Theatrical inspiration from an ancestor

Frank, Jr.

My great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Keller, Jr., nicknamed Frank, is known in the family lore as a drunkard who couldn’t keep a job. He was a skilled tool-and-die worker, in an occupation requiring both engineering and creative talents. His ability to take care of his family was so impaired by his drinking that Frank III, the oldest of five children (later my grandfather) went to work at the age of 12 to support his mother and siblings.

Frank, Jr., popped into my mind one afternoon last spring, when I was sitting in the woods, needing solitude after a hectic week of work and socializing. I was preparing for a play, in which I was cast as a woman who leaves her husband and children to wander the roads for 27 years, counting plants as a form of prayer.

Maybe that’s what Frank, Jr., was trying to do, but lacking the ability to pray, he turned to alcohol. Maybe, I thought, he could help me with this play. Like my character, Violet Thorn, perhaps he deeply loved his family but couldn’t relate to them. Unable to thrive in their presence, and finding his job had lost its meaning, he went off to the bar to take care of himself, leaving them in the lurch.

I lay on the ground, cushioned by pine needles, and groped to hear his voice.

“My sons have never forgiven me,” he said, speaking of offspring who have all been dead for years. “Margaret is younger, and she still loves me. Ada was too small then to understand. If you think of me while you’re working on the play, I can help you.”

So I offered Frank, Jr., a chance to redeem himself by helping me get into character, and Violet Thorn gave voice to his pain and dilemma.

A few days before this meditation, he had asked me to put some object on my ancestor shrine for him. I walked around the house, looking at small items on shelves: rocks, shells, statuettes, trinkets. None of them seemed right. Then I picked up the embroidery needle that I had used to sew a talisman. Frank wanted it.

I recalled that his job involved creating forms for the casting of metal tools. I put the needle on the shrine and sprinkled it with ash—it felt like the perfect symbol.

Put the needle in your pocket when you’re rehearsing and performing,” Frank said, in the woods. “It will be your talisman.”

Three months later, when we started dress rehearsals at the Byrdcliffe Theater, I made a little shrine in the dressing room, placing photos of Frank, Jr., and my father on a red cloth. Before each show, I sat before the shrine for a few minutes, made a little circle of ash on the cloth, and greeted my ancestors.

My costume had no pockets, but I slipped the needle through the fabric of my skirt and wore the talisman onstage at every performance.

The play, Carey Harrison’s Hedgerow Specimen, was a hit.

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