Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Edna (1918-2013)

"God willing and the creek don't rise."

"Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite. If they bite, hold them tight. That'll serve the buggies right."

These have been interesting, strange and difficult days dear readers. That goes for many of us I'm sure.

Personally, this year (2013) has been difficult indeed.  The year marked the loss of my beloved grandmother Edna M. Gifford (1918-2013). It was without a doubt one of the hardest periods in my life reminding me of the pain felt when I lost my father.  Truthfully, it crippled me for weeks.  By way of explanation, with this writing, I finally give you some understanding of my absence here in April and May of this year. I simply disappeared in more ways than one.  I honestly could not put key strokes to computer screen.  The pain of loss can be great.  Edna was a giant among women to me. Many of you have or had these special people in your lives.  My gram was enormously influential to me. Her loss took the wind out of my sails so to speak.  It took some time to recover my composure if you will.

The year, like others, has been marred with its share of tragedy, the Boston marathon for one.  A horrific explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas left unimaginable carnage.  The year saw the loss of fantastic film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) on April 4, 2013.  Jean Stapleton (1923-2013), Annette Funicello (1942-2013), the bouncing beauty of Mickey Mouse Club fame, departed this earthly place on April 8, 2013 and even Lumpy, played by Frank Bank (1942-2013), from Leave It To Beaver, all reminding us of simpler times.

My recent look at The Little Rascals seemed fitting as I looked back over this year and as always looked back to the past to embrace all that I have loved and all that has made me who I am today.

Forceful former British Prime Minister and leader Margaret Thatcher (1925-1913) passed at 87 on April 8th as well.  Popular culture doesn't allow much room to have respect for a conservative leader like Margaret Thatcher.  She came from a place of hard work, self-determination and was behind massive efforts to roll back the tide of rampant socialism in England.  She was indeed a principled leader driven by true conviction.  It's a rare quality and one you'll be hard pressed to find anywhere today which is why she was such a lightning rod for musicians of an era.  Even Meryl Streep, who portrayed Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011) had some kind words regarding the Prime Minister's passing.  There have been complaints on both sides of the political isle regarding Streep's portrait of Thatcher in that film and its heavy concentration on her spiraling years resulting from dementia/ Alzheimer's Disease, but in fairness the film is good. One can easily discern the kinds of principles she stood for whether you believe she got it right or not and whether you relate or not.  It's a very good and fair picture.  Thatcher was by no means perfect, but leaders rarely are.  They are human.  As far as the British music scene, Thatcher inspired some of the best music in years through their hatred of her.  God knows without her there is plenty of uninspired crap produced today.  Some happily and distastefully dance on her grave.  No shame, but that's freedom for you.

My grandmother's passing was indeed in the company of esteemed giants this year. Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) spent his days on this great Earth for almost exactly the same many days as her 1918-2013.

This post comes with some reflection. This year marked the longest hiatus for me in some time.  Following my last post on Sunday, April 7, I was informed later that evening that my grandmother of 95 fantastic years had been brought to the hospital.  She had spent the last thirty years living with her daughters.  She had five children.  She had the health and good fortune to be fairly active and remain outside of a nursing home and in the care of her family.  These past few years saw her ability to get around restricted but she rarely complained of her ills and still managed a smile in our company.  Amazing.

For whatever reason I had made some effort to search my mind for memories of her outside of the ones that immediately spring to mind when it comes to memories.  I tried to probe a little deeper, find something, link onto it and see if it might take me somewhere else regarding the thousands of moments I had the pleasure of spending in her care.  She was always there for my brother and I. She always offered sound advice and disciplined guidance with a great sense of humor.  So I kept thinking how funny it was when I placed her in my mind in various kitchens across my lifetime.  She was always baking cakes and other goodies for some reason.  I could place her in every kitchen but my own.  I don't really remember her in my kitchen.  Funny that.  She was more than a baker.  In fact, she played hard as a youngster and shared many stories of her days in the field playing with the local rascals from her own neighborhood.

On the last few occasions of her life she had been taken to the hospital, but always rebounded.  She was incredibly resilient and I always had this sense she would rebound yet again.  This time it felt different.  She was unresponsive and that pit you get in your stomach was certainty that it was different.  My mother contacted me and notified me she passed on April 9th, 2013 holding her hand. Thankfully someone from the family was with her.  That's all anyone could hope for.  She had been with so many of us for so long.

Needless to say, it was a difficult week and really this is the first time I've felt motivated to write.  There was a seemingly impenetrable sadness that hung in the air all week long that April despite the joyful remembrances shared by all with one another. It was hard to escape.  At the time I wasn't writing.  I wasn't watching or really connecting to anything. I was more or less vacant.  I felt like doing nothing.  I just sat mildly depressed.  The One To Be Pitied said to me one day, "you're healing." Those were indeed wise words. I think that was true.  It's different for everybody as my friend T. Foreman said to me.  My body.  My mind.  I was processing all of it.  I was exhausted from it too.  The sadness weighed heavy on the heart and mind. All of this is so because of how I so adored this kind, selfless woman.  She was funny and tough and she was a great friend for years to many including me.

Like the passing of a great historical figure, Edna was principled and strong.  She was crucial to my upbringing, my understanding of right and wrong, loyalty and how to enjoy the simple things in life.

At 95, she knew how to enjoy life and she was beloved by her family.  I sometimes think that's why she really had no interest in departing.  She lived with everyone in our family.  We all had the good fortune to be able to keep her in our care at one point or another adding to the many precious memories.

She went very quickly like a candle's flame being blown out.  What a way to go.  We'd all sign up for that one.  She was sitting out in the sunshine on Sunday eating chocolate, became unresponsive and remained in the hospital for two days before she passed rather suddenly.  There was a brief mention of hospice care by Tuesday.  I suspect the sound of that was enough for her to say farewell.  She lived a full life, filled with love and joy and family and then left us just like that in a moment.  What a gift and something we all hope for.

At home, the ducks were waiting for Edna on Tuesday morning before her passing.  She fed them every day and they were looking for her. Even the ducks were missing her.  She always gave you what you needed even if it was bread.  She used to take my brother and I to feed the ducks when we were little.  That simple act of enjoying life never grew old to her.

These past five years were difficult for her.  She moved from, at one point, leaning against objects to get around eventually to a cane and then a walker.  The poor little spitfire that she was, a tomboy rascal that once beat up all of the neighborhood boys to protect her friends, had reached her physical limit.  Her vessel was broken despite her mighty spirit and an infectious laugh and smile that would melt your heart.  Selfishly I wanted her to bounce back.  I wanted her to stick around.  I wanted her here because I loved having her around.  The planet was a better place with her on it.  As the hours passed I was certainly relieved as well for her.  She deserved peace.  She was free now.  What a hell of a human being.  She never backed away from a fight.  I was glad to see her leave this world peacefully.  My mother, one of five siblings of my grandmother, happened to be on watch when her passing happened.  For me, there was comfort in knowing she was there.  She spoke with her, whispered to her and held her hand.  Every so often there was a little physical acknowledgement, but she slipped away peacefully.  Tell me that wasn't difficult for my mother.

She was an avid reader and loved crossword puzzles and always did.  This is certainly where I get my love for the English language, reading and writing. Thanks to her. So we celebrated her life. People walked in and the line never stopped for 90 minutes.  Folks, she was 95. You don't normally see steady lines for people in their nineties, but they came far and wide.  People who worked with her when she was a cook at one of the local and finest restaurants walked through, friends and extended family.  It was just incredible.

She was born in the 20th Century the year the Boston Red Sox won their last World Series title until the 21st Century.  She saw the Red Sox win two world series titles.  People were born and passed in the years between and never had a chance to see that happen.  What an incredible optimist too.  I’m not worthy and damn I try.  I remember when the Red Sox were down three games to the Yankees in 2004, like everyone else I didn’t give them a prayer.  I spoke with her and she believed in them.  No kidding. I mean she really believed they could and would come back.  What! No way.  But she would trust in David Ortiz. By God, there was magic in her strength of character and her belief in the possibilities.

In a truly uncanny twist in her tremendous life and mine because it was often a topic of conversation, my grandmother was born in 1918.  Until 2004 and 2007, the Red Sox hadn't won the world series since 1918.  How truly stunning it was to witness the Boston Red Sox win the World Series this year, 2013, for the first time in 95 years, since 1918, at their home field of Fenway Park. 2004 and 2007 were won on the road. It gives me goosebumps to know my grandmother, an avid Red Sox fan, was born the year they won it in Fenway and then passed away the same year they won it in Fenway.  Just life being a little funny with us all, but I couldn't help but wonder if that little Angel wasn't there pushing them along just a little bit.

She lived through World War I, World War II, Vietnam, the Korean War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the birth of the atom bomb, Woodstock.  She saw Ted Williams play, Babe Ruth, Yaz. Fred Lynn. Jim Rice. You name it. She saw it. I was with her when Elvis Presley died. We listened to Paul Harvey on our car trips. We risked life and limb at the rotary to make a point.

She was a strong powerful woman who profoundly filled the role of matriarch without ever asking for that title. She just commanded that kind of stature without ever needing the physical stature to complement it. It just came natural. As I said she gave of herself generously and selflessly and people responded to that. She was truly on a pedestal by many. It's the sacrifices the she made in her life that makes family work.

I wrote and read a eulogy for her in April and was honored to do so. Only now am I able to write.  It was long after her funeral that I started to rebound and feel a desire to be productive again.  It's no doubt an emotional process for all of us. There is truth to the grieving process when you lose someone dear. It was very much a process for me because she was so special.

There were so many great memories, and though I shared many at the time of her passing I will leave you with one only to demonstrate how open-minded she was.

There were many years I lived with my grandmother and she lived with us. It was an honor and a pleasure to spend my days with her.  One year, as a teenager, I lived with her, each night we had dinner by the television.  We had fold out wooden dinner tables and we used them often. We watched Star Trek: The Original Series religiously. It was syndicated on one of the channels in the 1980s.  She loved it. Hot dogs, beans and brown bread, two little folding tables, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and my Gram.  All was right with the world.  That's the past I embrace.  That's what I'm talking about.  It couldn't have been more perfect.  We had such fun. How many grandmothers love watching Star Trek and baseball?  I am indeed her.

I remember not long ago bringing her some of my autographed Star Trek cards to look at with her.  She got a real kick out of it too.

She cherished every day.  She always smiled.  She was never a pessimist. She made you laugh even when she wasn’t trying to make you laugh because it was just so damn refreshing to see someone with her honest view of the world.

What a blessing to have her with us for 95 years.  It had to be her clean living and her honesty. I can only tell you that I don't smoke to this day, because she promised she would break my arm if I did.  She was one of a kind and she will be missed.

Yes my grandmother occupied my emotional reservoir for a good time in 2013.  Things are better now and of course we always miss them.  I was left with an oppressively heavy heart at the time it paralyzed any motivation as a result. I've never been like that before.  I'm breathing again and of course writing thanks to her. It's still hard. God knows it was even hard to publish this one.

This little scene from The Little Rascals starring Jackie Cooper and Mary Ann Jackson reminded me of her schoolyard tales.  My grandmother was a tomboy and she gave the boys a run for their money.  That's no joke.  She would threaten my brother and I with bodily harm if she we ever decided to try and smoke.  That's love.

Born in 1918 she would have been about their age.  Little Mary Jackson (1923-2003) was also a tomboy like my grandmother, but this scene from The Little Rascals episode The First Seven Years (1930) captured for me what life might have been like for my Edna back in depression-era America.  She approximated their age. The scene also features little Jackie Cooper (1922-2011).  Little Rascal Cooper went on to star as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Superman trilogy (1978, 1980, 1983).

So in April, the month of her arrival to this great, blue planet, Edna departed those she loved and who loved her.  A weekend pulled family together that hadn't seen one another in years and in that moment they were united by their love for a great woman who made family work. She raised five children and fourteen grandchildren and left over twenty-seven great-grandchildren behind and counting. Out of love for family it all seemed to come so naturally to her.  And in this ever-expanding group her legacy lives on.

As I posted recently about The Little Rascals and embracing the past, maybe it's natural to reach back and hold on to all that was good in our lives.  It's hard letting go of the best and by God my grandmother was all of that to us.  As hard as it was for me to post I'm proud to share this small tribute to her here with you.  This woman her children affectionaly called "Mother," - she truly sparkled bright.


Friday, December 27, 2013

I Remember That: The Little Rascals And Embracing The Past

"After school they had nothing to do and a whole neighborhood to do it in.  They made their own fun.  They charmed the world. We see innocence, enterprise and the best of ourselves in them."
-Author Richard Bann-
No matter how hard I try I just can't seem to stop looking back.  No matter how much I move forward and accept gifts with the latest technological fare I still fall back on the vintage stuff. No matter how much I'm pushed kicking and screaming into the future I can't help but turn my head over my shoulder to adore all that has come before.  For me, much of what remains in the rear view mirror is irreplaceable and often represents all that was right with the world once upon a time even if all wasn't right.

I'm terribly nostalgic and I suppose to my detriment. It's a real Achilles heal of mine at times. No matter what efforts I make to join progress I can't stop returning to the past. My blog posts alone are more than evidence of that.  Everything that has come before seemed so much better. I just keep embracing it.  I'm more than happy to do so and I'll certainly look to others to handle embracing matters of the future.

Bobby Wheezer Hutchins.

Maybe it's natural to reach back and hold on to all that was good in our lives.  We know what's coming.  We know the end of the line is a cold hard fact. It's a rather uncomfortable, inevitable truth isn't it?

My latest foray into the past has taken me back to the 1920s, and the films of Hal Roach, silent and talkie, in the form of The Little Rascals (1922-1944; 220 episodes) also properly referred to as Our Gang.  These are simply remarkable short films that still mesmerize me today. They were impressive when I was a child, but perhaps I'm even more than amazed by them today.

And so I go to these places and there is something terribly comforting and safe there. And if I'm to self-examine and be honest, personally, it is very much an escape to that place.  I'm perfectly okay with that.

Joe Cobb.

There was indeed something special about these kids, these Little Rascals - Our Gang.  It's not that each generation doesn't have its fair share of adorable children because they do exist.  I've had the pleasure to witness two of my own say the darndest things, experience them do the darndest things and surprise me with the kinds of responses that only an innocent child could deliver with such unscripted perfection you wish it was forever captured like it was for these short films.  What a treasure that is to have by the way.

Mary Ann Jackson.

But there was something special about the way Hal Roach captured the innocence of children back in an era now long gone and never to happen quite the same way ever again.  Most kids are captured on film today often exhibit a tendency to overact, flash fresh for today's idea of cute. Kids in film today are rarely presented in such impromptu fashion instead appearing overly rehearsed. On film, today's kids are either jaded, expected to act smart beyond their years or behave as if wise to the ways of the world portraying smart ass as cute.  There are certainly exceptions like The Courtship Of Eddie's Father (1969-1972), but even that was filmed decades ago. However, this may be the perception of a fellow looking through the rose-colored glass of nostalgia.  It's possible.  The Little Rascals had their moments, but they were far more precious than most and precocious with an innocence.

I suppose the irony of the evolution of children captured for television can be seen even within the evolution of Hal Roach's long-running The Little Rascals.  Change was in the air and it transitioned from silent film to the talkie. Television was becoming more advanced than ever.  With all that kids are exposed to through television today a loss of innocence it certain to naturally occur.

Joe Cobb shares a prayer.

I'm sounding like a curmudgeon here and I don't mean to.  Maybe The Little Rascals series wasn't as innocent for its time as it sure seems to be today, but looking back now these kids were hopelessly and endlessly sweet and funny and unpredictable. They were captured on film like never before or will ever be again.

Writers Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann deliver one of the best lines from their meticulously researched book, The Little Rascals: The Life And Times Of Our Gang (1992; revised from 1977), a dated book now but one that was a delight to read.

Maltin and Bann reflect, "It's nice to escape for a while from the uncertain future we all face, and retreat to the more leisurely joys of a certain past."  Precisely.  And precisely the case for me.

It is a book that is not only an entertaining page turner but offers a window into a period of television history one might hardly be familiar.  Through The Little Rascals the writing team offers remarkable detail regarding the transition from silent to sound.  It is books like this one that are still cherished despite the brilliance of that advancement called the Internet. The amount of information acquired in interviews and research for this book has taken decades and it is simply a wonderful document and bible to a series that should be remembered within our cultural development amidst The Great Depression (1929-1939).

Farina Hoskins.

What Hal Roach created with The Little Rascals was something of pure genius.  He wasn't looking for overacting. Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple were allegedly turned away from the series for exactly that reason.

Chubby Chaney and Joe Cobb see stars.

Roach was looking for the innocence of kids.  Roach was riveted by the simple act of kids scrubbing it out for the biggest stick in the yard. He saw the beauty in the little moments that parents have or family members have the opportunity to cherish. That simple innocence of kids is a forgotten gift and it was eloquently captured in these Hal Roach films.  These acts are a near impossible find today, which makes these not only phenomenally good fun, but a cultural and historical document archiving the way we were.

I don't know what led me back to the past this far.  I watched The Little Rascals after school when I was a young boy. I think they were broadcast out of Boston on Channel 56. They always caught my attention then, but seeing them again for the first time in decades I've hardly lost appreciation for what was achieved here.

Maybe it was listening to REO Speedwagon's classic Hi Infidelity (1980) recording for the umpteenth time.  On that effort a songs called Tough Guys opens with an audio tribute to The Little Rascals.  The clip features George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer and Darla Hood.  I always smiled when I would hear that opening but perhaps it registered with me and sent me off on one of my unexpectedly crazy research missions.  In the audio clip, Spanky is bent out of shape that Alfalfa would forsake the He-Man Woman Hater's Club. Alfalfa insists he has to live his own life even if that means loving Darla.

Fortunately the series talkies have been archived beautifully on a seven volume DVD set for posterity.  Most of the silent films have been lost forever with the exception of a few.  How fitting it should mirror the lost art of capturing children on film.

Pete The Pup.

I shouldn't deny myself the beauty of technology. Once upon a time I went to great lengths with snail mail and phone calls to get the rarest of rare music and books. It would take weeks to sort these things out.  A subscription to Marvel Comics was managed through an envelope, a handwritten form and a check. When was that first comic book to have arrived?  I had no idea. I just hoped it would one day come and now bent.  Now it's all at the push of a button. Okay, I love embracing the past but I'm more than acutely aware that embracing the present and future is perhaps the best way to get there.  Yes, The Little Rascals was indeed The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) of another era, a beautiful glimpse into the world of kids being kids and discovering themselves.  Problems, solutions and their potential were all completely unencumbered by video games or technology.  Just amazing.  I remember that.  In fact, I remember all of that started changing with my generation.  Trust me, I welcomed the VCR and VHS and the proliferation of the cassette and the arrival of Atari.  I loved it all.

My first foray into The Little Rascals talkies as they are known highlight a number of the gang that maybe aren't quite as well known as Spanky, Darla, Buckwheat and Alfalfa. Perhaps one day we will give them all a look.

The first volume focused squarely on a still exceptional bunch of kids.  This group of kids was certainly no less charming.  Farina Hoskins. Joe Cobb. Mary Ann Jackson. Chubby Chaney. Jackie Cooper and Wheezer Hutchins are the true standouts from the first ten talkies.  Where are they now? Well, the book by Maltin and Bann delves deeply into their stories without the knowledge of these last many years. Sadly none survive. All have passed away.  The rotund and infinitely lovable Joe Cobb (1916-2002) is now gone. The naturally gifted funny boy Farina Hoskins (1920-1980) has since passed.  Tomboy and sweetheart Mary Ann Jackson (1923-2003) lived a good life. Cobb-replacement and darling Chubby Chaney (1914-1936) died unexpectedly at a young age from a glandular ailment and lived an unfortunately short life. The incredible delightful Jackie Cooper (1922-2011) lived the longest even appearing in our beloved Superman trilogy (1978-1983). The endlessly charming Robert Wheezer Hutchins (1925-1945) also died tragically and unexpectedly in a mid-air crash as a pilot during WWII training exercises at just twenty years of age.

Beyond some of these early favorites, other, better-remembered, aforementioned, unforgettable characters, and I do mean characters, have also left this mortal coil.  We shall one day embrace another look at those kids.  All together these Little Rascals came up with some outstanding moments.  It's nice to see there are still those of us who remember that and folks who might introduce those kids to their kids today nearing some ninety years later.

Wheezer In Action.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Here's hoping yule have a Merry Christmas all ye sci-fi faithful and faithful alike.