Friday, September 07, 2007

Anything But Compromising

More than one of my blogger buds have made recent references to the 1970s sitcoms of Norman Lear, when nuclear family comedies gave way to far more reality based and political fare. Whenever I come across an episode of All in the Family, I get more than a little mushy. And there there's Maude. Indeed, Maude. And earlier this week I picked up the long overdue DVD of that series' inaugural 1972-73 season Much was as I remembered it, but there were many surprises looking back at me through the haze of a quarter of a century.

First is Beatrice Arthur herself. Recent TV and stage appearances and her much watered down character on the pleasant but banal Golden Girls make it a bit shocking to see the fire in her definitive role. Most recall the infamous abortion two-parter, but I was struck more by her cocktail fund raiser for an African American radical for which she had to scramble to find a token black person to attend. On one level it was satirizing the pretense of this check writing liberal, but in 2007 I can't help but think how we so desperately need more Walter and Maude Findlays able to write $1,000 checks at the drop of the hat for such causes.

Maude is remembered for her liberal, feminist stance, but we must remember that it was all taking place in the tree lined streets of the upper end of solidly middle class Long Island. In the premier episode, Maude emerges from her kitchen filled with orange drapes and copper-tone appliances with a hearty platter of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, albeit served to her fourth husband and divorced daughter.

What struck me even more was how very familiar this family was, not as the fictional Findlays but my own family, what I would call a mixed class family. My dad came from working class assimilated Jews who pulled parts in salvage yards and worked at Woolco or Jewel Osco. My uncle Chester would have defined Archie Bunker as a great guy who was straight shooter who had the good sense to vote for Nixon and bring a little bit of order back to the country.
Junk Thief and his grandmother, sometime in the Maude era.

My mother came from a long line of Quebec liberals that could have passed for the Findlays, a randy bunch of French Canadian Unitarians who could pass for Long Island Jewish liberals. Though by no means wealthy, they lived comfortably and were grounded in socially progressive politics. When these two sides of the family collided -- and for some insane reason it usually happened as a presidential election was looming on the horizon -- tensions flared and often exploded in tragi-comedic-operatic proportions.

One cousin, Bonna, almost exactly Bea Arthur's age on my mom's side could have passed for Maude's twin. I distinctly recall her holding an E.R.A. rally around 1975 in her suburban Kansas City home. I think she too mixed vodka zingers with tranquilizers and was launching into a South Pacific medley to drown out the voices of her dissenting Republican neighbors.

Or there was (frequently mentioned here) cousin Ginger's mother Louise who once held a fund-raiser during a speaking tour for Tom Hayden in his home town of Royal Oak. I can picture her in a caftan in her sunken living room with recessed lighting as she raised a martini glass and cackled, "You know, the S.D.S. is not communist at all but rooted in the true democratic ideals..."

Watching Maude, I could not help but think of these bright, grossly under appreciated women who also made their fair share of pot roasts and mashed potatoes, but refused to buy into the prescribed ideal of the suburban American mom. They may have gone through the motions of clipping recipes from Good Housekeeping and attending Weight Watchers, but their hearts were rooted in something just out of their reach hovering on the horizon.

Louise left this world more than a decade ago. I saw Bonna at a family reunion in Missouri in June, her hearing spotty, her arm wrapped around mine as she struggled to walk across the parking lot to the Olive Garden. In a weak but still persistent voice, she whispered "Sweetie, I just hope I make it to November 2008 to see us sweep those assholes out of D.C. I'm holding on for that. I will then know that my life had meaning."

Seeing Bea Arthur saunter forcefully across her sunken living room in a knee length vest as she welcomed a group of fellow liberals for an evening of cocktails at a fund raiser, I suddenly had to push pause as my eyes teared up and I thought the lump in my throat was going to choke me. It was so familiar yet so distant, those wonderful women on my mother's side of the family who guided and influenced me so many years ago also once had the same exact gait and audacity, still there but now moving along with a guarded, persistent pace driven only by the hope that they will be able to witness the end of eight years of perpetual, relentless night.

Unable to watch another second of Maude, I started sorting through old letters from that side of the family with such strong matriarchs and trying to remember the equally strong, progressive men. Were there any? My mother's father is a legend that merits another in depth post. But I was struck by a letter from my uncle (by marriage) Buddy, the fourth husband to my mother's sister (yes, that famous aunt).

At the time (1987), I dismissed him as a pretentious wannabe sauntering with glee over having scored a trophy bride. He came from a Philly working class background, but always tried to play it up as if he came from Grace Kelly's neighborhood as he spoke of his youth in, as he pronounced it, "Phill-Uh-DELPH-EE-YAH" He loved to entertain, and was actually a damned good cook, albeit in a house strewn with Mantovani albums and star burst clocks.

Sorting through cards and letters, I was struck by a letter he sent after a boyfriend and I came to have Thanksgiving dinner with him and my aunt for Thanksgiving dinner in 1987. At the time, we had a good chuckle over the note he sent and labeled him as "hopelessly provincial and pretentious. Today, it feels very different:

Dear Gregg and Brian,

Thank you for the wonderful fellowship we had this holiday. It is a gathering I know we both will always remember. Although your aunt and I have not chosen to live a lifestyle similar to yours, we want you to know that you two will always be very welcome in our home. I hope you will be willing to extend the same hospitality to us in your beautiful home some day.

We love you tremendously
Uncle Forest "Buddy" and Aunt Barbara

My aunt never spoke or wrote the word "love" in any communication to me during our five decades together on this earth, so I know every word was his. Putting it back in the envelope I'd not opened in two decades, I knew I had the strength to make it through the remaining episodes of Maude. However, I now hope there will be a way to tell Uncle Buddy everything he said to me and I wanted to say back to him before he left this world in 2003.
Uncle Buddy, respecting and supportive of
the lifestyle he did not chose to live.

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At 11:23 PM, Blogger jason said...

What a beautiful post!

At 6:19 AM, Blogger Two Write Hands said...

Now, hat's the kind of guy you want to be related to, huh?

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Dave said...

That was easily the third most moving post about Maude I've ever read.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Jason - Thanks.

Emily - Related by marriage, only.

Dave - Three's a big number for you, isn't it. Buddy made a mean gravy by the way.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger laurenbove said...

You made me cry. (although I'm hormonal and it may have contributed...but I think not)

I love your writing and this story. The true stories of real families are always more impactful.

Also: a beauiful letter from Buddy.

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Thanks, Lauren. I wish I'd appreciated him more when he was alive.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Joy said...

"Right On!" Uncle Buddy!!

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Joy - Starburst clocks or no, he was a sweet, kind man.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Gary said...

Uncle Buddy sounds like an amazing guy and shame on you for not 'getting' that back then. But, how wonderful that you saved the letter and have obviously come to understand what an amazing loving piece it is.

I love the picture of a young JT with the long hair and the attitude.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Gary - I'm a slow learner, but a eventually get the message.

I ditched the long hair eons ago, but have held on to the attitude. Notice the similarity between my expression and Maude's?

At 4:46 PM, Blogger joe*to*hell said...

PRAISE you for singing the joys of Bea

At 3:03 PM, Blogger m00nchild said...

I love memoir posts. They are so moving and connected. Yours touched me. Thank you for sharing.

My memory of Maude is that no matter what she wore her hair was moving in the opposite direction.


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