It doesn’t seem all that long ago although – mercifully –it’s been eons since I swabbed another human’s barf. (Dogs and cats on the other hand – yesterday or the day before. One of our seniors has a delicate stomach.)
We still celebrate our children’s birthdays, but rarely on the actual day. They usually make plans with their friends. I don’t begrudge them, after college I did the same thing – partied with my peers instead of my parents. As wonderful as my parents were, party animals they weren’t.
Celebrating on the correct day – and emphasizing the birthday person’s precise age – seems less important every year, at least to me. Besides, if we want the extended family to celebrate together – aunts, uncles and cousins – the logistics become more manageable if we select an adjacent weekend instead of a Tuesday or Wednesday night.
As challenging as this particular birthday was – and it was far from the only time the birthday child hurled over a birthday cake – my memories are warm, now that the vomit isn’t.
He wasn’t even my favorite Beatle. That would be McCartney, by far. Lennon’s death erased any lingering hope the Beatles might play together again, as unlikely as that hope might have been. I stayed up all night, poring over my collection of Beatles memorabilia – old magazines, biographies. I didn’t want to let him go.
What interests me about crime (murder) isn’t the gore or mechanics – it’s the motivation and in this case, that was sad and senseless. Jared Leto gave a brilliant performance as the assassin in a small film called “Chapter 27” about the oh-so-ordinary but deranged kid who killed him. It doesn’t glorify the killer (who doesn’t deserve to be named) – it dramatizes his essential emptiness, which gave me a queasy feeling. While I didn’t identify with him, there weren’t as many miles between us as I might’ve hoped. I do know how it feels to be an obsessed fan, with no hope of breathing in my idol’s rarified air. I just didn’t take it to that love/hate dichotomy the guy doing time in the Wende Correctional Facility did.
It’s typical that my mother and father asked about me before dropping their terrible news. If the situation had been reversed – if I’d been mugged – they wouldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise before I recounted every last detail. This particular episode shocked me on so many levels. Even though I know better, it stuns me when bad things happen around churches. As a child, I believed they were sacrosanct, safe. (That’s why I didn’t lock my first bike when I stopped by to visit my dad at his church office when I was 10. Of course it got stolen. I couldn’t believe it.)
It’s also typical of them that instead of crying about the injustice of it all, my father expressed gratitude it wasn’t worse. I couldn’t find much gratitude in my own heart. Forty years later, I’m grateful that this is one of few – if any – episodes of random violence to impact my family. Writing those words is a little scary – by calling attention to our good fortune, am I jinxing us? (That’s a silly, childish superstition. I hope.)
What’s not to love about travelling to research a writing project? For starters, producers must fly writers First Class – something my Midwestern roots won’t allow me to do for myself. It’s superficial, but it made me feel important. Another benefit, for some – free alcohol. All I know is, the diet Coke they serve in first class tastes the same as it does in economy.
In the early days, I fantasized jetting to Paris for a true-life story but apparently very few Parisian lives are MOW material, (link to Movie of the Week). The stories I got hired to write unspooled in tiny Texas or Louisiana towns where the top hotel stood side by side with the local slaughterhouse. This is not to knock small towns or southern states; I’m from rural Iowa myself (Graettinger and Estherville, anyone?) However, as quaint and charming as Kickapoo, Kansas, might be, no one will ever mistake it for Paris.
I liked everyone I interviewed except the cold-blooded killer in the high-security Texas prison. Getting to know the people made the job fun. What made it hard was their desire for their stories to be told truthfully, like they happened in reality. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that regardless of how dramatic and compelling their tale might be, inevitably “a true story” dilutes to “inspired by a true story” or, worst case scenario, “inspired by a concept based on an idea related to a possibly true story.”
This particular tale of young love in the bayou was not produced, which was disappointing but not surprising. In those days, maybe half the scripts a network developed got produced (which is still a significantly higher ratio than feature projects in development). What did surprise me was my sympathies shifted from the love-struck kids to the Mom. A tad troubling, since I built my career on angsty teens, not their uptight parents living lives of quiet desperation. Was it possible my struggle with my rebellious teen son was turning me into one of “them”?
I remember this dinner, which might be impressive if it was more than 4 years ago. It was one of the last relatively healthy celebrations of my mother’s birthday. There was no way to know it was one of the last although the fact it was an 88th birthday might’ve raised a red flag for some.
Not me. The prospect of my parents not being here was too unbearable to consider. Would occasions like this be sweeter or more painful if we knew it was the last time?
In 2013, my mind was on more mundane matters than mortality. I noticed how differently my children act in restaurants compared to my sisters and I. My parents never suggested we couldn’t afford to eat out, but all three of us intuitively ordered the cheapest entree on the menu and requested water instead of an expensive soda. How did we all receive the same explicit message without words?
My children didn’t receive it. Two out of three never so much as glance at prices. Apparently, they feel worthy enough to order what they want to eat or drink. No crisis has ensued. On the contrary, my father smiled and picked up the tab for the whole group (usually numbering 16 to 20 depending on how many significant others accompany their grandchildren.) He probably would’ve been equally accepting if my sisters and I ordered appetizers, drinks and other extras, but even today I’d call myself a cautous diner. Other people might call it cheap.
It would’ve been fun to rehash these silly observations and memories with my parents, now that it’s long ago and far away and we’re all adults. I wish.
I was the same age as my mother when she gave birth to me when I gave birth to CD (a month after this shower, 16 months after J and I impulsively got married, in case anyone’s counting). Since I was an infant, I cannot testify to my mother’s state of mind or level of maturity but I strongly suspect she was more responsible and together than me at the same age. Living through the Great Depression– as opposed to the Summer of Love– would tend to mature people quickly.
John and I always planned to have children, just not in 1976. He was in his second year of law school and before learning I was pregnant I quit my job at USC, leaving us no health insurance. I doubt many people pay cash to give birth in hospitals today but it was possible then. These financial issues paled next to John and my psychological readiness to be parents.
Our parents made it look easy; we thought we had it wired – even though we lived in a world without children (unless you count USC students as children). My friends from college were appalled when I told them I was having a baby – “Are you crazy? You’ll ruin your life.”
It did cost me the life I’d led until the birth of my son – because the world and my place in it shifted – but my life wasn’t “ruined.” That said, I’d be lying if I claimed things got easier – for a while, everything – including our marriage – suffered from an overload of change and stress. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No regrets.
My children aren’t rushing into things like I did. My youngest is older than I was after my third child. Statistically, you’d think my odds of grandchildren would be high, with three adult children, but my youngest sister Joyce will soon have two and I have none (Waaaa!). Not that I’d ever want to pressure my children or anything.
This was the first and only time I traveled to the set of one of the MOW’s I wrote (other than shows that shot in LA, in which case I might drive ten miles – to Occidental, for instance, where they shot “She Cried No”). I’m not complaining – it’s boring on set unless you’ve got a job (and maybe even then, just saying). I was excited about a trip to Minnesota, especially with Joe Maurer, Brad Wigor and Felice Gordon, three producers who became friends. The fact they issued the invitation to me at all speaks volumes about how well they treated their writers.
In Minnesota, I sat through a table reading of the script – an extremely high-tension exercise for me. It’s mortifying when a line I wrote – especially a line intended to be funny – dies in front of the full cast and crew. There’s no ambivalence; it’s not a judgment call. Lines work or not and the thud is deafening when they don’t. I say nothing, draw a skull beside the clunker in the script, and slink down further in my folding chair. If I don’t die of humiliation, I’m expected to fix what I failed to get right the first time – fast. This close to production, every wasteful delay bleeds money.
After the reading, I accompanied Joe, Brad and the director – Bill Corcoran – on a location scout. By sheer coincidence (or cosmic design, you decide), we drove past Bethesda Lutheran, the hospital where I was born. In honor of this karmic connection, Corcoran insisted I leap out of the van and pose for a historic photograph (see below).
I sat by Felice on the return trip to LA and – along with other fascinating facts – discovered Felice was Jean Shrimpton’s manager when Jean was the ultimate supermodel girls like me longed to look like.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement, my youngest hit double-digits and turned ten. Too much was happening, too fast. And I loved every minute of it.
In my diary blog two days ago, I congratulated myself for being a good mother and exposing CD to new things. It’s ironic that in today’s entry, I chastise myself as a bad (let’s revise that to less good) mother even though I did essentially the same thing for different reasons. In the ‘81 entry, I was all about cramming CD full of life experience and knowledge. In ’07, it was more about getting myself out of a life experience by foisting it on my daughter.
In my defense, treating an adult child to spectacular seats at a Genesis concert hardly qualifies as child abuse and apparently Sam had a good time. I might’ve enjoyed the show if I’d gone – why not give it a try?
Sometimes I hit social overload and fear I’ll die without alone time. In the above entry, my urgency leaps off the page – “couldn’t stand” “just unbearable.” Looking back, it was a weird over-reaction to a rock concert and dinner. Unfortunately – for Sam, not me – she’s even less extroverted than me but at least she’s a better sport.
In the spirit of true confession, my youngest recently recalled my most egregegious bad mother moment. Alex and I were outside when we spotted a demonic possum drinking out of our dog’s water dish. Beyond phobic and hysterical at the sight of anything with a rodent tail, I shrieked, vaulted inside and double-locked the door behind me – stranding Alex on the wrong side of my barricade, face to face with a hissing possum. Alex hurled himself at the door, pounded it with his fists. “Mom! Let me in! Let me in!” I was too distraught to do so until the possum departs.
Alex emerged unscathed, aside from the psychological damage of believing his mother valued her personal safety above his life. First, his life was not in mortal danger. Possums don’t kill suburban homeowners and their children (yet). Second – I’ve got nothing. (Other than sheer terror shot my adrenalin up to fight or flight levels which disabled my higher brain functions. Otherwise, I would’ve remembered possums can’t jimmy a lock.)
CD was four, going on five, at the time of this entry. I thought he’d be mesmerized by the dinosaur bones but his attention span splintered in a million different directions. In my efforts to be a perfect mother and raise a perfect child, I exposed CD to as many cultural experiences as I could find – and there’s a lot of them in LA. In addition to museums, I took him to profound films which we discussed on the drive home. I signed him up for sports and science classes at the local YMCA and sent him to Lutheran school to be grounded in religion.
Unlike me, J worked 40-60 hours per week, so he wasn’t available 24/7 for our cultural outings. In these cases, I recruited one of our friends – usually without children (because those with children couldn’t be suckered into this stuff) to stand in.
This was my one and only visit to the La Brea Tar Pits in my nearly 50 years in LA. I’m not a dinosaur afficianado – I think that tends to be a guy thing – but it was fascinating. Who would’ve guessed one of the world’s most famous fossil localities – displaying Ice Age fossils including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and mammoths – can be found on Miracle Mile in Los Angeles? The Carnation restaurant (product placement, anyone?) used to be within walking distance but – like so many other LA institutions – it’s gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by trendier restaurants and food trucks.
They’ve excavated significant new material since my visit 36 years ago. Maybe this time I’ll drag J along with me.
When this was written, J and I had been married four years and CD was two, going on three. Looking back, I can’t help wondering if my assessment of J’s restlessness wasn’t pure projection – I was just as edgy and impatient, I just didn’t cop to it. Our role models were better at this than we were. My parents routinely spent similar Sunday afternoons with me and my sisters and if they wanted to be somewhere else, they didn’t show it.
Why weren’t J and I better at this when it was our turn to parent? Arguably, we were too young to be married with a child. While that excuse only goes so far, maturity did play a part. I’d enjoy lazy afternoons like the one described above more today than I did then.
As proof, J and I have maintained a family membership at Descanso Gardens for at least fifteen years. Unlike the vanished LA landmarks I wrote about a few days ago (see September 24/73) Descano Gardens stands more or less intact since the late thirties although the camellia named for John’s grandmother has disappeared. The miniature banana-yellow Enchanted Railroad gives toddlers and their parents a tour of the 150 acre gardens. There’s an elegant Japanese Tea Garden and ducks! On some summer Sundays, you can enjoy live music in the ampitheater.
Admission is reasonable General $9; Seniors 65 and over/Students with ID $6; Children (5 to 12 years) $4; Descanso members and children under 5, free). Parking is free and the gardens are open from nine to five every day of the year except Christmas. If you’re looking for someplace to enjoy natural beauty in LA (especially in the Pasadena/Glendale/La Canada area), check it out. You won’t be disappointed.