Monday, July 19, 2010

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES

Renee 1918 to 1994~always a "looker"

My mother always said my father was the only man she ever loved. She said I remembered only the bad times, and it is true that, looking back, all I remember is lying in bed at night shivering with terror, listening to the blows and screams and crashes in the living room.

But as my mother lay dying, in memory she returned to her most alive and vital years, the years with my dad, and she was able to say, as few of us can, "I had it all."

I was glad that, looking back, she could remember her life with happiness, that different memories lived in her than lived in me. There must have been a whole life hidden from my childish eyes that I was largely unaware of. Perhaps the best years were lived before I grew old enough to become aware of what seemed a steady deterioration through all the years after I was five years old, years in which our small nuclear family, and then our larger extended family, steadily disintegrated and scattered to the four winds, flung by separation, by rifts caused by alcohol and differing beliefs, and finally and irrefutably, by death.

Wedding Day, Kelowna, 1947

My grandma always gave my father full credit for his charm. "When he was sober, there was no man on earth more charming," she'd say. I remember times when, face alight, at that critical moment when he had imbibed enough to be happy, just before he fell over the lip of the cup to rage and violence, when he could hold a crowded room in thrall, telling stories with full awareness that he had the gift of storytelling. He had wit and humor and intelligence, and most of all he had musical talent.

But "Brick's parent's rued the day when they bought him his saxaphone," my grandma would reminisce. My father had studied classical violin since childhood. I didnt know till later in life where my love of the violin came from. I never heard classical music at home, discovering it with a passion at twenty-seven.

"From the day he got his saxaphone, he was lost to them," Grandma recalled. The boy turned to the popular "swing" music of the era; he began playing Big Band gigs around Saskatoon. Now I often play that music, the music that filled our house when I was a child: I'll Get By, Stardust, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and that era is returned to me entire: a time equated in my mind with the home movies taken in those years, that roll once more before my eyes: my aunts and uncles, my mom and dad, in their glory years, all beautiful, all romantic figures from a bygone time, like the cinematic stars of that generation: my mom with her long rolled pageboy and tight skirt, soldiers in uniform, impossibly handsome, war brides with tight curls and distant gazes, glasses of liquor ever-present in their hands, cigarettes dangling at angles on their crossed knees, smiling out at the world through the smokey haze, feeling terribly sophisticated, the world their oyster.

Taken by a sidewalk photographer in Vancouver

Such nostalgia hits when I see these films, or photographs from that time now gone. Not, certainly, for the life I lived then, for it was scarey and lonely and sad, lived on the fringes of the adults' preoccupation with their own existence. But for the innocence of the era: the romance that Hollywood held out as being available to us all, through the love songs and movies and stars of the time. My aunts and uncles seemed utterly glamorous to me, like movie stars themselves. Looking back from the vantage point of forty or fifty years, knowing how their love stories turned out (or didnt), how the years, illnesses, deaths and the hand of fate would implode and disperse our family, I feel a great tenderness for us all, smiling hopefully into the wobbly camera, at a time when we still believed we all had happy endings up ahead, just waiting for us to get there.

She so adored him

My mother loved to tell the story of how she and my dad met. She had just dyed her long hair platinum. "I was a knock-out," she remembered happily. "I had long blonde hair hanging down my back and I looked good! I was sixteen trying hard to look older and your dad took one look, jumped over the piano and bee-lined straight across the room to come and meet me."

That was it for both of them. My dad at the time was twenty-seven, unhappily married and the father of three children, plus he drank and played in a band. My grandparents, in small town Saskatoon, in those times, were scandalized, as well as afraid for their daughter.

"I didnt know what she saw in him," Grandma would reflect. "He was balding, overweight, a drinker, married with three kids. But the more we objected, the tighter she clung to him. We couldnt do a thing with her."

But they tried. By then, Dad's wife had found out about my mom and had kicked him out; he rented a room near the club where he performed. Grandma told me late one night she and my grandpa let themselves into his rented room. In the darkness, hardly breathing, nerve-wracked, they waited for him to come home. My grandpa held a flashlight and, thin and gray and quiet by nature, a gentleman who had never raised a hand to man nor beast in his whole life, was goaded by my grandma to "settle this once and for all."
When dad opened the door, from behind it in the darkened room, out leaped my grandma and grandpa, tackling him in a wild melee of curses, yells, arms, legs and at least one resounding thunk of the flashlight on my dad's bald head.
When the three extricated themselves and stood facing each other, panting, my grandparents told my dad to leave their daughter alone.
"I think he would have, too, but your mother wouldnt let him. He tried to break it off, but she kept after him. We sent her to stay with Cecile (mom's married sister) in Regina for a while, but he went there to visit her and she came back with him," Grandma told me.
"I remember one night she came home late and crawled into bed beside me, and she was shaking. I think he already must have been beating her. She was still only sixteen and so beautiful. I remember we sent her photo to Norman Rockwell, and he wrote back and said that if she went to New York she could make it as a model. But she wouldnt leave him. How different her life might have been," Grandma reflected.
But my mom would not have wanted her life any other way. She loved my dad.
*** *** *** *** ***
My mom carried guilt all her life for the way she left home.
Still just sixteen, "All I knew was I loved Brick and had to be with him. They gave me an ultimatum, either Brick or them, so I had no choice. But it killed me to walk out the door, leaving both of them crying in the doorway," my mom would say. "It was the hardest thing I ever did."
It was ten years before she and her parents were in touch again. My dad's ex-wife wouldnt agree to a divorce, and I was born before they were married. In those days that was scandalous, and my mom did not know how to renew relations, though she adored her parents and missed them dreadfully.
By now we lived in the Okanagan Mission, on the outskirts of small-town Kelowna. Mom's younger brother, Don, came for a visit, and then Mom's sister, Audrey, paved the way for reconciliation, telling my grandma about me. My grandparents soon came out for a visit, and loved the orchard community. They moved out soon after to the house on Christleton Avenue that for many years was the hub of our extended family, and the nucleus for our family gatherings.
It was on that porch that the home movies were made, in that house my childhood security resided, and in that house that I watched the beginning fissure that alcohol wedged between my aunts and uncles and my grandma who "hated the drink".
But their lives through those years had a glamour the grandchildrens' lives lacked, like the Hollywood films of their era, a combined sophistication, innocence and hopefulness, lived on a level far distant from our childish lives and concerns.
Our subsequent liaisons seem tawdry in comparison, lacking both romance and imagination, rather the same difference I find in the songs of today compared to the music of my mother's age. Or was it the knowledge that life could aspire to being better that we lacked, given our early introduction to the bewildering world of grownups?
Whatever it is, when we run the home movies, or play the music from those years, it is the whole era's disappearance that we mourn, along with all the smiling faces that now are gone. There was a scent to the lake-fresh morning air, a certain comfort in the sound of the hose hitting canvas awnings, the smell of pinks and carnations and sweet peas, a quality to the summer afternoons just before a thunderstorm that cannot be replicated, only remembered, like a country once visited that can never be returned to, except in reverie.
I am the age my grandmother was in those long ago days, when she seemed as old as God. Her life was circumscribed by housedresses, tea parties, Church on Sunday and her flower garden. Those years seemed to go on forever, while my years are flying past more swiftly than I can comprehend.
My children are now the ages of those long-ago glamorous aunts and uncles who seemed so elusively out of reach and adult then, and they seem so young to me now, too young to be raising children of their own. I see young moms out pushing prams who dont look old enough to babysit, and then I know that I am growing old.
Looking back, with age and memory, at those old home movies, I start to put it all together: the love story that was my mother's; the distant dreams that shone in those hopeful faces made more poignant by my knoledge of how their stories unfolded. With a clutch at my heart, I surreptitiously wipe my tears away as the film sputters, winds down and the screen goes white: all gone, those bright faces from long ago, the 40's, the swing music, the love, the pain that I overheard from my bedroom doorway in the wee small hours of the morning.
I remember the last time my mother watched, and how hard she cried, those years forever gone, with nothing nearly good enough to take their place. Now she's gone too, one more face missing from the film of all those gilt-edged years, she and my dad resting side by side under a picture of them in their glory days, with the words "Together Forever" on the headstone.
I find myself more and more often listening to the tunes she danced to when she was young, the music of her long ago youth so much more affecting than mine, and I think of her as I sing along:
"I just smile and say,
when a lovely flame dies,
smoke gets in your eyes....."
Mom and me, Okanagan Lake, 1946

4 comments:

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing this. Also, your writing is amazing and the picture of you and your mom is so beautiful, I've never seen it before. xx

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  2. Oh my... you are writing my story... so funny that you visited me and .. me with a quite similar background... my father was an alcoholic and terrorized us all with his antics ... many a night spent huddled in bed listening to the living room or kitchen being upended... and holding one's breath pretending to be asleep as we heard his car come up the drive... You know It is difficult to write of such things and I commend you for doing so... Isn't it funny how we look back on that era with such fond memories of glamour and nostalgia irrespective of how it all turned out... My mum died quite young so she finally escaped his drunken episodes.... Funny too .. writing this now I'm trying to remember if he had outbursts after she died and although i know he did, i remember those most from when mum was alive..

    Now here is a bit more coincidence.. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes was one of his favourite songs.... the era I guess,,,

    sorry it took me so long to visit you in return.. my move has been exhausting and now my internet connection is quite useless in the new place... hopefully all will get back to normal soon.. thanks again for visiting me.. xxx Julie

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  4. Thanks so much, Julie.....I so appreciate your sharing. I enjoy visiting your site - thanks for stopping by mine.

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I so appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Thank you so much. I will be over to see you soon!