SUZANNE BYERLEY: A Memorial Service and a Remembrance

Coming home again in my 60s means coming home to a lot of funerals: funerals of relatives, of friends' parents...and of my friends themselves, many of whom I have written about. This weekend, I was privileged to memorialize the life and death of a friend who was a writer, in the company of a writers group I had to leave when I left in 1984. 

Suzanne Byerley, surely the youngest 75-year old I have ever known, died about a year ago in an early morning car crash, and this weekend, the members of the Cleveland "Butcher's Shop" writing group, of which Suzanne was a member, met on the hillside at Foxfield Preserve near the Wilmot Wilderness Center, to plant a tree and read poems to her and to each other and to ourselves. 

(Right, Foxwood guide Sarah Brink)
Bob Lawry was first at the Wilderness Center, meeting the other 9 of us as we waited for our guide, Sarah Brink: Rob Farmer and his wife Clare, Bob McDonough, Evelyn Mavromichalis, Genevieve Jencson, Keith Seher, and me, along with Toledoans Judith and Bill Crandall. When Sarah arrived, she led us in our cars. We passed the big red barn of an Amish family, whose son waved to Sarah and travelled up to the top of a hill at Foxfield, which was the first nature preserve cemetery in Ohio. Instead of a manicured lawn, the cemetery is in rolling hills of bleak, blond prairie grass, where bodies are buried without being embalmed or entombed in huge metal caskets. The mound at Suzanne's site had leveled under the weight of this heavy winter, but at its head stood the dogwood tree and big stones and a shell the family had left marked where the small marker will eventually stand. We paused to look out over the hills. Sarah took questions while her son played in the dirt, then she left us alone to our ceremony.

Bob Lawry started the reading with a poem by Suzanne titled, "Distance." He then read Mary Elizabeth Frye's 1932 poem, "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep" and John Updike's "Perfection Wasted" with its opening line that sounds like we have just walked in on a conversation, "And another regrettable thing about death...."                      
Judith Crandell followed with a passage of T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" from The Four Quartets, ending with: "All manner of thing shall be well...and the fire and the rose are one" as she placed a red rose at the head of the grave. 
Keith Seher next told a story about Suzanne's bringing a four-leaf clover she had just found to a workshop but accidentally dropped it. Everyone looked and looked, till Suzanne stopped them, saying, "It's only a four-leaf clover; I'll find another." Keith had begun looking for one to replace it. (Here, I held my breath, hoping he was not going to tell us he found one on the day Suzanne died, but no, he is a better story-teller than that.) He couldn't find one. He looked up four-leaf clovers to find they surface about one in 1,000 clovers. He continued looking till his young son asked him what he was doing, and he explained. Now his son looks. They look together. They are still looking. He wanted to tell Suzanne that he and his son were now sharing the activity of four-leaf clover hunting because of her. He told us for her. And for us. And for him.
D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Bavarian Gentians" was read by Bob McDonough, and 
Bavarian Gentian
Rob Farmer, accompanied by his wife Clare, read two stanzas of a long poem by Cleveland poet Terry Provost, a poem read last month at the funeral for another Clevelander. Genevieve Jencson read Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day," which ends with the question for us all, "...what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?" I had planned to read Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Dirge without Music" but decided at the last minute to read Louise Bogan's "Epitaph for a Romantic Woman," as being more about Suzanne and less about my own grief. Evelyn Mavromichalis  ended the memorial by asking us all to send copies of the poems for the group to present to the family.
We stood on the hill for awhile. We took a photo of us all, for the record and for member Jane Richmond, who is away in Minnesota and asked for pictures.
(L to R:  Clare and Rob Farmer, Genevieve Jenscson, Bob McDonough, Diane
Kendig, Bob Lawry, Evelyn Mavromichalis, Keith Seher, Judith and Bill Crandell)
We drove back down the hill. Some had to get off to engagements back in Cleveland, while some of us stopped at the Amish farm stand, which was rich with homemade pies, jams, cookies, candies, and soap, then went back to the Wilderness Center to walk, to visit the plant sale and gift shop. Four of us stopped at the Zoar Canal Tavern for dinner and wine, and lingered long gossiping about poets and writers, talking about our families, eating big plates of lamb and fish and sausage and lingering longer for dessert, every one of us ordering bread pudding, which we ate all of.
I imagine Suzanne would have preferred to hang out shopping and buying a pie. If she had been able to hang out, I know she would have also ordered dessert. On the other hand, she might have had to get back to Andy and the grandchildren or to an evening workshop. But wherever we were that day, her distance was with us as we each headed to our cars, down the road, home again.


Remembering Suzanne

I first met Suzanne in the late 1970s through my friend Judith Crandell, who always referred to her as "my friend, Suzanne," as though "Friend" were her first name and "Suzanne" her surname, and in fact, that's what Suzanne seemed like, everyone's friend first, then teacher, mentor, model, mother, partner, whatever.

She is the only person I ever took a creative writing class from, and it was an amazing class of six people who met in her living room to learn about making fiction, a genre that up till that point remained a magical mystery to me. It still does, but once I took Suzanne's class, it was also a genre I could write and revise and teach, all a good thing because a few years later, I was hired to be the only creative writer at a small college which definitely expected me to teach fiction writing. The day that the two versions of Raymond Carver's "The Bath" (the second being, "A Small Good Thing") came out in some brand new journal or anthology, the class met, and Suzanne brought the two stories to the group. We read them, discussed the differences, the huge gigantic differences, applauded Carver for managing to expand it into a much better story, not knowing then what we know now, that the second was the original, edited down by Gordon Lish. (Even today, if you google the two, you will find a lot of people on Yahoo-- and yahoos elsewhere-- think that "The Bath" was the original.) At the time, the time of each didn't matter so much as the difference, what we learned of it about writing and revision and revising writing and revising one's life. When I taught my first creative writing class, those two stories became a key part of my course, ages before Janet Burroway could work them into her textbook, Writing Fiction.

Suzanne was always that innovative at exercises and assignments, whether she was teaching at a prestigious college and a famous summer workshop or at senior centers and her local branch library. In addition to being a terrific creative writing teacher, she was everyone's closest reader and most insightful editor.

In the early-1980s, I left Cleveland for western Ohio, and much later, for the Boston area, while Suzanne headed for California, and Judith was off to New York and then Washington D.C. And then one by one throughout the new millenium, first Suzanne, then I, then Judith all ended up back in Ohio. By then, Suzanne was in the Butcher Shop and coaxed me to attend.

The Butcher Shop  is a private poetry workshop, founded by the Case Western Reserve University poet Robert Wallace, who was long gone from the group when I joined in 1980. They have the looniest method of workshopping I have ever known. Everyone brings copies of a poem to be workshopped, with no name on it. Each participant takes one set of a poem, and then in silence for about 10 minutes, each participant prepares a critique of their randomly chosen poem, which s/he delivers, in turn, after passing out a copy to everyone. The idea, I believe, was that the anonymity gave everyone permission to be ruthless in their criticisms-- thus the name, "The Butcher Shop"-- but in the process of meeting each month, poets' styles and topics became pretty clear, and for example, by Peg Lolly's second Julianna poem (from her 1988 book, Julianna's Room), it was pretty clear whose poem was the one about the giantess. And though the method seemed misguided to me,  you couldn't have asked for a sharper group of critics: Alberta Turner, Dave Evett, Leonard Trawick, Bonnie Jacobson, Lolette Kuby, P K Saha, Bob McDonough. Suzanne was not yet in the group.

When I returned home in 2009, the only two of that group were McDonough and Saha, but there was Suzanne and other people I had known in my previous Cleveland life. Getting to the Butcher Shop was a hike from Canton, and I only managed it twice in two years, both times since it was at Suzanne's house, and she harassed me sweetly and mercilessly to come. One time after the butchering was done, she made Crepes Suzette for the whole group, serving one at a time as they came hot out of the pan.

Another time, she, Judith, and I met in Cleveland for a day of art museum-hopping, reading aloud, attending a reading by George Bilgere at CWRU, and then meeting up with McDonough and Lawry to eat in Little Italy. It was such a good day, so filled with poetry and old friends and coming home, like the good old days. She was so curious as we bombarded the café counter guy at the Museum of Contemporary Art (where we ate) about how he liked his job selling salads and wine. (He loved it, had clearly seen harder times with harder people and got a kick out of her.) She was so present as we sat in the new atrium of the Cleveland Art Museum and drank tea and ate cookies and read our poems out loud to each other until we were almost late and ran into Guilford Hall just as the reading began. She was positively tickled with Bilgere's reading and ran up after to talk to him about his stint on A Prairie Home Companion. And then, of course, there was the marvelous Italian dinner. So we ate three times that day. Not counting breakfast. I will always associate Suzanne, as I do most of the poets in Cleveland, with great eating and great writing.

That was the last time I saw her. I am not resigned, I can say now, since I didn't get to read that line earlier, but if it had to be the last time, I am glad the last time I saw her was filled, like this one, with the company of other writers who loved her too, just as the memorial service was, and with good food and art and reading and running around in University Circle, or anywhere in Cleveland, that city we had in common.


You can find Suzanne Byerly's obituary here, and account of her Kingsville Library writing group's reading for her here

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