A Hard Act to Follow

by David Parker

My eighty-year-old mother died on June 12, 2013 after a nearly two-year struggle with lung cancer.  As most readers of this blog already know, she was among Boston's most loved  and celebrated philanthropists.  Her fund-raising efforts gave sustenance to gay-related charities like Community Servings and PFLAG as well as to numerous dance and theater organizations.  Though she'd never pursued a stage career, she was an inspired and indefatigable gala performer who, at the age of 79, was memorably hoisted by harness to the top of the Big Apple Circus tent as an embodiment of rising donations.   Her speeches revealed a bawdy tongue with a pronounced preference for the F-word which she deployed to foil her meticulously flamboyant appearance--equal parts Chita Rivera and Brooke Astor.  She had fantastic comic timing, inserting a puff of air after the "f" in fuck, drawing it out to maximize the shock factor and yet lend it a Lady Bracknell flourish.   This public personality was arrived at sous vide.   Mum lived in Massachusetts her entire life and was raised to be an haute bourgeois matron.  That both did and didn't work out; she became an haute bourgeois matron and hated it.  She spent her housewife years in quiet (and, okay, occasionally noisy) desperation. Wanting more "meaning", she went to graduate school in the sixties, taught college for a while, and later worked in educational administration for the state.  She and my father tried writing screenplays together but it was not her calling. Nothing seemed to match her peculiar gifts.  It wasn't until she was in her sixties that she discovered the joys and exigencies of philanthropy.   This happened serendipitously when she arranged a performance event for my then-fledgling dance company to benefit Community Servings which was a charity she'd recently discovered.  Her creativity was at once ignited.  Suddenly she opened up arteries of communicationand community throughout the Boston area, mixing and matching people from all areas of her life and cultivating scores of new friendships and alliances.  She was always fiercely loyal, retaining the social contacts she'd made in her teens but also makingnew and often decades-younger friends with alacrity.  She was at last in her element and from there she built an empire.

Right after she died, Karen Krolak, who is no stranger to the loss of parents, wrote to me to tell of a conversation she had with my mother.  She asked her how she chose whom to support.  My mother offered a weighty pause and then replied slowly.  "Everything has to connect back to my sons."   And so it did.  She had found a way to integrate her talents with her vision for the best life possible for my brother and me.   Because we're both gay she wanted our culture to evolve to embrace various orientations so she supported Community Servings and PFLAG, because I'm a choreographer, she supported dance organizations, because my brother Dan is an actor, she supported theater groups.  There was no hesitation here, her values were firm.   Local politicians sought her endorsement but they got her imprimatur only if they declared their support for marriage equality.  Ten years ago this was less readily done by Massachusetts legislators and if they hedged she would not support them.  She was very basic about this and I admired her enormously for it. 

Gradually I began to address this in my own artistic work, asking myself if my work had in it the things that matter most to me.  I wanted to be able to look at my life and my work as my mother did.  I wanted to see a through-line.  More and more I took this on.   I believe that different kinds of dance, like different kinds of people, can come together without hierarchy.  That they can find underlying common ground.  I think tap dance can be experimental and experimental dance can be entertaining.  I detest aesthetic bigotry and the notion that a category of art is superior to another category of art.  I reject false dichotomies like gay/straight, male/female, high art/low art, art/entertainment, sex/romance, form/content.  I insist on the absolute equality of different kinds of love and I am convinced that, on the deepest level, we can respond romantically and sexually to people beyond the limits of gender (this is not a rejection of orientation, it's an addition to it.)  I realized that I needn't convince anyone of these things, I merely need to generate work that deals with them and in ways that are, for lack of a better word, true.

I've written and spoken a great deal about my father's influence on my work: his probity, his discipline, his legitimization of a disreputable genre, his comic agility.  All these formed my understanding of what it is to make art.  But I hadn't been as conscious of my mother's influence on me and my work until she died and Karen told me of their conversation.   I now see how holistic her view of living was and how much that shaped me and transformed me.

I teach dance composition at The Juilliard School, Barnard College and The Alvin Ailey School.  One of the things to which I am committed is the teaching of choreographic craft as a strategy for opening a channel to each student's passion.  It doesn't matter what it is, it matters that their creativity ignites when they approach it.  It can be toe-dancing, show dancing, no dancing, autobiographical dancing, dancey-dancing, mathematical dancing, pedestrian dancing--anything.  Just let me give them the way to get there and the tools to build with.   In the final analysis, that's what Mum gave me.  I shall be forever in her debt.


Julie McClellan Mullins said...

I've been in worship of your father for many, many years. I was bored one day at age 12 or so, and my dad was in his room reading which is where I would frequently find him. I marched in there, quiety, he didn't like to be disturbed when he was reading, and said, "dad, I'm bored." Without really looking at me he reached over to his bookcase and handed me a book and said, "try this". I fiddled with it a bit and thought oh brother, I bet this is gonna be really boring. But, I trudged off to my room, closed the door, got comfy in my bed and opened the book to the first page. I didn't come out of my room for 7 hours. I was mesmerized. Completely taken. When I closed the book after having read the last page of The Godwulf Manuscript, I jumped up and ran into my dad's room and said, "do you have more?" He pointed at the book shelf and there before me was a complete first edition collection of your father's Spenser series in order! Let's just say that the last portion of my 13th year was awesome! And I fell in love with reading and writing and your dad. Today, I've continued my father's collection of your dad's work and I'm proud to say it is complete. I read them over and over. They never loose their spark to me. After your dad died, I listened more to what your mom had to say and who she was as an individual and not just the "dedication" at the beginning of all your dad's books. I became as fond of her as I was of your dad. I wish you and your brother all the best of success in this life. I, too, have a son who is gay and he is encouraged to have the likes of you Parker's on his side.
Julie Mullins
Port St. Lucie, FL

Julie McClellan Mullins said...

I've been in worship of your father for many, many years. I'll get to your mom in a sec. But, when I was about 12 years old my dad was in his library reading. I tiptoed in (he didn't like to be bothered when he was reading) and said, "Dad, I'm bored". Without really looking at me, he reached around, pulled a book of the shelf and handed it to me and said, "Here, try this". I thought, "oh crap. yay. Another book to read." I meandered back to my room, shut the door, climbed up on my bed, got comfy and opened the book to the first page. I didn't come out of my room for 7 hours. When I did, I ran to my dad and said, "Do you have more?" He looked up at me over his glasses, smiled, returned The Godwulf Manuscript to it's rightful place and handed me God Save The Child. Needless to say it when on like that until I had exhaused his Parker library. We anxiously awaited, together, the publishing of yet another in the series. It was something I cherished with my dad. My dad died in 1993 and each time I add another first edition to the pile, I think, wow dad you would have loved this one!

When your dad died, your mother became more of interest to me. I hate to say that I really hadn't investigated much about her prior to that, now I wish I had. But, she was so much more that the dedication to each of his novels. I was excited to know that she found what she loved after a lifetime of adventures. I, too, have a son who is gay. I've passed your dad's work on to him. We've talked about the Parker's and just know that you all stand for some things that are quite important in our family as well. I wish you and your brother long and enriched lives as you carry on the Parker name.
Julie Mullins
Port St. Lucie, FL

Drgeo said...

You teach at Julliard--also a hard act to follow.

Tammie Bass said...

Wow-Adored your Dad's work for many years & now realize what an incredible Mom you had. You & your brother were blessed.I'm sorry for your loss, but you both have wonderful angels now & their legacies live on through their work & through you.
You sound like an amazing instructor & your students are lucky, as were your parents, who I'm sure continue to be very proud. Thanks for sharing!

Donna Tocci said...

David - I've only just heard of your mother's passing and I'm so very sorry to hear this news.

While I was a reader of your dad's books, it was the discovery of their living arrangement years ago that showed me that a woman could have a great relationship but still have her independence and strength. She lived this way because it worked for her...and them and didn't care what the world thought. As a young woman, at the time, in Boston, she was a wonderful role model.

Fortunately, a year or so ago, I found that we had a mutual friend and boldly wrote to her on Facebook and told her all this - including the fact that my boyfriend of 13 years and I live the exact same way...and it works for us. To my great delight, she replied! What an inspiration and such a lovely lady.

I am so very truly sorry for your loss....


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