Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, September 28, 2014

When I Met Truman Capote ...

Truman Capote was nothing like what I imagined he would be. I met him when he came to speak at my alma mater. The university organization that sponsored his visit invited me to sketch him for the two days that he was on campus. As a freelance illustrator, I took a black ink pen and a large pad of paper to the airport where three of us students picked up Capote.

My friends were worried that I would imitate Capote’s distinctive voice. I had a knack for being able to sound exactly like the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, but I refrained from impersonating him. I had no desire to be rude to such a famous writer.

Capote was a regular on television talk shows and late-night programs, and I always listened carefully to his insights into writing. I admired his having built a towering career on the rocky foundation of his lonely, troubled upbringing. I should have felt so in awe of him as to make me too shy to say anything to him, but I had the bravado of youth on my side. At the terminal, I strode up to Capote, shook hands, and said hi. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said with a grace that I still recall vividly.

One of My Sketches of Capote
I sat across from Capote for the ride to the university and made a sketch. He was wearing sunglasses. He asked if there were popular authors from the area, and I mentioned Kurt Vonnegut. Capote appeared surprised, saying something like “Oh, is he from here?”

During the hour in the car, Capote talked about his friends. He spoke of “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis in terms of deepest respect. He said he admired her intelligence. He wanted us to understand that she was much more three-dimensional than the media portrayed her.

I soon developed the lasting impression that Capote was far kinder than he came across as being when he was entertaining fans from his perch in a chair across from Johnny Carson.

Biographers have reported that it was during this time that Capote’s alcoholism was gaining the upper hand. Soon after I met him, Capote published “La Côte Basque 1965,” which instigated the backlash that contributed to his eventual demise. For whatever it may be worth this long after Capote’s death in 1984, I can say that he did not appear to be an alcoholic for the two days that I spoke with him. I was told he had a drink at dinner to settle his nerves before he spoke to a packed auditorium.

My Drawing of Capote Reading
A front-row seat was reserved for me, so that I could draw a picture of Capote during his reading. I stood beside him in the wings until it was time for him to go on. At the last minute, he looked around and asked if I could find him a chair. A stage manager’s hairpin café chair stood in the corner. I handed it to Capote, and he thanked me.

He had a book of short stories in his hand. I felt pleased by Capote’s next question: “Have you a favorite story you’d like me to read?”

“Do you have ‘A Christmas Memory’?”

Capote replied, “Yes, I think it’s here.” He turned to the page, stuck a finger in the book, lifted the chair with his free hand, smiled, and strode beneath the lights to thunderous applause.

I ran down the side stairway and out into the auditorium. I ducked into my seat just as Capote began repeating his thanks to quiet the crowd. He swung the chair before him, straddled it, propped the book on the back, and said without fanfare, “I want to read for you my short story ‘A Christmas Memory.’”

What ensued was breathtaking: a heart-wrenching story written incomparably well and pronounced with quiet passion. I have heard many authors read from their work. Capote’s reading was one of the two best readings I have ever heard. When Capote reached the final word and gradually closed his book, the hush was extraordinary. From somewhere in the darkness of the vast hall came a muffled sob. The clapping began. It grew and grew until everyone was standing and applauding with no intention of quitting.

Capote, too, stood. He bowed politely again and again. I could tell he was genuinely moved by the outpouring of appreciation from the assembly. He waved his hand to permit the audience to be seated, and he took questions. A professor asked, “What authors do you read?”

“I read many authors, but Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind.” Capote’s answer drew immediate applause.

Capote graciously replied to numerous questions. He then thanked the audience, which resumed the standing ovation while he walked humbly offstage.

The next morning, we students took Capote back to the airport. He shook our hands and said goodbye, then he asked me, “Could I see your drawings?” I handed him my pad of paper. He paged through the sketches. When he arrived at the one depicting him reading from the café chair, he said excitedly, “I must have this one for my apartment in New York. May I have it?”

Capote's Signature on One of My Sketches
“Yes, if I can make a photocopy first,” I said. I inquired at the ticket counter if someone could copy my portrait of Truman Capote, and an agent took my drawing into a back room. He soon emerged with two of the slick gray photocopies that obviously came from one of the first generation of photocopiers. While the pages were not the best, I gladly accepted them. When I handed the original art to Capote, he was grateful. He carefully placed the drawing in his bag. I felt honored when he volunteered to sign the likeness I had drawn on the trip to the university.

When he walked down the aisle to the waiting plane, I began to realize just how fortunate I had been to have shared most of two days with a genius.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Friend the Medium, Installment 6 (Last Installment in This Series)

Ever since Mary’s death, I’ve toyed with the fanciful notion that she was called to heaven during a severe lightning storm because the powerful energy made for a smoother passage for her soul. I like to think that the light of her being rode on a lightning beam into the clouds and beyond.

All of us who knew Mary were devastated. We cried incessantly. Dabbing our eyes with tissues, we said to one another, “Mary wouldn’t want us to cry. She would want us to laugh.” Although she was 70 years of age, she had seemed many years younger. Everyone missed her youthfulness, her joy, her wisdom, her friendship, and her love.

Mary’s brother, who was an engineer, summed up his sister’s talent. “She had an extraordinary gift,” he said. I like his wording. Her gift was indeed rare because she brought tremendous reassurance and happiness to so many people!

My Photograph of Early Spring
Within three days after Mary passed, one of her closest friends opened his front door to find a butterfly hovering there. It alighted on his shoulder. An Irish tradition transplanted in America through immigration holds that souls of recently passed loved ones can appear as butterflies to inspire and guide those living.

One day, I had nothing better to do, so, for a few seconds, while half asleep, I pretended to type what Mary would dictate if she could be standing and talking nearby me: “How opportunity comes is mysterious, but it surely does come when you are ready. Be in good spirits! Joy is everywhere in trees changing colors and birds at the feeder! Write what you hear being written, or else you will have directionless books. Be ready! Have faith!” I immediately felt I was wasting time. The expressions did not sound exactly like Mary, and I did not regard them as profound.

Only a few days after typing those words, I received a letter from one of Mary’s friends in Omaha. She wrote, “So tell me, have you heard from Mary? For some reason, I feel you have. Mary used to say she would not speak in parables if she could break that barrier [death]—she would communicate clearly, no games! Is this happening now? Has it happened to you? Have you tried for it, or has it simply come to you?”

The friend’s letter persuaded me to save my typing for future reference.

Over the ensuing decades, I experienced perhaps a dozen occasions when, for no more than a few seconds, I felt as if Mary were trying to communicate with me. Such fleeting occurrences took place when it seemed as if she were the farthest thought from my mind. I always concluded that my subconscious mind was still seeking to compensate for the loss of a dear friend.

All the same, I have turned again and again to the sentences that I typed on that day when I was pretending to take dictation. I have wished that my often cynical temperament would permit me to follow the advice. I am frequently pessimistic, and I customarily gripe that I lack opportunity. Finding joy everywhere is a challenge for the defeatist that I have become. “Write what you hear being written, or else you will have directionless books.” I have pondered the meaning of that guideline, and I have taken the suggestion to listen carefully to what I have to say before stringing words together in sentences. I have followed the counsel to write what I hear, and I have developed as a writer with sixteen books to my name and over two hundred articles.      

Now I am nearing the age that Mary was when I met her. Perhaps illogically, her ideas have helped reaffirm my more traditional expectations set in motion by my parents, who regularly attended a Methodist church. Mary had always believed I would become an author. Did she assist me? Yes, she undoubtedly did. During the part of her life that I was privileged to share, she taught me to observe people accurately and to hear their stories fully. Grateful for the lessons, I have passed these gifts forward to students in my writing classes at the university.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Friend the Medium, Installment 5

While blogging about Mary, the medium I once knew, I’ve been thinking that those of us who want to believe in what mediums claim to do are those that want additional proof of life after death to undergird faith that has been developed through religion.

Mary consistently situated her mediumistic abilities within her Catholic upbringing; for example, she said the guardian angels her parents had told her about were the spiritual guides that spoke through her.

I asked Mary in what way she “heard” the spiritual guides. She said she meditated so as to clear her mind. Whenever an idea began to take form, that idea did not originate with her but from a guide outside her.

Over the years that I knew Mary, I was gradually becoming skeptical of whether her readings were from guides. I suppose I have a proclivity toward scientific thinking, which demands incontrovertible proof, even though I have enjoyed a long career in arts and literature, fields so expansive as to entertain speculation beyond scientific evidence.

My skepticism persisting, I began to consider that Mary might be a counselor unusually adept but not a conduit for voices from beyond the grave. I know she helped the customers that came to her for readings. She offered them advice that benefited them. Often, her readings began by contacting FGH, Mary’s master guide, but ended with lengthy conversations about the clients’ specific difficulties and solutions to those problems.

Mary developed quite a list of customers, most of them earnest people who visited her regularly. She was a positive influence in their lives.

The year after Mary and I enjoyed Quebec City, we decided to take a vacation in Omaha, where Mary’s husband had died unexpectedly and where her financial troubles had begun. In May, we set out for Nebraska. We had a lovely time along the way. I remember one spectacular sunrise in Iowa City after pre-dawn showers that made the world look fresh and new.

Arriving in Omaha, we drove past the suburban house where Mary and her husband had lived. I could tell that Mary felt ill at ease in the location. We rang the doorbell, and the owner graciously permitted us to step into the living room where Mary and her friends in Omaha had regularly gathered to discuss books and to share spiritual concepts. Even though Mary spoke in sunny terms about her time in that house, I could tell she was reliving the sadness of the sudden loss of her husband not long after they had moved there.

While we were in Omaha, Mary and I delighted in long visits with two of her closest friends. They were women very different from one another but alike in their high regard for Mary. One had been a stewardess in the early years of jetliners; she was a stately woman who carried herself with the grace of a model. The other was a housewife who loved to cook; wherever she was, she inspired a sense of comfort. The group talked about the past but also about more recent spiritual investigations. I listened intently. Both of Mary’s friends said how greatly she was missed, and I developed the impression that Mary had been the adviser to whom the others had turned.

When we came back home from our journey to Nebraska, Mary and I were tired but elated from having experienced uplifting conversations. All the same, I sensed that our world had no intention of remaining pleasant.

The summer flew by, and Mary and I were ready to begin another fall semester. Every evening of the week before the first day of classes, thunderstorms roared. The lightning was fierce.

My Drawing of the Lightning
Mary and I had come up with the idea to market recordings of her talking extemporaneously about spiritual concepts. I served as the interviewer. We had doubts about the success of our venture because we lacked professional equipment. Using an inexpensive cassette recorder, we were trying to do in the dining room of my rented house what needed to be done in a studio. Each evening that we met to record, the thunder crashed and rumbled so loudly that our tapes were not the best.

At dusk on the day when Mary taught her first university class, she was to stop by my home for another recording session. On cue, the thunderstorms appeared. I walked through my darkened house while waiting for Mary’s car to pull into the driveway. The lightning was especially frequent, and the thunder was particularly powerful. After Mary was more than an hour late, I began to worry. I rang and rang her telephone number, but there was no answer. After another hour had elapsed, I drove to her apartment to see what was keeping her. I parked near her car. I knocked on her door. No answer. Using a key that she had given me, I let myself into her entryway. Lightning was still flashing on the horizon. I called Mary’s name. I walked through her rooms. I found her sitting upright on the edge of her bed. I said, “Mary, what’s the matter?” She did not reply. I reached my arms around her to shake her, and the skin on her arms was cold. I jumped back in shock.

I ran to her phone to call 911. Soon the paramedics arrived. They said that Mary had died at about the time that she was supposed to drive to my home. In the palm of her hand was a pill prescribed for her heart.      

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Friend the Medium, Installment 4

Quebec City was a welcome relief from the troubles that had been afflicting Mary and me. Mary’s friends from the days when she managed the English-speaking radio station greeted us. I spoke bad French but somehow communicated. Mary and I toured the sites from the fort to the boardwalk. A carefree atmosphere like a comforting blanket wrapped the city.

We stayed with the couple that had purchased Mary’s house. As I write this series of blogs, I remember so distinctly the first time I entered the basement and strode up to the bar where, many years before, Mary had met her spiritual guide, named only FGH. Having heard so many stories from Mary, I felt that the basement of that house was a special place full of benevolent potential.

My Ink Drawing for Mary's Business Cards
Mary engaged in readings for her Canadian friends. She usually asked the questioner to choose a card from a regular deck of playing cards. In turn, Mary concentrated on the card as a way of clearing her mind. Then she began to bring through messages from the questioner’s deceased loved ones that affirmed their eternal connection and that confirmed life after death. Mary was anything but pretentious. Affectation was not part of her personality. She was simply a kind soul who wanted the best for everyone. At the time that we were in Quebec, Mary did not charge for readings. Later, she began asking for modest fees because she wanted to be perceived as professional. When she started to charge a fee, the number of her customers skyrocketed.

While Mary and I were visiting Canada, Mary had the leisure to learn what her friends had been doing throughout the intervening years. One of her friends had studied therapeutic touch and had begun a practice employing the technique. I participated in a session, which, ironically, did not involve actual touch whatsoever. The therapist’s hands remained at some distance from me. With my eyes closed, I experienced a deep relaxation.

The trip to Canada reinvigorated both Mary and me and inspired us to continue on our quest for knowledge of philosophical topics.

After we returned to the states, Mary invited her late husband’s aunt, who lived near Louisville, to visit for a few days. “Fay makes me look like an amateur,” Mary said.

I met Fay for dinner at Mary’s apartment. Fay was a thin, elderly woman with so much jet-black wiry hair that her face appeared to be surrounded by a huge ball of steel wool. We ate salad and pork chops while chatting about this and that. I recall that Fay and Mary talked about their afternoon trip to Value City Furniture, where Fay had seen bowls that she had liked but had not purchased. After dinner, Fay and I sat on Mary’s couch while Mary sat in her customary chair. Whenever I picture Mary, I see her leaning in her chair with her shoes off and one foot drawn up behind a knee.

It was during the after-dinner conversation that I discovered Fay’s gift. She would be talking about something as mundane as bowls at Value City and would abruptly interrupt herself to utter a disconnected sentence or two revealing knowledge that she could not have gained except through extraordinary means. Here is a reconstruction:

“I wish I had bought those bowls, but I have plenty of bowls and certainly don’t need any more. You recently had a student who died in a wreck. I see fire all around. He says to tell you he didn’t suffer. He was really surprised to find himself on the other side. All the same, I liked the bowls, and they would have come in handy for salads.”

Such disjointed sentences kept coming for an hour or longer. Many of the comments that Fay directed toward me included facts she could not have known, unless Mary told her. To this day, I don’t know why I reacted in the way that I did. I grew increasingly uncomfortable and fearful. Finally, I excused myself and returned to my townhouse. I almost typed “fled” just now, and maybe I should have done so. I truly fled from Mary’s apartment. Fay’s talent for piercing through the bubble of what we assume is reality unnerved me.

I never saw Fay again. Within a few months, she passed away. Mary was quite right: Fay made Mary look like an amateur.

I distinctly remember one anecdote that Fay shared. She said that, when she was a little girl, her parents held séances. First, Fay was put to bed, so that the adults could pursue their séances without interruption, but Fay would only pretend to be asleep. She would sneak to a landing on the stairs, sit down, and listen to the adults. “I watched spirits go up and down the stairs,” Fay asserted. “I’ve always known there is much more to life than we think.”