About darlenecraviotto

Writer by trade. Tour Guide by choice. Entertaining and educating through creative content.

Spoken in Silence by Frank Cavestani

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(I don’t publish posts from other writers here on my blog.  But this one made me break my rule. It’s written by Frank Cavestani – a friend, a collaborator, and one of the most talented guys I know in Hollywood. Frank started out as an actor and got his first big break in 1964 as a kid barely out of his teens who had the great fortune of replacing the lead, Robert Walker Jr, in a Broadway play starring Shelly Winters. Walker broke his leg and the rest is theater history – Frank took over the role and suddenly show business took notice. 

And then, Fate stepped in and said, “Not so fast, actor-boy.” 

Frank was drafted.

There was a war going on and instead of spending his days slapping on greasepaint and hanging out at Sardi’s, he spent them busting his hump trying to stay alive in the ‘Nam. 

Stardom is like catching a lightening bolt in a jar.  It doesn’t happen often, and it’s all about timing.  Frank’s big break never got a chance to bloom, after several years away from the boards.  He still gets gigs as an actor and he directs, but Broadway slipped away from him, as it often does for many others.

We’ve all seen those films about Vietnam, showing us what it was like over there.  But Frank writes about something we haven’t seen before: the first time a soldier steps back on U.S. soil and takes off his uniform.  It’s taken Frank a long time to write this.  It’s a powerful piece. 

A little bit like capturing a lightening bolt in a jar. 

I’m so glad he wrote it.)

(Please click the link below and it’ll take you to Frank’s story…)

Spoken in Silence by Frank Cavestani

Fear Is A Four Letter Word

There are two times during the day when I don’t worry.

When I don’t fear for my own mortality, or the mortality of my loved ones. When I don’t worry that I will lose all my money and the only food I will have are the oranges growing in my backyard.  A litany of worries leaves me two times a day.

The first time is when I step outside our home – standing alone on the front lawn – and I take that first glorious deep breath of fresh air. I feel alive again and not afraid.  I feel safe for the first time in the day.  Until I see a person walking down our sidewalk heading towards our home and I start to tense up.  

Humans are the enemy in our world right now.  

Well, no that’s not entirely true.  Humans aren’t the real  enemy:  the coronavirus is the enemy. Humans are the vehicles that the virus hitches a ride on to get to the next human.  Without us, the virus dies, so to stop the spread we have to stop human connection: no reaching out to one another, no touching, no hugging, no people to populate our lives.

But humans need other humans.  

Research has shown that babies who aren’t touched or picked up stop growing, and if they aren’t ever hugged or held they eventually die.  That’s how important human touch is to us.  And now, we’re being asked to eliminate it from our lives. We’ve been sent to our rooms and told to isolate, separate from one another.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have a spouse, a roommate, or some children in our homes, overlook our current fear of intimacy and somehow find safety with the one(s) we’re locked up with.  

But even that we can’t be sure of.  

We’re not connected by the hip – before this quarantine we didn’t all go to the same places or have contact with the same people before we closed our door to the world.  In the beginning of our quarantine, we sweat that out, praying that we didn’t bring the virus home with us, as we sit and wait in dreadful anticipation: Will I get sick? Will my family get sick because of me?  And if sickness followed us inside of our home, how will we care for each other when caring involves connection and touch, and touching is no longer allowed?  We toughed it out during those anxious first couple of weeks and when we didn’t get sick we started to feel a little safer; bored, even.  At least the threat was outside our doorstep now and not within.  We settled in and tried to adjust.

Until it was time when we had to leave the house again.

We needed food, we needed supplies, medicine, toilet paper; we needed M&Ms or more importantly, alcohol.  We’re not the only ones; the rest of the world needed it too. We had to go back outside again and that meant more people, more human connection.  How could we navigate this new outside-our-door world and still stay away from people?  Figuring this out is what stresses us, exhausts us, pisses us off, makes us grumpy or depressed or filled with a hunger that no amount of Doritos, Reese’s peanut butter cups, or Dove bars can satisfy.  It doesn’t take one glass of wine or even two to deal with life now.  We’re at the leave- the-bottle-and-get-the-next-one-ready stage.

And this forced isolation has only just started.

We see one month end and learn that we will be indoors for the next month, too.  April looms long in front of us, and we hear of events being canceled all the way through June.  How will we do this?  Will we get used to it?  Will it start to feel easier?  Will we ever stop missing each other, and the human connection, that needed human touch that we all seem to live for?

The second time in my day when my worries slip away happens at bedtime. When I shower again to wash the day off of me, when I gargle with Listerine in the hopes of killing whatever germs or viruses might be thinking of settling there.  When I wash my hands for the hundredth time, and put bandaids on the tiny cuts on my skin from washing so much.  When I put on my hand lotion, knowing I won’t have to wash them again for eight hours, and I crawl into bed, finally done with my day.  Now, at last, I can rest.

Until tomorrow.

(How are you filling your days and what are you using to help you connect with loved ones who you can’t see in person?  Is the quarantine getting harder or easier for you with each passing day?)

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Wake Me When This Is Over

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(Some people bake when they’re stressed. I write. I’m going to do that here, partly to vent, but also to connect with people.  Since we can’t step out from our homes to be with one another we can at least keep connecting on another level, by reaching out with words and shared experiences.  Please feel free to do that in this space.  I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I’m here and would love to hear from you and know how you’re doing.  I’ll start…)

An agoraphobic is a person who’s afraid to leave the house.

Nowadays, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.

But before it was fashionable to lock ourselves away like some Rapunsel in her tower, I struggled with agoraphobia for years.  It wasn’t a picnic, trust me.  It’s taken a long time for me to feel a little more comfortable in the world.

And now, this craziness called Coronavirus.

Such a cruel cosmic joke!

Except I’m not laughing and neither is anyone else.  Well, on certain days we do look for a way to laugh and manage to find something on Facebook: “Tomorrow I’m visiting Puerto Backyardia. Los Living Room is getting boring.”

It’s been 18 days?  No, 19?  Who can keep track of the calendar when there’s nothing on your calendar except “Stay Home!”

Everything in life has changed – seemingly over night.  

FLASHBACK to January 1st when I began to check flights to France. 

At  Christmastime our family sat around discussing my birthday (a big one)  in June. “We have to do something special to celebrate it, Mom,” our daughter said.  She suggested  a family trip to Paris and the Basque country, where my grandmother was born, and where our family still owns 23 acres and a crumbling 200-year-old stone house.  My children have never seen the little village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, where their great-grandmother was born and lived until she came to America at the age of 14.  The Basque country and her people are part of their lineage and I eagerly jump at the idea of introducing them to Euskal Herria.

Mananea House & Barn

The House of Magnanea in St. Etienne de Baigorry

A trip to France for seven people is not going to be cheap and that concerns me.  Eager to have everyone come along and not wanting to break my kids’ bank accounts I decide to break my own. I check the flights (and the prices) and feel faint.  It’s going to be a lot of money.  But my portfolio has done well over the last two years, so I decide to take the risk and book seven seats on Air France to Paris at the end of June.

I let my kids know with phone calls.

“There’s a virus in China,” my son tells me.  

I’m not worried.

“That’s China, Josh and it’s a million miles away.  They’ll knock it out.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  It’s spreading fast and they’re starting to lock up areas.”

Lock up?  What’s that?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  

I will learn about that later.

“Well, that’s China. I’m not worried,” I tell him.

I make hotel reservations. Paris.  Biarritz (pre-paid to save money). An Air B&B in the Basque country.  I look into train reservations.  I’m about to book two cars for rental. 

“That thing is spreading, Mom. It’s in Italy,”  my son tells me.

Italy?

“We’re not going to Italy,” I tell my son. Am I in denial, or what? No, I’m just an American who feels invincible because well, I’m an American.  We’re protected from all those nasty things happening outside our shores, aren’t we?  And, I’m privileged. Middle class. Not poor. Flush with credit cards. My life is good. I trust the world I live in.  I believe in governments and healthcare systems (because I’m covered by insurance) and I’m a believer that those in charge will protect me and my family.  I don’t live in Italy. I’m not going to Italy.  I’m a safe American and so is my family.

February comes and I’m starting to see more news about this virus.  I see Italians being shut away in their homes.  But I see them singing and it makes me feel safe.  How bad can it be if the Italians are singing?

Then, the numbers come out about people dying.

And the numbers are growing.

So too are the news stories about how this thing is spreading.

I start reading up on travel insurance.

I always buy travel insurance for our trips, but this time I put it off because frankly, it’s not cheap to cover seven people on a family trip.  Now, I seriously start figuring out the costs for some kind of travel insurance (cancel for any reason?), and yes, they’re high, but I’m contemplating buying some, just in case.

And then, this article comes out in the Wall Street Journal: travel insurance doesn’t cover this virus. You get it, you own it. The whole cost for the insurance is on you and it really doesn’t pay you anything back if the virus stops you from traveling. 

That gives me pause.

What happens if the virus hits France and one of us gets sick?  Will travel insurance pay for that?  To keep us in France until we’re better?  I start reading every article I can find about insurance – trying to get an answer as to whether I should insure this trip or not.

And while I am researching it hits.

That terror that seemed so far away hits us. Hits here in the U.S. Washington State first, and California soon after. NYC is getting hit hard and the virus is spreading rapidly.

The market starts to tank.  There goes the money for the trip that has no insurance. The news is on fire and in the middle of this crisis-in-the-making another hits our family:  My mother-in-law dies. 

Nanny with Stokely

Gloria Levien (Nanny)

She was 94 and it was expected, but this pandemic was never expected, and it especially wasn’t expected to be growing so quickly.  Nanny has been living in a nursing home and she’s been on hospice for months.  The last few weeks she’s been bedridden and not really eating.  My husband’s been visiting her every day, and now on March 11th she passes away and the nursing home is locked up to visitors.  

And then, there’s the funeral: it’s scheduled in New York City.

 We’re Flying to NYC In The Middle Of A Pandemic?!

Nanny was a life-long New Yorker; the last thing she wanted to do was to move to a small town in California.  But a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and a son and daughter-in-law living three thousand miles from New York City, where she was living by herself at the time, made the move a necessity.  She fought it for about six months, and then, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she settled into her new life.  The nursing home became her resort, and she enjoyed being pampered by the staff.  Meals were taken care of, activities were around every corner, friendly caregivers were there when she needed them, and there was a lovely dining room with a classy menu and a waitstaff dressed in uniforms. With such a devastating illness, my mother-in-law was lucky enough to live in a beautiful and loving environment.  She lived there for almost seven years and when she passed away her caregivers cried and said how much they loved her, that she always had a smile on her face, and she said “I love you!” to all the staff every time she saw them.

But now it was time for Nanny to return to NYC, to the city she loved so dearly. 

The funeral was all spelled out in her will:  funeral services were to take place at one of the most well-known mortuaries in the country, and burial would be in a family plot that dated back to the early 1900s, when Nanny’s family first arrived in the city watched over by Lady Liberty.  The plan was all set: We would have to fly to New York City.

And then, the virus hit the Big Apple.

While Nanny’s funeral is being planned, everything else in NYC is being cancelled.  

Music events. Live theater. Weddings. Bar Mitzvahs.  The numbers keep going up higher, the infection keeps spreading, gatherings of people in large groups are being re-scheduled, dropped from calendars, postponed.

But what about funerals?

Loved ones need to be mourned. Need to be buried. Family and friends need the comfort of each other, hugs and kisses, laughter and tears shared as we grieve together.  That human connection has always been imporatant when people say goodbye to a loved one. It’s part of our humanity.  But that humanity is at odds with fear today.  Our need to comfort and be comforted is in conflict with our need for self-preservation and survival.

Nanny picked a heck of a time to pass away.

And to be buried in New York. 

New York is a hotbed for coronavirus infections right now.  The number of dead are just starting to rise.  Hotels ands restaurants are still open, but over the last few days Broadway has shut down completely.  There’s not enough medical equipment – ventilators and masks – for the medical personnel and the hospitals are filling up too quickly.  There is fear everywhere you look, increasing by the hour.

The family talks about how to handle the funeral, but the plans have been made in advance, and no one seems to want to admit that this is not the best time to travel to New York City.  We try to find some levity to all of this – searching for something amusing to get our mind off the big question: whether to go to NYC or not.  We say that his is so appropriate for Nanny – many times whenever she travelled there were problems: a military coup in Panama, a typhoon in Southeast Asia while she sat in an airplane on the tarmac waiting to take off, traveling to China when the students were rioting in Tiannamen Square.  And now, a pandemic in her own hometown of NYC.  

We watch Cuomo on television, and tune into the news 24/7 to see if it’s safe to travel.  Flights are being shut down internationally, but domestic flights still are available.  Should we book?  Do we even have a choice?  What if they quarantine in NYC?  What if everything goes on lockdown?  Each day we seem to be creeping perilously closer to the edge of the cliff. And frankly, it’s terrifying.

I’m a recovering agoraphobic, so I don’t need a reason to stay home.  Staying home is my normal go-to position.  But this time I have family responsibilities – I’m a mom whose kids have just lost their grandmother.  I’m a wife whose husband has just lost his mother.  I don’t have room in this equation to call the shots or make decisions for everyone.  I have to suck it up and go with whatever choice everyone else is making.

Hell no, I don’t.

It takes one long sleepless night before the day I’m supposed to buy family plane tickets for me to finally speak up.  My agoraphobia (once tamed, I thought) now reappears.

“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband. “It doesn’t feel safe.”

We talk. My husband understands. I don’t want him to go, either. Or the kids to go.  It doesn’t feel safe, he says, but he’s not sure what we can do.  The plans are set.  We talk some more. Cookie, our friend talks with him.  There has to be another way. “What if you get stranded in New York, in quarantine, and you have to pay for all those hotel rooms for the family to stay  in NYC? That’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”

She’s right.

My husband calls the mortuary, calls his brother, the family talks, and the decision is made.

The funeral will be televised.

What seemed so new to us for Nanny’s funeral on March 20th has now become a way of life for all of us.  ZOOM enters our world and we seem to be stuck with it for the immediate future.

None of us know how to run the damn software, but Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home, one of New York City’s finest, handles the entire event seamlessly.  People from all over the country – family members and friends – are able to attend through the magic of one videographer and his camera, and a link that is emailed out to everyone.

The eulogies are spoken.  The Rabbi says the prayers.  Photos of Nanny and her life fill the screen.  It was a beautiful service. And yet, we the mourners watch from a distance.  Separated by this unseen stranger that cruelly keeps us hidden in our homes and away from each other. One moment in the day, however, serves to finally connect us – at the graveyard, as the Rabbi speaks the Prayer for the Dead in Hebrew, the celebrant says the names of each family member and drops a single rose into the grave with every name spoken.  Those who are connected to Nanny, now finally are connected together in this last gesture of love and honor.

And New York City now shelters-in-place.

Wake me when this is over.

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A Single Roll of Toilet Paper

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My son-in-law went on a toilet paper run yesterday.

That’s nothing out of the ordinary for a brisk spring day in the year of COVID-19

He texted me a photo of the parking lot where he was sitting in his truck before dawn.

Empty grocery store

The supermarket didn’t open until 8 a.m. but he was there before 7.  The parking lot was looking pretty empty, so the chances were good he’d score some rolls and maybe a few extra.  He was psyched and focused on his mission, sure that he’d be successful.

Jason's message

That’s what he wrote to me as he sat in the cold and waited for the store to open.I didn’t hear from him until an hour and fifteen minutes later – fifteen minutes after the official opening of the store.

Question Jason

I wasn’t surprised by his answer.

Nope

I didn’t have time to ask him what happened.  He sent me this photo right away:

People in Line

The size of the crowd didn’t surprise me, but what I questioned was his position in that line. How did a guy who came to the store first end up getting aced out by all those people?  And where did all those people come from, if Jason was there first?  My son-in-law is 6’ 5” and a talented athlete, a consummate competitor.  How did this swarm of old folks (judging by a lot of greying hair there in the photo)  get the top position over my son-in-law?  How come he ended up at the end of the line?

I Let the people go ahead of me

Tears don’t normally fill my eyes when I read texts, but they did now.

Mostly older

More tears. 

I couldn’t write a word to him. 

I was so paralyzed by the abundance of his kindness.

Jason is the original Mr. Good Guy, an educator, a champion for all, with a heart of amazing dimensions, a guy who is loyal, honest, and filled with soul.  In one word, the man is my hero. His superhero powers were at work again and I was stunned into silence.

But what he wrote next gave me pause.

All the people looked like they couldn't do anything

#humanity

My heart hurt for Jason.  Yes, it’s a blow not to be able to get what you need right now, and certainly toilet paper has taken on a whole new importance in our life.  But to lose your hope, your faith in humanity is a loss we cannot afford right now.  We especially can’t have our heros lose it.  Not just Jason, but every health care person who is on the front lines, every grocery store and big box retail worker, every policeman, fire fighter, and yes, every government official, who is still on the job when the rest of us are safely within our sanctuaries known as home; they all have to continue doing what all heroes do, and not lose hope.

This is a reminder for all the Jasons, and everyone doing their best right now, making sacrifices, and still reaching out to help, not only to their families, but to strangers who have never meant anything to them, strangers who stopped being strangers once we saw the hurt, the fear, and the need in their faces that we recognized as our own.  When someone shows you kindness, don’t just pay it forward.  Pay it back to the person who started it.  We need all the heros we can find right now.  And yes, that #humanity should stand for that.  For remembering that we must all be heros right now. 

Even if it means offering a single roll of toilet paper.

And saying thanks to the one who let us go first.

 

 

This Is For You, Taff

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I never had a big brother, but Richard Annis (aka Taff), took that role in my life.  I met Taff when I was a teenager, and we acted together for many years, from our Santa Barbara days at Dolores Catholic School Community Theater (when everyone called him “Taffy”), to the three small theaters we helped build in Hollywood.  Well, he helped build them – I just watched, while he grumbled about me just watching and not working. 

When I dropped out of UCLA at 19 and I was panicked because I had never worked before, he was responsible for helping me get an interview and eventual job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I watched as he went from Housekeeping as a street sweeper to playing Frankenstein for the Tours, to becoming a tour guide, Director of Tour Guides, all the way up to management of Tour Operations. Twenty-three years he worked for Universal Studios, and in Hollywood years that’s a lifetime.

In between our early Universal Tours work, we acted at night, seven nights a week, doing repertory theater in Hollywood, and I saw Taff living the dream of every actor: he signed with an agent, he was hired for a commercial; he was finally able to join S.A.G; he was cast in television shows; he worked with Jimmy Stewart and Peter Falk. His star was rising.  And then one day he forgot to check his messages and he missed the BIG call for the BIG job. A lead in a series. When that happened, and the producers refused to re-schedule, he realized that a business that treated people like they were supposed to be heart surgeons, on call 24/7, wasn’t for him.  “The hell with this!” he said, or words to that affect that probably began with an “F.” That’s when he traded in the greasepaint for a suit and took that management job at Universal.  

Jimmy Stewart with Taff

             (Richard Annis guest starring with Jimmy Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show)

And he never acted again.  

When the studio politics got too much for him in management, he bought a screening room, raced his cars on the weekend, met the love of his life, Christine, and finally, traded in Hollywood for a one-way ticket to Mount Dora, a small town in Florida, where he bought a tea room and never looked back.

He moved away and I stayed in Hollywood.  

And I missed him like hell.

There was so much goodness in Taff, but he liked to keep that hidden away a lot of the time, tossing off one-liners so you’d keep your distance. He liked to tease, and he could cut you down with a slow look or a quick word. I was a little bit afraid of him, but he was always the first person I’d call when I needed help. He was that big brother I never had. When my car broke down or that night when it was stolen, Taff was who I called, and he pissed-and-moaned and shook his head, letting me know how much I had messed up or how much I was putting him out.  When I had too much to drink at a party and he saw me leaving with a guy I barely knew, Taff was the one to step in and tell Mr. Romeo to take a hike, saving me from more than just a morning hangover. When I had a Peeping Tom at two-in-the-morning, Taff was who I called. He came over (bitching about it) to check and make sure everything was ok.  After he searched my backyard with a flashlight and a bat he told me no one was there, but he saw how frightened I still was and as he headed out my front door, he snarled, “All right, get in the car!”  I spent the night on Taff’s couch, feeling safer knowing he was there in the other room.

After my car accident, when my agoraphobia kicked in, I was hired to write a screenplay about the Black Rodeo in Houston, Texas.  Unfortunately, the studio wanted to send me to Houston to do research, a journey I knew I couldn’t do. I was terrified of flying, or doing any kind of traveling, and in fact, I had even stopped driving. I didn’t want to leave my house, at all. I told Taff that I was probably going to have to turn down this very lucrative and career-building job.  Without hesitation he said to me, “Rent me a Cadillac and I’ll drive you to Houston.”

So I rented Taff a Cadillac.

Wearing his ten-gallon cowboy hat and his best Iowa boots, Taff sat behind the wheel of this great big brand new Hertz Cadillac, and the two of us took a road trip to Houston, driving non-stop from L.A. so I wouldn’t miss my first meeting with the producer on Monday.  

It took 26 hours.

We only stopped for gas and food.

Three hours from Houston Taff started to yawn, and rolled down his window for fresh air.  He started to sigh deeply, and then, slapped himself hard in the face, trying desperately to keep awake. I thought for sure he might drop dead behind the wheel. He was a big man and I thought maybe his heart would give out.

“Are you ok?!” I asked in a panic, afraid he’d pass out and I’d somehow be stranded in the middle of East Butt, Texas, too terrified to drive myself to civilization. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“No!” he bellowed. “I need fuel! Got to eat!”

We pulled over to the next truck stop to get him fed, and after he ate he was ready to hit the road again.  We made it safely the rest of the way to Houston with a few hours to spare before my meeting.

That was Taff.

Taff

                                          (Richard “Taff” Annis)  

He was fearless.  A mountain of a man with the gentlest of hearts. A heart that finally gave out on September 29, 2019.

I miss him like hell.

That’s what it’s like when you lose a big brother.

Taff was never a man who was philosophical or waxed poetic.  But there was something he said to me once, and I never forgot it.  As a matter of fact, I used it in a play I wrote, in Pizza Man.  He said it to me in the early 1970s, long before the phrase ended up on coffee mugs or t-shirts.  We were struggling actors at the time, commiserating about how tough it was in Hollywood.  Well, I was the one complaining; Taff was just listening.  Big brother, that he was.  He was building a set at the time, and I was supposed to be painting; but instead, I was doing my down-in-one soliloquy about the difficulty and unfairness of show business.  When I had finished my rant, Taff paused a moment before hammering the next nail.  “Life’s a bitch,” he said. “And then, you die.”

At the time, that pretty much summed it all up. 

Until we changed our lives and things got a helluva lot better.

Christine came along, and Mount Dora, the Windsor Rose Tea Room, The Highland Street Cafe, and all of his wonderful Scottish Terriers; and life changed for the better. I think what Taff would tell me now would be different than what he told me back in the 70s.  He’d say, “Dar, I was wrong. Life can be very sweet.”  

And he’d be smiling, with all his wisdom. 

Just like a big brother.

Taff & Our Family Mount Dora(Taff in Mount Dora with our family: Philip, Josh, and Katie.  And an anonymous  turtle.)

One Very Lucky Dog & Doris Day

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Doris Day died yesterday and that’s why I’m writing this post.

I wasn’t a friend, or a member of her family; just like everybody else, I knew her from the movies.  I used to be a tour guide at Universal Studios, and I got to meet a lot of big movie stars there, from Lucille Ball (who hated it when the tour guides leaned on her Rolls Royce to talk with her) to Paul Newman (whose piercing blue eyes locked with mine one day at the studio commissary, and my knees have been weak ever since). I never had a chance to meet Doris Day on the Universal lot.  But one rainy night in Hollywood she was a good friend to me and a  beautiful Golden Retriever named, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Golden Retriever

It was long ago, when I was a member of a struggling group of actors who worked all day at the tours at Universal, so we could work all night (for free) performing plays at a little theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  Seven nights a week, one block down from the Weird Museum, above a toy store and Fredericks of Hollywood Sexy Lingerie, overlooking the stars of Ann Margret, Gene Barry, and James Cagney, we practiced our craft and shared the Hollywood dream.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

We returned to our lives at 11 p.m. every night, as we gathered up our cars in the parking lot off the Blvd. We seldom went for coffee, or rarely met for a drink; none of us had any money, and all of us had tourists at the studio to herd early the next morning.  But on one of these nights, after a torrential rainfall, we arrived at the parking lot to find a mud covered and frantic Golden Retriever running around wildly without a leash.  

Through the rain-slicked and mud-caked fur we could see the golden-red beauty underneath, and luckily she was a friendly canine, jumping up on us as if she immediately recognized us as the saviors she hoped us to be.

Obviously, she was lost.

Her tags were missing and so was her collar.  But she looked well-groomed, well-fed, and eager to be with people. It was late.  After 11 p.m., at a time when Hollywood Blvd. was not a place where man or beast wanted to be – all alone and with no home in sight. 

Some of us were more eager to help the dog than others, who quickly bailed into the dark of night.  But for those of us who remained (we had dwindled down to four) those heroes of that night shalled be named:  Debra Frank, Sandy Silverthorne, and Suzanne Ulett.  All four of us knew that something had to be done and we were the ones who had to do it.  

“I can’t take her home!” “i don’t have any room!” “I have a cat who will kill me!” 

We stood there as the rain started again, trying to find a way to help this poor creature, who went from actor to actor, sniffing us out, licking us, and nudging her head against our bodies as if to say, “Do something!”

It was when I reached out to pet her, and my hand came back covered in red, that I realized that all of our excuses were futile.

“She’s bleeding!” We all gasped.

There was a gash on the top of her head, and her fur was matted with blood.

Now, there was no time to discuss reasons for not getting involved. We had to do something. The dog was injured and needed to be seen by a vet.  But none of us had any money, or credit cards, for that matter.  Where would we find a vet who wouldn’t charge us?

I don’t remember who said it first, but we all agreed it was true:

“I heard that Doris Day loves animals”

Three of us were tour guides, and we probably heard that from someone at the studio.  This was in the 1970s, before animal activism had a movement named after it.  But we all knew that Doris Day would do anything to help save animals.  

We were desperate, and this dog needed help.  Just looking down into her deep brown eyes gave us the courage to do what we needed to do: We had to find Doris Day.

Never underestimate the power of out of work actors who are also tour guides.  We knew that Doris Day’s house was on the Grayline Hollywood Tours of Movie Star Homes, and a quick look at one of those Grayline tour maps showed us her address.

We were standing outside Doris Day’s gate before we knew it.  The four of us and the damsel in distress, our wounded Golden Retriever.

Beverly Hills mansions don’t let you anywhere near the front door. There are gates.  Large iron gates.  But next to those gates are little speaker boxes and a button you can push.  I pushed it.  Although I wasn’t sure what I would say.

“Yes?” squawked the box.

What words came next poured out from all of us.

“We’re a group of actors…” “We don’t have any money!” “We found this dog and she’s hurt!” “She’s bleeding!” “She’s needs a vet!” “We don’t have any money!” “We need help for this dog!”

“What?!” asked the speaker box, incredulously.

“This dog is really hurt!” “We don’t have any money.” “Can Doris Day help her?”

We just kept talking.  Hoping for help. I can’t tell you who was at the other end of that intercom system, but I’m sure whoever it was must have thought we were crazy.  Until maybe they looked out the window and saw the four of us standing outside the gate with the most beautiful dog in the world, all covered in mud.  

And then, it started to rain.

“Just a minute…” the voice said, sounding tired and a little put out by our late night visit.

We waited for what felt like forever, as the rain pelted down on us there in Beverly Hills proper. We were certain no one would ever come back and speak to us again, and that the cops were probably on their way to arrest us.

Still, we stood and waited.  Not for us.  But for our four-legged new-found friend. 

“Take the dog to the all-night veterinarian hospital on La Cienega,” the voice told us through the speaker.  She rattled off an address and the name of a vet working there. Then, she clicked off before we could even say thank you.  

We said it anyway.

The animal hospital wasn’t very far and we hurried inside, with the words tumbling out of us.

“Doris Day sent us!” we announced to the woman behind the glass window.

“What?” she answered, sounding as confused as the woman at Doris Day’s house.

We all rattled off at the same time, pointing to the dog, pointing to the caked blood on her fur, and adamantly insisting Doris Day wanted the dog to be helped.

And just like that: the vet saw the dog.

Well, it turned out that the wound on the dog’s head was only superficial.  The vet gave her a shot and told us she’d be fine. “And the bill?” we asked him.  He smiled and said, “Doris Day is covering it.”

By now, we knew we were fated to keep this dog until we found her owner, so we agreed we’d take turns with her until she could be back home again.  I got her that first night and I named her “Mary Hartman” after a t.v. show about a woman who always found herself in so many dramas she never knew what to do.  It seemed to fit this dog.  That night, after I cleaned the mud off her with towels, I laid down on the couch to watch t.v.  The dog climbed up on the couch next to me, laid down face-to-face, and put her paws around my shoulders, in a hug.  It was her way of thanking me.

The next day we placed an ad with a pet finders organization and it didn’t take many days to find Mary Hartman’s family.  They lived in West Hollywood and they told me that one night they went out for the evening, leaving the dog at home.  Their house was robbed while they were out and Mary Hartman must have been taken by the burglars.  That’s why she had no collar and no identification.  But something must have gone wrong during the robbery because the wound on her head was from a bullet that grazed her scalp.  She was indeed one very lucky dog.

Thanks to Doris Day.

Doris Day

Getting to Know Howard

I didn’t know my mother’s father.  

It’s always been hard to call him what he was to me: grandfather.  I guess that’s because I never really knew him – Howard Joseph Graham died nine years before I was born. He was always just a memory – my mother’s memory, and she didn’t share that memory with us a lot.

I knew how he died – a fall from scaffolding while painting the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound bus station at night.  Mom had just had dinner with him, with her brother, mother, and her Uncle Jody, who was on the same job with her father.  The accident must have happened soon in their shift because it seemed as though they had just said goodbye and headed downtown from Highland Park before there was a knock at the door, and Uncle Jody was back, in tears with the news.  Why they were painting at night, I never asked, so I guess I will never know that answer – my mother took that with her when she passed away a year ago today at the age of 93.  

Mom and I had a lot of years to talk about Howard Graham, and I guess I could have asked her that question, about why he was painting at night, in the dark, but she was always a little quiet about him, teary-eyed at his mention, with a catch in her throat if she did share a little bit here and there.  I knew not to ask her too many questions, because it made her sad, and now today I’m left with no answers and so many whys.

Here is everything I know about Howard Joseph Graham:

He liked to drink San Miguel beer and smoke cigarettes. When my mother had earaches (and she had a lot of them) he would blow smoke into her ear, and the warmth would comfort her.  Other times, he could be strict, and if Mom and her brother didn’t clean the dishes properly, and Howard came home from a night out and found them not to his liking, he’d wake up his two kids and make them clean the dishes all over again, no matter how late it was. Howard was a house painter. The family was poor – my mother used to have to spray pieces of cardboard black and slip them into her shoes to cover up the holes at the bottom of her soles so she could walk to her Catholic School, even in the rain.  She grew up during the Depression and maybe that’s why Howard was out of work so much. I don’t know much more about the man except he couldn’t eat mayonnaise – it made him sick just as it does me.  He was Irish, proud of being a Graham, and that his mother was a Quinn, his grandmother a Cassidy.  His Irish roots must have meant the world to him because they did to Mom.  There was no happier day for her than St. Patrick’s when she would dress up all in green, send Irish-themed Hallmark cards to all of our family, with her signature, “Molly Malone.” Irish music played non-stop on our stereo while the scent of corned beef boiling on the stove filled our house.  Mom’s love for all-things-Irish was so strong I always wondered if Howard was from Ireland.

“Canada,” my Mom said. “He was born in Kingston, Ontario.”

More than those few facts she never told me.

There are photographs, of course, but only a few. This is the one I like the most:

Howie in 1928 Crop

He’s laying in the sand at one of the beaches near Los Angeles.  There’s something sad and brooding about him, introspective; it’s not the kind of look you might expect to see someone wearing who’s at the beach.  It makes me think he might have been creative – like me, a brooder, always thinking, and I find a commonality there in this photo of a stranger who was my grandfather.  Maybe he was a painter, not just of houses and businesses, maybe he was a real artist. My grandmother used to paint, I have some of her watercolors. She’s the woman in this other photo with Howard – Ursula Maloney Graham. Also Irish.

Howie & Plenty

Howard looks like a famous movie director, or screenwriter, with his aviator sunglasses and open vest.  But he’s still not smiling. There’s an uncertainty lurking there – about his future, maybe?  Or is he just a man lost in an alien country, not yet a citizen, an immigrant, a foreigner in a strange place he now has to call his home.

Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “…the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed.”  

I read this passage in Orlean’s book the other night and it made me think of Howard Joseph Graham.  I underlined it because it hit me me so hard, such a bleak interpretation of what it means to be alive.  With no memories of my grandfather, how can I be sure that he ever made his “mark on the world”? Seemingly, he was an ordinary man, and how do those of us who live ordinary lives make any mark at all? And what exactly does it mean to make “our mark?”

If we’re lucky, maybe that mark means our children. They get to live on, and they take us with them, whether they like it or not.  You can’t fight DNA – in the line of an eyebrow, or the curve of lips, the color of our eyes, the shape of our body, or whether we can tolerate mayonnaise or not.  The memories of all those who lived before us are a part of us, ingrained somewhere deep inside or revealing themselves there on our face, even if we don’t recognize it; and those from the past, whether we have memories of them or not, become the future.  The future we will never see, except in our dreams, or if we’re lucky, in the faces of our grandchildren.

I know very little about who Howard Joseph Graham was, or who he wanted to be, but I still wonder. I still have questions. I still search. I’m curious and I want to learn more.  And maybe that curiosity and wanting to find answers is what my grandfather left me.

That’s his mark on the world.