The painting in this photo was given to me as a gift on the evening of Thursday March 19, 1981 by the painter. It was painted for me by my dear friend, Don Begnaud. Real flowers would not have lasted this long, but this bouquet brightens my home still today and I have been forever changed by the love of the painter.
Recently, on Wednesday July 29, 2009, our family’s travel schedule through Louisiana took us from New Orleans to Shreveport and we passed through Lafayette where I went to high school. We decided to drive through Taco Sisters, a new restaurant started by a high school friend of mine. As we entered town and drove through familiar territory, I felt a nudge to call my friend Don Begnaud. I try listen to those nudges and I asked Ron and the boys if we could stop by for a visit. I called the old phone number I had and Begnaud answered. (We often called him by his last name; not Mr. Begnaud, just Begnaud.) He was delighted that I called and I was delighted that he answered. I hadn’t spoken with him or seen him in since we had dinner together at Don’s Seafood in Lafayette in the spring of 1991.
Don updated me on his life, “Celia, I’ve got cancer and they just sent me home. There is nothing else they can do.”
“Don,” I said, “I’m so sorry, could I come by after lunch?”
“Please come by,” he said quickly.
As I hung up the phone, I told Ron that I’d rather drop in before lunch.
When we arrived, Don’s sister Olga answered the door and Don stood from a chair in the living room. The look on his face said it all. He was as delighted as I was to see an old friend. For the next hour we talked of art and of people we had seen and kept up with.
My son Zach asked about “Hello Dolly.” (that was our senior play) and Don said, “Your mom was Dolly.” Zach quickly asked Don, “were you Hello?” That was priceless. We had a great laugh together and Don really had a great laugh.
We talked about nothing and we talked about everything, everyday joys and summertime. We talked about my sons’ Max and Zach’s bed hair, and about their not wanting to cut it all summer. We talked about Ron and about our marriage of 21 years. We talked about my singing, writing, and painting and about our lives in Nashville. He talked about his family — his sisters, nieces, nephews, and about his art. I talked about how beautifully he viewed and captured life in his paintings.
I gave him copies of music I had recorded and books I had written. At the end of our visit we all held hands as we sat in a circle–Don and me and Olga and Ron and Max and Zach, and we had a prayer.
As my family filed out of the house, I sat near my good friend, hugged him one last time and told I loved him and he told me he loved me, too. He told me how glad he was that I had stopped by. Then I said, “now Begnaud, if I don’t see you again, we’ll meet in heaven by the buffet.” With his signature laugh he said, “indeed, indeed.”
As I write this, I am sitting, having just read his obituary. He died only a week after our visit. I regretted not keeping in touch with him through the years and I regretted not singing for him on that last visit, but I cannot imagine improving on our bon voyage conversation.
I am so very grateful for the opportunity to have loved Don Begnaud and for the opportunity to have been loved by him.
Begnaud was larger than life, and that fit with his love for theater, especially of musical theater. I met Don when I was only 17. He was cast as the leading man in Hello Dolly and I was Dolly as a high school senior. I enjoyed the way the whole cast fit together. As I think about it, that experience was magical for me. I believe it might have been the first Lafayette High performance that Don was recruited for. Don taught English and I still thank God that I never had him as a student (I knew many who had him and I so enjoyed our working relationship. Being his student might have changed things for us.) Prior to the musical, I remember only knowing of him. I knew where his classroom was. I knew that many of my friends loved him as a teacher. When our school choir director, Mary Jane Jones, said he would be part of the cast and the leading man in Dolly, Horace Vandergelder, I remember thinking that we were all in for a treat.
As we began rehearsals, I found him to be charming and professional. He sang great, knew his lines and reminded me of mine when I forgot them. He was kind, caring and a joy to be around.
Many times that spring and the summer following my senior year, I found myself dropping by his home. He was the kind of person you just wanted to be around. He laughed often and out loud. Our performances were for us a piece of heaven. We always talked about how magic happens. Looking back, I know now what the magic was. It was about our being together. There is something that happens in life. I think it is a glimpse of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. When communion happens. You look around at the people in the room, at those in your circle and you are filled with joy, with love and it bursts forth. It surrounds you and you are captured by it. Hello Dolly was one of those experiences. I found it in our director, Mary Jane Jones who brought out the best in all of us and believed we could be better than we thought we could. I found it in the cast and crew, many who were friends or who became friends. We worked as a team as we cheered for each other and we knew we were a part of something special and timeless. Don Begnaud was a large part of that gift for me personally.
The things that were larger than life about Don were his presence, his friendship, his smile, his sincere delight in others, his words of encouragement… his spirit. I learned through my experience in Dolly that there are people who find joy in making others look good. Don was one of those people.
Our first performance was a matinee. As is the tradition, many well wishers sent flowers or cards to cast members. When I arrived at the auditorium for our first evening performance the next day, I met Don waiting in the parking lot for me. He handed me a package. It was wrapped simply in brown paper and masking tape. I opened it with the glee of a child to find a beautiful painting of flowers and a butterfly that he had painted for me. He said simply, “I hope you like it.” (There’s a photo of that painting at the top of this post. The real painting is about 12″ x 16″ and it still rests in the frame that Don chose as its home.) Today it brightens my home, and I look at that painting everday. I have often thought of Don and of his lasting gesture of love that day. He knew that I’d lose a card, the flowers and photos would fade and be lost in attics, we’d all grow older and move on from that night.
Don was first and foremost a teacher. I still have his painting and have carried it with me this far along with some other gifts that I learned from him.
Here are some that I have know to be true because of my teacher and my friend Begnaud:
- Life is precious. Savor it.
- Love is a genuine, unconditional, selfless gift. Give thanks for it.
- Joy is at hand for each of us. Embrace it.
- No stage is too small or too big, not to step onto it.
- Be who you are. Leave it all on the stage or give it all, embrace it all, be completely in that moment.
- No fake smile will work. Work at just seeing something to smile about. You don’t have to try so hard to be real. Indubitably was one of his favorite words and he used it frequently. Don was indubitably genuine. I believed that he was Horace (his character), because he believed. He lived into it, he embraced it, he found a way to put his heart and his life into that story.
- Be wonderful. Don was full of wonder and delight, be it art, music, theater or acting. He was filled with the wonder of others. He wanted to know how you were, to hear your story. He listened as intently as if he were hearing a beautiful aria for the first time.
- Be about helping others with their lives. On opening night there was this one scene that I could never get the sequence of the dialogue. I practiced it a thousand times. I wrote notes on props and then I forgot it. Don didn’t miss a beat, he covered for it and made me look good. The second night, he did the same thing, though we both got tickled and almost broke character, the audience loved it.
- Sometimes it is not gonna come out perfectly, but it still might be better than we planned.
- Realize that any magic that happens really has little to do with you. It is all about giving, for the pure love of giving.
So be you a teacher, singer, actor, stay-at-home mom, preacher, doctor, lawyer, importer, painter, choral director or whatever you are; do it with joy and with love and trust that nothing will be wasted.
Don taught me some great life lessons. When I think of that last visit, what I will remember is his smile. Though I knew him to be in pain, sleepy from the drugs and weary from the fight; he still had energy to muster joy, share his love for me and to live in the moment on his terms. I want to be like that. I want to be about things that last, kind of like his beautiful painting in my home that I walk by every day. When it’s all said and done, love will be the the thing that matters. Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these, really, really, really is love and that lesson (in painting and in example) for me is indubitably Begnaud’s legacy.
Rest in peace, friend. I’ll see you at the buffet!
I love you, Celia