Technicolor Teachings by Sue Barizon

 

Mom was a Silver Screen legend in her own mind, ever since she was old enough to hold a quarter up to a box office window and buy a ticket to fantasyland. She could sit through a 1940s film like Random Harvest and recite over Greer Garson’s dialogue line for line. But, like Ronald Coleman’s character, “Smithy,” amnesia set in when her loved ones needed her most.

     Mom didn’t connect much with us; mostly, we left her alone. When she had spent herself behind the bathroom door, she’d venture out into the living room in an effort to rejoin the family, or as Papa would say, “…come back to the living.” Many a time, I’d be watching an old movie on TV. She’d walk over and stand sharing the screen.

     “What’s the name of this motion picture?” she’d say.

     “It’s not a ‘motion picture,’ Mom. It’s a movie. Who do you think you are? Norma Desmond?“

     Mom welcomed my remark comparing her to the delusional character in Sunset Blvd. It was a power surge for her, confirmation that she was accepted “back” into the family fold.

     I was 13 when Mom came to me one evening after dinner.

     “Susan,” she said. “Do you want to see a motion picture with me?”

I remember thinking it was a weeknight, late, almost my bedtime. Evidently, Papa had declined Mom’s plea for a movie date. My sister begged off with a term paper due. Determined, Mom had turned to me.

     “Ah, ‘cmon Julia.” I heard Papa say.     My sister gave Mom a puzzled look and shrugged her shoulders. I couldn’t get my shoes on fast enough. Mom was taking me to the movies!

     I was surprised when we drove up to the Palm Theater, instead of the Manor where I spent my Saturday afternoons. The Palm was a movie house specializing in adult entertainment. After settling down with popcorn boxes in hand, I looked around at all the empty seats. As the house lights dimmed, and the overture started, I turned to Mom. 

     “What’s the name of this motion picture?” I asked.

     Her eyes fixed on the screen, already glazed over in that familiar “do not disturb” expression. She stifled an other-worldly laugh, then pointed to the screen.

     “Shhh,” she said. The title appeared as if cued by Mom’s finger, Giulietta Degli Spiriti.

     Giulietta Degli Spiriti. (Juliet of the Spirits) was a Fellini film in Italian with English subtitles. I read as fast as I could but needed Mom to explain what the hell was going on. Why was the lady on a swing dressed in white? What was that neighbor doing in the tree house with those strange men? Who are all those freakish looking circus characters running in and out of the picture?

     

     The flicker of lights from the screen illuminated Mom’s profile. Mom was “in the zone.” She didn’t flinch when I removed the half-eaten popcorn box from her hand and replaced it with my empty one. I drank both our Dr. Peppers and pilfered $2 from her coat pocket for a box of M&Ms at the snack bar. I went to the restroom, twice, dodging the sleazy looking usher with the 3-day stubble. I got back to my seat, in time for the final scene. A young girl dressed in white with a wreath of flowers on her head lay on a platform suspended in mid-air. I wanted to ask Mom why. I wanted to know what were all those crazy people doing up there on that screen?

     

     I knew she couldn’t deflect this one with “Go ask your father.” Sure, Papa had the answers to our questions, doled out allowances, boiled three-minute eggs. He would have translated those subtitles for me. Papa spoke perfect Italian. But, only my Mom could speak “Fellini.”

     I was a sensitive child – a notation I discovered on the back of my report card written in red pen by my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Barrett. Mrs. Barrett was wise to Mom’s condition. One day I was late for school arriving after attendance had been turned into the office. Instead of writing a note, Mom rehearsed me to say, “Mother was ill.” (a line from a Barbara Stanwyck movie). I stood and watched Mrs. Barrett on the phone to the school secretary. She was eyeing me up and down, taking inventory – no sweater, no lunch pail, a grease spot on my blouse. I remembered how she lowered her voice and referred to Mom as “Mrs. C-o-r-s-i.” How she paused, and her jaw tightened when she mimicked my message, “Mother was ill.” When she hung up, she knelt down and tucked my blouse into my skirt. Her face looked as if the words had left a bad taste in her mouth.

     “Well, now,” she said. “We’ll just have to learn to be more self-reliant.”

     Self reliant? Where had I heard that before? I remembered hearing those very words from a Shirley Temple movie. I’d seen reruns of all the curly haired moppet’s movies on TV from hours spent waiting for Mom to come out of the bathroom. What was the name of that movie? The actor who played the Tin Man in theWizard of Oz” was in it. “Poor Little Rich Girl,” that was it! There was a blonde actress in the movie whose singing once stopped Mom on her way to the bathroom.

     “That’s Alice Faye,” Mom said.

I watched as her eyes glazed over and her curiosity gave way to enchantment. When the song ended, Mom turned away in an effort to suppress the run of girlish giggles, a run that followed her down the hall across the threshold to her other world.

     Papa patiently passed on the best of his “Old Country” teachings. When he was finished, he’d then reach into his pocket for our allowance and send us off to figure out the rest. A double feature at the kiddie matinee with Little Rascals shorts and Bugs Bunny Cartoons answered most of our elementary school girl questions.

     Shirley Temple taught me how good little girls behaved: cheerful, polite and helpful. Good girls weren’t sad for long when they could sing and dance.  Like Mom, I couldn’t carry a tune, but I did share her love for dance. To her credit, Mom once broached my father with the subject of dance lessons for my sister, and I. Papa nixed the idea with a “tsk” of his tongue. The cement pad in our backyard made a nifty stage. It provided ample amplification for the tap shoes I fashioned by sticking thumb tacks in the bottom of my loafers. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney picked up where Shirley left off. Evidently, an atomic dose of enthusiasm and creativity was all you needed to put on a show. That and fifty cents worth of chocolate covered raisins to lure the neighborhood kids into the audience. What I lacked in talent, I made up for in self-reliance.

    


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