Landenburg, PA, 2012
(Click play botton to hear story)
Radio production by Shani Aviram
Portrait by Emile B. Klein, oil on canvas, mounted on panel, 9.5×11″
(click image for hi-resolution)
Diane Belnavis has a large voice. It’s loose and a little high pitched with a soft lisp and a way of stretching itself around corners. She’s fully aware of its bigness, of its roughness, of the way it pitches and rolls. It balloons up a room and explodes into spastic cackles. If she were to playfully shriek, “I’m coming to get you!” you might imagine a giant charging down the hall after you. But then she would appear before you with flouncy curls and an arresting smile, rather small in stature and full of shoulder shrugs. “Come on,” she’d say all bubbly and smiling, “let’s do it again.” In that moment, you’d wonder how on earth this woman could muster such bigness.
As a girl, Diane thought she ought to be a lady, one of those elegant old Hollywood stars. She could cultivate a swan neck and a deep, pensive gaze, like Veronica Lake or Grace Kelly. “Now that,” her father said of these ladies, “is the kind of woman you’ll be.” He’d say this and motion with his open palms towards her chin, like if only she could see her own glowing face right now, really see it, she would know exactly what he meant. Which she did, sort of. Diane applied herself to appropriate lady-making activities, like cheerleading and a sorority, and in its heydey, she even taught Jazzercise. She was social, she was friendly, she got along with people. But Diane was a New Yorker, the kind who wanted to be yelled at in the supermarket line if she were taking too long, who wanted to tell somebody when they were acting stupid, as a simple, friendly observation.
It should have not surprised anyone, then, when she fell in love with her summer job at Willowbrook, a mental institution in New York. It was not a place where people pussy-footed around. Can you even imagine that? How mentally handicapped men would respond to a passive-aggressive comment, like “It looks like somebody just wants to hang in the corner by himself”? No way. In this place, Diane’s large voice and her rough and tumble personality fit in great. She arranged elaborate picnics and took the men on carousel rides on the grounds. She sang and danced and joked with them, as real people do with other real people. And not like ladies. Or at least the swan-necked variety, who never seem to have enough fun and who appear primarily in the movies for a reason.
Which is how Diane has ended up here: seated in a chair in her tile-floored living room, the May sun setting into the forest beyond the lane. Diane admits that she could live elsewhere, that she has dreamed of going to Africa. But here, on Juniper Hills Farm, in the woods of Pennsylvania, is where she wants to be. Arranging housing, checking up on the guys, feeding lots of animals, this works for Diane. Her explosive cackle makes this clear. The autistic guys she lives with are her friends. They have their own lives, their own jobs and hobbies. She’s happy to help facilitate their independence, it’s so easy to help a little bit. Her voice grows very small when she says this, attempting to hide its hugeness. And all of a sudden the mystery is solved. Diane’s voice is equally proportionate to her character. She is an enormous, friendly giant in a number of people’s lives, that’s why she sounds like one.
Biography by Kamala Puligandla