You’ve no doubt noticed that life tends to move in cycles. For instance, at work the phone is silent for 30-40 minutes, then three calls come in at the same time. If you work retail, you stand around waiting for customers, then half a dozen flock to your counter at once.
I thought of this on the plane a couple of days ago on my way back from vacation in Rio with my friend Lois because I realized I was in something of a cycle. Last year at this time I was on vacation with Lois and Bill when I got an e-mail from fellow Diller Dustbiter, Ingrid, telling me that Phyllis’s annual Dustbiter reunion on August 19 had been cancelled. Phyllis’s son, Perry, had sent an e-mail but gave no details. We all knew why, I guess. Of course, this year there is no reunion scheduled for the third Sunday in August and my calendar looks strangely empty. This is the first time in many years that we have not had a Dustbiter reunion at Phyllis’s house.
Last year in mid-summer I had talked to Karla, Phyllis’s last secretary who was with her nearly to the end. Karla said that Phyllis was looking forward to the reunion, but confided that Phyllis was slipping. She would give no details, but did say she was worried. I suppose at 95 one is entitled to some slippage, but Phyllis was never idle and even her admission that she didn’t feel like going out would be slightly alarming to someone who knew her. (Okay, can one be only slightly alarmed?)
I thought of Phyllis this week as the plane trundled up from Rio to Miami. Phyllis had a truly magnificent life. She was the epitome of turning lemons into lemonade. She took all the bad things and turned them around to make them funny. Instead of trying to hide her skinny legs and flat chest, she celebrated them. She intentionally wore costumes to emphasize her awkwardness. Her tent-style dresses stopped at the knees and her high-heeled boots came just above the ankles, a look, she assured me, guaranteed to make her legs look unattractive. She intentionally stood with her legs slighty apart, certainly not a lady-like pose. The hair that looked like she had just stuck her finger in an electric socket was one of her trademarks along with the cigarette holder which she used to visually punctuate her jokes.
And perhaps because she had come into her own rather late in life, she was strangely star-struck even though she herself was now a celebrity. It was rather endearing to see her interact with other celebrities with just a hint of reserve as if to say, “Am I really one of them?” In the later years she no longer had any reservations. She was not only a full-fledged celebrity but was also recognized and celebrated for being the first female stand-up comic to push open the doors to what had been exclusive;y a men’s club.
It’s been nearly a year now since she died. She was truly a remarkable woman and she left a legacy that will go on as long as there are people to tell jokes and audiences to listen to them. Many women have followed in her footsteps and the world is richer for them.
I almost feel compelled to say “rest in peace, Phyllis” but I do not believe that life ends at the grave. I would prefer to say, “I’ll be seeing you again, Phyllis.” I hope I will.
To learn more about Phyllis Diller and her life as a comedienne, check out my book: “Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller.” It’s available at: http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Spotlight-Road-Phyllis-Diller/dp/0985972882