My friend Peggy Bevington has died. As with all my departed friends, I keep the name and address and phone number in a book, and soon the dead will outnumber the living.
Peggy lived in Chicago’s Hyde Park, devoting her life to teaching at the University of Chicago Lab School. She lived in a three-story brownstone on Blackstone Avenue with her husband David, a Shakespeare scholar at the U. of C. Their second floor was their bedroom, the third floor for graduate students who lived with them. (There is the wonderful and funny story of two grads, boyfriend, and girlfriend, who would come down the stairs for dinner carrying their own bottle of wine which they did not share with David and Peggy.)
The first floor was a feasting area. Food, of course, meat and casseroles and deserts, but books and more books piled on shelves, a grand piano (it seemed like half the faculty of the U. of C. could sit at that piano and crank out some show tunes or some Brahms, and their children the same), music stands and scores—David was a member of a string ensemble—a kitchen always pungent from David’s onion soup or Peggy’ roasts and hams and pies. The couple were positively Dickensian.
There was the New Year’s Eve party which began at five pm (Greenwich time, as they like to say) and my favorite, the Welcome Spring party at which friends and family and eminent scholars from the university and artists and authors such as Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawski) would sing Beatles songs from hand-printed lyrics books, and a ragtag band led by Richard Pettingill on guitar would accompany. Young and old, people would leaf through their lyrics books and call out favorites.
On a New Year’s Eve five years ago, Peggy took me by the arm to the second floor. On her bed was a cardboard box and next to it another, larger square box. I opened them and gazed on perhaps a hundred Indian artifacts and a lump of flint core as big as a bowling ball. A teacher had given Peggy the artifacts when she was a child in Licking Creek, Ohio. Would I tell her what the objects were?
Halfway through my assessment, Peggy took a box and I another, and we went down into the party, and Peggy called for quiet, and everyone gathered around for what would be my hour-long lecture on the history of Indians. Only at a party with scholars would such a thing happen. After my explanation of each piece, Peggy said, “Gene this is my present to you.” People clapped. I cried. And those artifacts are in my house. One of them is a three-thousand- year-old granite pestle, hardly a rare find, but this pestle had words inked onto its bell from 1864. Which makes it invaluable. Two men walking in Licking Creek during the Civil War found the pestle and noted the find on the bell.
Peggy Bevington was brilliant, and a beloved mother and teacher. She and I became a sort of pipeline, some of her students at the Lab school becoming apprentice artists at Gallery 37, a massive summer arts program for teens in Chicago, some of those students coming to me and becoming playwrights, and some of them winning the Pegasus Theatres Young Playwrights Festival, me as their teacher becoming the winningest teacher in the history of the festival. Always, Peggy would be in the audience and cheer them on.
David Bevington was a rock star at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He and Peggy invited me along one summer. The couple carried plastic Jewel bags laden with their possessions. They would sit on the ground on an island in the Stratford River, and an audience of groupies gathered and listened as David talked about the current Stratford productions, Peggy, who knew Shakespeare with the best of them correcting her husband when he uttered a wrong date or Bard fact. People would hand David copies of his books to autograph. They took me to their illegal swimming hole in a rock quarry which once a year was filled with plump elderly professors from the U. of C.
I must confess, I felt unworthy in the Bevington’s company, the hick from Alton, Illinois who was not raised to venerate art. They knew my feelings, and they poo-poohed my fears. David would read my play scripts and annotate them, never much editing, which they very much needed. Always, the notes were signed, “Love, David.”
David died last year, and Peggy remained in the brownstone. The obituary didn’t say how she died. They were the most in love couple I ever met, open and friendly and devoted to each other. I think Peggy died to meet up with David, but that’s just me.
The ghosts, the Bevington’s of Blackstone Street, I think, are like the ones in the film “Topper.” Friendly, assuring, watching over the new residents. An archeology dig at the house would reveal treasures of manuscripts and gewgaws.
I was their friend and their proud student. And love was in the air.