I was taming a steaming pot of wild spaghetti with a wooden spoon when the phone rang. The water had been boiling at quite a roil. If I didn’t stay alert, I sometimes had fires. I had fires a lot.
“Kimbuhrley?” Said an Australian accent on the other end of the line. I knew right away who possessed the soft voice.
I’d been writing to Donna Williams, and she back to me, on and off for a long time. This is because I loved reading memoirs. I loved knowing what made people tick; so to speak.
One day, browsing through Caldors Dept. Store, I saw Nobody Nowhere (The Extraordinary Biography of an Autistic) displayed on an end cap; and I bought it. I figured ‘I definitely don’t have autism but it’ll be a good read.’ Surprisingly I connected to the words in a deep resonating way.
Donna had me at Slap! –the 1st word of that book. Fan letters turned into replies turned into 8 pagers from the both of us back and forth. Now she was on the phone! I turned off the spaghetti pot and paused, spoon in one hand, phone receiver in the other.
Naturally I was alarmed. There were grease-like stains, the color of old tea, dripping down the sorry walls from steam. What must she think!? After a stunned staring spell I shook off the panic. Aah, she could not see our kitchen through the phone.
“Yes, yes this is her,” I stammered. “Yes.”
“I am in your area,” she said.
We made arrangements to meet at a house in Deep River, Connecticut, that she and her then husband were renting while she made appearances locally to promote her 2nd book Somebody Somewhere.
I had two sons at this point: Jeff 13 and Jeremy almost 5. I was a few months away from giving birth to my third, who would be born a girl and much much later start the process of becoming a man. It was 1995. I was fairly certain both Jeff and I were autistic and from what I’d told Donna, she thought so too although my oldest son Jeff and I were both 5 years away from our formal diagnoses.
Howie, my husband drove us to the address I’d scribbled on an an envelope. The boys, in the backseat, enjoyed watching scenery fly by. The little car was littered with fast food toys for them to fidget with.
“Why the hell can’t she meet all 4 of us? This is bullshit.” Howie griped. Jeff was fiddling with paper, shredding it and sprinkling the fluttery pieces over Jeremy, who sat in his car seat entranced, trying to catch them.
I explained that Donna was private and had wanted to visit with me for an hour. She’d invited Jeff too but he’d declined. I probably would’ve too at his age.
“Look!” I said. “A playground. Perfect. Why not take them there for an hour after you drop us off? And we’ll go out to eat afterwards.”
We arrived and I got out and stepped onto the gravel drive. The house was a deep dark blue, a rich saturated color like the color of blue I’d chosen to paint the big wooden doll house I’d built. It wasn’t a namby pamby washed-out pastel blue. It was bold…and I liked the flowers lining the walkway like soldiers. Daffodils stood in neat rows on both sides of the path to the door, saluting me with vibrant yellow heads that nodded in the warm summer breeze as I made my way.
I became mindful of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem and recited the line in my brain as the door opened and Howie, seeing me step inside drove off.
“I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.”
That was the line. ” Ian, ” Donna’s husband, had a phone against his ear and ushered me inside with hand motions, all the while mentioning to the person on the phone that he’d like to see the Grand Canyon while he was in the States. He never made eye contact. I felt right at ‘home.’ He had Aspergers?! I’d have to do more reading on that.
A trompe l’oeil (faux) rug was painted onto the hardwood floor in the entryway. I wanted to drop to my hands and knees and inspect the ingenious paint strokes, so convincingly rendered to look like a multicolored rag rug. But I did not. These days I am far more ‘present’ and attuned to act on wants but I could not do so then.
Ian disappeared into the house to get Donna and finish his phone call I assumed, so I plopped down on a piano bench wanting so much to plunk down a key. Or better, I imagined myself shrunk to a miniature-me and pirouetting tiny-ballerina-like; across the ivories; my wee dance steps imbibing a lively tune as my little feet danced over black and white keys.
In one of our epic letters I’d told Donna I would love to hear her play piano. I knew she wrote piano music arrangements.
Two plates nearby on a shining expanse of dark-wooded dining table, had abandoned food piles on them.
Her voice interrupted my thoughts. “Where is she?!” It was Donna, bounding down the stairs and looking the part of smiling mischievous Sprite in her oversized tie dyed T shirt.
I rose to stand and looking upon her in my denim maternity bib overalls –I felt I had grown to a preposterous height of 7 feet tall in comparison to her petite frame. I felt like an Amazon.
“Hi,” I said, shifting the full to bursting paper grocery bag on my hip.
I’m preposterous, I thought.
She immediately handed me a sparkling knickknack she’d acquired as a souvenir. I examined her array of glass things one by one- that she’d collected on her tour of the U.S., rotating each treasure in my hand near a bright window so it would react with the sun and sparkle, catching the light. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favorite films (and books) Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
Lugging my paper bag on my hip we ventured outside into the cozy backyard and sat at a picnic table.
Inside my bag was an array of items from my home. She’d asked me to bring things I especially liked and through the sharing of my things she would know me better.
The first thing I removed from my bag was a miniature piano music box. I kept it in my dark blue dollhouse at home, and the piano and dark blue house I was in now was unplanned synchronicity.
It was supposed to wind up and play music but there had always been a penny rattling around in it that a child had somehow jammed inside it, rendering it mute. A silenced piano.
In retrospect I now think: What a metaphor for communication impairment!
For some time, Donna tried to work the coin out of the little piano but it proved impossible. And so we could not wind it up and hear it as the inner mechanism was obstructed.
Next I pulled out my African American figurine Moe, (one of a dozen different ones I collected) and then I showed her a few petrified mushrooms that I often put gesso on; and painted farm scenes on them. They were large enough to be elves’ awnings. I gave her one to keep but she could not accept it as when she returned home she said it would never get through customs.
Of course my most prized treasure was in my pocket but it meant so much to me I could not pull it out. As I said, I would be OK to share it today but could not do such things then. (NOTE: A red silk string, knotted on one end, that Donna mailed to me once, now resides alongside the aged pull string-a “string marriage” of sorts.)
It was a long tan pull string with a thin tin clasp at the bottom. It was from the ceiling lightbulb of the beloved grey house I’d lived in as a child. It came from the house where money was tight and I’d raid a nearby farm in the middle of the night to steal potatoes and corn. The house was hard to move out of, for my parents and myself. The pull string I’d taken as a momento, we all had touched it so often on our way to the toilet. It hung low in the hall and would brush my head,- we all embedded sweaty DNA in it year after year. It was now an essence of those memories good and bad. In my pocket.
But I did not trust enough then, to share it and know that upon seeing it, Donna would “get it” even if I did not explain. It was still hard to digest that in Donna- and to an extent in Ian, I’d found my people.
We three spoke of things.
After we thoroughly inspected all my treasures ( except for the pull string) Donna rose and walked over to examine a crack in the patio cement. She gently plucked an intricate weed and the three of us examined it close-up for awhile, the delicate white petals, and pale dirt clinging to its meager hairy roots. After we had fully appreciated it, she gently nestled it back into its cranny.
A lawn mower roared to life in a nearby yard and back into the house we went.
The house was harmonious! I studied a framed map for some time. Then all our attentions turned to the swarthy wooden beams above our heads and the flora tacked up there in wrapped bunches. We tried to name the dozens of drying flowers and herbs. Sage? Queen Anne’s Lace? Lavender?
Food still lay in piles on the tables. None of us mentioned this. We moved to the living room and I sat in an area that made Donna uncomfortable. She wanted me positioned to her side and not ‘straight across’ from her. She redirected me to a couch and started flipping through TV channels, clearly delighted at American TV. She settled on Oprah, a show she’d heard about but never seen before now. At every commercial she flipped channels, lingering on a commercial or show a few seconds and returning to Oprah.
I noted that she was most at ease when I set things exactly where they’d been, like her crystal ornaments. I had set one on the table earlier and she’d immediately moved it back near the lamp. Imagine, I thought, tweaking the environment to make one’s self more comfortable. Here I was, sitting in the place she’d directed, where she thought things were set up for optimal communication. Rearranging my environment, being selfaware of these things, it was enticing, a brave new possibility.
The hour passed quickly and glancing at my watch I knew Howie would be returning soon.
“I’ll use the rest room now,” I said, “and then Howie will be back to get me.”
I lingered in the tiny wallpapered cubicle of a bathroom after I washed my hands, enjoying the lavender aroma and Grandma atmosphere.
That’s when the rise and fall of slow and dramatic music started. I cocked my head to the side, standing there in front of the antique sink basin and closed my eyes.
That house received Donna’s music joyously, which thrummed on in a calm then quicker harried pace; finishing out neatly. I counted to ten in my head and went to the piano nook. The bench was empty of anyone, shining in the 5:05PM sun.
I saw Donna then, and she was taller than me now, perched several stairs up on the staircase that led to the upper floor; the gleaming bannister between us, her long fingers resting there.
I said in her direction that her piano playing was lovely. Lovely was the exact word I used. But my compliment triggered an unexpected response from her…. (I would learn later that she indeed was playing and it was her own arrangement. She’d named it Flying. )
She seemed frenzied as she answered excitedly, “That wasn’t me playing. It was him!” And she pointed at Ian who bowed his head and frowned. He shrugged.
I directed my voice toward Ian, “It was very good. I didn’t know you could play. You didn’t mention it in our letters.” ( Often Ian would write to me too. )
He shrugged again and I went for the door. The red Hyundai was idling outside, the AC blasting no doubt for the kids who’d been playing hard in the summer sun at that playground.
I pointed out to Donna, Jeff in the backseat. Donna knew about Jeff because of our letters. She knew my struggles with school meetings. She’d sent him a rare British copy of her book which she’d signed. Unlike U.S.versions, it had Britt slang. In her letters Donna had told me she strongly suspected my son and I were undiagnosed autistics. She’d told me things like:
Be proud. Be brave. Be reasonable. Be you. Be on your side.
“I’ll say hello to him, ” she said cheerily.
She peeked into his (closed) car window, shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare and her face was radiant as if lit by an inner mystique. She would never throughout her life lose that essence, that sparkle. She embodied light and the sparklies she herself cherished. She said “Hello Jeff.”
He rolled around his wide eyes which to me were so much like wet marbles and wiggled his fingers at her. And that was that.
And that was our meeting. I had no sense of her being an internationally known bestselling author. I thought of her as kind and sisterly, a true peer in every sense.
We worked on many things together as peers and the Foreword she wrote for my own memoir Under The Banana Moon, is something I read and reread still today.
I was not part of her inner circle but she was in my heart and I got to thank her a month ago and tell her I loved her. —she was genuine, a true teacher to so many. And giving.
She once offered me a Nanny job working for her friends, a couple who had an autistic child. I would live in Australia in a cottage by the sea and have weekends to myself and a good pay of course. I carried that letter, that life changing offer everywhere, folded in my jeans. Upon her recommendation her friends were willing to hire me. In the end I declined.
Polly (as she preferred to be known) has passed on. She touched so many and will continue to do so. I haven’t yet made a personal memorial to her in my home but I plan to do so. She was a magical lady. A rare soul.
In one of her last FB entries she said:
Thank you all, those in the inner circles, and non-biological sisters, brothers in the world… thanks for the sharing… shine on for me… fill your shoes for I will fly the body and have neither feet nor shoes of my own but happy to share any that welcome the essence of me.
A blog I wrote for Mental Illness Awareness Month and Art of Autism viewable here: