Sit back and welcome Joe Gensele’s debut this week.
TO A CERTAIN DEGREE
By Joe Gensle
The high school sweethearts married and didn’t have two years of college between them. But Bob and Karen Lorton produced a wunderkind they christened Jillian.
Jill’s kindergarten class chose a play to perform for an afternoon assembly. Jill auditioned, captured the lead, and memorized her lines and music. She performed a solo on-stage. Her curtain call returned a standing ovation along with a bouquet of home-grown flowers from her parents.
In early childhood, Jill dispatched math and science effortlessly. She excelled in the arts, too, corroborated by top grades all through elementary and high schools, except in P.E. despite a love for tennis and swimming.
Her father thought Jill might be compensating for being an only child, using plays, algebra, physics, biology and chemistry as hideouts…. Yet, her childhood couldn’t have been more normal, the daughter of a letter carrier and insurance clerk, from a modest home, respectable neighborhood, with contributions to church and community given as Lorton family traits.
Dating wasn’t a priority. Jill’s studies and rehearsals became devotionals with little time for socializing other than in small groups. By senior year, she would appear in seventeen productions over twelve years, landing nine leading roles.
Jill approached her parents at the beginning of her senior year to discuss her future. Karen and Bob knew Jill was scholarship-bound, but she had never spoken of any career pursuits. ‘Dispassionate’ they considered: nothing and everything interested Jill.
At the dinner occasioned to disclose her ambitions, her parents glowed, poured her a goblet of wine to complement Jill’s favorite meal of lasagna, Caesar salad and garlic bread. Bob Lorton raised his glass in a toast.
“Your whole life’s ahead of you and you’ve earn the right to walk down any avenue you choose. With our blessings! Mom and I love you…couldn’t be prouder, Jilly. Cheers!”
They sipped at their wine. Jill chanced a look at her lap, blotted Chianti from her lips to create a confidence-bolstering pause to rehearse.
“My counselor and I submitted scholarship apps and I have three offers. Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA are full rides.”
Her parents cheered “Woo-hoo!” with love-softened eyes and clinked goblets, anticipating Jill’s next words.
“UCLA’s is for performing arts. I want to act. I’ll major in drama, minor in dance or music.”
Bob and Karen exchanged glances. Hopes of Jill becoming a physician or engineer, an architect or research scientist became insolvent. Plummeting hopes simultaneously felled the Lorton’s facial expressions. A student-actress in Los Angeles half a continent away.
Karen couldn’t hide her tears, citing joy. But Bob and Jill knew. Bob shifted uncomfortably, feeling his voice unsteady.
“Your mom and I kind of thought…well, that you’d pursue a profession…that you might consider a school close to home.”
Bob wrapped an arm around Karen, who was dabbing watery eyes with her finest cloth napkin.
“I’ve excelled on-stage as much as I have in academics, Dad…. I see you’re let down…But my heart’s set on it.”
Gently adding, “It‘s my life and decision.”
Jill graduated second in her class, the salutatorian.
Summer seemed accelerated. The family vacationed in California, going to Disneyland with the specific intent to visit UCLA. A ‘Student Ambassador,‘ wound them through the campus, touring dorms, classrooms and–at Jill’s special request–the College of Performing Arts and performance venues.
Jill phoned and emailed, frequently, came home every Christmas and Thanksgiving but remained in California during the summers to perform in community theater.
Her junior year, she landed the title role in “Mame” and her parents made the expensive trip from St. Louis for a four-day visit during which they saw their daughter wow audiences in five performances. While in town, she sat her parents down for the next revelation.
“I’m not going to graduate with my class. Wait! It’s not a boy and I’m not preggers, Dad!” at which, the three laughed.
“I’m going two extra semesters for some grad-level performance classes and then I’ll graduate.” Mild disappointment registered and faded as they voiced parental pledges to love and support Jill’s decision.
April of her fifth year at UCLA, Jill’s graduation announcement arrived. Succeeding days eroded, tumbling one onto the next, until the June’s graduation day arrived.
She greeted her parents, capped, gowned, and accented with a colorful stole. The Lorton’s expected to see more graduates and parents. Jill explained there were multiple ceremonies due to the number of grads and limited space in the Field House. They exchanged kisses and parted ways.
The Dean of the College of Pharmacy asked his class to rise. Bob and Karen froze, stunned as Jill arose among them. The Lorton’s figured Jill’s stole-matched group to be small because acting promised scant prospects for initial income. But pharmacy? What was going on?
“Jillian Lorraine Lorton,” the P.A. system echoed, and they watched Jill accept her degree in Pharmacology. Jill turned her head and waved toward a shriek that could only have come from her mom.
Reunited after the ceremony, the trio streamed tears amongst the jubilantly noisy milieu. The elder Lorton’s beamed, still in relative shock, “We don’t understand! We saw your play, read clippings about your summer theater! What…how….”
Jill confessed, “If I failed as an actress, no big deal, right? If I failed pharmacy, I couldn’t face you. I’ve been in clinicals this year, not acting. And I passed my boards!”
If Bob and Karen ever felt pangs that success eluded them, their entire lives were validated by their daughter this day.
“It was the hardest acting job I ever had,“ mused Jill, “and I pulled it off! To quote you, Daddy, ‘All work and no plays make Jilly a dull girl,’ right?!,” and they giggled at her impersonation of Bob‘s voice.
Bob asked, “So what now, you stinker?! The truth this time!”
“Home, Daddy. I accepted Humana Hospital’s offer… less than five miles from our house!”
The bond uniting the Lorton’s’ love was never an act. It was as strong and restorative, as healing and enduring as any formulation Jill would ever dispense.
The enigma that is Joe Gensle is from the best of Kentucky’s lineage, alternating between Booker’s bourbon and Viuda de Romero tequila on the few occasions his patch worked perspective needs altering. He doesn’t apologize for being left-handed, Roman Catholic or a [sic] write-wing conservative. Joe enjoys international travel and lives in the desert Southwest with his motorcycle (“The Groovinator”) and chihuahua, “Coconut.” The broad range of his writing may be sampled at http://www.headseeds.blogspot.com. Gensle makes frequent written deposits at http://www.sixsentences.ning.com and http://www.mudspots.wordpress.com