Monday, October 20, 1997

Tom Mix Is Dead

I turned my thoughts to other matters.  "I got my Tom Mix decoder in the mail yesterday," I said.

"Good!  On Monday I'll help you decode the message."

Most weekday afternoons at five, we listened together to Tom Mix on radio.  At the end of each Tom Mix episode, the announcer read off a series of numbers which allowed those listeners who were lucky enough to have a decoder, to decipher the clue to the next day's episode.  Joey had sent in ten cents and a box top from Ralston Cereal for a decoder for me.  

"You know Tom Mix is dead, don't you?" Joey told me one day.

" But we just heard him on radio, talking to Jane and Jimmy!"

"They're all actors," he said.  "Tom Mix, Jane, Jimmy, The Old Wrangler, all of them.  Tom Mix died years ago.  Car wreck.  He was going about a hundred miles an hour."

"The police wouldn't have let him," I said.  "They'd have arrested him."

"Not in Texas," Joey said.  "There aren't many cars there, only horses.  The roads are wide open."

Of course Joey was right.  "I wish Tom Mix had stuck to horses," I said. 

I was eight years old and thought grown-up movies were a bore.  I much preferred "Dracula" and the other horror movies I used to see with Joey when we lived in the big red-brick house.  Sometimes, of a Saturday, my aunt would shop at the Diamond Street Market downtown, and would take the two of us on the trolley with her and drop us off at the old Art Cinema while she shopped.

"What kind of movies are they?" she had asked Joey.

"Good ones," he had told her.  "They develop a kid's imagination."

One day she completed her shopping earlier than usual, and the theater manager allowed her to come in to get us while the movie was still in progress.  She found me hunched over almost double on my seat, my hands over my eyes.  Joey was enrapt with what was unfolding on the screen.  She looked up at the screen, and what she saw put an end to our Saturday trips to the old Art Cinema downtown.

No Refund

Death struck in Dallas that twenty-second day of November in '63, and memory of our sorrow remains ever vivid.  We can tell those of the generation then yet unborn, about how an entire nation had wept, and they think they know how it was, but they do not.

"Where were you when you heard the news?" my grandson asked.  "Did you cry?"

"I had just had my hair cut and was driving home," I said.  "I heard it on the car radio, and  I could tell which of the people I saw on the street had heard the news and which had not, just by the looks on their faces and the way they were walking along.  Did I cry?  Yes, dear, I cried all the way home, and, watching it later on TV, for most of the three days that followed, too.  We all did."

On that fateful afternoon, my mother was in Kaufmann's Department Store, returning a defective leather trash bag.

"It's supposed to sit on the floor of the car," she explained to the saleslady, "between the driver seat and the passenger seat, but it won't stay put.  I think some of the sand has leaked out.  I'd like my money back, please."

The clerk's face was a study in sadness.  She had been crying.  "Oh, Mam," she said, "Our President has been shot!"

For a reason known only to herself, my mother assumed the saleslady meant the president of the company that manufactured the automobile trash bags.  "How awful!" she said.  "But does that mean you can't give me my money back?"

The clerk's expression changed to one of anger.  "Listen, lady," she said.  "Our President has just been shot!"

"Yes," my mother replied.  "I heard you, and I am truly sorry, but does that mean I don't get my money back?"

The saleslady's look of total disgust made my mother pause and think for a few seconds.  "Which president?" she asked at last.

"The President of the United States, for God's sake, lady!  The President of the United States!  John Kennedy!"

"Oh, Dear God!" my mother said.

Without thought now of the defective leather trash bag on the counter top where it lay, she rushed through the first floor of the store.  "The President has been shot!" she said to everyone she saw.  "President Kennedy has been shot!"

Almost blindly, people began following her, many looking stunned, some sobbing openly.  Of one mind, they went up to the television floor, and joined those already gathered there to watch the grim history unfold.

Each of us old enough on that day in November have our story to tell.  This was my mother's.

Breaking Away

The big screen showed a camera slowly turning to face us, and the familiar music of Pathe News filled the  theater.  Usually the newsreel was just something  I had to sit through in order for the Saturday afternoon serial to begin, but this particular day, the man in the news made me uneasy.   

"Joey," I whispered to my cousin seated beside me, "what does 'seig-heil' mean?

Why did those people keep yelling that to the man on the platform?"

"Shhh," Joey said.  "This week's episode of Captain Preston is starting.  Talk to me about it after the movie." 

His mother was my father's sister, and his family and mine shared an old, large, red-brick house.  They lived downstairs and we lived upstairs.  Joey was too smart to have many friends; they thought he was weird.  He got along great with me, though, because I adored him.  He knew everything.  

"So what does it mean?" I said again as Joey and I were leaving the movie house.

"Um, it's German, I think," was all he said.

"That man scared me." I said.  "He was so loud, and kept yelling things I couldn't understand, and then he'd yell "seig-heil", and the people yelled "seig-heil" back.  It was crazy, don't you think, Joey?"

"Naw," Joey said.  "He's just the new leader in Germany.  Nothing to be scared of . Besides, we're lucky--the big Atlantic Ocean is on one side of us and the even-bigger Pacific Ocean is on the other.   We're safe here.  Nothing to be scared of."

If Joey said so, then it was so, and I stopped worrying.  That was when I was six years old.  Joey was eleven.

Joey and I went to the Saturday matinees almost every week, and saw more and more of that foot-stomping man.  Kids started making fun of him when he appeared on the screen.    With left index finger between nose and lip, and right arm raised high they would shout, "Heil Hitler!"  I thought it was fun, too.

My mother's parents, although American citizens, were living in Italy.  They always planned to come back to America, but somehow my grandfather kept dragging his feet.  A letter came for my mother one day,  and I heard her read it to my father.  

"There is talk of conscripting eighteen-year-olds," my grandmother wrote.  "War is closer every day.  Your brother will be eighteen soon.  If he serves in the Italian army, he will lose his American citizenship forever."

"My uncle is coming to live with us," I told Joey the next day.  He's coming from Italy because he doesn't want to lose his American ship."

"Don't be so stupid," Joey said.  "You mean his American citizenship.  If he has to become an Italian soldier, he won't be American anymore.  My mother told me that he was coming.  She said he will sleep upstairs in the attic with me and Larry."  Larry, Joey's big brother, and Joey slept in the large room on the third floor.

My father went by train to New York to meet my uncle when his ship arrived from Genoa.  We sat up late into the night, waiting for them to come home--my mother, me, Joey, his mother and father and brother.   I thought it was like a party.  My mother and my aunt had made lots of good food.  "He will be hungry, poor thing," my aunt said.

"Joey, why is he poor?" I asked.

"He's not; they just feel sorry for him because he had to leave his mother and father."

"Joey, what do people from Italy look like?"   I asked.

"They have really white teeth.  That's because they don't eat store-bought bread," Joey said.

I was excited to see this Italian uncle of mine.  As it turned out, Joey was right.  His teeth were very white. 


"They call him the Umbrella Man," Joey told me, "because he always carries an umbrella."  We were watching He lived with us almost a year and a half, and then my grandparents and the rest of their family came over, too, just about the time Chamberlin was telling the people in England that he hadGenoa.  Italian uncle came from Genoa to New York by ship.  My father took a train to New York to meet him, and brought him home to us.  We were all sitting up late at night, waiting.  My father finally phoned from Pennsylvania Station in  town.  "We're here!" he said.

"I wondered if my grandparents comes ever closer here," she wrote.  "Already there is some talk of conscripting eighteen-year-olds."  My grandparents, although American citizens, were living in Italy.  They always planned to come back to America, but my grandfather kept dragging his feet on it.

"I hate to ask," my grandmother's letter went on, "but could your brother Sandrino come to live with you in America?  He will be eighteen soon, and if he serves in the Italian army, he will lose his American citizenship forever."

My father had my mother cable my grandmother immediately that of course her son was welcome.  That is how I found myself one evening, at a very late hour, with my mother and Joey and all his family, waiting for my father to bring my Italian uncle home.   My father had gone by train to New York to meet the ship from Genoa.

"What do people from Italy look like?"  I whispered to Joey.

"They have strong white teeth," he said, "because they don't eat store-bought bread."

Joey was right about my uncle's teeth.  They were indeed white.  He was thin and shy, and wouldn't let me call him "zio" (uncle), because he said he was too young.  He didn't look young to me, just scared.  About the time Chamberlin in England was declaring "peace in our time,"  my grandparents came over with the rest of their children, and my uncle left our home to move in with them.

Later, we ourselves moved into our own house, and I no longer saw Joey every day.  Sometimes on weekends, my mother would put me on the trolley, and I would be allowed to go by myself to the old house which Joey and his family now filled top and bottom.  I would run all the way up the hill from the trolley stop to Joey's house, breathless to see my aunt and all the family again, but mostly I could hardly wait to see Joey.  I always had a million questions for him to answer.

Parents didn't hire sitters much in those days.  If they couldn't take their children along, or if relatives couldn't watch them, the family stayed home.   One December Sunday afternoon, my mother said she wanted to see the new movie, "Smiling Through" starring Norma Shearer, so we all climbed into our car for the short drive to the theater -- my father, my mother, my little sister, and me.   I thought grown-up movies were a bore.  I much preferred  the Saturday afternoon movies I used to see with Joey when we lived in the big red-brick house.

We were so proud of our shiny green Chevy.  We were proud of our father, too, who had taken driving lessons not two months before and had surprised us with a new car--our first ever.  We were coming out of what my father called "hard times."  Things were little-by-little getting better.  We had our own small six-room house, and now an automobile.    I was eight, going on nine, and eager for life to unfold.  I still longed for the protection of Joey's daily advice on everything, and occasionally had the need to seek out his wisdom, yet I was weathering our separation well.   My father and mother looked worried at times when they talked of what they read in the Sun Telegraph, or of what Lowell Thomas had to say at quarter-to-seven in the evening over the radio, but it had little effect on my world.  Now from the back seat where I sat with my sister, I heard a voice on the car radio, but was not paying attention to what it was saying.

I saw my father take his eyes from the road and turn to my mother.  "It's war for sure now!" he said.  My mother started to cry softly.  

I remembered the dread engendered by that newsreel of some few years past.  It was the same dread I was feeling now.  We never did see the movie, but returned home in almost total silence.

In school the next morning, Miss George, our teacher, led us in orderly file into the gym for an all-school assembly.  Most of us had heard our parents' discussions of yesterday's news, and we were hushed and subdued as we took our assigned places in the bleachers.     

"We are here to listen to a radiocast from President Roosevelt,"  Miss Ross, our principal, said.  "He will be speaking to the whole nation."   She didn't have to tell us to listen quietly.   There was little sound in the gym save that of the President's voice over the airwaves, telling us about the day that would live in infamy.  He told us that Japan had given our country no choice but to join our allies and declare war on the evil forces in Europe and Asia.

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and, alas, Joey did not know everything in the world there was to know after all.  From now on, I was on my own.

Wednesday, October 8, 1997

The Mother-In-Law Story

             When we met,  I was young and green, and foolishly thought she was affecting an English accent.  She had lived away from Boston by that time for almost thirty years, but her a's were as broad as they ever had been, and remained so throughout her life.  She went to her grave still saying "sofer" instead of sofa and "sugah" instead of sugar.

               "What did your mother say after meeting me yesterday?"  I asked the then young man I was dating.

"She said you seem nice enough," he said.   "She thought you could stand up a little straighter."


 I hadn't thought much of her, either.  Our first encounter belied the love that was to flourish between us.

She had no siblings, and yet, bar none, she was the most giving person I have ever known.   So much for the selfish only-child theory!   I enjoyed the stories she told me of her girlhood, of shopping with her mother at Filene's, or of sitting at the piano, "bawling my eyes out through the whole lesson because I was afraid the nun would rap me across the knuckles if I made a mistake."

"Some of those nuns could be real devils!" she said.

She reminisced of the time when she was a little girl and her father had taken her to the big bank in downtown Boston to shake hands with the young manager, Mr. Joseph P. Kennedy.   "Lots of people in Boston went to him when they needed something," she said.  "He was sort-of the Irish godfawthah."

"Godfather?" I asked.

"Yes, godfawthah, but he wasn't much.  He was a skinny little runt."

 She wasn't very tall herself, just five-feet-two, and plump and pretty, with long  wavy red hair combed back in a  bun.  "My playmates used to call me Carrot Head," she said.  "I hated that!  I was fiesty when I was little."  I could not even imagine that until much later.

She enjoyed the tales I had to tell her too, of all the funny things our children did and said.   By the time our children were in the primary grades, my father-in-law had retired, and they had moved to our city to be near their only grandchildren. Most Wednesday afternoons, they would visit us, arriving about an hour before the school bus.  I would make her a cup of coffee ("just give me powdered," she would say; she made life as easy as possible,) and she would sit at my kitchen table to drink it, and I would sit facing her.                                                                                                                            

"Well!" she would say.  "Now tell me what they did this week."

 I would tell them all I had saved up the past week for her.  "Honest and truly,  aren't they the limit!" she would say, wiping her eyes for the laughter.

"Look at this neat, tiny little accordion," I said to her one time.  My husband had picked it up for me at a flea market.

"Yahh  (she often prefaced what she had to say with this; I assumed it was her pronunciation of the word yeah,) well, that's real nice, Sugah, but it's not an accordion.  It's an Irish occarina, or something like that.    My mothah used to play one.  (Her mother had come from Ireland as a young unmarried girl.)   My fawthah was the boiler engineer on the ferryboat between Boston and East Boston.  Sometimes he had to work Sundays, so my mothah and I would go on the boat with him and entertain the passengers on the passage back and forth.  She played the Irish occarina, and I danced the jig.  I was just a real little girl."

"Oh, how cute you must have been!" I said.

"Well,  I don't know about cute, but they liked it.  There were always a bunch of Boston Irish aboard.  They liked anything."  With that, she lifted her mid-calf-length skirt a little and danced a tiny jig.

"Oh, Mum," I said, delighted, "and you have been all over the world and yet never went to Ireland!   How you would have loved it!  Didn't you ever want to go?  Didn't any of those people ever tell you how wonderful it is?"

"Yahh, they told me, but they were all Irishmen, and I  figured what did they know?  It's true, Pup and I have been all ovah the world  (to her children and me she called her husband Pup, her corruption I think of the word Pop,)  and I guess I should have gone to see where my mothah came from, but Pup never had any desire to see Ireland."  She thought a moment and then shrugged.   "Oh well, no mattah."

She had always done what her husband wanted.  She was fifteen years younger than he, and it was all right with her that he dominated.   What is sad is that by the time she and I were having this discussion, he had been long dead, and she, in her seventies and in rather poor health, was too old to make a trip to Ireland.  

It is interesting that after he died, bereaved as she was, she seemed to come into her own, and a very strong personality emerged.  From her cousin Anne who visited at the time of my father-in-law's last illness, I learned that as a child she had been most independent and strong-minded.  I can only gather, then, that because she loved her husband so and recognized how special he was, she had been content to live in his shadow.  

To this day, I sometimes hear in my head her sweet voice pronouncing Mary, my name.  "May-ree," she would  say, "you're a born mothah, Sugah.   Honest and truly you are!"  She had but a son and a daughter and thought I was nothing short of marvelous to be raising four children with no outside help.  It was no more than most young mothers of my generation were doing, but who was I to argue with her?  She always bolstered my ego, and God knows, in those days I needed it.  How often still, after all these years, do I remember how she would shake her little freckled fist at my husband when he would verbally tease me, as is still his custom.

"Don't you dare say that to my May-ree," she would say.

Her May-ree!   How many times now, when circumstances or persons make me sad and hurt, do I yearn to have her with me again, shaking her little freckled fist and saying, "Don't you treat my May-ree that way!"