I watched some old silent movies this weekend that the youngest of my two older sisters had transferred to DVD. They were from the mid-1960s. One was of a party before her wedding. It was eerie. Because they’re silent, they seemed more like photographs in which ghosts miraculously move and gesture and smile and even talk, though we can’t hear them.
There was our mother, still alive, smiling almost bashfully, as though self-conscious as the camera passed over the crowded little room in my other sister’s home. And there was that sister too, moving, gesturing, and look our cousin Jackie, who I wrote about not long ago in my long anti-war poem, the Korean War vet who set me right about battlefield bravery. And Lee, avoiding the camera, the mother of my two oldest children, before they were born.
Within weeks my mother would be dead, from heart failure after an operation that found her full of cancer. Our aunt, who passed only last year in her nineties, was there too, along with others long gone, including our father. That aunt later told us that our mother would go next door to her house and cry on her shoulder about the pain she was in, and then come home and put on that bashful grin and cook dinner and never mention how much she was hurting.
Jack would be dead shortly too. My other sister, whose house the wedding reception was at (captured in one of those silent movies on the dvd) a month after our mom died, would hold out for almost twenty more years, before she too was gone, around the same time Lee passed, after six years in a coma. But it was seeing my mother, who was gone only weeks after this film was made, that broke my heart open all over again.
“Glum” is the way it made me feel. Sad. “Despair” is not a word I’d use, except in reference to a comic book R. Crumb put out in the 1960s, if I remember correctly, called “DESPAIR”—about suburban angst, white people’s worries, mocking them while at the same time enshrining them in an art that seemed to me even at the time to be timeless.
Did you ever see that documentary on Crumb? One of the most compelling films ever made, and disturbing. For him to have transcended the circumstances he was born into, not only explains his art and personality, but as a lot of great art of any kind does, explains a lot about all of us.
So, I was walking down Eighth Avenue today, feeling a little glum about the inevitable— missing my mom who I hadn’t seen move, like I did in that silent film the other night, for over forty years—when I saw coming toward me, walking up the avenue, a young African-American couple, maybe late teens early twenties, him tall, her short with glasses, both attractive, wearing Santa Claus outfits and holding hands.
On their way to or from a holiday job, unaware of their surroundings, so into each other. As I passed I said “I guess you’re gonna have elves”—a pretty lame attempt at humor which he obviously didn’t get just saying “Yes” to me as if I’d asked if he was really wearing a Santa outfit, but she laughed and said, “Yeah, we are” and made me feel like she got that all I was trying to do was comment on the joy they were sharing, the joy of the season, the joy of young love, the joy of youth when it’s being youthful, the joy of being fucking alive and on a street in New York City on a December winter day that is way too warm and where there are way too many people missing, but where that couple and I found ourselves this morning, grateful to be.