Saturday, October 10, 2015

Phil and Amy: "I believed what she was singing"

The irony in Phil’s telling of the story of how he met Amy, fell in love with her and married her is that while he loads most of it with rich details, he cannot remember the most crucial point.

“I blacked out during the proposal,” he told me during our pre-wedding interview.

He then turned to his bride for help remembering.

“What did I do?”

The story of how these two came together begins decades before either of them were born, in a jewelry store in Indiana; it includes hospital rooms, blues nightclubs and Ball State University. It does not include any NFL playoff games, and we’ll get to the reason why in a few paragraphs. But it also include’s Amy’s cat, Saffron, and Amy’s reminder to Phil that she was feeding Saffron is what brought the crucial detail of his proposal back to his mind.

“As soon as you said ‘cat food,’ it all came back to me,” he said, his face lighting up again.

The backstory of Phil and Amy begins in rural Indiana, probably in the early 1940s. No one knows who made the ring that Phil slid onto his bride’s finger, but its style is indicative of World War II work: white gold, with diamonds in a design halfway between an oval and a marquee. Phil’s step-grandfather, Merle Russell, was a jeweler, but the ring Amy wore does not bear much resemblance to any of his other pieces; he likely acquired it somehow, and may have lost track of it…

….And that might be how it ended up in a black bag, tucked into the back of one of his safes. Merle died in 1981, and when his descendants cleaned out his store, the mysterious ring surfaced.

“My mom pulled it out, she loved it, so that was my mom’s ring,” Phil told me.

The story pauses for two decades. In October 2000, Amy had been in publishing for years, and now worked for a music-production company called Chick Singer Night; she was a chick singer herself, an alto who loved to sing blues, and her first gig at a Chick Singer Night event was coming up. Phil was a professional drummer, inspired by Coliauta, Gadd and Williams; he often played with a house band, and he loved the blues. For her first concert, Amy would be singing in front of a house band.

Hours before showtime, Amy rehearsed with the group. During the down time that divides rehearsal from performance, Amy sat at the bar, and the drummer pulled up next to her.

“We were talking, and we discovered that we both went to Ball State,” she recalled.

The two conversed, and time passed, and their talk had to conclude when showtime arrived.

“Internally, I have such stage fright,” Amy told me.

“I never really noticed it,” the man who played drums for her that night told me.

“I don’t remember my performance,” Amy said.

“I remember her performance vividly,” and Phil pulled it back to the present, in sharp detail,15 years after it happened. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I thought she was a decent singer,” he said. “But I believed what she was singing.”

But the time was not right — the two parted ways, and nearly 10 years went by. Amy and her friend Becca founded the Singer Spotlight series in January 2001, and celebrated its ninth anniversary in January 2010; Phil came to that show to watch some of his friends, who were in the house band. Greg, the bassist, had become a friend of both Phil and Amy.

“Greg told me we’d be great together,” Phil recalled. “I himmed and hawed around about it for a while. Finally, I Facebooked her, and asked if if she’d like to go out with me.

“She told me she’d take a raincheck on it.”

Amy took Phil’s request for a date, and her postponement, to her business partner. Her business partner disapproved of this move.

“Becca just reamed me out,” Amy said. “She was like ‘You are dumb, this is a great guy!’

“So I wrote him back, and said ‘How about that raincheck?’”

Their first date was on a Saturday; they planned to tour the modern art wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Phil had a problem: his favorite NFL team, the Indianapolis Colts, was in the playoffs, and had a do-or-die game during that time.

So they had an “unofficial,” as Amy put it, preview date the night before: Becca’s birthday party at Fitzgerald’s. They stayed until 3 a.m. The next day, they met at the Art Institute.

“That date ended up being eight or nine hours,” Amy told me. “After that date, we called each other almost every day.”

Phil skipped the game. The Colts won. His team was on their way to Super Bowl XLIV.

But he was on his way to securing his own grand prize.

“She laughs at my dumb jokes,” Phil told me. “Which aren’t dumb, but, after you hear them for the ninth time, maybe they are. I feel loved and cared for in a new and refreshing way.”

“I think, intellectually, we’re on the same plane,” Amy explained. “I never get tired of talking about things with him.”

Amy and her mother, Kathy
But there was more going on in Amy’s personal life than a blossoming romance. Her mother, Kathy, was suffering from stage-four breast cancer, which had metastasized to her bones. Doctors told Amy that she would lose her mother soon.

She did not. Kathy celebrated her 81st birthday in September, then watched her daughter marry Phil in October.

“She’s a woman of amazing strength and determination,” Amy told me. But at the time, Amy was frightened, and spending as much time as she could with her mother, in the hospital.

Phil had been trying to sneak questions about Amy’s ring size into conversations around that time. At home one evening, when he knew that she would be rushing between work and the hospital, he wanted to get her complete attention for a moment.

He had Merle’s ring with him. His mom had taken it off of her own finger, resized it and given it to him, so he could propose with it.

Kathy shows a guest Amy's baby photos
Amidst sorting things out and getting ready to visit Kathy, Amy stopped for a second to feed her cat. She turned around — and Phil was holding an open box. The ring his mother wore was inside.

“He was like ‘So, do you want to get married?’” Amy recalled.

“She was ‘gobsmacked,’ I call it,” Phil told me.

“And I was like ‘Yeah,’” Amy said. “After he proposed, I calmed down a little bit.”

In trying to tell his side of all this to me, Phil got stuck at trying to describe the proposal. What jogged his memory: Amy mentioned the kidney disease Saffron was struggling with, and how she was feeding him Royal Canine cat food. Once she mentioned that, Phil’s “blackout” moment filled with light.

On their wedding day, Merle’s ring filled the Frederick Graue House with light.

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