Last year I wrote about Ellie on the anniversary of her death, but this year I choose to write about her on the anniversary of her birth, in 1926. Parents can be difficult, but watching Andy lose both her parents has been a profound experience—one that in some way or other everyone can relate to, or will face in some variation eventually.
Ellie’s first husband was a cowboy and movie stuntman (the father of my brother and sister-in-law). Her own dad, an army officer, died when she was only four. Andy’s dad was an urbane New Yorker who came out to LA with Danny Kaye’s radio show. When they met, Ellie was working at a tony telephone answering service from which she had many a colorful story about potty-mouthed celebrities and how she, always a feisty sort, set more than one or two of them straight.
More often than not, parents are a mixed bag, but when a “good mother” comes along you grab on. Mother-in-laws are the oldest joke in the joke book, yet my mother-in-law was fantastic to me. From the first night I met her, she and Arthur telling old Hollywood stories in a booth at Musso & Franks, Andy and I still shaking the dust of our cross-country road-trip off ourselves, she was unexpected, unconventional and a unique character. I never called her “mom,” that word just never had the best ring to me, so I went with “Ellie,” a really pretty name for a truly beautiful woman. When I was a kid my dad had said something to the effect of if you wanted to know what a woman was going to look like when she was older, look at her mom. Ellie made me think of those words and conclude: no worries in that department.
My father-in-law, Arthur, hated the Lakers because of an anti-Semitic remark made by someone on the team when I was still in high school. He was great, but he stubbornly stuck by his guns on certain things like no German cars and the Lakers and Ellie would root against Arthur as we watched anything from basketball to tennis. They were both great sports fans, and Nate learned on their laps (in contrast to my upbringing, where sports were rarely watched).
Ellie was an amazing cook, from gravlax to osso-bucco, from homemade ice cream to the best apple pie ever; going to her house to eat was a blessing and an education. She would throw me tips and suggestions as I pitched-in eagerly in her kitchen, with her eventually trusting me to carve a turkey, slice a brisket… in short, to step into man-roles in her kitchen. In later years when Ellie was in hospital with a broken hip we taught Arthur how to make coffee, and that alone was like Julie & Julia for him.
Ellie learned to paint in mid-life, and she had a studio space at the Helms Bakery Building on Venice Boulevard, long before it was a warren of furniture stores and cafés. I recall a story of her taking a painting class at UCLA when the teacher, a fairly renowned California artist, had a complete mental breakdown.
Facts of stories have a way of blending and mixing, but I carry these disjointed images in my mind: this bear of a man stripping off his clothes in a psychotic episode, fearing a return to the hospital again, Ellie talking him down (perhaps the old skills from the answering service coming back to her), helping him pull it together. She was not the sort with whom you talked through feelings; she was more the sort who knew when it was simply time to snap out of it. While this may not be a recommended parenting tactic, it’s great for hard-drinking psychotic painters on the very brink.
After Arthur died, Monday night was the night I hosted Ellie for dinner. I roasted chickens, grilled salmon, made brisket… all according to how she’d taught me, and when I put the platters down and made sure her Pinot Grigio was amply filled, I could not help but look to her as she took that first bite, when I knew if I’d done well or failed. She wasn’t cruel, but her fleeting wince would be like a punch to my gut if I got it wrong. And while my cooking repertoire is not fancy, the things I can do I can do right, and that is completely thanks to Ellie (well, not completely, but what I learned from Andy, has to have half credit from Ellie, the other half being the family of a former Italian lover of hers and his family in Tuscany).
I knew Ellie from age 64 until her death at 83 (and two days); I knew her as an avid tennis player, story-teller, hostess of sprawling parties—a woman game for laughs, a scotch, gambling, but also an avid reader, lover of film, theater, painting and sculpture. Andy’s family is a big family and there was a lot of drama in a lot of directions, but Ellie and I found our own sort of relationship and I would say that I loved her, except that it would be more accurate to say that I love her.
I feel her spirit guiding me when issues of loss and difficulty arise—times when compassion is better said with few words (something I work toward, but will probably never master until death teaches me the sublime art of quiet).
So, on this day I choose to honor Ellie, honoring the essence of her existence, her open-armed generosity and authenticity that allowed us to form a deep and affectionate relationship; I honor Ellie for her spirit that lives on in Andy, and in our children… not to mention her numerous other great, and great-great grandchildren.
So, here’s to the mothering spirit, pulsing vibrantly in our world today, and by way of ancestors all around us also pulsing subtly in realms not so easily seen, but equally real—in the service of all our collective children.