Monthly Archives: January 2014
The Seduction and Romance of Faulty Memory, Part Two: Every time she turns around my mother is forgetting something
Every time she turns around my mother is forgetting something. She may pick up and look with pure delight at an inexpensive bauble then set it down. Five seconds later she’ll pick it up again with renewed wonder – unable to remember she’d only just looked at it. “Isn’t this pretty!”
She might look at the same photograph of a newborn child half a dozen times in the span of a couple of minutes and each time ask through a sincere, squinty smile, “Who is that baby?”
New information won’t stick. For another example, here is a sample exchange I might have with mom and my sister, Beth:
Me: “We just went out for lunch.”
Mom: “Yes, it was really good.”
Beth: “Oh, cool. What did you have for lunch today, mom?”
Mom: “I had lunch?”
But old information – much of that has stuck. We will frequently sit around the dining room table and play cards. Mom still likes to play – she plays well and often wins. Even though much of her winning comes from maddening luck, there is still skill and experience in her game. She has played since she was a very little girl, and her family’s main social activity was playing games of pitch, cribbage, gin rummy, and pinochle. Thousands of hours spent playing cards has made the activity automatic, but it’s still fun for her.
Lots of other old information sticks, too. While playing cards she might take a chance glance at an heirloom ring on someone’s finger and launch an elaborate story about its origins in our family’s history. She might look at a photo taken 65 years ago and passionately recount stories laying out the happenings of the whole day the photo was taken. My sisters are good about encouraging and seizing upon these types of opportunities. They are great about getting her bubbling up stories from her girlhood in the 1930s and 40s.
Movies are a big part of her history, too. When she was very young, and then into her late teens, my mother, my aunt LaVina, and my great-aunt Florence used to walk to a theater and see a movie every day, often two on a weekend day. I like to get my mom talking about old movies and musicals. It makes her happy to talk about her favorite movie star, Dennis Morgan. He was a singer and good-looking actor and it is easy to know why my mom liked him so much – he made almost 80 films and never played a villain – always a good guy. In his off-screen life, there were no scandals and he was married for 61 years to his only wife.
Q: “Mom, what was the story of Kitty Foyle?” (A film that starred Dennis Morgan, and for which Ginger Rogers won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Actress.)
A: “OOH, that was Dennis and it’s a REALLY good one,” she will say. “I’m sure I saw that with Vina and Aunt Florence.” Then, she’s off to the races, “Well, Kitty is a working class girl in New York or Pennsylvania and she falls in love with Dennis Morgan’s character – but he’s an east coast socialite and his rich family doesn’t approve of her. Well, they marry anyway, and…”
She could recount that 1940 movie plot for you with no problem. And, although they were very close, (they lived next door to one another most of their adult lives,) now my mother needs a note as a reminder that her sister has passed away last year.
Because of my mom, movies became a big part of my life, too. Animated musicals were a good introduction, and it was really a treat when she took me downtown to the beautiful Grand Theater to see re-released Disney classics when I was very young. I would have been in kindergarten when we saw Pinocchio (re-released 1971), and first grade when we saw Dumbo (re-released 1972).
The stories are vibrant, sad, and terrifying; the music still is thrilling. Frugal, my mom would pop popcorn at home and sneak it into the theater in one of her enormous purses. We’d split a Dr. Pepper (with no ice) from the fountain. For a nickel you could get a Styrofoam cup filled with Good and Plenty or Mike and Ike candy from gumball style machines that stood in the fancy lobby.
he stories are vibrant, sad, and terrifying; the music still is thrilling. Frugal, my mom would pop popcorn at home and sneak it into the theater in one of her enormous purses. We’d split a Dr. Pepper (with no ice) from the fountain. For a nickel you could get a Styrofoam cup filled with Good and Plenty or Mike and Ike candy from gumball style machines that stood in the fancy lobby.
Among my family, my mom is an admitted and notoriously poor singer, so perhaps it is natural that great singers were a marvel to her. She liked the musicals of actors who came from theatre like Gordon MacRae. She seemed to gravitate toward extremely sentimental songs and stories. Though in her real life at home, even among the high emotions of movie musicals, she strived to keep our family lives normal, fairly bland, and mostly stripped of emotion.
Here’s a nice example: He had such power – listen and watch ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel (1956), performed by the masterful Gordon MacRae: http://bit.ly/1jvZXXU
Dancing fascinated my mom. She could even be impressed and transported by dancing that one wouldn’t expect. For instance, we watched Captain Kangaroo together pretty much every weekday when I was young and she would be positively rapt watching Dancing Bear.
Later, when we had cable television in the mid-1970s, the mornings were dominated by syndicated cartoons from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and also by feature movies from those same years. That also meant a lot of music and a lot of dancing. Movies introduced an extraordinary amount of glamor into an unglamorous home.
Another beautiful example: Hold on to your doggone hat! It’s Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire together in The Band Wagon (1953): http://bit.ly/1b5MiCi
I can remember that around ages 12 and 13 I felt I should think that those old stories and musicals were corny and stupid. But I didn’t. Instead, I began to think of myself as a person who was probably born out of his time – that I would have fit in better if I had been born in, and lived in an earlier era. Watching some of those old movies with my mom also helped me to get a picture of her as someone other than just my mom. Because movies meant so much to her, she would talk about them, revealing some of her feelings that might not otherwise have come to light. She was a person with her own dreams and her own past – not just someone’s mom.
On cable one day you might see a wonderful classic like Casablanca (1942). (Trivial note: What a different movie that could have been. IMDb reports that Dennis Morgan was originally cast to play the role of Rick Blaine that was made so famous by Humphrey Bogart.) The next day you might see something that had mostly been forgotten like The Dolly Sisters (1945) with Betty Grable. (Trivial note: At age 18, my father sailed from New York to Le Havre, France, in August of 1945. He was part of a massive swap of young non-combat soldiers who headed to Europe for an Army of Occupation. World War Two combat veterans would return on the same vessels back to the U.S. On each of the ships were several popular film reels that, one supposed, contained a number of different movies meant to provide a glimmer of entertainment variety for the men as they crossed the Atlantic. Many of dad’s fellow soldiers were like him, small-town kids who had no inkling of what awaited them in war-ravaged Europe. The movies were meant to give them a little bit of home and normalcy on each evening of their journey. Instead of packing five or six different films on my dad’s ship, and five or six different films on the each of the other transport ships that were also making the crossing, someone packed five copies of The Dolly Sisters on my dad’s ship. He said, “The Dolly Sisters with Betty Grable. It would have been nice to see a few other movies, but we watched it every god damned night.”)
Movies were an indulgence that my mother could live with. So even as I got a little older, I was eager to make room for musicals like The Wiz (1978), (for which my mother did not share my enthusiasm,) and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977), (for which she did share my enthusiasm.) All of this was truly formative – around the same time that I was opening up from listening to mostly Top 40 music to begin experiencing the wonderful weirdness of Talking Heads and the B-52s.
And as square as that was, I didn’t care. All That Jazz (1979) fascinated and confused me – I loved that movie so much. It has a place in the formation of my musical and aesthetic tastes that rivals The Beatles. Oh, I could go on and on, but I already have. You get the picture.
And in case I forget, thanks Mom, for teaching me to like movies and musicals.
This is an inspiration – ‘An Actor’s Life for Me’ from Pinocchio (1940), performed by Walter Catlett: http://bit.ly/1gdk2SF
29 jan 2014
Once in a while I go on a crime spree. I binge on true crime novels.
It reads like a novel. In fact, when I first read it, I didn’t realize it was nonfiction. Truman Capote spent over 6 years on that book. Some critics complained that he took a little too much “artistic license” with the story. The literary quality of the book, though, is what makes it so good and what made In Cold Blood the first of the genre we now know as True Crime.
If Truman Capote is the father of True Crime, Ann rule is easily its mother. She is best known for The Stranger Beside Me the story of the Ted Bundy serial murders. Incredibly, Rule had actually worked with Bundy on a crisis hotline in Washington in the 1970s, years before his arrest and probably during the time he was killing young college girls across the country. That chilling story became wildly popular and was made into a mini-series.
Ann Rule went on to write many more true crime stories, my favorite is Bitter Harvest. It takes place in Kansas City and features a brilliant, but absolutely batshit doctor intent on poisoning her ex-husband and who eventually murders two of her three children by setting her house on fire.
Rule’s titles tempt you like a pulp fiction paperback: If You Really Loved Me; Heart Full of Lies; Every Breath You Take; Green River, Running Red…etc. And pictures are included. This is one of the bonuses of true crime. Actual photographs are usually found right there in the middle of the book. Readers get a glimpse of all the story’s players before, during, and after the horrible fate they meet. We know what’s going to happen as we gaze upon smiling newlyweds or a girl on vacation with friends. Rule writes about each of the victims and their families with depth and charity — both the innocent victims and the obvious dipshits alike.
Because we already know the outcome of these stories, there are no spoiler alerts in true crime. We read for the gory details. Readers read true crime not to be told a new story, but to make sense of grizzly stories that have already played out. The task of the true crime writer is to tell how the what happened. At this task, Rule rules.
Long before there was dystopian YA this and that; long before YA tackled subjects like teen pregnancy, broken homes, drug abuse; way before all that there was Evelyn Sibley Lampman and she wrote kick-ass books for kids, circa 1960.
I’m showing her picture here which isn’t fair I suppose because her face will take you away. Even if you look at the picture for a second you find yourself wanting to hear what she has to say. You will want to touch her re-cut man suit very lightly on the jacket sleeve to draw her attention; you will want to catch her eye out of the corner of your eye in hopes of sharing a half smile; you will want to put aside all the books you have heaped next to your bed and go searching high and low for her books in hope there is the wee-est chance she hovers still in the ether and your search will please her.
I want to tell you some things about Evelyn before I tell you about her book:
Evelyn was a child of Oregon. Her great-great grandparents were Oregon pioneers and she grew up hearing their stories as told to her by father who was a lawyer in Dallas, Oregon. She was a country girl. In 1929 she graduated from Oregon State University, moved to Portland and became a copywriter for radio. She won awards for her work. (Country girl moves into the city professional life with apparent ease).
In 1934, Evelyn married into a writing family. Her husband was the Oregonian’s Fish & Wildlife editor. Her father in-law was named Ben Hur Lampman and he ran the Oregonian’s editorial page. Ben Hur was also Oregon’s first Poet Laureate (his name//his destiny). So it sounds like this could have been a fine family for this smart talented woman to have married into. But the truth is, the sad part is (for me) after Evelyn got married she quit her job and was forbidden by her husband to even drive a car.
What would have happened if he had lived? Who knows. But here are the facts: at 35 Evelyn was a widow and had 2 kids to raise. So she went back to radio work and she had her husband’s suits sized to fit her. Someone on the interwebs said she may have been the first woman to wear trousers to work in Portland. (That doesn’t sound right to me, but no doubt she was breaking stereotypes and making her own rules all over the place at this point).
Her first novel, Crazy Creek, was published in 1947 (or ’48, the info is varied) and is a YA story about pioneer life in Oregon. By the time her 2nd book was published – Treasure Mountain– Evelyn was able to mothball those re-cut guy suits and focus on writing.
They say her books (40 or 50 of them depending on the source) are “meticulously-researched historical and science fiction novels for young adults”. Evelyn loved the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Northwest history and was particularly intrigued by Native Americans. When she wrote about Native Americans she was sympathetic in her portrayal of their characters which was amazing for the time.
She was an author beloved by the teachers in my grade school. In those first years of school Evelyn’s books were a frequent choice to be read aloud during ‘rest’ period. We couldn’t get enough of those stories, stories about courageous boys and girls who came across on The Trail (no need to preface that with Oregon). Her books encouraged us to be brave and curious like her characters. She teased our imaginations and made us want to be the Indians rather than the Cowboys. We began to think of the Other more sympathetically. We created intricate make-believe Oregon Trail games. We had clear visions of how we would have made it over the final hairy patch on The Trail, the Blue Mountains. We envisioned ourselves running down the descent perhaps barefooted, certainly dirty and hungry and maybe even orphaned. (Please God, let us be orphaned!)
I found White Captives in the Big Blue Lincoln City book store in February. I held it in my hands and went all dizzy with nostalgia and glee. I hadn’t thought of Evelyn or her stories for many years.
I’m not going to tell you much about the book. Swing by the Oregon house sometime. You can read it for yourself. It is a real life tale about Indians kidnapping two young girls off The Trail after they murdered the girls’ parents and brothers. Besides murder and kidnapping it’s a story about slavery, illness, hunger, anger, grinding work and being very alone in an alien culture.
There isn’t a lot of subtle beauty waiting to be exposed in this story. Boys aren’t sneaking sly glances at the main characters. No one rises above the horrific circumstances to become a hero. This is not the YA dystopic literature of the 21st century. This is YA dystopia circa Lampman. Read it and be amazed at the toughness and honesty and the pure adventure of it all.
It’s more, isn’t it, than just: hey I liked this one a lot, take a gander. Yet again, it’s not much more than that. When we recommend a book we are pulling back the curtain ever so slightly and saying: hey, take a look at the book, take a look at me. It’s easier sometime than sitting down and discussing the significant milestones in your life with someone over a cuppa. The psychoanalysts might say we subconsciously recommend some books over others to friends and family without even knowing why. They could be right on that one.
The first book my niece has ever recommended to me was: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Out of the Dust is a YA book written entirely in a series of free verse poems. It is a book my niece says she read over and over as a very young girl. My niece said: “ I don’t even know if I understood much of it at the time.” Yet she continued to reread it.
As I read Out of the Dust I thought how strange that a 10 year old would love such a book. It is relentlessly sad, overwhelmingly tragic. Out of the Dust is about a family of farmers living in Oklahoma during the depths of the Depression and height of the Dust Bowl storms. The main character is a young girl named Billie Jo. She introduces herself in the first chapter of the book by saying: “ As summer wheat came ripe, so did I, born at home, on the kitchen floor”.
In the telling of her family’s dust-choked life from 1933-1935 the only hint of metaphorical clarity and sunlight is the joy Billie Jo feels when she plays the piano. But even then, the author takes that away from her in a tragic accident too sad to write about here. Here’s one chapter of the book:
a little everywhere
In the end, Out of the Dust is a story of how only the very strong and the lucky in our most vulnerable class -the very poor- survive in this world; an overpowering and unforgiving world in which they have little control.
“Tip and Mitten” was part of the Reading for Meaning series.
As the series progressed we were introduced to “Jack and Janet”.
It was disconcerting later in life to find out that the rest of the world had been reading about Dick and Jane. Or a duck that was a duck.
Who’s Dick? Who’s Jane? What sort of charmed lives had they been living? Apparently our school district could not afford Dick and Jane and had to settle for Jack and Janet. I’m pretty sure that Jack and Janet ended up in the 47%.
Jack’s on permanent Disability. Janet has a minimum wage job and still lives with her parents. Don’t know what happened to Tip. It’s a mystery.
I’m sure Mitten is just fine.
She always seemed to land on her feet.