Hear… and now

I grew up in the hang-out house. You know the one – that place where people are always gathering, especially in junior high and high school. In a lot of cases, the hang-out house is the one where the parents are the most lenient, where the kids can get away with the most, from drinking to overturning tables to debating how to TP the neighbors. My house was… uh… not that house. My friends and I were dorks nerds just not into that kind of thing. Our get-togethers consisted mostly of us just relaxing in my basement, playing music, drinking soda and eating junk food, and talking about God knows what.

Which sounds really lame, now that I write it all out.

In our defense, we did kind of have the most awesome basement of all time. It was really big – the full length of our house – large enough to hold a bowling lane (although we didn’t have one. Duh). But we did have lots of other amazing amusements – real arcade games (pinball was my favorite, although the guys seemed to enjoy the race-car game), a ping-pong table, a pool table, a great seating area with couches that we could totally destroy (although, again, being rather straight-laced, we did not), and a jukebox. That held records. You know, the things that came before CDs. Which are the things that came before MP3… Never mind.

Oh, and access to the fridge in the storage room. That was critical.

So, anyway, that’s where my friends and I spent a great deal of our middle and high school days, be it for actual parties or just, you know, chillin’. (Once, our school’s Valentine’s Day dance was cancelled due to snow, but having already bought our dresses and corsages and whatnot, we didn’t want to skip it… so my friends just came over to my place, semi-formally dressed, and we held our own dance right in the basement, all Footloose-ing it out to the records from the jukebox. That was a particularly… pungent… night.)

Except that at least one of my friends was usually missing… because she (it was usually a she, although it was known to be a he from time to time) was upstairs in the kitchen, chatting with my mom. Invariably, at some point during the gathering, someone would be looking for another friend – not playing pool, not on the couches… – and it would finally dawn on somebody else, “Oh! She must be upstairs talking to Emily’s mom!”

And there they’d be, sitting on the high bar stools at the kitchen island, gabbing away about anything and everything – soda for the friend, iced tea for my mom.

(As an aside: my mother adores iced tea. At home, she prefers the Crystal Light variety and almost always has a pitcher of it in her refrigerator. You know exactly how much water to add because she’s drawn a fill line with a Sharpie around the edge of the pitcher. Anyway, that’s been her go-to drink for almost all occasions – my mom doesn’t drink alcohol – and at least 90% of the time, she’s got a small glass of it waiting for her, which she drinks slowly, and then refills. Lots and lots of iced tea.

Except I found out at my wedding – when I was almost 26 years old – that at least one friend of mine was convinced, all those years, that my mom had been nursing a glass of bourbon. MULTIPLE GLASSES of bourbon, just a little bit at a time, resting happily at the island. I’m not sure that my mom has ever even touched a bottle of bourbon, much less consumed it daily – for more than a decade! – in front of all of my friends. I think I nearly peed my pants when I found out my friends thought she was a quiet lush.)

I’m not sure what they talked about, because I rarely joined them – in part because, hey, it was my house and my party (or nerdy get-together), and I wanted to be with the rest of my friends… and in part because, well, to be honest, their conversations seemed kind of private. Not in a, This is a secret! kind of way (after all, they were sitting in the middle of our open kitchen, with people ostensibly coming and going throughout their chit-chat), but there was a subtle vibe that this was a special conversation, to be had between the two of them. I would often lean in and add a sentence or two, but then I’d gravitate back downstairs, leaving them deep in laughter and thought.

Maybe they discussed school. Perhaps extra-curriculars. My girlfriends might have told my mom something they were nervous about, a crisis, a problem. They might have shared boyfriend woes (or lack-of-boyfriend woes) or told her that something special was on the horizon. I do know that she gave them advice, and I know that they appreciated it. But, mostly, I think that she just listened to them and made them feel heard.

And maybe that’s another reason why I never wanted to butt into their conversations: because I already felt heard by her. It’s no secret that I like to talk (*ahem*), so, as my mother, she didn’t really have much of a choice but to hear me. But to really listen is something different altogether… and, man, did she listen. To my oral school projects and my concerns about friends. To my sobs as I cried over a loss or a boy. To my shaking voice as I expressed something I was afraid of. To my elation. To my switching subjects a dozen times in thirty minutes. To my piano pieces. To my rambling stories.

Whatever it was, she listened.

So, having already felt heard, I didn’t mind sharing her with all of my friends. Many of them referred to her as a second mother; rather than be jealous, I was proud. Yeah, she’s an amazing listener, isn’t she? And she’s got enough listening to go around. How cool is that?!

It’s been years since I spent Mother’s Day with my mom – living away from her, it just hasn’t been possible – but this year, she was coming to Rochester for a few days, and they happened to coincide with Mother’s Day, so I got to spend yesterday with her. And also Friday night, where she (and my stepdad, Steven – Pops, if you’re a granddaughter) attended Ella’s 90-minute swim practice. I talked almost non-stop for the entire hour and a half. She listened. She and Pops came to Annie’s soccer game on Saturday morning, where she and Ella sat on a blanket. Ella talked… and Grandma listened.

All Saturday afternoon and much of Sunday, my girls chattered away – let me tell you this! And then! Guess what! – and Grandma listened. And, even though it was Mother’s Day – a day I might have enjoyed with just my girls, or just my mom – I didn’t mind. In fact, it was just right. My children talking, Grandma listening. Full circle.

It doesn’t even feel like sharing anymore. It just feels like happiness.

I admit: I may not always give my girls my full attention. Sometimes this is by choice (they do not need to have my undivided concentration for everything that they do, no matter what “they” say about making every single moment count!!). Other times, I’m distracted but should – or would like to – be paying them more mind. But, when they talk, I make it a point to listen. To really, truly listen. Sometimes, I even have an iced tea at the ready.

I know how important that can be. After all, I learned from the best.

Unless they’re singing “Let It Go” again. And again. And again, for the love of God.
Then, I think it’s best for all of us if I just tune out.

mom and us
My mom with my brother, Taylor, and me.
Taken well before middle and high school, but with cool Maid of the Mist rain gear, so it’s okay.

It’s been a (very) sweet trip

I came by my love of recorded media – movies, television, music – honestly. My great-grandfather, whose stage name was Colonel Stoopnagle, was something of a radio star back in the 1930s. He considered himself a wordsmith, and often did bits (and wrote books) showcasing the cleverness of the English language.

He also did print ads, like this (copy of) one that hangs in our bathroom. I’d like to think he would have gotten a kick out of looking over us on the loo. I imagine he also got a kick out of the apostrophe erroneously place in the word PROs; oh, the irony.

Stoopnagle’s son – my grandfather – spent his working career with a local Rochester television affiliate. A tinkerer who couldn’t stand to sit idle, he built a television set for the family (including my mom) in the days before you could easily go out and buy one. As I understand it, there wasn’t much to watch on said television, but hey – they were ready when things changed.

My mother, a theater major in college, loved all recorded media, and she shared that love with my brother and me. Her record collection was (is?) extensive, and although I know we had a car that played eight-tracks, the memory is distant, because we always ventured into new media technology as soon as it became available. When I was in the third grade, my mom picked up a friend and me from school (I was having the friend over – back then, there was no such thing as a “play date;” friends just “came over”), and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was playing from the stereo. Impressed (rock on, Mom!), I told her that I loved that song… and POP! she ejected the brand new “Thriller” cassette from the player on the dashboard. How funky and strong is my fight now?!

Similarly, while I imagine that we must have had Beta tapes, I don’t have specific memories of them because as soon as VHS became available, we were in. Not just for playing, either – for recording, too… except that independent hand-held VHS video cameras hadn’t come into play yet (although, the moment they did, you can bet we had them) – you had to tether the video camera to the VCR in order to record. For movies taken, say, in the living room where the television was, this wasn’t so bad. The recordings were live-streamed to the TV, which meant that our home movies feature the profiles of all of the video participants (i.e. me, my brother, our unwitting friends who’d come over for a birthday celebration) because we were enthralled with seeing ourselves on the TV screen – looking toward the camera was so not fun – but they were relatively easy to do, technically speaking. For anything more than, like, twenty feet from the TV, however, my dad would strap the VCR to his shoulder – yes, really, the entire VCR machine – and follow us around, video camera in-hand, tethered to the recorder.

Those were the days.

Having just one VCR was lovely – and I think, for a little while, that’s what we did – but it was limiting; all you could do was record from a single source and put it right on the tape. It didn’t take long, then, for us to acquire two VCRs, and for my mom to put them to good use. Sure, you could record things from two different televisions at the same time (which my mom continued to do right up until DVDs became the rage; more than once, I remember calling her from college – frantic – and asking her to please tape a crucial episode of Friends for me). But, more importantly, you could record from one VHS tape to another.

This was handy for creating home movies. No longer did we have to save entire school plays when all that my parents really wanted were the thirty seconds that my brother and I were visible from behind the towering third-graders; instead, the play was recorded onto one VHS tape and then – through the magic of more tethering – the crucial thirty seconds were recorded onto a second VHS tape. In this way, we were able to winnow down entire years’ worth of footage into bite-sized clips.

What I really remember, though, are the collections of show tunes that my mom culled together. I grew up in the era of mix tapes, but I think my mother may have invented the mix VHS. She would record a favorite movie musical off of the TV – The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or Singin’ in the Rain – and then transfer just a snippet, maybe “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Make ‘Em Laugh”, onto another VHS tape, so that it contained clip after clip after clip of her most beloved songs and dances.

It wasn’t just movies, either. Any time there was music on the TV that was worthy of watching again, from songs performed at the Tony Awards to orchestral selections from Fourth of July celebrations (complete with fireworks) to bits and pieces from talk shows or even commercials, it went on the mix VHS collections. And this is how I so vividly remember Shirley Temple being a part of our lives.

I was introduced to Shirley so long ago that I don’t remember life without her; she came into our living room, beaming her dimpled smile at us and boing-ing her perfect curls, and dancing – oh, the dancing! – up a storm. She was adorable and sweet, sure, but it was really the dancing that had me hooked. How was it possible for someone that tiny to tap dance like that? I was in awe.

We watched her movies (which my mom had recorded from the TV onto VHS tapes) – The Little Colonel, Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, The Blue Bird – and I loved them… but I was more interested in seeing the musical numbers – which was convenient, because my mom had them cued up on her VHS mixes.

Shirley Temple was just so stinkin’ fabulous, wasn’t she? Admonishing the kids in “Animal Crackers in my Soup” or bopping along the train in “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. She was charming and cute, an exuberantly dynamite little powerhouse who held her own against her adult co-stars. They held their own against her, too, simultaneously talking to her like a child (because, um, she was one) and treating her as their equal, undoubtedly fully aware that this ringleted moppet was the real reason so many people would flock to the theater.

I could have watched for hours (and probably did) as Shirley swished alongside Buddy Ebson in “At the Codfish Ball”, nimbly hopping on and off wooden crates while, you know, tap dancing – but not cutesy kid tap dancing, where you go Awwww, she’s pretty good for her age! but real tap dancing, where you go, DAMN! She holds her own against other hoofers! My very favorite, though, was whenever she would dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a man for whom a special place is reserved in the tap dancing pantheon. Here was this little – and I mean little, like seven year-old – girl, dancing brilliantly alongside a seasoned veteran… who happened to be Black. Yes, he played stereotypical roles for a Black man in the 1930s (in this case, most often a butler for white folks), but Shirley and Bojangles broke that color barrier (as the first white female and black male to dance onscreen together, fo’ real) and it was awesome.

Just try to watch the two of them dance up the stairs and not smile. No, really. Try it.

shirley and bojangles
I found this at this site and, even though it’s not from a movie set, I love it. Actually, I think I love it more because it’s not from a movie set – they’re just buds.

As soon as my girls were old enough (by which I mean as soon as they could sit still and watch a television screen for ten minutes at a clip… which, for Annie, was around 4 months old; that’s what having an older sister will do for you), I began introducing them to Shirley Temple’s songs and dances – only this time, we used the modern-day version of my mom’s old VHS mixes: YouTube. I’d plug in the song that was in my head and up would pop a clip, instantly available, for the girls and me to enjoy and laugh and gasp about, just as I did sitting beside my mom on the living room couch while the VCR whirred away.

True to my mother and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, we have embraced technology, especially when it comes to recorded media. While I am far from a fan of all modern technology, and while Nick and I impose pretty strict screen time limits, I will forever be grateful to the likes of YouTube for enabling me to share those bits of my childhood, of my own story, with Ella and Annie. Heck, I can even show them clips of Colonel Stoopnagle on Youtube – which is pretty damn incredible, if you ask me.

Which you didn’t. But I’m telling you anyway.

I was really bummed to learn of Shirley Temple’s passing today… but her legacy will live on. For one thing, my children (and my cousins – howdy, Andrew and Brian!) are unlikely to stop ordering ginger ale and grenadine any time soon, so Shirley is here to stay. For another, Annie’s perpetual washing-of-her-face using only her forefingers a la the song “Early Bird” from Captain January makes me wring my hands each time I see it.

(Seriously, this part of the song has bugged me since I was a kid. STILL DIRTY!)

And, of course, we have Shirley’s body of work to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten us from now until, well, forever. I plan to purchase some of her movies on DVD to show the girls (in addition to the couple that I already own, courtesy of my mom, naturally), but in the meantime, YouTube clips will happily tide us over. She is a part of our lives, ingrained, woven in, and I can’t imagine it any other way.

As the girls came home from school, I was in the middle of writing this and had the various YouTube clips playing so that I could link to them properly. Without even being in the room, Ella heard three bars of “At the Codfish Ball” and said, “Is that Shirley Temple?” Yes, honey. It is. She made our lives richer and more colorful, and I’m sad that she’s gone – but I can’t wait to watch her with you tonight.

Nor can I wait to see how you share her with your own children; it’s in your genes – I know you will. And they will laugh and roll their eyes at the thought of us using something as antiquated as YouTube to watch her – but I’m good with that, because I know that I’ll have embraced that kind of media, too. Right after my mom does.