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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Traveling with My Sainted Mother

At 85, it’s getting harder to get Mother out of the house without curb-to-curb service.  She’s pretty spry, but I am learning that as we get older, the specter of a fall  is never too far.

I like to stop at Banning on the way from California to Arizona to get something at Starbucks.  I think that store is one of my favorites in the chain; the space is inviting and the baristas aren’t texting like they do in LA.

This is true, if you can make it into the store, which is ‘guarded’ by a sloping curb that runs from the handicap parking to the back door.  Stepping up to the back door is easy if you know what foot will hit the edge of the curb first, as the height for each foot will be different.  Add to that the sprinkler runoff from the manicured landscaping and the motor oil from the adjacent parking space and you have a brew for a possible disaster.

I let go of Mother for an instant to open the door for her – turned around to help her up the curb just in time to see her hurling toward me like Supergirl.  She hit the curb with her shins before I could do anything about it.

She recounts the incident as an aside at a breakfast chat during a week that I spent introducing her to Arizona country living:

Drinks Taste Better When They Are Complimentary (I Reckon)

I guess she was lucky to end up with skinned knees and some lost pride.  Starbucks was magnanimous and sent mother 5 coupons for complimentary beverages to assuage any lingering misgivings that she may have had about returning, which were enough to treat her family — if she didn’t get a drink for herself.

For the rest of the visit, she preferred to have me make her tea at home.

Postscript

It wasn’t all skinned shins and tea.  Mother found time to play with the dog:

and to do her imitation of Debbie Reynolds‘ role with Albert Brooks in the 1996 feature film, Mother.

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“Sheriff John” Rovick (1919 – 2012)

“Sheriff John” Rovick (1919-2012)

I wasn’t aware that my late father and “Sheriff John” Rovick were friends until years after Dad’s hunting accident, which claimed his right eye and probably contributed to his early death at the age of 53.  Sheriff John hosted a noontime show for children during the ‘golden age’ of television — ask any Baby Boomer from Los Angeles!  I found out after-the-fact that  Sheriff John was with my dad on a duck-hunting trip when a load of buckshot shot by a careless hunter from a nearby hunting party peppered my dad in the face and chest with a careless and errant blast.

Dad never really recovered.  One day, in a youthful, innocent and somewhat obtuse way, I mused with my father,

“Gee, Daddy, Just think: if you had moved one step to the left, you may not have lost your eye!”

Without a beat of hesitation, he looked down at me with a mixture of impatience and love and said,

“And if I had moved one step to the right, I might have lost both of them!”

Independently, my brother and I loved Sheriff John (it seemed) almost as much as our Dad — or maybe even more, if you believe the story that my mother recently told me:

Mother’s Recapitulation

I continue to be surprised and thrilled that my mother lets me record her memories.  At 86, she tells me she is no longer concerned about how she looks in front of a camera.  I think that I will try to break out the camera with her more often.

If I tried, I could easily think myself into sadness when I consider that there are only so many of her stories that I may yet hear, but instead, I will just follow Sheriff John’s musical credo, which is “laugh, and be happy.”

RIP John Rovick

I found this tribute to Sheriff John.  You might enjoy it.

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Have I Ever Really ‘Seen’ My Mother?

When I have pointed a camera at my mother – ever – she would respond by turning on a dime and running into another room snarling, “Oh, Billy!”

This visit to Los Angeles was the exception.  She let me put a camera on her and opened up like I don’t remember.  I began to get an idea of her persona. In fact, after viewing the clips and stories that I am about to share with you, I am beginning to think that my Mother was not the combination of cook and maid that I had expected her to be in my youth, but rather that she was actually quite a bon vivant — certainly much more of a person than my limited view of her has allowed.

And after finding the snapshot below in my late father’s archives of my mother, younger than I am now, I suspect that I may not have ever ‘seen’ my mother as she is or was.

“Billy, Why Don’t You Come Over for Breakfast?”

“I love to cook,” Mother says.  “Your sister doesn’t want me to cook for her, and since they laid me off, I have more-than-enough time on my hands.”

Life After the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) Hospital

The MPTF Hospital (affectionately, ‘The Old Actor’s Home’)

The MPTF Hospital laid my mother off at age 84 after 35 years of service.  She called me one Thursday night to say that the Personnel Dept. had asked her to come-in to discuss her separation package.  I listened patiently as she said,

“Billy, they can’t lay me off, can they?  There’s just so much to do, and these young kids they have working with me don’t care about the job; they make mistakes constantly and seem only to want to text their boyfriends.  I find so many medical samples mis-labeled all the time and I have to correct them.  And besides, I have a meeting with the pathologist tomorrow to discuss a rush job for him, so I can’t take the time go to Personnel!  What do you think?”

Having lived through some lay-offs of my own, I, with some filial hesitation informed my Mother,

“Mother, you’re already gone!  Your supervisor was probably asked to reduce a full-time-equavalent (FTE) — and you’re it!.  Maybe you can negotiate some time to cross-train someone who will be staying.  But you are history!”

Still incredulous, she said,

“What am I going to do with all that time on my hands?”

Just about everyone in my my family has worked at MPTF at one time or another.  It was my first job.  While still in a college pre-med program, they gave me a summer job in housekeeping.  That work just kept piling-up with every new day! I think at least one of my sisters and brother worked there.

Now, Mother invites me over when I am in town, and I could be mistaken, but she seems to be  less anxious for me to leave.

“Come over on Tuesday — I’ll make you waffles the way your brother likes them — with bacon in them.  Better not tell him; he’ll be jealous.”

(So, I immediately emailed my brother the following picture:)

“Don’t tell your brother that I made you waffles!”

As suggested by the above image,  Mother would not sit down with me at the table that she had meticulously set, but instead kept handing me waffles through the kitchen portal while never stopping talking.

At one point,  she sat down on the cobbler’s chair that she keeps in the kitchen and continued to reminisce about her life.

I stopped her before she got too far and said, “Hold that thought, I’m going to get my tripod.”

Continuing Life’s Recapitulation

I ran to the car, came back,  set it up and started to record her stories, very surprised that she did not object.  I have heard some of the stories before, but each time is like the first time.

“At 65 I wouldn’t have put up with this for a minute.  But at 85 ….”

She was feeling that my sister was taking her for granted, but instead of complaining, she started to reminisce about the way she had done likewise to her mother.  Seeing her filled with emotion before my eyes, I did not stop to make fine exposure adjustments, but instead started to record (I’ll know better next time):

Navigating Early-television Hollywood

Bill Leyden, Jr.

Bill Leyden, Jr.

This rogue is my late father.

(Headshots like this are usually touched-up.  But that is the way he looked.  In fact, his hair looked like that when he woke up!)

An early death probably cut short a career that had already peaked.  But there wasn’t anyone in Hollywood that he did not know.  The peak preceded a tragic personal loss.  He never fully recovered from a hunting accident that occurred in the early 60s in which he lost one of his eyes.  It made him self-conscious that the glass eye never quite matched the other.  The aftermath of the injury also gave him constant pain.  And with 20/10 vision (pilot’s eyes), he was particularly saddened by the loss.

On day, with my juvenile take on things, I said to him,

“Daddy, if you had just been one step to the left, the buckshot might have missed your  eye.”

With no hesitation, he said to me, “Or if I had been one step to the right, I may have lost both of them!”

Mother often talks about their forays in Hollywood.  And I listen eagerly, watching attentively as her moods reflect upon one other and then dissipate —  often  several times during the same sentence.

“Well , What Did You Think of Clark?”

Clark Gable

Clark Gable

I love to hear stories about the Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s.  The air was dirty, but life seemed cleaner.  My faded recollection is that you could leave the family car running outside all night (don’t ask me why one would do that) and it would still be there in the morning!

It has been my experience that kids that grew up around movie and television stars are probably more impressed by the stars on a general’s uniform than the stars on the screen, whereas a ‘military brat’ is more likely to be star-struck.

Mother, by virtue of her relationship to Dad, fell into the former group.  She would not be prone to gush over a movie star, and would at times be oblivious to one’s fame even if she had been conversing with one, as the following clip regarding  Clark Gable would seem to suggest:

“Not TullyTelly!”

Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas

I’ll have to remember to ask why Mother says that Telly Savalas was such a ‘sweetheart,’ considering that he chided her gently for mispronouncing his name.

“Agnes Moorehead – She Was Striking, Absolutely Striking!”

Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead is probably best-remembered as Samantha’s moody, red-haired mother on the television sitcom, “Bewitched.”  She was much more than that.  Here Mother gives an insight to the late Ms. Moorehead that I would not have expected:

Did Mother Just Say Nick Cravat Asked Her Out?

Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat in “The Crimson Pirate” (1959)

OK, you can think what you want of me, but one of my favorite movies as a kid was “The Crimson Pirate,” starring Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat and Eva Bartok.   Now that I have broached this subject, I might as well come clean and admit that  Steve Reeves in “Hercules Unchained” would have my brother and I in front of the TV set — guaranteed.  (Mother also claims to have had a date with Steve Reeves — he took her on the bus to Muscle Beach).

In fact, any swashbuckling adventure or feature with a character named “Machiste” would usually have my brother and I on the edge of our seats. There, I’ve said it!

Anyway, I was thrilled that Nick Cravat gave to my mother for me an autographed copy of “The Crimson Pirate.”  Not knowing anything about their acquaintance, I asked her about him:

“—-trying to look classy….”

Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles

Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles

I am not sure if I would want to come-in late to a Don “Mr. Warmth” Rickles performance; it would be a sure-fire way to be a target for quips, as Mother was soon to find out:

“…Betty White – Boy, Was She Young!”

Betty White

Betty White

Since Mother had mentioned meeting Telly Savalas at the late Dennis James’ house, I was curious if she knew Betty White.

Two days after mother had sat willingly in front of my camera for the first time ever, I was still in disbelief that she had opened up while being recorded.  I had previewed some of the footage and was unhappy with my technical performance, but let it go.  I picked up the phone to call,

“Mother, I loved listening to your stories, would you be willing to sit with me again before I leave town, maybe Friday morning?”

“Yes, I guess so.  But I know I will freeze if there is anyone else at home but you.  So come early.  What stories do you want to hear?”

“I’m not going to telegraph them — I would prefer to hear them fresh!”

“OK”

On Friday, I thought that Mother might have second thoughts about being in front of the camera, but she didn’t hesitate to start talking about the past again, but not before over my feigned objections she offered to make me an omelet.

“I’ll make you a cheese omelet; that will be simple — with ham, spinach, pepper, onion and salsa!”

(That’s the kind of thing that I would never do on my own; I don’t have the patience to cut up all that stuff).

“Bill Leyden’s Wife …. That’s Nobody!”

She started right-in remembering the night club days.  Here, forgetting about the omelet on the stove, she fondly remembers Milton “Uncle Miltie” Berle and also a snide put-down by a fellow party-goer.

I rather like this snippet because at the end it shows one of my favorite Mother-stereotypes — no matter where Mother goes, she jogs!  Here she forgets that there is an omelet on the stove and jogs over (she would have done that if she had not forgotten).  I have seen her jog in the Petrified Forest in Arizona in 100 degree heat!

I continued our visit by asking her to tell several stories about which my sister had coached me two days earlier.

Lucille Ball’s Ride

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball had not yet become a recluse in the early 60s.  This story about my dad mistakenly being given her car by a valet is a scream.  I remember as a boy walking into a school bazaar in Hollywood and seeing Lucille Ball sitting at a carnival-style make up booth.  Nobody was in the booth.  I walked up; she bade me sit down, and proceeded to turn me into a bandito complete with sombrero.

‘Sick’ in Florida

My sister loves this story; it must touch for her some inner-rebel.  She advised me, “get Mother to tell you about the time she called-in sick and went to Florida for a weekend of water skiing.  She didn’t realize that her boss was vacationing at the same location in Florida!”

Just-a Dancin’ Machine

Jimmy Stewart, Dance Instructor

I am sorry, but the thought of my mother doing certain things does not set well with my stomach.  I can’t help it.  I think any detail further than those shown in the following clip of her learning how to do “The Twist” is unnecessary and probably undignified.  Let it be enough to say, that I am glad that Jimmy Stewart was the one who had to see my mother learn how to do “The Twist.”  For me, watching this clip just about crosses-the-line; the vision of my mother ‘twisting’ at any age is almost more than I can bear.  But, it’s not about me, after all, is it?

“Mother, Don’t Move the Chair — Just Get Up and Move Out-of-Frame.”

Planning a ‘Dissolve’

I wanted to do a cheap editing dissolve at the end of the first day’s recording, so I asked Mother, “Just look at the Canon Logo on the camera for a moment, then, when you are ready and without moving the chair, get up and get out of here!”

Anticipating a Broken Heart

The above clip is most likely my pre-sorrow manifesting itself before we will no longer have the waffles and the sharing of memories.  I will remember this expression that she made that seemed at-once proud, content and grief-ridden.  When that time comes, the kitchen will have never felt so empty.

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At 84, Mother is from a generation that in my mind (at least) produced if not many bigger-than-life heroes and villains, a corps of more-than-interesting individuals who’s self-effacing way of conversation is/was inadvertently comedic.

Case-in-point:  Mother and I, while I am driving:

“Billy, It’s so hot out and I’m so thirsty, I could really use some water!”

“Mother, there’s some in the back seat.”  Leaning over, I reach for it.

“Oh, no, Billy. You’re driving!  Don’t worry about me!  I’ll wait till later.  I don’t want us both to die!  I was just thinking out-loud!” No!  No!  It’s alright.  I don’t want you to go out of your way …

I’m so thirsty!”

During the above typical exchange, Mother could have drunk a six-pack of bottled water during the time she told me not to worry about her.

At times, Mother wields this behavior in public places:

buying tickets;

at the check-out in the market;

ordering at a restaurant; and/or

visiting friends, etc.

So as a preemptive measure, my sisters and I attempt to diffuse our slight embarrassments due to what we deem as Mother’s pecadillos by saying just loud enough for anyone nearby to overhear:

“Now, Mother, please don’t make a scene!”

” …. Bring a Change of Clothes”

If I am to believe Mother’s story concerning her relationship with my then future father, on a first date with him, he invited her to a Hollywood premier – an event at which in the late 1940’s would have required a black dress with all the trimmings.  According to Mother, Dad told her, “we are going to stop by Mel Henke’s on the way to help him out – so wear casual clothes and we will change at Mel’s before going out.

Upon arrival at Mel Henke’s, my Dad handed my mother a pitch fork and invited her to start cleaning out the horse stalls.  (This was presumably an attempt in my late father’s mind to weed out women who may have been attracted to him solely on account of his budding celebrity).  However, he didn’t realize that Mother, being from Ohio was no stranger to work (or horses and jack asses).  And quickly, Mel advised him that he better not do anything to scare this girl off; she looked like a keeper.

I guess Mel was right, as the image below would seem to suggest:

Lynn and Bill Leyden

My Father died unexpectedly young, causing a trauma in the family that reverberates softly to this day.  But Mother would continue to raise us while maintaining a youthful outlook and appearance well into her late 70’s:

Mother in her 70s.

Can We Maybe Give Tom Cruise a Break?

My sister Regan probably spends the most time with Mother these days.  An avid reality show afficionado, Mother and she rarely agree on TV viewing.  But according to Regan (and because of a possible penchant for embellishment on my sister’s part, I disclaim any factual accuracy of this story – including whether or not it actually pertains to the named actor, but include it for the purpose of illustrating an otherwise common occurrence) experienced Mother’s wry wit turned outward one day as she was watching a story on the busy life of Tom Cruise as the cameras followed him jetting to several continents in one day for business, sporting and culinary reasons.  Looking up from her reading material, Mother blandly offered an unsolicited question, “I wonder what he is running from?”  Regan replied over laughter, “Mother, he’s after all Tom Cruise; give him a break! — But you may be on to something there!”

“Oh, for Goodness Sake!”

During Mother’s first visit in three years this week last:

“Mother, I’ll take to you lunch, what do you feel like eating?”

“Oh, I don’t care. Just someplace near Target so I can do some shopping for you. You need a spoon holder and a summer tray!”

“Ok, Mother.  That would be the place where you threw up after having the Margarita the other night.”

“No, no! Not there!”

“Ok, then. How ’bout Olive Garden?”

“I don’t care. Whatever you want. I’ve never been to Olive Garden! I just want a salad. Do they have salads?”

“Mother, their salad is all-you-can-eat! They bring it to the table with whatever you order.”

“Oh!  That sounds good”

I have to admit that I was secretly thrilled because I was almost positive that the hostess would be the next immediate candidate for the opportunity to use old faithful:

“Now, Mother.  Please don’t make a scene!”

It worked again.  I think the waitress thought that she was going to have an easy time with these two tourists.  But she was premature.

The waitress began her obsequious, obligatory delivery:

“Hi!  I’m Bippy!  I’ll be your server today.  Can I start you out with something to drink? Or are you ready to order?”

Mother injects,  “I need your help.  Can I get a salad with something on it?  Maybe chicken or shrimp?  You know, like Philippine Adobo?”

“Excuse me? Well, we can put some shrimp on our Spinach Salad! “

Mother says without hesitation, “Great!”

I ordered a Diet Coke and the Chicken Parmesan with the  all-you-eat salad —  and when it came to the table, Mother grabbed the bowl away from the waitress exclaiming, “This looks fan-TAS-tic!!  It’s just what I wanted!”

“That’s your son’s salad!” offered our waitress.

“Oh? Why didn’t you tell me I could get an all-you-can-eat salad?”

The waitress wrestled the all-you-can-eat bowl from my Mother’s grip (otherwise impossible unless as recently weakened by IV’s during cataract surgery) as I looked-on slack-jawed across the table at what I suspected would happen all along: Mother making a scene!

“Oh, for Goodness’ sake! That’s your son’s salad!”

Were We Ever That Young?

As I’m listening to Mother’s worrying, I sometimes invite myself to visualize vignettes of the past, where she seemed bigger than life to me — a strong disciplinarian with all of the answers.  The memories are sometimes accompanied by the imagined drone of the Malibu surf and the smell of honeysuckle.  And I find myself in the same place that my grandfather must have found himself in the autumn of his life — pondering the dichotomy of remembering the past as if it had just occurred and  wondering, ‘who is that man in the mirror staring at me?’  Where Mother and I ever that young?

Mother and Son on Malibu Beach

Remember Me

It has been for me a poignant visit.  Mother has been remembering conversations from her childhood – names and faces of people long passed.  She has been emotional, loving, self-critical and curious about everything.  She wanted to meet and talk with people with whom she felt she had unfinished business — what the shaman would call re-capitulation.

At the time of this writing, I asked Mother to come to the computer to see and to hear what I had written on the off-chance that I had crossed the line.  She seemed more concerned about Tom Cruise.

Suddenly – in a moment of emotion:

” I can’t believe how inflexible and rigid that I have been all of my life!  I could have been much more help to my children when they needed me.  I could have been a much better wife to your Father.  Before he died, I believe we were just starting to understand each other.  I could see what was important to him and he was more tolerant of my spiritual quests.”

As her tears began to well, I reached for the bookshelf and lifted up a small, blue,  hard-bound  book by Emett Fox.

“Mother, this is the book that was in my late Father’s night stand the day he died [in 1970].  The bookmark is where he left it.”

Mother took the book and shielded it from her falling tears.

“Oh, Billy.  Someone tried to give this to me that day, but I couldn’t take it.”

Looking up from the pages, Mother continued,

“I don’t want anyone to cry when I am gone.  I think I want to be cremated, and someone to read that poem about remembering with a smile — you know the one I mean?”

“Not Really,”  I answered.

“You know.  The one by someone Rossetti, with two ‘s’s’ … I’ve tried to show it to your sister, but she won’t listen when I talk this way.  I’ll guess that I’ll just have to wait ’til I get home to find it.”

“One more reason to have an iPad, Mother.”

Trying to remain the collected observer of these emotions in crescendo, I turned slightly away and began searching the Web slightly in front of her, and immediately found the following poem by Christina Rossetti in a list of  ‘poetry read at funerals.’  I began to read it out-loud:

” ‘Remember me when I am gone away ….‘ “

“That’s it!”

I begin to read out-loud again:

“Remember

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land:
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti
1830-1894″

Through her tears, Mother says, “Oh, Billy! I have been so inflexible.  Will you forgive me?”

“No need to ask, Mother.  Now, would you like some more coffee?  Or would you just prefer to sit here make a scene?”

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