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.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Sewing

Major Barbara: San Jose State

Costume Design by Deborah Slate
I spent 40 hours sewing this costume

Wedding and birthday anniversaries are fun.  When it’s the anniversary of a death, clouds descend. My mom passed three days after Christmas in 2008, so in addition to my usual seasonal blahs, feelings of loss prevail.

This year, I spent the day sewing, something my mom taught me as a girl.  I remember the moment clearly, though I was only six.  It started at school.

During arts and crafts time, they gave us sewing cards, cardboard pictures punched with holes and a shoe lace. We were to thread the lace in and out of the holes to frame the picture. Though mesmerized, I was also annoyed that I had to take it apart when done.  I went home and asked my mom if I could sew.

She found the largest needle she had and an old sock.  I sat by her knee on the floor, cutting the sock into shapes and then sewing them together.  I completely lost myself in the activity.

I made a lot of my clothes in high school, and sewed for friends as well.  I attended community college where I got an associate degree in fashion merchandising, taking classes in fine sewing and design. From there I transferred to San Jose State where I studied costume design, graduating with a BS in theater.  I worked as a ‘stitcher’ at San Jose Repertory Theater, my first professional experience.  I also spent three summers doing summer stock in Santa Rosa, working as an assistant cutter and later cutter for summer shows.

summer stock theater

Summer Stock Theater

Making a living in the arts is hard work.  I admire my friends that stuck with it, many of them working in academia to make ends meet.  I drifted into different things, when the challenge of always looking for that next job, contract or summer gig started to wear on me.  I miss it.  You meet incredibly talented and creative people in theater, and you meet prima donnas and sociopaths as well.  Everyone’s welcome. No judgment.

These days I sew for myself once a year at Halloween.  It’s a wonderfully creative outlet.  Whenever I haul out my machine, I wonder why I don’t find the time to do it more often.

During my day of sewing, I repaired a dress for my sister. Sharon is also a good seamstress, but her MS makes sewing a challenge these days. I did a bit of mending for my son, then learned how to use the overlock stitch on my machine.  Oh happy day!

mending seams

Mended seams

Two summers ago I made a slip cover for my garden swing.  I piped most of the edges, but the two side panels were simply pinked (with my mom’s pinking shears).  The loose weave of the fabric didn’t hold up in the wash, unfortunately, so the pinked edges frayed.  I trimmed the edges even, then went to town with the over lock stitch.  Be still my heart: it worked!  I laundered the cover and put it away for the season.  For some reason that really made me happy.

overlocked seams

Over-locked seams

garden swing cover

Garden swing cover

Last on the list for my sewing day: a pillow.  My friend Melanie had a beloved canvas bag from her summer camp days.  Her well-loved bag sported torn seams and a few holes, but it had great sentimental value.  I offered to turn it into a pillow.

I found the perfect trim at my local craft store to add a bit of texture.  Within no time the bag transformed.

duffel bag pillow

Camp Seafarer pillow

The day was cathartic.  I sewed for myself, my family and my friends and I sewed for the memory of mom.  I used her pinking sheers that day too, and believe it or not, a spool of black thread that once lived in her sewing box.

As I put all this into words, I wonder if I’ve hit upon an annual tradition.

What helps you get through a ‘loaded’ anniversary?