From the Past

Boxes of Memories

When my mother, Gloria Stuart, was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Old Rose in Titanic, occasionally someone asked, What was it like, growing up with a movie star for a mother?
My answer: I didn’t. She wasn’t.
She had been. A ravishing blonde who could act, the year I turned one—1936—Gloria Stuart co-starred in six movies, including Poor Little Rich Girl with Shirley Temple. Three years later, unhappy with her career, she left Hollywood. For decades she satisfied her artistic appetite with découpage, painting, silkscreen, bonsai, traveling, entertaining, gardening, writing poetry and letters. By 1975, she couldn’t bear not acting, so producer friends gave her bit parts. Then at seventy-two, an old lover taught her to be a fine printer. There are Imprenta Glorias artists books in libraries all over the world.
Then out of the blue dropped Old Rose. I was many times a grandmother when my mother again was a movie star.    Ma’s years between stardom were rich. She kept records of them. I’ve observed that those who are gifted take a lively interest in their interests and in the world in which they’re interested. From schoolgirl days, Gloria kept journals, filled scrapbooks with clippings and filled black-paper albums with black-and-white photographs. Of a nothing-to-do Saturday morning I’d pull out a photograph album to again study my mother at the Santa Monica beach with a skinny beau in their twenties’ bathing suits…see my grandmother Alice posing with her best friend Pat Henshey (the Hensheys owned the big department store in Santa Monica)…and again I’d relish the pictures of my mother and father astride elephants in India…then turn to everyone’s favorite photograph, my smiling father in Bali in his tropical whites standing in the center of a line of two dozen young women, all bare-breasted.
My mother loved poetry. Her earliest notebooks were filled with clips of poems and their poets from the Santa Monica Evening Outlook…then in college, from The Daily Cal and Berkeley Gazette. Soon after she clipped her own poems—in Carmel she ran a newspaper and published her poetry and short stories.
Of course I loved looking at scrapbooks from her glam days. There’s Gloria Stuart in profile cooing down at baby Sylvia in her arms…Gloria in pristine gardening gloves tending her manicured roses…Gloria in a skin-clinging satin evening dress ready to greet dinner guests…
All through these years my mother kept daily entries in a journal/daybook. I’d see her scribbling something on the day’s page. I was on my honor and never looked at them. Partly because it wasn’t right and partly because my mother, as you might imagine, could be volatile, and I didn’t want to risk what I’d read.
When my mother died at one hundred in 2010 and I married Bill in 2011, most of my dowry was banker’s boxes chockablock with memories. By then My Mother the Collector had amassed decades of letters from illustrious friends plus letters and scripts of my father’s. So many boxes! My dear new husband, the professor, offered to sort the letters. I was thrilled.
It was then I decided to bravely look into Ma’s journals, try to see if the years were complete. They were. Once in a while I would think of a major event in the family—a celebration—or a quarrel—and I’d find that page in her daybook. Was I pleased? Was I squished? I was illuminated. My mother turned out to be more charitable about family shortcomings, more forgiving, more insightful than I’d imagined. How I missed her!
We stacked the boxes in our garage, two lanes of them. Every so often Bill would ask what I planned to do with them. I wasn’t able even to think about that and would apologize. Then a couple of years ago I got up my courage and contacted the Huntington Library. The Huntington because when Ma’s close friend, Christopher Isherwood, had his papers accepted there, she was elated for him. It couldn’t be a better place to preserve the memorabilia of a third-generation Californian…an artist of the first stripe…whose interests and accomplishments were quintessentially Southern Californian.
Indeed the library would love to have her papers–my father’s letters and scripts as well. Ah, Daddy’s wonderful letters to me when I was in college…then newly married… An element in the boxes the library valued in particular was letters MFK Fisher wrote to Ma from 1938—they were friends in their college years—and to me when I began writing about food. Generous chatty letters, filled with writerly tidbits I loved.
At last it was going to happen, and we moved the boxes to our living room. Due to COVID, the boxes were there for months. I never opened a lid and took something out. I had a knot in the pit of my stomach when I thought about everything going. Even though the library will make all the papers available to anyone qualified to see them, I know I’ll never see them again. Daddy’s letters. MF’s letters. My mother’s scrapbooks. Her poetry. The photographs. All those daybooks that I wish I could sit down and read through. What was she really feeling the night she lost the Academy Award?—she was, of course, gallant to Gene and me. What was she feeling when she had the message her husband of forty-four years had died in a nursing home?…
Well, finally they’re gone. The morning the truck was due to arrive, I lifted the lid of a box and to my surprise—my chagrin, my horror—there was a fan magazine from my mother’s glam years, beautiful beautiful Gloria Stuart smiling at me. I took a picture of it, as a keepsake, closed the magazine, put down the lid of the box, and wept.
Yes, of course my loss is the community’s gain. And, yes, memories are in the mind, not boxes.
But still…

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