The news broke early this morning that Shirley Temple, aged 85, passed away in California of natural causes. The young-ish entertainment reporter who was commenting on this sounded like she’d done a quick Google search on the subject of America’s first child star. I, aware of being bookended by two family members of different generations who love her, stood there staring at the screen. I was, inexplicably, teary-eyed.
Usually, when actors, singers or writers pass away, I take it in the same way I take a relative passing. No, I am not inclined to pull my hair out and cry; I grew up surrounded by old age, illness, and death, so I am not prone to mourn death as much as mourn suffering. When I hear someone is seriously ill, and that they will be going through a difficult time of physical and emotional turmoil, I am more shaken than when I hear they’ve passed and the pain is over. No, I’m not glad they died, but I do see the benefit of no more excruciating agony for the person who is ill, or for the family that surrounds them.
Having said that, I probably come across as a heartless person. I think -maybe- I am a little of that when you look at it in this particular context. When someone dies, we are the ones who lose something. Say, for example, when my aunt died…she had been in excruciating pain. I didn’t enjoy seeing her slowly fall apart because the cancer wouldn’t let up; I didn’t enjoy her need for morphine to get through those last two days of her life. The same woman who had been my mother and my guide for so many years didn’t deserve all the pain she was going through, and she was no longer herself. When she drew her last breath, I could tell that she was letting go, and that she was -finally- not in pain anymore. I didn’t cry when she died, but I did cry quite copiously as she grew more and more frail. I did this in the shower, when and where she couldn’t see it. She would have been upset if she’d seen me like that, and the last thing I wanted was to upset her. If it hadn’t been for my aunt, I would have given up on J (and myself) a long, long time ago.
I am the person you can count on to think of the practical crap when shit hits the fan. You want me around in a crisis, but you’ll hate having me around if you feel like giving in to hopeless crying. I don’t want me around when I feel like hopeless crying… I will be the person who asks all the questions at the doctor’s office, and reorganizes schedules, rooms, and such when we get home. I’m the one who prepares for the worst; the one who knows how to bathe a sick person; the one whose stomach doesn’t turn when things get…messy. I am the one whose hallway closet is equipped with anything you might need for an open sore, a rash, muscular cramps, clean-ups. I am the one who will react with a cool head in front of you, and will find a way to crumble privately because she doesn’t want to complicate matters unnecessarily.
And yet…this morning my eyes welled-up with tears when I heard Shirley Temple had passed away at the ripe old age of 85, leaving behind daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Go figure!
My mom loved Shirley Temple. I’m saying “loved” even though my mother is still very much alive. I don’t know if she remembers Shirley Temple any better than she remembers me. We, my mother and I, have always had a very complicated relationship, if you can call it that. I was the last child, several years younger than the official “last child,” and I didn’t live with my parents until 12 days before my tenth birthday. I had stayed with them weeks, summers, weekends, holidays, but my home life was elsewhere, in the land of chamber pots, all-bran cereal, gerontologists, arthritis, old cars, and such. My aunts, who also raised my mother, tried to make my mom as accessible to me as they could, but I don’t think our relationship was meant to be.
I think, to a degree, I was the child she picked up with two fingers and held at a distance, trying to figure out what I was about. I think by the time I came around, she was ready for bigger and better things. I don’t know if I got the short-end of the stick, but -if it’s any consolation- I had a very happy (if confusing) childhood, and the environment in which I was raised prepared me for adulthood in ways that having the same upbringing and experiences as my contemporaries couldn’t have. The parts of aging that miff me I’ve seen coming for years…I’m not trying to give them the Heisman because nothing will stop them other than death. This, by the way, is the Heisman trophy, for those who don’t get the reference:
(I’m not a football fan, but a college professor once sent us on a scavenger hunt, and Heisman came up…)
When TGG was a year old, my mom flew in for his birthday party. She brought him Shirley Temple’s Heidi, and TGG never took to it. He was more of a Babar fan, and -as time went by- his interests expanded to include Bill Nye the Science Guy, dinosaurs, reptiles, pirates, and so forth. When J was born, I made sure that TGG found some presents from his baby brother on his bed at home: Disney’s versions of Paul Bunyan and Ichabod Crane were thrown into the mix. TGG now says that it was prophetic because J is definitely Paul Bunyan and Brom Bones, and he is definitely Ichabod Crane. Shirley Temple entered our midst once more when J, with no encouragement from anyone, bought her movies.
You know we’ve recently had viewings of The Little Princess and The Little Colonel, and J watches the other DVDs in his TV room and we can hear the sound streaming through the baby monitor. I don’t know HOW he developed an interest in these movies, but it might have been when my mother stayed with us (many years ago) for a period of three months. She and J never warmed up to each other; I don’t know if he sensed the rift between us, but she was one of the people he was uncomfortable around. And yet, there you have it, they both love Shirley Temple…
I think that’s why my eyes teared up this morning. I was thinking of my mom. I was thinking of how, many years ago, she was a little girl going to the movies to watch Shirley Temple. Ms. Temple was three years and a week older than my mom, so it would have made sense to have my mom sitting in a theater with her sister, her cousins, our aunts watching the film flicker on the screen at a Saturday matinee show… The last time I saw her, she didn’t know who I was 85% of the time, and the 15% that she did, she didn’t like me very much. With J, I think 85% of him is uncertain of who I actually am, and 15% panics when I’m not around.
I’m guessing that Shirley Temple won’t disappear from either world: J’s or mom’s. But she’s gone from mine. I feel like, between those two emotional bookends, I am the only one who knows. J doesn’t quite “get” the concept of death, and my mother is in an emotional place where she is comfortable, where she remembers what makes her truly happy. Shirley’s alive for both, but not for me. Pragmatism and omniscience suck sometimes…