Wednesday, April 11, 2007

175. Sunny Side Up

My parents fought hard to enter the post-War middle class: property-owning, suburban, and solid. They were determined to keep my sister and me out of the city--Philadelphia--and to raise us in two-story Colonial, self-landscaped quarter acre tract-home glory. But my father's job--jobs; he worked days, two nights a week, and every Saturday he could--and my mother's in-home work--sewing, back when people paid good money for custom-made slipcovers--barely kept us solvent; after a while, especially after my Dad was laid off in the early '70s, being only thirty days behind on the bills was a pretty cozy situation.

But it wasn't all hard-scrabble privation. Sure, my Mom figured out how to stretch one chicken over two dinners and a lunch, and nobody was going to jet off to Gay Paree any time soon, but we went to Atlantic City--the working-class paradise, or so it seemed in the early '60s--every year for a week, and out to dinner at least twice a month; and we didn't have to share shoes or eat butter sandwiches. But even if we did, in one way or another every once in a while, when you're a little kid you don't notice. And today I can look at family snapshots and Holiday poses, and we're hale and hearty, all-American semi-butterballs smiling under combed hair and Easter bonnets, in front of Christmas trees and Star-Spangled Banners. My Mom planted flowers and bushes and trees, my Dad tooled the Lawn-Boy across the sward, my sister carted around suitcases full of Barbies, and I had access to every piece of plastic ordnance accessible to the Junior Commando, Mid-Boomer Division.

But as I mentioned, my Dad lost his job when I was in high school, and the thin veneer cracked, until it became harder and harder to keep those surfaces smooth and shiny. I think one time we almost lost the house, and by the mid-'70s, when I entered college, our financial situation found its only perk in the truckloads of Great Society money the Gummint poured on my scholarly head: Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, National Direct Student Loans--issued as personal checks cut "directly" to the student!--and a New Jersey State Scholarship. I went to a private college, but emerged only $1000 in debt. (I won't go on about how much you could buy for a dollar in 1978; even back then, I'll admit, a grand didn't seem all that much.) Otherwise, though, it was One Thing After Another. My mother's kidneys failed 1n '76--a particularly grim Bicentennial Moment--and my father tried to run a small business, with less than modest results. Life seemed one long, nervous wait--and I wasn't sure which was worse, the waiting or Whatever would arrive. And things bumped up and down, mostly down, and my Dad got sick, and life lurched on; then my sister and I married, gave my parents grandchildren and a few more-or-less happy years before they moved on--maybe just passing through, but always trying to make it home.

Well, that is a story I should tell better, but it stays with me like that, a small bundle, and inside of it some things laugh and some worry, some cry and others try to stay as still as possible. Watching 1950s housewife Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore, in another unshakably honest and measured performance) "contesting" (that's "CON-testing") like Sisyphus up a hill of jingles, limericks, and debt in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005), I felt that tucked-away bundle jump, still alive, and--although my own family, thank God and my good Dad's kind and loyal heart, did not have the burden of an alcoholic father, like the Ryans in the film version of Terry "Tuff" Ryan's memoir--I understood the mother's never-quite-exhausted optimism, her smile digging in, no retreat and no surrender. It is easy to mock her insistent cheerfulness--and a lesser actor would have made it seem ironic or pathetic--but watching Moore was like being in one of those moments when you catch an odor--maybe the tang of disinfectant or woodsmoke, or the wet smell that trees sweat out, between the end of a rainstorm and the return of fair weather--and you are suddenly thumped back to childhood, a small but sure drop, and you land inside your head when you were another, smaller person, as uncertain of the cause of your fears as you are of the way back to quietude. I don't want to mis-speak the truth, but Evelyn Ryan's ironclad happiness "in the moment" was not, for that generation at least, a sham tiara unconsciously worn by dupes, no matter what a later, more self-conscious and -satisfied generation might think. After all, Evelyn's generation were kids during the Depression, and knew what it felt like as the floor sagged, the moment just shy of collapse. No, the hap-hap-happy face was put on like armor, and was just about as burdensome to carry on one's shoulders.

The other day I wrote about Tideland, and here again in The Prizewinner ... I see the same demand that life better watch its step, that the isolated individual will not abandon itself, that the good moment will be seized and forced to make up for all the rotten ones that came before--and will certainly follow. When Evelyn announces, as though she were telling us that one and one make two, "Everything is possible," she is not asking life to prove her right; she can do that for herself. And when her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson, once again proving that, for some jobs, there's only one man that'll do), again screws up, then stammers his apology, Evelyn tells him, "I don't need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am." This is the last morsel in the traveling bundle I carry, the one my mother, despite all kinds of falling, both away and apart, showed me she had tied up and secured. I found out that good things really are moments, not promises or rewards, and have to be held like something small and fragile, even though they save your life. It is a little something I keep trying to put together for myself and keep secure, as often as it may spill open and scatter.

1 comment:

Your smart friend Gene's daughter, Elizabeth. said...

Wow, amazingly written. Now I'll have to watct the movie. I really enjoy your blog.

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