Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pink Saturday - Marya's Christmas Village

Pink Saturday - Beverly at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

During this December, Beverly asks bloggers to post on a weekly holiday theme. For this Saturday, the theme is - Show us one of your favorite holiday decorations, and tell us why it is special to you.

Photo from The Seattle Traveler

I first met Marya when I was on the road with a theatre company. It was 1982, it was a bus-and-truck musical. We were both on the tech crew - I ran Props and she was Assistant Electrician, working for her husband the Electrician.

She was a small woman, with a pale heart-shaped face as exquisitely beautiful as a Pre-Raphaelite painting. She wore her hair in a single long braid down her back - the rare times I saw her with it loose it rippled down past her waist.

It was a crazy time. It was winter, the company booked in one night stands, and we played the worst dumps of theatres you could imagine. I got no sleep, drank too much, and partied on the bus with our crazy Cuban bus driver, drinking beer and getting high and heading down the road.

Marya didn't party, though. We hardly saw her, except at work in the theatre. Each night when the load-out was done, she'd get on the bus and go straight back to her bunk. Her husband would too, although on rare occasions he'd sit with us for five minutes. They didn't go out to eat, didn't go to the bar, didn't hang out with the crew backstage.

On the rare occasions she and I talked, it was about mutual friends. She knew some of the guys in my home labor union Local. Otherwise, she shunned the rest of the company - and me. I admit I took her coldness personally - her disapproval made it hard to maintain denial about my own out-of-control life.

When the tour was over, I figured it was the last I'd see of Marya and her husband, and good riddance, too.

Five years later, I had cleaned up my act. I had a steady job at a large event facility. I was married and had a small son. I was an officer for my labor union Local, and I learned that Marya and her husband had moved to town and joined our work dispatch list.

"The Bounce" is what we called it when you worked wherever the dispatcher sent you. You had to take what they gave you, or you wouldn't work at all. Marya worked the Bounce, but they liked her at the Opera, so she started to be sent there on request. We'd run into each other at union meetings. She would always be glad to see me. It was as if history had been re-written. She acted like we were old road buddies. Did she change her mind about me? Or was it just that I was no longer defensive about my life?

Stagehands are an inbred group. We often spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our families, and see each other at our best and worst. Backstage is rife with inappropriate behavior, personal rivalries and gossip.

So despite the fact that I barely knew Marya, I came to know things about her. There were rumors of a turbulent past relationship, an estranged child, a troubled life. Though she was standoffish, it was funny how she could be somewhat of a drama queen. She complained about busybodies, but she'd reveal bitter details about her husband if they'd had a fight - things I simply did not believe, given his taciturn, almost passive manner.

I only learned of Marya's breast cancer when she started wearing bandannas on her head at work, to hide the hair loss. In the summer, the Opera ran all five operas of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle in repertory, and the work-week ran from 8:00 in the morning to 12:00 midnight, six days a week. Marya scheduled her chemotherapy appointments on her days off, and came to work every day.

Someone in the union suggested we suspend the dispatch rules to let her take some time off without losing seniority, but I heard she refused it. As long as she worked a certain number of monthly hours, our union's health insurance covered the treatment, and she wasn't willing to risk that.

By November, at my job, we were gearing up for our annual work of decorating the Seattle Center grounds for Christmas. The projects included indoor decoration in the Center House, outdoor decoration on the grounds, installing a temporary ice rink, and setting up a miniature model train display. For the last couple of years, the model train display had been my assignment.

Photo from the Seattle Times

It had been started by a group of volunteers years ago. There was a model of a turn-of-the-century village at Christmas time, with an O/S gauge electric train snaking through the buildings and miniature countryside.

I supervised a team of stagehands who built the display platform and viewing walkways, and brought all the model buildings and trains out of storage. The volunteers were supposed to arrange the village and train layout, touch up the paint, decorate it, and lay fresh cotton batting for snow. Then they would operate the train during viewing hours. But the volunteers were growing older and none of them wanted to work on the set-up - it was difficult work that had to be done late at night. Nor did they want to maintain the village after the display opened. The whole thing had started looking shabby in recent years, and by the end of the holiday viewing season it would be dirty and littered with trash.

I asked my boss if we could hire a team to take over the village set-up for the volunteers. They could also put in a weekly shift to keep the village tidy over the holiday. He agreed.

So once my carpenters and I finished the platform, Marya and her husband came in to put the village together. I'd sometimes look down from where I was in the bucket of a telescoping personnel-lift, hanging evergreen garlands from the railing, and see her sitting with a tiny paintbrush, lining doorway molding on a miniature front porch, her bandanna'd head bent to her work. Or sprinkling iridescent glitter on snowy eaves. With the small budget we gave her, she bought tiny toy swing-sets to place in snow-covered yards; little sleds for model children to ride on; caroling people; a tiny red cardinal to perch in a tree. When the display opened to visitors, children on the viewing platform would point out the tiny, magical details that delighted their eyes.

Photo courtesy Blair Stocker, at her blog Wise Craft

It was such a change from the past couple of years that my boss agreed to keep the work in next year's decorating budget. And the next.

I don't know why I thought of hiring her. Was I just trying to solve a problem? Or did I know how desperately Marya needed the work to keep her health insurance? And how did I know she could do this? There was no doubt in my mind that she was exactly the right person to do such a creative and delicate job - but where had I learned that?

Marya could sometimes be a difficult person, negative and deeply distrustful. I remember how she'd sometimes sneer at the kind words of others, as if they were looking down on her. There were times when she would exhibit a kind of combined cynicism and victimization - the only other person I've ever encountered this in before was another woman I met recently, who also had led a difficult life and was in recovery from substance abuse.

She never said anything to me to show thanks for giving her the work. Given her close-mouthed ways, I never expected her to. But I could tell how much pleasure that she took in creating the tiny village. It was thanks enough.

For the next three years, Marya's Christmas village was a gift to the city of Seattle, and also to me. In 1992 she lost her struggle with cancer. Her Local #15 brothers and sisters celebrated her life onstage at the Seattle Center Opera House, and I planted a rose bush in my garden in her memory.


Tristan Robin said...

*reaching for the Kleenex*

marvelous post - thanks.

Sue said...

What a wonderful and touching story. Obviously her memory lives on.


KBeau said...

Wonderful story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. Merry Christmas.

BTW, I'm going to send a link to my DIL who is from Seattle. Perhaps she will remember the village.

Grace said...

aww how heart warming...a 2 tissue story. Beautiful Village and great memory Hugs Grace

The Quintessential Magpie said...

G... what a fabulous story! I live in awe of those who create and bring wonder to the world for the rest of us. And that village is awesome. What a wonderful legacy she left the city with her darling little touches.

Good work by all of you...

Happy Pink Saturday!


Sheila :-)

dana said...

G...what a moving story! You certainly kept me glued from beginning to end with your wonderful writing skills. Maybe Marya's gift to you was a "nudge" to a healthier lifestyle, which in the end, enabled you to help her in her fight against breast cancer.

What a gorgeous Village you all created. . . wish we had one like that in KC!

Happy Pink Saturday! L, Dana

Pam said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing this touching story with us.

Happy Pink Saturday.

Jacalyn @ said...

Amazing how some people touch our lives! I am glad she lives on in your memory!


Shirl said...

Hello, Happy Pink Saturday! Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a sweet comment. Great post, what a touching story!
Christmas Blessings, Shirl
Shirls Rose Cottage

CC said...

Such a wonderful post that brought tears to my eyes.I'm sure she loved that little village she worked had to be a work of love. Thank you for sharing this story with us..and happy Pink Saturday.

Chuck Pefley said...

G, an amazing story. There's always so much more to all of our stories ... thanks for sharing this. My wife and I have enjoyed the decorations around Seattle Center most years, and certainly the village and train inside the Center House. As Paul Harvey always said, "and now, the rest of the story."

Nancy said...

Wow, G. Another story from your fascinating life! Great story and well written! Loved it. xoxo Nancy

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