A short while back I got some crushing news from Crispan, my oldest son — his mother, my first wife, had passed unexpectedly from a heart ailment. Even though she was in the hospital when the end came, the doctors couldn’t save her.
Connie and I met in 1968 when I was playing folk music at the Catacombs Coffee House in Fresno, an establishment run by the Council of Churches to provide a safe environment for kids, a place designed to keep us away from drugs and off the street.
The Catacombs succeeded brilliantly in that endeavor and Jim, the pastor/manager, unwittingly created the city’s largest and most vibrant folk music venue of its time.
Years later I spoke with a friend of mine whose parents were involved with the Council of Churches, and I asked him why they chose to abandon such a popular spot. He said the council didn’t really care about the popularity of the place, in fact, the crowds scared them a little — sometimes a couple of hundred kids and adults would pack the place for Friday or Saturday night shows to hear some itinerate musician. But they wanted conversions, and there just weren’t enough of those, so despite the great attendance, they believed they had failed. They didn’t want to run a music venue.
I don’t remember how Connie learned of the Catacombs and the Tower District folk music scene because she lived in Clovis, a whole city away.
Anyway, she became one of my first fans, and the attraction between us was so strong we almost instantly became an item, and we remained pretty much inseparable for years.
We married, and Crispan was born in 1971 just as I graduated from playing at coffee houses to appearing at bars and colleges. Connie sewed lots of stage shirts I designed, and those later morphed from colorful western things with pointy pockets into embroidered white muslin pullovers with wooden buttons and big, billowy sleeves during my guru phase.
I alone bear the responsibility for our break up. We fell apart after I repeatedly fell victim to the excesses available to me. I was young and dumb and simply couldn’t resist the temptations I faced. But ours was a love that survived despite all that — kind of unique, I think, between divorced couples.
Hey, I wanted to be a famous guitar player. She wanted to settle down and have lots of kids. We recognized our different paths and parted ways without the slightest animosity, blame or judgment, despite some terrible heartache on both sides. Especially mine.
Dig this — my wife Cindie invited Connie to my surprise 60th birthday party, and Jan, a local artist, made a drawing for everyone to sign. Connie signed, “Happy birthday from your favorite ex-wife.” I will always treasure that drawing — even more now.
And Pat, a comedian who used to work here at the Times, kicked off an impromptu roast, but when he tried to recruit Connie, who probably could have roasted me hotter and deeper than anyone else, she declined to take any pokes at me at all. She said she wouldn’t say anything bad about me, even in jest.
We were always close since the very beginning — why, once I even lived at her house with her new husband and kids. (I think her kids thought of me as some crazy, old uncle. Her husband didn’t object for one second. Imagine that. Despite everything, we stayed family in every sense of the word. Anybody who saw us together could see that.)
Connie and I spoke and laughed on the phone for an hour or so a few days before her passing. I had no inkling anything was wrong.
Yep, I pursued my musician dreams, and she went on to marry again and have three wonderful children and a bunch of grandkids. She also worked for many years as a preschool teacher, touching the lives of hundreds and perhaps even thousands of youngsters.
I never got famous playing guitar, but Connie followed her dream and devoted her life and attention to every child she encountered. She found and lived exactly the life she wanted. She shared her special gift with every little one she met, and they all loved her back. When she was with children, they could leave their troubles far behind because she brought them into her safe, secure and happy world. I’m glad she got to live her dream. So are the kids, I’m sure.
I guess I can write this now because I’ve finally worked my way through my sorrow. Instead, I’m celebrating her wonderful life, anxiously awaiting the time when we will surely meet again in that sweet by and by.