The Presence of Memories

In late November I often think of this picture, an advertisement that appeared in Family Circle magazine, available at checkout counters in every grocery store in the country. That’s my mother, Anna, the matriarch of the picture, and although it’s a pot roast, not a turkey, it’s always Thanksgiving that brings it to mind. She was now a bona fide celebrity.

Anna, ever a presence, presiding in her close encounter with celebrity

My parents became an item in the 1920s — I’d say they got married then, but they never did go through the formal paperwork. I was born in 1942, after they’d been together almost 20 years, and 14 1/2 years after my sister, my only sibling, was born. They celebrated their anniversary at Thanksgiving, because it was a chance to get family and friends together. My father’s brother, Abe, and at least two of his children who lived close to New Haven (Herman and Milly) and their families might be there. My mother was close to two of her brothers, but only one, Lou, lived near by and would stop by with family and also their father, Aaron, (before he came to live with us). My mother ruled the kitchen, she prepared a family feast, and her presence was immanent. That’s the other reason I am now thinking of the photograph: in a conversation with my friend Kathleen, she reminded me of the time I introduced her to my mother, probably 1968. She told me the other day that my mother “was a presence.” The words have been rolling around in my brain since she said them.

In 1960 I moved to Los Angeles from New Haven, Connecticut. I moved to get as far away from home as I could, and to be near my sister. One year later, home moved to Los Angeles: my parents settled in an apartment near Olympic and Fairfax on Hi Point. My sister, Greta, and her husband, Leon, lived in the hills above Hollywood, on Outpost Drive. It seemed to me like a mansion, with its huge living room with 14 foot ceilings, its large kitchen, dining room, breakfast nook, and three bedrooms. And the magnificent tiled bathroom next to the master bedroom, that had a stall shower, a bathtub, and a toilet separated in such a way that three people could be using the bathroom and would not see each other.

When Greta and Leon moved to the Outpost house, Leon had been an aspiring lawyer for the Alden Construction Co. since the early 1950s. That is how they had gotten a choice home in a tract built by Alden in Buena Park, not far from Disneyland in Orange County. But Leon decided to start his own firm, based in Los Angeles, and the commute from their home in Buena Park was expensive and prohibitive in terms of time. The move to Hollywood meant finding a school for their children, and Greta found the Hollywood public elementary school severely lacking. They found Oakwood, a school begun by other parents dissatisfied with overcrowding and what educational opportunities they found. The school began in 1951 in the back yard of Robert and Jessica Ryan, and by the time Greta and Leon moved into the Outpost house, the school had a real building and the school community included a number of families in the film and other arts industries.

One of the parents was a commercial photographer — someone whose name I have long forgotten. Although by 1969 Robin, Randy and Ronni — Greta and Leon’s children — had outgrown Oakwood, Leon’s law practice kept him in contact with that artistic community. The commercial photographer was shooting a magazine advertisement for Hunt’s. He was looking for a grandmother-type person; perhaps he had even met Anna at Greta’s for dinner. That I don’t know, any more than I remember who the photographer was. In my fantasy, it might have been Haskell Wexler (whose son went to Oakwood) and whom I met at the time. I just can’t imagine the filmmaker having to make money by shooting advertisements.

The advertisement was published, my mother was a presence at every grocery checkout counter in America and we were properly impressed by our association with fame.

A decade later Leon and Greta were divorced and their children scattered away from Los Angeles. Anna had declined into early stages of dementia — she was no longer capable of living independently, but I would pick her up from her nursing home residence and take her to the Midnight Special Bookstore, then in Venice, where she presided at the checkout counter, greeting customers and regaling them with her favorite story of the family hiding from the Tsar’s Cossacks at her grandmother’s home in Vilnius, Lithuania. Radical students from all different political stripes would attribute their own ideology to whatever she said and walk out of the store reaffirmed by their perception of her steadfastness. In 1979 the Bookstore gave her an 83rd birthday party barbecue in a park in Mar Vista. She was still a presence, although the light in her eyes did not burn as brightly. She was pleased that the party raised $125 to support the organizing work of the Texas Farmworkers Union, where coincidentally granddaughter Robin was involved.

Anna died in 1983 at 87 years of age. We held a celebration of her life in the backyard of friends Kathryn and Brad Stevens in Cudahy. I left Los Angeles four years later.

I keep the presence of memories with me though.