There were two rival theater companies in my elementary school. Jill Rausch’s company put on what I considered sappy stories of heartache and love gone wrong. None of that for me, thank you. The plays I put on were always action affairs—girls blown off course by hurricanes and left to survive by their wits on wild islands, Klondike Joe’s adventures in the Yukon north, the clashes of the Greek gods. Jill and I obviously had different family dynamics going on at home.
In the sixth grade we both took it up a notch. Jill’s crew put on A Love Story, which was all the rage at the time. She had attracted the interest of the high school drama teacher and they were doing a full blown production on the stage in the gymnasium. The drama teacher thought of herself as avant garde and a cutting edge purveyor of the arts. Jill convinced the teacher to lobby the powers that be and got permission for the boy playing the lead to smoke an actual cigarette on stage to lend reality.
Now something had happened sixteen years before I showed up in the sixth grade wanting to put on a play. Some personality glitch between my brother and the drama teacher had set them at odds. At the age of eleven it was astonishing to me that anyone could remember anybody as far back as sixteen years ago. But teachers did. Along came another Dunbar kid to school. The drama teacher said, “I remember your brother,” and turned her nose up at me. The old Greeks no doubt would be speaking of the machinations of Fate at work here—I had washed up in a country where the citizens had formed opinions of me long before my birth.
Sixteen years is a long time, but I was not a “surprise” late in my parents’ marriage. They actually wanted more kids. The reason for such a hefty lag time between my brother and me was my father’s poor quality semen, weakened by his childhood diphtheria, WWII and who knows what. The doctors said another child was unlikely, though not impossible. Along I came, a “miracle.” I have always figured I arrived so late because I was holding out for more progressive times to be born into. It was helpful for me to have the backdrop of the sixties’ and seventies’ social consciousness to help balance my dad’s “women shouldn’t vote or wear pants” attitude. I never worried like some kids that I was adopted or my mom stepped out because I had both the Nelson’s lanky body and a definite resemblance to the Dunbar face. For better or worse I was in my tribe from hell.
So there were only two kids in my family, and I showed up ages later at school and the teachers still remembered my brother, Chuck, or Charley as my mother and I called him. Mostly favorably. One elderly lady gave me an A just because I was Chuck’s sister. Others wrote me off, including the drama teacher. This was all very mystifying to me; more so because I could do nothing about it. I only knew my brother by his infrequent visits home. He was a kind of far away hero for me. I thought that he loved me simply because of the fact that he didn’t yell at me. It was many years before I realized that not being yelled at by someone doesn’t necessarily equate with being loved by them. It just means that the person doesn’t yell at you. But it was pretty refreshing to not be hollered at in a house where every stick of furniture had an argument around it. I longed for someone to see me, hear my expression, and recognize my stories. Underneath, what was too painful even to consciously recognize was that I just wanted somebody to notice me, to love me and to tell me that I belonged. In truth I just wasn’t much on my brother’s radar, as he was having his own serious fallout from having been raised in the Dunbar household.
So, love stories held no appeal for young Kathleen. I opted for the grit. For my sixth grade production I wrote a script telling the story of Ivan the Terrible. Typical of a Russian tale, there were so many characters that I needed the entire class to fill the roles. There were only a few kids too shy to perform left over to watch the grand production. We needed an audience. I was persona non grata with the drama teacher, so no gym stage. I got permission from Mr. Wilson, our teacher, to stage the play for the sixth grade class next door in front of their chalk board.
Now, Jill may have had a real cigarette in her production, but I also had the real deal: I had the thrill of being able to cast an actual Russian boy as Ivan. I knew Michael was Russian because he had confided to me that his last name was not really Fedor, but Fedorovich. His dad felt that the patronymic smacked too much of the old country and changed their last name to fit in. His American-born boy would be registered at school with the kind of name that he hoped hinted at baseball and apple pie rather than piroshkis and the gulag.
However, I knew the inside story. Michael had the magic –ovich at the end of his real name, which spoke to me of troikas, Russian wolfhounds, and Baba Yaga. All things Russian seemed very exotic to me. I later went on as a young adult to read practically every Russian author I could get my hands on. (I drew the line at reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, however—I found out that she was overcome by sorrow and offed herself in the end and I didn’t need any encouragement that way). Anyway, I’d take a real Russian over a real cigarette in my play any time. My dad smoked three packs of Pall Malls a day, and smokes didn’t hold any romance for me, just a nose full of stink.
With all this old time Russian heavy winter and far north cold going on, I felt that to lend further reality to the play, we needed someone to wear some fur, some real fur. I had just the thing. I had an actual seal skin that my brother had brought me back from Alaska where he was stationed during the Viet Nam War. One of the cold war worries still around was that the Ruskies might invade us over the Bering Strait, thus a lot of young men were stationed up there in cold so intense that if you threw a boiling hot cup of coffee out into the dark night it would freeze before it hit the ground. My brother told me he had actually done this. The first Christmas that he came home with this story he gave me the seal skin. I was enthralled. Mom called the seal skin smelly, and kept trying to hide it, which of course made me prize it more highly. I took a good look around and found it up in the attic behind Dad’s old WWII GI winter coat. This coat was lined with some kind of pelt as well, but it was too smelly even for me, and in no way Russian. The seal skin was just the right prop. I thought perhaps the seal had swum over from Siberia to the Alaskan shores. Many years later I realized that the poor creature was probably a young seal clubbed to death by someone trying to make a buck off the American soldiers. The skinned remains of my seal ended draped around the shoulders of a Midwestern girl with glasses playing a Czarina. Later in the year this girl changed her allegiance, joining forces with Shelley. Shelley was the girl whom I’d cast as the beautiful young Russian princess and who gave blondes a bad name for me by hatching a plot to make Kathleen a tormented scapegoat. But the winds of Fate hadn’t blown me that particular storm yet.
The play was cumbersome to rehearse with so many actors, but we managed. I was too busy being director to play a part, but that was okay. I was in my element, putting my creation out to the world. The day arrived and we pulled it off. For those of you who don’t know the history of Ivan the Terrible, one of the ignominious highlights of his reign is that in a drunken fury Ivan murders his own son after a feast. Looking back I wonder about my interest in this sad and true Russian story of a father and son. The undercurrent that I didn’t get as a sixth grader, interestingly, was the huge and vitriolic rift between my own brother and dad. Out of the mouths of babes, kind of thing. I was just telling what I knew without realizing it. In fact, the seal skin might have materialized as a way for my brother to annoy my dad, in a cold war that played out with young Kathleen as unwitting pawn.
I was director, so I could cast whomever I wanted. I gave the part of Ivan’s son to a boy named Jeff who wore hightop white basketball shoes. I had a hopeless crush on him and he totally did not know I was alive. (I began to understand at the age of eleven how some people get parts in Hollywood). My history book said that Ivan killed his son by a blow to the head, but this didn’t have the emotional impact I wanted to convey, so I wrote my own version where Ivan killed his son by stabbing him in heart. For the murder scene I directed the boys to use a move with a cardboard knife I had made. Michael practiced executing—so to speak—the death blow, so that the knife landed craftily between Jeff’s arm and off-stage side, looking, hopefully, from the audiences’ point of view like a real stab in the chest.
The day arrived. We gave the play with all its delightful Russian darkness and spirit. In the culminating scene, after a Russian feast with plenty of faux vodka-drinking, Ivan and his son get into a heated argument. I watched from my director’s place, stage right, thoroughly satisfied. Years later I would read lots of Dostoevsky whose characters are constantly jumping up from sofas and chairs and exclaiming things. Next time you read Dostoevsky keep an eye out for this. I was always going to keep tabs on the number of times the jumping-up-to-exclaim happened in his stories. In the sixth grade I’d instinctively picked a real Russian and he admirably jumped up from his chair and exclaimed “I will kill you!” overturning the dinner table with a lot of noise and grabbing his son by the front of the shirt. The Czarina gasped and lost hold of the seal skin as the class stood up from their desks to get a better view of the actual wrestling match between Ivan and his son on the floor beneath the chalk board. The moment arrived, and Ivan plunged the highheld dagger into his son’s heart. His son gave a satisfyingly pitiful death howl—“Arghhhhhhh,” and Ivan, eyes cast up to the exotic gold painted god of the Russians, exclaimed with plenty of drama, “What have I done!”
I never learned how this went over with Michael’s dad, if he was proud or concerned or unaware of his son’s portrayal of their cultural history. I went home with my armful of props and nobody said anything. I don’t remember, but it would be a good bet that there was an argument that night, in the hallway per usual, and I went to bed in the lonely dark. As a singer-songwriter-performer now I know about the blues that hit after a show is over, the high is gone, and another show’s not on the books yet. But back then I just went home and disappeared into the background of the fighting and the blues that were our daily bread. Those fights were real, there were real cigarettes, and yelling with the real intension to hurt. Maybe in Jill’s house her parents never had a last act of redeemed love, and so Jill put it in her plays to have some crumb of it.
There’s a lot of ways to get stabbed in the heart that usually don’t involve blood but which are just as deadly. What gets murdered is invisible, is the spirit, and nobody stops to ask, “What have I done.” I naturally honed in on these words as the exclamation point of my play. They’d stood out for eleven-year-old me when I learned of the history of Ivan; I read that witnesses at that crazy royal family dinner reported that’s what he’d actually said. And even if those weren’t the exact words, all the witnesses came from families, just like I did, just like Jill and Michael did, and it certainly is something that somebody might have said.
A couple of years later I knew without having to read the book the inner ache that compels Tolstoy’s Anna to bend her neck before the oncoming train. I knew about pain and blues so crazy bad that stopping the whole production makes sense. But I didn’t. I wrote and I sang and I travelled and I had sex with boys who didn’t care about me, I learned Russian, and I sang and I wrote some more and not only did I keep my body alive, I kept my spirit going too.
Somewhere along the way I became a psychotherapist, which among other things is being a person who sits in a chair and knows how to wholeheartedly hold the ache of people coming from real families. It’s the clients who do the work really. I’m privileged to remind them of their courage to recognize the pain of “What have I done”—what they did to us, what we did to ourselves in accepting as truth the messages that we are unworthy, and what we in turn do to others as we blindly play out our human drama. And I tell ya, this being with, this courageous ability to tolerate asking, “What have I done,” takes the darkness and the frozen cold of surviving and allows it to transform into thriving, opening, and a life fully lived.
After my day job is done, I get behind the microphone and sing every sweet and bloody and tender story I can think of that we humans are capable of. I don’t know where Michael is now, but I think I’ll dedicate a song to him at my next gig, maybe Better The Devil You Know, a song I wrote about some people who didn’t ask “What have I done?” until it was too late, preferring instead the comfort of nightmare, because it was what they knew, after all, coming from a real family. © by Kathleen Dunbar
Photos of Kathleen in Some Russian Hats by Kathleen Dunbar