The Spark in Sara Caswell-Pearce
A former food and arts editor, collage artist, and soulful friend, Sara knew how to draw out the light.
In 2017, in the middle of a hushed January night, my husband dropped me off in a parking lot behind the Mariemont Theatre. I boarded a bus teaming with mostly women, bound for D.C., and in dramatic fashion, rose up the rubber tread stairs, nerves hopping out of my skin.
Donald J. Trump had been elected president, and I joined the throngs of voters across the states and around the world for a protest deemed the Women’s March. The nephew of my traveling companion had died suddenly, and my dear friend backed out of our shared trek. I felt like the greasy-haired elementary school kid without a friend on the bus.
No sooner did I plop down on the springy green bench, and I heard a welcoming voice from behind say, “Annette, is that you?”
Slowly, I turned my head, recognizing the round, open face, the wide smile, the curve of her glasses. Sara. Sara Caswell-Pearce. My nerves slunk back into place.
Sara and I were not close friends. At our best, we were women connected by art. Those who are united through art find themselves bound to one another not by constant sight but by soul. That’s how I described Sara and me.
One year earlier, Movers and Makers magazine sought out poems to pair with work by local artists. I had submitted Sister in Memoir, a poem that captured the fall of my older sister, Laura, who had been an alcoholic and was now disabled. Sara generated a piece of collage art, Solo, to accompany the poem. Once I viewed the published pairing, I pushed to meet Sara. She had brought forth something from my poem that even I couldn’t capture.
I drove out to her Brazee Street Studio in Oakley and she gave me a tour of her studio, her collage art a vocation reimagined after retiring as Arts Editor from Cincinnati Enquirer. She walked me through her collections of antique magazines and shadow boxes with Victorian era women “contained.” She knew how to get at the art so it jumped off the page.
In our more than our hour together, we talked about cancer (Sara had breast cancer, and my first husband had died of leukemia), our mothers, sisters, and art. When our time came to an end (Sara would have let me stay all day), I asked to buy the collage. Art in hand, I drove immediately to the frame shop. Nothing would stop the love I found inside this collage from being hung on the walls of my office.
Our connection ended there, until that fateful bus trip to D.C.
Sara had the good sense and manners to take me under her wings. She and Mr. P, and the rest of her merry friends on the bus had lived through the sixties. Now, they were in their 60s, and understood what a return to more restrictive times in this new presidency might mean for women all over the world. They were marching for their former selves. I was there, marching for my young adult daughters, and my nieces, one of whom was Laura’s daughter.
The bus ride was lengthy, and all along, Sara insisted for me to “join them” once we landed. Deposited at RFK stadium, we disembarked, and soon the march became a muddled crowd. We spent most of the day on our feet, listening to speakers when we could, trying to text through spotty cell service, receiving texts from those in the “outside” world, anyone not in D.C. at that moment, telling us we were part of the largest single-day protest in history.
My daughter lives in D.C. now, and this past summer, my husband and I walked much of the same hallowed ground. Nearly four years later, and my feet still felt the pulsating rhythms of women’s boots, the heat off bodies ebbing and flowing. It had been cold that day. We wore layers, which were not handy, as the Porta Potties were limited in numbers, many locked up from the inauguration the day before. Lines were so long for food, we shared peanut butter sandwiches (I had made extra) and my dried pineapple, because I once read pineapple contained all the right nutrients to stave off dehydration.
As I later wrote, that day, my Women’s March sign consisted of a line from Obama’s farewell speech. “Show up, dive in, and stay at it.” Frustrated we couldn’t physically march in D.C., my newer friends and I believed we were there to be The Crowd. The one that was “greater than”. Our job had simply been to show up. There were others whose jobs it would be to act in other capacities. But first, we still had to show up.
Sara showed up in my life two more momentous times.
In 2018, she invited me to hear Margaret Atwood speak at the Mercantile’ Library’s Neihoff Lecture Series. At the time, Sara was the library’s artist-in-residence. We dressed in ball gowns, and joked the evening would be “fancier than the last time we met on a bus” (we did have wine on the ride home to celebrate my birthday). Sara was always inviting me into her circles, and reminding me that I mattered in her life, in this city, in my words. I wished I could have worked under Sara at the Enquirer, but that was long before I knew I was writer.
And she showed up again, in the form of mail, a full year later.
In the Disney movie, Soul, number 22 searches for her purpose. “Maybe sky-watching can be my spark,” she suggests hopefully. “Or walking! I’m really good at walking!” “Those really aren’t purposes, 22,” Joe responds. “That’s just regular old living.” But Joe was wrong.
Last October, I was hit by a car while crossing in the crosswalk. Sustaining injuries to my leg and foot, I was kept from the streets for sometime. Most anyone in the near vicinity of my life understood the importance of my walks. There was not only a certain art to it — but a certain need. I fell into despair. Walking raised my serotonin levels, kept off any excess menopausal weight, forced this writer out of her head and into the world, where those thoughts become words on page. Walking was my spark.
I received numerous flower arrangements, cards and packs of ice cream. All were welcomed with one hand open, one hand on a crutch. One day, I received a small booklet from Sara titled Walking. It contained excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s essay of the same name.
Inside, Sara had written,“You will be back doing what you love soon, meanwhile, enjoy this tiny book.”
Sara had not only intuited how important my walks were, but walking referenced the underlying connection of our time together in D.C., of two women, two artists becoming friends. For far too brief a time, Sara and I belonged to, as Thoreau called it, “the family of Walkers” and joined in each other’s journeys.
Recently, Sara’s breast cancer had returned, and she moved on to what she called Plan B. Sara displayed an ironic and uncanny sense of humor, which most individuals with cancer developed to stave off the heartbreak. She died on Sunday.
Last night, before I learned of her death, I lay on the floor in relaxation pose, staring up at Solo/Sister in Memoir hanging on the wall. Sara had collaged a rare rainbow of light inside my words, inside my sister, one that I had not drawn out. At the time, I had only imagined Laura’s descent. But Sara envisioned my sister dancing. While the leaves fluttered downward, the silhouette of the girl’s dress gave the impression of floating upward on the breeze.
After a long day of poking at the laptop keys, I often turn to the collage hung at my back. When the afternoon sun smashes through smooth white slats of blinds, one needs to view, at close range, how the rays stab at the threads of copper and silver metal Sara incorporated into the leaves, dress, and trees. They are matches lighting sparks to give the composition a sense of lift off.
My last communication with Sara was from a Facebook post about “spontaneous shrines” she often discovered she had created around the house. I replied, “Even my kitchen counter carries some sort of spiritual weight.” And she agreed. “It’s such an unconscious thing, that once you see it, they seem to be everywhere.”
Sara hand’s created numerous shrines in other people’s lives, including the one in my home. She too, seemed to be everywhere. Everywhere I needed her.