Olivia Cole was one of my mom’s good friends in high school. They were both in the theatre group, at their girls’ only school in the city. There were girls of every shade and religion there and none of that mattered. I got the sense that they were in a safe haven in that school, where the limitations placed on other girls in the fifties just didn’t apply to them.
Mom went off to film school in California after that, and Olivia went to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Then Mom went on to work as a film editor, and got married, and had kids, and found that film work was not on the right schedule for parenting two little kids, and one big one. And Olivia moved out to Los Angeles, married, divorced and won an Emmy.
I’d seen Olivia’s picture in the yearbook and heard her name, but I’d never met her myself. And then North and South, the miniseries, came on TV, and I was busily watching Patrick Swayze and listening to southern accents when I saw Olivia. I started screaming and calling for my Mom – Is that her?! And it was. I knew (of) someone who was on TV!
When I was in seventh grade, I got to see her on stage in A Raisin in the Sun, and then I saw her in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and a miniseries with Oprah Winfrey. But all of this time I still didn’t know her. I saw her in another play a few years later and she came out to meet us, and I was shy, and she smiled and called me “A tall drink of water” or was it “long” drink of water. Not sure. But she was still a stranger, a mirage even. When she was on stage or on my TV, she wasn’t really Olivia, and I wasn’t sure who she might be in real life. She wasn’t the kind of actress who played herself over and over, she played characters who were nothing like her, except that they used her eyes and her voice. They even changed her body, making her walk, her body language, the shape of her, unrecognizable.
And then, when I was in my twenties, she came to stay with us. She had to sell her father’s house on the island and Mom offered our apartment as base of operations. Normally Olivia would have stayed in the city with her mother, but this was more convenient, and, more importantly, a chance to catch up with an old friend.
We had Dina then. She was probably ten years old, a black lab mix from the shelter, still in good health, and calmer than she’d been for the most of her life. I was still at my shyest back then (and only a few steps removed from that even now). I think Olivia was the only adult who ever slept over at the apartment (nephews, no matter what they might think, do not count as adults). Olivia was this mix of grand theatrical wisdom and down to earth, plain spoken quiet. And she loved my dog. And Dina loved Olivia.
Dina did not have many friends. Little children were as frightened of her as she was of them. They would see her black hair and sharp teeth and hide behind their mothers. Dina would see their quick movements, and short stature, and sit down by my leg with her back hair raised up. When people asked if she would bite, I had to say yes, she might do that. She’d tried to bite me, for picking her up when she didn’t want to be moved, for leaving her home when she wanted to come with me.
I took her to therapy with me for a few months, when she was suffering from unbearable separation anxiety, and maybe just knowing where I went without her, knowing what the place smelled like and sounded like, calmed her down. By the time Olivia visited, Dina was doing better, but she was still Dina. So Olivia’s matter of fact and immediate friendship was disarming and surprising to her. She wasn’t used to being liked by strangers. The two of them went for long walks together, down to the beach, keeping stride, breathing together.
With people, Olivia was a talker. She had that dramatic raconteur voice, with a touch of her southern Mom and her time in London coming through, and a lot of her time on stage filling out her voice so that even her whispers filled the whole room with a low smoky sound.
I don’t know if Olivia talked to Dina out on their walks, telling her stories of her own dog, Oro, or her trips around the world, or the characters she’d played. Maybe they were just quiet together, breathing in rhythm, walking towards the water and feeling the slight breeze in the air. Whatever it was, they came back content.
Dina had a friend. She didn’t know anything about Emmy awards and Hollywood and pilot season and table readings, all she knew was that this presence had entered her life and offered love of a gentle, fresh, relieving kind.
I have to believe that’s part of what changed things for my Dina. She never became a social butterfly, but something in her anxiety seemed to slow down. As if she’d decided that it was all okay. She didn’t have to get better to be loved, she just had to be.
Olivia Cole is currently in a two-woman play about the Delany sisters, called Having Our Say, in Hartford, Connecticut. If you’re in the area, or plan to be there before April 24th, stop in and see her. She’s magical.
This is a review of the play when it was at the Long Wharf theater:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/nyregion/review-2-sisters-navigate-100-years-of-black-history-in-having-our-say.html?_r=0
Link to Hartford Stage:https://www.hartfordstage.org/?gclid=CLiIobSOh8wCFUokhgodKvYGXA