GRANDMA, GOD AND AIMEE


Episode 2

1928

Aimee slipped unbidden into my dream last night, which brought to mind my grandmother’s fascination with her.

Aimee Semple McPherson was a Los Angeles evangelist and media celebrity from the 20’s and 30’s, the largest among the flurry of religious salesmen, all of whom were selling salvation, a commodity always in demand, and which costs them nothing to supply.

Aimee Semple McPherson

In Aimee’s philosophy, God being Love, desires only that His children be happy, and they cast money into the collection box with reckless enthusiasm to assure them of that happiness. “Just give a little more” she would cajole, and they did.

Aimee’s call to Love offered an eternal Costa Del Sol, liberally supplied with food, drink, sex and sun. Evil had no place in this ethereal paradise.

Grandma was a liberated woman seeking a new source of religious interpretation, and was enchanted with the notion that another woman could supply it. Life was not easy for my Grandmother at that time; single and raising two young daughters, while working and running a rooming house in the Great Depression.

Grandma, Mama and Connie
Grandma, my Aunt Corinne and my mother at the beach

My mother Kathryn, pregnant with me, was having a difficult time in her pregnancy. She and my father Walter were very young, and he was recently embarked upon his career in the Navy, and was frequently away at sea. Grandma decided that the only sensible living arrangement was to make room for us in her house, and they quickly moved in.

As my mother’s time came near it seemed she might die in childbirth, so Grandma appealed to Aimee at one of her prayer meetings, to have her congregation offer prayers for our well being, prayers which apparently were answered, because I soon arrived with all toes and fingers on April 2, 1928. The only problem was my feet, which were turned to the outside. An orthopedic surgeon was called in and made braces for me which I apparently wore for some time because they are facing the right way now. It would have been a real dilemma for a future tap dancer.

Kaatie Lou
Katie Lou

The spiritual bubble burst for Grandma, a highly moral woman, when Aimee became romantically involved with her secretary, who was also married. This was simply too much for Grandma.

Aimee was ostensibly kidnapped, and disappeared from a California beach with boyfriend in tow, only to turn up days later with a thrilling story of her captivity.

Dozens of God-fearing people crowded the beaches and even dragged the ocean searching for her body. At least one man drowned in the failed effort. A ransom note was delivered which “confirmed” the terrible news that she had been kidnapped.

When she returned unharmed, the money poured in from grateful followers of her Four Square Church, her Temple filled to capacity, but without Grandma. She rightly felt that she had been duped, and that Aimee was merely another false Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a shiny curtain.

IMG_20150826_0002
Great-Grandfather George Kendall, Grandma, Great-Great Grandmother Lucy Kendall, and my mother Kathryn

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AND SO IT BEGINS:


EPISODE 1:

Southern California 1928 — 1938

As in every story, mine begins at the beginning.

I sit her trying to decide what was important to my life and what was negligible, and I realize it was ALL important; every stumble or achievement, as well as all the people who contributed to it.

The grandparents who influenced my life the most were Jim Black and Nellie Kendall. Jim was a high school track star who came down from Montreal, Canada to compete in Nellie’s high school in New Hampshire. They married the day she graduated, and moved to California with their two little girls in the early 1900″s.

Young, and with no money but with the pipe dreams often associated with youth, Grandma made a bee line to Beverly Hills, where she rented a large home next door to Harold Lloyd, an early comic movie star with large horn-rimmed glasses and an acrobatic bent.

The next problem to come up was how to pay for all this posh lifestyle, so she did the only thing she felt she was good at; she rented out rooms and made hats for society ladies at premium prices. I don’t know how the celebrity neighbors felt about all this, but they didn’t live there long before they moved on to another rented house in Los Angeles, bringing their paying guests with them.

Grandma could be an overwhelming presence and she overwhelmed Jim and soon divorced him, leaving her to weather the storms of single motherhood, and Jim to love her forever after.

Nellie was an excellent seamstress and an excellent cook, the only skills she had learned as a daughter of privilege, and instead of merely renting our spare bedrooms, she elevated her paying guests to boarders.

The money Nellie made often didn’t stretch far enough, so my mother and aunt made sure the boarders ate while Nellie went out and got whatever job she could as waitress or hostess at hotel or restaurant. This was an additional skill she had, since she had often waited tables in the large resort her father owned in New Hampshire.

Plump and pretty, accompanied by a sense of humor, grandma was a magnet for the boys, and loved dancing and parties, though she allowed no drinking or smoking. No one ever dared do either in any house she lived in. She was married four times, and her last husband did both, so it was incredible to see her happily sitting at his feet with his pipe smoke drifting in swirls over her head. She had married him at the age of 76 saying she would marry “the devil himself if it would keep her from being a burden” to my mother. I guess there’s a reason behind every rhyme.

Though the two sisters were always close, Grandma and Georgia were opposite in every way. Auntie was taller and lean, and quite plain. Both Yankees, Georgia typified the usual definition of a strait-laced New Englander, though she possessed a wry sense of humor.
Auntie taught me that “Lips which touch a cigaroote shall never park beneath my snoot.” And that “Whistling girls and cackling hens always come to very bad ends.”

Nellie’s closet was always bursting with pretty clothes, while my recollection of Auntie’s small closet contained one “nice” dress, one or two everyday dresses, a pair of dress shoes and her everyday shoes. It would never have occurred to her to want more, though by my childhood evaluation, they were the “wealthy” part of the family. Later, after the Great Depression had begun to take its toll of every family, I remember asking my grandma if we were poor. She assured me that rather than “poor”, we were broke. We were broke for a very long time.

Nellie’s sister Georgia had chosen to go to normal school and became a teacher before she married Uncle Phil and moved to California. I mention this because Auntie was one of the great influences on my life and whose home sheltered me more times than I can remember.

NOTABLE & QUOTABLE


220px-John_Wayne_-_still_portrait From Charles Glass’s review of Scott Eyman’s book “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” in the July 26 Spectator:

I was a John Wayne fan before I worked as his driver, first in 1967-68 as an after-school job and again full time in the summer when I finished university four years later. It may be that no man is a hero to his valet, but Wayne was one to this driver….

In addition to being a fine actor, Wayne was a very nice guy. Eyman quotes a college friend: “He could have been a great football player, but he never wanted to hurt anybody.” Tom Kane, story editor at Wayne’s production company, Batjac, told me that he and Wayne saw the actor Alan Ladd, who stood only 5’6″ to Wayne’s 6’3 1/4″, walking towards them. Wayne hid to avoid embarrassing Ladd in front of his fans. I witnessed a similar occasion at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1972, when Cesar Romero was signing autographs. The fans looked at Wayne and forgot all about Romero, deprived of his audience, said without enthusiasm, “Hi, Duke.” Wayne praised Romero and made sure the ladies knew the old Latin lover was still a big star.

Eyman relates an encounter between Carl Foreman, director of High Noon, whom Wayne and other right-wingers had helped to blacklist in the 1950’s, and Wayne in a Los Angeles restaurant years afterwards: “The two men looked at each other, then quickly embraced as if they were old friends.’ Foreman explained to his mystified English wife, ‘He was a patriot. I was a patriot. He didn’t do it to hurt me.’

Whenever I was walking to the car with Wayne in some part of Los Angeles, people would stop him for autographs. He was happy to sign. Older men would say “Mr. Wayne, I joined the marines because of you.’ He would lean back as if a punch were about to follow, and the veterans would laugh.

Eyman quotes the actor Robert Walker, Jr.: ‘John Wayne? I had the pleasure and honour of working with him.’ I am happy to do the same.

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GRANDMA, GOD AND AIMEE, 2.


Aimee slipped unbidden into my dream last night, which brought to mind my grandmother’s fascination with her.

Aimee Semple McPherson was a Los Angeles evangelist and media celebrity from the 20’s and 30’s, the largest among a flurry of religious salesmen, all of whom were selling salvation, a commodity always in demand, and which costs them nothing to supply.

In Aimee’s philosophy, God, being Love, desires only that His children be happy, and they cast money into the collection box with reckless enthusiasm to assure them of that happiness. “Just give a little more” she would cajole, and they did.

Aimee’s call to Love offered an eternal Costa del Sol, liberally supplied with food, drink, sex and sun. Evil had no place in this ethereal paradise.

Grandma was a liberated woman seeking a new source of religious interpretation, and was enchanted with the notion that another woman could supply it. LIfe was not easy for my grandmother at that time; a single divorced woman raising two young daughters, while working and running a rooming house in the middle of the Great Depression.

The spiritual bubble burst for Grandma, a highly moral woman, when Aimee became romantially involved with her secretary, who was also married. This was simply too much for Grandma.

They had donned their swim suits and went for a swim on the Southern California beach, when it was reported that Aimee had been kidnapped. The town went crazy with worry over their favorite God-fearing darling, sending out dozens of people, even dragging the ocean searching for her body, and at least one man drowned in the failed effort. A ransom note was delivered, clarifying the terrible news that she had been kidnapped.

A month later, Aimee came walking in, swearing that she had been kidnapped, tortured, and turned loose in the desert to find her way home alone, though her physical condition belied it.

As the money poured in from grateful followers of her Four Square Church, her Temple filled to capacity but without Grandma. She rightly felt that she had been duped, and that Aimee was merely another false Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a shiny curtain.

.

THE FRAGRANCE OF MEMORY


Long Beach, California in my childhood was a beach town, an oil town, and a sailor town. The memory of odors is very rich.

We lived a few blocks from the beach, within easy walking distance for a child, and the smell of the ocean is like perfume to me. The Pike was an esplanade with rollercoaster, merry-go-round, and all sorts of shops, etc. which led onto the beach, and the smells of hamburgers, cotton candy and salt water taffy beckoned a hungry kid with a dime in her pocket. It was the time of the Great Depression, and if you couldn’t scrape up a dime, you took a tuna sandwich made with lots of pickle relish in your pocket.

Oil had been discovered on Signal Hill and aside from the oil derricks decorating the top of the hill, it gave off an unmistakeable scent.

The Port of Long Beach has always been an important one, and home to the Navy, and the place from which my father departed and returned frequently. On the occasions when we dined aboard my father’s ship on a Sunday afternoon, I was allowed to steer the shore boat.

In our small neighborhood the ice man delivered, and the man who tarred the many cracks in the street came with his smelly hot oil, which if you waited till it hardened, you might steal a piece to chew on. The Red train ran straight up the middle of American Ave. where we lived, and took you to Los Angeles, where my Great-Aunt picked us up. In their great wisdom, someone tore it out some years ago. I always thought it had a distinctive and exciting odor. Maybe it was the smell of anticipation.

There were always fresh fragrant oranges, ripe figs off the tree, and a penny candy store which smelled divine. A nickel bought a lot of candy, and there was a dentist right there who gave out sample tubes of Ipana toothpaste, which if you never smelled it, consider yourself lucky.

Each morning after my mother tortured my straight hair into Shirley Temple curls with a curling iron heated on the gas stove, and with the smell of hot hair still in my nostrils, I ate breakfast alone and went off to school. My only friend in the neighborhood was Gail Hollandsteiner, whose father was a banker, and who I thought must have been rich because her mother slept late every day, thus allowing Gail to trick the maid into thinking she had actually eaten her breakfast. I tried it at home, but my mother got up early, so it didn’t work.

Larraine Day was an early movie star who lived next door to Gail, and we always hoped she could get us jobs in the movies. That didn’t work either.

The Long Beach of today has nearly half a million people in its confines, the neighborhood I grew up in is mostly industrial now, and the Pike has been replaced by the Queen Mary as a tourist attraction. Whoever coined the phrase “You can’t go back” was right.