Viola in reel life, p.15

Viola in Reel Life, page 15


Viola in Reel Life

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  “I thought Cerise was French,” Marisol says.

  “Coral Cerise is Grand’s stage name. Her real-life name is Carol Butler.”

  “Oh.” Marisol looks at me, confused. I’m so used to my theatrical grandmother (my dad calls her The Mother-In-Law of Reinvention behind her back) that it didn’t even dawn on me to tell Marisol that Grand changed her name, or even how many times Grand changed it.

  Originally, my grandmother was born Carol Evelyn Gray. She married my grandfather and she became Carol Gray Butler. Then after she divorced him, she overhauled everything, her home, her wardrobe, and her name, changing the Carol to Coral (“I never felt like a Carol,” she explained), and became Coral Gray. And then finally Coral Cerise when she went to a psychic who said that Grand’s greatest success in the American theater would come after the age of fifty and only if she changed her name. When she changed her name to Cerise, everyone thought she was remarried (which she wasn’t). My mom said that the psychic probably said Charisse, after the great dancer Cyd Charisse but Grand misheard and wrote down Cerise. Anyhow, now, and for the immediate future, she will probably remain Coral Cerise.

  “In New York we read a play aloud at Christmas.” Grand goes to our alcove and looks out over the grounds. “It’s a family tradition, so let’s do that here as well.”

  “Last year we read A Christmas Carol,” I tell Marisol. “Another year we read George Washington Crossing the Delaware and Bertha, Queen of Norway by Kenneth Koch.”

  “Guess who played the queen?” Grand smiles.

  “That sounds like fun. And with you and George being professional actors, I bet it will be something.” Marisol easily gets on the theatrical Christmas bus.

  “What are your family traditions, Marisol?”

  “Well, we collect brown paper bags all fall and then we line them up on the walkway to our house and put votive candles in them and light them on Christmas Eve.”

  Grand makes a sort of horrified face and then says, “Lovely.”

  “Oh, and we go to Mass,” Marisol says. She gets in the van with the Catholics every Sunday morning and they head over to Saint Mary’s College for church. Marisol said at the beginning of the semester, there were, like, twenty girls and by Christmas break, about three who go, not including the old ladies from Saint Joe’s rest home who they pick up along the way.

  “We’ll all go to Mass with you,” Grand says.

  “That would be nice.”

  “George will drive. He’s Polish and must be Catholic—isn’t that country ninety percent Catholic? And I’ve asked Mrs. Grundman if we can make our own dinner in the kitchen, and she agreed.”

  “Whew. We dodged a bullet with that one. The only turkey we have on campus is pressed.”

  “We’ll get a real bird, then.” Grand makes a list. “Now, is there anything else you girls would like?”

  Marisol gets tears in her eyes. “Can you take us home?”

  “Now, Marisol, there will be none of that. NO tears. I’m an actress, and I’m the only one allowed to have a good sob because I actually get paid to let ’em flow like old Niagara Falls. I promise you will look back on this Christmas when you’re my age…fifty-two-ish, and you will say, that was a great Christmas. Offbeat, original, and totally different. Trust me. I know how to do holidays.”

  Marisol wipes her eyes. “Okay, Miss Cerise.”

  There are a few nuns, a couple of maintenance people, and Grand, Marisol, George, and me at Christmas-morning Mass at the Chapel of Our Lady of Loretto on the Saint Mary’s College campus. I hope the priest doesn’t die during the service. He’s so old that he actually might. But at least George is in good shape and he’s big enough to carry the man out in a worst-case scenario.

  The chapel is very pretty with a high ceiling and lots of tiny tiles on the walls in shades of blue. The chocolate brown wooden benches and matching altar make for a very nice color scheme.

  It ends up that George Dvorksy is in fact a Catholic. And evidently, as a bonus, he was an altar boy, so he can help Father Time (literally) say the Mass. George has to put items on the altar and ring bells. Every once in a while George looks up from his sacred duties and winks at Grand. Holy. Holy. Holy.

  I can see that Marisol is comforted by her rituals, and I think of my own: how my parents would come to get me on Christmas morning, and we’d go up the stairs where the tree was lit and Christmas presents were everywhere. Mom and Dad would cook, and have their friends over—people who had kids my age—like Lily Kamp with her parents; the Rosenfelds with Anna, Kate, and Jane; the Dyjas with Nick and Kay; and the Prietos with Emilio and Aaron. Mary Ehlinger often came over and read aloud from the poetry of Edgar Guest. And pets were allowed, so there were a couple of dogs—Elvis and Click. We’d all play together while our parents would sit around and talk and laugh.

  The talking and the laughing is the music that I miss the most—that, and my parents calling my name to “gather the troops” for dinner. Grand would always show up later, because she sleeps in (all actresses do—never call one before noon or they shoot to kill), and she’d bring one of her boyfriends. So, on that level, the Grand level, it isn’t so odd—George Dvorsky would have fit in at the brownstone—and Mom and her friends would have drunk wine in the kitchen and gone on and on with deep admiration about how young George is, and how amazing a person Grand is to attract such peppy dates.

  When it comes time to read from what looks from back here like the Bible, the old priest motions to my grandmother who puts her hand on her chest and mouths Me? I whisper, “Yes, you,” because Father Time doesn’t mean any of the nuns, who seem to have their heads bowed in prayer but are actually asleep.

  Grand gets up and out of the pew and sashays to the podium. She pulls her chic reading glasses out of the pocket of her slim wool skirt and reads, “It came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” And then Grand does the weirdest thing: She starts crying. And George gets up from his little bench next to Father Time and joins her. He reads aloud where she has left off, and when she pulls herself together, she takes over and tells the rest of the story—which everyone knows—about the poor girl, fifteen and pregnant, and her husband, Joseph, and full-up hotels unable to take them.

  Father Time has us all sing “Joy to the World” a capella when the service is over, and Marisol and I belt it out really loud to make up for the deaf nuns. Grand and George hold hands as we go. I’m amazed that I had a spiritual experience, and I wasn’t even looking for it.

  Marisol and I clear the dishes from the dining-hall table. Grand made turkey and stuffing and yams and green bean casserole. We invited the league of nations girls: the two Africans, three Central Europeans, and one Canadian who couldn’t go home for the holidays. Grand and George acted out small scenes from Arsenic and Old Lace, which were very funny and doubled as practice for when they return “to the boards” after Christmas. Now everyone else has gone back to Curley Kerner to watch movies, while we sit with Grand and George.

  “I’m good at dishes,” George says. “Marisol, want to help me out?”

  “Sure!” she says.

  “We’ll be in to help shortly,” Grand calls after him. She turns to me and asks, “Did you talk to your parents today?”

  “We video conferenced. Mom cried through the whole thing.”

  “She doesn’t have my stiff upper lip,” Grand laments. “Never did. Thank God she didn’t go into the theater.”

  “I thought it was nice that she missed me. But she should have thought of that before she decided not to come home. My parents are the most selfish people on the planet.”

  “Viola…,” Grand says in a warning tone.

  “It’s true. They dumped me here.”

  “Dumped you? Young lady, you are out of line.” Grand is not using her actress voice. It’s real. She’s angry with me. “You’re accusing your mother of deliberately missing an opportunity to be with you, and that’s just not true.”

“I’m an only child. There are girls here with, like, ten siblings and somehow their parents manage to get here and bring them home for Christmas. My parents passed. They couldn’t even get it together to carve out, like, three days to see me.”

  “Viola, there’s a good reason for that.”

  “Well, I’d like to hear it.” I know my parents well. They’re artists. They become so absorbed in their work they don’t hear things like the phone, the doorbell, or the smoke alarm. All my life, I’ve been the one to snap them out of their creative comas. Grand knows this. And I don’t care if it sounds sarcastic, I think it’s wrong for parents to abandon their children on holidays. It scars them for life—whether the parents have a good reason or not. At least Marisol’s parents blew her off for a life-and-death cause. For my parents, it’s just work. “They care about their projects more than me.”

  “That’s not true. Your parents can’t afford to come home financially.”

  My mind reels. In all my life, my parents never acted like we didn’t have money. There didn’t seem to be a lot, but there didn’t appear to be too little, either. Yes, they are frugal, but that’s because they use all their money to finance their movies. They rent out a floor of the brownstone fixer-upper to a professor from Pratt, and sometimes they take jobs they don’t want their names on (like a certain hour-long TV drama that shot in New York City and was canceled after, like, two episodes). I know we’re not rich; we don’t go on vacations (that’s usually because they travel so much—it’s almost dumb to go on vacation somewhere besides our home to rest), but money never seems to be an issue. The filmmakers and artists my parents know aren’t rich either, but I never, ever thought of them as poor. “Grand, what are you talking about?”

  “I’m talking about a bad run of financial reversals and no jobs.”

  “Dad and Mom were developing their own projects.”

  “When the paying gigs dried up.”

  “Why didn’t they tell me?”

  “They didn’t want you to worry. And Viola, I didn’t tell you this to have you worry. You’re smart and you’re mature and you can handle knowing the truth. I told you so that you might see things through their eyes.”

  “They could have cut corners by keeping me at home—this place is expensive!”

  “I’m paying for it,” Grand says.

  The reality of that hits me like a rock in the face. Grand should not be spending her hard-earned money on me—that’s crazy! She’s one year from retirement age. (Though, if you were to use her version of the math, she’s got an additional thirteen years.)

  “And I’m happy to do so. Now, you mustn’t let them know that I told you any of this—it would kill them. They are making good money on this documentary, and they’ve rented out the brownstone for the year. That should put them back in the black.”

  Tears fill my eyes. “I didn’t know.” I remember how hard I’ve been on them, and how rude, and how I’d always have some smart-aleck comment, thinking they didn’t want me to be with them because I’d be in the way. But that wasn’t the case at all. I think of my mom, who doesn’t go to the hair salon for highlights, but does them at home—out of a box—to save money. She probably wants to look good for those business meetings when she and Dad go to pitch projects. She’s not one of those moms who want to look good for the sake of looking good or to hang on to their 1980s halcyon Madonna years. She’s just trying to stay in the business, stay current, stay employed.

  My mother tries to give me things I want. She takes me to the Village to buy something new when she’s, like, wearing the same purse she’s had since the 1990s when she had a desk job at a production company.

  My dad, who is a terrible handyman, fixes everything in the brownstone, and it takes him hours, and he has to keep a book propped up with the instructions, but he gets the job done—and he doesn’t complain. They paint our rooms themselves, but they’d be laughing and talking as though they liked doing it—not acting a bit like they couldn’t afford a painter.

  I’m the most selfish, horrible person I know, and I deserve anything rotten that happens to me because I’m only worried about myself.

  “Now you know.” Grand opens her arms to me, and I fall into them. “You are loved, Viola Chesterton, a thousand percent.”

  “Thank you.” I bury my face in my grandmother’s neck, the safest place in the world.

  “Life sucks sometimes. And sometimes the money comes and sometimes the money goes. You’re rich-ish, then you’re broke-ish…and then you hit it, and you hold on to it. And then something comes up and it’s gone again. My God, these days a root canal can set you back six months.” Grand sighs.

  “And when you’re an actress, your livelihood is subject to the whims of a director. When I go up for a part, sometimes I’m too tall or too thin, or too this or too that, or not enough or way, way too much. The goddamned theater! You can’t please them! I have to live with being judged from everything from the credits on my résumé to the size of my ankles! But you—you are not judged, and you are not dismissed. You are the first thought in your mother’s and father’s mind in the morning and their last one before sleep.”

  “Did they tell you that?” I ask.

  “No. But I’m a mother. And that’s just the way it goes. Someday, when you’re a mother, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But for now, I’m asking you to open up your heart a little bit wider, and give your parents the security of knowing how happy you are here. Because I see it in you, I see how happy you are here. And your parents need to know this.”

  Grand is right. I am pretty happy, but I like to complain. And then of course, I like to throw on my Princess Snark tiara from time to time…just because. Those days are over. “I won’t make everything about me anymore, Grand,” I vow.

  “Nonsense. You must. It’s in the genes—you’re my granddaughter, aren’t you? We like a mirror. And we also like our reflection in the eyes of someone who thinks we’re just yummy. But you may be too young for that yet.”

  “No, I have a boyfriend,” I blurt.

  “You do?” Grand’s eyes widen.

  “His name is Jared Spencer.”

  “Rugged name.” Grand looks off in the distance and squints, as though she’s seeing it up in lights. “I like it.”

  “He makes movies too.”


  “You’d like him a lot.”

  “I’m sure I will. Now, will you do me a favor? Will you go and video doo-dad—or whatever it is—your parents and be you? Be funny and dear and sarcastic just as you are so they don’t think we’ve ever had this conversation. Can you, on this Christmas night, make them feel good about themselves? Can you do that for your very well-preserved, young-ish Grand?”

  I nod that I can. I hug Grand and I inhale the scent of her perfume. Closing my eyes tightly, I hug her hard enough for my mother to feel it halfway around the world.

  “There. That’s better,” she says. And somehow, for real, it actually is.

  “Mom? Dad?” I say into the camera on my computer.

  “Merry Christmas!” Mom waves as Dad squeezes in. They lean forward.

  “Oh my God, you totally missed it! It was the best one ever. We went to church….”

  “Really?” Mom’s eyes widen.

  “Grand cried.”

  “She did?” Dad is impressed.

  “She didn’t get her soul saved or baptized or anything, but she had a good cathartic weep. Her boyfriend is totally dreamy.”

  “He’s a little…,” Mom begins.

  “Way younger. But you should see them together. They’re so natural. They read aloud from their play and made us dinner. We had so much fun. But, of course, it would have been perfect to have you here.”

  “Thanks.” I can tell my mom is trying not to cry.

  “Please don’t cry. I love you so much and we’ll be together next year. And this, this was, well, a very interesting Christmas. A learning experience. I want to thank you for it.”<
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  “We’re just happy when you’re happy.”

  “And I’m happy. I’m very happy.” I smile.

  My mother and father look at each other, and for the first time since they dumped me here, it’s as if someone let the air out of them. They relax before my eyes.

  My father puts his arm around my mother and together they touch the screen, and I touch it on my end. This time I don’t cry or long for them, but see myself in them. Their struggles are mine, and mine are theirs. Just the way it should be for parents and children—together as best they can be, on Christmas.


  GEORGE AND GRAND SIT AT THE LOUNGE TABLE IN Curley Kerner’s rec room and read my script for the May McGlynn story. George finishes first, and puts down the script. He gets up and stretches his long legs, not giving me any indication of whether he likes it or not.

  Grand reads slowly. Finally, after what seems like a billion years, she puts the script down and removes her reading glasses. “George?” She looks up at him.

  “I think it’s very good,” he says.

  “So do I. But it’s missing something.”

  “What?” I ask nervously.

  “Well, you have the drama of her tragic death down cold—you’re going to film the nose of the crashed plane, and the ghost of May McGlynn emerging from the rubble, all of that is very visual and fine, and clearly, you know what the movie is about—it’s about a young woman who died before she achieved her full potential…right?”

  “Exactly.” I’m so happy the script makes sense I could burst with joy.

  “But we never see the world that she worked in: the world of the actress, the movie actress of her era, the film studio, the world that defines who she is—or who people thought she was.”

  “I can’t go to Hollywood and build interior sets of silent movies.”

  “No, you can’t. But you could do it here. A story within a story. George could play her costar and I could play her sidekick and we could improvise a scene or two from her last movie project—”

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