Another Birthday

My Grandmother (right) in her youth, with her older sister Alma

My Grandmother (right) in her Youth, with Her Older Sister Alma

Amid all the (well deserved) hoopla over Shakespeare’s forthcoming 450th birthday I’d like to celebrate another birth anniversary. Today my maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, would have turned 125.

According to her gravestone in Clyde, New York, she isn’t actually dead. She purchased it at the time of my grandfather’s death in 1966 and had the stone carver inscribe the dates “1889-19__” on it. Somehow or other our family never got around to having those last two numbers filled in after her death in 1988. So she seems to live on, although she is forever trapped in the 20th century.

I have written a lot about my grandmother over the years, mostly focusing on her Horatio-Alger like childhood. She was adopted by a miserly farmer and suffered in his home for years, only to be rescued by a kind, childless couple who gave her love and an education.

She met my grandfather, Hal, in a scene out of a silent film. Spotting her on the steps of the chapel at Middlebury College, he exclaimed to a friend, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

She was frugal, dignified, beautiful, and loyal to friends and relatives. She was generally subservient to my grandfather. On one notable occasion, however, she stood up to him. One evening Hal was trying to teach his eldest child, my mother, the multiplication tables. My grandfather had many wonderful qualities, but he was often a bully. He yelled when little Janice got one of her answers wrong, and the child panicked and started guessing randomly. Her father shot up out of his chair and advanced on her, apparently thinking that a good spanking would teach her arithmetic once and for all.

Meek Clara swooped across the room, picked up her daughter, and glared at her husband. “Don’t you touch a hair on that child’s head!” she announced fiercely. Neither my grandfather nor my mother ever forgot that moment.

With Baby Janice in 1919

With Baby Janice in 1919

Despite his bouts of temper Clara was devoted to Hal. One of my favorite stories about her demonstrates her loyalty to him—and the romantic streak she sometimes tried to hide. She related it to me one evening when I was in my early 20s and was staying at her home for a few days. She was probably under the influence of the single old-fashioned cocktail she allowed herself at dinnertime.

Early in her marriage, she told me, my grandfather brought a business associate home to dinner. When she shook hands with this mysterious stranger, she felt a palpable electric shock of attraction. She spent most of dinner trying to avoid his gaze. At the end of the evening, as the associate took the train home, she informed my grandfather that she hadn’t liked the man and never wanted him invited to her home again. She valued her marriage far too much to chance another meeting, she told me.

For years she wondered what might have been. And then, at a party about 20 years later, she met her mystery man once more … only to find him old and boring.

She admitted to me that it was possible that he had been boring all along. Maybe the carpet was responsible for the electric shock. In any case, she had enjoyed her little romantic dream but was pragmatic enough to appreciate its demise as well.

Another romantic dream ALMOST came back to her late in life when, after my grandfather’s death, she received a letter from her childhood beau in Rutland, Vermont. In their teenage years she had called him King Arthur. He had called her his Guinevere. Late at night she had daringly lowered homemade fudge down to him from her bedroom window using her corset strings.

Arthur wrote in 1968 or so to tell my grandmother that his wife had died and that he would like to rekindle their relationship, then dormant for about 60 years. She appreciated the note but wasn’t ready to shackle herself to a man again.

After my grandfather’s death she had discovered a new sense of freedom and self-reliance, redecorating the house and trading in my grandfather’s big white Cadillac (he had purchased a new Cadillac religiously every two years) for a big white Oldsmobile. Personally, I found the two cars almost identical, but to her that Oldsmobile symbolized her new position in the driver’s seat of her life.

So she wrote to King Arthur and said that although she would always treasure his memory, she preferred that he remain just that, a memory. And she got on with her life.

Thinking of her combined romanticism and pragmatism always makes me smile, particularly on her birthday.

My Grandparents in the 1960s

My Grandparents in the 1960s

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The Circle Becomes Smaller

No Longer Part of the Earthly Circle: Buddy, My Mother Jan, and Bobbie Hamming It Up Circa 1980

“The circle becomes smaller,” said Esty, a French nonagenarian who lives in New York. She and I were on the phone discussing the death of our friend Bobbie Carlin last week.

Bobbie’s death has been a shock to most of us who knew her. At 81 she wasn’t young. Nevertheless, she had such a tenacious hold on life that it is hard to believe she is gone.

I knew Bobbie for much of my life. Her daughter Susan and I became friends as teenagers. Soon my parents teamed up with Bobbie and her funny, darling husband Buddy for escapades and anniversary parties.

In February I wrote about visiting Bobbie in New York City. She was like a second mother to me … in good ways and bad.

I’ll never forget my frustration one day about ten years ago when she and my mother were chatting in our living room in Massachusetts. I peeked in to say goodbye since I was leaving for a friend’s wedding.

They shot identical looks at my sundress and uttered in unison three words every daughter dreads: “You’re wearing THAT?”

It took me some time to convince them that since the wedding was an informal garden party my attire was entirely appropriate. (The fact that I was wearing a hat apparently helped.) I was almost late for the wedding and wondered as I sped along the road whether I really needed one mother, let alone two. I was, after all, an adult.

Today, of course, I’d be happy to have either of them around to criticize my wardrobe. I’d still stand up for my goddess-given right to dress as I saw fit. But I’d try to be a little more patient with their perceived mandate to express their opinions.

In many ways my circle and my world will indeed be smaller and less rich without Bobbie. She was maddeningly opinionated, but she could laugh at just about anything. She was familiar with every inch of her beloved city. And she knew every Broadway song ever written.

She prided herself on being ageless. The only time she ever allowed a white hair on her head was when she and her hairdresser decided on a look they called “tortoiseshell,” a combination of red, black, and white tufts. It sounds weird, but it was hugely flattering—especially when the tortoise slipped on a pair of huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses.

Bobbie knew how to dress better than anyone else I have ever known and was always perfectly turned out.

When I complained once at being caught by a camera in informal clothes and no makeup, she told me, “A person should never leave the house unless she is prepared to be network television.”

I laughed because I NEVER look prepared to be network television. She was deadly serious, however.

Bobbie pretended she wasn’t sentimental. When the smart, graceful, and remarkably un-neurotic Susan became pregnant for the first time, someone asked the grandmother-to-be what she wanted to be called by the newest generation. Grandma? Nana? Grand-mère?

“They may call me Mrs. Carlin,” she replied loftily.

In the end Ian, Gillian, and Danielle called her “Barbar,” a shortened version of her formal name, Barbara. And she loved them—as she loved New York, cheap theater tickets, stylish boots, her dancer daughter, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, and makeup samples from Saks Fifth Avenue—extravagantly.

When I think about it, the truth is not that my circle and the world are smaller because Bobbie died but that they are larger because she lived.

I will never be able to emulate her sartorial style, which relied in large part on very slender legs. I hope, however, that I can match her passion for life.

For now, I’ll settle for singing a chorus of “My Funny Valentine” around the house in her honor. She loved that song. And she was indeed the funniest of valentines.

Bobbie in February

To hear me sing “My Funny Valentine” (pardon my recording technology–not to mention my piano playing!), click on the “Play” button below.

Mother’s Day

My mother loved celebrations.

Mother’s Day is perfectly gorgeous here in western Massachusetts: perfect May weather. Our early lilacs are brightening up the landscape, and a few apple blossoms and daffodils remain.

In church this morning our minister, Cara, suggested everyone quietly name a mother who deserved remembering on this special day. I mentioned my mother, Jan (a.k.a. Taffy) and then heard my neighbor Alice softly say the name of her own mother.

Alice’s mother Mary Parker (whom we all called Gam) was a grandmother figure to all of us children in the neighborhood, one of the strong inspiring women of my youth. She was admirable, funny, and fierce.

Hearing that name made me think of so many other mother figures I celebrate today, including Gam.

I recalled my own grandmothers, Clara and Sarah, as well as my beloved aunts, Lura, Selma, and Connie.

I recalled my godmothers, Kay (who was named poet laureate of the state of Delaware) and Dody (who SHOULD have been named poet laureate of French film and key-lime pie). Both went to college with my mother.

I recalled my mother’s other close college chums—smart, fun women who taught me a lot about female friendship: Sylvia, Riley, Giff, and Bobby.

I recalled my mother’s other smart close friends: her partner in business, Claire; her partner in singing, Bobbie; and her partners in bridge and neighborhood gossip, Randy and Annie.

I also recalled some of the female teachers who have made a difference to me: Helen, who taught Sunday school and encouraged my personality (not that it needed a huge amount of encouragement); Bebe and Ma’am, my second- and fourth-grade teachers in two very different corners of the world; Penny, who taught me to play chords on the piano and to love music always; and Desley, Shelley, and Janet, who helped me survive graduate school.

It made me sad to realize that of all of these women only a few survive. Most of the teachers are still around, and my Aunt Lura is still with us. My mother, our other relatives, and most of my mother’s friends (except for the redoubtable Claire and Bobbie) are gone.

Nevertheless, my overall feeling was and is one of celebration that I am lucky enough to have been cradled by so many remarkable women over the course of my life.

I hope to continue to find mother figures as I age. (Someday I will have to turn 40.) And I hope to serve as a surrogate mother to others in their life journeys.

I realize that most of my readers are busy celebrating Mother’s Day today—but if you’re reading this at any time please take a moment to leave a comment below naming a mother figure who has helped shape you.

Writing her name and recalling her influence on you will make you feel mothered all over again. I promise!

Happy Mother’s Day … today and every day.

Esther, our church choir director, send these lovely roses home with me today in memory of my mother.