Saturday, January 5, 2008

Wish You Were Here

Funerals on my father’s side of the family were usually long, formal and Catholic, inevitably culminating in a pathos-milking rendition of, “Danny Boy.” The ceremonies were always followed by a rowdy evening of drinking, story telling, laughing, crying, and singing. I’d say they were about as cathartic and life affirming as funerals get.

Funerals in Trudy’s family had a different feel. For instance, my Aunt June’s took place in a modest protestant church which she had never set foot in, and was conducted by a bland minister who had never met her and knew very little about her. After the brief, generic service, the mourners solemnly gathered in the rec room of June’s trailer park for punch and cold cuts. My cousin Joel, who was bailed out of jail for the occasion, sat in silence throughout the whole ordeal. (Joel is currently a homeless crackhead living on the streets of Sacramento.) His sister Sheri, on the other hand, became more boisterous as the reception went on. After a while, she brought me to June’s trailer, where we took turns sipping from the bottle of vodka she had stashed there earlier in the day. Once she was good and plastered, Sheri insisted I feel the soft spot on her head, which was left by the brain surgery performed to remove a tumor that was alleged to have caused her to run away to an Indian reservation and get a tattoo. I’m sure Joel’s and Shari’s behavioral problems had nothing whatever to do with their abusive abalone fisherman father, Al, who beat them and their mother senseless on a regular basis until the day he left them high and dry.

June’s was not the kind of memorial I had in mind for John. My idea was to mark John’s passing with the warmth and comfort of his family’s gatherings, minus the formalities and the God.

Trudy was wary about throwing a party at first because she was afraid people would be expecting a service. Also, she worried she’d start balling and never be able to stop, which is permissible at a funeral but not at a party. Once people started to arrive, though, she was in her element. If there is one thing Trudy enjoys, and is damn good at, it’s socializing. And the number one unspoken hostessing rule is: No crying once company has arrived. Dressed regally in a brand new black St. John Knit, Trudy greeted guests like a star meets adoring fans, her hairdresser Stephen and her colorist Marie among them.

The place was packed. There was such a big turn out that Karla worried we’d run out of food. People who we thought would only want to stop by briefly to pay their respects stayed for hours. Friends and relatives we hadn’t seen in years turned up. Even old neighbors from Ladera Heights were there, including Leo’s buddies who used to hang out in the driveway in front of his black van, getting loaded while listening to hard rock on The Might Met and waxing their surfboards, and Karla’s high school boyfriend who knew that if he couldn’t smell cigar smoke when he brought Karla home from a date, John had gone to bed and he’d probably, “get some.”

Kimmie, my best childhood friend, cried throughout the entire party. She adored my dad, who was endlessly good natured and patient with us. He chauffeured us to the movies and to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, kept an eye on us while we played freeze tag in the street, and dutifully served as the sole audience member for our frequent talent shows in the backyard. And, he didn’t seem to mind too much when we insisted on changing the channel to UHF to watch, “The Adams Family,” or, “The Little Rascals,” while he was trying to catch up on highlights from the Watergate hearings on the nightly news. (John loathed Richard Nixon, admired FDR, and always complained bitterly that Adlai Stevenson was cheated out of a bid for the presidency.)

But as much as Kimmie loved John, she worshipped my mother. To the extent that she nearly named her only daughter Trudy. That’s because Kimmie only knew Fun Trudy. When Fun Trudy was around, it was like hanging out with the most popular girl in school who associated with you, even though she didn’t have to, because she was just that nice! She’d lead us on spontaneous bike rides to the beach! She’d take us to the Japanese Village and Deer Park, on a whim! She taught us how to win at blackjack!

Kim’s mother Tanya, on the other hand, was rail thin, beautiful, and as icy and aloof as the three Siamese cats who prowled around their dimly lit house. We weren’t allowed to speak above a whisper early in the day at Kim’s because Tanya was always nursing a hangover after a late night out at chic Beverly Hills nightclubs such as Daisy’s, or Pip’s, the backgammon themed disco. Once she emerged from the master bedroom, Tanya could usually be found lying in one of the His and Her Barcaloungers positioned in front of the television set in the den, manicure kit at her side, remote control in hand, cucumber slices over her eyelids.

When she wasn’t recovering from the night before, Tanya was sitting at her vanity, preparing for the evening to come. Kim and I would stand behind her and stare while she carefully applied layers of make-up. It was Tanya who taught us how to blend several shades of eye shadow to create the perfect, “three dimensional eye” effect.

Kim’s stepfather, also named John, passed away a few years ago. John was a big, fat intimidating man with a deep, booming voice who owned a card club in Gardena and always carried a giant roll of cash in his front pocket. In the summertime, John would float on a raft in their pool, watching Kim and I shoot hoops a few feet away. Every time we made a basket, he’d give us a dollar bill. The story my father liked to tell about John took place one evening during the holidays. Kimmie was playing at our house and John had come to collect her for dinner. When my father answered the door, John wished him a Merry Christmas and handed him a flat containing 100 of those miniature vodka bottles they serve on airplanes.

An old friend of my parents named Little Red arrived at the party on the arm of a nurse, who sat her at a table and then went straight to the bar to get her a cocktail. Little Red’s hair was unkempt and no longer red, but grey. She wore wide sunglasses with yellow lens. I didn’t recognize her until after I had walked by and heard her complain, “Isn’t it bright in here? Can’t someone turn those goddamn lights down?”

I don’t know that much about Little Red except that she had been Ruth Roman’s stand-in, and was with her aboard the Andrea Doria when it sank. My parents knew Red because she was the long time girlfriend of their good friend Mimi, a very butch lesbian who swore like a sailor, wore men’s suits and had a vague career in entertainment. I think she produced movies, and I know she owned a restaurant/club in the 1970’s that went under after about a year. My mother met Mimi in Sacramento during the early 1960’s when she worked as a secretary for Governor Pat Brown, and Mimi had only recently transformed herself from mild-mannered Jewish housewife to mannish lesbian lobbyist. John and Trudy loved Mimi and Little Red because they were such “characters,” and “a lot of fun.” Also, Mimi could usually be counted on to buy a few shares in Trudy’s latest money-making venture.

Something my parents turned a blind eye to was Mimi’s love of illegal substances. I believe that’s what led her to become friends with fellow cocaine aficionado Billy Idol in the early 1980’s. (Mimi once gave me an autographed picture of Billy that he had signed, “To Marry, Rock On!” Who misspells “Mary?”) During that same period, Mimi and Little Red appeared in a Twisted Sister video, wearing black leather bondage gear and holding riding crops. They were probably in their mid-60’s then.

One night, when I was about 16 or 17, I was out with my parents, Mimi, and Little Red at a supper club featuring a then-popular drag act. Half way through dinner I felt something on my leg. Mimi was trying to pass me a vial of coke under the table. I shook my head no in disbelief. Mimi laughed drunkenly, and loudly shouted so that the entire table could hear, “When your mother was young, she was a real cherry. Just like you.” Mortified, I tilted my head forward, in an attempt to disappear behind the dyed black bangs of my asymmetrical haircut, but Trudy just blushed and giggled, “Oh, Mimi!…What’s a cherry?”

As the years went on, Mimi and Little Red’s partying escalated. Eventually, John discovered that Mimi had been dealing coke out of his office, so they had a falling out. The women kept up their dangerous habits and lost everything, finally ending up in a tiny apartment in West Hollywood, living on public assistance. Every once in a while Mimi would come to John for a loan. Always a soft touch, John would take her to lunch and pay off her household bills.

Several of John’s nieces and nephews came to the party, including Steve, my uncle Fran’s son. Fran died before I was born, but I was told he had been an intellectual, a bohemian, an alcoholic and a Lamplighter. Karla says he was weird. Steve lives in San Pedro and had visited John often throughout his illness. John always got a kick out of Stephen’s radical politics and pugnacious demeanor, and Steve has never forgotten the time his uncle drove all the way to Santa Cruz to bail him out of jail after he was arrested for throwing rocks during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam.

In lieu of planning any formal service or eulogies, Karla had the club set up a small podium at the back of the room with a microphone, in case anyone had remembrances of John to share. My cousins were the first to get up.

Lisa spoke of her Uncle Johnny’s death as the end of an era. My father was the second born of his five siblings and the last one to die. Lisa’s mother, Mary, passed away only two years ago. She was my father’s favorite, and I am her namesake. Mary danced on a table at her 70th birthday party and played tennis nearly until the day she died at 80 years old. When we flew up north for her funeral, John was already pretty feeble. It was difficult for him to walk the long distances through the airport terminals, but he stubbornly refused to ride in a wheelchair. As he stood by Mary’s open casket at the viewing, I heard him whisper, “You left me all alone, Sis.”

Lisa and her sister Karen both nostalgically recounted our parents’ get-togethers that always went on late into the night. Those days were all about highballs, cigarettes, loud arguments and laughter. Kathleen, my Uncle Bobby’s daughter, described John as a bon vivant and, “the whole Rat Pack rolled into one.” She thought he looked like a movie star. “And then he brought home a movie star wife! And she showed up with a movie star daughter and a movie star son!”

My cousin Christine, Uncle Fran’s daughter, told a story that well illustrates my relationship with my father. Christine was probably a teenager and I was about six at the time. John was sitting in the living room of our grandmother’s house in San Francisco, when Christine ran in to report that I had been cheating at cards, expecting her uncle to discipline his bratty child. Instead, he looked up, laughed and said, “Good for her! How’s she ever gonna get ahead in this world if she doesn’t learn to cheat!” John’s biggest concern while I was growing up was that I wouldn’t cheat, because I didn’t understand what a cold and dangerous place the world could be. He wanted me to realize that you had to take care of your own, however you could. He was afraid I was too much like him.

I didn’t think I’d have the composure to speak, but I knew if I didn’t say something I’d regret it. Instead of trying to come up with something profound, which would have ended up sounding mawkish and inadequate, and surely would have made me cry, I decided to tell a brief story that took place at the first nursing home we put John in.

Dad usually refused to take his meals in the lunchroom with the other patients, and would instead eat from a tray in his room. He was never much of a joiner when he was well, so he certainly wasn’t going to start attending the depressing luaus and sing-a-longs the nursing home was always throwing at this stage of the game.

One day Karla and Susan were visiting and they noticed the home was screening Elvis movies in the lunchroom in honor of “Death Week.” “Death Week,” is the seven day celebration of Elvis’ life that takes place in Memphis every year on the anniversary of his alleged demise. The taste in celebrating, “Death Week,” at a nursing facility is questionable to my mind, but none of the patients seemed to notice.

Now, John didn’t care about Elvis, but Karla and Susan managed to convince him to get into his wheelchair and let them roll him down the hall to watch, “Love Me Tender,” for a change of scenery. In this picture, set during the Civil War, Elvis plays a character named Clint Reno whose brother Vance is a confederate soldier. While Vance is off fighting the north, Clint falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, Cathy. When Vance returns from battle, he discovers that, thinking Vance had been killed in combat, Clint and Cathy have married.

At this point in the action, John pointed at Vance on the screen and said, “We used to date the same girl.” In the car on the way home, Karla and Susan called to tell me that John was becoming so confused he now thought he was Elvis Presley, or at the very least, Clint Reno.

They also told me about an old lady at the screening, whose companion had asked her if she wanted to be moved closer so she could get a better view of Elvis. She nodded, so her friend wheeled her to the front. When she got there, the woman looked up, squinted and complained, “Oh hell. I thought I was gonna meet him.” It made me sad to think that John’s dementia had led him so far afield that these people were now his peer group. That he had become just another sad, decaying lunatic. But then again, at least he thought he was Elvis and not Pol Pot, or Ted Bundy.

Out of curiosity, when I got off the phone I looked up, “Love Me Tender,” on the Internet Movie Database. Richard Egan is listed as the actor who played Elvis’ older brother, Vance. I went to Richard Egan’s page and was surprised to read that he was born in San Francisco, in 1921. John was also born in San Francisco, but a year earlier. When I opened Mr. Egan’s biography, I learned that he had attended at St. Ignatius High School, the same school John attended. So, my father wasn’t one of them yet. He was telling the truth. John and Vance Reno had dated the same girl.

I didn’t cry once at the party. I convinced myself that day marked the end of my crying over John. I was wrong, of course, but at least for that one afternoon, I was finished. The next morning, I woke up relieved that it was all behind me. But after a year of worrying what the next phone call might bring, and six months of spending nearly every day at a hospital, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. I needed to get out of the apartment, so I decided to pick up some flowers that were waiting for me at a florist in Glendale.

On the way, I called for directions. A cheerful woman named Ivy told me how to get to the shop, which turned out to be farther away than I expected, at the foothills on the far edge of town. I parked on the street and walked toward two aging hippies who were chatting out front of an old gas station that had been converted into a quaint neighborhood florist. One wore what looked like an African print pajama set and sported dreadlocks which hung down to her butt. The other one was heavyset and had two grey braids coiled into buns on either side of her head. She wore a layered, loose fitting, cotton dress, had fair, freckled skin, and bore the permanent, glazed grin of a Manson girl. This, I realized, must be Ivy.

Blocking the sun with her hand, Ivy looked in my direction and called me over by name. She led me inside the garage, where I waited while she retrieved my elaborate arrangement from a back room. She brought out a tall glass vase half-filled with water, which held fragrant white and pink flowers accompanied by tall blades of grass and twigs. We made small talk about my sister’s stepson, who had ordered the arrangement for me, while she secured the flowers in a cardboard box stuffed with newspapers for traveling. Picking up the box, she smiled at me, and in the exaggeratedly empathetic whine usually reserved for small children and the mentally retarded, she asked, “So, your Dad died, huh?” I nodded and told her he had. With that, she tilted her head, pursed her lips into a clownish frown and cried, “Bummer!”

With one hand on the steering wheel, the other alternately shifting gears and propping up the precariously positioned vase, I laughed all the way home.


Anonymous said...

It's taken me a while to catch up with your posts, but I wanted you to know that I'm still here, still reading, and still hopeful that we can have an email correspondence, once you're up for it. I want you to know how much we (your readers) appreciate your frequent posts of late - I'm sure they are for you most of all, but for us to share that with you... it's a blessing (even though I'm not religious). This whole "be polite while you're meeting someone" is rather odd to me - I'm the anti-Trudy, I guess. Hopefully, we'll get past this soon. And, again, my sympathies. Signed, Jen -

Anonymous said...

You are a great writer. This is not only an amazing tribute to your father, but it has everything one looks for in a story (drama, sadness, humor, honesty, integrity, outrageousness). I hope it was cathartic to write. It helped me (on many levels)to read it . Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I literally stumbled onto your blog, and let me say I was able to relate on so many levels. I enjoyed every story, I laughed and even cried for people I didn't know. It was a FANTASTIC read and I hope you continue to write.

Ludovica said...

You are an awesome writer!