A couple of years before my mother died in 1995 (a few months short of her 81st birthday) she had an epiphany and called my oldest sister, Mary:
“Did you watch Oprah Winfrey today?”
“I missed it,” Mary replied.
“Mary,” my mother confided, “I think my family might have been dysfunctional.”
Mary has never said as much, but I imagine she bit down on her lower lip hard enough to draw blood. “Oh,” Mary said. Mary does noncommittal and non-confrontational better than anyone I’ve ever known.
As soon as Mary hung up with my mother, she called me and our two younger sisters to alert us to our mother’s a-ha moment. “Just take it in,” Mary advised.
All four of us had long since come to this conclusion about Mother’s family and thought it close to miraculous that she escaped with as few scars as she did.
Had my mother had this revelation some 40 years earlier, my life might have been quite different; but she didn’t.
In early summer of 1948, my mother was going through a particularly difficult pregnancy. Her sister Charlotte came from Los Angeles to help out. When Charlotte’s vacation was over she suggested that I come back to California with her and spend the summer with her, her sister Harriet, and my grandmother.
Shortly after my grandfather died, my grandmother, who was originally from a small town in Missouri, announced that, for reasons she never bothered to make clear, she was moving from Denver to Los Angeles. My mother’s two unmarried sisters went with her. That was how it rolled with my grandmother.
Harriet and Charlotte were spinsters who never lived apart from their mother until she died in 1959 by which time both sisters were in their late forties. The word spinster (or old maid) is not meant as a pejorative. It was (is) the tradition in Irish Catholic families, that one daughter be set aside to care for her mother after the father died—it’s like entering a convent; Charlotte never wanted to marry, and Harriet never found anyone to free her from this obligation—how I wished she had.
I doubt that either Harriet or Charlotte developed psychologically much past adolescence. When Charlotte succumbed to cancer just a few months after my grandmother’s death, she left Harriet on her own for the first time in her life without an anchor, an identity, or a purpose other than being my godmother. In her mind our bond to each other was closer than to anyone else.
During my wedding in 1967, Harriet began to weep and cry uncontrollably. “Will you behave yourself,” my mother whispered to Harriet in a voice so loud I could hear it from the altar. “You don’t understand, Eleanor, Jim’s my oldest godson!” “He’s my only son!” my mother shot back. “Here’s some Kleenex; behave yourself.” Harriet’s over-the-top behavior was not unexpected. She had been possessive of me for as long as I could remember.
I have no memories of my godfather, Bill Slattery. I am told he gave me a baseball bat and fielder’s mitt as baptism gifts.
From the moment Charlotte and I got off the train at Union Station in Los Angeles I was the center of attention and spoiled beyond a seven year old boy’s wildest dreams.
Harriet and Charlotte constantly competed for my attention and favor They brought me little surprises every evening when they came home from work—comic books, coloring books, and, of course, candy. They taunted each other like teenagers and tried to trick me into taking sides. Charlotte was the cleverer and meaner of the two and generally emerged victorious from their sparring. Harriet’s trump card was that she, not Charlotte, was my godmother. “Who do you like better, Bette Davis (Harriet’s favorite) or Joan Crawford (Charlotte’s favorite)? I quickly learned to answer, “I like both.” “Do you like Butterfingers (Harriet’s favorite) or Hershey’s (Charlotte’s favorite)?” “I like both,” I replied and, to prove it, ate both. My grandmother, who ruled her home like a feudal queen, lowered her newspaper and quietly threatened, “Save some room for dinner or I’ll tell them to stop bringing you candy.” My grandmother liked newspapers so much that she did not read them during Lent. She also refrained from gossiping during that penitential season.
My grandmother had grown up on a farm and she served farmhand sized meals: ham and scalloped potatoes for Harriet one night, fried chicken and mashed potatoes for Charlotte the next. In the Irish style of cooking, vegetables were boiled until all of the nutrients had evaporated after which they were drenched with butter or cream sauce and salt, lots of salt. I liked carrots and corn because they retained their color; green vegetables, like string beans and peas, faded to gray and became limp from the boiling.
The title of J. Courtney Sullivan’s engrossing and entertaining new novel, Saints for All Occasions, refers to a bright blue box, lettered in gold foil on its cardboard cover in which one of the characters keeps her prayer cards. My grandmother had a similar set of “holy” cards, but hers were kept together with a thick red rubber band. Each of these cards was printed, according to Ms. Sullivan, “with an oil painting of a saint or religious scene on one side and a prayer for a particular worry or hardship on the other. My grandmother kept statues of The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St Therese of Lisieux, “the Little Flower” on the dresser in the bedroom she shared with Charlotte.
The advertising copy beneath this illustration reads as follows:
“The name of each saint is printed in gold leaf on the front bottom of the holy card. A wonderful way to expose your children to real heroes!”
Earlier in Saints for All Occasions, the author writes, “When Theresa Flynn was a child of seven she mistook the Lives of the Saints, with its green leather cover and gold lettering, for a book of fairy stories.”
For my confirmation in 1954, my mother’s youngest sister Jean (the other one who escaped) and her husband, Bob (my confirmation sponsor) gave me a copy of “The Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints.” I still have it. The book has a certain Irish Catholic bias. The stories of St. Patrick and St. Bridgid, the patron saints of Ireland, merit four pages and five pages, respectively. On the other hand, the stories of the apostles Peter and Paul are given only two pages each.
I never thought of the lives of the saints as fairy stories; the vivid descriptions of the martyrs’ deaths could serve as a playbook for Cersei Lannister, the great villainess of Game of Thrones.
My favorite martyrdom story is that of Saint Laurence:
“The Prefect of Rome, a greedy pagan, thought the Church had a great fortune hidden away. So he ordered Lawrence to bring the Church’s treasure to him. The Saint said he would, in three days. Then he went through the city and gathered together all the poor and sick people supported by the Church. When he showed them to the Prefect, he said: ‘This is the Church’s treasure!’
“In great anger, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to a slow, cruel death. The Saint was tied on top of an iron grill over a slow fire that roasted his flesh little by little, but Lawrence was burning with so much love of God that he almost did not feel the flames. In fact, God gave him so much strength and joy that he even joked. ‘Turn me over,’ he said to the judge. ‘I’m done on this side!’ And just before he died, he said, ‘I’m cooked enough now. Eat if you will.’”
The colors of my grandmother’s holy cards and statues were bright, almost gaudy, close, in fact, to the color template the MGM Technicolor musicals that we attended nearly every Sunday at the exotic and fantastical Egyptian theatre, its own kind of church. We’d take a bus into Hollywood as soon as we had been to Mass and had breakfast.
Charlotte and my grandmother were devoutly religious; Harriet not so much. After my grandmother’s and Charlotte’s deaths, I doubt that Harriet ever went to church except for family weddings, funerals and first communions. Harriet’s religion was the movies, movie stars were her icons. She made me a convert.
Harriet had her own tiny studio apartment on the first floor. It was our haven. It had a Murphy bed which I found endlessly fascinating; I pleaded with my parents to put one in my bedroom when I came home. There were stacks of movie magazines (again the same color template as my grandmother’s holy cards) on the table and in corners. She read the gossip columns. She kept scrapbooks of her favorite stars. Soon she had me making scrapbooks, too. The woman who lived across the hall—Evelyn Feder—I have no idea why I remember that name 69 years later—worked at MGM studios and on Fridays brought me autographed postcards of MGM stars—Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, Van Johnson, etc. I’m sure the autographs were stamped, not hand-written, but at the time they were my treasures equal in every way to my grandmother’s holy cards.
Harriet was never too tired to take me to the movies after work. Her taste went to melodrama and film noir. I’m sure we saw movies that were not appropriate viewing for a seven year old, but I didn’t care. It was the movies.
There were other activities besides church and the movies. Their apartment building at 709 South Mariposa was in a glamourous neighborhood just south of Wilshire Boulevard. The Ambassador Hotel and its legendary nightclub, The Coconut Grove, were barely two blocks away. The original Brown Derby restaurant was practically around the corner.
My grandmother and I spent many hot afternoons in the air-conditioned lobby of the Ambassador Hotel. “Just pretend we’re staying here. They won’t know.” The gardens of the hotel became my backyard and playground. My grandmother would sit in the shade and read while I explored. “Don’t wander off anywhere I can’t see you.” I never did.
The hotel coffee shop had a great view of the entrance that celebrities passed through on their way to the shows at the Coconut Grove. After work Harriet and Charlotte would join my grandmother and me and we’d camp out there before opening nights watching for movie stars.
Two masterpieces of art Deco architecture were also in easy walking distance of the apartment, The Bullock’s Wilshire Department Store and the Wiltern Theatre. We would occasionally have lunch at the Bullock’s Wilshire tea room—always chicken ala king—and we’d often go to the movies at the Wiltern and the Westlake theatres.
My grandmother once took me for a pedal boat ride in Westlake Park. When I relayed that news in a phone call to my mother, she said, “Is she crazy? Neither of you know how to swim! Put your grandmother on the phone this minute!” My grandmother listened to my mother for a moment and said, “I’m your mother; don’t ever take that tone with me” and hung up the phone.
My grandmother’s younger brother John, who was a doughboy in WWI and never entirely recovered, lived somewhere in Los Angeles, no one knew where, and would occasionally show up unannounced to visit with his sister, who was never as tender with anyone else as she was with him. She would slip him some cash and he would take me for ice cream at Currie’s. We walked to the ice cream parlor together; he always carried me on his shoulders on the way back home, making sure we stopped to see the Camel’s cigarette billboard which blew perfect smoke rings out of the sign. It was magic.
Still my most vivid memories are of the films I saw that summer. I went on the internet recently to see what movies we saw that summer. There are sixteen I’m certain I saw in a roughly four week period. I didn’t understand the impact they had on me until nearly 60 years later when I realized that I have full sized movie posters of two of the MGM musicals was saw that summer—The Pirate with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in my kitchen and On an Island with You with Esther Williams in my bedroom.
I also have copies of three animation cells from the Disney musical, Melody Time: Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and Little Toot, the tugboat.
I have other more valuable pieces of art but none that I treasure more. I watch all or parts of these movies at least once a year along with several others I saw that summer: Romance on the High Seas with Doris Day; Easter Parade with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire; A Date with Judy, the movie in which I first heard Carmen Miranda sing Cuento La Gusta.
There is a beautiful song in the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. It’s called At the Ballet. It’s a trio in which each of the three dancers recalls how “Everything was beautiful at the ballet, “ and that the ballet gave them respite from their sometimes chaotic and insecure childhoods. For me, everything is beautiful at the movies, especially the classic musicals. They never fail to cheer and delight me.
In his book The Soul’s Code: in Search of Character and Calling, depth psychologist, James Hillman, writes extensively about the Daimon,
“A figure who speaks to us as inner voices and so forth. The Greek word was daimon, the Roman word was genius and the Christian word is guardian angel. Each of them expresses something that you are, that you have, that is not the same as the personality you think you have.
“Each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling. . . . “The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when neglected or opposed. It offers comfort and can pull you into its shell, but it cannot abide innocence. It can make the body ill. It is out of step with time, finding all sorts of faults, gaps, and knots in the flow of life – and it prefers them. It has affinities with myth, since it is itself a mythical being and thinks in mythical patterns. . . . The daimon does not go away.” ”
The first movie I remember seeing was another MGM musical, also with Gene Kelly, called Anchors Aweigh. I must have seen it when my father was still enlisted in the navy at the end of WWII. In the movie, Kelly plays a sailor (the kind of sailor I must have fantasized my father was) and in a classic animated sequence, Kelly dances with Jerry the mouse from the cartoon series, Tom and Jerry. After I saw Anchors Aweigh, (I couldn’t have been more than five), I begged for tap dancing lessons and a sailor suit so I could learn to dance like a sailor and surprise my father when he came home from the war.
Among my treasures is a fading autographed photograph of Gene Kelly with Jerry the mouse which was given to me by my sister, Deborah.
As I look back on that movie and, in particular, that animated sequence, I suspect that’s when the colors from the MGM musicals began to become one with the colors of my grandmother’s holy cards. I came away with a sense that heaven would be a lot like MGM musicals which even today I don’t think would be all bad.
Applying Hillman’s theory, Anchors Aweigh awakened my daimon. The summer of 1948, under the tutelage of my godmother, Harriet, brought the daimon forth for good. Harriet steeped me in her religion and myths rather than those of the Catholic Church which was probably more in line with what my parents had in mind when they asked her to watch over my faith education. I did not find the Catholic Church less sacred, the movies simply became equally sacred. It wasn’t a conscious choice; their importance merged in my psyche.
I owe my love for and obsession with the movies almost entirely to the summer I spent with my grandmother and two aunts, especially my godmother, Harriet; in a way she led me to what has turned out to be a large part of my vocation.
My parents drove from Denver to Los Angeles to pick me up at the end of summer. My mother claimed that she did not recognize me. “What have you done to him?” she screamed. I had been a scrawny incubator baby and my weight had nearly doubled. For the rest of my childhood we shopped for clothes in the “husky” section of the boy’s department.
At age seven, I had no way of knowing how eccentric and crazy my grandmother’s and aunts’ behavior was. I just thought they loved me and they did. I’ve battled with my waist size ever since. No matter. I am forever grateful.
“The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting—had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial—in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.” -W. H. Auden