I’m always on a subconscious search for pleasant memories of my late parents.
I’ll be sitting around, reading or looking at TV and suddenly some random bit of the past will pop into my brain like a hot slice of toast.
I recently recalled a scene from my childhood and even though it’s only a fragment, I think it says a lot about my parents’ personalities.
This was about 50 years ago. (Good God...) I remember sitting in our living room with my dad watching a horrendous Italian science fiction flick called Battle of the Worlds or Il pianeta degli uomini spenti.
The movie starred Claude Rains, one of my favorite actors, in his final movie role.
While he worked in television for a few more years, it’s a shame that Rains, who did such tremendous work in Casablanca, The Invisible Man, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to name a few, should have such a howling dog on his resume. But you do have to pay the bills.
So we’re watching the movie when my mother walks in and sees Claude Rains on the TV screen.
“Oh, Claude Rains,” she said sadly. “He just died.”
“He should’ve died before he made this,” my father said without missing a beat.
And that’s it. That’s all I remember about that particular encounter. But it tells me so much about my mom and dad.
On the one hand, there’s my mother, sympathetic, touched by the passing of such a talented man.
She’d often express sorrow when she learned that some actor or actress from her generation had died.
Being a child I didn't get what was going on there, but now that I’m older and seeing more and more of my favorite actors cropping up in the obituary pages, I understand my mother’s feelings completely.
My mother cried at news stories and old movies, even the occasional commercial. She sold life insurance at the old Lincoln Savings Bank in Bay Ridge and one time a man came into the bank to collect on a policy for his son who had been killed in a car accident.
'Here Are Your Winnings'
The heart-broken father began to cry and my poor mother began to cry right along with him. She told me later that she was embarrassed at breaking down in front of a client, but I said she had shown this grief-stricken man that he was dealing with a human being, not some soulless corporation.
“It’s the bank with a heart,” I said, shifting into smart-ass mode.
And then you have my old man: sarcastic, cynical, and, at times, quiet funny. A veteran of World War II and a career salesman, he had seen plenty of crap as a soldier and as a civilian and he wasn't afraid to say so.
One time he and I were watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite—the late Walter Cronkite—and the venerable news anchor was reading a story about a beloved local mailman in some small town.
“Milo Schleishenmuncher was always there when people needed him…” Cronkite began.
I had no idea where he was going with this story, but my dad saw it instantly.
“Ha!” he snorted at the screen. “Who’d he rape?”
It turned out that Milo had been arrested for hoarding tons of the town’s mail in his basement.
But I hadn’t seen the punch line coming, unlike my father.
Instead of getting to straight into what had happened, Cronkite backed into the story, a technique I later used myself as a reporter.
Last week, I decided to watch Battle of the Worlds again after half a century and it was worse than I had imagined.
The special effects were appallingly cut-rate, even by Sixties’ standards, the acting was dubbed and dreadful and the dialog was atrocious, with lines like “most things happen unexpectedly, even the apocalypse!”
I can’t believe I spent nearly 90 minutes of my life tracking down this episode from my childhood. But it was such a pleasant memory I couldn’t help myself.
Perhaps my dad was a bit harsh about Claude Rains, but I prefer to forget this clunker of a film and remember this fine actor walking into the fog with Humphrey Bogart in the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I guess the best way to go through life is to borrow a little bit from both of my parents: take my mother’s kindness and empathy and mix in a portion of my father’s cynicism and humor.
And that’s the way it is.