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Mom and I had our best conversations in cars. Her father was a used car dealer in Philadelphia; she had access, throughout her life, to as many cars as she needed, none of them particularly well cared for. Cars, to her, were tools, as discardable as three-dollar street umbrellas. She loved driving, and was strong and competent behind the wheel, drove fast and took risks and talked the whole way. She terrified her more staid and waspy friends, who did not grasp the artful dishabille of her control, but I loved driving with her and never felt anything except safe.
Her father Joe was a dapper hustler in his youth who aged into a man of steakhouses and scotch and cigars, unperturbed by any notion that his way of doing things wasn’t the right and correct and only way. He had broken with my grandmother in my mother’s youth; Eleanor had refused him a divorce, and had routinely sent my mother on missions to get money out of him. The humiliations my mother suffered as a consequence of this seriously dreadful dynamic were constant and debilitating, they fused into a chisel opening faults in the architecture of her self-worth and left her fragile in places she would have preferred being strong.
But her inalterably complicated upbringing compensated her with strengths in other arenas: her compassion was mighty, though unevenly dispersed. She could be hell on taxi drivers and capricious towards functionaries behind counters, be they in stores or airports. She was a woman of white-hot temperament, with no patience for incompetence and extraordinary zeal for good people wronged, whether by small issues or large. One of the things she loved about the work of acting was the tight-knit clan, the equality and fraternity of the troupe. She formed strong and fast friendships backstage and on set; these gene fragments of friendship grew quick and deep, and then severed and reconstituted with the next group, the next play, the next movie. The spirit of unity was, no doubt, a balm to the child of a disunited and meretricious couple.
But even with that, the sheer force of her survival allowed her to mature into a woman of great strength. Damaged, but strong.
Mom surprised me, one summer day, car with a blue interior, her driving, me with my feet on the dashboard. Not Rhinebeck, not college or beyond. Some time, I expect, around 1973. Just her and me, and for the first time she tells me her thoughts about the spirit, the soul’s transcendence. Reincarnation: maybe. Better than maybe, even; it made sense to her. And me, slackjawed in wonder, because she’s never told me any of this before.
Interesting: dinner with my father at a restaurant one night when I was 14, just him and me, my father utterly surprised me by telling me his internal truth. It was about the past, about his mother and father, about how he related to them.
Roughly around the same time, driving south, my mother utterly surprised me by telling me her own internal truth. It was about her belief in the soul’s continuing journey.
In both cases, they were telling me the most zealously guarded secrets they knew.
Fame is weird.
My mother, in that summer before Nantucket, was recognizably famous.
Walking around, every block or so, people would stop her on the street —mostly Dark Shadows fans, mostly high school kids, for a while it was actually difficult to get anywhere by foot— and ask her for her autograph.
When we were in public, and somebody recognized her, the conversation was always the same. One by one they would hit each beat: surprise, recognition, compliment, proof of depth of knowledge about her, Dark Shadows or something else she’d done, expectation of certain behavior back, and then, with that achieved, the request for the autograph.
Mom was, most of the time, very nice—though not all of the time. The thing was, we understood that we had to let people go through every beat; the fact that the beats were always the same didn’t mitigate their importance to the person hitting them. All of this required patience, and patience was not a flower that grew in Mom’s garden. But her empathy would usually outstrip her impatience, most of the time, and she’d sign the autograph, and be gracious, and move on.
Once, somewhere between ’72 and ’75, after she signed for a perfectly pleasant young man, I waited until he was out of hearing and I said, mostly out of frustration: what’s he going to do with that, now that he has it? And she smiled and said: That and thirty-five cents will get him on the subway.
Anyway. Carlsbad, New Mexico, Gargoyles MOW shoot, summer 1972. The motel where the cast and crew stayed had a bell on the glass front door that jangled whenever it was opened or closed. One evening, Matt Gaynes, my mother and I, and various actors and film crew members were waiting for the drivers to get us all to the set, and as it happened one of mom’s TV shows—her episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery—was on the motel lobby television set. So we’re all watching Mom emote scarily away on the screen, and every time the door jangles we all look up, expecting the driver. And at some point the door jangles, and we all look up, and a normal American family, mom and dad and buddy and sis, walk into the motel lobby. And the man points to the TV and says: Look—Grayson Hall. And his wife says: From Dark Shadows. And the husband says: Right. And they watch for a moment, and then go about their business, and they never realized the woman was right there in the room with them, watching herself on TV.
We were dumbfounded. All of us. Too dumbfounded for my mother to jump up in front of all those actors, embrace the sheer weird Marshall Mcluhanness of the moment, and introduce herself. Nope. We were all too dumbfounded to pull that off.
And all these years later, I still am.