Big Love: Dale Davis (1939 — 2012)
April 30th, 2012 | Blog, Musings/Reminiscences | 16 Comments
How heartbreakingly true it is that you can’t believe it when they’re gone. Always just a phone call away, and then suddenly—you can’t reach them ever again. You can’t pick up the phone and hear “Hey, darlin’” as you have so many times before. A voice I heard for what? Forty-seven years. Since I was a senior in high school and Dale Davis was my speech teacher. What I wouldn’t give to hear that voice again, the particular timbre of which I know so well! How distinctive it was, how Dale. “Hey, Darlin’. ” I can hear it only in my memory now—so resonant, embracing, as welcoming as open arms, as Southern as a Tennessee Williams’ character, and like that too, dramatic, bigger than life. Brim full of stories, jokes, laughter and warmth. Life.
That life ended suddenly from a heart attack on Friday, April 27, 2012. Dale was seventy-three. The last year had been hard. Horrible, some might say, though not Dale, not most of the time at least. She’d say something like “It’s been a tad difficult,” and laugh her sultry, deep-throated laugh. Not that she was a bull-shitter, not that. Just indomitable, like nothing I’ve ever seen. There had been health issues for years, pains, aches, surgeries, but she endured them, determined not to be defeated or defined by them. “Hey, darlin’” through it all, to me and so many others. Her artificial hip became infected, had to be removed, more struggles and Dale in the hospital most of this past year. Then leukemia, out of the blue, chemo for that, and still that indomitable spirit. I called her at the hospital this past Monday…”Hey, darlin’” …and we made plans for me to come to New York in June. I wanted to spend time with her. I knew time was running out, I knew the leukemia would get her, maybe by summer’s end. But I thought we still had time.
I went to New York this past October to see her. She was New York to me. It will never be the same. It’s as if the city has had a bright light go out, has dimmed by just that much. New York without Dale. Not right. Can’t be. She introduced me to New York the summer after I graduated from Wade Hampton High School in 1965. Dale, Carol Moore the French teacher, and I drove from Greenville, S.C. to the Big Apple. What an adventure, what a lark! We saw three movies in one day, and theater: Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Yul Brynner in The King and I. She loved theater. She had a talent for it. She would move to NYC a few years later and make a professional life as a theatrical manager, pulling it off, being a success in a tough biz in a tough town.
At Wade Hampton she directed the school plays: Our Town; The Diary of Anne Frank, bringing serious drama to the school for the first time. The actors loved her, called her Mama D. Some of us gravitated to her, saw that she wasn’t like the other teachers or other adults, understood that she was on the side of art, that she was on our side, those of us who had artistic aspirations, however tentative or unformed. She thought I had writing talent. But then Dale had a talent for seeing and nurturing talent. She looked at you and through her eyes you became more than what you had imagined yourself to be. It was fitting that she came to Minneapolis for the publication party for my first book, fitting that I could thank her there for believing in me.
I visited her in New York over the years, in her fabulous rent-controlled apartment on West 53rd Street, near the heart of Broadway, a few blocks from the office she and her beloved business partner Harris shared. How Dale that apartment was! How comfortable, homey, a refuge from the busy streets. A sanctuary, her home for all those decades, full of Dale things. Where time stood still. How she loved that place and how she shared it with others! So much a part of her. The dressing table where she sat to fix her pretty face, her narrow kitchen with the cabinets piled high with things she’d never use, the big, long table that caught all as you came in the door, the living room furniture that was just so darn comfortable to plop down on after a day of walking the city or a night out on the town.
We always had Greenville in common. It all comes back, how Dale and I would both be home during the Christmas holidays, how I’d walk over from my folks’ house on Cleveland to Ponce de Leon to see Dale and her mother Eleanor. Short and sturdy Eleanor Davis, no nonsense how she would look you in the eye and take your measure. A combination I had never encountered before, of suffering no fools while at the same time being so welcoming. How happy I’d be at their little table drinking a coke and eating something bad for me. It seemed something was always going on, people coming or calling, Dale making plans with friends. She had a talent for friends.
It’s likely she had the most close friends of anyone I know; I counted myself lucky to be among them. And you couldn’t know her without knowing her friends, and in many cases becoming friends with them, either in person or by name. She had so many “darlin’s.” I believe we all felt special, felt embraced by her Big Love. Enough to go around, enough to fill you up. She kept up with the running narrative of my life, and so many others’. Always interested, engaged, always wanting to be helpful, generous. Once when I was in New York she bought me a surprise birthday ticket for Lion King. She wanted to blow me away, and she did.
It was her idea to celebrate her 60th birthday in Paris and to have her friends go to Paris for the weekend to celebrate with her. It seemed impossible, preposterous to go to Paris for the weekend! I had never heard of or done such an extravagant thing. The money! Dale and I always talked money, it was one of the many things I loved about her. We talked about the important things! Often neither of us had enough and so it was a lively source of mutual understanding and commiseration. But you wouldn’t believe how cheap the airfare was to Paris back then, 1999. I explained it this way to my husband: “We can’t afford NOT to go!” So go we did and made a memory to last a lifetime.
She never married, never had children. But she was not alone, or single. She was singular. She had a talent for family— her grandmother, her mother, her brother, her Southern relatives, and now big time Big Love for her nephew Teddy and his girls, Grace and Corrie. You tell me if there have ever been any other children so loved, so adored, and—let’s face it, so bragged about. They brought such joy to Dale these last years, such pride. So much Davis carrying on into the future.
I wish I could have seen her again. Just one more time. I feel robbed in that way, though it’s a selfish feeling. There was nothing good ahead for her, health-wise; the leukemia was not in remission. Maybe it was best–a blessing–to go now the way she did.
Still, I can’t help wishing for more. More Dale. More Big Love.
There’s a Big Hole where that Big Love used to be.