Chautauqua’s unexpected gifts


Bob Rosenthal helps Ericha Doubles use her right hand to shape clay. The hand was partially disabled after Ericha suffered a stroke. Photo by Eric Shea.

John Ford | Staff Writer

Ericha Doubles walks slowly into the room. She is tall and graceful. Her flaxen hair is swept back from a smooth, unfurrowed forehead. Her smile is dazzling, filling the room with light. An understated athleticism shows in her posture. Her sense of humor sparkles in her blue eyes. There is a hint of the ineffable charm of Grace Kelly.

Ericha is right-handed, so she offers that hand to a visitor. Her gesture is halting, and the eye is drawn to her hand, clenched in a stiff, half-open posture. Ericha says hello, the word somehow coming out sideways.

Ericha is 41 years old. Diagnosed as mentally challenged at the age of 3, she has nonetheless participated, undeterred, in athletics for most of her life. She has swum in the Special Olympics competing in three strokes, run track, played tennis and ridden bikes.

She even has been a cheerleader more recently at a special center in Hilton Head, S.C., where she lives with her mother, Susan. Inspired by her daughter, Susan is in the process of founding an inter-generational center for the developmentally challenged in Bluffton, S.C., near Hilton Head.

With lots of help from a supportive family, Ericha was “doing OK,” her mother said.

But two years ago, Ericha had a stroke. She was hospitalized. Rehab went well, and she returned home within a few months. In January 2011, Ericha’s speech began to fail, and she complained regularly about severe headaches. Much testing ensued. Doctors diagnosed a cerebral aneurysm, and in June 2011, they operated on Ericha’s brain.

Meanwhile, Susan had begun visiting Chautauqua. Starting in about 2005, she heeded sister and Institution property owner Nancy Langston’s calls to come north to what Susan now calls her “academia heaven.”

The stroke and aneurysm had taken a heavy toll on Ericha. What independence she had achieved throughout the years disappeared. She was losing the use of her right hand and most of her right arm. An uncharacteristic gloom settled on a family priding itself on resiliency and fortitude.

“Most of this past year was distressing for us, as Ericha’s health issues seemed to drag her down into almost total dependency,” Susan said. “I was nearly at my wits’ end. I finally figured maybe a change of scenery would do us both some good, so I decided to bring Ericha up to visit her aunt and uncle in Chautauqua. We looked in the Special Studies book. Ericha had always been interested in art, so I enrolled her in ceramics classes for Weeks One and Two.

“We think of what happened next as a miracle.”

On the first day, Susan and Ericha walked to the Lincoln ceramics center.

“I figured I would need to be always close at hand to help,” Susan said. “But there was something in the atmosphere there in the studio, I don’t know, maybe a sense of community and helpfulness. Almost immediately, Ericha asserted herself, and by the second morning, she looked at me and said ‘What are you still doing here?’ ”

The days passed, Ericha now walking by herself from the Langston house to the studio. She brought home glazed clay pieces she had made mostly by herself, with some help from supportive staff members.

“I could feel the joy in her voice as she left the house in the morning,” Susan said. “She’d wave bye to me and head off to the studio. This was a buoyant independence I had enjoyed so many years ago from my other children, but not until now from Ericha.”

Ericha also met Bob Rosenthal, a retired Buffalo pediatric dentist and Chautauqua neighbor. An able and experienced ceramicist, the avuncular Rosenthal mentored Ericha in the studio.

“When I was practicing dentistry, colleagues would often refer to me children they regarded as difficult or troublesome. I could calm their fears,” Rosenthal said.

On the last day of her stay in Chautauqua, Ericha took her tortured right hand and held a garlic press in it to squeeze out some clay strands.

“My daughter seems almost totally in control of what she is doing,” Susan said. “Chautauqua truly bestows unexpected gifts.”