Two days ago, on the 15th of August, a dear and beloved friend died. How can I begin to describe Frank Southerington? He was not a big man - slight in frame - but with a personality and an intellect that rose high above those around him, no matter their own stature. Frank came to teach at Mary Baldwin College in 1968 and I am still amazed that a small, albeit extremely well-respected, private women's college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was able to secure an English, Oxford-educated Ph.D. who, amongst other things, was considered one of the preeminent experts in the study of Thomas Hardy and August Strindberg. But Frank wasn't full of himself nor did he pass himself off as anything other than a wonderful man with a great love of humour, friends, cigarettes and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And he drew to him students and faculty alike who loved to be with him.
I first met Frank in 1968 shortly after his arrival to teach at Mary Baldwin. He and my parents became fast friends and Frank was often a guest in our house. I can't believe he would have been just 30 when I first met him. As I said before, he was slight, with blonde hair and bright, happy eyes and he had an infectious smile. I got to know him better, as a dear friend, over the years. I remember attending the wedding when he married the lovely Terry, who went on to become a professor of theatre at Mary Baldwin. And we continued our friendship as we worked on theatrical productions together. I was one of many in the cast when he directed Strindberg's 'A Dream Play' and I can't remember a play I did when he wasn't involved somehow. During my years as an MBC student, my time spent with them was more frequent as we gathered at the house after rehearsals or performances of the various productions often directed by Frank or by Terry. At Oak Grove, I was Miss Prism to his Dr. Chasuble in a production of 'The Importance of Being Ernest' and, to my great joy, Frank fulfilled my dream of 'doing Shakespeare' when he cast me as Helena in a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' my senior year at MBC. Twenty-odd years later, I was moved to tears when he and Terry played opposite each other in a production of 'Shadowlands.'
Frank and Terry welcomed students, faculty, and theatre friends into their home for countless parties and evenings of just sitting and talking and sharing wit and wisdom amongst the many cats with whom they shared their house. They were a huge part of the college experience for anyone who was involved in theatre or literature and I know there were students from all the other disciplines who counted Frank and Terry amongst their most beloved friends. My parents, my sister and I were often guests in their home for an impromptu gathering and much merriment always ensued. Their Christmas parties were the stuff of legend.
In addition to the many cats (how many of us in the Staunton area at some point owned a 'Southerington kitten'?) who wandered in and out of the house on Coalter Street, Frank and Terry had three wonderful children - Paul, Jennifer and Margaret. One memory that stands out in my mind is Frank laughing to the point of tears when Paul dove into his first birthday cake face first, coming back up for air with his face covered in homemade chocolate frosting. I think it took several minutes for Frank to catch his breath again. There are so many memories I hold dear - playing darts, talking about anything and everything, square dancing at Pennyroyal Farm in the old days, the Christmas parties, cast parties. So many memories I hold so dear.
The news of Frank's death came through Facebook, through the Mary Baldwin College page. And the news spread quickly. Soon, conversations were taking place amongst those who had once shared in Frank and Terry's unending hospitality - all of us wishing desperately that we could turn back time and find ourselves once more with Frank and Terry, once more in the comfort of their home on Coalter Street, once more surrounding him and Terry with our undying friendship and love.
Frank's health suffered in his final years. When I was back in the States in 2008-2010, I didn't see very much of Frank and Terry. His health kept him home most of the time and I, unfortunately, was not at my happiest at the time. But I remember so well one evening at Oak Grove - the theatre where we had been so often together - he and Terry arrived in the area where the actors and crew hang out before the show. As I emerged from the makeup area, I heard a voice say, 'There's the person I want to see.' And there was Frank, looking at me with a huge smile and I gave him the tightest hug I could muster. He was much smaller than I remembered, age and illness having taken a toll on him. But the smile was as bright and the eyes as sparkling as ever.
I think sometimes we aren't even aware of how much we love people, how big a place in our hearts they occupy, until we hear that they are gone forever. I exchanged messages with his eldest daughter, Anna, who was born to Frank and his first wife. I got to know Anna when she came over to Virginia from Sweden for high school and college. Anna lives in Stockholm, so we shared the hardship of being away from our fathers when the time came to say goodbye. I shared with her my hope and wish that my father and hers are happily together again in the afterlife - having a smoke and a drink and enjoying each other's company again. Anna said the pile of used tissues beside her was growing. I remember that feeling well. As she said, the thought of never hearing his voice again was hard to fathom. I think it is hard for all of us who loved him to fathom that.
Frank turned 75 last month and I had planned to send a card. Instead, I was distracted by a pressing health crisis here. How much I regret not having sent a card - just to remind Frank that he was and always will be one of my dearest friends. Frank was a part of my life - one way or another - for 45 years. That's a long time. But a time made better by his presence in it.
'For in the sleep of death what dreams may come.'
Dream sweet, Frank, 'and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'
(Both quotations are from Hamlet - Frank was a great Shakespearean scholar as well.)