#77 Sammie’s Life

Poor Sammie. The sweetest dearest dog ever had the misfortune of the draw of birth to be adopted by me.

Around 1968, during the blacker than black period of returning home to stay with my suicidal mother, after my father’s death, there wasn’t much light or life. I took some college courses and worked at the store that had been a summer job. One evening someone brought in a box of puppies. They were supposed to be Cockapoos, which was a new combo. They were tiny and adorable and I had no resistance. I needed cute and cuddly so I took one home to my mother hoping it would break the bleakness.

Reception wasn’t what I hoped. My mother is a cat person, but the little thing was so cute even she gave in, but without a smile. I got a box from the garage, wrapped a towel around an alarm clock, which supposedly would sound like the mother’s heartbeat. I put her in the hall outside my room. I named her Sammantha, shortened to Sammie. I have no recollection why I chose that name but it fit. She provided the first moment of cheer in that house of gloom. Maybe I should have put the mother’s clock heart in with me.

Her fluffy coat did not have any of the curls expected with a poodle, nor did she have the ears of a spaniel. Her soft coat was short. She was really part beagle and part mystery pup. She had adorable white eyebrows, white paws, white at the tip of her tail, a white chest and tan markings on her black body. I put her box in the hall outside my bedroom. I do remember the agony of puppy whimpers at night for a while. Getting her outside at regular intervals was a challenge since my room was upstairs. But we made it. She was smart and she caught on quickly. The yard was not fenced so training outside had to be on a leash. She loved the cat. The cat was cat indifferent. I never successfully taught her to come to me outside when I called.

No household needed something cute more than that one. And she responded well to repeated tasks. Even my brother enjoyed Sammie. One time during a rare visit he gave her some beer and she twirled in a circle chasing her tail. It was both mean and funny.

When I moved to Seattle Sammie stayed with my mother who bought a house with a fenced yard. So that was her world, the back yard. My mother remained cat indifferent to her. I remember bathing her in the laundry sink when I visited. She was so patient about it, looking up at me with her dark eyes. She was a small dog, not as long as a daschund or as low to the ground.

When I left the Seattle radio station to move to New York, I went back to Port Angeles to pack a few things at my mother’s house. I was taken by surprise when my mother announced that Sammie would be going with me. Whoops. I had categorized her as my mother’s dog after a couple of years, and I thought she did too. Not so. She’d known for weeks, even months that I was moving but waited to say something until I practically pulled out of the driveway.

Whoops also because the family friends who were going to let me stay with them did not know about Sammie.

So I drove back through Seattle for goodbyes. Then I made my first cross-country trek alone. She loved being in the car, but I had made no plans for her. I needed to drive very long days so she got no exercise.

Would a New York apartment allow dogs? Or would any motel allow dogs? I chose not to ask and took her quietly into the motel rooms on the trip. I couldn’t keep water for her in the car and once when she tried to poop it came out as powder. Bam! Even I realized that she desperately needed water. What an idiot. The poor little thing. Also the beagle in Sammie came out when she was left alone. She was a barker, so we were constant companions. She was always sweet and in spite of my incompetence, seemed happy.

When I arrived at the big house of friends on Governor’s Island at the tip of Manhattan, poor little Sammie had to stay in the car for days. I’d take her out to walk her but the family hadn’t warmed up to her yet. One night when it was terribly cold I tip toed downstairs to the car and brought her up to my room. But I was terrified that she might have an accident in that beautiful house.

Fortunately the family welcomed her in and she became the tiny sidekick of their big crazy dog. They had the run of the 3rd floor and the back stairs. I already described in #14 Who Me?, when the sons in the family hung her from a doorknob by her halter collar to shock me one day. I was shocked. She was sweet, just hanging there waiting to be rescued.

When I grabbed the first job offered, I began apartment hunting. A dog narrowed the possibilities. I found a large Greenwich Village studio on the first floor so that I could get her outside quickly. And it was a subway ride home from work to her. But I developed a terrible lazy habit of just letting her out onto the odd small patio. It was more like a private well. That became her bathroom. I was just awful about walking her, especially in cold dark weather. In the summer she got walks to Washington Square Park. Sammie’s world was pretty dull. My life was pretty bleak and she was a bright spot.

I took her on a camping trip in the Adirondacks with a friend. She was adorable in the canoe, patient watching the world go by. She even sat resting her cute face on the picnic table. She never begged.

Unfortunately the hound in her barked during the day. I had to get a muzzle because neighbors were complaining. I hated doing that. Someone left a note on the door about the makeshift potty area outside the apartment, and rightfully so.

The one truly dark memory is what sparked this story. I came home to an accident on the floor after she was left in all day. I actually raised my hand to her. Not just a hand, but with a fist I hit that little dog her on her rump. Suddenly the memory flashed of our beautiful cocker spaniel kicked into the air by my father’s rage. I held her and cried.

My low paying job wasn’t going anywhere and I took a job with some Seattle radio people I knew in New Jersey. Now Sammie’s confinement during the day was even longer. When I moved us to New Jersey, I couldn’t find a place that would allow dogs. The radio station where I worked was a fascinating converted house. I’d love to have had her there with me during the day but that was pushing things. It was a fun group and a fun time. Sammie was relegated to the engineer’s building about a block away. She was on a long leash outdoors during the day. I’m sure there was some FCC rule they had to follow about having her inside near the transmitting equipment. The guys there loved her but it still wasn’t right on so many levels. I provided food but had no idea what extras they might be feeding her. Other employees went to play with her during the day. She had regular necessary vet visits and I have no memory of her ever getting sick.

The news director of that station told me that he and his wife wanted to adopt her. It was both wrenching and perfect. They had a great house and yard. Odd to see your dog take immediately to new owners but I was relieved. They adored her and Sammie followed the wife everywhere.

A couple of years later my friend, the wife, was going on an errand and left Sammie home. But somehow she got outside and followed the car without my friend knowing it. She ran and ran after her out to the highway and was hit by a car and instantly killed. My friend was inconsolable for a very long time.

That was over 40 years ago. The friends and I are still close. And we still refer to little Sammie as the best, most loving and sweet dog ever. They and I have had great dogs since, but there was just one Sammie. She was only about five years old.

I always missed her but am grateful that finally she had a wonderful life with them for a while.


#76 Families Borrowed

The earliest clearest memory of borrowing other families was during High School. It wasn’t purposeful. It was essential. Even though I knew at the age of nine that my mother was different, there was nothing to be done. I appreciated but did not count on the occasional wing held over me by mothers of friends.

I spent time at the house of one friend whose mother was a friend of my mother’s. Their household of two daughters, mother and father made me feel welcome, even temporarily safe. Another close friend’s mother was someone who would protect us and stand up for us when we wanted to go to a concert or a party. I thought she lived a drab housewife life, but she was always there if we needed to talk. Not that we did that much, but we knew that we could. Another friend’s mother made a prom dress for me.

During the foggy days after my father’s death, I remember sitting in the pew at the memorial service at our church. A friend of my mother’s put her arm around my shoulder. She noticed me and for that instant knew I needed comfort. Comfort was something infrequent that was lost forever with my father. And an even odder memory is that I was seated in the pew behind my mother and brother.

In my first adult job in Seattle at a radio station, I was included in some family occasions of my mentor. Over forty years later her daughter is still a friend. Her mother noticed that there was something different about my family. We never talked about it, but she was there.

When I moved to New York as a young woman I lived with a family for a couple of months. The couple had been young friends under my father’s wing. They couldn’t possibly know what their nest meant to me. I mean they truly never did understand.

I went to a co-worker’s parents’ for Sunday dinner. It was my first experience at an Italian Sunday dinner that lasted all day, with loud voices and the occasional ping pong game between many courses. At first I thought they were yelling but they just cared about each other with the volume up.

When I lived in Connecticut, I was host to single friends for weekends and holidays. When #31 Mr. Humidifier came to live with me, his children I would borrow. My weekend step-mom role ended sharply with his disappearance.

I described friends in #73 Separate Letters, who cared about me and I cared about them. We depended upon one another as family does. That is until the balance shifted with one caring about me too much.

In Pennsylvania I was reunited with the family friends from New York. In the beginning I had some borrowed brothers and sort of parents again. But, and I can’t make this clear enough, they had no clue about what my family really was. Once the mother told me something bizarre that my mother said to her about me. But they couldn’t know. Hell, I lived it and I didn’t understand.

When I was with #56 It Takes Two, little by little I borrowed his gigantic complicated family. That statement has a clever sound but isn’t accurate. The “little by little” was accepting the vague role of organizing family gatherings, gift shopping, birthday remembering, cake baking, feelings soothing, stand-in for their father/grand-father. It was a full time labor of love and responsibility. Since we were not married there were no rules. When I left him, my role was even more out of focus. Eventually even though I had grown to love and devote myself to the children and grand children, there was no place for just one of the ex-girlfriends of their father/grand-father. There are no Hallmark cards. There is no etiquette book. Fading away wasn’t comfortable, but it was what I knew.

Couples included me for dinners and movies. But I was still borrowing a little piece of their lives. And if you’re about to say that this is just a bunch of self-pity crap, not so. There isn’t a paperweight of self-pity in this observation of a life that was not taught to belong. It just is.

Today my pool of friends is small but potent. I’m particularly close to one family that does include me for holidays since I’m not in the hosting realm these days. I’m making new friends who are truer. I may be learning to be valued.

But there are some of us on this earth that were brilliantly and daily taught not to belong. As much as we are genuinely welcomed, it’s still a loan.

 


#75 The Yearbook

One of the many thousands of times my mother Alice was unhappy with me was in Jr. High. I was about thirteen. We had annuals or yearbooks of course, and friends and teachers signed them, of course. My father signed mine, which instigated her to sit me down for one of her pronouncements. I had no clue what was coming.

She decided she should sign my annual too but I hadn’t asked her. Okay that doesn’t sound so bad. I guess I hurt her feelings, but Dad just knew to sign it, I thought. And that was months earlier. A school year earlier.

She was still talking. She said she was going to sign my book anyway but didn’t know what to write.  Is she asking me what she should write? Or what she should have written? No. She was still telling me something. She was still angry but about what? My discomfort or confusion was increasing. I sat very still. We were alone in the back of the house and I was glad to be sitting near the door.

Here’s what she told me next. When she didn’t know what to write in my book, she sent a letter to Ann Landers to ask her what she should say in her daughter’s yearbook.  What? Asked what?

I listened to my mother tell me how offended she was about what Ann Landers wrote back. She was especially upset because she went right to the top. Not Dear Abby but to Ann Landers. Because of me, she received what she considered a rude letter from Ann Landers containing no advice.

The story escalated to her high pitch. She was sure she was the only person in the country rejected by her hero. It was my fault. I felt bad.  But something more was coming.

And then the dreaded words arrived; the hateful words that usually followed violence. She cried, “What did I ever do that was so bad to deserve you?”

She never did sign my book.

After my travels to Russia, when all my belongings were in storage, I sent almost everything for auction. Unfortunately a box with some personal items like the silver baby cup and all the yearbooks, even college, went by mistake. I never recovered those things. My only regret about the loss is that I’d love to see what my father wrote in that book. I’d even love to see his handwriting.

Maybe my mother needed Ann Landers to get through life.


#74 Film School

I went to film school in New York at 55 with 18 year olds. I was the only student without acne and the only one with my own car.

In all the years I lived in New York (Manhattan) and went to every play that opened and saw every film that mattered, it never occurred to me to find some little window to get involved in theatre or film.

I was living in Pennsylvania after my travels to Russia when I wrote in both stage and screenplay forms. I just did it. At a Neil Simon festival in New York he was asked the question about how to write. His answer was, “Just do it.” I don’t think I followed his advice specifically but I did learn by doing it and pretty early on got a very good statewide arts grant. Those grants don’t exist anymore. My play received a wonderful production. It’s a play that still deserves greater attention, but that’s a subject for another day.

I had been completely immersed in learning to be a publisher for a few years. But when the field before me was empty I stopped running. I read about a compressed course in New York that gave the same hands on film experience as a four-year liberal arts program, but in less than two months. And the school was right in the heart of student film territory in Manhattan with instructors recruited from a pool of active filmmakers. I wanted to write scripts and I wanted to know what was possible. I was even light headed enough to think I might get involved with productions through the school.

I visited there and talked with a nice young man who gave me a tour. He was involved with opening schools for them all over the world. The location is right on Union Square, from which I took the subway each morning to work back in 1971. This was 31 years later.

I put my furniture in storage and packed my car with winter clothes, and a few objects I might use in my student film. There was a play I had always wanted to write, a little one-act. Picture a blank stage with only a telephone. Well maybe some apartment furniture. It’s a play with voice mail only. Or back then, the beep of a phone message machine. I wanted to tell a story through the messages a person might get over time; sort of like detectives going through the trash to put together a life.

A dear friend who lived in Riverdale, New York, a part of the Bronx, had an empty apartment over her house. She used it as her art studio, but she offered it to me for my stint in school. It’s only a 22-minute drive downtown.

I had a temporary phone installed and took a garage by the month near the school. I was in that upstairs apartment when the new phone rang. It was a young woman at the school wondering why I wasn’t there. She had one of those one-name names. I had the start date wrong by one day.

So one thing about compressing a few years of film classes into eight weeks means you can’t afford to miss one hour of it. And I missed the day they taught lenses. You just can’t believe how important that is. I never quite got “focus.” Really. You’d think focus has to do with eyes looking through the lens. It’s a science and an art that’s so complicated, directors and cinematographers talk endlessly about what lens to use. It’s based more on measurement than looking. Watch the closing credits of a film and look for the occasional mention of a person listed as “pull focus.”

I was 55 and the closest person in age to me was the manager of the school. The next was our general instructor and he was probably thirty something. Each day was long and divided into classes with various instructors. And part of each day was spent splitting into small groups with the equipment kits. This was still in the days of film. I was looking forward to actually learning to cut film, but those old machines were now sitting in the hallways. Editing was digital.

Most of our filming was outdoors in the coldest winter in New York in decades. Fortunately I had ordered a heavy parka and had plenty of hand warmers, enough to go around to the crew. I wore that parka constantly and grew to hate it. But it’s still in the closet in case that kind of winter hits again.

We had directing classes, film appreciation classes, lighting classes, and cinematography classes. My fellow students were all 18 to 20, and from all around the world. By my first day their alliances had already formed. But at lunch a young woman from Taiwan invited me to join her with a couple of others. Another was also from Taiwan but spoke no English so the first one who spoke perfect British English translated. The other young woman was from Turkey. I appreciated that they were willing to dine with me.

I was commuting each day. The others were all in temporary apartments in the neighborhood, some of them sharing with strangers. They partied every night to let off steam. I went home and collapsed every night to try to find steam. I was exhausted but I knew it had an ending. I can do anything physically when I know it has an end.

The one unpleasant class was screenwriting. The woman who taught it told me, and the entire class, that my script couldn’t be done. “You can’t make a film with no actors,” she said. She was an actress and fledging director so my project must have seemed rude. I had already written the dialogue, which was made of the many messages that the audience would hear. She and I did talk briefly about playwriting and she told me to bring in another stage play I had written for her to read. I did.

The days flew by in the bitter cold and the hollow marble halls of the repurposed building. We were getting to know everyone who worked there. I borrowed their digital recording equipment and recruited actors as voices for my film. The school had a catalogue of young actors willing to work in our films for free. I even had some friends record phone messages. Just about everyone working and studying there made the cast.

Some of the guys asked for my help with their scripts. They had no idea how to tell a story. They were mostly there to film bloody murders. Hitchcock meets zombies. When we broke into crews, I don’t think anyone particularly wanted me. Ours was sort of made of misfits, except for the young Taiwanese who had invited me for lunch. She had a real knack for the science of it all and had a feeling for people. Our crew was pretty much set and we each made three films. We’d direct our own, and do whatever job was needed on the others. Mostly out in the bitter cold, which is tough on the delicate equipment.

Over Christmas break, I stayed put. I did not go back to Pennsylvania, or upstate New York with friends. I found the Food Emporium in Riverdale, bought comfort food and lived on that, watching old movies. I recorded some piano riffs for my film on my friend’s grand piano downstairs. I tried to catch up on sleep during the break, but also had classmates visiting for writing lessons.

January was even colder. Most of the work was outside. A few years ago I had a sudden painful flair up of frostbite. I assumed it was caused by a lifetime of painful ski boots on my especially high arches and insteps. But maybe that winter was the start, in spite of the hand warmers that I put into my boots. Look up that winter in New York. It was a bitch. And so was the screenwriting instructor. She never did return my play, in spite of my many requests. That has legal implications but it was mostly rude.

Our first films were silent. Try telling a story without sound. A great experience. Another project was to incorporate music into a story. We were always shooting on the fly, fighting for locations with the NYU kids in the neighborhood. We learned about getting permits and getting around getting permits.

When it was time for our final films, I scouted over a dozen hotel suites to use as an apartment. My young friend and I decided to split the cost of a hotel since her story needed an apartment too. I was shooting in color so I got the help of a cinematographer who worked with the school. He was dashing to Florida for a project so I had to move fast. He shopped for rental equipment and gels with me. I rented a dolly for the main shot. We found a hotel suite downtown near Ground Zero. It’s a tough area to reach by subway so my van came in handy. There we were in a huge warehouse renting equipment where famous filmmakers get their equipment. Everyone there was kind, maybe because of this aging student. They loaded everything into the back of my van and we unloaded it at the back of the hotel. They sent along a green screen, which got sent up to the suite by mistake. We folded it into a big lump in the bathroom and shot around it. Time was ticking and I was going to lose my camera guy. No time to send it back.

A young guy in school who hadn’t been on this crew before joined ours and was I glad he did. Ironically he was from the same part of Pennsylvania. One miscalculation was the hotel carpet. The dolly sank into it. So he and his young back pushed that thing holding the cameraman over the carpet for the eight hours it took to get our opening shot. He told me he could build me a dolly when we got back to Pennsylvania. We were part of his crew too, but he seemed to have no real story and stopped using us as crew. And a homeless, or mostly homeless guy he had met came with him on our shoot. After the first eight hours I asked the young guy to have him leave. I felt terrible but the clock was ticking and space was limited.

The hotel chef helped with food. I asked him to put bananas in the freezer. He thought I was crazy but it made them brown to show the passage of time. I bent flowers over and one shot has a petal falling with perfect timing. They sent many dirty dishes and newspapers. All the papers were from the same day, so we opened them to different pages. I thought I was well prepared but after each shot my camera guy asked, “what’s next?” He saw my dazed look and guided me. We took an hour break. They all slept while I went over the remaining script. We got through the rest with some improvising and he made his plane for Florida. As soon as he left, the actors arrived for the other film. That all went pretty well in spite of our fatigue.

It was time to edit. The film is processed, transferred to digital for editing, back to film and to another format to project onto a screen. We had edited our other films, but this was a bigger project. It took 23 hours to shoot a ten-minute film. Getting time in the editing suite was a contest too. I stayed in a hotel near Gramercy Park. That place is unaffordable now, but back then it was still a bargain. I went back for a few hours of sleep. There was a flaw in one scene where the cameraman crawled onto the bed to get a shot. The bedspread moves and this is a film without people or ghosts. I didn’t have the skill to cover it. They actually brought in an editor for me to cover that spot without detection. You could get seasick from the opening. The camera on the jib takes a pretty fast swing. But I like my little film.

The dubbing department made copies and we were ready for graduation where our final films were going to be shown on a big screen. Most invited parents and families. My friend in Riverdale was my audience. I met a film instructor that day, a really nice man, and he showed up. But I never saw him again, unfortunately.

It was time to see what everyone else created. I worried about the young guy who had quit filming for his final film. But what they showed that night surprised everyone. He wove together stark black and white shots of the city from his other films with the homeless guy telling his story over it. It was brilliant.

Most of the films had murders, only a few had sound, some were silly, some funny some clever but everyone managed through all the pressure and little time to pull their visions together. Mine got a great reception and seeing it on a big screen is thrilling. Our primary instructor gave out certificates and made a fuss about my advanced age. Oh well. It was over. I had more than survived and this was something I always wanted to do.

When I returned to Pennsylvania, it was accepted in a film festival. In fact the review was wonderful. We had a marvelous movie critic here. Unfortunately she died before I ever got around to writing her about the encouraging review.

One of the best parts of the film school experience was the location of the hotel. Our cab drivers told us stories of how the hotel got people out on 9/11, a year earlier. Cabs took passengers uptown, then returned again and again. Some people were dragged out of a shower. There was no modesty that day, just survival. A year later I took a copy of my film to the woman who worked at the hotel and made our arrangements. Her home has been used in Woody Allen movies so she understood the process. She was no longer there and they had no contact information.

What I did not accomplish was getting contacts from the school to get work. That really wasn’t their thing. I just wanted to write and get involved in productions. To this day I have not accomplished that and have not yet written about it.

I also lost track of the young man who offered to build me a dolly. I wanted to encourage him. What he created showed striking insight and talent, and most of the time we barely noticed him. I hope he’s telling stories.