Darling mentioned we had been invited to a party, with a Day of the Dead theme, and we could bring pictures or items to honor our family and friends who have died and place them on a shrine the host will have set up. Maybe we could take a martini glass for my mother, pictures of art works by Darling’s dad, etc. “But, we won’t put up any pictures of them that contain people still living. We could crop those off,” she said. I liked the idea. I love our Dearly Departed but never pray or think of them in Heaven. Maybe their energy or essence is floating about the universe. I see my mother’s face sometimes, as if drawn in a bubble above my head or my daughter’s head, with her wise, approving smile, or making that “tsk, tsk” sound if I’ve done something naughty. I thought why not write out a list I could tack onto the shrine.
My very first death was in grade school. Marty was in my class and once in a while I would go to her house after school to wait for mother to pick me up after work. My father was in a state mental institution at the time. Marty’s mom would make us snacks. She was younger than mine, I don’t know how old, it’s hard to tell age when you’re young. Early thirties, or younger, she looked more like a teenager than someone’s mom. She had black wavy hair, a generous, red-lipped smile, and wore jeans. Marty and I got dropped at her house one day but no one was there. Her dad came home a few minutes later and said he had taken her mother to the hospital. He was a virile young farmer, but you could tell he was shaken. Someone came to pick me up and get me out of their hair. Marty’s mom died a few days later.
Pals in high school. Danny, David, and who was the other? Their car was hit by a train as they were going to a basketball game. Three funerals in one day. Catherine, a scrappy, funny woman who I worked with at the Palace clothing store, where I had a part time job in the boys department, was a mother of two teenage girls. Her youngest, 15, was killed when the car her boyfriend was driving stalled on the tracks, and they, too, were hit by a locomotive. I didn’t know her daughter that well, but Catherine was like a spunky aunt, always joking. Not after that.
I had a first adolescent crush on Charlotte. She was only so-so about me, but I could drive, so we had been dating. When I rang the door bell, she opened the door, and said, “Come in. We think my dad may have been in an airplane crash.” Her mother and her younger brother were inside. Her dad had a small plane and had gone somewhere on business or hunting with a few other guys. The phone rang and they received the news that he had been killed. I didn’t know what to do, everyone was crying. After a few minutes a neighbor lady came in and told me I should leave. Charlotte never went out with me after that night. I grieved more about that than her dad, who I only met once. He was handsome and nice to me.
Then my dad died of a heart attack in my mother’s arms. I guess that part was good. I heard about it on the radio while I was driving. He was 57, mother was 50. I was 17.
Mike Brooks was always one step ahead of incarceration in high school, and probably had ADHD. I remember driving Mike around in my dad’s new GMC pickup and showing off for him, “burning rubber,” racing around, which made him howl with excitement. He wasn’t mean but he was ornery. When we graduated he got a job at a factory and driving home after a graveyard shift, he fell asleep at the wheel of his pretty ’56 Chevy.
Steve Paxson was on the debate team with me. I found his name years later on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. No one could figure out why he enlisted. (If you want some details about his death, you can read “Engraved” on this site.)
My grandmother Beatrice, “Red Cross,” died while I was in college. We called her that because she was one of the earliest Red Cross volunteers during the Spanish-American War and, because she was a caring woman, the perfect grandmother, in my eyes. There was always something in her suit case for me. She lived in Oakland, CA, where I was born, and would visit us in Kansas when I was a kid. My dad couldn’t abide her. Not sure why. Anyway, my mother went out to close her apartment and settle the estate. I didn’t go with her, nor was I invited. It seemed to be something my mother needed to be alone to do. I did visit a whore house with a Marine buddy. The one and only time. Not that is was a bad experience, though it wasn’t all that pleasurable, for her either, I suspect. Just business. It was the 60’s, who needed to pay for sex?
When I first moved to NYC I spent a few weeks at the townhouse of my mother’s cousin, a successful businessman, and his family. His daughters had moved out, two girls my age or near. Not long after, while on a vacation with her fiancé in the Bahamas, the youngest was paralyzed after a scooter accident. I visited her in the hospital when she was brought back to NYC. Later, she had a special chair and an apartment. I didn’t see her during that time. The fiancé, who had been driving the scooter, broke it off. After a few years, in her late 20’s, she’d had enough, and killed herself. I didn’t learn how.
A young, sparkling actress I knew socially was a regular cast member on Captain Kangaroo. Debbie Weems was one of the few in our circle who was famous, really, and lived in a nice high rise apartment. One February, just after her 27th birthday, she jumped. She was depressed because she felt she’d always be type-cast as the cute girl on Captain Kangaroo. She always will be.
I guess an actor dying makes you pay attention. Trey, 30, was just another actor when he was killed by a falling board from a construction site on 7th Avenue. Raul Julia, Ron Silver, fellows I knew and honor. Court Miller: Aids. Julia Murray, a lithe, sassy actress who was lovely in the Arthur Penn movie, “Four Friends” was in my acting group, got cancer of the jaw, which they removed but didn’t save her, and like Hamlet, I have kissed those lips.
Darling’s father, an affable man, an artist, teacher, generous with his time as a grandfather, loved his early retirement in southern Oregon. He could build a house. In his sixties, he contracted brain cancer. His daughter and granddaughter were there for him.
Rochelle was a chain smoking analyst and the wife of a director friend. You could not bullshit this lady. She looked like a European intellectual, with silvery hair and brown tinted horn-rimmed glasses, but she was from Brooklyn. She told me a joke that was so goofy coming from a woman who was so accomplished. “What do Brooklyn and pantyhose have in common?” Flatbush. (Cancer.) Joyce Lasko, also the wife of a director, and a therapist [ah, New York.] An Irish beauty and onetime actress, with an acerbic wit. (Emphysema.)
Audrey. Break my heart. A mom and a friend in Portland. Some people get to you more than others, I guess. She was so loyal it made you give it back in kind.
My mother, like hers, died at 90. I saw her in hospice, tiny, unconscious, or so it seemed, yet fighting. We buried some of her ashes at dad’s grave in Kansas, along with some vodka and an olive, and scattered the rest in a pasture we once owned. Kid and I crawled under a barbed wire fence. Some of the ashes blew back into our hair. That gave us a good laugh.