So, the story concerns Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), a middle-aged man who has always dreamed of being a Famous Journalist or other sort of hero, but has never been able to rise above his job as a typesetter working in the basement of the Courier-Express, the weekly newspaper of the town of Rachel, Kansas. The opening scenes of the movie establish Luther at the butt of just about everyone’s joke in the town, and given his tendency to jump to conclusions and become almost hysterical over the slightest odd occurence, the audience is not supposed to be surprised.
Then comes news that the Old Simmons Mansion, the site of a notorious murder-suicide decades ago which has been a decaying housed rumored to be haunted all of those years, is going to be bulldozed down soon, as the only heir to the Simmons’ is coming back to town around the time of the anniversary of the murder-suicide. Luther is dared/assigned to spend a night in the house on the anniversary of the horrid events and write an exclusive, the first time he has been offered a by-line at the paper in his whole life.
Luther also has had a lifelong crush on Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley), who is also being wooed by Luther’s most frequent bully, the only official reporter for the local newspaper. Being teased as a coward by said bully in front of Alma, Luther declares he will undertake the assignment.
Luther lives in a boarding house whose other tenants are all played by a gaggle of famous character actors of the period. And who amp up the fear by telling Luther the versions of the murder-suicide that each of them has heard.
Luther goes to the house, has a few very comedic misadventures that show how over-excited and fearful he is… and then the real spookiness happens. The painting of the last Mrs Simmons transforms during a flash of lightning from a regular painting to one with a pair of garden shears sticking out of it, with blood dripping down the canvas. The organ in the tower starts playing, but no one is at the keys. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret stair way to the staircase. Other spookiness happens until Luther finally faints in terror.
The next day, Luther tries to tell his story to the editor and the only other reporter, and they translate his tale into a compelling story that runs on the front page of the next edition of the Courier-Express. This leads to a number of unexpected actions. Many people in the community think of Luther as a hero. The wife of the manager of the local bank happens to be the head of the local seance society and since she essentially owns the bank, suddenly the Simmons heir is prevented from getting his clear title to the house.
I should pause at this point and confess that despite being listed as an uproarious comedy, this movie did give me nightmares as a kid. However, the nightmares were because of the scene where Luther is forced to give a speech at the local community Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a scene that is extremely painful for anyone who suffers from excess empathy and can’t watch embarrassing scenes.
Anyway, the heir to the Simmons mansion sues Luther for libel, and uses the trial to trot out all of the most embarrassing stories of Luther trying to impress his classmates and neighbors throughout his life. Finally, the judge approves a jury request to go spend the night in the haunted house to see once and for all whether what Luther recounted in his story really happened.
Of course, under the observation of the jurors, judge, and neighbors, nothing untoward happens. The cringe ramps up as Luther tries to make things happen as they did on the night. It becomes clear that her lawsuit if going to go against Luther, and everyone who has supported him up to this point rejects him.
…except for Alma.
As the rest of the community leaves, with Luther standing in front of the house pleading for someone to believe him, she goes back inside, and finds the lever that opens the secret bookcase. Soon, the spooky organ is playing itself, and Luther goes back inside, finds himself confronting a fiend threatening Alma’s life. Eventually, Luther is vindicated before the whole community, and the truth about that murder-suicide decades ago is revealed.
Many years ago I mentioned that this movie was one of my favorite fantasy/horror films, and a friend got really upset at me for that claim. The ghost within the story is explained away in the final act, the person pointed out. Also, the entire movie is framed as a comedy about how easily Knotts’ character is sent into flights of fancy. “It’s a comedy with a fake ghost, not a fantasy or horror story,” my friend insisted.
I have a number of quibbles with that. First, there are a lot of very spooky moments in the middle of the film that definitely qualify as horror. Second, if you can’t accept tales about people investigating claims of the paranormal as part of the genre of sf/f then I don’t want to know you. And third, in the final scene of the movie, after Luther and Alma exchange their wedding vows, we see the chapel’s Wurlizter organ playing itself! So, sorry, just because most of the happenings (but certainly not all—in most cuts of the movie the bleeding portrait is never explained!) have a mundane explanation, that doesn’t mean that one of the murdered people didn’t hang around as a ghost.
I know what I loved about the film is that Luther—the guy no one in town takes seriously and who is bullied for not being sufficiently manly—is the hero who gets the happy ending. And I like to think that he had a long career afterward solving haunted house mysteries with the help of Alma and their ghostly sidekick.
Part of the reason I decided it was time to write about this movie was this story (which was included in last week’s Friday Five): Joan Staley, Actress in ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ Dies at 79 – She also slapped Elvis Presley in ‘Roustabout,’ sang to Audie Murphy in ‘Gunpoint’ and played Shame sidekick Okie Annie on ‘Batman’.
I don’t know exactly how old I was the first time I watched The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but since I’m pretty sure that it was on the Saturday afternoon Science Fiction Theatre on Channel 2 out of Denver (long the home of “Blinky the Clown”). Which means that I couldn’t have been more the 10 years old. I know the second time I saw it was a late Friday night Nightmare Theatre offering during a time I was allowed to stay up after midnight on Fridays, so that means I was between 12 and 14 years old. The third time was many, many years later as an Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode… and it was one of the times I really wanted a means to mute the commenters. Because as campy and awful as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is, I’m actually very fond of it.
And it really is a poorly made film on so many levels. It was released with the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but yet when you get to the end of the film the credits appear under a title card reading The Head That Wouldn’t Die. The direction is clunky. A lot of the dialog is more than just clunky, it’s actually a wonder some of the actors could get the lines out! The car accident scene is so badly edited, it makes Plan 9 from Outer Space seem like a masterpiece.
And then there is the plot: Dr. Bill Cortner is a brilliant surgeon who has some unorthodox ideas—so unorthodox that his father (a more famous surgeon) urges him to take up a new profession. Dr. Cortner is taking his new fiancée, Jan Compton, to the family’s country home (I think to meet his mother), when they have a car accident. Cortner gets out with barely a scratch, but Jan is neatly decapitated. Somehow Cortner has the presence of mind to carry her head to his locked lab in the basement of the family country house, where Cortner’s creepy lab assistant, Kurt, helps him set Jan’s head into a pan of blood and attach various life sustaining equipment to the head.
There’s a monstrous Thing in the Closet of the lab that occasionally growls incoherently and bangs on the heavily locked door. We are told the Thing is the result of a previous failed experiment, but given no other details. Jan can mysteriously talk despite not having lungs nor any sort of breathing apparatus. And Kurt the assistant has a serious deformity on one arm.
Jan pleads with them to let her die, but Dr. Cortner has plan! He will find a body to transplant Jan’s head onto and they will be able to live happily ever after. He then drives into the city to search strip clubs, night clubs, and even a beauty contest to find a suitable body.
While Cotrner’s off doing that Jan and Kurt the Assistant have existential debates about the meaning of life and horror. It is also during the middle that we learn of Kurt’s sadistic streak, as he takes delight in teasing the Thing in the closet. Jan, meanwhile, realizes that somehow she had developed psychic powers, and she starts communicating with the Thing in the closet.
Eventually, Dr. Cortner settles on a suitably sexy body to steal of Jan: a model whose body is perfect, but she has a scar on her face which she is ashamed of. Lying that he can remove the scar, Cortner lures the model up to the family’s home where his lab is. Once there, he drugs her, and begins to prepare for the surgery.
Jan begs him not to do it, but Cortner is determined.
Jan eggs the Thing in the closet on, and in an extremely bloody finale it escapes and kills both Kurt and Corter. It’s egregiously gorey, and I remain a bit surprised that this movie was shown during the afternoon on a local TV station.
The Thing in the Closet, by the way, is played by Eddie Carmel, also known as “The Jewish Giant.” Eddie suffered from a form of gigantism and acromegaly because of an incurable tumor on his pituitary gland.
The fight has also started a fire, so the lab is burning down. Jan instructs the Thing from the closet to carry the unconscious woman to safety, but to leave Jan there to burn with the rest of the house.
Depending on which edit you see, the movie’s sleaze in the middle outweighs the extreme gore of the ending. The scenes of Cortner looking for a body include a lot of footage of the strippers stripping, at least one instance of models wrestling, and the women opening talking about how no one is interested in them other than for their bodies. Apparently full frontally nude scenes were filmed and intended for the international release of the film.
Despite everything wrong with it, the film still works. And mostly because of Virginia Leith’s performance as Jan. I mean, the film begins with a chillingly delivered line (over a totally black screen), “Please let me die.” The opening of the film is essentially a flashback from the moment that Jan realizes how her fiancé has revived her. Despite spending most the film sitting under the table with her head sticking out the pan, Leith makes you believe. Even the overwrought philosophizing during the debate with Kurt is loaded with pathos. She also gets some commentary in there about Cortner’s obsession with finding the perfect
sex doll body for her, completely disregarding her wishes and opinions.
I don’t remember ever having nightmares because of this film. I’m not sure why that is. I certainly didn’t pick up on the gay subtext a lot of people seem to see in the film. The Thing in the Closet seems to be the component that everyone who claims there is gay subtext focuses on—but Cortner is so obviously the sort of narcissistic heterosexual man who only values women for the sex he can get from them, that I just don’t see it.
I do know that when I first saw the film I identified very strongly with both Jan and the Thing in the Closet. Jan refers to herself as the ultimate horror, but I think it would be more apt to describe her as the ultimate Person Without Agency. Which is why I really empathized with her. As a queer kid (technically closeted the first time I saw it, but I didn’t actually know yet that I was gay, so closeted isn’t quite accurate) with an abusive parent, I had almost as little control over my life as Jan. And of course, the way that Kurt bullied the Thing was also very familiar to me.
The ending of the story isn’t exactly a surprise: the mad scientist destroyed by his own creation is a very popular trope, after all. Though the level of gore in the ending was hardly normal when the movie was made. But again, Jan’s final comments, like the chilling opening line and her description of why death would be a kinder fate than what Cortner planned for her, elevates the film above the schlock.
And, honestly, schlock often makes for a great popcorn movie.
I linked to Virginia Leith’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, and it kicked off a trip down memory lane. One of the things I turned up was this fascinating story about the young man who played the monster in the closet: Eddie Carmel, The Jewish Giant.
So, in 1971 Forbidden Planet was shown on U.S. network television for the first time. I’ve mentioned many times before that my mom was a sci fi fan from way back. My dad was more of a spy and western fan, but he also liked some science fiction, so he didn’t object when Mom wanted to watch this show. The broadcast was a few months before my 11th birthday. The whole family watched the show together, though I think than my sister, who was 6 years old at the time, fell asleep before it was over.
I really liked the show while we were watching it.
But several hours later, I was standing in the hallway, very confused, because my mom had thrown a glass of water in my face because I had gone to sleep, and then got out of bed and found my parents and started jabbering about the monster that was trying to kill us. This was, as far as my family and I know, the first time I sleepwalked.
So, let’s get back to the movie…
The movie starts on the bridge of a spaceship where Commander John J. Adams is in charge. The movie is careful never to mention any nationality for the military organization in which the crew serves, though at a later point in the film they send a report back to Earth and await further instructions. They’ve been sent to a planet called Altair IV where a scientific expedition was sent many years before, but lost contact.
As Adam’s ship approached the planet, the make radio contact with one of the scientists from the expedition, Dr. Morbius. Morbius warns them not to land, saying he is the only survivor, that the planet is very dangerous, and he can’t guarantee their safety. Adams has his orders, and lands anyway.
They learn that there are two humans on the planet: Morbius and his daughter (named Altaira) who was born after the original expedition landed. Morbius explains that after the discovered the remains of an advanced civilization of aliens called the Krell, members of the original expedition had been killed off mysteriously by some planetary force, until the a small group tried to flee the planet to return to Earth, but the ship was vaporized. Morbius and his daughter have been living alone with their very helpful robot, Robbie, peacefully ever since.
As far as I have been able to tell, Robbie was the first robot in any film to be portrayed with an actual personality, rather than being a walking tin can that mindlessly followed his instructions. One of my favorite scenes with Robbie is when, later, Altaira wants Robbie to make her a dress covered with star sapphires, and Robbie explains that all of those sapphires will take many weeks to synthesize, whereas he could make her a dress covered with diamonds in a few hours.
Back to the main plot: Dr. Morbius is very evasive with the Commander and his crew. He does show them some of the remains of the Krell civilization, including thousands of underground nuclear reactors that are still generating unimaginable amounts of energy for no known purpose, an education machine, and other devices that Morbius still doesn’t understand. But because Morbius’s translation of the Krell records reveal that every last member of the race was destroyed by a mysterious force they couldn’t understand, and Morbius’s shipmates were destroyed by a similarly mysterious force, he keeps urging the commander and his crew to leave. And the first night the ship is on the planet, and invisible monster sneaks into the ship, kills a crewman, and disables the hyperspace communicator, making it impossible for the next several days for the ship to contact Earth.
And let me tell you, the way the showed impact of the invisible monster, who was so heavy his feet bent the metal of the stairway into the ship, was very, very creepy!
The plot continues, with one crewman flirting with (and clearly hoping to take advantage of) the very naive Altaira. The commander intervenes and sends the crewman back to the ship, but he also scolds Altaira for wearing revealing clothing around men. Which confuses her.
When Morbius is no help with explaining the monster, the commander orders his crew to take additional precautions. Each night the ship remains on the planet, the invisible monster attacks again, and each day the ship erects more elaborate defenses, including building a huge blaster. When the monster is trying to get through the force fields and being fired on my many weapons, we get a sort of aura-like outline of the creature, the only time it isn’t invisible. But all of the tech of the starship is unable to defeat the creature.
Eventually, the commander and his closest friend on the crew (who everyone calls “Doc” though it is never clear whether he is the medical officer or if the nickname is because of some other scientific expertise) have become convinced that the monster isn’t some ineffable planetary force. They decide that one of them needs to use the alien “education machine” which Morbius has warned them away from. Morbius has explained that several members of the original expedition has tried to use the machine, and all who had tried died, except Morbius. The commander winds up distracting Morbius while Doc get to the machine.
The machine does kill Doc, but as he is dying, he is able to tell the commander enough to solve the mystery.
There is a dramatic final confrontation, in which it appears that the mysterious force no longer thinks of Altaira, Robbie, or Morbius as beings to protect rather than destroy. And again, the way supposedly impenetrable Krell metal walls were being battered in by the monster was intensely scary! Commander Adams forces Morbius to face the truth. Which results in Morbius’ death. The ship is able to leave the planet, carrying Altaira and Robbie back to Earth, and the entire planet self-destructs after they leave.
Most modern analyses of the movie, if they acknowledge any problematic content at all will note the one and only woman in the cast is less than a full-fledged adult and the only agency she is granted in the plot is whether to remain loyal to her father or switch allegiance to her new romantic interest, Commander Adams. And this is problematic enough. However… all of the men in the story view Altaira as little more than an object that one of them will possess. It is precisely because Morbius perceives that he is “losing” his daughter to the commander that sets the final battle in motion. All of the other characters in the story are vying for the attention of the one and only woman.
I should say, all of the other characters except Robbie the Robot.
I’ve never seen any critic acknowledge that, in some ways, Robbie the Robot is Altaira’s Sassy Gay Friend. He’s clever, he is devoted to Altaira but not interested in her in a romantic way. He cleans the house, prepares meals, and takes care of all the domestic tasks in the Morbius household that would traditionally be fulfilled by a woman in a non-science fiction film of the era, right? One of the roles of the asexual or effeminate man who was the witty friend of the heroine in movies of the 40s and 50s was to have insight into the motives and character of other people that the protagonists did not. So it should be no surprise that in the climactic battle, Cammander Adams uses Robbie’ perceptions of the situation to convince Altaira and Morbius of the true nature of the invisible monster.
It was many, many years later before this queer geeky nerdy child realized that at least part of the reason my favorite character out of this classic sci-fi movie was Robbie the Robot was precisely because he was the only character who wasn’t vying for the attention of a woman. And while many other aspects of the story resonated with me, none of the other characters rose to the level of identification as the robot. So this queer child, who had nightmares because of the main plot, still found models for my possible futures among the supporting cast of this movie.
The Dark Domain, or a queer ex-evangelical looks at an agent of intolerance and his scandalous heirs
One day in the summer of 1981, I was walking around the inside of a huge church sanctuary in Virginia, every now and then stopping to clap once, then listen to the echo. It was something I did just about every day that summer—each day in a different church. I was a member of an evangelical inter-denominational youth choir. I was one of the singers, but I was also the Lead Sound Technician. And while a bunch of the singers were carrying in the sound equipment, our risers, and other parts of our touring program, I would do this exercise to figure out where I wanted to place our speakers and where to aim them. I took this part of the job very seriously.
I was 20 years old. I was a deeply closeted gay guy who for several years had been struggling to reconcile my love of science and my sexual orientation with the religion I had been raised in (Southern Baptists) which is extremely anti-gay, anti-evolution, anti-birth control, anti-modernity, et cetera and ad nauseam. Only eleven years before that day had the Southern Baptist Convention adopted its resolution on race, which was intended to end segregation in Baptist Churches themselves. At the denomination’s founding in 1845, 12 of its 14 statements on faith had been explicitly in favor of slavery, the segregation of the races, and the supremacy of the white race.
That 1970 resolution didn’t make Baptists pro-equality. The very church that my parents had been members of when I was born, for instance, split after the resolution. A number of members forming a new “Bible Baptist” church the aligned itself with one of the other conventions that had split from the Southern Baptist in the previous couple of decades. And at the 1972 convention the convention adopted a resolution condemning public school de-segregation.
One of the pastors leading that charge to re-assert the church’s racist past in 1972 was Jerry Falwell, Sr. Falwell was the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was also the host of the syndicated radio program, the Old Time Gospel Hour, which my grandmother listened to faithfully, where he frequently preached against the civil rights movement, women’s rights, gay rights, and a boatload of other topics. In 1971 he founded Liberty University, which to this day still forbids students of differing races to date. And in 1979 he founded the so-called Moral Majority, a political organization bent on supporting conservative Republicans and rolling back what rights women, racial minorities, and queer people had won in the 70s.
In the mid-80s Falwell infamously lost a lawsuit to one of his former classmates from Baptist Bible College, Jerry Sloan. Sloan had come out of the closet after leaving Baptist Bible College, and had become active with Metropolitan Community Church, which was one of the few explicitly gay and lesbian inclusive denominations at the time. Sloan and Falwell participated in a television debate about, among other things, gay rights. After Falwell insisted that he wasn’t at all prejudiced against gay people, Sloan quoted Falwell as having publically called the MCC “brute beasts” and “a vile and Satanic system.” Further, he said Falwell had predicted “one day they will be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven.”
Falwell said that it was a lie. And when Sloan said he had it on tape, Falwell bet him $5,000 (on television with millions of witnesses) he couldn’t produce it. When Sloan did produce the tape, Falwell refused to pay. So Sloan sued him, won the $5,000 plus court fees, and he donated it all to a queer community center: Falwell Pays $8,900 to Homosexual Activist.
Jerry Falwell, Sr, was a bigot and a liar (not to mention a chisseler for not paying his bet). And he became a multi-millionaire by preaching hate and promoting hate through his radio show, university, and his political organizations. And I, for one, did not shed a single tear when he died in 2007.
So, back to 1981. Earlier in that year, the Director of the touring choir mentioned that he was “this close” to getting us a tour date at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. And without thinking, I blurted out, “if you do, I quit.” The Director was flabbergasted and tried to explain how much exposure we would get there—and possibly be on the Old Time Gospel Hour. I said, “I refuse to have anything to do with that evil man. I refuse to do anything that implies I support his divisive, hateful theology.”
A member of the board of directors who was literally helping me untangle some microphone cables when this exchange happened, chimed in, “Me, too. Falwell preaches the opposite of Christ’s teaching, and if you’re going there, I’m resigning from the board and pulling my kids out of the choir.”
The director made some sort of joke to diffuse and change the subject. Later he made sure to inform both of us that he had decided on his own against pursuing the Thomas Road gig because the strict dress code would, among other things, force us to change our uniform and force a lot of the guys to get extremely short haircuts. I like to think that excuse was his way of saving face, and that my threat had been effective.
And so while later that summer in 1981 we did perform at a Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, it wasn’t Falwell’s—it was a beautiful historical building, which is still there, though it has since merged with another church and changed its name and denomination. And I’m glad I didn’t have to quit the chorus over it.
All of these memories came to mind this week as there is a new (and to me totally unsurprising) development in the story of Falwell’s heir, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his pool boy scandals: ‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence – More than two dozen current and former Liberty University officials describe a culture of fear and self-dealing at the largest Christian college in the world.
You may remember that the two pool boy scandals of which I’ve written before — besides having a lot of sexual innuendo — involved Falwell, Jr. finding ways to finance multi-million dollar real estate deals for the benefit of the handsome young men after spending a lot of time flying each young man to various luxurious places along with Falwell and his wife on their private jet.
The new article (interestingly enough written by a journalist who attended Liberty University) lists other financial deals, including loans of $300,000 and more to Falwell’s friends, funneling lucrative contracts related to the university to businesses owned by his son, and more. Plus, apparently Falwell is very fond of talking about his sex life with colleagues. With a lot of crude details of the things he and his wife do.
And most tellingly, in one incident involving the guy many of us have referred to as “the other pool boy” (though he was employed as a personal trainer when he met Falwell, Jr). Junior texted pictures of his wife in sexual fetish costumes—to a bunch of staff members, plus the trainer. He claimed afterward that he had meant to just send it to the trainer (I believe that), but he also tried to claim to the people accidentally included on the wayward message that the purpose of sharing the pictures was not actually sexual. No! Falwell, Jr sent the personal trainer pictures of Mrs. Falwell in fetish gear because the trainer had helped her lose a lot of weight.
Um, yeah, no I don’t believe that.Listen, hot-wifing, threeways, and cuckold fantasies are all perfectly healthy sexual things that a committed couple who are into ethical non-monogamy should be able to engage in without shame. But when you run a couple of massive non-profit organizations (and draw more than a million dollars in salary between those jobs) that explicitly condemn homosexuality, family planning, women’s rights, sexual liberty, drinking, and dancing (yes, dancing!)—well, then this kind of scandal becomes of interest to the public. Because remember, those non-profit organizations are tax exempt, and therefore all of these shenanigans are being subsidized by our tax dollars.
On top of that, Falwell, Jr effectively swung the evangelical base of the Republican party firmly behind Trump (and all of the evil, non-Christ-like policies that has unleashed on us). And apparently he did so because Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, made a blackmailer with more of those kinds of pictures of Mrs. Falwell go away.
You should go read the Politico story. It is full of fascinating details (and keeps the sexual stuff, as much as it could be, more tasteful than I would). The amount of information that people were willing to give the reporter is amazing, given that Liberty University and the associated businesses famously have very strict non-disclosure agreements that claim to stay in force even after a person leaves.
Speaking of those agreements: Jerry Falwell: I Called The FBI On Liberty U Traitors. That’s right! Junior has called the FBI on people for tattling on him.
Listen, some of those financial deals are clearly prosecutable crimes. Junior’s using tuition funds and donations to finance his jet-setting lifestyle and that of his friends—and probably sex partners.
“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”
Given that he’s been flying some of these people across state lines in his private jet to close some of these deals, Junior maybe should have thought twice before calling the Feds.
Maybe he thinks that his buddy, Trump, will bail him out. After all, Trump’s very fine lawyer, Michael Cohen, helped get rid of that pesky blackmailer right? Except now Cohen is cooling his heels in federal prison, convicted of financial crimes on Trump’s behalf. Trump hasn’t shown any sign of being willing to pardon Cohen. Or any of the four other people Mueller got to plead guilty to related crimes, nor the four people Mueller got convicted, nor the 19 other people still under indictment whose cases are on-going.
So, Junior may need to start prepping for some less luxurious accommodations than those he is currently accustomed to.
(Part of the title of this post comes from the hymn, “Up from the Grave He Arose (Low in the Grave He Lay),” by Robert Lowry. It was hymn number 113 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.)
Some possession resist the ruthlessness. For instance, I have five bone china teacups that I inherited from my late first husband. They aren’t five perfectly matching teacups. They have exactly the same pattern of flowers printed on the outside one one side, and on the inside on the other side, and they all have gold rims. But three of them have tiny round handles, and five have slightly less tiny triangular handles.
The thing is, shortly after we first moved in together, back in 1991, Ray told me that they had belonged to his grandmother and one other relative. I am pretty sure that he told me many more details than that—for instance, since they are nearly identical yet clearly come for two slightly different sets, did three of them come from one relative and two from the other?—but all I remember is that Ray called them “Grandma’s Teacups.” And so, since he died, I have hung onto them, keeping them packed away in an upper cabinet, because what kind of monster would throw away the only things his late husband had had to remember his grandmother by?
Ray only had the teacups. No matching saucers or any other items from the china set. Because he felt that teacups ought to have saucers, when he found a single bone china saucer with a similar rose pattern (and the gold paint on the rim) at a Goodwill or Value Village or similar, he bought it. Never mind that Grandma’s cups were no longer white but had turned that antique ivory color that really old bone china takes, while the saucer was new enough that it remained very white—he thought of the saucer as belong with the teacups, so I kept it, too.
Ray died more than 21 years ago, and for most of that time the five teacups and one saucer were carefully kept untouched in a cabinet. And even during the most ruthless stage of the move from Ballard to Shoreline, I refused to even consider giving them up. Never mind that so many other things I had owned for years were subjected to the criteria that if I couldn’t remember when I last used it, it goes—the teacups and the saucer stayed.
I like tea. I have a lot of specific blends of tea of which I am particularly fond. At the office, for instance, I drink the company-provided coffee in the morning, then switch to my own teabags in the afternoon. At home I have a rather more extensive collection to teabags. I also have some loose teas, but as I mentioned a couple of months ago, making single cups of tea with an infuser was more fuss than I was willing to take. Until I bought an infuser pot, which lets me make 4-5 cups of tea from loose leaves in a single action.
Since I bought the infuser, I have developed a new Sunday routine (that sometimes also happens on Saturday): rather than grinding coffee beans and making a pot of coffee, now I heat a couple of quarts of water to boiling, select one of my loose teas, make a pot of tea, and then get out one of the bone china teacups and use it to drink the tea over the course of the day. I usually wind up making a second pot because 4-5 cups of tea don’t contain quite enough caffeine to cover my current addiction.
For the first few weeks after I obtained the pot, I was choosing a different teacup out of the set while using the one saucer with it. About a month ago when I was preparing to take a carload of stuff to Value Village I had an epiphany. At that time, I had two quests, if you were, that I pursued at each visit to Value Village: after I dropped off stuff, I would park, grab one of the scores of coupons on our dash (there was a 7 month period while we were prepping to move and then moving and then unpacking were every weekend I took at least one—and usually multiple—carloads of stuff to Value Village, and I got a coupon each time), then go inside and first go through all the commerative plates hoping to find a tiger plate to replace the one tiger plate that broke during the move, then go through the glassware hoping to find a sixth cut crystal white wine glass to complete my set. Since I’m already doing that, I could also start going through the dinnerware looking for china tea saucers that had a rose motif and a gold rim. Because since my five cups didn’t exactly match, there is no reason the saucers have to, either.
One my first trip looking for saucers I realized I needed to add another must-have. In addition to having roses and a gold rim, the saucers also had to have that little depression in the middle into which the cup would sit. I found a pair the met the criteria on the second trip, so now I have three saucers to go with my five teacups.
And I also have instituted a rotation system, so after I use a cup and a saucer, each goes to the bottom of the pile. The upshot of all of this is that all of the teacups and all of the saucers I own are getting used on a regular basis, so I should not feel guilty for hanging onto them.
Now, if any of my friends who like tea would like to come over sometime for a tea party where we get to use them all at once, not only will I not object, I may also get a bit teary-eyed. But that’s okay.
Because a little bit of sentimentality is always allowed.
Long before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 made Memorial Day an official federal holiday, and even before the first federal observation of a day to decorate Union Soldier’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery back in 1868, and even before the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia suggested a day to honor those who died in the Civil War there was another holiday called Decoration Day observed in many parts of the country. It was a day to have family reunions and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members.
As one historical society defined it: “Decoration Day is an annual observance at many privately owned graveyards during which families gather to clean up the graveyard, reconnect with family, and honor the memories of their ancestors… Traditionally, Decoration Day is in part a ritual, with families arriving on the day before Decoration Sunday with hoes and shovels for a graveyard workday. They scrape the ground, trim the grass, make new plantings, and prune old ones… The cleanup is followed by a Sunday picnic dinner, singing in church, placing flowers on graves, and visiting with friends and family. Sunday participants come dressed for church and participate in what amounts to a family and community reunion. Family members that have moved away often return on this day, giving them an important opportunity to teach children about their ancestors and the communities in which they once lived. Outdoor tables of concrete or wood, marked to identify participating churches, hold the food for the meal.”
It was usually observed on a Sunday in the spring, and frequently involved picnics in the cemeteries or potlucks at church. my Grandmother was someone who observed that version faithfully her whole life, long before the official creation of the modern Memorial Day.
Twelve years ago this week my nice Grandma died literally while in the middle of putting silk flowers on the grave of one of my great aunts—which has contributed to my determination that the original holiday not be forgotten. In memory of Grandma, I’m reposting this (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):
Memorial, part 2—for GrandmaGrandma 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 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.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 seven 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
It is still the case that when I drive to that part of the state to visit Mom or other relatives, I still find myself wondering what Grandma will be doing when I get there, and a moment later have a sudden resurgence of the old grief, remembering that she’s gone.
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 my Grandpa mentioned above served in WWII in Italy. Grandpa 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. My paternal Grandfather served in both World War II and the Korean War. Several of my great-aunts and uncles and many cousins who are no longer alive served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.
This post is dedicated to all of their memories. They are all on my mind today, as well as other loved ones who have passed. I grieve for them, yes, but I don’t believe today should only be about grief. We should celebrate the lives of those who came before us. Remember their joys and their triumphs, as well as their sacrifices. That’s what Grandma taught me to do, and I will keep doing it on this day, as long as I draw breath.
Because I follow some blogs that focus on surviving abusive parents, I happened to see the graphic I’ve included above the same day this conversation happened. One of those example insensitive comments made me laugh—perhaps more than a bit sardonically. Because as soon as I read “You’re going to regret this when they are gone,” my immediate thought was how many people I would enjoy saying, “Every time you said that you were wrong. I absolutely do not regret cutting him out of my life at all.”
Before I go on, I should make a content warning. I’m going to be talking a bit about my abusive father, and some things he did… Read More…
If you’re here following a publishing link, I apologize. I was trying to save a draft of the unfinished post and clicked the wrong button.
Confessions of a bad son, part 3: the myth of regret is now published and available.
My childhood Christmas memories are divided into several sections. There were about six years where Christmas consisted of Dad, Mom, my sister, and I cramming into either the four-wheel-drive pickup (because the roads would be icy at some point of the journey) either early morning Christmas Eve or sometimes at the end of Dad’s work-shift, and drive hundreds of miles from wherever we were living at the time to my paternal Grandparents’ house. My maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma) and one set of great-grandparents on that side happened to live in the same small town as my paternal grandparents (aka Grandpa and Evil Grandma), so we would get to see them at least briefly during the trip, but it was always clear that we were there to spend Christmas with Evil Grandma, and everyone else was secondary.
I was aware, during this time, that Mom’s side of the family liked to get together on Christmas Eve, and again for Christmas dinner the next afternoon, but Christmas morning was generally for each family unit at home. Because we often were arriving at Evil Grandma’s house late in the evening, I very seldom got to attend the other family Christmas Eve.
Then there was a period of three Christmases in a row where we lived just an hour’s drive from Evil Grandma, which meant getting to see everyone for a bit longer at the holiday. That is, until Nice Grandma re-married my Mom’s adoptive father, and she moved out to Washington state to live with him.
Then there were three Christmases we lived in the same small town as my paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandparents (and only a couple hours drive from a bunch of other relatives). The tradition then became that we would spent a chunk of Christmas Eve with my Great-grandparents, then Christmas morning and Christmas dinner at Evil Grandma’s.
Then after my parents divorced, Mom, my full sister, and I moved up to the same town in Washington state where Grandpa and Nice Grandma lived, and that first Christmas Eve was a revelation. When Grandma lived in Colorado, Christmas Eve involved my Great-grandparents and a few of Grandma’s friends, because there weren’t many of her non-in-law relatives there. In Washington, there were Grandpa’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, my Mom’s six half-brothers (and for some of them wives and children), plus a bewildering number of cousins, demi-cousins, shirt-tail relatives of many other sorts, plus the people that Nice Grandma always seemed to adopt.
Not every single one of that vast constellation of Grandma’s “folks” made it every year, but a lot of them managed to drop in for at least a little bit. As my Aunt Theresa (who was the ex-wife of one of my Mom’s brothers) was fond of saying, “You never knew who you would see at Gert’s Christmas Eve!”
Aunt Theresa was a great example. She had only been married to my Uncle Randy for three years. They divorced when I was about 14 years old. Theresa and Grandma had got along really well from the first time they met, so she was the one who came to Grandma the tell her the she was divorcing Randy. Theresa told the story later that, “Gert looked at me and said, ‘You can divorce my son, if that’s what you have to do, but you are not divorcing me! You’re part of my family forever, you understand?’”
And for the next 30-some years of Grandma’s life, Aunt Theresa came by frequently to visit, check on Grandma, and keep her up-to-date on the well-being of Theresa’s relatives—because Grandma still considered them all in-laws.
Two: I only got to see another one of my Mom’s half-brothers at a couple of those Christmas Eves, once I was living nearby and able to attend. Uncle Brad never quite got his life together. He spent a lot of time in jail. He was never convicted of anything serious—I think the longest sentence he ever got was six months—but, between being addicted to a couple of illegal substances, and having to sell said substances to support himself at times, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. So sometimes Uncle Brad missed Christmas Eve because he was in jail, and sometimes because he was in some other trouble.
And then he got sick. Everytime Grandma called him, he said he hadn’t been coming to visit because he was sick again, and figured he was contagious with whichever illness he thought he had.
Christmas Eve 1982 was the first time we had seen him in months, and he looked awful. Of Mom’s brothers, Brad had been the shortest, and he had never been what anyone would call fat, but that night, he looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grandma thought that he was using more serious drugs, and confronted him a few times. He insisted that he wasn’t, that he’d just kept catching things that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Then one day a few months later, Aunt Theresa showed up at Grandma’s and said, “I have some very bad news. Have you heard of this new disease they call AIDS? Well, Brad has it. He thinks he got in it one of the times he was in jail…”
My Uncle Brad wasn’t a really early case, but when he was diagnosed in early 1983 it was only months after the Center for Disease Control gave the illness that name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Uncle Brad didn’t live to see Christmas Eve of 1983.
My Uncle Brad was hardly the only person that I knew that would be taken by AIDS. I’ve written before of the winter when so many friends and acquaintances of Ray and I died in the same six-week period that we couldn’t attend some of the memorial services because they were happening at the same time.
The disease didn’t get its name until September of 1982, but it had been recognized as an epidemic that ought to be taken seriously since 1981. Unfortunately, no one in either party on the national level was willing to even talk about it, let alone allocate funds to the CDC and other agencies to address it properly. The very first politician at a national level to call for the government to address the crisis was a woman from California who was elected to Congress in a special election in June of 1987 to fill a seat that was vacated with the previous Congresswoman died due to cancer.
That new Congresswoman, after being sworn in, was allowed to make a short introductory address to Congress as was traditional. Usually these comments are a brief thank you to family and supporters. And the new Congresswoman did that, but she ended her remarks with this statement that surprised her colleagues, “Now we must take leadership, of course, in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.”
The Congresswoman was Nancy Pelosi. And Pelosi became a tireless campaigner on the issue, bucking both her own party’s leadership, as well as taking on the Reagan administration’s (and subsequent Bush admin’s) bigoted opposition. During those early years, reporters and others kept asking how could she, as a Catholic, support what was perceived as a gay cause. Her answer was simple and consistent: “We are all God’s children, and that includes gay people.”
While people think of her as part of the establishment and middle-of-the-road, that is a gross mischaracterization. Not just then, but now. So in case it isn’t clear: I frequently describe myself as being far more liberal and progressive (radically so on many topics) than the Democratic Party, but this is one queer man who considers Minority Leader Pelosi’s current trajectory to become Speaker of the House as a big Christmas present to the forces of justice, mercy, and compassion.
Third: My Nice Grandma didn’t always live up to my idealized vision of her. Because of how negatively she (and other relatives) reacted to my coming out of the closet in 1991, I had to boycott all family events for six years. Not just Christmas Eve: everything. If my husband wasn’t welcome as my husband, then I wasn’t. It was years later that I would first read Dan Savage’s version of the epiphany that led to the boycott: “The only leverage adult queer people have over parents and other family members is our presence in their lives. We shouldn’t fear losing them, they should fear losing us.” Because of the many times over a couple of months I had been told by multiple relatives that I was going to hell and deserved it, that sure I could live my life as I chose but any time I was in there home… I had had to tell them I would not visit them, ever, but if they liked they could come visit me. Though, any time they were in my home…
(Those ellipses can imply so much, no?)
After six years, it was Grandma who reached out shortly before my birthday in 1997 and asked if she and my step-grandpa could drive Mom (who doesn’t do freeways) to see me on my birthday. I said of course. It was awkward for about an hour, but the ice finally melted, and the next thing we know they were inviting us to come down to a picnic and the meet my sister’s new daughter (my sister and her now-fifth-ex-husband were coming for a visit), and suddenly they started treating Ray like a person, instead of a symbol of whatever their feelings about my queerness were.
The change in attitude (including apologies) was topped off by a request that we come visit for Christmas, where, yes, Ray was welcome, and none of the weird conditions previously alluded to were expected.
I really wish I could end this by talking about Ray’s first Christmas Eve at Grandma’s. The problem was, Ray was very sick (he did not, by the way, have AIDS; that picnic had been a bit difficult for us to juggle because Ray’s second round of chemotherapy was underway, but we managed). In November he had a seizure, went into a coma for several days, and then died.
Michael’s first Christmas Eve with Grandma happened in 1999. It wasn’t the first time he and Grandma met. That had been at a different trip, where I decided it would be better not to have the first meeting tied to a major holiday. We had been on our way to Mom’s (she lived an hour south of Grandma back then), and we stopped in for what was supposed to be a short visit (just in case). Michael had hardly spoken a couple of sentences when Grandma gave him a look and asked, “Is that a Missouri accent I hear?”
Soon the two of them were talking about all these places in Missouri and Oklahoma where Michael had grown up, and where coincidentally Grandma had lived for a number of years. You want to talk about coincidences? The hospital listed on Michael’s birth certificate, is the same hospital listed on Mom’s birth certificate.
Anyway, they just kept talking. At one point, my step-grandpa leaned over and said quietly to me, “If you wanna get a burger or something, I think the two of us could slip out and they wouldn’t even notice.”
I was very happy. Grandma liked Michael. That meant if anyone else in the family didn’t, well, they have to keep it to themselves.
Despite the warm fuzzies of that encounter, all of the things I said yesterday about why we avoid the big family gathering apply. This Christmas Eve, it will just be Michael and I. We usually cook a sort of romantic dinner. I’ll watch some Christmas movies. We’ll probably stay up until midnight to say “Merry Christmas” and have a kiss under the mistletoe. But we have to get to bed soon after, because first thing in the morning, we always check our stockings to see what Santa brought.
Misplacing things while moving around the house doing things is one category of lost possessions, but it isn’t the only one. No, far worse are those times when one I have to say the phrase, “I remember thqt last time I was using it I said to myself, ‘I need to put this somewhere that I won’t forget…’” Because I only utter that phrase after I have looked in the places where I thought I had put it way and now I can’t find it.
Part of it is about how my brain categorizes things. Let’s say I’m looking for the spray bottle with the stain remover in it. I’m putting my shirt in the hamper, and notice that I’ve spilled food on it earlier in the day, so I want to spray the stain with the soapy stuff before tossing it in the hamper in hopes of preventing a stain. And I go to the hall closet where the laundry detergent is, expecting to find the bottle there, but it isn’t there. And it isn’t in the bedroom by the hamper where I probably used it last time. This means that at some point while I was doing something completely unrelated to laundry, I noticed the spray bottle out where it shouldn’t be, and instead of putting it in the hall closet, I put is somewhere else. It might be in the cabinet under the bathroom sink, for instance, because a lot of soap-like things are kept there. Or I might have put it in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, because a lot of cleaning supplies are there.
Why not back to the closet? Because I probably found the bottle where it didn’t belong while I was in the middle of another task. And I didn’t want to lose track of the other task, but I also wanted to put the bottle away, and my silly brain instead up popping up with the location of the closet where the laundry detergent is, suggested some other place where other cleaning things are.
Or maybe the task I was in the middle of was getting ready for work and get out the door, and the next thing I had meant to do was assemble my lunch, so I carried the bottle with me as I go to assemble my lunch. Assembling the lunch involves getting some things out of the pantry. When I got into the pantry I reached for soup=in-a-cup, which involves opening a box and selecting one of the cups and realized I was still holding the bottle of stain remover so I set it on the lower pantry shelf to free up my hand and get the soup, then walk back out into the kitchen to get on with lunch. And because that lower shelf has a lot of bottles of varying sizes and a variety of colors of labels, and the pantry is only dimly lit, it just blended in and neither of us noticed it for two weeks.
But yes, one other time I found it under the bathroom sink. Another time under the kitchen sink. Both of those were found the same day I noticed it missing. The time it was left in the pantry it took longer.
Then there is the topic of important papers. Maybe I have a folder of instructions from the doctor for a procedure scheduled a couple of months out. I read through it all once, but I’ll need to consult it again a few days before, because I had dietary restrictions the day before. So it needs to be put away somewhere where it is out of the way, but I will find it when I need to.
So I take it into the computer room and I put it in a standing sorter near my desk where a bunch of other important papers are. Or at least, that’s what I thought I did, but of course when I go looking again it isn’t there. So if I didn’t put it there, where else did I put it? The drawers under the stand-up thing where a lot of other papers are? Maybe. Or maybe the bin where the bills to pay are kept. That’s a pile of papers I go through frequently and I always know where it is, so maybe that’s where I put it. Or maybe it’s in the filebox where a bunch of other important papers are kept… or…
So I spend a couple hours searching everywhere I can think of, and it’s getting late and I just resign myself to having to call the doctor’s office the next morning before I go to work. I begin the going to bed routine and I grab my nighttime meds… and that’s when I notice a familiar-looking folder stuck behind all the prescription bottles and vitamin bottles and the blood pressure thing and so forth. There wedged in besides the receipts from the pharmacy that I save so that every few months I can scan them in and fill out the only form and get re-imbursed for the co-pays.
I put it with other papers that I save, all right. And they’re even medical papers! But somehow making that decision got mangled in my memory as the location in the computer room.
It made sense at the time, but darned if I’ll remember a week afterward…