Tag Archive | memories

I put a spell on you! Or, more of why I love spooky sf/f

Hocus Pocus!

I don’t remember when I first saw Hocus Pocus. While preparing this post, I was surprised to learn the movie came out in the summer of 1993. I was quite certain I had seen it long before that. Given when it came out, it is a toss-up whether it was a movie that my late husband (Ray) and I saw it in a theatre, or whether we didn’t see it until later when it was on cable or out of video. I know that since sometime in the mid-nineties that it has been broadcast during every October on ABC- and Disney-owned channels. It always gets high ratings, and the DVD/Blue ray sales have been a reliable strong seller every year. Which might make one wonder why I need to write about it at all, because it seems to be one of the most popular spooky movies, ever.

I love the movie. Spoiler warning: I can’t talk about why I think this movie is worthwhile without giving away a key part of the ending, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go stream the movie now!

In case you aren’t familiar: the movie begins on October 31, 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, where the notorious (and elderly) Sanderson sisters, widely believed to be witches, have lured a young girl into their cottage. They brew a magic potion which they force the child to drink, and proceed to leech her life away, making themselves young again.

The girl’s older brother, Thackery Binx, tries to interrupt the ritual and save his sister, but he fails. He is transformed into a black cat by the sisters and cursed to live forever with his guilt.

The townspeople of Salem storm the cottage and find the dead body of the girl. The witches refuse to say what has happened to her brother. The witch sisters are sentenced to be hanged, but before they are executed, the eldest with, Winifred, casts a spell which she claims will allow them to rise from the grave again—one an All Hallow’s Eve with a full moon, if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle.

Jump forward 300 years, and Max (who will be our protagonist) is a teen-ager unhappy that his parents have moved the family to Salem. Max has an encounter with a pair of local bullies, which doesn’t make him like the new home any better. He is also not fond of the town’s local folklore about the Sanderson sisters and witches in general. He is really unhappy when his parents saddle him with the job of taking his younger sister, Dani, trick-or-treating. But early in the evening they meet a classmate Max has a crush on, Allison.

Because Allison thinks that Max’s skepticism is a bit too cynical, and because Max is anxious to impress Allison, they wind up in the old Sanderson Cottage (which has been preserved as a museum). When Max announces he is going to light the so-called Black Flame Candle and prove that witches are myths, a black cat attempts to stop him. Max manages to light the candle, anyway and the witches rise from the dead.

What follows is horror-comedy romp with some elements of musical theatre thrown in. The black cat is the cursed Thackery (who answers to Binx for the rest of the movie), who has lurked around the cottage for 300 years trying to prevent anyone lighting that candle. He can speak to the three kids, though know one else apparently can understand him. The kids flee, unsuccessfully try to warn the adults that the witches are back. The witches, meanwhile, have perform their life-stealing ritual on some children before sunrise or they go back to being dead, so there is a bit of a race.

At several points the witches capture one or more of the kids. At at least two points the kids appear to defeat the witches. Along the one a long dead lover of two of the sisters is raised as a kind of zombie/revenant who assists the witches in chasing the kids.

Eventually there is a dramatic stand-off in a cemetery, and with a bit of cleverness, bravery, and self-sacrifice, evil is thwarted.

The three witches are played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Midler steals the show, because all of the show’s comedy and menace are built around her character. The director, Kenny Ortega, said in later interviews that he told the three of them to play it as over the top and campy as if they were drag queens, and it certainly worked.

I’ve seen reviews that Max doesn’t really have a character arc, and I don’t understand how people can be that blind. In the early part of the film, the bullies are absolutely correct that Max looks down his nose at what he sees as the provinciality of the Salem natives. And when Allison scoffs at his scoffing, it’s clear that she sees his skepticism as performative. He doesn’t believe because it isn’t cool to be credulous. Just as he pretends not to care about his younger sister because, again, it would be uncool to feel warmth or affection for his kid sister. By the end of the film, that pretense is gone, and he doesn’t just take a risk to save his little sister, but he gulps down the potion and forces the witches to kill him in her stead.

It’s not bravado or a clever trick. He doesn’t reveal afterward that he only pretended to swallow it. He swallows it, the witches perform the next part of the ritual. We see his life force literally being taken from him.

Once the witches are defeated, we also get a nice pair of parallel scenes, one in which Max and Dani share a moment, and then because Binx fulfilled his mission, we see a similar scene between his ghost and the spirt of his little sister, who has been waiting for him to join her in the afterlife for 300 years.

Unlike the last campy & spooky two movies I’ve written about, this one came out after I was well and truly out of the closet. So I felt freer to revel in the camp vibe and all it implied. A few times when I’ve found myself in conversation with other queer fans of the show discussing it, I’ve found out that a lot of them like to ask the question: so which Sanderson sister are you? For the record, Ray was definitely and enthusiastically a Sarah. I had to admit that I want to be Winifred, but I’m really a Mary.

The film is funny. It has many nice spooky moments. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. Maybe it will cast a spell on you, too.

You’re So Cool, Brewster! — more of why I love spooky sf/f

Movie poster for 1985's Fright NightåWhen the original Fright Night came out in August of 1985, I was in my mid-twenties and preparing to move to Seattle to finish my college degree. It was a time when I had virtually no disposable income, so I very seldom saw movies in the theatre. Combine that with the fact that horror movies often give me nightmares (and I’m a sleepwalker, so I would get up in a panic during the dream and find whoever I can in the house, shake them awake and frantically try to convince them there is a killer in the house), I did not see Fright Night that summer. One of my friends did go see it, and his description just convinced me even more that I shouldn’t see it.

Over a year later, I and some friends in Seattle were going to have a movie night. Which at that time involved us pooling some money to go to a video store and rent a both a video player and one or more movies, which we would take back (usually to Club Chaos, which was an apartment share by two of those friends that had an enormous living room) and watch while eating a bunch of junk food. It was often the case that only a subset of the gang would go get the movie, so you were never quite certain what we might be watching.

One of those nights Fright Night was in the mix. At least one of my friends who had seen it before assured me that it was more of a comedy like Ghostbusters than a scary slasher film like Nightmare on Elm Street, so I figured it would be fun.

In the opening minutes, it does indeed seem to be more of a cheesy romp than a serious horror picture… but that’s because the movie begins with a movie within the movie. A cheesy vampire film which are main character is watching on television. The protagonist of the film is Charley Brewster, a teen-ager who loves horror movies, and faithfully watching a weekly show hosted by an actor named Peter Vincent who used to star in a series of vampire hunter movies himself.

Charley lives with his mom in what seems to be a typical 80s movie suburb. And someone has recently moved into the empty house next door. Charley hears strange noises and even a scream coming from the old house, and becomes convinced that the new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire who is luring women to his home before feasting on their blood.

Charley’s best friend is “Evil Ed” who loves those horror movies even more than Charley does. But he doesn’t believe the neighbor is a vampire. Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, breaks up with him because of his obsession with the neighbor. And, of course, Charley’s mom and the police also all fail to believe him.

So Charley tracks down the actor, Peter Vincent (who hosts the aforementioned weekly horror show at one of the local stations, so lives in the same city), and tries to get him to help prove that the neighbor is a vampire. The actor doesn’t believe him either, and points out that he’s just an actor—the vampire hunter he played was fictitious.

Amy, meanwhile, has become concerned about Charley’s mental health, and she hires Vincent to pretend to test the neighbor and then prove to Charley that the neighbor isn’t a vampire. And so the actor (who thinks this is some easy money) puts on his costume and grabs his character’s equipment bag and visits the neighbor. In the course of the discussion, just as he’s leaving, Vincent pulls out his pocket mirror while getting something else out of the pocket, and realizes that Dandridge, standing behind him, has no reflection.

Movie still: (l to r) "Evil Ed", Charley, and Amy, as portrayed by Stephen Geoffreys, William Ragsdale, and Amanda Bearse.

(l to r) “Evil Ed”, Charley, and Amy, as portrayed by Stephen Geoffreys, William Ragsdale, and Amanda Bearse.

While there had been a lot of humor in the movie at this point, and not much in the way of gore, the tone was paranoid rather than a laughfest. And that tension ramps up from this point, as the vampire starts stalking Charley, Charley’s mom, and Amy threatening to do terrible things if Charley keeps telling people about him.

This is also where we start getting more of the transformations and start seeing more of the death scenes explicitly.

Dandridge kills and turns Evil Ed and sends Ed to kill Peter Vincent and then Charley. The scene where Dandridge stalks and corners Evil Ed in what has to be the most labyrinthine alleys to ever appear in a movie, is remarkably chilling, even though we never see a hint of blood.

Ed doesn’t succeed in killing Vincent, who burns him with a cross and forces him to flee by leaping out of the apartment’s window. Ed beats Vincent to Charley’s house (Vincent is on his way to warn Charley), and they have a fight during which Evil Ed transforms into a wolf, but he still winds up impaled through the chest with a broken table leg.

Dandridge has, meanwhile, lured Amy to his house and has started the process of turning her into a vampire, trapping Charley in a room with her slumbering body so that she can feed on Charley when she rises. Vincent manages to help Charley escape, and then the two of them have a protracted fight with Dandridge, before eventually killing him and, since Dandridge died before Amy ever drank the blood of another, she reverts to human and all is well (or as well as it can be, given that a number of people have died on screen by this point).

The special effects are all practical effects, this is before the era of CGI, and some of them haven’t aged quite as well as others. Some of the creature effects looked cheesy even in 1986. I don’t think the effects are the reason this movie never gave me serious nightmares.

No, I think that’s because I spent a lot of the movie trying to decide if all the gay subtext was going to come out in the open. And also not feeling free to comment on any of said subtext because, while it is true that two of the people in that friend group were part of a very tiny number of friends who I had come out to only a few months before (though come out is a strong word, since it began with, “I think I’m gay” and quickly morphed into, “Or I’m bi—yeah, that’s it. Not completely gay after all!” which was so not true).

It was clear to me that Charley wasn’t into Amy or even the idea of making out with her as Amy was interested in him. There’s even a moment before Amy breaks up with him where she is angrily trying to get him to stop looking through the binoculars at the neighbor and come have sex with her, for goodness sake.

It was also clear that Evil Ed had the hots for Charley. I’m sorry, totally straight teen-age boys don’t joke about giving their male best friend hickeys and so forth as often as Evil Ed did.

The scene where Dandridge corners Ed in the alley and talks him into giving in without a fight is very much written and acted as a seduction. They never make it completely clear what the difference is, but just being killed by a vampire isn’t enough to make the corpse rise later as undead. The vampire has to choose to do it, and given how he talks Ed into surrendering, it seemed to imply that the other person’s consent was part of the situation. Though the later seduction of Amy seems to involve some sort of vampiric mesmerism, so maybe consent isn’t exactly the right word.

The movie ended with Charley and Amy back together, in Charley’s bedroom, where he looks out the window at the once again deserted house next door. He turns to Amy just as we see a pair of glowing red eyes appear in one of the windows of the house. And as the movie fades to black, the last line of dialogue is spoken in Evil Ed’s voice: “You’re so cool, Brewster!”

Vampires often are metaphors for sex, so it isn’t surprising that scenes where a male vampire is stalking a male victim will be homoerotic. But some of the earlier stuff between Evil Ed and Charley are a bit different.

Most of Fright Night isn’t played for laughs. My friend’s assurance that it wouldn’t be nightmare inducing wasn’t completely wrong… though I personally think that on a scale of Ghostbusters to Nightmare on Elm Street that Fright Night lands smack dab in the middle. It is one of the spooky movies that fairly regularly figures in my Halloween movie marathons, and I have to admit in no small part because I keep thinking how much better things would have gone if Ed had simply declared his love for Charley early on.

Just as I’m sure that the sequel wouldn’t have been the awful mess it was if Evil Ed had been the villain, as been planned. Alas, Stephen Geoffreys, who played Evil Ed, turned down the chance to be in the second movie in order to play the lead in another horror movie that flopped even worse than Fright Night part 2 did. Geoffreys appeared in a couple more movies that didn’t do well, then he spent the next dozen years or so appearing in gay porn films under a couple stage names. Since 2007 he’s been getting work in various horror and action films.

Anyway, with its 80s hair styles, sometimes cheesy effects, and the unresolved gay sub-text, Fright Night makes for a good popcorn movie, and not just at Halloween.

If I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you — more of why I love spooky sf/f

Cover of the DVD release of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, showing Elvira tied to a stake, while city councilwoman Chastiity Pariah strikes a match.

“The charge, my fellow council members, is witchcraft.” (Click to embiggen>

I’ve written more than once about the fact that actual scary movies give me nightmares. And I’m the kind of sleepwalker who, when having a nightmare, I will go around the house waking up everyone I can find and tell them very emphatically that we are in danger and need to come up with a plan to defeat the killer/monster/demon/alien that is trying to break into the house. So generally speaking (with some big exceptions) I avoid a lot of horror movies. On the other hand, I love Halloween, and I love spooky movies, particularly funny spooky movies. So this next confession will not surprise some of you: when the cheesy parody horror movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark came out in theatres very breifly in 1988… I actually went to a theatre and paid full price and saw it. My (now ex-)wife, and a couple of our friends accompanied me, and we all paid for the experience. One of those friends is a mostly-straight friend who said upfront that 75% of the reason he was willing to go was because he had lusted after the horror host Elvira (played by amazing Cassandra Peterson) since high school.

A few years later, one of the few disputes that I had with (at the time my soon-to-be-ex-wife) Julie while we were splitting assets was who would get to keep the VHS of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Of all the things to argue over it was one of the dumbest, I admit… I’m just happy that we got through all that and now, 29 years later, we’re good friends and can laugh together about such things.

As it happened, my first husband, Ray, loved the movie, and we owned it on VHS and upgraded to DVD before he died. And my husband Michael thinks the movie is funny and is more than willing to watch it with me about every other Halloween, so, yay!

But, let’s get to the actual movie. Outside of the movie, Elvira is a horror host (played by Peterson) who had a syndicated sci fi/fantasy/horror movie show on various cables for years. The movie proceeds on the conceit that Elvira is a real person, not just a character which Peterson plays, and when the local California station she appears on gets a new owner who sexually harasses her, she gets fired. But she isn’t upset because she’s about to open a show in Las Vegas… except her agent informs her that the show in Vegas will only go forward if she can put up $50,000 of the production cost.

Right after she says she doesn’t have that kind of money, a studio intern knocks on her dressing room door to tell her she has a telegram. According to the telegram, her Great-Aunt Morgana Talbot, has died and that Elvira is a named as a beneficiary in the will (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one.”). So Elvira drives across country to the quaint town of Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of the will.

“Listen sister, if I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you.” Elvira's fist confrontation with Chastity Pariah

“Listen sister, if I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you.” Elvira’s fist confrontation with Chastity Pariah (Click to embiggen)

What follows is a parody of several old horror movies (and a few Lovecraft stories), but even more a parody of all those movies about small minded small town people being against outsiders, et cetera. While there is one scene that is a direct take-off on Flashdance, the majority of the movie is a retelling of Footloose with Elvira in the Kevin Bacon role.

And the movie is funny. I mean, Edie McClurg should have gotten an award for her hilarious turn as Chastity Pariah, hypocritical council member.

Elvira’s great-aunt doesn’t leave her any money, just her house, her book of “recipes”, and her pet poodle named Algonquin.

The kicker is that Morgana was a powerful witch, the book is actually a very old and potent grimoire, and the poodle is actually a familiar. Elvira spends much of the rest of the movie figuring this out, and slowly learning the Morgana’s brother, Vincent, is the evil warlock who killed Elvira’s mother, Divana, and that possession of the book is going to decide the balance of supernatural powers for the next century.

In between, Elvira tries to iniiate a romance with the very hunky but virginal owner of the local movie theatre, becomes a hero for the town’s teen-agers who wish the town was less backwards, and has various misadventures trying to use the mystical book. I know the movie is set in Massachusetts, but some of the more jokes in the sequence where she mistakes a potion to conjure a demon for a casserole recipe resonated extremely deeply with my southern Missouri/Oklahoma soul, okay?

Part of the meta of the movie is that Elvira, despite being played by a cisgendered woman, is essentially a drag queen. And while what little other queer subtext is very, very sub, that 80s drag queen/queer camp vibe is extremely strong in the movie. All of the villains are either defenders of the old Traditional Family Values notions or the even more ancient Toxic Masculinity tropes, while Elvira and her supporters are champions of Everyone Is Valid, and Being True To Your Self is More Important Than Pleasing Societal Expectations.

Which is very queer. So even though the vast majority of the sex and innuendo in the film is quite hetero, there is simultaneously an extremely strong non-hetero message being promulgated throughout.

At the time when the movie came out, I was still trying to pretend I was bisexual, which I very dysfunctionally saw as being half-heterosexual. I was trying to walk an extremely difficult tightrope. And this movie seemed to walk a similar tightrope… but when I re-watched it, I began seeing that the tightrope was as false as Chastity Pariah’s moral superiority.

Eventually, the camp sensibilities and the sex-positive subtext of this movie was one of the many examples that helped convince me to stop trying to compromise my true self.

And years later, it’s just an extremely funny movie to watch during Halloween season. And what more could you ask for?

The Missing History of Decoration Day

Memorial day is not about the living

Today isn’t the day to say ‘Thank you for your service.’

Once again it’s Memorial Day, and once again I find myself having conflicting feelings. There is, of course, the part of me that gets irritated at how so many people treat every even slightly patriot holiday as another occurrence of Veteran’s Day. And that’s wrong for many reasons. If nothing else, if someone is a military veteran or still serving, this day can be extremely emotional day, because they may be thinking about people they knew who didn’t make it back

If you aren’t sure what to say today, NPR has some suggestions: Don’t Say ‘Thank You For Your Service’ This Monday.

The other set of feelings I get revolve around the revisionist history everyone publishes about the history of Memorial Day. Memorial Day didn’t become an official holiday until the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. You’ll find scores of articles and web pages telling how the Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day (true), which was first celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868 (false). Decoration Day was celebrated in several parts of the country, mostly in the South, long before the Civil War.

Leading up to Decoration Day, volunteers from the community would cut the grass in the cemetery and pull up weeds and generally do maintenance. In modern times, city and county governments take care of cemeteries that are not maintained by a company or a religious organization, so we don’t think about things like the grass and weeds around grave. Then come Sunday was the day to bring flowers to put on the graves, have family reunions, and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. My Grandmother observed that version faithfully her whole life. ‘Decoration Day’: The South Honors Its Dead.

“…on that day, everybody who’s connected to each other and to the people underground convene and have in effect a religious service in the cemetery.”
—Alan Jabbour, the author of the book Decoration Day in the Mountains

As I said, Grandma celebrated the old version her whole life, and she was literally in the process of placing a silk flower arrangement on the grave of Great-aunt Maude (and pulling up some crab grass that was obscuring the marker) when she died. So you may understand while I have strong feelings about the missing history of Decoration Day.

Anyway, for Grandma (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):

Memorial, part 2

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) on the Friday before Memorial Day, 2007 when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for more than 10 years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter


Flowers from Mom and I on Grandpa's grave this year.

Flowers from Mom and I on Grandpa’s grave this year.

And if you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that we also put flowers on my Grandpa’s grave. Grandpa served in WWII in Italy. He didn’t drive a tank, he drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. And this post is also dedicated to his memory.

Divine prophecies and muscular men in very short skirts, or more of why I love sf/f

Jason fights the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth.

I’m not sure how old I was the first time I saw Columbia Pictures’ Jason and the Argonauts. I used to believe that I saw it in a movie theatre on the big screen for the first time as part of one of the series of kid-friendly matinees that I got to attend from the age of about 6 through 10… but after doing some research I discovered that the film wasn’t made available in theatres at that time. Because the film’s box office take from the first theatrical run in 1963 (just a few months before my third birthday) was underwhelming, it wasn’t re-released into the theatres until much later, after spending years as a staple in syndicated television, which is where it became a hit, prompting the studio to re-release it to a much more successful run in 1978.

This post runs a bit longer than usual, because I wrote much of it while re-watching the film for the first time in many years. And I watched it because after reading this review of a Ray Bradbury story that was clearly inspired by Ray Harryhausen (the special effects genius) I just had to. If you don’t need the detailed commentary, you might want to scroll on down to my Conclusion.

Jason and the Argonauts is based on the Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Jason was the son of the king of Thessaly. His parents and at least one of his sisters was killed by the usurper Pelias. Pelias misunderstands the prophecies of his soothsayer, and tries to eliminate all of the heirs of the king of Thessaly. Just before he murders the eldest daughter of the king in the temple of Hera, a shadowy figure who he believes is a priestess (though she is actually the goddess Hera herself) tries to warn him away from this path. When he kills the king’s eldest daughter anyway, Hera tells him that one day a man with only one sandal will usurp him. She also warns him that if he kills Jason, the son of the king himself, that he will also be destroyed. Then she vanishes, along with the the third child, another daughter of the king.

Before I summarize the rest of the plot, there are a whole lot of subplots that were left dangling in this movie implying that there would be a sequel, and I’m just a little bit annoyed that no one has done anything with that.

Anyway, the story that follows is frequently intercut with scenes of Zeus and Hera (and a couple of other Olympian gods) discussing the happenings on Earth. In some of those scenes human history is portrayed as a board game between the gods. It is an interesting conceit that is used in a lot of other mythological-based movies in later years. I think this one happens to play out better than many of the others.

Back to Jason’s story. Twenty years after the bloody coup, King Pelias is riding his horse near a river, is thrown from said horse, and a passing stranger jumps into the water to save him. The stranger loses his shoe in the process of saving the man, and quickly identifies himself as the long lost son of the previous king on his way to take back his throne. Perlias realizes who Jason is before he introduces himself, because he has spent twenty years waiting for the man with only one sandal. Jason, on the other hand, never asks the name of the man he rescues. And never becomes the slightest bit suspicious that the man he rescues has a camp staffed with a lot of guards in royal armor and a rather large number of scantily clad entertainers. Nor does Jason, who is sworn to kill the man who killed his father and has been king of Thessaly for 20 years, recognize the only son of said king when he is introduced to him by name.

Despite all of this obliviousness, we are still rooting for Jason who wants to pursue another prophecy that Pelias ignored: that at the end of the world there is a tree, and hanging from the branches of that tree are the skull and skin of a golden ram with magickal powers that will ensure a long and successful rule to the man who captures it. Jason holds a contest, and several characters from Greek myth win a spot on his crew. Because the shipwright Argos builds his ship, he names it the Argo, and with a figurehead that looks like the goddess Hera, they set out looking for the Golden Fleece.

Hera is only allowed to help Jason five times, and Jason manages to burn through those five helps in less than half the movie. This gets into one of those infuriating questions, because part of the set up of Jason’s life from back when he is a baby is Zeus decrees that Jason will kill Pelias and take back his father’s kingdom. So why the heck does Zeus tell Hera she can only help Jason the five times?

I need to be honest here: those questions didn’t occur to me during the dozens and more times I watched this show on various local TV stations from the mid-60s through the 70s. The incredible battles with the giant bronze statue of Talos, the harpies, the seven-headed hydra, and the skeletal warriors all loomed much larger than any plot inconsistencies. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen owned this movie, and many of his special effects still stand up 56 years later.

One of the men who competes in Jason’s ad hoc Olympics and gets a berth in the crew is Pelias’ son, Acastus. Once again, it’s unclear why, when all the greatest athletes and warriors of Greece come to compete in the games, no one recognizes Acastus as King Pelias’ son and happen to mention that fact? Anyway, Jason now has a large crew of bronze-skinned manly men. About half are dressed in tunics with extremely short skirts, like Jason. The other half in loincloths that look kind of like baggie briefs.

The Argo sets sail, without a clear idea of where they are going, and their provisions run low. Hera directs Jason to the Isle of Bronze and warns them to take only food and water. Hercules and Hylas (who had become friends during the games when Hylas defeated Hercules at a discus challenge using a bit of cleverness) find a valley filled with giant bronze statues, in the base of which are hidden giant pieces of jewelry. Hercules decides to take a giant brooch pin because he thinks it will make a fine javelin, and the statue Talos comes to life and starts chasing them. The giant looms and menaces the entire Argo crew. When they try to flee, he intercepts the boat at the harbor mouth, shaking all of the men out of the boat and braking the ships mast and the figurehead of Hera.

Hera tells Jason to look to Talos’s ankle for his weakness. In the next fight, while the other Argonauts yell and scream and run around distracting the giant, Jason sees a stopcock in the ankle of the giant, runs forward and unscrews it. Even when I was a kid, I never understood why Talos simply stands there, staring down at the Argonauts and sort of swiping at them with his sword. Why didn’t he just start stomping on them like ants? Anyway, magical fluid pours out of Talos’ ankle, the bronze statue goes stiff and falls over, apparently dead. Also, clearly crushing Hylas.

But somehow the rest of the crew never saw that, so we are given to understand that during whatever length of time the subsequent shipbuilding montage takes place, Hercules wanders around yelling out Hylas’ name. Once the ship is repaired, Hercules refuses to leave without Hylas. The rest of the crew refuses to leave without Hercules, so Jason has to call on Hera again. She warns him that this is the last time she can help, but he insists, so she addresses the crew directly, explains that Hylas is dead and that Hercules now has another destiny to pursue, and that they must sail to another island and consult the blind prophet Phineus.

So off they go. We see Phineus (played by Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor) living a sad existence in a ruined temple. People from a nearby village bring him food every day, but harpies attack him each day, eating the food themselves and leaving him only scraps. This is how Jason and his crew find him. They are all, by the way, now dressed in matching white tunics (still with extremely short skirts) and matching armor. I have no idea where they were keeping this change of clothes, because the ship, as depicted, is barely big enough to hold the crew sitting at the oar seats. There aren’t any cabins below decks or anything. No wonder they ran out of supplies!

Anyway, Phineus explains that he misused his gift of prophecy and Zeus cursed him with the harpies. Phineus will only help Jason if he frees him of the harpies. So the crew arrange a trap, then build a cage for the harpies. Now that Phineus can eat in piece (and torment the harpies), he tells Jason that the fleece is on the Island of Colchis, which can only be reached by sailing between the clashing rocks (which destroy any ship that sails through). Phineus’ vision doesn’t tell them how they can survive, but he gives him an amulet that he says is the only other help he can provide.

They sail again, find the clashing rocks. They aren’t sure what to do, then see another boat sailing between the rocks, and then see boulders start falling down and destroy the ship. Jason insists the gods want them to sail through, so the Argonauts start rowing. The boulders start falling all around them. There are a lot of frightened reaction shots. Jason gets angry and throws Phineus’ amulet into the sea.

Up on Olympus, Zeus is smugly watching the ship in danger and says something to Hera about it being too bad that she can’t intervene any more. Hera moves a piece on their game board, a sort of merman figure that looks suspiciously like the amulet Jason just threw into the sea. Triton, son of Poseidon, rises up out of the sea and holds the rocks back. The Argo sails under one of Triton’s armpits, and all is well. I think we’re supposed to assume that Triton’s arrival doesn’t violate the rule that Hera could only intervene five times because Phineus’ amulet was involved. It’s not clear.

Anyway, they find the wreckage of the other boat, and clinging to the wreckage is a woman. And thus we meet the third female character out of the entire film who has lines of dialog! Medea tells Jason she was sailing from Colchis (though not why) and tells him that the King of Colchis is Aeëtes. When they make shore, Medea tells them which way to go to reach the city, then walks off in a different direction, telling them she must go a different way.

After Jason meets Aeëtes, the king invites him and the Argonauts to a feast, and we see Medea again and learn that she is the high priestess of Hecate. Midway through the feast, Aeëtes reveals that he knows Jason has come to steal the fleece, because Acastus has betrayed them. This is when Jason finally learns that Acastus is the son of Pelias. So the Argonauts are locked up and sentenced to die. Medea goes to the idol of Hecate, her goddess, and asks what to do. The statue doesn’t answer.

This is another place that as a kid I was trying to figure out why we don’t see Hecate. Why isn’t she up there with Zeus and Hera and Hermes and the other gods watching all of this?

Medea decides that she can’t betray her heart, so she drugs the guards, steals the keys to the jail cells, and lets Jason and his crew out. I have to pause here to say that as a kid I had no problem believing that Medea had fallen in love with Jason during the voyage. As an adult I have some questions, though. I mean, yes, Jason looks really hot in that mini skirt, but there was an entire crew of men, most of which are all equally hot and just as sexily going about their nautical duties in equally revealing tiny skirts.

Doesn’t matter. While Medea was arranging the jailbreak, Acastus has snuck out of the palace and gone to the sacred tree to steal the fleece himself. I guess he was planning to take the Argo and sail it all by his lonesome back home to dad? We never learn the details of his plan. Medea leads Jason and his crew to the tree, where they are confronted by the 7-headed hydra. And this is when we see that Acastus has already been killed by the hydra. Jason manages to stab the hyrda in the heart. They take the fleece and flee.

Aeëtes and a bunch of soldiers are closing in. One soldier shoots Medea with an arrow. Jason uses the fleece to heal her. And all of the enemy soldiers apparently just stand around waiting to see what the fleece does? It isn’t clear. Jason picks two of his crew to face Aeëtes and send Medea with the others to fetch the boat. I don’t know if Aeëtes never thought to seize the ship, or if we’re expected to assume that the Argonauts have to fight to get it back.

Anyway, Aeëtes had called on Hecate when he found the dead hydra and saw that the fleece was no longer there, and fire had come down from heaven and burned the hyrda. Aeëtes had his soldiers gather the teeth of the hydra. Now that he has confronted Jason, who is accompanied by only two of his crew, does Aeëtes have his larger group of soldiers attack? No, he monologues for a moment, then throws the teeth onto the ground. From the ground seven skeletal soldiers armed with swords and shields rise, and they attack.

This fight scene seems to be everyone’s favorite part of the movie. And it is fun. As far as it goes. Jason’s two companions get killed. So far as we know only one skeleton is taken out when its skull is chopped off. But the way Jason “defeats” the remaining six is to leap off a convenient cliff into the sea. He survives the dive, and the Argo is conveniently nearby. The skeletons jumped off the cliff chasing Jason, and apparently despite being magical skeletons, they don’t float.

Jason has reached the ship. He and Medea kiss, and we cut to Olympus where Zeus tells Hera to let them enjoy this victory while they can. There is a bit of philosophizing, then the end credits roll.

Conclusion

The film follows the myths rather more faithfully than one would expect from Hollywood. The section with Pheneus and the harpies comes straight from the original Greek saga. Traditionally the Golden Fleece was guarded by a dragon whose teeth would transform into skeletal warriors. Talos (who in the original isn’t encountered until after Jason has obtained the fleece and is sailing home) is killed by the removal of a plug in his ankle. The Greek Tragedy trope that the more you try to fight destiny or prophecy, the worse things go for you is illustrated in some of the character arcs. It could be argued that Medea’s inexplicable quick fall for Jason comes from the myths, too, since in the saga, Hera persuades Aphrodite to send Eros to make Medea fall for Jason, and much later when Medea finds Jason plotting to marry another woman, Jason reveals that he knew Medea was acting under the spell from Eros the whole time.

Even without knowing the myth, viewers saw many, many hints for a sequel in the script. I mean, it ends with Zeus literally saying that the rest of the adventure is yet to come.

It’s clear the studio was hoping this would be a hit and they could have some sequels. And clearly they would have had to bend the myths further to do so. In actual Greek myth Jason never becomes king. He and Medea try, but things don’t work out. Medea tricks Pelias’ daughters into killing their father, but Acastus becomes the King of Thessaly (because he doesn’t die on his voyage with Jason in the myths). Jason and Medea have a falling out that gets even bloodier than the murder of Pelias. Eventually Jason and his new allies do kill Acastus, but Jason’s son is the one who ends up king. And it’s all very messy.

Alas, the show, while not being a flop, exactly, didn’t do that well in theaters, as I mentioned above. But the film influenced other mythic films to follow. The much later film, Clash of the Titans depicted the gods of Olympus moving mortals, monsters, and other gods around a map of the world as chess pieces on a board precisely the same way this film did.

The film’s big cultural impact derives from being played so frequently on television during the 60s and 70s. Back in the day when most people had access to only three or four channels, it was possible for a movie like this to be put in heavy rotation and get seen by a large segment of the population. So there are a lot of people, maybe 40 years old and up, who have very fond nostalgic feelings for this film. While watching it this week I found it still a fun popcorn movie, though it requires a pretty big dose of credulity to overlook some plot details. To be fair, those inconsistencies aren’t worse than many other movies—particularly those made in that era. the fight scenes with the stop motion monsters are a bit cheesy—in many of the shots the harpies and the hydra look like they are made out of brightly colored modeling clay. The bronze giant and the skeletal warriors stand up a lot better.

Manly men.

I made more than a few comments above about the skimpy costumes the men wear throughout the film. And I have to confess that that part contributed to the film’s appeal to me, even if I didn’t realize why when I was very young. I do quite clearly remember thinking it interesting how many of the men were shown with hairy chests. In other movies and TV shows at the time, if men were shown shirtless, their chests were almost always completely hairless. It is worth pointing out that while Medea is often dressed in a flimsy diaphanous gown that doesn’t conceal much, most of the men in the movie are showing a whole lot more leg than any of the women ever do.

The film had a big impact on my conception of mythic stories and epic fantasy. Until I re-watched it this week, I didn’t realize how much of what Zeus and Hera had to say about the nature of the relationship between the gods and humans had soaked into my own feelings on those topics. Just as the way prophecy is treated in the story has continued to inform my own fantasy writing on the topic. And the fact that most guys my age at the time loved the film, it was one of the few bits of fantasy I could talk about at school without invoking the teasing and bullying. Thank goodness I never mentioned those hairy chests, though!

The film was released in a time before Best Dramatic Presentation had become a regular category of the Hugos. Also during an era when any work published in the 12-ish months prior to the actual WorldCon was eligible. And because of its release dates, it would have technically been eligible in either 1963 or 1964. It didn’t make the short list in ’63 (and the category was No Awarded that year). And the category wasn’t offered the next year. Given that the film didn’t become popular until later, that isn’t a surprise. Which is too bad, really. I think many would agree with me that the skeleton fight alone would have deserved all the awards.

Don’t let the revenuers rain on your parade, or lessons learned from my great-grandfather

Great-grandpa always wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots.

I’ve written before about the reality that some of us didn’t have great fathers. Some of us had such bad and abusive fathers that events like Father’s Day make us relive some of the trauma. I envy the people who have great fathers–and would like to point out that when we tell the stories of our bad fathers, that just proves how wonderful great dads are, and why they should be celebrated.

Fortunately, while my father was a horrible dad, I lucked out with two wonderful grandfathers, and one stupendous great-grandfather who played important parts in my childhood. While I’ve written about my two grandpas before, I’ve only mentioned my great-grandpa in little tidbits. So, for this Father’s Day, let’s remedy that… Read More…

This isn’t a political post, but this image was too funny not to share

Humpty Dumpty stood on a wall...

Humpty Dumpty stood on a wall…

I’ve got a lot of blog fragments that have been aggregating for a while, mostly about things happening in the mundane side of our lives, rather than having anything to do with writing, or sf/f, or political craziness, and so on. And there will be some who dismiss it as a “what I had for breakfast” thing, but I like to think of is as an “everything but the including the kitchen sink” post. You’ve been warned.

First, Birds: So, the saga of the bird feeder continues. Quick refresher: over a year ago I put up a bird feeder on our veranda in a spot where I could watch birds that visited it from my living room window. We got so many birds coming to the feeder that my husband decided we needed a web cam so I could get pictures more easily and/or check on it from the office. Much to my delight the number of birds kept increasing, we had cool species like Stellar Jays showing up, it was very cool. Until just before Halloween, when the amount of birdseed consumed each day suddenly dropped for, then a few days later I learned why as an immature Cooper’s Hawk landed on my railing. Over the course of the next many weeks I witnessed the hawk snatching chickadees and juncos and sparrows out of midair in the vicinity of the feeder and then all the little birds stopped coming.

The level of birdseed in the feeder didn’t go down between the last time I topped it off just before Thanksgiving up to New Year’s Day. I cleaned out the feeder and tried scattering some feed on the deck and different locations, because I still very occasionally saw little birds on the deck. I cleaned out the feeder and put a very teeny amount of seeds in it.

Since then, I have seen pairs of small birds (usually pairs of juncos, but occasionally a pair of chickadees) show up on the veranda together and they have all adopted a similar strategy: one bird perches in one of my larger lavender plants, or on the branch of a nearby tree, the other hops around on the deck for a couple of minutes picking up seeds. Then the one that has eaten will flit to the spot where the buddy bird as been keeping watch, and the buddy bird flits down to the deck to peck at seeds. They trade off like that, one standing lookout the other eating, a few times before flying away.

Very, very occasionally a pair will take turns at the actual feeder, but it is clear that they all feel safer down on the deck where they have the planters and other things as cover.

I haven’t seen the hawk since late November.

I’ll keep scattering birdseed on the deck for now.

Dining: When we moved from Ballard to Shoreline, we decided to try to make some changes in the way we did things around the house. One of those changes was that I wanted us to sit down and eat one meal together at the table every day. The old place had not had adequate counter space or cabinets, and the way the kitchen was arranged, our table wound up being supplemental counter and storage space. So we almost never could clear it off enough to have a meal at the table. We instead would use the TV trays (or folding tray tables, as some people call them), or just each of us eat separately at our computers.

I admit that one reason that I wanted to make this change was the incredible guilt I felt at the dozens and dozens of tablecloths I found squirreled away in a couple of the closets. Tablecloths that had never been removed from their packaging. At least two of which I recognized as ones that were bought before my late husband, Ray, died. In 1997.

Michael had one change to my original proposal that we start using the tablecloths and eating at the table: he wanted to haul all the vinyl tablecloths to Value Village, and only use actual fabric cloths. Mostly because he just preferred fabric ones. Anyway, we got rid of all the vinyl ones, which left us with only a couple of fabric ones. We have since acquired a number more, some of them I think of as seasonal, some aren’t.

But we have eaten at least one meal at least six days out of every week at the table since moving. And the fact that on weekends we often eat two or three at the table in a single day, I think lets us off the hook for the nights that we go out instead of eating at home.

One of the things that means is that we have to keep at least half the table clear most of the time. That is a bit of a challenge, given that the table is really the only horizontal surface of any size near the front door, but we’ve been doing it.

So far, whenever we are cleaning for company, it never takes more than a few minutes to clear the table, pull off the tablecloth, wipe down the table, and pick out and deploy a clean cloth. And I can’t tell you what kind of happy goosebumps I get every time.

Haunted by Expectations: We have a certain number of habits about how we clean and keep the house that cause the voices of my grandmothers to occasionally admonish me. Both my nice Grandma and evil Grandma had very strong feelings along the lines of “a place for everything and everything in its place” and it’s amazing how much of that stuff got engraved in my neurons.

So, for example, t-shirts and laundry. A few years ago, thanks to a care label that came on some t-shirts we bought on Red Bubble (each with artwork that had be created by friends), when I did laundry I would pull those t-shirts out of the wash while transferring laundry from washer to dryer. Those t-shirts were put on broad hangers and hung on the shower curtain rod to dry.

About six months after I started doing that, I noticed that some other cute graphic t-shirts which we had purchased as a sci fi con around the same time as the bunch from Red Bubble were noticeably much more faded. As in, they looked years older in comparison. So I stopped running any graphic t-shirts in the dryer. They all get pulled out and hung up on the shower curtain.

When I started doing this, Sunday was our laundry day, and the t-shirts were often still damp when we needed to shower Monday morning, so Michael would move all the hangers to the end of the towel rod & take his shower (since he went in to work much earlier than I). And then I would, after finishing my shower, move them all back up to the shower curtain rod and spread them out to finish drying.

At our new place, for various reasons, Friday evening is when I do laundry, and the t-shirts wind up hanging in the bathroom all weekend. If one of us decides we need a shower, me move them, then put them back. Until Monday morning.

Neither of us puts the t-shirts away Monday morning, mind you. We just leave them hanging in a bundle on the towel rod. Michael often chooses one of the shirts hanging there to wear to work that day. While I don’t wear t-shirts to the office, on Monday night, when I come home and peel off the office drag, I’ll pick a t-shirt, sometimes from the ones hanging up, somethings from my drawer, to wear while kicking around the house.

The upshot is that the t-shirts that were washed last laundry day often hang in a bundle on one of the towel rods all week long. Unless one of us is suddenly inspired to put them away, the pile slowly dwindles as we wear some from it, but there are usually still about three hanging on the towel rack by the next Friday evening when I carry up a new pile of damp t-shirts from the laundry room.

Both my Grandmothers would be appalled. My Nice Grandma, if she saw it, would give me that look and ask, “You know, it only takes a couple of minutes to put things away, right?” Whereas my Evil Grandma would say something like, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t expect you to understand how important cleaning is, since your mother was atrociously bad at housekeeping. I remember one time…” and a story implying that my mother was not only insane but also morally corrupt on a Lovecraftian level would follow.

And some mornings while I’m rushing to get ready to work, I hear one of the other of those voices in my head, wanting to know why I don’t just put the t-shirts away.

And while my Nice Grandma’s version of the question does sound perfectly reasonable, we often forget that the inverse of the question is just as reasonable: “What is the harm in leaving them hanging there, clean, dry, and within easy reach, for a few days?”

Yeah, putting them away (folding and separating them into my chest of drawers of Michael’s, putting the empty hangers into the hall closer) is probably only a two-spell-slot task… most mornings I don’t know how many slots I’m going to need that day. And getting myself dressed and out the door with my lunch packed and everything else I need for the day are tasks that much be done. Putting away the t-shirts? Not an imperative.

Some times I realize I have the slots and the time and let’s get this done now. And that’s great. But I have to remember that it is okay to prioritize.

It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough…

A lot of the decorations my family had when I was young came in boxes a lot like this...

A lot of the decorations my family had when I was young came in boxes a lot like this…

I mentioned yesterday some glass ball ornaments that belonged to my great-grandmother. I’ve only owned those three ornaments for about ten years, even though Great-grandma passed away back in the 1970s. And until Mom showed them to me one Thanksgiving a year or two after Grandma died I had forgotten completely about them. But as soon as I saw them I could picture Great-grandma’s little tree set up on top of her TV set with these bright colored ornaments on it.

I have mentioned many times that I am a packrat from a long line of packrats. Other people might refer to us as hoarders, and certainly some family members leaned more toward that end of the spectrum than others. After Grandma died, for instance, my mom and her older sister found at least five “spare” microwave ovens squirreled away among the thousands of boxed up things stuffed in every closet of Grandma’s home. One of those microwaves my Aunt recognized immediately, and not just because of the scorch marks, as one that my Aunt had thrown away when it suffered a major electrical problem.

For years after Grandma’s death, mom and her sister have been ocassionally producing weird things that were packed up at Grandma’s that they hope that one of us will take and use.

My maternal-maternal great-grandfather (who insisted all of us kids call him ‘Shorty’ rather than Great-grandpa) died when I was 14 years old. At the time he and Great-grandma lived in a little house that was about a three minute bicycle ride from our home. Grandma and all of her brothers and a huge number of the grandchildren (Mom’s first cousins) and great-grandchildren (my second cousins) came to the small Colorado town for the funeral and to help with the arrangements. Great-grandma went back to southwest Washington to live with Grandma, then she died a year later.

Because of a couple of photographs, we know that during the first Christmas after Shorty’s death, that Grandma and Great-grandma decorated a tree in Grandma’s house with a combination of Great-grandma’s ornaments and Grandma’s. As far as any of us know, Great-grandma’s ornaments then stayed boxed up and unused for the next 32 years. When Mom found them, they were still in the original box packed inside a bigger box with other things of Great-grandma’s. There was a note attached to the outside of the box in Grandma’s handwriting that said, “Mother’s decorations.” Inside the box Mom found a handwritten retail receipt from the little “five-and-dime” store that had once been in the tiny Colorado town where I was born (And where Shorty and Great-grandma lived for a bit over 20 years). It had a date: December 1956, and noted that the ornaments were being sold at half price because two of the glass ornaments broke during shipping.

Mom split them up, with myself and one of my cousins getting three each. Mom kept four for herself.

I suspect that the reason they sat unused in that box for all that time was three-fold. The first Christmas after Great-grandma died, I suspect Grandma was just too sad about them to use them. The next dozens of years if Grandma thought about them at all, she probably decided not to use them because she was afraid they would get broken, and then she wouldn’t have these things of her mother’s any longer. And I think the third reason is that the longer they stayed boxed up, the less often Grandma even remembered they existed.

The last phenomenon is one I became accutely aware of during the move 20 months ago, as I kept finding boxes of things squirreled away in the old house that I had forgotten we had.

This is one of the reasons I insist, no matter what colors and theme we’re doing on any Christmas, that Great-grandma’s three ornaments always go on our tree. As kitschy and ordinary as they are, they represent my Great-grandma and make me remember happy times with her whenever I look at them. But the other part is that I don’t want them to sit in a box unseen for years. There is no point keeping them if they aren’t going to be seen and used. Their only value is in being seen.

Yeah, if one ever got broken, I would be upset. But I would also remind myself that for 19 years they gave Great-grandma (and anyone who visited her during the season) a bit of holiday cheer, and for 10 years and counting they have contributed to my Christmas cheer. That’s a pretty good return on G-grandma’s original investment of less than a dollar.

Five years ago…

Five years ago today, we went down to city hall to pick up a license. It was the first day that the marriage equality law which had been approved by a comfortable margin by Washington voters was in effect. We were just one of many, many couples who got a marriage license that day, kicking off the mandatory three-day waiting period before we could officially tie the knot.

Some people are difficult to shop for, then there’s my mom

“Mom, Thanks for putting up with a spoiled, ungrateful, messy, bratty child like my sibling. Love, your favorite.”

“Mom, Thanks for putting up with a spoiled, ungrateful, messy, bratty child like my sibling. Love, your favorite.” https://shirtoopia.com/products/dear-mom-thanks-for-putting-up-with-a-spoiled-ungrateful-messy-bratty-child-like-my-sibling-love-your-favorite

The is a story in several parts.

First, twenty-two years ago at a holiday potluck at work, the subject had somehow turned to shopping for parents, and I mentioned that I didn’t always know what big present to get my Mom, but there was a particular kind of candy that she loved and I had been buying her a box of it every year since I was a teen-ager, so there was always a point during the opening of the presents when my Mom would pick up the box and realize what it was and grin. A new co-worker expressed shock and disbelief, insisting that any mother she knew would be irritated to get the same thing every year. She further insisted that my Mom must be faking the enthusiasm for the candy.

Second, twenty years ago, I visited Mom for Christmas and drove her to Grandma’s for the big Christmas Eve shindig Grandma used to throw. At said shindig, Mom received a present from one of the other relatives that was an enormous (and ugly) knick-knack. It was taller than any table lamp that Mom owned. And Mom had just recently moved into a smaller place specifically because she was trying to get rid of stuff. Mom had said thank-you to the present, but the look in her eyes had clearly communicated to me, “What am I going to do with this?”

During the almost hour long drive back to her house, there was a point when Mom went really quiet for a moment, then asked, “Where am I going to put that thing? I mean, it’s so big!”

I made sympathetic noises, but otherwise didn’t have an answer.

She suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “Promise me you won’t get me things like that! Give me candy, or cookies, or candles—things I will use up! If you don’t know I need it or will use it, please don’t spend the money!”

Third, seventeen or eighteen years ago, Mom had mentioned needing a specific thing for the kitchen, and I had found it, but it was in a weird, truncated pyramid-ish shaped box. And while I was trying to decide how to wrap it, I noticed that the broad base of the box was almost exactly the size of the box of those candies I have been buying her for Christmas since I was a kid. So with some wadded up newspaper and a lot of tape, I turned the two things into a large, retangular package, then wrapped them together.

Christmas Eve was at my Aunt’s that year, and Michael and I drove Mom to it. During the gift opening, one of the kids of one of my cousins had distributed everyone’s presents as piles beside each of us, and it had turned into a bit of a torn paper frenzy. I had watched Mom getting quieter and more sad looking as the evening progressed. She hadn’t been feeling well that morning and had almost decided to stay home for Christmas Eve, so I thought that she was feeling worse. I quietly asked a few times if she needed something.

There was only one present left beside her chair—my two-in-one box. Everyone else was finished, and one of the kids asked Mom if she was going to open her last one. She sighed and said something that sounded quite a bit less than enthusiastic. She picked it up into her lap. She turned it around looking for an edge to the wrapping. And when she did, the candy jiggled inside its box—making a distinctive sound she recognized.

Mom’s eyes lit up like search lights. She turned the box again and looked at the tag to see it was from me. She grinned at me. “I know what this is! I know what this is!” And then she tore the paper off like a tornado of ninjas attacking a castle. She liberated the box of candy from the rest of the present and exclaimed, “You didn’t forget my candy! My son didn’t forget my candy!”

Michael had to point out that there was another part of the gift she might want to look at. She was glad that I’d gotten her the kitchen thing, but she was clearly more happy about the candy. And she was enthusiastic the rest of the night.

So, my Mom really does like it when I give her that candy every year1.

Fourth, as long as I can remember, Mom has loved hot tea. She loves nothing more than to curl up with a new book and a cup of hot tea and spend the day reading. For various health reasons, she can’t do caffeine any more. So the tea needs to be herbal. Unfortunately, when most of the rest of the people in Mom’s life think “herbal tea” the go for camomile3. Mom doesn’t dislike camomile, but she gets tired of it after awhile.

So every years I look for interesting herbal teas for Mom other than camomile. Last week I found two boxes that looked interesting while I was out shopping. I went to a rather large number of stores that day. When I got home, there was a lot of stuff to put away. And when I was finished, I couldn’t find the two boxes of tea.

I searched all the shopping bags. I looked around the house. I looked in the pantry with my teas. I looked everywhere. I confirmed on the printed receipt that I had paid for the tea. I decided that when I and the person at the store were bagging my groceries, one of us had accidentally pushed the boxes aside.

The next day I headed out shopping again with a list of people I needed to get gifts for. At the first store I went to the back of the car to get a shopping bag. And there was a shopping bag from the day before with four things in it. Two of which were Mom’s tea. Fortunately, nothing in the bag was perishable, so I didn’t waste anything by forgetting some groceries in the car overnight.

So there will be several presents under Mom’s tree from me this year. And now you know what three of them are. And I’m pretty sure as soon as Mom picks them up, she’ll know what they are, two. Ever since that one Christmas, I have made sure that the box of candy was wrapped by itself, so it would be no surprise to Mom what was inside.

But surprise isn’t the point of that particular present.


Footnotes:

1. One time when I told this story, a friend who is also a mother and grandmother told me that there was a type of salt-water taffy she liked, and anyone who bought her some of that for Christmas was a winner in her book.2

2. Another person (who also happens to be a mom and grandmother) pointed out that while it is undoubtedly true that Mom likes this favorite candy of hers, by the time I was an adult and I still gave her a box of the candy every Christmas, the candy had become a symbol. “I have absolutely no doubt that every Christmas when she opens that box, she looks up at you and she doesn’t see you as the grown man you are. She sees her little boy—how you looked as a small child. That isn’t a box of candy, to her, it’s a box of memories of her baby.” I suspect she’s right.

3. One time my Aunt found a big boxed set of “herbal teas” in the gift box aisle at Walmart. Except they weren’t herbal. When you read the small print on the box, the teas were all regular black tea4 with artificial flavoring. So the “camomile” was regular black tea with some kind of camomile flavoring. And the “hibiscus” was black tea with hibiscus flavoring. And the “elderberry” was black tea with flavoring and so on.5

4. Loaded with caffeine.

5. The set included I think it was 8 little tins, each of which had the name of the herb in question, and then behind each tin in the box was a little foil packet with three of the skankiest looking oily tea bags. And they all smelled absolutely awful.6

6. Mom begged me to take it home. Michael and I had a lot of fun throwing it away.

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