Most kids read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town by 10th grade. It’s a rite of passage—two families’ travels of a lifetime, the spectrum of human existence—in one day. At 15 I found Our Town as dull as the thud of the newspaper hitting the front porch. But decades later, it’s a rich read as I say good-bye to Edwina Goodman, a renowned Mississippi artist. One of the characters poignantly asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” Yes, some do, and we are all better for it.
I met Edwina’s voice and washing machine before shaking her hand. Her daughter Meg hauled me and two laundry baskets home for the weekend in early September of our sophomore year. As we stuffed our college uniforms—faded T-shirts, overalls, jeans, second-hand Army pants, and surgical scrubs (permanently “borrowed” from my physician dad)—into the washing machine, a 100+ decibel soprano voice almost blew the roof off the house. Good thing that didn’t happen—the song explosion practically launched me headfirst into the ceiling. In the dizzying whirlwind of sound, I waited for light fixtures and glasses to shatter one after the other in surreal super-slow-mo. Meg didn’t flinch. Stupefied, I watched her nonchalantly toss day-of-the-week underwear into the wash.
“That’s some sound system,” I shouted. Every guy on campus who obsessively tinkered with amped-up speakers would have coveted this family stereo. Anybody cranking it up that loud for a party would have attracted a mob of students, surprised the neighbors, and perhaps summoned the police.
“Oh, that’s just my mother,” Meg yelled back. “She’s having her voice lesson.”
I opened and then shut my mouth. My cheerleader vocal wattage could not compete with the woman who passed the acid opera test in 1968: singing the aria “O Patria Mia” in a bravura performance of Aida with world-renowned tenor Richard Tucker at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson, Mississippi.
Until then, I thought my mother was one of the coolest moms around: she could sink hook shot after hook shot into the left-leaning basketball goal at the far end of the backyard badminton court. Until then, I never heard of a “high C” except for the egregiously spelled artificial fruit punch (Hi-C) that packed a sugar wallop.
Meg and I retired to the kitchen to quaff Diet Dr Peppers (“DDPs”). We didn’t waste breath competing with the musical blast from the living room. Operatically ignorant, I entertained visions of my college roommate’s mom. With such a powerful instrument, she had to be six feet tall, fiery, helmeted, and armored in chainmail.
The walls trembled, and I quivered until the voice lesson ended 40 minutes later. Then I met the woman who delighted and inspired me for 30+ years.
Edwina half-tripped, half-sashayed into the kitchen. She barely brushed five feet two inches. Her hair was raven, and her dark eyes snapped. With an olive complexion, Edwina seemed almost exotic. But her voice—low, gracious, and vowel soft—exuded Southern charm.
As soon as Meg mentioned my French major, Edwina shifted into rapid-fire conversation. We zinged back-and-forth, line by line, “Le Corbeau et Le Renard” (“The Crow and the Fox”) by 17th-century poet Jean de la Fontaine. Ever after, lawyerly Meg feigned mild annoyance when we gushed a Gallic torrent.
Edwina danced through life, followed by a perpetual audience, including Bill, her husband and number-one fan. A gentleman lawyer, he matched Edwina’s ebullience with razor-sharp smarts and wit. He towered at least a foot taller. They balanced beautifully. Their family grew over 64 blissful years—three children, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
While in college, Edwina found her calling: she sang her first operatic role as Flora in the Jackson Opera Guild’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Traviata. After spending a heady summer under the tutelage of legendary vocal coach Estelle Liebling, followed by an invitation for further study, Edwina chose Bill over the Big Apple. They married, and she launched a quadruple-threat career as wife, mom, opera singer, and artist in Mississippi.
The product of a decidedly off-key family, I found Edwina’s biography rather intoxicating. What was it like to play the doomed Aida, Bohème Mimi, or Suor Angelica—only to roll out of bed a few hours later to drive a carpool? It was the pitch-perfect oscillation between art and life.
At age 58, Edwina underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatments. She recovered from cancer but experienced a devastating shock: she could no longer sing because the surgery had damaged her vocal chords.
Urged by national watercolorist, art teacher, and friend John Gaddis, Edwina poured passion into art—”singing on canvas,” as she phrased it: “When I realized that painting, like music, requires intuitive interpretation, careful study, unity, harmony, balance, even rhythm, and a great amount of discipline, I relaxed about jumping head-on into an area that until now brought pleasure through osmosis. As I moved into different phases with art, music was always present. Although not quite like Baudelaire with his poem ‘Correspondances‘ (‘Correspondences’)—in which he sees musical notes as color—I often thought about music in my art.”
Edwina painted prolifically for the next 25 years, producing a dynamic body of work. At first, she fell in love with “that startling medium of watercolor that seems to paint a picture of itself with only a little help if the artist watches what it is trying to say.”
Her brilliant, oversize florals and still lifes became a sensation on the night of her first show. Initially, they were her bread and butter. However, Edwina’s love of intense color fueled a switch to acrylics. In addition to her trademark watercolors, she produced landscapes, figures, abstractions, and collages for hundreds of collectors nationwide. She exhibited at galleries, libraries, churches, and juried shows across the South, winning “best in show” on numerous occasions. More than a dozen one-woman shows featured her works.
This remarkable woman held several powerful positions in musical, art, and civic groups. Organizations showered her with honors. And she had a lot of fun on the side. As her daughters remembered, “Edwina’s competitive streak was evident on the tennis courts and at the bridge table. She loved her baby grand piano, which she often played for Bill while he read at home. She moved nimbly from classical music and hymns to cabaret tunes and jazz. For over 40 years, Edwina and a small group of close friends enjoyed testing recipes and cooking together.”
What struck me most was Edwina’s intensity about art in the moment and freedom from intent. “I paint because I love the doing of it,” she said. The finished piece is one thing. Getting there is another—the solitary taking of one’s raw humanity and pushing and moving and shaping and refining in rich, sensuous, intuitive strokes.
As I gaze out the window, the weeping willow’s branches stream, sweeping the ground with long, slender leaves—golden-green and umber-splotched. Autumn has yet to catch fire. The sky is deep and blue and cloudless. A high note—and pure joy in the morning.