This is a phrase I’m getting used to while marketing A Christmas Carol: The Musical. There are lots of reasons: The Utah Food Bank, PTC and Wells Fargo are partnering on an upcoming food drive during the production. Ask Karen Azenberg about why the Dickens story is special, and she’ll tell you how it wasn’t really a tradition of sharing at the holidays until Ebenezer had his historic change of heart in 1843 – the story literally started a cultural trend of giving to charitable organizations at the holidays. That’s pretty special.
So, when Dan Arnow submitted this story as part of our 50th Anniversary celebration, it was such a special experience for us here at PTC to read that I thought it deserved a special entry in our blog. And what better time than on the first day of rehearsal for A Christmas Carol: The Musical, when the spirits of Abundance and Charity are on everyone’s minds here in the building today.
We hope you enjoy Dan’s story as much as we did.
“My parents, Ted and Lois Arnow, started taking my brother and I to PMT shortly after we moved to Utah in June of 1961 when we were 10 years old. When I became an adult I got my own season tickets to PMT. I am not sure of the date we first went but I think I’ve been going to PMT/PTC pretty much from your beginning. The following is a story I wrote about one of my favorite memories of PTC. This story began in 1999. Since then I have become very happily married to an extraordinary woman I first took on dates to PTC. It was magical! Thank you PMT/PTC!”
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Theater
by Dan Arnow
Norma Parker. Isn’t that a great name? It has something of a historical ring to it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all started because of my theater tickets. All my adult life I’ve had season tickets to productions at the local university. I don’t have any one to go with since my divorce, but I keep my tickets. After all, they are the best in the house, the center two seats in the front row of the loge. I also keep them because I enjoy the theater and I hope to have someone to go with again. Each year before the new theater season starts, I think more than ever about finding someone to date. I haven’t found anyone, but I think about it a lot. There is a heightened sense of urgency about it at this time of year because I have the two season tickets and want to find someone to share them with. Last year I invited my cousin Mike to the plays, but he writes screenplays and produces videos for a living. His usually negative critiques of the plays eventually became depressing so I decided not to invite Mike this year.
I was just finishing my Sunday afternoon workout when it happened. A “White Moment.”
That is when one receives a message in one’s mind from a source external to oneself. You could say a message from God. I’ve learned to listen to them, and this one was clear. It said, “Call Christine and ask her to go to the play on Friday.” Christine is a woman who attends the church I attend. I hadn’t thought of dating Christine before. I always thought she was married. But then I remembered noticing earlier that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. I called our minister and asked her if Christine was married. She told me Christine had gotten divorced a year ago and suggested I call her.
Now I’d been told twice. I didn’t need to be told again. I called Christine. When she answered the phone, I said “Hi” and told her my name. I was relieved that she knew who I was. I apologized for the way I was doing this since I didn’t do it often. I didn’t tell her it had been at least 30 years since I had made a cold call to ask for a date. I asked her if she would like to go to a play.
Christine was wonderful. She was very easy to talk to and seemed genuinely pleased that I had called to ask her out. She explained that she wasn’t actually divorced yet but that the divorce would be final in a few months. Her lawyer had advised her to “lay low” for a while, and she asked if it would be all right if she called me back after she checked on some things. I said “Sure,” and we talked a while longer. She made me feel at ease, and I enjoyed talking to her. After I hung up I felt good. I had high hopes for the possibility of making a new friend and perhaps having a date for the play.
Monday, as I arrived home from work, the phone was ringing. It was Christine. I knew as soon as she started to speak that I didn’t have a date. She was very good about it. She graciously declined my invitation and went on to say she was grateful to me for opening up something in her life. She explained that she had been having a glass of wine with a friend the night before, and told him that she hadn’t considered dating until I called and asked her out. Upon hearing this, her friend told her that if she were going to consider dating, he would like an opportunity. She explained how grateful she was to me for opening the possibility for them to move what had become a good friendship to the level of a romance. It was an amazing thing! I had been told by God to ask Christine out so that she and her friend could transition their friendship to a romance. At first I felt a little hurt and rejected. Mostly I was disappointed. But those feelings didn’t last long. For one thing, it’s hard to feel bad about bringing two people closer together, especially when one is told by God to do it; for another thing, I felt some relief at not having to face the prospect of a new relationship and all the challenges that might entail.
The next day, on the way home from work, I did something I had been thinking about doing for a long time. I went into an assisted living retirement home I pass every day. I had often thought there might be someone living there who would love to go to the theater. I figured the worst that could happen was that they would think I was weird and throw me out. So, I went in and explained to the two young women at the front desk that I had tickets to the theater, and asked if there might be someone living there who would like to go to a play with me. They looked at me like I was weird and I figured that might be the end of it. But it wasn’t. They called Mary, the Activities Director.
Mary was great. She listened to my idea. Then she put her wrist on my forehead to see if I had a temperature. Then she asked if I was a dirty old man. I told her I wasn’t. She asked me if I had references. I said I did. She made me promise I wasn’t a dirty old man and that there wouldn’t be any pornography involved. I promised. Then she got out a survey she had made that indicated who in the home liked live theater. This was great! In about two minutes she had a short list of the folks who liked theater. She made a phone call. The person on the other end of the line didn’t want to go. Then we went down the hall and Mary knocked on a door. That’s when I met Norma Parker.
Norma Parker was very nice. She asked me a few questions about the play. I told her it was a musical comedy playing at the university. Norma Parker said she’d never been to the university. She asked what she should wear, and I explained we could get all dressed up, or go more casual if she preferred. She said she would like to wear pants so we agreed to go “medium casual.” I told her I would pick her up at 6:45 Friday evening. She said she would be ready. On the way out, Mary explained the checkout procedure and made me promise again that I wasn’t a dirty old man.
Thursday after work I stopped at the retirement home to give Norma a copy of the “Backstage News” which contains information about the play and the theater. I thought Norma would like to read it before seeing the play. Mary saw me come in and ran up, excited to see me. “I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you but I didn’t even have your phone number,” she said. “I want to get your references.” I filled out a form entitled Volunteer Information Sheet. I listed two references and wondered what they would think if they got a call from a retirement home asking if I was a dirty old man. Mary took me into a room around the corner, telling me that the “Father” wanted to interview me. I didn’t understand until she explained it was a joke. The room she took me to contained a large group of women, including Norma, who were all getting their nails “done.” The “Father” was also there. He turned out to be the manager of the retirement home. He didn’t really want to interview me, but Mary enjoyed showing me off to Norma’s friends. I was introduced as Norma’s date for Friday night. I think Norma enjoyed that. I gave her the “Backstage News” and told her I would see her Friday.
At 6:45 Friday evening, dressed “medium casual,” I knocked on Norma Parker’s door. She answered the door all dressed up, wearing a dress and looking very nice. She invited me in, and I could tell she thought we might sit and talk for a while. Her room was quite small but was furnished nicely and felt comfortable. It contained a small bed with a pretty comforter and feminine-looking pillows, a small table with a couple of chairs, a television, easy chair, book case, small refrigerator, and microwave oven. She offered me a piece of gum from a bowl of candy. I explained that we had best be going because construction on the freeway might make us late. Norma took my arm and we walked slowly down the hall. At the front desk I checked her out, and we were on our way.
Norma liked my Jeep Cherokee. She commented on how new it looked and how shiny it was. I appreciated her appreciation of my Jeep. It was quite a stretch for her to climb into it. Norma Parker is a bit on the short side. But she made it, and off we went. She commented on how beautiful the mountains were above the retirement home. I told her that the day before, while hiking in those mountains with my dogs, we had encountered two skunks and were lucky to get away with only a small spray on the neck of one dog. Norma thought that was pretty exciting.
As we drove towards the city, I learned a few things about Norma. She is 89 years old. That surprised and impressed me. I didn’t think she was that old. She is doing very well for 89. Norma was born not far from the retirement home. She has been to California a couple of times but that seems to be the extent of her travel. She had only seen two “live” plays before but knew she liked theater because she had seen it on TV. She had five children but one son went to Vietnam in the Navy and didn’t come back. Her other four children live in the area. She doesn’t know how many grandchildren she has. Her husband has been dead for 20 years and she likes being alone. She had been living in her own home until a year ago when she fell and broke her wrist. The doctors told her children she shouldn’t live alone anymore so they moved her into the retirement home. She said she didn’t like it at first, but she likes it now. She likes to read. She reads “church books.” She asked if I was a Mormon. I told her I wasn’t. I asked Norma if she would like to listen to music. She said she would if I wanted to. I was prepared with music I thought she would like. I had brought a Mozart album and a Boston Pops album. There was also a jazz album already in the car. I asked her what kind of music she liked. She answered that she liked country music. That surprised me. I wasn’t prepared for that. I asked her if she liked classical music. She said she didn’t. I asked her if she might like some contemporary jazz. She said that would be OK.
We listened to jazz, my favorite. She commented on what a smooth ride my Jeep had. Norma didn’t talk a lot. She’s like me in that respect. She seemed comfortable not talking a lot so we were comfortable together. Every once in a while she’d say something with “hell” in it. Then she would apologize. But then she would do it again. I thought it was cute. She is a character. At one point we were stuck in construction traffic, and I noticed that the girl in the car next to us had bright red hair. I mean bright fire engine red. I pointed this out to Norma. She said, “Well isn’t that a hell of a note.” Then she apologized, but I just laughed to myself. That red hair must have been a real culture shock to Norma Parker. Norma’s biggest concern about the world today is all the construction and the elimination of the open spaces she used to know. I feel the same way. “It’s a hell of a thing.”
Despite the construction we got to the theater in time. In fact our timing was perfect. I was worried about finding a parking place close enough so that Norma could walk in. I told her I could drop her off in front of the theater and then park, but I was concerned about leaving her alone. She suggested that I park and said she would walk in with me. Just as we got to the front of the parking lot, the guard that reserves the front two rows for Directors Club members opened them to the public. We got the closest space in the whole parking lot! Norma leaned on my arm as we walked in and took the elevator to the second floor. I asked if she would like to go to the ladies room before the play, and she said she would. When she came out she said, “It sure was crowded in there.” Our timing was good again. She had just beaten the crowd.
Now came the play, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I was a little worried that it might be a bit risqué for Norma. I needn’t have worried. She loved it. It was really good, and very funny. We enjoyed it immensely. During the intermission the woman next to Norma leaned over to her and said, “You must really be enjoying the play. You’re just sitting there chuckling through the whole thing.” And indeed she did. She laughed and chuckled all the way through it. She seemed to enjoy all the sexual innuendo and didn’t even seem to mind when Pseudolus, in stunned disbelief, looked out at the audience and said, “Can you believe there’s a religion that prohibits its members from drinking wine?” After that I stopped worrying.
When the play was over we made our way out to the car. Norma leaned on my arm as we went down in the elevator and out to the closest parking spot in the lot. We drove home listening to jazz, not talking a lot, other than to say how much we enjoyed the play. When we got back to the retirement home I checked her back in and walked her to her door. She told me she’d seen a lot of people come and go in the home. Some of them would fall down in that hall and never recover from their injuries. She said she always walks very carefully, and then I understood why she leaned on my arm when we walked together.
At her door, she told me that if I ever wanted to talk, I could come and see her. I extended my hand to say goodnight. She took my hand, leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. As she stood in her doorway we looked into each other’s eyes. It wasn’t an old woman I saw. I saw the bright beautiful spirit that is Norma Parker.
She closed the door and I started to cry as I walked back down the hall. I was confused. Why was I crying? I was experiencing such powerful feelings. Was it the all-too-familiar loneliness, once again enfolding me as I returned to life with my dogs? Was it her loneliness I was feeling? Or did it have something to do with the beautiful spirit I had just seen in that frail little body? I guess it was a mixture of all these things.
After that first “date” with Norma I took her to many more plays and I started visiting the retirement home weekly to see her and others that I met there. I started taking my dogs with me because some of the folks there seemed to really enjoy them. It kind of lit up their lives a little bit and I enjoyed seeing that. I took Norma to a play on her 90th birthday and she was still going strong then. A few months after that, she had a heart attack. She recovered from that. It took a long time and she wasn’t as strong as she had been. She was still a character, and still upbeat and fun to be around, but a bit too frail to go to plays. I visited her every week and played the Native American flute for her. She loved seeing me and always asked me to play for her. We developed a special bond and I considered her a true friend. I know she got a lot out of my visits but I don’t think she knew how much I get out of them too. There is something powerful about loving acts given freely to others. It makes a difference in their lives and a huge difference in our lives as well. Norma died when she was 93. I had been visiting her for five years. She will always hold a special place in my heart.
Norma Parker. Isn’t that a great name?
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