Unfortunately, It soon became clear the trajectory of my voice training with Mrs. Unruh was headed in the wrong direction. She was aging, distracted, and could no longer stay focused on our lessons. She would stop repeatedly to air a litany of complaints about her life, including the fact that she was being pressured to sell her house because the area was being transformed into a shopping center. Also, she had to take care of her mother, who lived with her, which she resented, especially since her sister, as she often reiterated, had always been the favorite. So the momentum that used to sweep me into that rarified state of being deeply energized and relaxed at the same time rarely happened anymore.

Then she broke her hip, as I mentioned in my letter to Ella, and couldn’t teach for several months. When she recovered we resumed my lessons, but I remember her getting irritated with me one day, something she’d never done before, because as hard as I was trying, I just wasn’t able to find my old groove. Of course, during my senior year of college, I’d been taking four lessons a week, but now I could only afford one. I suppose if I’d been more mature and less intimidated by her, maybe I could have found ways to steer her back to the task at hand when she went off on her verbal tangents. But maybe not.

In any case, one day when I arrived at her house, no one answered the doorbell. I rang and rang, then went around the side of the house, intending to knock at the back door—and found a gardener raking leaves, who told me Mrs. Unruh had had a stroke and was in the hospital. She survived but never taught again.



Dear Ella,

This is just a note. It’s too late at night to start a letter. I was just reading this list of funny names I copied out of the phone book one night at Arlen’s. It reminded me of the fun we had poring over the dictionary, and I thought I’d sent it along to you. Why in the hell is my typewriter writing so light and why are the margins set so narrow?

Things are chaotic around here. My grandmother has been in and out of the hospital twice in the last month or so—congestive heart failure. My mother is staying with her, so I’m living alone nowadays. I don’t clean the house enough. I have to wade through art projects and supplies on the floor to get to my bed.

My voice teacher, Mrs. Unruh, has also been in the hospital. Two weeks ago she tried to stand up from her chair, her legs were asleep, and she fell—all several hundred pounds of her. She still isn’t recovered enough to teach.

I’ve been sick one out of every four weeks all year—chronic sore throat and body aches. Teaching is up and down, though I never stop marveling at the intellectual growth of my kids. I’ve started reading biographies instead of science fiction. Have recently finished George Sand’s and Madame Curie’s, as well as Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I miss hearing from you. I’ve wanted to call you many times but haven’t let myself because of the cost. Now here’s the list. And adieu…


Mordy Doobrow

Edwin Doody

Weldon Hogg

Ruby Jett

Mrs. Opal M. Jewell

Smead Jolley

Farrington Tweedy

Theophlise Twitty

Glamorfe Olay

Clarence Ogle

Walton Ofbun

Pharilla Orange

Mrs. Fannie Popper

Daisy Polite

Hebert Pickell

Velvo Pillars

Scoby Zook

Dustan Gross

Lula Trundle

Wesley Trot

Duane L. Wigley

Pressie Woolyard

Zarnell Fudge

Fannie Fullove

Neamiah Crump

Rod Crumpacker

Ellard Beans

J.V. Bony

D.F. Boogie

Verner Dingledine




I would always feel conflicted about teaching, despite my love of children and the fact that there was an educator in my personality. I just wasn’t meant to be in a classroom. As an artist—in a broad sense of the word that includes singing and writing as well as the visual arts—my internal imperative has always been to express myself through my creativity, using my art to teach children. I didn’t find much time to write during my years at Seven Hills School, but a number of pieces have survived that give voice to my ambivalence, though I didn’t reveal it to anybody else but my therapists. I wrote:

When I read what I’ve written I am most surprised by my occasional savagery and most pleased by the occasional bits of poignancy I find on pages littered with the refuse of my own sense of failure. They’re like little graces, floating down from heaven, like dandelion silk.

I am probably keeping the older generation awake, a fact which dampens my literary ardor, bound up as it is with typewriter racket.

I was thinking before I dropped off to sleep last night that teaching has built a new annex onto my self, but that I haven’t felt inclined to move in yet.

I was thinking: teaching doesn’t feed my art because it leaves no space for me to observe. I’m so busy being a one-man band that my spectator self has to stand aside—so later I can’t remember a thing about the gig.

I wanted to write so much this morning, but now I feel as sour as an old pill. I was thinking as I drove off to work, “Friday is one day of the week too many.” And “Life is a blueberry turnover—doughy and underdone, with too little of the sweet goo.”

So what do you want to know, diary? That I just got blueberry on the keys? I have no success to report—major, minor, or middling.

(I figure I’m trying so hard to be cute that, to my own detriment, I may succeed.)

So how was I able to carry off the role of teacher as well as I eventually did? Well, to survive in the world, as I’ve said, I’d had to become an actress, adept at feigning calm and self-possession, and besides—my affection and attachment to my students was real. I think of teaching as such a noble profession that, even as I write this, I find myself wanting to apologize for the fact that it wasn’t my first calling.




Now that I was making a little more money, I made an appointment with the voice teacher—I no longer remember his name—of a beautiful soprano I’d heard recently. At his studio in San Francisco, sitting in a waiting room, I was able to listen in on the end of the previous student’s lesson, a relatively inexperienced singer—and I wasn’t encouraged by what I heard. Wanting to make a good impression, I was dressed in a summery white voile dress with red apples that I’d made myself—and when the other student left and I entered the studio, the teacher’s eyes lit up. In the course of the lesson, he stopped and started me—again and again—to instruct me, the way most voice teachers do, which I didn’t find particularly helpful. When I left, I was seized by the notion that before I made a commitment to any other teacher, I had to try at least one more lesson with Mrs. Unruh—to find out if she could still work the magic she once did with my voice.

She’d been angry with me when I had to quit five years earlier—and she wasn’t an easy person—so I took pains with the conciliatory letter I wrote her. When she agreed to give me a lesson, I drove to her house in Oakland, a few blocks from her former studio, which she’d since relinquished.

About that session, I don’t remember a single detail, though for me there was so much riding on it, I’m sure I was a nervous wreck. The only thing I do remember is that by the end of it, my voice was lifting off, as though in time it would be soaring again—and that the experience was transformative just the way it had been five years before.

In A Patchwork Memoir, I’d written about the first year I studied with Mrs. Unruh:

She was an old battle-axe…but a magician with voices. All the students I heard at her studio had the same quality of freedom when they sang. Goose bumps are my barometer. I get them when I hear that quality of naturalness in a voice; I don’t when I don’t. Everyone has an authentic voice, potentially. But training, in all its variety, only helps a lucky few to fully realize it. Mrs. Unruh loved doing what she called “remedial” work—with professionals whose voices had broken down after years of abuse, as well as beginners like me, who hadn’t the least idea how to use their voice at all. “Support!” she used to bellow at me from the music room when she heard me chatting with other students.

For a short story I wrote this description:

Cory sat beside Mrs. Rundle, one buttock on, one buttock off the piano bench, which seemed only fair, there was so much less of her than her teacher. Mrs. Rundle was dressed for summer in a pilly polyester suit—chartreuse—with a matching plastic corsage. (In winter she wore an identical plum-colored one with another matching corsage. These two outfits comprised her entire wardrobe, except for a third corsage of frosted bells and silver holly that she wore at Christmas time.) Her iron-gray hair, riveted to the top of her head with a battery of bobby pins, was now loosening. Her pink, powdered jowls quivered while her hands pounded and feet—in holey support hose—pedaled, and flakes of skin—eczema—drifted down from behind her ears. Her little bow mouth, with its perfunctory smudge of vivid lipstick, was set like a tyrant’s.

“Relax your jaw,’ she shouted over the thundering piano.

“Ee-yaw, ee-yaw, ee-yaw…’ Cory sang up the scale, braying like a coloratura donkey.


“Cory drew a breath to swim a lap underwater by and sang still higher.

“From the top of the piano, in a curlicue silver frame, a mild-faced , white-haired man—Mrs. Rundle’s long-deceased husband—beamed at Cory with beneficent sympathy.

“A voice is like a baby carrot,’ Mrs. Rundle announced, stopping suddenly, her tone gentle now. ‘If you weed too soon, you kill the carrot.”