A Malleable Girl

In my dating days I employed the habit of acting the way my dates expected.  There I said it.  I submerged my identity for a guy.  Now if you are reading this post thinking “what a bimbo,” take a moment to recall your own dating history.  We lose weight, we drink less, we put makeup on for an evening of television, we attempt to be funny and charming–we wear a mask.  You know, the Bridget Jones school of dating.

I’m not absolute about this, but I think Helen always remained Helen in her single years.  Back reading for River of January  I got the sense that she didn’t play any coquettish games to land an evening out.  My observation of this girl was that men saw what they wanted in her, attached their own sense of who she was.  And their frustration trying to put a ring on her finger stemmed from a deep misunderstanding of Helen Thompson.

Aside from the reality that her mother called the shots in Helen’s life, three men attempted to win her heart, and take her for their own.  And I suppose we could start by looking first at the last, Mont Chumbley.

The young pilot became infatuated with Helen nearly from the first time he laid eyes on her.  Those spotlights hitting the stage, in hues of blue, pink, yellow, and white can intensify an already dazzling girl.  Once he decided he loved her, he posted himself every night at the club until her contract ended.  If any drunk (or sober) patron made advances, Chum  intervened assuring her safety.  And that is how he saw himself, her protector until she could leave show business.  It never seemed to occur to him that she loved performing and had no intentions of giving up her art.  That caused big problems later.

Her middle admirer, the boy who courted her the longest, across continents, was Elie Galeki.  Now Elie was a person who lived life systematically and deliberately.  He worked hard to establish his own photography business, caring for his mother and sisters in Brussels.  His suits were pressed, his appointment book organized, his expectations orderly.  However, with Helen he had his hands full.  To is way of thinking, once he met “the one” she would naturally love him back, and they would marry.  Elie, too, expected Helen would give up the stage and settle down as his dutiful wife.  That wasn’t actually Helen’s style, and she knew he wasn’t the right guy.

Her earliest boyfriend, and vaudeville partner, Grant Garrett, was an entirely different sort of character.  He was a comedy writer, dancer, and singer, and Helen did respond to his charms.  Grant was ready with a zinger, usually targeted at Helen’s intransigent mother.  He was smooth in style and rough in attitude.  He liked to fight for money around bonfires in hobo camps, and he drank hard.  Of all three blokes, he may have been temperamentally the best suited to Helen.  He treated her as an equal, and understood her drive and ambition for the stage.  She was a professional, and so was Grant.  They shared their love of performing.

I don’t believe Helen submerged her personality for any of these three suitors.  But Grant was the one her understood her the best. Mostly they saw what they wanted in her beauty, grace, and bubbly sense of fun.  I suppose that if any of these gentlemen became frustrated with the girl, they only had their illusions to blame.

Memories of Telephones Past

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My parents kept a beige wall phone when I was growing up.  The ring could wake the dead.  Both sides of grandparents settled for basic black, one a desk phone the other fixed to their kitchen wall.  If my paternal grandparents were expecting a long distance call we all waited in the living room, reverently, as though it was God calling.  And God help you if you made any noise while my grandmother was on that phone, conversing with her relatives back in Minnesota.  Those calls were an almost holy occasion.

Their phone exchange was Fairfax, ours, on the other side of town, was Keystone.  My husband remembers their phone exchange began with Plaza, and his mother, Helen, growing up, used the famous prefix, Murray Hill in New York City.  I think that’s the same one actress, Barbara Stanwick requests in one of her old movies.

It is my understanding that many rural Americans had a phone installed before even electricity was available in vast tracts of the country.  My Minnesota relatives, for example, didn’t have an indoor toilet until the early 1960’s, yet had that telephone on a doily covered end table as early as the 1920’s.  Chum recalled that their phone on the farm had a different ring for each home connected along a party line.  He remembered that the different rings didn’t matter because everyone eavesdropped on everyone else.

Operators, or “hello girls,” as they were known, plugged connections on regional calls offering choices for long distance service.  There was “Station to Station,” which meant you talked to anyone at the number dialed.  Then came “Person to Person,” where you hailed a specific individual.  I remember dialing collect calls, which were long distance too, connected through a live operator, costing my parents a bundle if they accepted.  And they always accepted.

The telephone of yore was a mysterious device.  The phone company, AT&T held a monopoly and innovated very slowly.  I recall when the clockwise dial was replaced by gray push buttons.  Then there was the desk phone offered in green and red, as well as black and beige.  I vaguely remember “Ma-Bell,” as we irreverently referred to the company, marketing blue, white and pink “Princess Phones,”.  Geez, how sexist.

But what telephones held then, which is gone now, was a sense of mystery.  When that device rang it was a crap shoot who waited on the other end.  We could only call on land lines, and if no one answered there was no evidence of our call.  If that certain someone called me, and I missed it, well, I missed it.  We had no call waiting, no answering machines, and certainly no ‘missed call’ record.

And long distance calls were fashionable and expensive, folks largely opting to stay in touch through less expensive letters.  While Helen toured Europe from 1932-33, she had no cause to use a telephone.  If Elie wrote to her and scheduled a call, she would take it at the prescribed time at her hotel.  But calling her mother back in the states was never an option.

Public phones could be found on nearly every city block as I grew up.  Now they are as scarce as manual typewriters.  Formality, phone etiquette, the necessity of saying hello to mother’s or father’s who picked up, are all gone.  I would sit in the stairway of our house for some telephone privacy, because my family was everywhere, my brothers especially snoopy and irritating.  Even that modicum of supervision is gone for teenagers.  They can call, text, Facetime, use Facebook, stay connected all day everyday.

Perhaps the extra effort required for telephone calls gave them a higher value.  Our capacity for electronic interaction is nearly effortless today, but also somehow has cheapened a once-regarded gesture.

Who Takes The Blame?

Yesterday my car was totaled.  True story.  I don’t think it has quite sunk in that my familiar, comfortable, Sirius radio equipped car will never move again.  And I didn’t cause the demise, either.  And I can’t even really blame my husband, though he was behind wheel at the time.  The actual culprit was mother nature.  I need to explain.

We live in the mountains.  There is a small grocery store in our little town, but for real shopping we have to drive to the city.  The highways we use were cut out years ago from the granite walls of the Northern Rockies.  The rivers below the road and the hot springs alongside maintains a perpetual cloud of steam, that quickly sets up into ice when the temperature hovers around 20 degrees.  The canyon itself is so narrow that the sun’s rays rarely touch many sections of route.  The point is that the highway is a damn treacherous roller coaster ride.  My husband lost control on a particularly slick curve, though his speed was slowly cautious.  He hit another oncoming truck, and the impact destroyed both vehicles.  The two drivers are okay.  One broken arm, lots of bruises and scrapes.

The state troopers wrote a ticket placing the blame on my husband and my poor smashed up car.  They explained that though the accident couldn’t quite have been helped, someone had to assume responsibility.  The blame game in this case feels unjustified, but the trooper explained that with the damage and injuries blame has to be assigned to someone.

Her explanation has set me to thinking about assessing blame for damages and injuries that cannot be seen.  In River of January hurt abounds among the main characters.  Pain plays an instrumental part in moving the characters emotionally and geographically throughout the pages.  Death, all kinds of abuse, fear, and manipulation steer my central figures as they move through their lives.  Where is blame to be assigned for all that type of damage?  The father who abused the son?  The mother who died abandoning a lone and sensitive child?  The daughter who attempted to live her own life apart from her overbearing mother?  Where did the legacy of hurt begin?  When exactly did it start?  Who’s name would appear on the ticket that initiated all that multi-generational sorrow?

The police have their set definitions assessing blame and culpability for inevitable, unpreventable collisions on the road.  But where do we as members of a family pinpoint where our unhappiness began?  How many generations must we trace back to isolate the first fateful hurt?

Perhaps we all live on figurative ice, and cannot place blame on any other soul.  There are no traffic tickets for operating a life while bearing inevitable injuries.

Time and Words

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Written records have provided a wealth of information for my book, River of January.  It’s rather interesting that I have carefully read and analyzed these letters composed in ink and soft lead, and they have taken me into vibrant lives, flowing with adventure and color.  So much feeling lives in those envelopes–devotion, pain, fear, reassurance all scribed into hand written correspondence.

A character in the story, Elie Gelaki, a Belgian boy who pines for Helen, produced volumes of letters and postcards.  Just picking up a handful of his letters are vivid proof of his perpetual love.  Helen’s letters to her mother bear updates, stories, and news (and promises of money) filling 4 plastic containers.  I can see that her mother was important to her, just by looking at her blizzard of correspondence.  In the same vein, Chum’s letters to Helen, are steeped in longing, with loving language that reached her from across hemispheres, time zones and war zones, placing the reader directly into the deepest reaches of his heart.

Sadly, today, personal letters exist somewhere in the same black hole as slide rules, floppy discs and cassette tapes.

The beauty of cursive writing, the artful style has disappeared.  Take a look at the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution and notice the intricate flourishes that embellish the words.  People made their living writing script, and the hands that penned these two documents were skilled for sure.

And another feature of handwriting is what it reveals about the writer.  A former student became enthralled with handwriting analysis, fascinated by the personality traits exposed in cursive writing.  I’m not sure I buy all that hocus pocus, but the change of Richard Nixon’s signature from his heyday to his resignation is remarkable.  He signed his name at the end of his presidency in an almost straight line.  Nixon’s signature looks pissed-off.

I would argue that a person’s handwriting is as unique as their fingerprints.  It is a shame that most informal communication between any two people today is through cryptic, brief electronic texts.  I won’t argue that electronic communication can reveal a story too.  It certainly can.  I think that was how Martha Stewart got caught violating SEC regulations and ended up in jail.

But in the realm of the heart, the messy, dramatic, embarrassing human heart, driven by love to hemorrhage passion on stationary has sadly become a casualty of neat, quick technology.