Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Days of Future Passed: A Christmas Memory Part 1

In 1971, our little country church had to find a new pastor. Our previous minister, Reverend Hawley, had served faithfully for eight years, but one drizzly Sunday in May he stepped into the pulpit to inform us that with deep regret he was moving on. He felt a call from God, he said, and after much prayer and reflection he decided that it was God’s will for him to make a change. It was obviously one of God’s more convienent directives, for a week later Reverend Hawley packed up his family and drove the 23 miles to nearby Gretna, Virginia and its larger, more prosperous congregation.

Truth be told, not everyone was sad to see Reverend Hawley go. His nearly hour long sermons posed severe challenges to attention spans and posteriors, and it was not unusual for his homilies to be drowned out by the loud growls and gurgles of stomachs in dire need of lunch. But the fact that he moved to Gretna was considered by several congregants an in-your-face sort of move. The Gretna Hawks were our arch rivals in high school football, and now it would likely be Mr. Hawley’s voice bellowing out the pre-game prayer over the school’s P.A. system. We hadn’t beaten the Hawks --who seemed to get bigger and more athletic every year-- since the Eisenhower administration, and Pastor Hawley’s turncoat defection was seen as a symbol of the squad’s irresistible and continuing dominance. Didn’t those snobs in Gretna have enough advantages? Now they had to steal our preacher too. We may not have wanted him, but we sure didn’t want THEM to have him.

Over the ensuing months. our church tested out a number of possible replacements. There was a frail, ancient gentleman from Emporia whose vibrant and handsome resume portrait turned out to be off by several decades. Although his trial sermon was delivered in a weak, quivery voice, it at least made sense for the first ten minutes or so. Then he seemed to lose his train of thought and began to recount a trip he’d taken to Miami Beach as a child. While I personally found this digression interesting, it was a story with no apparent relevance to those seeking Christian inspiration.

Thinking we should go in the opposite direction, our next applicant was a wet-behind-the-ears, newly minted graduate of the seminary in Raleigh. Again, his audition went reasonably well in the early going, but he slowly began to work odd, nonsensical words into his monologue. The pattern increased until by sermon’s end at least fifty percent of his verbiage consisted of strange guttural yowls and yelps.

After the service, several congregants approached the young man to inquire as to the origins of his exotic oratory. Beaming, he announced that since his boyhood he’d been blessed with the gift of tongues and that he simply had no control over it. He said that today he believed that he’d been speaking an ancient Summerian dialect, but he wasn’t sure and, frankly, since it was a gift from God, he’d learned that his ability was not to be questioned or examined too closely. He then uttered a loud “Wila-huw-tu-croom!” for emphasis.

The following Wednesday, the Search Committee convened to discuss the young man’s application and a lively debate erupted. Several members pointed to his charismatic outpourings as evidence of the young man’s deep connection to God. But my father, the committee chairman and ever the pragmatist, was not convinced, and admitted he found the candidate's esoteric speech “creepy”. My father ultimately won the day with a brilliant assertion of logic, asking the committee to imagine the young man conducting a somber funeral, complete with weeping spouse and children, and suddenly breaking into a spasm of gibberish. After a few moments of sober reflection, the committee agreed with my father and resolved to submit the young man’s resume to the church’s growing circular file.

My father, who was a tender-hearted soul, hated writing rejection letters and suggested that the trial sermons be put on hold until a truly worthy candidate emerged. He asked each committee member to imagine the ideal minister, and pray that God help them find a person with those exact qualities. Immediately, Uncle Larry proclaimed that the perfect preacher would have at least three large boys of high school age who knew how to block and tackle. And if one of them could also throw a tight spiral 70 yards, so much the better. While his comments evoked a few chuckles, they were made only partially in jest, as the local football team had suffered an abysmal season, their only win coming against the perpetually inept Bulldogs of Brunswick High.

Uncle Larry’s description proved prophetic when a few weeks later my father got a long distance phone call --a very big deal in those days-- from a man in Raleigh. He identified himself as William Willis, and inquired if the minister’s position at our church was still available. He said the he had been a seminary instructor of the young man who had recently been rejected, and had heard about the opening from him. My father liked Mr. Willis’ personality and cool, clear diction on the phone, but the idea of another one of those unconventional Raleigh preachers made him queasy. Respecting Mr. Willis’ long distance bill, my father cut to chase:

“Well let me ask you this, do you speak in tongues or anything like that?”

Mr. Willis, suppressing a chuckle, told my father that he was familiar with the young man’s “unique qualities”, but that his approach to preaching the gospel was generally more traditional and from a less dramatic perspective. He then explained to my father that he had served as a career chaplain in the Army, and during that time had been stationed all over the world. Recently retired, he took the teaching job at the seminary as a sort of transition while he figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He had found education unsatisfying, and was looking for a small country church where he could “reconnect with the basics.”

My father then made it clear that the position was far from lucrative, and that a man with a family might find it hard to make ends meet. Mr. Willis responded that he was not concerned about the money, that his Army pension would help “fill in the gaps,” He then stated that he was married with two children: a 15 year old girl who was a straight A student and a 17 year old boy he and his wife had adopted in Panama. The boy played quarterback for a high school in Raleigh and was hoping for an athletic scholarship to Wake Forest University.

My father was ready to sign Mr. Willis on the spot, but decided that, in the interest of prudence, he should ask Mr. Willis to come and preach a trial sermon the following Sunday. Mr. Willis responded that he would be delighted, and then gave my father the the title of his sermon so it could be printed up in the bulletin. My quite excited father told Mr. Willis that he was looking forward to Sunday’s sermon, and he would make sure the church would be filled for the event.

“I’m excited too,” exclaimed Mr. Willis. He then went on, “Now there’s a few things I’ll need. If you guys could get me a couple of big snakes and maybe a virgin that would be great.”

To which he quickly added, “I’m kidding Mr. Anderson,”

to be continued

Friday, November 23, 2012

The City of Your Final Destination (2009) ✭✭✭✭

This Merchant/Ivory production set in the present day concerns an American PhD candidate (Omar Metwalley) who travels to a remote area of Uruguay to research a biography of an obscure novelist. There, he meets the writer’s bitter widow (Laura Linney), his mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a dissolute brother (Anthony Hopkins), all living in a sprawling plantation house that seems oddly disconnected from the modern world.

Metwalley slowly becomes involved in the life of this unusual family, and finds himself entangled in their deep secrets and long enduring disputes. The film has the stately, measured pace typical of Merchant/Ivory productions, and is constructed with an intelligent elegance. Linney is remarkable as the icy Caroline, and Gainsbourg emits a fascinating blend of innocence and sexiness.

Although Hopkins later sued the producers for financial breach of contract, here he seems to be having the time of his life as an aging gay playboy. With the passing of Ismail Merchant --and director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala both well into their 80s-- The City of Your Final Destination may mark the last production of this legendary creative team. And it’s not a bad way to go out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Eat The Rich: Weekend on Blu (1967)

Weekend capped Jean-Luc Godard’s insanely productive year of 1967, and can rightly be considered the director’s Götterdämmerung. Both projects make their respective points with sledgehammer subtlety, and along with Godard’s previous features that year, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and La Chinoise, Weekend consummates an anti-consumerist thematic cycle.

As one of its frequent title cards proclaims, Godard approached Weekend as “a film found in a dump.” It is a Dadaist, no holds barred decimation of modern French society filled with shocking violence, Marxist theory and some really, really awful driving. Told through a series of set pieces –often with elaborate and impressive production techniques– Weekend leaves no aspect of class struggle unexplored or unscathed. As the world lurches by in fits and starts, Godard’s ever evolving absurdist tableau amuses, stuns and mystifies, casting a cinematic butterfly net over a society at war with itself.

The film’s narrative skeleton concerns the misadventures of Corinne and Roland Durand (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), a 30-ish bourgeois couple unhappily ensconced in a blandly generic Paris suburb. When not bickering, the couple spend their days engaged in adultery and devising far-fetched schemes to murder each other. When the couple pack up their tiny convertible and depart to the country for a family visit, things go off the rails quickly as a squabble over a minor fender bender ends in gunplay, and Corinne and Roland find themselves stuck in a traffic jam from the bowels of hell. This iconic sequence, which justifiably cemented Godard’s place in cinema history, really must be seen to believed. However, this masterwork of staging and coordination is only an amuse-bouche for the splendidly eccentric feast to come, as Weekend eventually morphs into a post-apocalyptic road movie, crazily traversing a landscape of self-inflicted destruction.

Often lost within its barrage of manifestos and mayhem is the fact that Weekend is at heart a comedy, with a decidedly dark tonality for sure, but a comedy nonetheless. And after the initial shock of the film’s rampant anarchy, its humorous edges become richer and more luminous. As Corinne and Roland stagger into a quaint village they nearly collide with a tractor driven by a farmer loudly singing the communist anthem L'Internationale. A few minutes later, we see the aftermath of yet another automobile accident, as the giant tractor has crashed into a shiny new sports car, leaving its young bourgeois driver in a pool of blood. The car’s other occupant, an enraged young woman dressed in the latest fashions, berates the farmer claiming her boyfriend had the right-of-way because he was “young, rich and handsome.” Rarely have the underpinnings of class struggle been presented in such starkly honest terms. Not only is its refreshing candor hilarious, the scene has a clarion ring of truth in this age of pampered billionaires.

Godard has always had a tendency to stay too long with scenes that don’t really go anywhere; sometimes for effect and sometimes out of what seems to be a kind of writerly stubbornness. While Weekend is not free of extended clunkers --the Lewis Carroll themed parody is too esoterically clever for its own good-- the director generally keeps to a proscribed momentum, and the film’s outlandish wriggles and twirls remain alluring. His diorama of flaming automobiles, violent hitchhikers and magically appearing historical figures form a visual wash that soothes the bitterness of Godard’s obscure literary allusions and political diatribes.

Just as Godard has taken the nation of France to the woodshed for its Gaullist follies, Corrine and Roland eventually arrive at a twisted version of the Garden of Eden for a scruffy date with destiny. As the Durand’s petty world of inheritance and Hermes is wiped out by a return to the basics of survival, Weekend completes its cycle of societal deconstruction. And this new world, like Corinne’s unusual lunch, will take some getting used to.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

November News and Notes

'Tis the season for Oscar bait. There are American movies coming to the cineplex that I'm actually excited about. I know, it's crazy...


Hyde Park on the Hudson:

Yeah, even Lincoln:

Comet Over Hollywood is a very cool blog dealing with the classics. CHECK IT OUT

Remember the fabulous '70s? Me neither.
But Steven Thompson doesn't have to because he was smart and kept a diary, which he is sharing day-by-day on 1974: A Geek's First Journal. See it along with his other fine nostalgia blogs HERE

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nancy's Wild Angels

Epix has added a new channel on Dish TV called Epix Drive-in, which promises a steady offering of B movies. I can tell I’m going to have a lot of fun with this channel. Yesterday I subjected myself to 1966’s The Wild Angels, a movie much more interesting as historical artifact than entertainment. It was directed by Roger Corman, which I suppose elevates it to cult status. It’s a cult I’ve always avoided, so I won’t bore you with arguments that Corman’s cinematic cheese was actually art-house in disquise, nor can I offer perspective on The Wild Angels’ place in the Corman lexicon. I can only say that the movie offers a fascinating glimpse of a number of boomer icons in their salad days, in a story that’s decidedly un-Hollywood when it comes to morals.

Here we learn learn all about the appalling lifestyles of a Hell’s Angels franchise located in San Pedro, California. The outfit’s two dozen or so members spend their days engaged in rampant hell raising and oblivion partying, leaving little time for bathing or personal hygiene. The group is led by Blues (Peter Fonda), a laconic, sensitive biker who has not abandoned good grooming entirely, and his top lieutenant named Loser (Bruce Dern), a thuggish punk of questionable sanity. Blues is suffering from a sort of existential crisis; his girlfriend Mike (Nancy Sinatra) is growing weary of the biker scene and has started to make subtle noises about marriage and the suburbs. Meanwhile Loser’s significant other (Diane Ladd) is dealing with fits of jealousy due to the group’s free love ethos. When a contingent of bikers led by Blues and Loser confront a Latino mechanic suspected of stealing a member’s Harley, things turn ugly and violent mighty fast, making the men wanted fugitives in a cop killing.

However The Wild Angels is no tale of wrongly accused innocents. Corman pulls no punches in establishing the club’s underpinnings of savage scumbaggery. Their campsite parties, adorned with garish swastikas and symbols of hatred, are filled with violent and sexist debauchery. Later, the Angels demolish a church interior and transform it into a writhing opium den, as several bikers forcibly sample Diane Ladd’s sexual wares on an altar draped with the Nazi flag. Corman drags these segments out to the point that viewer outrage gives way to sullen numbness. Perhaps that’s his point, but the story’s momentum --what little it had achieved anyway-- gets mired in a bog of shoddy staging and wretched excess.

Personally I am not a gang rape enthusiast but, viewed from today’s perspective, The Wild Angels still holds engrossing charms, beginning with the performance of young Peter Fonda. Over the years, Fonda has morphed into a respectable character actor, but in those days he couldn’t act a lick. In The Wild Angels his line readings are so nakedly devoid of timing and nuance they're a splendor to behold. In the final act, Fonda delivers a impassioned speech on what it means to be a Hell’s Angel --which is basically a nightmarish version of libertarianism-- but his awkward, lurching monologue sounds like a kid in a Christmas play who’s forgotten his lines.

Bruce Dern plays, well, Bruce Dern, and proves that there’s never been anyone better at playing Bruce Dern than Bruce Dern. Despite his youth, the menacing glassy-eyed mumble that would launch him to a long and successful career was already in full flower. Just to emphasize the point, the film also features Michael J. Pollard in a bit part, but his patented creepiness seems almost warm and fuzzy compared to Dern’s pitch-black glare. At the time, Diane Ladd was the real life Mrs. Dern and Laura, interestingly enough, would be born a year later. It must have been quite a luxury for producers in those days to score two major talents with one phone call, and this role makes good use of her now familiar sexy earth mother projections.

Ultimately, the real saving grace of these Angels is in the form of Nancy Sinatra. Like her father, what her acting performances lack in technique is surpassed by a refreshing and unvarnished honesty. No doubt her charisma is enhanced by our knowledge of the awesome musical legacy locked deep in her DNA, but nonetheless she exuded a natural cool that dominated every scene. She also formed a generational bridge that ties cheap trash like The Wild Angels to Hollywood’s traditional notions of justice and catharsis. During the film’s most disgusting moments, you wish Frank would walk in and give these punks a good sound thrashing.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Days of Future Passed: The Perils of Do-It-Yourself Part 3

Part One Here

Part Two Here

The following Saturday was a fine and mild day, quite unusual for August, and Uncle Larry took advantage of the break in the swelter to frame in Meemaw’s isolation chamber. My father had promised to help, and as he gathered up his hammer and saw I lobbied hard to accompany him. My mother wasn’t crazy about the idea. There’d been an epidemic of local kids stepping on rusty nails lately, and she was sure I’d be the next victim. After I promised to be careful, she finally agreed and I happily hopped into the truck with my dad.

When we arrived, Uncle Larry already had one wall up, although to call it a wall was an exercise in charity. It had a discernible outward bow, and the blocking was crooked and amateurish. As we walked over to the wood pile, the problem became apparent. Uncle Larry’s prized 2x4s had not been stored properly, and the boards had twisted and skewed into a crazy jumble.

My dad starting laughing so hard he had to set down his toolbox. Uncle Larry didn’t see the humor at all, and told my dad it would be fine, since the walls wouldn’t have any weight on them. My dad had learned that it was useless to argue when his brother was in full cheapskate mode and, with a deep sigh, began to sort through the warped lumber in the forlorn hope of finding some usable pieces.

I walked over to the porch where Richie was playing with one of his mother’s numerous stray cats. Aunt Sally ran a sort of unofficial sanctuary for homeless felines, feeding every wayward critter that wondered into her yard and over the years she’d amassed quite a collection. While Richie was a few years younger than me --he was 6 and I was 8-- we always got along great and enjoyed each other’s company. A few months earlier, we had bestowed upon each other the title “Most Favorite Cousin”, a sacred oath in large southern families.

Meanwhile, my Dad and Jerry were engaged in the ridiculous task of trying to hold the crooked 2x4 studs straight while Uncle Larry nailed them into position. When Jerry accidentally let his end go a little early, the twisted board sprang up and grazed him in the temple, unleashing a minuscule trickle of blood. Jerry sat there stunned for a moment, rubbing the point of impact. Then, when he saw faint traces of crimson on his fingertips, the 12-year-old emitted a high pitched squeal and began bawling like an abandoned infant. While the panicked Jerry ran into the house for triage, the men continued with their labors and soon Meemaw’s second wobbly wall was muscled into place.

Richie and I giggled for quite a while about Jerry’s comical accident. This seemed to vex Uncle Larry, who was tired and irritable from wrestling with his deformed lumber. Clearly we were having too much fun, and Uncle Larry barked at us to go inside and “bring out the stuffing.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but Richie dutifully rose and marched into the house so I followed along. In the hallway were piles of old, worn out sheets and towels, tattered blue jeans, pillows shedding their feathers and a variety of cloth goods that had seen better days. Richie explained that his dad was going to use this junk to sound proof Meemaw’s new room and quiet her snoring, which Richie said sounded like “a goose choking to death.”

As we were carrying the items out to the worksite, Aunt Sally bellowed, “I got some more stuff in here for y’all.”

Richie and I walked back to Aunt Sally and Uncle Larry’s bedroom, where we found her packing baby clothes into a cardboard box.

“I was saving this for Audrey, but it’s all kinda old and raggity. I reckon the new room is a better use for it. Lord knows, I won’t be needing baby clothes anymore.” She then took a yellow romper out of a drawer, complete with a frilly collar and attached booties, and gazed at it a minute.

“Lord,” Aunt Sally chuckled, “You remember this Richie? You practically lived in this thing. Whenever I put anything else on you, you cried and cried.”

Like most young boys, Richie resented any implication that he was ever a cute little baby, especially one that would wear frilly collars and booties. He replied that he no idea what she was talking about, and the two of us picked up the overflowing box and lugged it onto the porch.

As we dropped off our last load, Uncle Larry told us to wait a few minutes as he, my dad and the newly bandaged Jerry scuffled with the badly distorted dregs of the woodpile. While the crew cobbled together Meemaw’s final wall, Richie and I sat on the edge of the porch, prompting a bunch of the mewing foster cats to affectionately rub against our dangling legs.

There’s a powerful moment early in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where one of the apemen gets the idea that a large bone would make a superb weapon.The scene is a wonderful illustration of an epiphany, with the audience clearly tracking the apeman’s primitive thought process. We see the apeman stare at the bone, then slowly grab it and make small, playful striking gestures. Eventually, as the idea takes root, the creature begins to swing forcefully, smashing everything within reach.

It’s no stretch to say Richie and I shared a similar stroke of genius that bright and airy August morning. We looked at the box of baby clothes nestled between us. We looked down at the circling kitty cats. We looked back at the clothes, then back at the cats. All that was missing were the majestic strains of Thus Sprach Zarathustra. I looked over at Richie, who was in the process of unfurling a grin so evil it must have been sent by Lucifer himself.

I immediately hopped to the ground and picked up a fat orange tabby, while Richie fished a peppermint striped jumper out of the box. As the cat hung limp in my hands, too stunned to resist, Richie pushed the beast’s paws into the sleeves and snapped up the back. This particular garment had a chic accessory; a lace trimmed bonnet that fit on the cat’s head with the precision of custom tailoring. After Richie tied a bow around the cat’s chin to secure the headpiece, we took a moment to admire our handiwork. And the results were nothing short of hysterical. We both erupted in that sort of profoundly silly laughter only conspiratorial little kids can muster.

Little did we know the best was yet to come. After a minute or so, the cat was no longer such a good sport, and began to squirm and violently hiss. Startled, I let the cat go. The beast immediately took off with such a blur of speed it looked like a red and white striped cannonball. What ensued was a wave of hilarity that brought us to our knees. Richie laughed so hard he turned red and tears ran down his cheeks. My ribs started to hurt, but no amount of pain could dampen our giddy jubilation.

It’s said that laughter is the best medicine. It’s also most addictive, and soon we needed another fix. There was a siamese mix cooing at Richie’s feet, and within seconds this critter was sporting a pair of blue cotton bib overalls. This time Richie held it as I did the dressing honors, but the results were the same. As soon as Richie released his grip, the animal bounded into the bushes at lightening speed.

In between fits of rolling on the ground in maniacal laughter, Richie and I were able to adorn another traumatized cat or two before the remaining beasts wised up and hid under the porch. Obviously, this was many years ago, and I have been amused by many things in the interim, but I can honestly say none of them can hold a candle to the sight of a cat dressed in baby clothes hauling ass across 30 yards of lawn.

Eventually Meemaw’s room was completed, and despite its off-kilter and oddly undulating walls, she seemed quite pleased with it. Furthermore, within a few hours all the traumatized cats returned; their garments in various stages of disassembly. Ravenously hungry perhaps, but no permanent damage. And unlike his misadventures in freelance healthcare, this time Uncle Larry’s DIY scheme actually worked. The new, thickly padded bedroom reduced Meemaw’s nightly yowling to a faint, distant murmur, easily ignored by the home’s other occupants. She would live another 17 years, ironically passing during a rare peaceful sleep in 1982 at the age of 97.

After a long illness, Uncle Larry died in 2003 and was buried one bitterly cold February afternoon. He was about the same age Meemaw had been when she had her fateful fall all those summers ago. I served as a pallbearer, and after the funeral I visited with Richie --or Rich, as he now prefers to be called-- for awhile. I hadn’t seen him for nearly twenty years, as his job as a chemical plant inspector requires almost constant travel. After a few minutes of chit-chat, I asked him if he remembered that day when we dressed up the cats. Despite his grief, his eyes lit up immediately.

“Oh man...that was the funniest damn thing! I was just thinking about that the other day!”

We both began chuckling, not only at the hilarious imagery seared into our minds, but at the realization of the depth of our friendship. Here we were, a couple of paunchy, balding middle-aged guys, as common and unremarkable as dry toast. Yet we shared a memory of a special day when the awesome and mysterious cosmos revealed that it too had a sense of humor. And forty years later, the joke was still funny as hell.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Holy Motors and November Quickies

Holy Motors (2012)✭✭✰

Holy Motors is a surreal movie about movies. But as we know, when filmmakers engage in deep navel-gaving the results are rarely good. Within its eccentric folds, one will note homages to Sci-Fi extravaganzas, Tarantino-esque violence, classic horror movies and sensitive made-for-TV family dramas, among a host of other references. But the sum is less than the parts, and the film's potential for fun is throttled by narrative conceits that become quite tiresome by the end. Holy Motors was nominated for a Palme d'Or, which speaks volumes about the weakness of the field this year at Cannes.

                                                         Rompecabezas (2009) ✭✭✭✭

Rompecabezas (Puzzle) is a gentle, hypnotic drama from Argentina all about a middle aged housewife with a knack for quickly assembling complex jigsaw puzzles. Under the tutelage of a soft spoken puzzle champion (Arturo Goetz), she develops her abilities and learns some important life lessons along the way. The film has a tender, understated tone and features that dry, offbeat humor often found Argentine cinema. Maria Onetto (The Headless Woman) stars under the direction of Natalia Smirnoff. If you liked Queen to Play you’ll find this subdued gem equally satisfying. Available on HBO Signature and HBO GO.

The Girl (2012) ✭✭✭✭

HBO’s The Girl is an interesting account of Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren, and the harassment and emotional abuse she endured after rejecting his sexual advances. Movie fans will enjoy its behind-the-scenes recreations of famous shots from The Birds and Marnie. Along with Hitch’s dark side, we also learn a lot about the great director’s surprisingly mundane home life --he loved to wash dishes-- and how he sought his wife Alma’s approval on major creative decisions. Toby Jones is quite believable as Hitchcock while Sienna Miller evokes Hedren’s icy beauty. The film also features Imelda Stanton as Alma and Penelope Wilton as Hitch’s loyal secretary Peggy.

                                              Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) ✭✭✰

I'm a big fan of Nuri Ceylon but this disappointing film rambles and sputters. Some wonderful moments but it would have been much better with 30 to 40 minutes pruned out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Days of Future Passed: The Perils of Do-It-Yourself Part 2

Part One Here

In 1965, a few weeks shy of her 80th birthday, Meemaw Hardy went out into her garden to get some tomatoes for lunch. She picked as many large ripe ones as she could carry, then turned around and fell flat on her face. A few hours later, Aunt Sally stopped by for a visit and found her aged mother sitting on the ground in a daze; her housecoat covered with the remnants of squished Better Boys.

As Aunt Sally carefully helped Meemaw to her feet, the elderly woman tried to laugh the whole thing off, claiming she’d merely tripped on some pea vines. But the alarmed Aunt Sally had seen enough and, after swiftly packing a grocery bag with a few of Meemaw’s clothes, took her mother home with her to stay. When Uncle Larry returned from work that night, Aunt Sally met him in the yard and delivered a play-by-play of the day’s frightening events, and declared that Meemaw would be staying with them for a while. Uncle Larry, who was quite fond of his mother-in-law, emphatically agreed. He too had been worried about her living alone at such an advanced age.

Despite their agreement, there was still a thorny issue to be resolved: Larry and Sally’s three-bedroom farmhouse was already bulging at the seams. Audrey, now 14 with new curves and protrusions appearing daily, really needed her own room. Meanwhile Jerry and Richie, aged 12 and 6 respectively, were crammed into another bedroom barely big enough to turn around in. There was some thought of setting Meemaw up in the living room by the TV, but Uncle Larry realized that would mean no more late night wrestling shows from Raleigh, and the idea was nixed.

Eventually it was decided that Meemaw would bivouac with Audrey. Later that evening, Uncle Larry showed up at our house asking to borrow the rarely used roll-away mattress my mother had acquired a few years earlier with S&H Green Stamps. While my mother wasn’t too thrilled about it --she’d saved for years for that mattress-- she also realized that it was for a good cause. At one time my mother’s plan was to station the roll-away on the porch during summer nights when it was too hot to sleep in the house. But that stratagem was dashed when she discovered that alfresco sleepers were devoured alive by Southern Virginia’s ravenous mosquitos.

Young Audrey loved her grandmother very much, but that affection was severely challenged by sleeping in the same room with her. For one thing, Meemaw snored with the sonic power of a chainsaw. While Audrey tossed and turned, Meemaw’s loudly labored breathing felled untold acres of oak and spruce. Meemaw also talked in her sleep, muttering a slurred, drowsy patois that covered a wide range of subjects; everything from ancient childhood memories to cake recipes.

Audrey took the full force of Meemaw’s horrific nocturnal noises, but there was collateral damage as her thunderous din resonated throughout the house, making sound sleep a scarce commodity. One night, Uncle Larry awoke with a start, convinced that his home had been invaded by a screaming pack of feral hogs. Only after going to the closet to grab his shotgun did he realize it was just the snoring Meemaw, happily nestled in the arms of Morpheus.

As the days wore on, the sleep deprived Anderson household became increasingly irritable. All except Meemaw, of course, who rose every morning filled with chatty pep. At the breakfast table, she talked non-stop about how well she’d slept and how beautiful the morning was while Uncle Larry starred bleary-eyed at his soggy cornflakes. Jerry, who was a fan of Marvel comics, began to suspect Meemaw was a creature that grew stronger by draining the life out of planets, kind of like Galactus. Things reached a head the following Sunday at church when Uncle Larry’s entire brood curled up on the pew and peacefully dozed. This raised the ire of Reverend Hawley, who suddenly decided to close his previously sedate sermon on stewardship with several fiery passages from the book of Revelations.

That afternoon, as Uncle Larry sat on the back porch listening to his fried chicken lunch digest, he gave the situation a long, hard assessment. He thought about Jack Hardy, Meemaw’s husband who had died 20 years earlier when his car skidded into a grove of walnut trees. Uncle Larry began to wonder if Jack’s demise was purely accidental. Perhaps poor Jack had been driven mad by his wife’s nightly sinus symphonies and had decided to simply end it all with a sharp turn of the steering wheel.

Uncle Larry then looked over to the far end of the porch and was struck by a divine epiphany. He could take some of those 2x4s he had stored in the shed and fashion a little retreat right there for dear old Meemaw. He would stuff the walls with sound deadening material -- old blankets, pillows, whatever-- and effectively isolate Meemaw’s somnambulistic squalls from the rest of the structure. He figured he could make a room about 7’x 8.' Not palatial, but plenty of space for a shriveled old lady. Uncle Larry was so inspired he ran into the kitchen and brought his wife out for a walk-through of his mental blueprint. Aunt Sally, in a semi-zombie state herself, was skeptical at first, but her husband’s enthusiasm, and the promise of a good night’s sleep, slowly warmed her to the idea.

“Alright,” Aunt Sally said, then added with her last bit of energy, “Who you gonna get to build it?”

“Oh I can build that,” Uncle Larry replied. “Piece of cake.”

The bags under Aunt Sally’s eyes grew ever darker as she starred at her husband in disbelief. But she had no strength to argue. She just turned and walked back inside the house, where she flopped on the sofa and slept until suppertime.

Part 3 here