By Beth Browne
Gwenda Ledbetter has been telling stories for over fifty years both in theatre and as a professional storyteller. Today, at age 82, she is telling a story near and dear to her heart in a special one-woman show, The Old Woman in the Basement. She says the story came to her on her own basement steps and is an allegory for aging.
“I was in the basement of my own life. I was grieving.” Gwenda says, “When you’re married to someone with Alzheimer’s, even though they are still here, you’re grieving.” Four years ago, Gwenda had to take the difficult step of putting him in the dementia unit. “There was a lot of guilt associated with not being able to care for him. I’d leave there and sit through a green light, weeping.”
In this new play, The Old Woman in the Basement, the heroine, 82 year-old Mariah Kincaid, is alone at home, with her husband in the dementia unit, when her daughter comes home from Paris and proceeds to redecorate the entire house, making Mariah furious. She storms down the basement stairs saying she’s going to live in the basement.
As she makes her way down the basement stairs, Mariah tells a story to her friend, the garbage man, who, by the way, likes her rum cake. It’s the story of the Sumerian goddess, Inanna, who makes a journey to the “great below” to see her sister, Ereshkigal. Along the way, she has to give up all her power. This story struck Gwenda as being very much like the trip we make, as we get older. In the play, Mariah says, “I’ve been through all the gates. I’ve lost beauty, I’ve lost my lover, I’ve lost health, independence and the keys to the car. I’ve lost my friends; my memory is going, going gone! And underneath all the wrinkles and gray hair, I’m still that young girl that the sailor fell in love with years ago. So, how do you get all that back? The answer is that you don’t, but hopefully you get something different, maybe a kind of knowing and, if you’re lucky, maybe you get wisdom.”
When Gwenda got the idea to produce the play, she had no idea how she would finance it. Her director, whom she calls brilliant, David Novak, suggested she mount a Kickstarter campaign online. This was very challenging for her because, she says, “You have to ask yourself if it’s good enough to ask people to finance it.” Apparently, it is plenty good enough because in one month she met her goal, raising $3500 for advertising and set building. She says doing something like this is incredibly expensive. She spent $800 on posters alone. The show enjoyed a two-weekend run in early November and garnered standing ovations and rave reviews.
The Old Woman in the Basement is the continuation of Gwenda’s long career as a storyteller. All through her life, Gwenda has found comfort in sharing stories. She says, “When you’re a storyteller you carry around the wisdom of the world, and you have to get in touch with yourself.”
She loved the directness and the face-to-face contact of storytelling. When she first came to Asheville, Gwenda told stories at the library and appeared on TV with the local Mr. Bill Show, entertaining young and old alike as the Storylady. Along the way, she became a professional storyteller and went on tour telling stories. Reluctantly, Gwenda had to give up touring as a storyteller when her husband became ill with Alzheimer’s. She felt she had to do something to save her sanity, so she decided to try writing. She began studying in the Smoky Mountain Creative Writing Workshop with Tommy Hays, Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program and studied there for nine years. When she decided to try her hand at playwriting, she began studying the craft with Maggie Marshall on the recommendation of Hays.
In 2006, she wrote and performed Friday’s Father, a tale of growing up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore with an alcoholic father. It played at NC Stage for two weekends to standing ovations.
Born and raised on the Eastern shore of Virginia between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Gwenda says, “I was a flat lander. It is so flat they say you can put something in the middle of it and it won’t roll.” Her husband, who was a neurologist, fell in love with the mountains and moved the family there in 1959. At first, Gwenda was very uncomfortable with the mountains. She laughs and says, “It was about four years before I decided they would not fall over on me.”
To try to get over her fear of the mountains she joined a hiking group and found herself hugging a mountain with an abyss behind her. She told the leader, who became a dear friend, that the hills were too steep for her, but Mariella just kept murmuring to her reassuringly until Gwenda came face to face with a little crab fossil set in the side of a rock. She screamed, “I’m home!” and it was the beginning of a long-term love affair with the mountains.
When she first began storytelling, she loved to tell the mountain stories, the Grandfather Tales and the Jack Tales. People enjoyed these tales and associated her with them and she was stuck being the Storylady, telling the same stories over and over. Although she loved telling these stories, she had other creative ideas. She says, “You’ve got to leave room for yourself to grow and not just buy this one image of yourself.” Working on her one-woman shows has filled that role for her.
Gwenda says her three children have been a great support to her, affirming and helpful. When she was moaning and groaning about the Kickstarter campaign, her daughter told her very forcefully she had to let go of worrying about it. This past summer they took her to California because she’d always wanted to see the redwoods. While they were visiting the park, looking at the giant trees, a park ranger came up and said, “You know, they don’t sink their roots down deep, they twine them. So, in essence, they are holding each other up.”
Since then, Gwenda and her children sign their emails, “Twiningly,” to recognize and remember how they are supporting each other.
Visit Gwenda on the web at: www.oldwomaninthebasement.com
Beth Browne writes because she just can’t stop herself. Her two kids love her, but they wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In spite of the fact that she cannot grow even one single tomato, Browne manages a large diversified farm that has been in her family for over a hundred years. At every opportunity, she sails on the Pamlico with her salty mate, Eric. Read all about it at: http://bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.