My mother was the oldest of six girls in her family, the real Harvey girls. On holidays, mother and four of her sisters would gather at one or the other’s house. The sixth daughter, my Aunt Ursula, was a nun in a religious order and usually wasn’t in St. Louis for the holidays. When she did come, she was accompanied by a guard nun. Her companion would sit quietly in another room like the coats on a bed during a party.
After dinner, with the dishes washed and put away, mother and her siblings would arrange the dining room chairs into a circle. They would then arrange themselves on the chairs and for the rest of the evening shout at each other all at once. A distinctive family trait was talking and arguing at high volume, with or without a listener.
“Sunday, we saw that movie…the one with…with.” “The one with the mustache?” “No, no. The other one…that’s married to the actress with the flowy hair…” “That’s not her real hair.” “I don’t like detective movies.” “Paul Newmar. That’s the one.” “What’s her name?” “She did that Cecil B. DeMiley film with Moses.” “Such a voice…I love his singing.”
I never could follow their conversations, but they seemed to know where it was all going. Perhaps it didn’t matter and was merely a form of parallel play.
Often the conversations were really arguments where sibling rivalry flared ferociously. Subjects ranged from whether a chiropractor was a real doctor to whether a baby had to be fat to be healthy. A recurring debate topic was the correct pronunciation of President Roosevelt’s name: “Rooo-se-felt” or “Rose-a-velt,”. This was a serious issue because the Harvey girls were fervent Roosevelt Democrats. After all, he had rescued their family from the grinding poverty of the depression.
The sisters wouldn’t think to consult facts or authoritative sources for a resolution to their disagreements. The pursuit of truth was beside the point. Laying claim to who knew the most was the object of the exercise. (None of the Harvey girls had formal schooling beyond high school except for Aunt Ursula.)
A thesis might be predicated on, “I heard that so and so…” and rebutted with “Well, I read somewhere that…” If someone felt she was losing ground, a note of scholarly authority could be added by declaring, “Well, I read a book that said…” All arguments could be stifled or ended with an exasperated, “Oh, you make my tired ache.” I always wondered whether there was a word missing after “tired”.
I liked all of my aunts but especially Aunt Ruthie because she always seemed delighted to see me. In the argot of the day, she was an “old maid.” There were several theories about why she never married. “She has those thick ankles.” “She should try to be more pleasant.” “She should join a bowling team.”
Mother’s diagnosis lacked nuance: “Ruthie is a hateful woman.”
Aunt Ruthie was famous in the family for saying things that were better left unsaid, and she dispensed her views freely in the world. Family gatherings often ended with her storming out of the house leaving one or more of her siblings in tears.
Each weekday morning, Aunt Ruthie took the bus downtown to where she worked as a clerk at Ely Walker, a dry goods company based in St. Louis. One particular day, she was seated behind the bus driver and was getting increasingly annoyed at how rude he was to passengers getting on and off. She could stand it no longer.
“If you saw how square your head looks from the back, you wouldn’t be so obnoxious,” she observed. The driver’s response is lost to history.
Aunt Ruthie liked to talk to her television as did all her sisters. She first had a black and white TV with a small round screen and then one of the early Motorola color sets with dodgy settings. She didn’t bother trying to adjust it to get a decent color balance. Depending on when you stopped by, you might find her watching “Lucy” in mostly pale red and blue or “The Original Ted Mack Amateur Hour” with brown and yellow shadows.
Aunt Ruthie liked Ted Mack and got a kick out of the dulcimer players, Swiss bell ringers and mother-and-son Irish step dancers she would see on his show. “Isn’t that something,” she would exclaim. Among the baton twirlers and accordion players, 16 year old Louis Farrakhan (under his birth name Louis Eugene Walcott) was presented in 1949 playing a violin.
Aunt Ruthie always seemed particularly pleased to see “colored kids” (which she considered a respectful racial designation) display their talent. She became a big fan of Frankie Lymon when he sang “Goody, Goody” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and was shocked when he was found dead on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom of a heroin overdose at age 25. “Such talent.”
The TV provided Aunt Ruthie with constant fodder for her impassioned commentary. Much of her ire was directed at politicians and news readers. John Cameron Swayze had become one of TV’s first anchormen when nightly he would read items from the news wires on his 15-minute “Camel News Caravan,” and she didn’t like him.
The “Camel” part of the show’s title did not refer to a Middle Eastern dromedary, but to
Camel Cigarettes. I have always wondered why anything associated with a camel would make you want to put a cigarette into your mouth and light up, or “have a Camel” as the advertising urged. This was before Joe Camel arrived on the scene, but Joe didn’t improve the brand’s allure as far as I was concerned.
Aunt Ruthie detested John Cameron Swayze, ever since he showed up on her television propped against a mantel in the White House in support of Eisenhower the night before he was re-elected. “You wouldn’t be so officious if you saw how green your face looks on my television,” she told Swayze. She voted for Adlai Stevenson.
Sometimes Aunt Ruthie’s arguments with her TV friends lasted a few minutes, but when she had reached the end of her patience, there was one non-sequitur that signaled that she was ending the discussion and turning off the television. “Oh, your ass!” (By the way, this is a satisfying rejoinder to all sorts of political talking points, works well in conversation as well as digital and print media and reflects today’s zeitgeist.)
I’ve been talking to the television recently. Not that I was completely silent before, but my increased chattiness with the screen is concerning. I fear it may be genetic. I try to cut myself some slack since everyone knows that nailing pundits and laying politicians flat are necessary media escape valves.
And, of course, murder mysteries require you to shout warnings at soon-to-be victims. Personally, I think there would be far fewer murders on TV shows if the characters themselves watched more television. For one thing, they would recognize the music that presages mayhem. And perhaps they would even learn a few basic lessons:
Lesson 1: There is always someone in the bushes.
Lesson 2: The answer to the question, “What was that?” is never good.
Lesson 3: If the car seems unusually still as you approach and there is no background music, the car is going to explode.
From time to time, Anders and I watch “Midsomer Murders” which is a perfect show for kibitzing. It’s a British kind of “Murder She Wrote” without Angela Landsbury’s musical-comedy mugging. “Midsomer” has been a favorite in Great Britain and other parts of the world since 1996.
For us the show functions as a quick trip to England sans Eurostar. We enjoy seeing the English countryside, the charming cottages with low doors and colorful gardens, the grand houses on beautifully tended estates. The quaint English customs and preoccupations are fascinating in their own right. You have to admire people that can get worked up about the “right to roam” in the countryside.
On the other hand, “Midsomer” plots require forbearance and a full suspension of your absurdity sensor. Oh, sure, a Renaissance Festival will bring out the inner axe murderer in anybody. But can the prospect of losing a provincial bell ringing contest really drive the vicar into a vicious frenzy? Would he strangle his competitor with a bell rope to gain a competitive advantage?
“There. Try ringing that.”
“Midsomer Murders” brings out my secret fantasy to be an actor. I often comment to Anders, “I could play that role.” My American accent wouldn’t be a problem because I am usually referring to the unknown victim that is discovered with his throat slit laying in a pool of blood. To play that part, I would want a clause in my contract that guaranteed that I be discovered in the scene on something soft and didn’t have to lay there too long and get a crick in my neck. Also, no nudity.
I believe I could also do a credible job playing the weird next-door neighbor who keeps canaries and peers out through the kitchen curtains but never talks.
It was watching “Midsomer Murders” that we first encountered birdwatchers and twitchers. These two groups are not to be confused as birdwatchers take great umbrage at being confused with the latter.
As they see it, there is an enormous difference. Birdwatching is a disciplined undertaking and entails making careful notes about the birds one sees and having the greatest respect for them. Devoted birdwatchers take extreme care not to create a disturbance when stalking the poor little feathered creatures.
Twitchers, on the other hand, are not so disciplined and tend to be overachievers. They are driven to add rare birds that they have spotted to their “life” list. Consulting a twitchers’ intelligence network, they will travel to the Galapagos at the drop of a hat at the prospect of seeing a Blue Footed Booby. The very mention of some rare bird can cause twitchers to neglect work and family and send them into paroxysms of excitement. They literally twitch, so it’s said.
As you might imagine, competing to build the longest list of the rarest birds one claims to have seen can make a person not only twitchy but also dishonest. Some twitchers have been known to lie about their sightings or make inaccurate reports to the network to send their competitors off on a wild goose chase. In Midsomer, birdwatching is a serious business, and a dishonest twitcher is liable to come to a bad end involving a marble bird bath.
But, of course, I would be perfect for that role too and can picture myself as the unfortunate twitcher, bludgeoned into the great beyond by an indignant birder. “What was that in the bushes?”
I imagine that someone watching at home would have shouted a horrified warning to my character about the impending blow. Too late.
As the coroner goes about his work, the chief inspector notes the curious fact that while the crazed killer dispatched me in the garden, the police discovered me on the sofa in the air-conditioned drawing room–fully clothed. The murderer has left my face untouched. The inspector surveys my lifeless form and comments on how surprisingly young and attractive I look for a man my age. Clucking softly at the senseless, tragic loss, he ruefully replacing the sheet on my corpse.
“Such a shame. He never got to see that Temminck-Tragopan that he’d been dreaming about.”
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