Last night my fellow writers and I drank lots of wine in remembrance of the husband of the woman that started it all for us. He died one year ago this past September and his passing symbolized the severing of our final connection to Annabelle and all she brought to our lives.
Annabelle McIlnay was an accomplished writer and editor who also taught creative writing at the college level. I first met her in a continuing education class I took as a lark to try and overcome writer’s block. Not only was I the only male in the class (tee-hee) but I was also the only one out of nearly thirty people to attend Annabelle’s workshop once the class was over.
Annabelle was a cool old chick. She sported a butterfly tattoo on her cheek and had about a thousand different pairs of reading glasses. Despite the name, she was an East Coast Jew who strongly preferred life in the Midwest. I tried not to hold that last part against her, as I would kill to live on the East Coast.
Her husband Tom was one of the original computer engineers who worked on the first computer in the 1950’s. He was from out west. Destiny or really bad writing on God’s part brought them both to Michigan where they met, fell in love and married sometime in the Eighties, if my information is correct.
Annabelle was my mentor. She guided me in a way no other writing instructor ever had. She was stern and full of praise all at once, refusing to allow me to do anything less than my best. She also had an uncanny ability to intuit what I was going for when even I wasn’t entirely sure. She saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there and she pushed me to find it on my own. Annabelle’s main bone of contention with me was that I tended to not complete novels that she felt were really good.
She would not live to see me complete the one she thought was my best and most commercially viable work. I finished it anyway.
When Annabelle died, Tom decided to let us keep coming to his house for our workshop meetings, now run by my publisher. I still remember how good and relatively healthy he looked at his wife’s funeral, and how emaciated and wasted away he looked in his final days. Tom was a smoker with emphysema and the loss of Annabelle seemed to keep him from caring about his health, In fact, it seemed like he wanted to hasten his departure from this mortal coil so he could be with her again.
When I think of Tom, I think of the night he walked outside to join us as we met on the gazebo with an old-fashioned tape recorder. He wanted to share something with us and we respectfully stopped the meeting to pay attention to him. What resulted was the most emotional and hauntingly beautiful song I’d ever heard as Tom sang to his departed wife and told her he’d see her again some day. The guitar work of he and his son was mesmerizing and bare bones, lending just the right melodious backup to his lamentations.
It was too dark for me to see everybody’s face, but if anyone didn’t cry, I’d be surprised. From that moment on, Tom’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was on oxygen all the time and still continued to smoke. Ironically, Tom and I grew very fond of each other during that time. We never really talked when Annabelle was alive but I found out he’d always had a genuine affection for me because she did.
I also think of how I tried to convince Tom his cat was sexually attracted to me (insert your own feline reference here). Tom offered to give us a moment alone. I knew there was a reason I liked him.
My publisher also happens to be a respiratory therapist and she made sure Tom was in the hospital in which she worked. Annabelle had asked her to watch over Tom once she was gone and she did, until the very last moment.
We met a few more times at the house after that. Naturally, it wasn’t the same. Without Tom, the spirit of “Anatoms,” their incorporated name, was officially gone from the house. The only thing that remained was that disturbingly intelligent cat Annabelle had adopted as her own, a behavior she exhibited all her life. Tom’s relatives allowed us to continue meeting for a while longer whiles we debated and discussed a new location for the workshop. Now that we were all working toward actual publication, halting the momentum could have proved dangerous.
Unlike when Annabelle died three years prior, there was no hemming or hawing about us continuing this thing. It had achieved a life separate from her now. After much discussion, it was decided that my house was the most centrally located.
The workshop has been meeting at my house ever since, usually every other Tuesday. Last night, my publisher walked in with more food than most Third World countries have and wine. Another member had already brought wine. A toast was uttered to me for my perceived graciousness in allowing them to meet at mi casa. Never mind the fact that it keeps me from having to drive somewhere.
The only other male member of the group, Bob Maier, author of Chicken Wings for the Beer Drinker's Soul, started a round of "For he's a jolly good fellow." Sufficiently uncomfortable, I poured myself more wine.
It's funny how a group of seemingly disparate personalities with differing backgrounds can be brought together for a common passion and become like unto an extended family. It's rare that someone who chooses to embark on the normally lonely road of creative expression becomes so readily surrounded by, for the most part, like-minded people. I am not immune to the awe-inspiring odds against such a thing occuring or, for that matter, continuing after the deaths of the two responsible for the situation.
It is perhaps testament to Annabelle's enduring vision that we continue to meet and write. Having our worke published is yet another step in the evolutionary process that first began with a little continuing ed class that purported to teach one how to write for publication in four short weeks.
They are missed.
They are remembered~