This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills.
This Memorial Day weekend just passed, I was invited to speak at the Alumni Banquet held annually at Cassville High School, my Alma Mater. I was not given any parameters other than to keep it shorter than last year’s talk, which I understand was a rambling report by the Sheriff on area crime statistics. I thought I might do a little better. At least my talk would probably be more cheerful.
Of course it would have to relate in some way to those long ago days of yesteryear when I was a student at Cassville High. It’s a good thing that aging leaves most of your long-term memory intact. This meant that not only would I be pretty good at remembering those days, chances are the audience would too. And from recent past experience at hanging out in public places, I knew a good many of them might like to hear about my recent foray into movie land, via the film Winter’s Bone, in which I was the singer. So I made some notes, drove the 150-odd miles south and west, and this is, more or less, what I told them.
In May of 1961, I and my classmates arrived at graduation night completely fearless. We were invincible, having weathered Miss Cox’s best efforts to civilize us and the rest of the faculty’s best attempts to educate us. We stood up and delivered the choral readings, vowing to live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man. We admonished one another to Be Strong, we are not here to dream, to drift. We have hard work to do, and loads to lift. We had finished the course. Now, we knew everything. We had no idea.
I could hardly wait for that night to end and my real life to begin. I knew in my heart I had something really important to do, something I believed would someday bring me some modest amount of fame.
And someday, of course, was just around the corner. I really thought I was being modest. After all, it was the logical outcome for someone who knew everything. I had no idea that my moment of fame lay 50 years in the future, and that the road to that place was piled sky high with dangers and pitfalls, losses and sorrows. Those fabled slings and arrows of fortune we were told awaited us had a certain ring of adventure and romance to them in our minds, and the fortune, ah yes. That was the most exciting part. We’d have thought we were Indiana Jones, had he been around then.
We also thought we’d wake the next morning and it would be just another summer vacation. We thought our education was finished. Perhaps we’d take up the adventure of college in the fall, but it was no big deal either way. Our futures lay ahead of us. We might do anything. We had no idea.
One of the things we had no idea about was that the vast majority of the people who had made up our educational tribe for the past 12 years were people we would never see again – and that those we did see would be different. Changed, older. Weathered by their immersion in that future we could hardly wait for.
I was desperate to show my parents and my peers how utterly special I was. I didn’t know that nearly every single person I wanted to share my fame and adventures with would be long gone by the time there was anything to show them. I didn’t know that I would cave to grief and sorrow when my parents died, and spend 15 years wandering in the wilderness before I found my way again. I didn’t know that over the next 50 years I’d be at turns a hippy, a troubadour, a journalist, a factory worker, a teacher, and most often, a stranger in a strange land.
There were a couple of things I knew that did turn out to be true. One was that being a woman in the way that term was defined in the culture of the day and being a human being with goals and dreams were not journeys down the same road. And there were some decisions I had already made. I was not going to marry and settle down. I had something important to do, by God, and my goal in life was to figure out what that was and get to doing it. I knew in my heart that if I took a husband, he would sooner or later decide he could tell me what to do, and then sooner or later I’d just have to kill him. I didn’t see any future in that. At the same time I decided children were entirely out of the question. At the time, I didn’t stop to consider why that was so, and how not having someone younger and stronger to rely on in my so-called declining years might be a liability. I’ve had a long time since to consider all that, and what I tell my students when they ask why I never had children is true now as it was then. It’s because of my enduringly firm conviction that sooner or later I would misplace them. I knew then that my passion not just for independence but for my own creative path, was incompatible with putting someone else first. I was totally self involved. Therefore, All those roads that lay so open for my classmates seemed completely impassable to me at the time. So it has remained for the past half century. I am truly blessed to have realized that before something terrible happened.
Such was the sum of my knowledge at the beginning of that journey. My graduation. My matriculation. My getting the heck out of Dodge and into my real life. I went to college in the fall and stayed there until the folks in the music department told me to get over my fantasy of learning composition and orchestration. I was a woman, after all. Nobody would hire me to do those things. I would be a music teacher. Get real, girl, they said.
So I did. I quit school, went to California and began playing music. It was a magical time, just before the arrival of the flower children. I was in the most massive cauldron of change ever to be seen in the 20th century. I lived smack in the middle of the free speech movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement – I was a hippy long before I heard the word. I played music. I hung out with the great and not so great. I was a child of the 60s, through and through.
But then reality struck. My parents died. I sustained an injury that disabled my left hand, and could no longer play an instrument. I could no longer make a living at the only thing I knew how to do.
Eventually I ended up back in Missouri. I went back to school, became a journalist and enjoyed a modest but successful career for another 20 years. Then my heart got sick of adrenaline. Literally sick. So I had to retire on disability, on a fixed, quite limited income. I was ready to settle into a frugal, peaceful life for the rest of my dwindling days.
And then came Winter’s Bone. I had no idea my life was about to be forever changed the night Daniel Woodrell, his wife Katy and a few of their movie buddies dropped by Rick Cochran’s house where we were playing music, so they could hear someone playing “real Ozarks music.” They came, they listened, they went, and we spent the next two years continuing to meet every Thursday night at Rick’s to play music.
Then I got the call. They wanted Ozarks music, and my voice, in the movie. Shortly thereafter, i was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I postponed the surgery so I could be in the movie – another fateful choice. Then the shoot, then the surgery, then the infection that followed and almost put an end to me. Then more music for the movie, then Sundance, and all that followed. I felt like life had been put on fast forward, and I did not know if I could muster the stamina to keep up. But I did, all the way through the Amazing Geriatric Hillbilly U.S. World Tour that took me and my little band from coast to coast, playing 27 cities in 29 days, and caused the people in my life and my high school class in theaters across America and the world to stand up at the beginning of that tiny little independent film that could, and shout “My God, That’s Marideth Sisco.”
If you’d told me in 1961 that any of my life would happen like this, I’d have thought you were hallucinating. And that was before LSD.
So in this time of remembering and celebrating the people who once accompanied us on this life’s journey, here’s another thing to remember. Your story, like mine, is not over until it’s over. Dreams that were once shelved or thought impractical, impossible, are still waiting for a chance to be realized. And that chance can be as simple as a passing stranger looking to sample life and music in the land of the hillbilly. This is Marideth Sisco, encouraging you to hang on to your dreams along with your memories. You have no idea what may still come of them.
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