The reason Sam and I wound up at Dolly’s niece’s birthday party was that my sister Janet became very good friends with Dolly when she worked as an AD (Assistant Director) on a few of Dolly’s films (9 to 5, Rhinestone). Consequently, my family and I have had the privilege of interacting with Dolly on multiple occasions during the past few decades.
This episode in my diary illustrates this perfectly. Dolly, as host of this party, probably had a million things on her mind, yet she noticed a little girl’s tears and dried them by reaching out in a way that didn’t embarrass or hurt anyone (since the real birthday girl was too young to know it).
This degree of empathy would be impressive in any human being. In a star of Dolly Parton’s magnitude, it’s astonishing. I’ve met my share of celebrities and can truly attest that Dolly Parton is one of a kind – in the best possible way.
I wasn’t at this party, my sister Janet took the kids. When she got up to take photos, Dolly took her place and started to feed Alex. His and her expressions in response are priceless.
In the summer of ’76 I was pregnant, so we had to move out of our first apartment, within walking distance of USC (no babies allowed). To call our second apartment “gorgeous” is a gross exaggeration. It looked like every other apartment in the 70s. Outdoor stairs led to five or six apartments, ours included, on the second floor. Even though it was long ago and we lived there for only two years, I remember it in vivid detail.
I pity Los Angeles millennials – well, anybody who wants to rent in LA. One hundred and seventy-five dollars seemed like a fortune to us (our previous rent was $125) but it was do-able, even though John earned about $200 a week as a part-time law clerk (he was a full-time law student at USC). Imagine a couple renting a 2-bedroom LA apartment today on one partner’s part-time salary.
What we didn’t know was that we were within walking distance of Angelo Bueno’s auto upholstery shop – you know, the one where the Hillside Stranglers tortured and killed all those women with long brunette hair. One of the victims was abducted from the small hospital at the end of our block. The murders hadn’t started when we moved in, but it wasn’t long – October 1977 to be specific – and they lasted until February 78 (we moved out in the summer of 78). As the bodies piled up in Glendale and La Crescenta hillsides, it made for some jumpy times.
As for Inga, she lived a long and happy life with my parents in San Diego. I think she liked having a house and a yard to play in (as opposed to our apartment) plus my sister Joyce’s dog, Kuala, as a companion. My parents never particularly wanted dogs, but they fell in love with our dogs once they got to know them, and we all cried when Inga (and later Kuala) crossed the Rainbow Bridge.
This is one of those entries in which nothing significant happens – but I’m so glad I wrote it down! Thirty-five years later, these are the entries I love to discover – and I do mean discover – because I have no conscious memory of any of it.
Far too many of my diary entries describe phone calls I made or received, the writing I did or didn’t accomplish, the bill from a run to the Price Club (Costco), my weight and what I ate that I wish I hadn’t – all of it meaningless now. Instead, I should have documented those precious, fleeting moments with my children.
It all went by so quickly. Sure, I’ve got pictures – lots of them. They illustrate exactly what 2-almost-3-year-old Tata and one-year-old Anni looked like, but they’re only glimpses, frozen in time. The funny things they said and did, the emergence of their unique personalities, the way the two of them interacted – unless I wrote it down, all of that is lost forever. Videos could have preserved some of it, but home movies in 1986 were beyond my area of expertise – and my budget.
Anni tried to copy Tata, even when he hadn’t a clue what she was doing. She’d place one hand on her back, one on her tummy, and bow deeply to each corner of the room. Where did that come from? Tata copied Anni too, notably by joining what would become his signature arm-in-the-air salute (two-arms, for extra emphasis).
Still, even in infancy, distinct differences between their two personalities emerged. Tata mobbed her crib with plush animals. Anni methodically tossed every one of them out. Tata fearlessly jammed her mouth with marbles, pennies, anything handy and lethal. Nothing entered Anni’s mouth without scrutiny and informed consent. Tears streamed down his cheeks when I made him taste chicken.
I thought these day-to-day moments weren’t important. I thought I’d remember them all. How could I be so wrong? Thank God for the times I wrote these things down.
In retrospect, it’s ironic my youngest son “vanished” the day after Vanished aired on NBC. (I wrote the teleplay, based on the Danielle Steele novel.) It’s about “a man and woman faced with an almost unthinkable tragedy – the mysterious abduction of their son.”
My fascination with kidnapped children began with a Reader’s Digest condensed book, Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case by George Waller. Half a century later, I’ve read almost every book on the subject (and there are a lot). IMHO, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was innocent, but we’ll never know for sure. That enduring mystery is one of the reasons the case still captivates. Kidnappers Leopold and Loeb also inspired their share of films and books but in their case, the mystery wasn’t who did it, but why. More recently, the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann is a hot case and the subject of a new Netflix documentary.
Missing children – in fiction as well as true crime – capture public imagination because the stories speak to a primal parental fear. I suspect most parents survive at least one heart-stopping moment where their child appears to vanish and the previously unimaginable is agonizingly imminent. In a moment of clarity, you understand that one mistake – an instant of distraction – can shatter everything. Since all of us are human, all of us make mistakes. I made several. All my children terrified me with at least one disappearing act. Luckily, none of them were gone very long.
“I feel a little guilty – like I manipulated her” – seriously? Is there a manipulative tactic I didn’t employ? Easter was my father’s favorite holiday and one of the busiest days of his year. Monday was his day off and I stole this one without a second thought.
That said, part of me doesn’t feel guilty – because every minute my children spent with their grandparents was blessed – and I’m pretty sure my parents treasured those times too. They were young grandparents, age wise. I’m not sure I was ready to be a grandparent when I was their age.
However, more than a decade later, I am so ready I have baby fever. Facebook friends post adorable pictures of their grandchildren and I ache and think, “I want that!” I see cute babies in restaurants and think, “I want that!” I have quite the opposite reaction on airplanes, when an infant breaks the sound barrier for the entire flight. When that happens, I shudder and think, “Thank God that’s not my problem.”
I knew what I did not want to do – don a cap and gown and endure an excruciating graduation ceremony. My own Jr. High and high school extravaganzas were torture. What about those magical moments, watching my own children graduate? Don’t you just want to smile all over? Uh, no.
Slow-roasting in bleachers without shade, surrounded by delirious parents straining to spot their spawn in a sea of black-robes several zip codes to the south – made home schooling appear an attractive option. For the record, the only things I dread more than rituals like graduation are parades and colonoscopies.
Flash forward to my son CD, valedictorian for his UCLA film and television class. Two surprises awaited me, one pleasant and one not so much. The good news was, only film and TV students participated, making it more like a party than spectacle. Lulled into a false sense of security, I thought, “this is almost a perfect day.”
CD took the microphone. He singled out his wife and his father – 100% USC Trojan, undergrad and law school. He thanked them for their inspiration. No mention of his mother and fellow UCLA film and TV alum. You know, the one who introduced him to Melnitz hall and UCLA’s campus.
Amazingly, I recovered from this ego-shattering blow as well as a carrot that caused me to barf at the reception. Something deep and primal superseded my lifelong distaste for graduations, parades and vomit. So what if CD forgot to thank me? I could not have been any prouder of him. I still am.
My brilliant niece Carly wrote an essay in high school about how their family’s animal hierarchy suffered a seismic upheaval every time a new feline entered the household. When a new human being joins an existing family unit, the reverberations can be – and usually are – far more extreme.
In the case of S and CD, not so much, unless both of them have successfully hidden their trauma for years. In my mind, the seven-year gap in their ages was as responsible for the smooth transition as their respective temperaments. CD was more engaged with his peer group, less dependent on his parents, therefore less inclined to resent her intrusion.
However, just because sibling rivalry didn’t rear its ugly head doesn’t mean our home avoided an earthquake. I’d repressed all memory of 3 AM feedings and dirty diapers but total recall returned with a vengeance. We all rose and slept to the rhythm of a baby. Sometimes the sheer exhaustion was overwhelming.
What I wouldn’t give to live through those golden days again…
The person I claim to be is a complete fabrication. Three words of the entry explain how and why this could happen. “I drink more.” A lot more. After a few drinks, my self-consciousness disappears and a wittier, friendlier me emerges. I don’t care what people say or think – at least not until the next morning when I wake with a headache and a list of apologies I need to make for things I shouldn’t have said.
When I stopped drinking this extroverted version of me ran dry. I reverted to an introvert. Introverts get a bad rap. People with a rich interior life and no apparent exterior life make boring movie heroes and heroines. They’re not easy to get close to but they do have a few things in common with extroverts.
Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone feels under-appreciated. Nobody’s life runs exactly as planned and few, if any, see all of their dreams come true. That does not doom humans to unhappiness. That depends entirely on what you believe you need to be happy.
I’ve got enough. I don’t need a Malibu beach house or a private jet. If I die with exactly what I’ve got right now, it’s more than enough. I believe that leaves me happier than some who never have enough.
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.
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.)