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.