By Pam Munter
Her most indelible appearance comes during the last segment of a silent and faded 8mm color film reel running just about three minutes, probably around 1949. The family is stiffly gathered on the lawn in the front of her spacious, rented two-story white, wooden Arts and Crafts house on Arroyo Verde Road in South Pasadena. My father, ever the family photographer, slowly and awkwardly pans the ensemble. There is the Cleveland family contingent of five here for a vacation escaping the Midwest humidity. At the end of the row is my wonderful Nana, my father’s mother. There’s someone standing very close to her. I can see it’s me. I’m probably six, looking quizzically toward the camera. A short distance away, there are my parents and my baby brother, Johnny. No one seems to know how to behave in front of the Bell and Howell windup camera, standing as if they were impatiently posing for a still photograph, their faces frozen in uncomfortable smiles.
Then, suddenly from the left side of the frame, there is a blur of motion. The camera irresistibly pans over to capture a slim woman with burnt umber hair piled on top of her head, wearing a long, silky dark green dress and dancing as if the whole Copacabana orchestra is behind her. She is smiling and twirling her billowing skirt like a ballroom champion, making big circles around the yard. It is a moment of pure joy. Her exuberance is startling in contrast to the early part of the three-minute reel. The grainy film doesn’t even seem to be in color until Mimi flounces into the picture. The film suddenly turns white and stops. Thinking about it immediately brings a huge smile to my face. No one ever expressed intemperate exhilaration like that in our tightly wrapped, conservative family.
Like her flamboyant persona, Mimi’s history was fascinating and glamorous. I would later find out that sometime around 1919 or 1920, Mimi was the first of her eight siblings to emigrate from England to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. Her history is sketchy, so typical of black sheep, but it would seem she joined an opera company and met a tall handsome tenor named Frederick Etheridge. While in the troupe – one that also featured future MGM star Nelson Eddy – they fell in love, married and had a son, Fred. The marriage didn’t work out, so like her own mother, she moved on – without her husband and without bothering to divorce him. Mimi and little Fred moved to Cleveland, Ohio and helped the rest of the family settle there as well, just as soon as they could get past the noisy, frightening scrutiny of Ellis Island.
After my father and mother moved to Santa Monica, California, they sent frequent letters touting the superior weather and job opportunities during the heavy hopelessness of the Depression. Mimi picked up her son and moved to nearby South Pasadena. Soon, her only sister, Rene, would join her in California, opening up a small health food manufacturing plant with her husband.
During my early childhood, I had seen Mimi only on special family occasions. Holidays were big extended family eating events with 20-30 people each Thanksgiving and Christmas, seated around a ping pong table set with bright holiday colors. Mimi would motor over from South Pasadena in her ancient, sputtering Dodge, arriving in a frazzled state and immediately demanding a bourbon and Seven Up. It wasn’t until my parents wanted to park me somewhere that I began to spend more time with her. My younger brother Johnny would be dropped off with my mother’s parents in nearby Ocean Park then they’d make the one-hour drive to South Pasadena on the brand new Pasadena Freeway.
I loved staying with Mimi. Unlike the other Osbornes, she seemed to have broken free of many constraints. She talked to me like a person, seemed to think about what might please me and introduced me to a world different from the one I saw at home. While she was never demonstrative, I got the feeling she wanted to spend time with me, enjoyed having me in her world.
Somehow I knew that Mimi was a family outcast. I thought it odd that my father and her own mother always called her by her proper name, Muriel, and there seemed to be some unspoken tension between all of them. Mimi’s single marital status worked against her for sure, in our insecure, tradition-bound lower middle class community. Leaving one’s husband? Just not done. She drank every day, which was far from my parents’ occasional social tippling, so they considered her an alcoholic. She was overtly anxious, too, which likely made my parents uncomfortable with their own rigorously submerged emotions.
Mimi’s younger sister, Rene, had died the week I was born – from a surprise cardiovascular accident, one of the many Osbornes who were to die at a relatively young age of that disease. Her widower didn’t have the heart to carry on the business they had started together, so Mimi took it over. The small health food manufacturing company wasn’t a big moneymaker but enough to keep her and Nana afloat in that big white, wooden house. Mimi’s son, who fought for the RAF in World War II, had been a POW for several years, an event never discussed by anyone in the family. When he came back, he moved out and went to college on the GI Bill to become an aeronautical engineer, the family’s first college graduate. I would become the second.
An hour or so after dinner, my parents said their goodbyes to return home. That meant my bedtime was coming up soon. Mimi would say, “Time to march up the little wooden hill, Ducky.” It was an apt description of the winding staircase leading to the second floor. It was dark on the stairs and upstairs, too, and I hesitated to go up there alone. I slept in the big double bed with Nana, both of us reading ourselves to sleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night the Santa Fe train would make its intrusive, almost deafening presence known, awakening me with fear and dread. It was so much scarier at night than the daytime runs, to which I often ran outside so I could wave at the engineer. The train tracks were only an empty lot and a narrow street away from the house and, in the calm of the night, it felt as if the engine would blast right through the bedroom wall.
In the early years there, I had nightmares about the bad things that could happen when all that noise could cover them up – a gruesome murder, for example. My twitchy fantasies had been informed by radio mysteries, movies and the reading of Mimi’s Mickey Spillane paperbacks. Because the house was constructed of wood, I feared a fire breaking out. The house was so old it had the original gas fixtures, though they were no longer used. I saw potential peril everywhere. And yet, the two larger second floor bedrooms – Mimi’s and Nana’s – each had its own outdoor balcony.
In her efforts to protect me, Mimi inadvertently blocked my means of escape. “You must never go out there, Love. You’d fall right through to the ground and die.” But I knew the forbidden rooftop balcony could provide an escape if only I could get to it before being burned to death.
During the days, I played cards with Nana or explored the neighborhood on foot. Sometimes, Nana would move to the ancient upright piano against the back wall and play. I always requested “The Blue Danube Waltz” because it was so melodic and made me feel warm and buoyant. Nana’s tightly coiffed hair would gently sway to the rhythm of the ¾ time. She must have had other songs in her repertoire but that was the one I loved and would always associate with her.
When she would tire of entertaining me, Nana would give me a nickel for an orange Nehi and send me off to the gas station on the corner. Looking back, I realize I spent a lot of time alone in South Pasadena just as I had during much of my childhood at home.
Being such an anxious kid tended to constrict my world in many ways. But if much of my childhood seemed to be in black and white, it turned to glorious Technicolor when Mimi would come home from work.
Almost the first words out of her mouth were, “Be a good girl and fix me a drink, Popsie.”
I had been instructed on the proper way to mix her Seagram’s and Seven. If I mixed the magic concoction according to the acceptable formula, she might let me light her unfiltered Camel all by myself. I handed it to her and she’d take a long drag, then turn on the radio to listen to the news, Walter Winchell or to popular music. After she and Nana discussed the day’s events, she would head to the kitchen to open something for dinner.
Her favorite seemed to be canned salmon, always accompanied by some vegetable like lima beans or green beans – all out of a metal container and all a khaki color. The less-than-luxe cuisine was in contrast to the formality of the sparkling white tablecloth and polished silver candlesticks on the dining room table where we ate all our meals. On special occasions she lit the candles, then proceeded to demonstrate for me the correct way to use the candle snuffer to end their lives at the end of the meal. After a few lessons, she gave me that task for the rest of our candlelit meals together. I relished that grave responsibility, always making sure she saw I was executing it correctly, flipping the silver snuffer over quickly so wax would never spill on the tablecloth.
“Good job, Ducks.”
Mimi’s voice sounded like she was forcing it out, due to its thin tone and her ambient level of tension. She tended to clip off her words at the end, a lingering artifact of a once thicker British accent. If I were to do anything wrong, she would caution me with a slight edge to her voice. “Don’t be a gutter snipe, Dear.” I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded pretty awful, so I fell into line.
All the oversized and overstuffed furniture in the house looked old and beat up to my young eyes but many were probably antiques. The house had a unique smell, as if it had been hermetically preserved from an earlier century. The small dining room was consumed by an expandable wooden table and a big, matching credenza. On one wall next to the doorway to the kitchen was an unexpected and almost grotesque caricature of Louis Armstrong that I examined every time I sat down to eat. Asking too many questions was rude, so I never knew why this particular picture was chosen or if she had a personal connection with it or to him in some way. I was almost hypnotized by that picture but now I can’t remember if it was in black and white or in color. Its unique lines caught my eye every time, having never seen anything like it. Like many in that post World War II era, African Americans were seen as less than human and I’m pretty sure most of my family members agreed with that. Certainly in my house, there were no pictures of black people, even cartoonish ones. Later, I came to see it as one of Mimi’s many admirable departures from family canon.
After dinner, we’d settle in the living room. Mimi had her second or third Seagrams, another Camel and listened to the radio. One of her favorite tunes was the 1951 hit, “I Get Ideas” a seductive tango sung by baritone Tony Martin. At eight years old, I didn’t know what kind of ideas he might get, but Mimi certainly did. Her mask-like face would lose its tension and she would become radiant, listening to the lyrics and even sometimes singing along.
When we are dancing and you’re dangerously near me
I Get Ideas, I Get Ideas
I want to hold you so much closer than I dare do,
I want to scold you ‘cause I care more than I care to
And when you touch me and there’s fire in every finger
I Get Ideas, I Get Ideas
And after we have kissed good night and still you linger
I kinda think you get ideas, too.
I could tell she was transported by the music and I loved watching her move her lithe body to its rhythm. Much later, of course, I would realize that Mimi was still a very sexual creature – something that would never be acknowledged in my family.
She was in her early 50s by now and was actively dating. Much of the time, she took me with her – at least, for the first part of the evening. I felt very grown up and fondly remember the atmosphere at the cozy Old Virginia restaurant, one of her favorites. There was live music from an accordion, red-checkered tablecloths and candles on the tables, all right out of a movie. As with most public places, the air was clogged with cigarette smoke, which was considered normal. They’d order me a Shirley Temple while they had their cocktails and let me have whatever I wanted for dinner. Then she’d take me back to the house and I was supposed to go to bed. I was often still awake when she’d come home late. I knew what was likely coming. Nearly every night before bed, she sat at her dressing table in her bedroom while she cleaned off her makeup and colored her hair with henna. I was fascinated by the whole process – from the idea of even having a dressing table to putting icky, gooey stuff on one’s hair. I had never seen anything like that at home.
While I enjoyed my many adventures with Mimi, my favorite time was New Year’s Eve. Surprisingly now, looking back, she never accepted a date for that night. It became our special night. Before I came into the family, Mimi spent many nights at the end of each year helping to decorate the floats for the Pasadena Rose Parade, pasting on the fresh flowers and seeds to create a colorful spectacle. That was history when I began spending more time with her in the big white house after Christmas.
On December 31, she’d bring in a big two-pound box of See’s candies and stock my favorite Nehi orange soda, along with other cookies and treats. Nana inevitably complained.
“She’s going to get sick from all that sugar, Muriel.”
Mimi defended her largesse. “It’s just for one night.”
I struggled to stay awake until midnight because I knew it would be worth it. Around 10 p.m., Nana went upstairs to bed. Mimi turned on the newly purchased RCA console TV and there was Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. We watched the black and white images and waited. Then the countdown. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Happy New Year!!! Mimi and I would holler that incantation over and over. Then after a conspiratorial grin, we’d run up the dark stairs to the Chinese gong that sat on the table at the top of the stairs. We both bonged it athletically, without any regard for poor Nana trying to sleep in an adjacent room, which always made us laugh hysterically. Once the gong had been rung, we went back downstairs. Mimi opened the front door, picked up the doormat and launched it into the yard.
“Why did you do that, Meem?” I asked.
“It’s out with the old, in the with the new. It’ll bring good luck.” I didn’t know why that would be true but went along with it, part of the tradition. I loved the exuberance with which she heaved that dirty old mat.
Serendipitously and without much fanfare, Mimi introduced me to what would become my lifelong fascination with the theater. On one of those New Year’s stays, she took me to see a comedy at the historic Pasadena Playhouse. I can imagine my nine-year-old eyes gleaming, my mouth agape, sitting in the front row watching these people create bright and spellbinding entertainment just a few feet away. The name of the play has lost its way somewhere in my brain, but I remember it starred the comedienne Vera Vague. And I easily bring back the enchantment and sense of awe, much like a religious experience. Even now, I have those identical feelings when I walk into an historically rich theater, eager to be transported outside my own world.
One evening during a subsequent visit, Mimi called me over to the couch.
“Sit down, Popsie. I want to tell you something. Pretty soon, your cousin Nancy is coming here to live with us.”
I had never met Nancy. At ten years of age, she was nearly a year older than I was and lived with her parents in Ohio. I knew that her father, Mimi’s younger brother, had died suddenly years earlier, and that her mother had been ill and had died. I didn’t then know that the mother had been schizophrenic. I was crestfallen.
“But don’t you worry, Ducks. You and Nancy will get along fine.” She paused and looked directly into my eyes while she reached for my hand. “Don’t ever forget, Popsie, you’ll always be my Queen Bee.”
I nodded and hoped that were true. “OK.”
I took some comfort in that reassurance, but I sensed something important was ending. There might not be so many spontaneous trips to Chinatown after dinner or to Fosselman’s ice cream shop after Saturday errands. And I probably couldn’t hang out with her in her business any more, either. Not with another kid there.
Nancy was there by the time I made my next visit. We got along well enough, played together every day. We went to the movies and walked to the Community Plunge to swim in the summers. We read movie magazines and comic books. But all we had in common were Mimi and Nana. I was curious about what had happened in Ohio, but it was completely against family rules to ask about something so personal.
To my relief, the New Year’s Eve tradition stayed true. Now there was even more noisemaking at midnight, making it more fun.
But when I was 12, life as I had known it stopped cold. Nana died. She had a series of strokes and the family had made many urgent drives to the nursing home in Pasadena. I always brought her a little gift I had made or bought with my allowance. After she died and Mimi laid all her things on her bed, the same bed we shared when I’d visit. I saw she had kept all of them – my drawings, my little toys – everything I had ever given her. At the funeral, I was the only one crying. Later, I wondered if she was the one adult who loved me most of all.
Nana’s dying felt bigger than the loss itself, though that was the hardest thing I had yet experienced in my young life. Looking back, I can see that Nana’s death was the beginning of a bent toward melancholia that has never left me.
Mimi and Nancy moved to Long Beach where Mimi bought a small health food store. I visited now and again but it wasn’t anywhere close to being the same. The pallor of Nana’s death hung over me for years. And, true to the family ethic, no one discussed it. Nancy wasn’t much interested in academics, reading or sports and seemed to spend much of her time at home, knitting and taking care of Mimi. Now it was Nancy who poured the drinks every night and lit up her Camels. Like the emerging tides slowly eroding a treasured sand castle, my connection with both of them seem to dissipate over time.
Mimi died of the family curse, a massive CVA in 1964, at the age of 64. It was my senior year at Berkeley and, if there was a funeral, I wasn’t told about it until after it was over. Nancy married soon thereafter, had two daughters, and moved to Oklahoma where she, too, had a series of strokes.
A couple of years ago, I was in the South Pasadena area and decided to drive by the house that had been the scene for so many abiding memories and recurrent dreams. Though everything had changed along with the increased traffic congestion, I knew exactly which turnoff to take off the Pasadena freeway, Avenue 64. I could feel my heart racing as I turned right past the green Arroyo Seco parkway then right on Arroyo Verde Road. I slowed down and looked to my left for the stately white house. To my shock and dismay, in its place was a parking lot for a small industrial complex. I circled the block several times, trying in vain to find that center of my childhood. Did I choose the wrong turnoff? Had I remembered the wrong address? I felt tears quickly well up and roll down my cheeks – it was all gone. Had it burned to the ground, as my little girl self had feared? It was the last vestige of important formative experiences and relationships. As if a symbol of the change, Arroyo Verde had become a busy thoroughfare and I couldn’t so much as slow down amid all the traffic to consider the jolt.
It was really gone, every piece of it.
But now unfailingly each New Year’s Eve, those South Pasadena scenes are replayed like home movies in my mind. Not just the fun and funny celebrations with the gong, but all the warmth and affirmation I got from Mimi and from Nana. Mimi seemed to know how to make the most of her life and, even considering whatever demons she might have fought, she knew how to make me feel special and loved.
It’s hard to realize that Mimi, Nana and I shared those precious moments for only three short years, then three more once Nancy came to live there. Perhaps the intermittent flashes of passion and the possibility of a Technicolor life made it seem longer. In some ways, she was my very own Auntie Mame. She couldn’t have been any more memorable.
About the Author:
Pam Munter has authored several books and a couple dozen articles, mostly about dead movie stars. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Pam is working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth and Angels Flight—Literary West. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.