning Raid of 1864 (although it cleared out several backyards). The hills around town are being farmed once more - most often with rows of grape vines, and the neighbors care about their old homes and respect their integrity while they improve the amenities. Right now (2020), the town is in for a huge adjustment: telephone lines and cables to be set under the road, sidewalks improved and road circles placed on either end (instead of hideous stoplights). Can't wait to see the finished product!
It was a pleasure to be a part of Hillsboro for a while and rebuild that beautiful old place. It's an experience we will never forget or regret. In fact, we think everyone should restore a tavern... at least once in their life.
"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — don't value your potential or input for whatever reason: too young, too old, too inexperienced... I am not one of those people."
If you’re an actor who’s been in one of our theatre productions, you've heard me say something like this the very first day.
When I direct, I tend to treat young actors like they’re adults and all actors like they're professionals - each one of them with opinions and ideas that matter. And if all goes well, by the end of a production the actors own the show as much as I will... because that's when the magic happens.
I’ve seen other directors' approaches. Heck, I’ve TRIED the other approaches. And if a director is brilliant and creative and can get actors to do exactly what they say, the show will shine. And everyone will feel great about being a part. And that's good.
But I want actors to do so much more than just mimic my intent or the meaning of the play.
BUILDING A PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
I want actors to internalize the process like professional actors do - things they would have learned in drama school. I'll start them off with a character concept, but from there they need to read the script and make that character their own. I encourage full character development, even if they have no lines or are a member of the Chorus. As we go, I'll teach Method Acting, which involves improvisation and emotional recall, and then go over how thet might best learn a script: audio, visual or movement - whatever helps an actor get where they need to be.
And as rehearsals progress, I'll start soliciting their ideas. And if the idea serves to: 1. Further the plot, 2. Reveal more about their character, or 3. Set the audience up for a pay off (in this scene or later), then I’m going to want to try to work it in. When actors of any age approach a play this way, they start finding relationships and possibilities that as director I might have missed. And I will always want to be open to their idea, because amazing things might come of it.
BE WILLING TO KILL YOUR FABULOUS IDEAS
When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my choices to an editor. So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph? If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a payoff, I had to be willing to let it die. Note: clearly this requires the director to know the play inside and out, because if you haven't prepared yourself, you're going to get defensive. Add a really tiny ego, and you just... might... snap.
So in a my directing world, I have to be prepared and confident... but also realize they may not be the best ideas in the room. Yes, I know I have a creative brain, but why wouldn’t I tap into a larger creative brain if I had a chance? Actors have a chance to dive into these characters much more than I do. They're going to find things there I didn't see, and as the other actors do the same, relationships and situations things are going to happen - good things - "If she's going to react that way because of what happened earlier, and as her sister, I would know that, that changes the way I should react..." - if you let them happen.
And, as a result of all of the above, actors begin to take ownership - of their characters, a scene and the play itself. This is where the magic begins.
So even though this will replace the absolutely brilliant idea I had as the Director, well... gulp... let's do this instead.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REALLY BAD IDEAS...
Okay. What if your actor comes up with an idea that just won’t work? Is truly horrible? Makes no sense to the character's history, etc.? And they present it to everyone before I've heard it.
Then I have to thank them for the idea, say No and tell them why. Why? Because 1. I want them to know suggestions are respected and appreciated, and the next one they have may be perfect (and often are), 2. Explaining why it won't work helps everyone understand more about the character, the plot or the scene mentioned, and 3. An explanation gives everyone in the cast a chance to further understand the setting, the character or the plot of the whole thing.
Obviously at this point a couple of things are crucial: a directors needs to love their actors enough to know how to say no diplomatically or actors won't offer ideas for fear of retribution. But directors also need to avoid wanting actors to loooove them, or they'll never know how to say no to a bad idea, and the whole cast and the whole play will suffer.
But, in the end, whether a good idea or a bad one, thanks are due to actors. Because their process and commitment is how a good play becomes great.
LAY OUT THE GROUND RULES
Lest you think rehearsals should devolve into a free-for-all “sharing time,” I'll point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process:
1. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule. Group discussion is good. And this is also a great time for the Director to underscore the story arc of the play, the scenes, and the characters.
2. Then when we begin to run scenes regularly, actors are asked to hold their ideas until the next break - and then share those ideas only with the director.
3. Crucial to the entire process: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Ever. They can certainly ask why another character does something, but... that's it.
Simple reason: every actor must be entirely focused on their own character/s, their actions, feelings, backgrounds, etc.. This is the process professional actors use, and I love bringing it to community theatre, because, when actors take this process on, shows get reviews worthy of professional productions (Think I'm lying? Check out Run Rabbit Run Theatre reviews).
And when an actor is completely focused on developing their character in a scene, it often leads another actor to have a revelation about their own character.
Lastly - without exception - actors should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way" or "try it this way". That would be called directing.
THE GRANDE FINALE
In the end, there is solid success in the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing: learning and doing a task well gives actors a sense of accomplishment and the applause is gratifying. But in the end, those actors will make the required effort – and often little more. They don't want to rock the boat, so they won’t challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their own creativity. And they know that the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year, and it'll look and feel almost identical - with the same applause. They never get to own the show. They just... borrow it for awhile.
But when actors have a chance to make the show their own, the audience immediately knows it. All the nuances are there: they aren't pretending to be someone, they're real - real three-dimensional characters, with relationships, tensions, actions - all real. And that's the ultimate audience reward. And that's professional acting at its best: when every actor - young and old - walks away knowing there will NEVER be another show like the one they just created.
They own it and it will always be theirs. And that's theatre magic.
I learned how to direct from producing dozens of shows with various directors using many techniques. But I learned the most from the best directors in the Loudoun / DC area: Dolly Stevens, Tim Jon and Tom Sweitzer. They start with respect and end with actor ownership, and now I just can't see directing any other way.
First... there was a mouse.
Yes, it's true, We'd bought an old house in the country, and anyone crazy enough to do such a thing should expect country things like mice, right? Well, we were of exactly the same mind, and at first, having a mouse just seemed to be one of many quaint, adorable things about country life.
In fact, as I recall we handled our initial contact with a good deal of humor: "Look what the little fellow put in your boots, honey! Why, he’s taken dog food from the bin, crawled all the way up the side of the boot and dropped it in.... like a busy squirrel!”
In short, we were the worst sort of city slickers. We brought with us all those city sensibilities about “being kind to animals,” and the like. After all, I’d had a cage full of pet mice when I was young. I just adored mice.
“We’ll just buy some air-tight containers and seal up our food good and tight, and the little guy will give up and move to somebody else's pantry,” we said. “Yes, that’s the humane way to handle things. No mouse trap, no, no. That would be cruel.”
And our neighbors smiled and laughed, Heh-heh-heh.
Then the mouse showed us he could do a really neat trick - better than taking dog food to the top of tall work-boots; why, this little fellow could actually nibble through air-tight lids!
"Wow," we said. "Imagine that!" So we decided to try to confuse him by re-arranging the pantry.
Nope. He continued to leave his eensy-weensy little Lincoln Logs all over the shelves — just to show us he had caught on to our little game of “Hide the Food.” And he continued to patiently collect the dry dog food into my husband's work boots.
I laughed and said, “Look, hon, I’ll bet he thinks after he’s filled these up, he can just walk out of here in them,” but my husband’s sense of humor had begun to wane.
We soon bought a clamp-lid, thick-sided bucket for the dog food and brought the work-boot merriment to an end.
Well, it was not soon enough.
This mouse had learned what sort of pushovers we were. And the first thing mice do when they find they have the run of the house is... run all over the house.
That’s when we found out this was not one mouse at all. A large brown mouse ran across the living room floor one evening. A medium sized mouse did it again the next night. The next night a very fast and very small mouse ran around the edge of the kitchen counter as I was making dinner. I could swear it stopped, put it’s little paws up to its ears, and said, “Phhhhft!” before skittering down behind the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, in the great outdoors, my husband found a snake in our garden shed. A nice, long black snake. Harmless, but, hey, it was still a snake. So it needed to be gotten rid of, right?
But while chatting with the neighbors that weekend, my husband found, to his surprise, our snake was a highly-coveted prize.
"So you're saying you don't want your snake?" my neighbor asked.
"Why should I want my snake?"
"Takes care of mice and garden rodents."
"Oh, oh. Well, we don't have a garden yet."
"You saying you'd give up your snake."
My husband hesitated. "Well... yeah."
"Can I have it?"
Our neighbor, who had a shed that needed rodent control, came over that very afternoon and hauled away our three foot long black snake. He was pleased as punch.
This whole incident was just another in a series of difficult concepts for us. Snakes: good. Mice: bad. What was the world coming to?
Then came the day I was doing my son’s laundry. I pulled out one shirt and then another from the clothes drier and they all had these odd reddish-brown spots on them. Did he have a pen in his pocket I hadn’t seen? What’s going on?
I reached in for the next shirt and lay hold of a motley, sort of furry little ball that I took out and examined, and...
That's when we doubled up on the plastic containers.
Hey, it was magic!
Problem solved. No more food taken. No more miniature Lincoln logs. Our cereal was safe once more! We congratulated ourselves. “They’ve moved on!” my husband said. “No more mice in the dry clothes!” I said.
That's when we began to hear them in the walls.
Yes. They had taken to eating our plaster. As we soon learned, the plaster walls of an old house can be a veritable retirement village for small rodents.
"Honey, could you hit that wall, again? I'm trying to eat breakfast, here..."
And then the dishwasher broke. Only, it didn't break; it was vandalized... by a group of vindictive, plaster-fed mice. Perhaps in retaliation for the guy they lost in that nasty dryer incident - we'll never know - but they actually ate part of the rubber hose that feeds water to the washing machine, et voila! Flooded kitchen.
We mopped up. Called in a repair guy. "What can possibly be the problem," we asked; "This machine is brand new!"
"Heh-heh-heh" said the repairman. "See this hose? They ate right through it."
“Well, I don’t see it very often — like once in twenty years, maybe — but every once in a while mice take a liking to rubber. Yep. Definitely mice.”
"You don't say," I said.
This little interview marked a turning point in our lives: that moment we abandoned our sweet suburban attitudes and began to go for the tiny jugulars.
We bought mousetraps and cheese... in bulk.
The mouse’s response was to pat each other on the back and say, “Look! It worked! They’ve started feeding us again!”
Cheese gone. Traps empty.
One of our neighbors suggested peanut butter in the traps. And we actually caught one! Hurrah! Grotesque, yes, but uniquely satisfying.
We encouraged each other - our trials would soon be over. We were going country.
Days went by. Weeks. The peanut butter required constant refreshing, and no more takers.
After a month of this, it occurred to us the mouse we caught might have been the village idiot.
We finally tried poison. "Oh, puh-leeze," said the cunning little country mice.
Next we gave those new-fangled sticky triangle tents a try.
Only one of their little brown legion was dumb enough to walk into it, and he knocked off half the cans in the pantry in his successful bid to free his snoot from the goo. Of course he made it out alive. He was probably a teenager whose buddies dared him to run through it, and we all know teenagers never suffer the proper consequences for their actions.
It seems to me it was around this time my husband and I finally learned the lesson the country was trying to teach us: in the realm of destructive arts, there is only one thing more effective than human technology and that’s nature itself.
Since we’d been so short-sighted as to give away our fine black snake, we got for ourselves the most efficient, reliable mousetrap nature can make: a cat.
I’ll admit a cat once meant no more to me than a lap warmer with an attitude, but the term "Mouser" brought a new appreciation for the species. "Self-cleaning — low maintenance — never needs sharpening.” We had a great deal of respect for Meow-Meow's natural talents (since you asked, my son named him), and the cat was a valued employee. In fact, I would go as far as to say he became a member of the family.
I know that in the city, felines are often de-clawed for the sake of precious furniture, but country-folk prefer, "Our home is mouse-less" to "Our home was recently featured in Architectural Digest."
We lived in that fine old house for 30 years, and while there we were the death of many, many mice. We also changed from linear-thinking yuppies to open-minded pragmatists. Folks out with an appreciation for the concept of live and let live that city-folks could use more of, but it comes with its own little sanity clause: “Just as long as you stay out of my pantry.”
Furthermore, learning to let nature fight nature has led me to reassess human nature, too.
For example, I’ve decided the best way to keep developers at bay is to encourage them to sue each other for economic hardship due to reckless zoning approvals. See how easy that was?
And, in closing, for the record we really were sorry about the mouse that somehow got himself into the laundry basket between the wet and dry loads and tumbled, as it were, to his death amongst our son's wear-ables.
But we learned something from that experience as well.
Mouse blood will wash right out in the very next load.
The year was 1942. For Maxine and Jean, college loomed just a few months away, and they counted themselves lucky to grab jobs as Mail Girls in the new Civil Service office in downtown St. Louis, Missouri...
Tom and Lee, two young lawyers sent out to St. Louis from Washington, noted the mailmen had suddenly gotten better looking... and promptly struck up a flirtation.
In the weeks that followed, Tom developed an eye for the short, blue-eyed blonde, Jean, while Lee? Well, Lee also developed an eye for the short, blue-eyed blonde.
“Too late, Lee. Already got a date with her,” said Tom one afternoon, “but… I think I can set you up with her friend, Maxine.” Maxine - a very tall brunette - was shy and equally pretty and laughed at all Lee’s jokes, so Lee got to thinking that might be all right after all.
Now, one thing you’ll have to know about Lee - besides the fact he was the kindest man that ever lived - was that, just a few years before meeting Maxine, life had dealt him a terrible blow.
The summer after his freshman year of college, he’d taken a job at an Ice House in his southern Virginia hometown to keep in shape over the summer months. He’d played football for the Hampden Sydney Tigers his freshman year, and he wanted to be all the more prepared to play again that fall.
But one month into his work at the Ice House, he awoke with pain in his legs. When the pain became excruciating, he was rushed to the hospital.
Lee had contracted polio.
He went through three months of wanting to die, followed by two years of painful physical rehabilitation. His mother came in every day to exercise his limbs hoping the muscles would come back.
Eventually Lee was able to regain the use of his arms - but never his legs. His father admonished him to, “Get up and quit feeling sorry for yourself,” and Lee looked around him – at the sight of those who weren’t so lucky... whose lives would be lived entirely in an iron lung - and decided to take his father’s advice. Metal braces were required to keep his legs straight, and Lee learned to walk with crutches.
But it was not the slow walk of the injured. No. Somewhere during those long two years, Lee made a decision about life, and he walked like a young man who had somewhere to go.
He took himself back to Hampden Sydney College. There were no handicapped facilities back then, but an old football buddy helped by slinging Lee over his broad shoulder and carried him up and down the college’s stairs like a sack of potatoes. And that’s how Lee completed his degree.
When he finished college, he was accepted into The University of Virginia Law School. In order to make ends meet while there, he worked in the Dean’s office through one of President Roosevelt’s youth job programs. And after law school, he took a job with the government… and found himself working in St. Louis, Missouri.
Which is where he began to fall in love with the tall brunette.
Maxine, for her part, liked Lee from the start. Whenever she came through the offices, he put aside his paperwork to chat. She loved his laugh, his smile, his good looks, and the way he rolled up his shirt sleeves. By the time he stood up and she saw he was on crutches, it was too late to matter.
Some of life would be hard, yes, but what was the point of thinking like that when you’d have those dark brown eyes to gaze into, and enjoy his laughter, his kind heart — really, what did anything matter when you found yourself in love?
But Maxine’s mother, Virginia, was vehemently opposed to her daughter seeing Lee. And as the two dated during Maxine’s college years, Virginia continued to tell her what a poor choice she was making. “Only think what you’re doing! Throwing your life away on a... on a LAWYER!” Virginia couldn’t admit Lee’s handicap was a problem to her, so she blamed his Doctorate of Jurisprudence.
Eventually Virginia demanded Maxine quit seeing him. Maxine obeyed, and the months that followed were the most miserable of her young life. The only thing she looked forward to was being a bridesmaid at the marriage of her best friend, Jean, to Tom.
And Lee was Tom’s best man.
When the wedding day arrived, it had been twelve long months since Maxine and Lee had seen each other. After the ceremony, Lee approached Maxine, looked into her eyes and asked in his sweet southern drawl, “How you been, sugar?”
After that, Virginia was just going to get over it.
Maxine and Lee were married in 1949 at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. There’s film footage of the moments before they left on their honeymoon. You can see Lee’s parents, looking on with pride. You can even see the somewhat sour look on Virginia’s face. And then there’s Maxine, smiling like the sun just rose for the first time, and Lee, with a lovely grin, rushing to the getaway car so quickly you wouldn’t think he had crutches at all.
And now they’re driving off together — a look of deep satisfaction on their young faces — my parents, Maxine and Lee Bean. Forever my favorite Valentines.
They say, "Oh! to be young again!" --
not something I've wanted to do.
'Though it was grand,
I'll stick to the plan
of living beginning to end.
But, wait! Not so fast.
Hold on just a sec...
There's one moment I'd gladly re-do!
That's when our eyes met,
Our hands touched,
and he whispered, "I love you!' "
(August 8, 1943)
- Maxine Bean, 2011
First, get yourself a mountain. Then put a house on it - perhaps a spot where you can see five counties and every mountain around it for miles around - ideal for seeing the approach of Indians long long ago, or troops during the Civil War... which brings us to the history of a Mountain Man and his wartime “adventures” - taken straight from our Hardy County, West Virginia Family History.
David Ferguson Bean was born November 19, 1842 in the town of Fabius, surrounded by the steep, tall hills of Hardy County, David was the son of Margaret Anderson and George Bean (1), and was the first of their nine children to actually make it to adulthood. Just in time to try and get himself killed in America's Civil War. The Beans of Hardy County were Virginians before 1862 and West Virginians after 1862, whether they liked it or not. The state line was drawn without asking their opinion on the matter. Whether they owned slaves is still unknown, but is highly likely (2), Regardless it's certain the family didn't take to President Lincoln and the Union.
In 1861, David had "jined up" with the Confederate Army and become a cavalryrman in McNeill's Rangers. Like Col. John Singleton Mosby's Rangers, McNeill's Rangers was formed to conduct raids on Union supply trains and outposts. John Hanson ("Hanse") McNeill was well-known and well-respected in Hardy County. David's obituary tells us, "He was with the famous McNeill Rangers, whose swift dashes created terror along the Mason and Dixon line" (3). Hanse formed McNeill's Rangers in 1862, and the troop eventually numbered around 200. In 1863, David's father moved the rest of the family into a ca. 1820 Federal brick house on the top of a tall hill (4). The house of Flemish Bond brick was modest but the rooms commodious, and there was a large clapboard addition that held a kitchen with a wide stone fireplace.
David was a man of small stature, "an advantage many times in making his numerous escapes." He came home to the mountain on leave once, and word slipped out to the federal troops nearby. They surrounded the house on the sly, trapping 21-year old David inside. As they came in the house, David kept his cool. He "sat down in front of the fireplace, pulled an old cap down over his head, [and] picked up a little [india] rubber ball." He started bouncing it and just "kept bouncing it around while the soldiers searched for someone who 'looked' like an enemy soldier" (5).
And David remained free to fight another day.
In the spring of 1864, an argument had erupted in Richmond over whether to allow these ranger troops, "Partisan Soldiers," to continue. A number of questionable acts had been committed (think Jesse James), and the Confederacy wanted to clean things up. But even legitimate raiders did unpleasant things to try to win an un-winnable war. David's son, L.L., once told his own son he'd traced his lineage back to a horse thief (the worst epithet one could give a man back then) and decided he didn't want to know more. Could be he was speaking of his father, as Confederates were known to steal horses (see 1864 Richmond argument). Col. John Singleton Mosby accepted the name, but blithely added, "all the horses I had stolen had riders, and the riders had sabers, carbines and pistols."(6)
Between November '63 and April '64, David Bean switched his enlistment to the 18th Virginia Cavalry: could be he didn't like McNeill's tactics or worried his troop would be dissolved (But in fact, by 1865 McNeill's and Mosby's Rangers were they only "irregular" troops still recognized by the Confederacy).
On the other hand, it might be David just wanted to be with family: there were thirteen Beans in the 18th Virginia, and only one other Bean in McNeill's Rangers. In any case, he made the switch but by September 30, 1864, he's listed as absent. Yet his obituary says he served four years in the Confederate Army and the Confederate Service Cross on his grave says 1861-1865," so perhaps he went home to help with the harvest, as was the habit of many a farmer/soldier.
Of course in April 1865, the war finally ended, and David went back to his father's farm to work.. He was still there in 1870, when the census listed George, 64, as "farmer," his wife, Margaret, 46, as "Keep house," 27 year-old David as "Farm Labor" along with younger brother, Malon, 20. Also at home on the mountain were Emily 16, Ann 15, and Simon 11 (talk about your mountain man: after Simon grew up and took over the George Bean property, that mountain came to be named after him).
Now, in the same area there lived an 18-year old named Jemima Susan Heltzel who came from an interesting family. Her grandfather, John Charles Heltzel (1792-1866), emigrated from Germany to settle with his wife (Magdalene Grandstoff) in Trout Run Valley, Virginia - which eventually became Hardy County, West Virginia. "He made his living by tinning and firing iron ore furnaces" (7). John Charles also "forged" a nice little family of 12 - five girls and seven boys, one of which was John C. Heltzel, Jr., Jemima's father. Little John, Jr. grew to a whopping six foot, six inches tall, earning the nickname "King Heltzel." He married Leah Myers and had five children, the oldest of which was Jemima. Jemima was 3 years old and David 19 when the Civil War began (8). Quite a stretch for a couple, until you note how many May-December marriages are listed in the census back then. David's own parents had a 15 or 16-year age difference.
The Heltzels were Lutheran, and David Ferguson Bean had "united with the Lutheran faith in early manhood" (9), so the families probably attended the same services. Later in life Jemima was credited with founding a Lutheran Church there (Missouri Synod), and David's obituary says "He was a consistent member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church." In 1873 he married Jemima, and "they lived at the old brick house near Beans Settlement once called 'Coburn's Knob' "(10). By 1874, David and Jemima had a daughter, Cora Dell. Then came Leona Frances in 1876, Lorenzo Lee in 1880, Seymour (1883), Calvin (1884), and Minnie (1900). Seymour and Calvin didn't make it past toddler-hood, so L.L. became their only son.
It was said when their son, L.L., was born, David looked around their log cabin for inspiration and found a history of the Medici family, and chose he the name Lorenzo Lee. But it turns out Lorenzo was an extremely popular name in Hardy County. A lot of Lorenzos are listed in the roster of McNeill's Rangers and the 18th Virginia. Could be David named his son after a fellow-veteran of "the late war." Could be "Lee" was added in honor of his favorite General. Or could be there was a very successful "Medici Family" book salesman thereabouts.
In any case, Lorenzo Lee was a beautiful little boy with blonde hair and clear, blue eyes. Lots of German there, and like his father, L.L. was raised to be a farmer. I once asked his great-grand daughter, Elizabeth (Libba) Bean Savels, what David raised on the farm,
"Chickens?" I asked.
"Apples!" she replied.
"Oh, he had an orchard. He sold apples?"
"Lord, no, child," she laughed. "Granddaddy sold Apple Jack!"
Farming life was hard (the hills are so steep there, the old joke goes, that cows' legs grow "longer on one side than t'other" so they could stand up straight!
Fact is, running a still and selling hooch wouldn't be an unusual choice - especially if you wanted to improve your prospects.
At an appropriate young age, L.L. began to attend school: a one-room, clapboard schoolhouse was all the way at the bottom of the mountain. It was quite a walk, and it was hard on young L.L.'s constitution. Over time, he became weaker than the other boys at school, and, as a matter of course, started getting beat up on a regular basis.
SEE THE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM OF SIMON BEAN MOUNTAIN AND THE HELTZELS
At around age 12, Jemima Heltzel Bean decided if she kept sending L.L. down the mountain, the day might come he didn't make it back up. So she decided to keep him home to work on the farm for a year. She picked the right age to try to grow that Bean, because he had a "King Heltzel" sprout that year - all the way up to six feet tall, and now he towered over his father.
To give you some idea of the kind of work he might have done that year, Elizabeth Heltzel Walters (a descendent of King Heltzel), recorded her years growing up on the farm in the 1920s: "By today's standards, people would think we were deprived when I was growing up. We lived on the farm in the same area as "King Heltzel" once lived. We had water in the house, we were one of the few that had a car, but best of all we had an ice house. We had a large building with sawdust between the walls for insulation. My father and Uncle Willie would go to the river and saw ice, about 18-20 inches thick, and haul it back, cover it with layers of sawdust, and as we needed it in the summer we would keep ice water in the house. Drippings came down in a milk trough and kept milk, cream and butter cold. But best of all we had a big freezer full of ice cream every weekend." Yep. Hauling ice and a few other like chores would do it.
L.L. grew strong as an ox.
And when his mother let him go back to school that fall, he systematically beat up every-son-of-a-farmer who'd ever laid a hand on him. Perhaps it was then the boy realized he wasn't going to stick around Hardy County. After all, the same boys he'd been fighting would have been fellow-farmers - the ones who were supposed to come over and rebuild your barn after a disaster. Not likely.
Add this to the fact that his father sold Apple Jack, and his mother was a straight up Lutheran who helped found one of the churches in the valley, and you can understand why L.L. might have decided to leave the hills. Less confusion all around.
But L.L. did have some friends at school. This we know because great-grand daughter, Virginia Bean Hylton, said the lack of masculine conversation at home caused L.L. to develop an interesting habit: he took his lunch to school but ate it only on the way back up the mountain at the end of the school day. That way he could spend the entire lunch break talking to his friends. And he had some unusual friends.
At some point, Hardy County saw railroad tracks laid through the mountains above Moorefield, West Virginia. One of L.L.'s buddies was a man of few words, but his pronouncements -when they finally rose to the surface - were thoughtful and profound. So when the railroad tracks were done, and the train was about to make its first run, L.L. walked his friend up the mountain and stood with him near a train tunnel - just waiting to hear his first opinion. The train came roaring through the tunnel and whipped past them. His friend remained silent. L.L. finally had to prod him, "So, what'd you think?" His friend began to shake his head slowly. "That thing shore' would 'a made a mess if it'd come through sideways."
When it came time for L.L. to move forward with his life, he settled on the idea of attending a Moorefield, West Virginia Business School. But first he'd have to raise the money.
Stereoscopes were all the rage at the turn of the century: hand-held picture viewers that interpreted side-by-side photos intp three dimensions when you looked through the binocular-like device.
So when he wasn't farming for the family, L.L. walked up and down the steep hills of Hardy County selling stereoscopes. But he found that sales were slow.
Then one day he came upon a farmer who'd broken his leg. The farmer looked L.L. over and said, "I don't need one of those, son; what I need is someone to bring in my hay!"
"Sorry I can't help you, sir. I'm just looking to make the money to attend business school."
"How much you need?"
When L.L told him, the farmer said, "I'll give you that if you'll bring in my hay."
So L.L. stopped selling stereoscopes, brought in the man's hay and headed off to a business school . In the West Virginia school, he learned bookkeeping and used it to pay his way until his graduation. At that time, he was the youngest student ever to graduate. Eventually he also gained a degree from Eastern College in Front Royal, Virginia.
And, it may seem odd to us, but all his studies led him to become the Principal of a large school. And, from my perspective, it was a very good thing.
Among the staff was a young lady who was in her second year of teaching the second grade. Her name was Adelaide, five years L.L.'s junior. Adelaide Wingfield Dortch was a proper young lady who'd been born at "Oak shades" (the family home place) in Meredithville, Brunswick County, Virginia. The town was named after Adelaide's relations, in fact. She was raised in Lawrenceville, Virginia and graduated from Blackstone Women's Seminary in Blackstone, Virginia.
In those days, a starting teacher taught the younger classes, and was promoted up the grades upon merit. Well, L.L. soon fell in love with her and asked her to marry him.
But a teacher had to quit teaching in order to marry in those days, and that Adelaide would not do. She loved her job. So she said no.
At the end of the school year, Adelaide came to L.L. with the list of students that would be graduated to third grade. L.L. looked the names over and found one of particular interest: a boy who was an absolute terror. Adelaide had already taught the little hellion two years in a row, and now, although she knew she shouldn't, Adelaide was ready to send him up the ladder.
L.L. smiled and placed the list before him on the desk.
"I see you've decided to graduate Thomas to the third grade."
"Yes, Mr. Bean." she said in her sweet southern drawl (in Meredithville, "yes" is as a two-syllable word, yay-as).
"Well, Miss Dortch, you've done an excellent job with our second grade."
"Why, thank you."
"... And that is why I'm pleased to tell you that I plan to recommend your promotion to the Third Grade teaching slot at the very next school board meeting."
There was a long pause as they looked each other in the eye.
"Mr. Bean, I accept your proposal of marriage."
And that's how a Mountain Man gets himself a fine wife.
1) "The name 'Bean' is found at Norwich, England 1622. James Bean settled in Virginia: now Hardy County The name occurs several times in Dandridge's American Pioneers of the Revolution... The Scotch emigrants settled at St. Marys County, Maryland. Before 1794 they moved to the virgin forest of what is now Hardy County near North River... The George Bean old brick home site is on top of Simon Bean Mountain and gives a wide view of the area. Very typical of the Scottish Hilander Laddies. They moved into this house in 1863." Hardy County Family History to 1990, p. 73 under "George Bean." (ref. book from Hardy County Public Library).
Extrapolated from "Lorenzo Lee Bean FAMILY DATA, from his record in his own Bible": Robert Bean and his brother emigrated from Wales to Maryland on a boat with Lord Calvert's younger brother. Robert had many children. His son, James, went west for more land. He settled west of Moorefield and founded Bean Settlement. He had many children including son George, father of David Ferguson Bean (In the possession of the Hylton/Bean Family).
2) We do know that in 1870, George and Margaret Bean had a 17-year old black farm laborer by the name of George Willis (1870 Census of Hardy County, Capon Township, http://hardycounty.martin.lib.wv.us/ ). It's likely they relied on slave labor before the Civil War.
3) Obituary of David F. Bean,"Moorefield Examiner," Thurs., 1/29/20 and Hardy County Family History to 1990, (ref. Hardy County Public Library), p. 73 under "George Bean."
4) The hill came to be known as Simon Bean Mountain. The George Bean federal brick home (known as the Simon Bean Farm) stands there still - although the clapboard kitchen has fallen in as of 1998. It's located 9 1/2 miles from Crider Store east of Moorefield, 11 1/2 miles off Route 55. The property was owned by the Orndorffs as of 1998 (information from The Clan M.A. Bean in N. America, pg. 182, Hardy County Library, Moorefield, WV).
6) The Memoires of Col. John S. Mosby, Charles W. Russell, Olde Soldiers Books, Inc. (1987)
7) Hardy County Family History to 1990, (ref. Hardy County Public Library) under "Heltzel Family Name." This could well be the home on the high hill purchased by David Ferguson Bean in 1863.
8) 1860 Census of Hardy County, (West) Virginia - Hardy County Public Library:
447-453: George Bean 55 Farmer, Margaret 39, Mary E 20, David F 16, Lucretia 14, Hannah F 13, Mahlon 11, Emily J 7, Minerva A 4, Simon S 2 and 1/2
395-401: John C. Heltzel, Jr. 44 Farmer, Leah 31, Jemima S 8, Mary M 6, Paul 2
9) Obituary of David F. Bean,"Moorefield Examiner," Thurs., 1/29/20, Hardy County Public Library.
10) Hardy County Family History to 1990, (ref. Hardy County Public Library) under "Heltzel Family Name." This could well be the home on the high hill purchased by David Ferguson Bean in 1863.
11) L.L.'s work experience was taken from a typed summary of the information: "Lorenzo Lee Bean FAMILY DATA, from his record in his own Bible." Whereabouts of the Bible are unknown, but a typed summary is held by Meredith Bean McMath.
Author's note: the majority of stories from L.L. and Lee Bean's youth were provided by Lorenzo Lee Bean, Jr. himself to the author, Meredith Bean McMath, on occasions too numerous to count. They were re-verified by Lee's wife (the author's mother), Maxine Hay Bean.
When my friend’s mother overheard me telling her daughter what to do, she went to my mother and complained that I was being bossy. But my mother understood, bless her. It was my job.
My friend had asked me to create stories for our Barbie dolls. In fact, all my friends asked me to do create stories for them.
And, quite frankly, I was in demand...
I would create sets and plot lines, and we'd act out scenes for eight hours at a time. Dead serious about character development, too - which is not easy when your actors are plastic. And I took it as a personal challenge to get my friends to like their Meg dolls as much as their Barbies and Kens. My solution? Create a fabulous story line just for Meg. Uh, oh. A guy doll for Meg? No problem! I grabbed my brother's G.I. Joe. Yes, yes, he was shorter than Meg, but Joe had way better pecs than Ken.
Also had another skill that made me the hit of the neighborhood: I was the only one who could do guy voices for the male dolls. Quite a skill for a five-year old.
Fast forward to my excruciatingly boring years at an all-girl Catholic elementary school. While there, my best friend and I created what we called, "The Story”. Used mostly as a device to daydream about boys, she and I would trade off telling "The Story” - an uncomplicated tale of two fabulously well-dressed, jet-setting female spies who traveled the world on the arms of their James Bondian boyfriends. One day I stopped the story line to pass it off to her to continue – as we always had - but instead, she said, "No, Meredith. You keep telling it. You're the real story teller."
That was an important day.
My big break came when our school offered our 4th grade class a chance to produce its own talent show. I immediately sat down and wrote a play, then cast my fellow classmates, directed my friends through rehearsals, and brought it to the stage. But it was a disaster…. and it was all my fault. Classic rookie error! I’d cast myself in the lead role. Figuring I’d written the lines, I was certain I’d remember them. Yeah. No.
From that I learned I had a lot to learn. But I also learned that I really, really liked directing human beings. They had their own voices, could make their own character choices, and the bendable arms and legs were a definite plus.
As I grew older, I developed another passion: history, figuring that major gave me a better chance at a normal income, I chose History as major at William and Mary, and, after graduation began to work at a small museum that was once a tavern. When the staff was asked to create public programming, naturally I wrote a play about tavern life and asked my college friends to join me. Best casting decision I ever made was asking a tall redhead named Chuck McMath to play the Stage Coach Driver. He said yes. And a year later, I said yes. Did I mention I'm really good at casting?
When Chuck and I moved to Loudoun County, Virginia, I began creating living history programs for area museums, schools and libraries. Through our son’s preschool class, I met Laurie Farnsworth - the most amazing seamstress I've ever had the pleasure to know. Laurie and her friend, Dolly Stevens, had just formed a theatre company: The Growing Stage. Would I like to help with costuming? Indeed I would.
While working with The Growing Stage, I spent a lot of time observing Dolly's brilliant directing techniques. Then Dolly hired Tom Sweitzer out of Shenandoah Conservatory to direct one of her shows, and I watched Tom's brilliant directing process. Then Tim Jon — a Loudoun County Radio DJ who'd spent eighteen years of his life as a professional actor — started producing Shakespeare in the area, and I watched his brilliant process.
I appreciated every minute of these unofficial internships. Each director was unique, but each one was generous with their time and talents, and each changed the lives of everyone with whom they worked.
In the meantime, I'd continued to write plays. There was one play I was particularly happy with: it was based on true stories from the pages of Loudoun County Civil War history. Had no idea what would happen to it, but I knew it was time to try it on the stage… as long as I stayed out of the cast.
Fast forward: Through Tim Jon’s company, Not Just Shakespeare, we learned the professional actor's approach to Shakespearean text... and several more of the Bard's dirty jokes. From Tim I also learned actors' preparation and the efficacy of improvisation. Tim has a deep respect for an actor's process, and he excels in teaching actors how to build three-dimensional characters. Tim's use of improv encouraged me to experiment over the years, and that's been a gift. Around this time, I was taking Master Improv Classes with Tom Sweitzer, so, together, these two have had a huge influence on how I use improv while directing.
For instance, when actors over-focus on remembering their lines or stage movement, improv is a great way to shake them loose. When I was directing my play, Arms and the Highlander*, we were working through the first scene - where a young woman was beginning to fall in love with a British soldier. Colonial soldiers were looking for him, and when they came knocking at the door, the British soldier pulls out a knife, preparing to defend himself. Instead, the young woman pushes him behind a door and lets in the searching soldiers. It was crucial the actress caught the gist of the moment, because the audience wouldn’t be able to see the British soldier's tension — they could only see the young woman's face.
But there was no tension in the room at all.
So I stopped rehearsal and asked the British soldier to act out what would happen if those Minuteman found him hiding behind the door. Okay. Granted there was no real knife, but they got into a serious brawl that ended as Minuteman disconnected the British soldier's thoughts from his actions.
The actress got it, and played the tension from there on - and she was brilliant, and the scene began to glow. Improv saved the day once more.
Another huge influence has been the actors themselves. When you have a talented actor, there are times you just stand back in awe... and learn as much as you can from them. Without question, the actor who's influenced me most was my own mother... that beautiful woman who happily defended me from my friend's mother when I was five years old. Maxine Bean was an amazing actor - a child radio star in St. Louis, Missouri, and the star of many college productions at Grinnell. After my father passed, she came to live with us in Loudoun and worked with me in area theatre: favorite roles include the "School Marm" in Dolly and Tom's, TREASURES: The Musical Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and the starring role as "Miss Violet" in Tom's and my PORCHES. She was incredibly generous on stage - this is a little hard to describe, but every actor who worked with her knows exactly what I mean. But she was deeply serious about the craft, and so there were limits to her generosity. In one production, an actor suddenly stole a line from her - stealing the huge laugh my mother's character was meant to receive. Maxine didn't lose a beat on stage, but when she got backstage with that actress, she looked her straight in the eye and growled, "NEVER do that again"... and she never did.
For me, directing has always been a heady mix of my passion for storytelling and the constant pursuit of learning - earning how to be a better writer, a more helpful director, and a more creative producer. I’ve appreciated every director with whom I’ve worked, every class taken, every rehearsal attended, and every actor and crew member’s efforts. And I remain particularly grateful to all those friends from my old neighborhood who wanted me to boss them around. This one's for you.
* My adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.
Meredith Bean McMath is the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc. She has books and plays, awards and degrees. She is grateful but sometimes she wishes writers and directors were paid a little more.