Me, My Mom and the Movies
Back in the days when there were still video rental stores, I took a copy of Truly, Madly, Deeply over to my mother’s house, to watch before our usual Sunday dinner. I’d seen it over and over and knew she’d love it. There’s one scene that cracks my heart wide open—when Nina is in her therapist’s office, insane with grief. Unmoored from any hope of help, she’s just drowning, dissolving in great, heaving sobs.
That’s how it felt when I lost Mom. She died on June 21, the day the nights start closing in earlier.
I skipped the classic phases of grief—denial, anger, I don’t remember what else there’s supposed to be—and plunged straight into wailing, choking animal pain. At times I’ve blocked out that she’s gone, sometimes for seconds, sometimes longer. Around Thanksgiving, I spent a good ten minutes on a website picking out her Christmas gifts, snapping back only when I saw her holy card on the coffee table. For months I could barely breathe, as if my heart were trying to escape through my throat. But I feel like I’m coming up for air now, at least to talk about her.
It would be crazy to try to sum up my mother’s extraordinary life in a single post. After earning a Master’s degree in Mathematics, she taught both Math and English (how many of us are even remotely that left- and right-brain strong?). She started law school at 40 and became a prosecutor in the Brooklyn D.A’s office, facing down the mobsters who sat 10 feet away from her 115-pound frame on the other side of the courtroom. She served in the State Assembly, helping to found New York’s first safe house for domestic abuse victims, and fighting for group homes to rescue the mentally disabled from being warehoused. (“How would you like those retarded people on your block?” a woman once accosted her while we were in the supermarket. “There’s one right across the street from us, and my daughter volunteers there,” she replied. “They’re great neighbors.”)
“I could go on and on” is a cliché, but yeah, I could. So for now I’ll just talk a little about me and Mom and the movies.
My mother and father bonded over movies—in one of their many long talks, while working at the Bay Ridge Savings Bank, they nodded in furious agreement that The Biscuit Eater was the saddest film either of them had ever seen. Their first date, when they were both 18, was Romance on the High Seas. Mom had a slight astigmatism and cocked her head a little when she looked at the screen, leading my father to think she was secretly gazing at him the whole time. She might as well have been: upon returning home, she told my grandmother “I’m going to marry that boy.”
A year earlier, at Brooklyn’s Stanley Theater, she and my grandfather had stopped in for a showing of The Black Swan only to emerge knee deep in snow, in the midst of a blizzard that dumped 26 inches on the city.
Mom and her sister Ruth were both movie-crazy. After gliding home, they’d share their latest crush with my grandmother at the kitchen table. They fell hard for Gregory Peck in Spellbound, but when Nana saw him, her only desire was to “slap him on the back and tell him to stand up straight. Just because you’re tall, that’s no excuse for bad posture.” Decades later, Mom, then a state legislator, found herself just a few spaces down the pew from her slouching heartthrob at an Ordination Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She admitted that as he returned from Holy Communion, she made little effort to brook him a wide berth. (Did I mention this was in a cathedral?)
About the only movies Mom found frustrating were horror films. This was a woman who read math books for fun—she misted up as she tore open the Christmas wrapping paper to reveal a book on Fermat’s theorem—so lapses in logic drove her crazy. (“Didn’t they just say salt could kill him? So why are they still debating in the laboratory?”) But anything else—including giant plot holes that led to romance—she loved. And she remembered everything about everyone. One December as we watched The Bishop’s Wife at our house upstate, she leaned in and pointed at the screen. “You see the woman with the baby carriage? That’s Isabel Jewell,” she sighed. “She used to be a big star, but by this time… not long after this she took an overdose of sleeping pills.” And there we sat, huddled together on the sofa in the grey, fading winter dusk, with only the lights of the Christmas tree to console us about Isabel Jewell.
Sometimes I’d take her to the Film Forum when a classic star was introducing a movie. When Eddie Bracken came by for Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, I brought along my copy of Preston Sturges’ memoir and bolted from my seat for the lobby to find him before the movie began. When I came back, I breathlessly rattled off all the things he’d told me about the director and showed her the inscription he wrote: “He was and is my best friend.” Then I started crying. Mom turned to my husband Tim and said, half-apologizing and half-defending me, “She’s always been this way. I guess she didn’t fall far.”
Mom stayed home the night Fay Wray introduced The Wedding March, but I called her as soon as I got home. “She cried when we gave her a standing ovation, she was so overwhelmed,” I burbled, sobbing on the phone as I had at the theater. “And she’s so tiny, I think the applause almost knocked her off her feet.” On and on I blubbered until she finally asked to speak to Tim to make sure I was okay.
In 2019, when we visited her for Christmas, she held my arm as we left and asked if we’d like to come over for New Year’s Eve, a holiday she and I had always been “meh” about. I said sure and we brought over champagne and pie and ordered Italian food. I was prepared for an early evening, but we watched all three installments of That’s Entertainment. Her memory and hearing were failing—she hated her hearing aids—and there was a lot of her asking “Who is that again?” and me hollering back “That’s Gene Kelly!” or whoever, and sometimes we’d get into who was married to whom. But she was wide awake at midnight, and we toasted the new year sometime between dance numbers. It was the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had, or ever expect to.
- Posted in: classic film ♦ classic film stars ♦ Gone Too Soon ♦ My Crazy Movie-Loving Family
- Tagged: doris day, eddie bracken, fay wray, gene kelly, gregory peck, isabell jewell, miracle at morgan's creek, mom, mothers, romance on the high seas, spellbound, that's entertainment, the biscuit eater, the bishop's wife, the black swan, the wedding march, truly madly deeply