…the delight on my father’s face.

In this excerpt from his autobiography, I Remember ©1991, Dan Rather shares a warm memory from his childhood:

Late one night when I was five or six years old and had long been put to bed, I woke up and heard music being played in the kitchen. This was unusual for such an advanced hour, so I got up, cracked my door open quietly, and peeked to see what was going on.

They didn’t see me, but I glimpsed what looked to me like a magical sight. I didn’t want to disrupt it. My parents were dancing.

They danced for a long time, maybe an hour, off an on, sometimes stopping to fine-tune the radio through the static, trying to bring in one of the outlaw stations across the Mexican border, the ones that carried slow and fast tunes. These outlets were also home to “Doc” John R. Brinkley, once candidate for governor of Kansas, who promised rejuvenation with a “goat gland” treatment that cost $750, which made us laugh our heads off. He was our Johnny Carson.

Doc Brinkley was not on the air that night, so Mother and Father danced through the static, ballads, and all other kinds of music, and they were plainly happier than I’d ever seen them. Mother hummed along much of the time and both were smiling a lot. It was especially sweet and remarkable to see the delight on my father’s face. The pressures of the workday had been lifted from his features; I remember that distinctly.

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Just Like Buddy and Waylon

In her autobiography On Reflection, actress Helen Hayes recounts an incident from her childhood between theater producer Charles Frohman and actor John Drew Jr.:

I saw Mr. Drew angry with Mr. Frohman only once, from a great distance and with good reason. The producer cabled that he was returning from a European business trip.

“Stay there,” John Drew wired back. “Don’t come back now. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m on my way on the next boat,” Charles Frohman answered.

The star was ablaze with anger. “If the Huns sink you, I’ll never forgive you,” he cabled Mr. Frohman.

The Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, and our good friend was drowned. There are no words to describe John Drew’s shock. His flippant wire would haunt him forever.

Charles Frohmans last words, before being swept away by a giant wave, were a paraphrase from his play Peter Pan: “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.”

Wistful Sighs

Another excerpt from Helen Hayes’ autobiography On Reflection, © 1968:

In those days, grandmothers were always available for extra duties… Unthinkable as it would be to the eternal soubrettes of today, there was once a breed of women who by their mid-50s admitted that youth was a sweet memory. After a long, wistful sigh, they willingly moved on to the next step in their development. And they dressed the part. They didn’t defy the seasons of woman, and greying hair softened their worn faces. They didn’t lose their full-blown beauty in an effort to freeze its first bloom. Dark or quiet colors in dress were further reminders of a new-found stability. They didn’t compete with their daughters but, instead, presented a contrast that illustrated the logical sequence of life. There was a flow and a natural progression.

“Willingly?”  Nonsense.

She was a friend of Ronald Reagan and active in Republican politics, and makes the same mistake many conservatives do:  “This is the way I’m used to, so this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

I can understand how, as an actress, she would feel most comfortable with a role to play, but that’s not a “logical sequence of life,” not a “flow and natural progression.” That’s just local custom.

I’m glad we live in less stifling times.  I’m glad women don’t feel compelled to put on dowdy clothing and spend the second half of their lives catering to their children’s whims.

It makes me happy to see women in bright colors, singing and dancing and living their lives to the fullest.

Was Beyond Me

Excerpted from Helen Hayes’ autobiography On Reflection, © 1968:

Of course, I didn’t know what it all meant anyway, and the only shockers to me were Graddy’s (her grandmother’s) scarey tales of ghosts and supernatural goings-on. I always shivered and thrilled to the one about the beautiful bride who expired of a mysterious seizure in the arms of her groom just as the priest was declaring them man and wife. Shrouded in her own wedding gown, fairly floating in her many veils, the virgin was transported to her grave. Followed by a long procession of weeping mourners, she lay in a hearse pulled by fine black horses, each with three white plumes. As the carriage passed through the cemetery gate, it rolled over a sharp rock and the jolt was so great that up shot the lid of the coffin. The bride’s eyes and hands starter to flutter; and then sitting up in bewilderment, her pale lips formed those deathless words, “Where am I?” The horrified cortège dispersed in a panic– all except the bridegroom, of course, who now lifted her tenderly in his arms, brought the color back to her cheeks with a kiss, and carried her off to their marriage bed.

This story and my grandmother’s insistence that it wasn’t really unusual– “People, Helen, are being buried alive all the time!”– made such an impression on me that when she herself lay in her coffin a few years later and at the age of ten I looked upon a dead person for the first time, I of course wailed, “Sit up, Graddy! Please sit up now!

Graddy’s friends sat clutching their wrists, their necks pulled in like great turtles, their mouths twisted in scandalized disbelief.

“Well, I never.”

“What a little actress!”

“Essie, you shouldn’t allow her to show off like that.”

They were the first of a legion of critics who have tried to remove me from the stage.

I really was sure that, like the pop-up bride, she would rise and spin a yarn about this, her latest adventure. The finality of death was beyond me. I just couldn’t believe that my Graddy was gone.

When I was four, my grandfather died.  I wasn’t overly concerned, because I had completely misunderstood the stories they taught us in Sunday School and I had no doubt that he’d be coming back to life any time now.  All you had to do was believe, and it would all be okay.

A few months later my grandmother died,  and the truth crushed down on me like a boulder:  this was forever.  Nobody comes back.

I was devastated.

And I think that exact moment was when I quit believing in the things the grown-ups told me were true.

Corruption With A Growl

Excerpted from Jacob Riis’ autobiography, The Making of an American, ©1901:

You bring up the people slowly to a reform programme, particularly when it costs money. They will pay for corruption with a growl, but seem to think that virtue ought always to be had for nothing. It makes the politicians’ game easy. They steal the money for improvements, and predict that reform will raise the tax-rate. When the prophecy comes true, they take the people back in their sheltering embrace with an “I told you so!” and the people nestle there repentant.

When the investment bankers manipulated the market for their personal gain, requiring a trillion dollars in bailout money to cover their losses, there was no real debate:  the money was instantly available.

People are dying and going bankrupt  from lack of affordable health care, but that, we are told, costs too much money.

Jacob Riis, buried more than a century ago, would not be surprised.

All of his books are in the public domain and may be downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.

(One question I am seldom asked is, “So, what are you reading these days?”)

Let In the Light

Jacob Riis on faith:

I had the feeling, and have it still, that if you are trying to do the things which are right, and which you were put here to do, you can and ought to leave ways and means to Him who drew the plans, after you have done your own level best to provide. Always that, of course. If then things don’t come out right, it is the best proof in the world, to my mind, that you have got it wrong, and you have only to hammer away waiting for things to shape themselves, as they are bound to do, and let in the light. For nothing in all this world is without a purpose, and least of all what you and I are doing, though we may not be able to make it out. I got that faith from my mother, and it never put her to shame, so she has often told me.

Or, to rephrase it into the parlance of my youth, “Keep On Truckin’.”

This was excerpted from his autobiography, The Making of an American ©1901, which may be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

“Joyless children do not make good men.”

One of the causes Jacob Riis championed was building playgrounds for New York’s children:

I wanted the sunlight in there, but so that it might shine on the children at play. That is a child’s right, and it is not to be cheated of it. And when it is cheated of it, it is not the child but the community that is robbed of that beside which all its wealth is but tinsel and trash. For men, not money, make a country great, and joyless children do not make good men.

His autobiography, The Making of an American– and all of his books– are in the public domain and may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, HERE.