My mother and I were in Fort Scott, Kansas, for the world premiere of a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Having a connection to the story, and having served as an unofficial consultant to the writer/director, my mother was guest of honour. I had been flown in with her, as a kind of aide-de-camp. As we made our entrance, one of Mum’s arms linked with mine, the other, gripping the handle of a cane, we were confronted by the local paparazzi. A slew of digital cameras snapped at us like the jaws of baby crocodiles. Our image would be published on the front page of the Fort Scott Tribune the next day.
The Liberty Theatre was built in the 1880s and has been repeatedly renovated. On the parterre, special attendees were seated at round tables. John Kent Harrison, the writer/director of the film, looking far more relaxed than he had in Hollywood two nights before, sat down next to me before noticing that his name was written on a card on a table behind us, together with a group of Hallmark executives. “Oh no, I have to go and sit there.” Throughout the screening of the film I would feel Harrison’s eyes on my back, as he watched me watching his film. At the private screening for 500 on the lot of the old Twenty-Century Fox studio, he had sat three rows behind me and my mother. When my mother was introduced and called up to the stage, I stood with her. In early winter, an injury rendered her disabled. She was shut in, shuffling with the aid of a walker. Only a month before this event she had begun intensive chiropractic treatment. I had told her that by the evening of the Hollywood premiere, she would walk down the aisle of the Zanuck Theatre holding my arm with one hand, and sporting a cane on the other. As we rose, she suddenly brushed me aside. “I’m going by myself!” My mother began her descent down an inclined aisle. I walked several steps behind her, like a parent anxiously guarding as its child crosses the street for the first time. The audience noticed. “Who is that elegant woman?” Someone whispered. Down front, one of the young Kansans, seeing me hover, leapt up, raced to my mother, and escorted her onto the stage.
At six pm we had been picked up by limousine in the boutique hotel Hallmark had housed us in, and driven to the Fox studio. Mum moved with the aid of the walker down the long city-like blocks of the studio lot, while I carried her cane. As we approached the entrance of the Zanuck Theatre, we noticed a set of stairs. While I wondered how my mother would negotiate them, a moving platform rolled in front of us, and its driver instructed us to climb aboard. The movie stars took the stairs. We floated above the stars; Mummy, her walker, her cane, and me.
It was in the dead of winter that my mother first received a call from John Kent Harrison. He had been steered to her by a woman in Warsaw, who has become my mother’s best friend. He had been hired by Hallmark to write and direct a film about the Polish wartime heroine Irena Sendler, who died in May of 2007, at the age of 98. Sendler, a social worker by profession, led a team which rescued 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. My mother’s friend Bieta was a six-month-old infant when she was smuggled out of the Ghetto in a box cut with air holes on its sides. Her parents had placed a silver spoon in the box alongside the baby with the engraved inscription, “Elizabeth, January 5, 1942.” Bieta refers to the spoon as her birth certificate. Bieta was raised as a Catholic by a colleague of Sendler’s, and took care of her rescuer until the day Sendler died.
The world child survivor movement began in my mother’s living room. I had brought home a McGill professor, born in Amsterdam in 1938, on the same street where the German refugee family Frank lived, along with their daughter Anne. At the time the two of us were roaming around with tape recorders in hand; recording interviews; capturing memories. When Yehudi set up an oral history program at McGill, my mother joined him as co-interviewer. It was in her capacity as a Holocaust educator that my mother met Bieta in Warsaw, which ultimately led to an introduction to Sendler. My mother would discover that her repeated rescues had been facilitated by members of Sendler’s team. She was with Sendler in Warsaw when the old woman, crippled by her torture at the hands of the Germans, received word that a group of American teenagers were about to call on her. They had sent her a letter in February, 2OOO, and she had written back. “I have no idea what this is about. You’d better stick around,” Sendler instructed my mother. “You speak English.”
Four high school girls from the hamlet of Uniontown, in Kansas, had discovered the identity of Sendler while researching material for a high school history project. They would write and perform a short play about her wartime exploits, and would tour North America with it for the next ten years. They would also present the play in Poland. Their teacher had won both state and national awards.
Ninety miles away, in Kansas City, sat the iconic Hallmark Hall of Fame film production company. The daughter of Hallmark’s owner attended a performance of Life in a Jar and excitedly told her father about it, but no action was taken until several years later when, serendipitously, an independent producer bought the rights to Sendler’s story and approached the television film giant. It was only then that the internationally established Hallmark contacted a writer/director who had worked for them in the past. In Divine alignment John Kent Harrison, while filming in Poland, had been given Sendler’s biography and was smitten by the tale of this diminuitive, indomitable wartime heroine.
In Warsaw, in winter, Bieta would tell the Hallmark producers and Harrison, “I was just a baby; I don’t remember anything. There’s a woman in Montreal you should be speaking to. She’s my best friend. She was older. She remembers everything.”
“How old is this woman?”
Harrison was sceptical. According to Bieta, he appeared to doubt whether a woman of such an advanced age would have retained her marbles, but he contacted my mother anyway. My mother has a lethal memory. So do I. Often, it feels like a curse.
The writer/director sent my mother a Polish version of his first draft. My mother’s reaction was swift, and succinct. She tossed the script on her dining room table. “This is not the way it happened! This is nonsense!”
Mum has never been wishy-washy. I smiled. “You know, Ma, if you were in my writing workshop, you’d have to find another way of saying that.”
“Oh yeah? Like how?’
“Well, how about, ‘The script doesn’t tell the real story.’ ”
“Hmmph. Maybe I’ll ask to see an English version. They’re making this movie in English. Why would I want to read it in Polish? I’m in Canada sixty years! Like I didn’t have time to learn English?!”
Upon request, my mother received and studied the English version. Again, the verdict was rendered. “This isn’t much better.”
“Well Ma, it seems you’re in a position where you can help the writer improve his script.” Guarding sacred memories, my defensive mother didn’t recognize the opportunity at hand.
“Aw, you remember what happened with that other script I was asked to help with! They turned it into a travesty! I worked with those people and they did what they wanted anyway! They offered to put my name on the screen in the credits. I told them, ‘If you dare put my name on that piece of trash I’ll sue you!’ And they were Jews! This guy is a goy from Ontario. I looked him up on the internet! They gave him this movie to make because the last movie he did was about the Pope! A Polish Pope; a Polish heroine—close enough! How could he possibly understand the Warsaw Ghetto! And Hallmark is producing it! Hallmark?! Achhh! They’ll turn it into syrup!” I understood my mother’s fears.
“He’s a writer, Ma, and you’re a resource. If he has integrity, if he cares about what he’s doing, he’ll be smart enough to listen to you. And you know,” I warned my traumatized mama, “This movie will be made whether you participate or not, so you may as well get involved. You can only help to make it better. “Besides,” I reminded this fierce, formidable, profoundly damaged woman, “Its your duty. You owe it to Sendler’s memory.” Finally, she was convinced. Thus began what would develop into a special working relationship between two people who would not meet face-to-face until the film’s Hollywood premiere; a relationship which would grow into feelings of mutual affection and respect.
I spent a lot of time with my mother that winter. Often, I was on the premises when Harrison called from his cell phone on location in Latvia, to consult with my mother on a detail. It was a good sign.
I’ve always been uncomfortable attending the premieres of Holocaust-related films; so much so that I stopped attending them. I would feel embarrassed getting dolled up to watch the suffering and starvation of children in rags, and then being part of an audience feasting at a buffet. Sitting in Hollywood beside my mother, with the tense, perspiring Harrison seated three rows behind us, I shed my discomfort and lost my embarrassment. The film works, and both Harrison and I know his film is as good as it is because of my mother’s contribution to it.
The day before we left for Los Angeles, while I was busy with last-minute packing, my mother called. “I have a favour to ask you.” Coming from my mother, a request is considered a command. “They’re probably going to ask me to give a speech. They usually do, at these sort of things. I’ve written something, and I want you to read it.” At first, I thought Mum was asking me to proofread and edit her speech. It turned out to be more than that. “I’m going to be too emotional to deliver it. I want you to read it for me.”
“You want me to stand on a stage in front of 500 invited guests in Hollywood and deliver a speech in your name?”
My mother is a Holocaust star; she knows how to deliver a speech. “What are you up to, Ma?”
“I want Hollywood to see what a gorgeous daughter I have. I want to see you back in the limelight.” Mum was referring to the fact that I began my professional life on the stage.
The prospect was tempting; it was also terrifying. I worked on my mother’s speech, and then, in a moment of panic, I e-mailed the Hallmark representative I had been in touch with while making travel arrangements, and asked her if a speech was expected. “No. We’re all going to just sit back and enjoy the moment.”
When the moment came, my mother was asked to “please say a few words.” Mum demurred. She’s the greatest actress I’ve ever known. Her performance was so pitch perfect that it almost convinced me.
At the reception, one of the Hallmark executives lauded her decision to remain silent. “You were right. Always leave ‘em wanting more.”
My mother eyed me ruefully. She hissed, “Do you feel as frustrated as I do?”
“Yes and no. I may have missed the moment, but it just didn’t feel right. It’s Harrison’s night.”
At the reception I entered into a long conversation with Harrison’s assistant editor. I confessed my dilemma. “Oh! I’m so sorry you didn’t! I would’ve loved to have heard the speech! I would’ve listened to you and seen you as a conduit for your mother. Even a truncated version would be worth listening to. Perhaps you can cobble together something for the premiere on Wednesday night. And hey, this is Hollywood. Everyone’s looking out for their next job. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to shine.”
I was staggered by audience reaction to my mother. At the reception, actors and screenwriters and directors and producers insisted on paying homage to her for no other reason, but that she had survived. The real heroine is dead, and Mum was an accessible piece of living history connected to her. As my mother perched on the seat of her walker, Hollywood luminaries moved in. “Tell me your story! I want to shake your hand!” Some just observed, as if Mummy were a relic on exhibit in a museum. I recognized one of them. She is a mature, aging woman now; still classy, still attractive. She stood apart, silently contemplating my mother. Fifty years ago, she incarnated Margot Frank in one of the first films dealing with the Shoah. Forty years ago, she played Maximilian Schell’s love interest in an adventure epic. I remembered watching it on television and mulling on how lovely she was. I remembered musing how I’d like to look like her. Now here we were at a reception on the lot of the studio where she began her career, our shoulders draped in glittering shawls, in concession to the cool California evening. She, a seventy-one-year-old film producer whose once-raven hair is highlighted an artificial gold; me; an obscure, 53-year-old writer from Canada whose chestnut-coloured hair is streaked a god-given silver.
On what was she reflecting as she regarded Hallmark’s poster child for the Holocaust? Was she remembering Otto Frank, who had wept when he met the dark, wholesome beauty who bore such a startling resemblance to his dead daughter Margot? As she stared at my mother in the midst of Shoah business, she caught me staring at her. “Are you Diane Baker?”
“Yes, I am.” An infinitesimal lift of an eyebrow betrayed her surprise at being recognized. Her close-mouthed smile mirrored mine. What else could I say? There was nothing more to say. All I could do was savour the moment.
When Mum and I returned to our executive suite, we went to work on reconstructing the speech. Just before two am, when I could do no more, she found a copy of what she’d originally written, tucked away in her suitcase.
We left the smog-choked Hollywood hills at nine the next morning, for an 11 am flight to Kansas City. We were traveling with the executives from Hallmark, and with the troupe from Fort Scott. The four high school girls who had created the original production of Life in a Jar are young married women now. As an airport official snaked my mother’s wheelchair through a serpentine route in Los Angeles’ massive airport, we followed behind like ducks in a row; the Hallmark executives, me, and the young women, with one of their husbands, a photographer, in tow. I had negotiated a Business Class ticket for my mother on the Montreal-Los Angeles flight, but now we were all flying Economy. On a midget airline called Midwest, we even had to pay to check in our bags. As we scrunched into the cramped seats, Mama Duck turned to one of the Hallmark executives and quacked, “I would think you guys would have private jets!”
“We do,” he admitted. “But we’re not using them this year.” I would later learn that Hallmark is in the process of laying off 750 employees. Those who manage to hold onto their jobs are grateful to be traveling with the masses.
From the Emerald City, we were airlifted to Kansas. We arrived in The Heartland along with spring. Tender primavera leaves peaked through their buds. The air was dry and crystalline. Farm lands shimmered under wide prairie skies. Shadows fell disconcertingly early, because we had lost two of the three hours we’d gained on going to California. Our arrival in Kansas was a kind of homecoming for me, as well as for my companions. Eighteen months earlier, I had spent several weeks on a ranch outside Fort Scott as the guest of a woman who had been one of the chaperones on the Kansas troupe’s visit to Poland. I never imagined I would be transported back so soon.
We reached Fort Scott after six pm. Main St. was deserted, except for the warm, welcoming presence of Norman Conard. Norman is a multiple-award- winning educator who was the inspiration and catalyst for the high school history project which rescued the legacy of the rescuer Sendler. No longer in the classroom, he is now the director of The Lowell Milken Education Center in Fort Scott. While his former students, founders of the Life in a Jar project, traveled to California, Norman remained in town to finalize arrangements for the premiere, and for our stay. I had met him several times, briefly and on the fly, but it would be on this trip, for the next two days, that I discovered why his protégées, as well as my mother, adore him.
It was Norman who had arranged for the two limousines, the red carpet, the klieg lights, and the theatre. Creative, dynamic, and surprisingly sweet, the beloved “Mr. Conard” is a middle-aged Andy Hardy who involved the whole town in putting on a show. Fort Scott’s spirit while it hosted the world premiere of a film was reminiscent of Frank Capra’s cinematic American towns. Hollywood fever had hit the Midwest, and its inhabitants seemed high on helium.
During our stay in Fort Scott my mother and I were housed in The Pink Cottage across the street from The Big House. The Big House is one of twin Victorian mansions operated by the Lyons family as a guest house. Harrison and the Hallmark executives were housed in The Big House, and my mother and I were sheltered in a dream cottage, which we had to ourselves. We assumed Hallmark was sponsoring our stay, just as it had in Hollywood. We would later learn that the use of this romantic abode, built in 1930 and lovingly restored and decorated like a museum, had also been donated.
After a day of traveling, Mum and I dropped onto our ergonomically-designed four-poster beds, overwhelmed. Mum said it for us both. “There are hidden treasures in this country.”
The anachronistically fresh air of the flatlands knocked out my mother like a drug. I slept-walked through this living dream. A bathroom with black-slate tiles led into a walk-in overhead shower which mimicked a rain shower. It was augmented with strategically-placed horizontal jet streams. Off the bathroom there was a room-sized, soft beige-toned boudoir for milady. The fully-equipped kitchen, its window overlooking a back porch and small garden, had a digital oven and stove top, and under the silent ceiling fan there was a counter bar flanked by leather-covered stools. On the edge of the kitchen counter, as an accent, sat a cowboy-boot-shaped crystal mug. In what might’ve been a dining room there was a long desk with a globe perched on its edge. The desk was positioned in front of an electric fireplace. In the darkness, against the mahogany panelling I could envision one Samuel Clemens, an extravagantly-moustachioed riverboat captain, dipping a quill into an ink pot and composing another tall tale destined for publication in a newspaper across the state line.
It is “Miss Pat,” a glamorous, saucer-eyed grandmother, who watches over The Twins and The Pink like a guest-house goddess. She is assisted by her son Nate, who resembles a younger George Clooney. “For anything simple, call me,” she instructed as she taped phone numbers next to the wall phone. “For anything technical, call Nate.” Miss Pat brought in a dish of fresh fruit salad, yogurt mixed with nutmeg and vanilla, and a baggie-full of her homemade granola, studded with walnuts and pecans harvested from a local farm. “For breakfast, so I won’t disturb you in the morning.” Nate presented himself after I sent an S.O.S., when unable to activate the digital oven.
After feeding myself and my drowsy, contented mother with baked potatoes and kefir purchased during a quick stop at Woods, I fell into my four-poster. The whistle of the trains broke the stillness of the night. Behind my eyes I could see the statuesque “Harvey Girls” in their long aprons, their cinched shirt-waists, their World War II coifs, their dazzling MGM smiles and their sizzling MGM tans. Echoing through the ether like a lullaby came the voice of the golden-throated Garland crooning, “All the way to Califor-nii—Ayyy on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe!”
I turned to the night table. An ornately carved tray rested on its edge. There was a colourful slip of paper inserted into the tray, and in elaborate calligraphy it read, “It is 1876. Fort Scott is the Rail center of the Frontier, bringing supplies to fledgling mercantiles, loading precious coal, paint, cement and flagstone, and heading WEST! Thus began the romance that exists today between Fort Scott’s citizens and the railroads. We locals consider the long whines and whistles from the Burlington-Northern music to our ears. If you are not quite as enamoured, here are earplugs to ensure your uninterrupted night.” Miss Pat had thought of everything.
“Oh! What a beautiful morning! Oh! What a beautiful day!” Wednesday, April 15 glowed in living Technicolor. No one locks their doors in CapraLand. Before we had time to realize we needed something, a friendly soul would poke her face through the door, and just happen to be able to supply it.
In a phone call to the Milken Center, I informed Megan that Mum was prepared to give the speech she’d refused to give on Monday evening in Hollywood. A few moments later, the wall next to the Mark Twainish desk vibrated, as the phone rang. “Ahh, Brent said there won’t be time for speeches, so you don’t have to bother. You can relax.” I was hearing echoes.
“Ma, who was it who asked you to give a speech on Monday night?”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Then maybe it was Brad. I get those COEs mixed up.”
“CEOs. And there’s only one of them.”
I sighed.” “Never mind.”
Brad was the president of Hallmark; Brent was the producer of the film. Tweedledee was saying yes; Tweedledum was saying no.
Mum and I looked at each other in consternation. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…” At the same instant, we reached the same conclusion. “Get it ready. Prepare the speech.”
My mother was trundled off for another round of media interviews. Hallmark was getting its’ money’s worth. As the self-styled aide-de-camp, I had little more to do than enjoy the almost impossibly perfect day. I took my notebook, the speech, and several miniature red mugs filled with mint tea onto the back porch. There was a small running fountain on the porch. A fully-stocked fish pond nestled underneath. The enclosed yard contained patio furniture, a grill, and a fire pit. All was sheltered by an old oak tree.
I sat in the sun, editing my mother’s speech. Despite what I had told Megan, I expected to be delivering it that evening. When I was done I luxuriated in the cleansing private rain shower, stretched on a rug in front of the electric fireplace, and then took the speech across the street to The Big House, to type it up on Miss Pat’s computer. A photographer was taking pictures of a family of children on the steps of the Lyons mansion. I took a few moments to swing on the front porch swing, like a frontier gal waitin’ for her fella to come a callin’. I borrowed a 1948 edition of Life magazine, which lay on the coffee table in the front parlour. After placing it on the quilted spread of my mother’s four-poster, I took a stroll along the shady, tree-lined streets of this sparkling Caprasque town.
At the cocktail hour, one of two limousines drove up to the entrance of the cottage. (The other drove back and forth from The Big House, chauffeuring Harrison and the group from Hallmark.) The driver emerged, and waited on the sidewalk. Becky Halsey and her husband came to the door to fetch us. Becky Halsey, henceforth to be referred to as “Jellyshot Becky,” had designated herself our official escort for the evening. She had told Norman as much. She insisted upon it.
A showdown between Jellyshot Becky and Mama had taken place at the turn of this century, when my mother was brought to Fort Scott for the first time, as a living example of a rescued child; an added attraction to the Life in a Jar student play. Norman held a party in his home. Becky was one of the guests. Like many Midwesterners, she bubbles with friendliness and hospitality. What the townsfolk knew, and my mother did not, is that Becky’s culinary speciality is Jell-O Shots. Jell-O Shots are cubes of Jell-O laced with vodka. Bubbly Becky approached the stranger aiming a tray upon which was balanced slippery red gelatinous cubes. “Jell-O SHAT!” She eyeballed my mother. Becky knew the older woman had been born in Europe. “Jell-O SHAT!” She nodded emphatically, raising a spoon.
Instantly, my cosmopolitan mother understood what she was dealing with. Mischievously, she widened her eyes and slowly, hesitantly repeated, “Jeeellow SHAAAWT!”
“Very good!” Becky was pleased with how quickly the foreigner was learning. She dropped a cube down her gullet, handed my mother one of the spoons lying on the tray, and motioned to her to do the same. Gleefully, my mother played her part. She picked up a spoon and scooped up a cube. She batted the eyelashes shading her steely blue-gray peepers. Becky missed the glint in them. “Jello SHAWT?”
Becky was impressed. “Yes! Yes! Jello SHAT!’” Becky made the rounds of the room, and kept circling back to my mother. “Jello Shat!” She coached her protégée. “Jello Shat!” Mute, my mother would nod, and scoop up another cube. This pattern continued for several rounds. The Pole in my mother is familiar with the effects of vodka. When she began to feel them she erupted, “Goddamit! What the hell’s going on here?! Norman!” Mama wailed across the room. “This woman is getting me drunk!” Becky reeled. So did my mama, but for a different reason. The joke was on both of them.
Now Becky, her husband and the senior partner of the funeral home brought us to a wine and cheese reception at the Milken Center on Main Street.
I wound my way to the back of the crowded office, where the fruit and water was located. In the small, tight space I knocked against the back of a gentleman, and we turned to face each other. His small round eyes flashed, and his big round face broke into a wide, delighted smile. It was John Harrison. We hadn’t seen each other since the premiere in Hollywood, two nights before. To my surprise, the director of the film flung his arms around me. On this soft spring evening, he was expansive and relaxed. After a year of intense, focused labour, Harrison knew he’d birthed a success.
Though the Liberty Theatre was one block down on the other side of the street, we V.I.P.s-for-the-evening were bustled back into the limousine and driven around the corner and beyond in order to make the ride appear longer. Our chauffeur was the father of a father-and-son-run funeral home, a white-haired gentleman by the name of Jerry Witt. Indeed.
In front of the theatre, Mercy Hospital’s red carpet had been slung onto the sidewalk like a scarlet bolt laid out on display in a material shop. Mum and I were startled by the sight of townsfolk and local paparazzi lined up on the pavement; their cameras aimed and ready to shoot. We stared at the crowd, at each other, and then grinned in conspiracy. Our chauffeur stopped, emerged, and opened the back doors. I stepped out. My amber earrings danced as I slung my lime-coloured scarf across a shoulder of my emerald fake fur jacket, clutched my shimmering chocolate-coloured, egg-shaped evening bag in one hand, and offered the free arm to my mother. We strolled down the scarlet bolt, deigning to the crowd. One of many pictures snapped at that moment would appear on the front page of the Fort Scott Tribune the next morning. I screamed with laughter when I first saw it. My glee turned bittersweet when I noticed the date at the top of the page: April 16 is my father’s birthday. One doesn’t need a passport to come from The Other Side. But of course his blithe spirit would hover over such an event, watching over his two stars.
In the photograph I am smiling sweetly, and move with my head held high. My mother is wielding her cane and leering at the camera, those steely blue-grays proclaiming, “Bring it on!” This same photograph would later be placed on Hallmark’s website.
As we passed the buffet laid out in the outdoor courtyard at the back entrance to the theatre, our escort Becky offered me a drink. “I wouldn’t accept anything from you which wasn’t labelled and sealed,” I deadpanned. Becky blinked, and then handed me a bottle of Ozarka spring water.
Inside the theatre, my mother was corralled for yet another interview; this time, with NBC. I marvelled at how skilfully and relentlessly Mum steered clear of personal questions, and repeatedly focused the limelight on the subject at hand.
After Harrison reluctantly vacated the seat next to me in order to sit with Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the spot was filled by the ubiquitous Becky. As the lights dimmed and the film unfolded, her cheerful visage turned dark with distress. Tears tumbled into sobs which cascaded into waterfalls of weeping as the misery and horror of the story took hold. By the time the film ended, our little round table was studded with balled-up wads of tissue. I was seeing the film for the second time. As my mother’s daughter, I was infinitely better prepared for the material than Becky, but still there were moments when I looked away from images too harrowing to confront head on and when I did, its creator leaned over to stroke my back. “Its even better the second time,” I whispered. When the film ended and the houselights switched on, I signalled Harrison and pointed to the bouquet of tissues on our table. One writer smiled ruefully at the other. Becky was a quivering wreck. It was a supreme compliment to the film’s creator.
After preliminary speeches on stage, Tweedledee announced, “I have known Renata for only two days, but in that time I have learnt that this spunky lady will do what she wants to do, and will not do what she doesn’t want to do. And so, I ask that she say a few words. Please.” The president of Hallmark almost pleaded. This time, we were ready. I expected to receive the speech from my mother’s hand and deliver it for her, but as I rose from my seat she hissed, “No! I have to do this myself!” Leaning on the cane, she ambled her way to the stage. Norman called, “Sharon! Help your mother!” Well, really.
I stood off to the side while Mum delivered her speech; then helped her off the stage. We were re-called for group photographs. As I stood on the stage I heard a voice both strange and strangely familiar, calling from out of the darkness. “Sharon.” I looked down, into the audience area. There stood a woman I knew, yet barely recognized. It was, and it wasn’t Bo. In the eighteen months since I’d left, the isolated ranch wife, seemingly trapped, had shed half of the 100 extra pounds she’d buried herself in, as well as the cunning, handsome husband of 42 years whose leaving was saving her life. She had let her hair grow out, and was allowing it to retain its natural colour. The angles of her face, distorted by obesity, were visible again. So was Bo’s natural sweetness. My stay on her ranch, though quiet, was not always peaceful. For separate reasons, my presence proved disturbing to both husband and wife. I had left saddened, believing the next time I would receive news of her would be to hear of her passing.
“Bonnie!” I dashed down the side steps of the stage, towards my old friend. “I was on the lookout for you when I came in. You must’ve been sitting upstairs (in the balcony). I figured you would find me.”
Bo was suffering, yet energized by anger. “The land alone is worth a million. When I know what the settlement is, I’ll move to the other side of the state, near my daughter, and build myself a home with a clubhouse and a pool!”
“A swimming pool? You wouldn’t go swimming with me.” As the words fell from my mouth, I understood. “If I can swim—where no one can see me—then I would do it.” I knew exactly what she meant. As a teenager, I swam off 70 pounds in the privacy of an indoor apartment pool.
“Come outside. Let’s take a walk.” This, from a woman who would find every excuse not to walk. I want to show you my new car!” Bo and I walked into the courtyard, where a post-film reception was in full swing. She walked past tables heaped with food, seemingly blind to them. I remembered when she was compulsively chomping on items edible and barely so, as if doing so helped her to breathe.
On the sidewalk, on Main Street nearing midnight, I waved as Bo rode off. “You go, Girl,” I said softly. It was meant for both of us.
I returned to the courtyard, where my mother sat with Harrison and several others. He broke the fourth wall and told tales of what went on behind the scenes during the film’s production.
Most of the capacity 575-member audience had left. For the few diehards—and me, who had no choice--Becky produced a large ceramic bowl containing her gleaming red specialty, which had spent the evening in the theatre’s cooling storage unit. Becky needed it. Harrison had earned it.
Along with the bowl, Becky whipped out a set of silver soup spoons. Harrison had been warned in advance. “Sharon, have one.”
“No thanks. I don’t drink.”
The diehards gathered around the bowl for another group photograph. All, including the director, raised their spoons, posed, and smiled for the camera.
Becky and her husband accompanied us as the junior Witt drove us back to the pink cottage. Becky was bleary-eyed, yet requested a tour of the cottage. My mother, who is not only the life of every party but also its afterlife, was happy to oblige.
Becky stumbled around the cottage like a drowsy child resisting sleep. At one thirty in the morning, I suggested the Halseys go home. Relieved, they complied. My mother is never more chipper than in the wee hours after a party. The trains whistled and Mummy chirped. At 3 am, I handed her the 1948 edition of Life magazine, and retired to my four-poster in the room next to hers.
Norman came to the back porch at eleven the next morning. Mum was up. “I didn’t want to come too early.”
“Oh, no problem! Sharon!”
I quashed one of the large, marshmallowy pillows over my head.
“No no! Let her sleep!” Norman’s protectiveness and sensitivity was reminiscent of my dad’s. My dad…as I came to consciousness on the late morning of April 16, I remembered the significance of the date. Daddy had died on April 6, was buried on April 10, and born on April 16. Each year during that ten-day span, he sends a gift of some kind. This year, Daddy had outdone himself.
I rose at noon and took a last, long April shower. Before three in the afternoon Norman, Mum and I hit the road for the outskirts of Kansas City. We would be staying at the airport hotel overnight, and flying home the next day. Norman would be spending the night near the airport, too. He would be flying out to Los Angeles for a conference. Norman would be staying at a Comfort Inn; we would be staying at the Hyatt. Our night at the Hyatt was covered by a private donation.
Halfway between Fort Scott and Kansas City I noticed a sign I would never see at home; Massacre Site 5 m. I assumed it was connected to the Civil War. The sighting of the sign elicited an enlightening, informative lecture from our driver/host/history teacher, and a list of recommended reading which would feed my literary appetite for months to come. We had gone to America to honour the history my mother emerged from, and I came home with a heightened interest in American history.
We took a late lunch break at a roadside cafeteria called Dean and Deluca. Mindful of my culinary experience during my first trip to the Midwest, Norman wanted to show me that not all Kansans would fry their children, if it were legal.
At Dean and Deluca, one walks with a tray from counter to counter, and makes one’s selections. The woman behind the bread counter recognized Norman. She was a Jewish woman of my generation. She had just lost her father, who was a Holocaust survivor. Norman told her who we were, and why we had come. Excitedly she rushed over to greet Mummy.
The name tag attached to the young man behind the vegetable counter read “Adam,” which is my nephew’s name, and the name my mother called my father because she didn’t like the name “Abram.” I had been running on adrenalin for five days; now fatigue was setting in. I dropped a bottle of water. The bottle was made of glass. The young man carrying the name of my father and my father’s namesake came over with a broom and a smile. As he swept up the broken shards Adam proclaimed, “Mazel Tov!” My water was replaced, and we raised our glasses in a toast to a ghost.
Norman had booked us on the first floor at the Hyatt in order to spare my mother unnecessary movement. In the hotel room, he wrote down his contact numbers before retiring to the Inn. Like Miss Pat, Norman, too, had thought of everything…For a half day I felt cradled by a warm, protective male presence. Into early adulthood I had taken this feeling for granted. When I lost my father, I lost my buffer against a harsh, cold world. Now, for a half day on his birthday, once again, briefly, I felt safe; yet I knew I was safe. I knew we would all be safe; me, my mum, Bonnie—all the courageous-hearted women who would, and will rescue themselves.
S. Nadja Zajdman is a writer and an actress based in Montreal. She received her professional training in the John Abbott College theatre program and later studied developmental drama in McGill’s University, going on to teach and work with children in high school and in various theatre programs around Montreal. Her many theatre roles include the one-woman show Shirley Valentine, and the title role in Sheindele. Nadja has had short stories, memoirs and essays published in newspapers, magazines and literary journals, and has performed her material on radio and in live readings. One of her short stories has been commissioned for film. She is collaborating with the film’s producer on the screenplay.