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Merriewold: odd little community in upstate New York. Not an intentional community; more a private enclave. Lake, woods, houses. Lots of theater people—at the center, George Abbott, who had a house there. Theater producer/director/writer/all-around champion who lived to be a vigorous 107. Directed the original Broadway productions of Pal Joey and On The Town, back in the ‘40s. And Damn Yankees and Pajama Game, for both of which he also wrote the book. And Where’s Charley, which had starred Allyn Ann Mclerie, Matt Gaynes’s Mom.
Years later George Abbott’s second wife, Mary Sinclair, painted my mother. After she found him cheating, after she left him, after she fell in love with another woman. The painting is a definitive picture of my mother in her prime in the ‘70s. But that was yet to come.
George Abbott’s house was big, as I remember it the biggest around, and just up the road from the lake. Our house—the house we had rented from friends—was further along that road and then another road off, small, considerably distant from the lake. After us, the asphalt ended, the road turned to tire ruts cutting through bushes.
This was where Matt Gaynes and I spent the summer of 1967—I turned 9, dreamy, introverted, overweight. He was three months younger than I, but taller, more present, less awkward, and he never had a weight problem.
Sam and Grayson—my Mom and Dad—had rented the house for the summer from friends to debate (and perhaps postpone) a decision they didn’t want to make: whether or not they could continue to attempt lives as a writer and actress in New York City, or whether the economics had so turned against them that they had to give up their dreams and all the work they had done—my mother both off-Broadway and on, my father writing for television and garnering interest in his plays—and go back to my father’s one-stoplight town in Ohio to take a job in his father’s rubber glove factory.
I was aware we were poor. We lived cheaply; we were not extravagant. Money was always an issue, a subject of conversation, an insurmountable truth. One reason we were in Merriewold was that it was cheaper to be there than in New York City. Another reason was to be in the orbit of George Abbott and his retinue. What was once called social climbing is now called networking, and Mom, as an actress, and Dad, as a playwright, had put themselves into proximity of one of the American theater’s great powerhouses. And then Mom blew it all by getting cast in a soap opera with vampires.
Famously, Grayson was in New York one Manhattan summer temperature-inversion heatwave day in June; she had just come in from errands, stripped off her clothes and had one foot in a cool shower when the phone rang. She stood perched for a second, her foot wet, debated not answering it, but she wasn’t bodily in the shower yet so she pulled out and went to get the phone. It was her agent offering her a short role on Dark Shadows. The show’s lead was a vampire; Mom was to be a famous hematologist investigating the vampire’s victims; she would threaten the vampire’s identity and be killed off in a couple of weeks. We needed the money. She took the job.
Thereafter, Mom commuted to Merriewold as the production schedule allowed, taking the bus to Monticello, the closest town, us all rattling back and forth to pick her up in one of her father’s used-car-lot cars, Dad setting up his typewriter to write on the wooden porch, Mom studying her scripts on the couch in the living room. She brought foods from New York—black raisin bread, I remember, and soap, and no doubt wine for the two of them.
A potato chip can—Sam would say tin, the Ohio word—large enough for a child to embrace. After the chips were gone, I caught a catfish in the lake, a big monster, green and whiskered, and filled the can with hose water to contain him. He was an object of fascination, a species utterly alien, and when he died Matt Gaynes and I buried him in an inappropriate grave amidst the roots of pines.
We ate catfish; just not him.
Mom and Dad went to parties. One night after dinner at George Abbott’s, Mom, lubricated if not pixilated, tripped in the dark heading back to the car, cut her ankle on the rough bark of a tree, and woke up with blood poisoning. Took a couple of days to manifest, but it didn’t get better, and it made her ill, and eventually it necessitated a trip to the emergency room in Monticello, the nearest town, antibiotics and a bandage. The irony was not lost: blood poisoning, hematologist, Dark Shadows. The wound healed over into a quiet scar that she had for the rest of her life.
George Abbott never cast her in anything; he never entertained the notion of doing one of my father’s plays. But Dark Shadows turned out to be a revolution in our family, the beginning of solidity, and George Abbott did not, as it happened, matter.
Mom got the job by bravura, but she kept it by technique. She decided early on that every scene she would be in would be inhabited by a subtext only she knew: she was in love with the vampire. She never said it, she never explained it to anyone, she just kept that thought in her heart and let it guide every choice she made whenever she was on camera. That was the work she did that summer, and beyond, to help our family survive.
For Matt and me the days were hot, and still, and sometimes the wind would sheen through the trees, and sometimes it rained. There were crickets in the dry fields and fireflies at dusk and owls in the woods and rubber-band-powered balsa wood airplanes that flew too far to ever be found, and stray cats, and skinny orange salamanders three inches long hugging the skirts of trees on the mornings after rain.
Merriewold in 1967 was the only place I’ve ever seen salamanders like that; I’ve never been back and I’ve never seen lizards emerge after every rain to cling to tree bark anywhere else.
Lake swimming in summer: a wooden raft docked ten yards off the beach, a rope swing dangling from a fat healthy tree, swimming out through the goose-pimple cool water to the oddly permanent spot in which warm water welled up from unknown depths, and then treading water and hanging out, talking and talking, never wanting to leave the charmed warm circle, knowing that eventually you’d have to make your way back, the cool water now insultingly cold.
And then: lunch. The Snack Bar across the road from the short sandy beach, the waddle of flip flops on hot asphalt. The snack bar was tiny, a counter and some stools and a diner menu on the wall, black letters slotted into white plastic. I had, as a rule, .50 cents for the day. I remember Matt having more. A hot dog was .30 cents, cheapest thing on the menu; with cheese .35; my one luxury. With a soda, .15, that was my .50 cents, and after that I was broke. There were hamburgers on the menu, but I couldn’t afford them. A cheese dog: every day, unchanging, that was what my money could buy.
And now we get to the heart of this memory: the guy behind the grill who made my cheese dog had a record player perched on a shelf. And it was always on. And it was the summer of 1967.
Some days it was Sgt Pepper. Some days it was The Doors first album (which I actually knew—my parents had bought it off of reviews because of the Brecht/Weill song Whiskey Bar and the luridly Freudian The End, which had momentarily intrigued my father. After a while they had grown bored of it—it wasn’t show tunes—and had given it to me). Some days Surrealistic Pillow.
Sgt Pepper. The sheer liberational sweep of that album, the gently pointed modernity, the way it moved from height to height.
Every moment of music was of paramount importance, at once palpably present and infuriatingly ephemeral, transmissions from a half-glimpsed distant world. Lunch over, no money left, no reason to stay, the music swirling through the little room, I’d wait for the song to end—Matt Gaynes impatient to be up, doing something, on to the next adventure—and then I’d force myself up before the next one started, push myself step by step back out into the summer day. I was mildly aware that I looked like a fat kid, nowhere to go, loitering around a lunch counter.
But it wasn’t the food. It was the music. It made me never want to leave.
Broadway cast albums. My parents owned all of them.
Every new show, often before they went to see it, the record would be in our house. Dad would play it nonstop for one week, perhaps two, and then it would begin to drop off the rotation. Mom, at some point in her earlier life, had loved classical music; it had been a vehicle of escape and deliverance for her as a conflicted teenager in Philadelphia, infiltrating the intermission crowds at the Academy of Music, walking casually in as the lights went back down and finding a free seat for the second halves of symphony concerts with her great friend Jane Fried. Mom had a decent working knowledge of composers and symphonies, and they meant something deep in her, but (in some moods, to her regret) there wasn’t really space for it in our daily lives.
The stereo equipment was pretty marvelous: Fred Kimball, an actor my mother had worked with in The Balcony at the Circle in the Square in 1960 (and who cowrote Looking for Richard, Al Pacino’s 1996 exegeses on Richard III) built the amp—two parallel-wired metal boxes rife with uncovered tubes. The only controller was a toggle switch—flip it up and the large bulb-type tubes would gently start to glow, and in about a minute it was warmed up enough to play a record. Played well and lasted forever—when, after twenty-five years, the tubes eventually started to burn out, the stereos in stores were all solid state; for a while we could find replacement tubes, and then eventually we could not.
They still used them in Russia, we were told, but that was no help. True fact: Mom spent her life wanting to go to Russia, regarding it as part of her heritage. She never did. There’s a lesson in that.
Anyway. Three speakers, mismatched, a large and a small one in my father’s office, which is where the amp and turntable and records all lived, and another large one in the living room, there for parties, wired through a hole drilled in the wall.
Music. All the time. Show tunes, whatever was on Broadway that minute that was good, plus dips into shows that had lasted in the lineup by dint of shining quality. Dad played music when he was writing—something I have never been able to do—and would stop to change sides and then keep on typing whatever script he was working on.
He took terrible care of his records, my father. Left them in stacks on the floor, plastic scratching on plastic, like a teenager. It was a clue to him, somehow, that he loved them and didn’t take care of them at the same time.
I was having dinner with my mother’s father—Grandpa Joe, the used car man—the night the Beatles played Ed Sullivan. Sunday ritual every two weeks, and had they played on the next week I’d’ve seen them, because Mom and I watched that show every alternate Sunday. Probably a steakhouse: Al and Dick’s on 54th street, perhaps, or something grander. Grandpa drank scotch; Mom and dad drank vodka. I had a Shirley Temple. A TV on at the end of the bar area—Sullivan, but not the Beatles; not yet, or perhaps they’d already played. Then, at the table, out of sight of the television, the Beatles phenomenon was considered, analyzed and rejected by my grandfather. My mother listened, let the vodka help her disagreement stay in check—anything, I now see, to keep the conversational ball drifting gently in the air, making contact with nothing. I remember being disappointed not to see the Beatles, even as I had only a vague understanding of who and what they were. They would be a topic at school the next day, I surmised; everyone else would have seen them, and I would not have, the faux pas looming in the distance like an inevitable storm seen across a dry desert.
I was wrong, though. I most always was, when I saw social disaster ahead of me. And the Beatles were big enough, in the Walt-Whitman-containing-multitudes sense, to include me, sweep me right along with them when the time came.
Sie Liebt Dich, their version of She Loves You sung in German, played loud on the radio in a taxi. The moment did eventually arrive. And when it did, that band had the power to render both my difficult grandfather and my own sense of continual teetering social inadequacy utterly and defiantly meaningless.
Because that’s what you felt when you felt pure joy. That’s why the girls were screaming. That’s what that band could do.