Friday, January 27, 2012

What She Left When She Left for College

Yesterday I was sorting out my books (as part of my New Year’s resolution to de-hoard my life) when I came across a very special book that I had completely forgotten about.  It was a fabric-covered journal filled with about 50 hand-written pages composed by daughter Eleni when she was 17 years old—right before she went off to college.  The entries on each page were brief, and often broken up into lines like free verse. The first page read:

This book belongs to Joan,
The most influential woman in my life.
So that when I’m in college,
You can look at a page a day. 
And it will be as if I’m still here
In my peach jumper.

Naturally I sat down and read it through, laughing and crying as I went.  I have a notoriously bad memory, and Eleni has a scarily good one.  She’ll say things like, “Remember three years ago when we were walking on Fifth Avenue and you were wearing your navy pants suit and I was wearing….”

So I read through this little volume of memories, most of which had floated out of my skull, and I thought what a beautiful thing it was for a teenager to write something like this as a farewell to her mother before setting off into life.

And now, two decades later, Eleni is a married lady with a five-month-old daughter. I hope when Amalía grows up and goes off to college that she’ll take the time to write a journal like this one to her mother, to say, “I love you” and “Thanks for the memories.”

Eleni wrote that journal 20 years ago, and even then her writing talent, eye for detail and sense of humor were evident on every page.  Now she’s about to publish her second book and first novel “Other Waters” on Valentine’s Day.  In the journal she gave me, Eleni was recalling golden moments when we travelled, often just the two of us, the ultimate tourists, on annual trips. We had wonderful adventures, many of which would be forgotten if she didn’t write them down.  Below are some of my favorites.

Page 1. Remember before I was born how you wanted a girl? And you only drank out of the girl mug, and Grandma transferred your coffee from the horse mug to the girl mug.  And didn’t laugh…So you went to the hospital Monday night, because your appointment for a Caesarian was on Tuesday, even though Constantinople fell on a Tuesday.

At 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, October 8th they wheeled you in and knocked you out.  Ten minutes later you had a baby girl, perfectly unsquished.  And you asked Daddy what she looked like and he said, “Me”, meaning him. And that was the beginning of as beautiful friendship.

Page 2. Remember that day in the early eighties when we went to Child’s World and a strange man stopped you and said, “My God – you’ve got the best-looking pair of legs I’ve ever seen on a woman”  Remember that?  I thought so.

Page 3.  Remember our long drives to Old Sturbridge Village when we’d listen to Les Misérables,  Fun Rock and Janis Joplin, and stop and get gas and I’d have my bonnet on. Just like Thelma and Louise.

Page 7. Remember the man who pulled me out of the audience to folk dance with him in Greece.  All the Japanese folks took pictures and he told me I was beautiful.
Remember the man on Spetses who hoped you’d be his Shirley Valentine?

Page 8.  In fourth grade I did a report on Massasoit and you colored in all the feathers on his headdress for me. Thanks.

Page 9. Remember that night in the apartment in Kolonaki when you and Marina talked to me at 3 a.m. because the state of the world upset me so much.  I got over it.  I always do!

Page 12.  The first time I went to Greece alone with Daddy you were sure the plane would crash and it didn’t.  So relax.  I repeat.  We are NOT having a crisis!

Page 16.            Remember New Orleans:
                            The Jazz Funeral
Marie Laveau
Valentine’s Day
Jackson Square
Beignets – Le Café du Monde
The Fortune Teller
Pecan Pralines
The Moonwalk
Shalom Y’all
The Farmer’s market
The Beauregard – Keyes house
Cajun cooking with Justin Wilson

Page 17.  Remember Charleston
You driving a rental car as a stranger in a strange land.
The marketplace
Poogan’s porch—one of the several times in our lives I’ve cried at dinner, although I was happy that night.
Tin Pan Alley
The boy in a military school uniform with his suspenders hanging down, feeding doves on the battery with his girlfriend.

Page 23. Remember my sixteenth birthday party?  You made it a highlight of my life.  Thanks.

Page 24. You introduced me to
Upstairs Downstairs
Gone with the Wind
Chipped Beef
Appreciating photography
Peking Duck
Flea Markets
People magazine

Page 29. Remember my graduation from kindergarten?  I cried at the rehearsal. [Because she didn’t want to leave.]

Page 31.Together we’ve climbed to Prophet Elias, braved the Dreaded Palomidi, scaled Monemvassia, waterskied and ridden Space Mountain.  We’re unstoppable.

Page 32.  Everyone you come in contact with, from the lady at the bank to Al, loves seeing you because you make them feel important and brighten their day.  You think you don’t have friends, but you have them all over.

Page 33.  How many fifty-one year old women can say they refused Dan Quayle’s invitation to dinner? You can.
Page 35.  You gave me my first memory book, fine lingerie and perfume.  What an honour.

Page 37.  Things I got from you:
Blue eyes
A small mouth (no X-rays)
An appreciation of 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon drives, photographs and doors.
A twinkle in my eye.

Page 39.  Remember when I was in 8th grade, we had a snow day on your birthday and we made a cake and took pictures and God smiled.

Page 41. You are one of the few people who have met the Beatles.  Therefore you will always have a place in Mohan’s heart.  John and Yoko were in their white stage at the time.

Page 42.  Remember our trip to the Dakota with Betsy?  The doorman was from Limerick and feared John was forgotten.  But the next day in Strawberry Fields, a young blonde mother was telling her son:  “There was a man called John Lennon and he was part of a group called the Beatles.  He was killed nine years ago today.  That’s why all these people are here.”  So the legend continues.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Crone of the Week: Hollywood Pioneer Dies at 111

University Press of Kentucky
It’s been a long time since I’ve picked a Crone of the Week, but now that it’s awards season,  the honor had to be revived and the statuette dusted off for  silent-era script writer Frederica Sago Maas, who died on Jan 5 at the incredible age of 111. (She was the 44th oldest verified person in the world.)
                                                                                       San Diego Union Tribune
The New York Times’ obituary for her begins: “She told of Hollywood moguls chasing naked would-be starlets, the women shrieking with laughter.  She recounted how Joan Crawford, new to the movies, relied on her to pick clothes.  Almost obsessively, she complained about how many of her story ideas and scripts were stolen and credited to others.“

In the 1920’s, in Hollywood, Frederica fumed as her writing and ideas were attributed to others. That’s what happened to women writers in those days.  In New York in the 1960’s I often had the same experience.  In fact, when I went to Time-Life headquarters to apply for a job with one of their magazines, armed with my Master’s in Journalism and my Phi Beta Kappa key, the (female) interviewer told me—“if you really want to write, don’t apply here, because women can never become writers at Time-Life, only researchers.” 

But Frederica Sagor Maas found a good way to get back at those people who stole her writing—she outlived them all and recorded her Hollywood stories in a scathing memoir in 1999 when she was 99 years old!  “I can get my payback now,” she told an interviewer. “I’m alive and thriving and, well, you S.O.B.s are all below.”

Frederica Sagor Maas  was born on July 6, 1900 in Manhattan to Jewish immigrants from Russia.  (Her mother supported the family as a midwife.)  She studied journalism at Columbia (as did I), worked as a copy girl for the New York Globe, then became a story editor at Universal Pictures’ New York office.  In 1924, she moved to Hollywood and was signed to a three-year contract with MGM, where she wrote screenplays, including a hit film for Clara Bow.

Frederica married a fellow screenwriter, Ernest Maas, in 1927.  The couple lost $10,000 in the 1929 stock market crash and then found all their screenplays rejected. They were also investigated by the FBI for subscribing to Communist publications.  They struggled to find work as writers’ representatives and then writing for political campaigns. In despair, in 1950, the couple decided to commit suicide and drove to a hilltop where they planned to asphyxiate themselves with carbon dioxide from their car.  But they suddenly changed their minds, clutching each other in tears and turning off the ignition before it was too late.

In her autobiography, “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood”, Frederica tells stories about early Hollywood stars like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks.  She is particularly hard on her old studio bosses, whom she portrayed as “amoral debauchers”

Her husband died of Parkinson’s disease in 1986 at 94 years old.  Frederica got a job as a typist in an insurance agency by lying about her age.  Then, in 1999, she wrote her autobiography, which is now a standard reference for early Hollywood history. The couple never had children and Frederica died with no immediate survivors. 

The New York Times obituary ends: “As for movies, Mrs. Maas stopped going.  “I think the product they’re making today,” she said in 1999, “Is even worse than the product we made in the early days.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Resolution: De-Hoard My Life

This image is from

My name is Joan and I am a hoarder.  

Both my parents had what I, a layperson--but an expert on those two--would diagnose as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (although we didn’t call it that in the olden days.)  My mother would stack neatly ironed handkerchiefs in a bureau drawer. My father would choose one every day for his breast pocket, and if I simply opened that drawer and looked in, my father would soon say, “Who opened my handkerchief drawer?”

My mother hated it when my father would eat a banana. She’d insist that he take the peel outside to the garbage pail—even if it was midnight during a blizzard.  God forbid he should put it in the kitchen trash and “smell up the whole house”!  If the garbage man came late to pick up the refuse, my parents would be peering out the curtain, fraught with concern.

I realize that my life-long messiness and hoarding is the flip side of that OCD.

We live in a 300-year-old house in a New England village with a vast basement that looks like a wine cellar with rough stone walls. That cellar used to be filled with trunks and storage boxes from my entire life, and everywhere I went, the guilty knowledge of that cellar was an albatross hanging around my neck.  But then one day the basement flooded—an act of God—and we had to rent a dumpster and throw everything out.  It was agonizing to open a trunk and see the water-soaked portraits of my parents that I drew when I was a teen-ager, not to mention all my high school souvenirs, letters home from camp, term papers that got an A+--but it all had to go and I felt better—lighter—afterwards.  Now the cellar holds only mousetraps, Christmas decorations and a few bottles of stored wine.

It was an A-ha moment, as Oprah would say. And if only that were the end of my story. But no.  You see, there’s our attic, filled with household account books going back to the 1970’s and clothes that I couldn’t bear to throw away and all my daughters’ dance recital costumes.

Plus, I have way, way too many books shelved in three different rooms—art and photography books in the studio, hardback books and family photo albums in the library, and paperback books on shelves in my son’s room. (On a trip back he expressed concern that the tall bookcase holding the old New Yorkers and paperbacks was sagging and might fall over and kill him in his sleep.)

In our own bedroom is a low table made of a glass-topped display case that holds some of my daguerreotypes and ambrotypes – part of just one of my collections. (Don’t ask how many “collections” I have!)  Coming back from a trip to Mexico some years ago, I put my Mexican photographs and a pristine new photo album on top of the table, thinking I could put the photos in the album one day while watching television.  Now, of course, you can’t even see the daguerreotypes in the case underneath all the un-organized travel photos.

I realize that there is a whole spate of reality shows about hoarders on TV these days, no doubt with useful advice for people with my problem, and some helpful therapy thrown in--but I would never watch one.  It’s too terrifying to think about those pitiful people huddled among piles of newspapers and trash until they’re crushed to death by their belongings and no one notices until the neighbors complain about an unpleasant odor in the hall. And it's even more terrifying to think that I am one of them! Besides, I'm less interested in the why of hoarding--what makes us do it--than I am in the what now--how do I undo it?

Over the holidays, I announced that my New Year’s resolution was to de-hoard my life. When I stated my resolution at our New Year’s day dinner, my daughter, Marina, was thrilled. “Write it down!” she cried. “Make a list of what you’ll do every day. I just wish I could quit my job and come home and help you do it.”

 (Marina is incredibly neat and clean and organized.  Once when she moved into a house in Los Angeles with four other people, she said to me over the phone “I’m having the best day.  I’ve spent the whole weekend cleaning the bathroom, which has never been cleaned before.”  On another weekend, when everyone was out, she spent the day cleaning the kitchen and alphabetizing the spices. I can hear my parents laughing in the Great Beyond.)

 I’m sorry that Marina’s not around to help me with my resolution.  It’s going a little slower than I thought, one step forward, two steps back.  I’ve finished the pile of papers and files next to the computer, but in doing so discovered a whole cache of staples, ink cassettes and people’s business cards that need to be alphabetized into a Rolodex.  Next project is my vanity and the nearby wicker stand filled with a lifetime of half-used cosmetics, lipsticks and creams. 

(In my defense—when you’re almost 71 years old, you’ve had a lot of opportunity to “collect” such things, and daughter Eleni used to be a magazine beauty editor—which means free cosmetics.)

After the cache of makeup by the vanity I’ll move on to the travel photos on the bedside table.  Not to put them into albums, but to stash them into those decorative shoe-box-sized boxes with room for labels like “Veracruz—2008”. And I am going to take a box of books every week and donate them to the local library, which sells them at book sales several times a year.

By spring I may have moved well into the Studio, with all its paintings, prints and art supplies.  And by New Year’s Eve next year, if all goes well, I hope to have lost…not those persistent ten pounds around my middle, but two tons of junk.

God grant me the serenity to reorganize the things I need, the courage to toss the things I don't, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Amalía and the Jumper Chair

Amalía went to Nicaragua for Christmas.    Everybody in Nicaragua loved and adored her and picked her up and carried her.  Nobody put her down for two weeks. Amalía smiled at everybody, even the Santa Claus in the department store.
 She went to a beauty salon where her bangs were cut.  Her Abuela Carmen held her in the barber’s chair so she wouldn’t wiggle.

 Amalía loved her haircut.
 After all the excitement and attention in Nicaragua, Amalía came home to Miami Beach.  There she found a new jumper chair.  It had as many bells and whistles as a three-ring circus, but when her Mommy put her in it, she was not happy.  Amalía wasn’t interested in all the toys and rattles. 
 She sat in her new jumper chair and gave her Mommy a plaintive, pitiful look that said, “Why am I stuck here like a prisoner in solitary confinement?  I want somebody to PICK ME UP.”
 In the end, Amalía’s Mommy picked her up and put her in her red stroller.  Amalía was happy again, because she knew she was going outside for a walk on Lincoln Road.  Soon she’d be surrounded by all her fans making a big fuss over her—the waiters in the Italian restaurant, the ladies in the supermarket, the policemen, the boys on their skateboards.   Amalía likes being a super star.