Loving and Losing Sylvia

It was 1982. Freshly graduated from the theatre program at San Jose State University, I had just landed my first theatre job. Feeling both excited and terrified, I also felt entirely out of my league. That’s when I met Sylvia.

Sylvia Muzzio

With Sylvia in the San Jose Rep costume shop, November, 1982

If you follow the money, you won’t find it in the theater. San Jose Rep’s small costume shop occupied a couple of classrooms in a vacant elementary school, in an unremarkable part of town. Yet between those walls, magic happened.  Under Resident Costume Designer Marcia Frederick’s guidance, Sylvia Muzzio, Marcia and I crafted some of the most extraordinary costumes you’ve ever seen.  We were three  creative women working in very close quarters, yet we always got along.

Sylvia mentored and mothered and minded the shop and taught me about theater and life along the way. She personified warmth and care. I shared things with her that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others. Her open nature and gentle soul invited you in. It was a gift at the time, though it took age and maturity to fully grasp how special she was.

Sylvia nurtured her children, her grandchildren and those of us lucky enough to be part of her circle. She always wanted the best for people. She was modest and unassuming, but honest and direct as well. I loved her.

While I was in an unhappy relationship in those early years at The Rep, Sylvia told me that I needed to find an Italian, someone warm and affectionate (like her). When years later I met and married Mike Francini, I enjoyed recalling that memory with her. “Sylvia,” I said, “I found my Italian.”

Sylvia Muzzio

The four of us gathered for the first time in many years in 2010. Alys, Jim, Marcia and Sylvia

Marcia Frederick, Sylvia Muzzio, Alys and James Reber

Marcia Frederick, Sylvia Muzzio, Alys and James Reber, Founder of San Jose Repertory Theatre, November, 2013

Sylvia Muzzio

Sylvia and Rick share a laugh at a reception for The Snow Queen, November, 2013, San Jose Rep

Sylvia had a year of major health problems, hospitalizations and treatments, then seemed to miraculously kick every last one of her ailments to the curb. I saw her earlier this year for lunch, and though frail, she was upbeat and engaged. I started one of those “let’s get together when you get back from Shasta” emails and hoped to see her again this fall.

Sylvia Muzzio

With Sylvia and Marcia, 2015

Marcia called me on Monday to let me know that Sylvia was gravely ill. Sylvia and Marcia have remained close friends for many years. It came on suddenly in the last two weeks.

I spoke with Sylvia for the last time Wednesday morning. She was groggy from her pain medication, but she knew who I was and said it was good to hear my voice. She died this morning in her sleep.

And so I weep.

Death lies on her, like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

Romeo and Juliet (1597) IV, scene 5, line 28.

Goodbye dear friend.

Millbrae: Train Tracks of my Youth

DSC00068I just read an uplifting post at Teddy and Tottie, a family enjoying themselves and the holidays.

Color me green with envy.  It’s not that I had a bad holiday.  To the contrary, I have two great sons, four adorable cats and a husband who is all you could ask for in a partner. I have extraordinary friends and a comfortable life.  I want for nothing.

Depression, however, colors things grey.  It tosses a blanket over the light and strips your energy.  It paints things with a lackluster brush.  We’re well acquainted, depression and me, but we’re not friends.  Regardless, it shows up each year and settles in for a while.

The triggers are all too familiar, but since I can’t change the past, cancel the holidays or renegotiate the date on my mother’s death certificate, I simply work at remaining aware and try to be kind to myself.

We headed to The City for a family outing this week on a train that travels through Millbrae.  When our train made the scheduled stop at the Millbrae station and without a hint of diplomacy, my old acquaintance took a seat in the invisible row of my past.  Depression cozied up to my cerebral cortex and made himself comfortable.

And so it goes.

I wrote the following piece in long-hand while riding the same train several years ago.  It flowed out of my pores and helps explain the sorrow.

If you suffer seasonal depression, my heart goes out to you.  Let’s continue together to toss that blanket aside once and for all.

Train Tracks of my Youth

Standing on the Millbrae platform of a train bound for San Jose, memories dribbled out of me like a wound that won’t quite heal. The longer I stood, the sadder I felt, heavy, burdened, questioning as I stared down the train tracks of my youth.

Our family moved to Millbrae in 1968. My father succumbed to lung cancer a year later, victim to his habit of smoking hand-rolled, unfiltered Player cigarettes. He was 54. What should have been a temporary residence on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks became our home for 7 years.

After our father died, Mom found work in the City and rode those tracks north each day. We waited for her to come home at night, listening for the evening train. Having lost one parent, it suddenly seemed feasible that we could lose the other. The relief was palpable when she walked in the door. I remember the smell of her suede cape, her cool, soft cheek and the undeniable release of fear for another day.

We crossed those tracks daily to attend school, the not-so-subtle border between the slums of Millbrae and the mostly white, affluent hills of this small community. A boy named Dwight once caught up to me as I walked home alone on those tracks, charming and polite, he was tall, dark-skinned and interested in me, a potent combination at any age . But he was to appear a few weeks later at our bus stop, arms bleeding, flogged by his father for some unknown infraction. Confused and horrified, I felt very alone. Shortly thereafter his family moved.

We spent our summer on our side of the tracks playing kick the can and hanging out at an apartment pool reading discarded issues of Mad magazine. I was at home with our crowd on Garden Lane, the have-nots who didn’t need to explain. I played with a boy named Robert, our champion player, his friend Scott and my sister Sharon among others. There was a girl from Puerto Rico named Teresa who exuded sex appeal from every pore. She knew a lot more about boys then I did and got to kiss the one I had a crush on.

We survived those years dodging drugs and unwanted pregnancies and went on to graduate from college. But I would be lying if I said we made it through unscathed. For in that rough-and-tumble neighborhood on a street called Garden Lane I saw things that I still don’t really understand: the cries of a woman beaten by her boyfriend; the squawk of her parrot, also agitated and scared; the sight of a father beating his four-year old with a switch; and the cruelty of a boy exploding a frog with a firecracker before my devastated eyes.

Garden Lane was a place of loss and violence, pain and sorrow, first crushes and the dawning sexuality of a shy, freckle-faced girl. The train tracks remain but Garden Lane is gone, obliterated by tractors and wrecking balls to make way for a BART station in its place. Plowed under but not forgotten, it continues to parallel the train tracks of my youth.

Mr. Cat

Mr. Cat

We lost a feline friend this week, the seemingly immortal Mr. Cat. He was 22. He had a home one block over, but traveled the neighborhood and at some point, adopted us too. He was a scrapper in his youth, regularly picking fights with another male cat, but in his declining years he mellowed. He showed up daily this past year for affection and treats: spoonfuls of baby food chicken.

Mr. Cat slept in the rose bushes, soaking up the sun, and later spent time on the deck, leaning into the wall for support as he absorbed the last of the sun’s rays. He was in terrible shape these past few months, frail and weak.

He was social to the end. He still sought our company and when the petting was good he would purr a unique, rasping, motoring sound deep in his chest. We all knew his days were numbered, but I hoped he would slip away in his sleep, a peaceful end for this scrappy character.

Wishes often don’t come true and death can be unkind. He took a nap on the floor of a neighbor’s garage where she unwittingly ran over his leg. His owner gathered him up as gently as he could and we drove together to the emergency animal hospital. Kitty was in shock with a shattered femur and at 22, surgery was not an option. I watched the family agonize over the decision to peacefully euthanize him. Knowing my affection ran deep, they graciously included me in the process. He died with three pairs of hands holding him and loving him as he eased out of this world.

I’ve caught myself looking for him around corners all day. His “guest bed” remains as a sad reminder that he’s not coming back. Mr. Cat, we miss you. Rest well.

In Memory of Our Cat, Ralph
by Garrison Keillor

When we got home, it was almost dark.
Our neighbor waited on the walk.
“I’m sorry, I have bad news,” he said.
“Your cat, the gray-black one, is dead.
I found him by the garage an hour ago.”
“Thank you,” I said, “for letting us know.”

We dug a hole in the flower bed
With lilac bushes overhead,
Where this cat loved to lie in spring
And roll in dirt and eat the green
Delicious first spring bud,
And laid him down and covered him up,
Wrapped in a piece of tablecloth,
Our good old cat laid in the earth.

We quickly turned and went inside
The empty house and sat and cried
Softly in the dark some tears
For that familiar voice, that fur,
That soft weight missing from our laps,
That we had loved too well perhaps
And mourned from weakness of the heart.
A childish weakness, to regard
An animal whose life is brief
With such affection and such grief.

If such is weakness, so it be.
This modest elegy
Is only meant to note the death
Of one cat so we won’t forget
His face, his name, his gift
Of cat affection while he lived,
The sweet shy nature
Of this graceful creature,
The simple pleasure of himself,
The memory of our cat, Ralph.