Sunday, March 23, 2003

[3/23/2011] Thurber Tonight: Part 2 of "Lavender with a Difference" -- Mrs. Thurber Goes to Washington (continued)


This, Thurber informs us, is the Four Leaf Clover Club, "with Mary Thurber at the far right, next to Laura Poe, whose house she later bought.'"


Thurber had brought us to the climax of his "brightest remembrance of the old house" on South Champion Avenue in Columbus, the prank his mother unleashed on her sour Aunt Mary on her second (and last) visit to the young Thurber household: persuading the cranky woman to open the basement door to feed the family's two dogs, thereby unleashing a basementful of rounded-up neighborhood dogs. (I think my favorite moment comes "when the last [dog] had departed and the house put back in order," and as Thurber relates: "My father said to his wife, 'Well, Mame, I hope you're satisfied.' She was."

Lavender with a Difference
Part 2 of 3

Only a few months after poor Mary borrowed the neighbors' dogs, she "bought" the Simonses' house. It was a cold, blocky house, not far from ours, and its owner had been trying to sell it for a long time. The thing had become a standing joke among the Frioleras, a club of young married couples to which the Simonses and my father and mother belonged. It was generally believed that Harry and Laura would never get the big, damp place off their hands.

Then, late one dark afternoon, a strange and avid purchaser showed up. It was my mother, wearing dark glasses, her hair and eyebrows whitened with flour, her cheeks lightly shadowed with charcoal to make them look hollow, and her upper front teeth covered with the serrated edge of a soda cracker. On one side of her, as she pressed the doorbell of the Simonses' house, stood a giggling cousin of hers, named Belle Cook, and I was on her other side; we were there to prevent a prolonged scrutiny of the central figure of our trio. Belle was to pose as my mother's daughter, and I was to be Belle's son. Simons had never met Miss Cook, and my mother was confident that he wouldn't recognize me.

His wife, Laura, would have penetrated her friend's disguise at once, or, failing that, she would surely have phoned the police, for the weird visitor seemed, because of her sharp, projecting teeth, both demented and about to spring, but my mother had found out that Laura would not be home. When she made herself up, an hour before, I had watched her transformation from mother to witch with a mixture of wonder and worry that lingered in my memory for years.

Harry Simons, opening his front door on that dark evening in the age of innocence, when trust flowered as readily as suspicion does today, was completely taken in by the sudden apparition of an eccentric elderly woman who babbled of her recently inherited fortune and said she had passed his house the day before and fallen in love with it. Simons was a big, jovial, sanguine man, expert at business deals in a lighted office but a setup for my mother's deviltry at dusk. When she praised every room she stumbled into and every object she bumped against -- she wouldn't take off her dark glasses in the lamplit gloom -- a wild hope must have glazed his eye, disarming his perception.

He admitted later, when the cat was out of the bag, that Belle's idiotic laughter, and mine, at everything that was said had disturbed him, especially when it was provoked by my mother's tearful account of the sad death of her mythical husband, a millionaire oil man. But idiocy in a family is one thing, and money is another.

Mrs. Prentice, or Douglas, or whatever she called herself, was rolling in money that day. She upped Simons' asking price for the house by several thousand dollars, on the ground that she wouldn't think of paying as little as ten thousand for such a lovely place. When she found out that the furniture was for sale, she upped the price on that, too, promising to send her check through her lawyers the next day. By this time, she was overacting with fine abandon, but the overwhelmed Simons was too far gone in her land of fantasy for reality to operate.

On her way out of the house, she picked up small portable things -- a vase, a travelling clock, a few books -- remarking that, after all, they now belonged to her. Still Simons' wits did not rally, and all of a sudden the three of us were out in the street again -- my mother who had been my grandmother, her cousin who had been my mother, and me. I feel that this twisted hour marked the occupation of my mind by a sense of confusion that has never left it.

My father was home from work when we got back, and he gasped at the sight of his wife, even though she had thrown away her cracker teeth. When these latest goings on were explained to him, he was all for taking his friend's possessions over to his unsold house and returning them, with nervous apologies. But my mother had another idea. That night she gift-wrapped, separately, the vase, the clock, and the books, and they were delivered to Simons' door the next morning, before he set out for his office, each "present" containing a card that read, "To Harry Simons from Mame Thurber with love." It was not my mother's most subdued performance, but it was certainly one of her outstanding triumphs. The Frioleras laughed about it for years.

It is among my mother's major sorrows that of the fifty members of that merry club, founded in 1882, there are only three still alive. At one of their parties fifty years ago -- they played pedro and euchre in the winter and went on picnics and bicycle trips in the summer -- my father asked his wife, apropos of what prank I do not know, "How long do you expect to keep up this kind of thing, Mame?" She thought a moment and replied, "Why, until I'm eighty, I suppose."


MARY AGNES THURBER, eldest of the six children of William and Katherine Fisher, was eighty years old in January, 1946, and I went to Columbus for a birthday party that brought together scores of her relatives. The day after the event, a columnist in one of the Columbus papers recklessly described her as "a bit of lavender and old lace." She was indignant. "Why, he doesn't even know about the time I threw those eggs!" she exclaimed. I didn't know about it, either, but I found out.

At a meeting, a few months before, of one of the several women's clubs she belongs to, she had gone to the kitchen of her hostess' house, carefully removed a dozen eggs from a cardboard container, and returned to the living room to reactivate a party that she felt was growing dull. Balancing the box on the palm of her hand, like a halfback about to let go a forward pass, she cried, "I've always wanted to throw a dozen eggs, and now I'm going to do it!" The ladies gathered in the room squealed and scattered as the carton sailed into the air. Then it drifted harmlessly to the floor.

Lavender and old lace, in their conventional and symbolic sense, are not for Mary Thurber. It would be hard for me to say what is. Now, at eighty-six, she never wears black. "Black is for old ladies," she told me scornfully not long ago.


In 1884, when Mamie Fisher got out of high school, she wanted to go on the stage, but her unladylike and godless urge was discouraged by her family. Aunt Melissa warned her that young actresses were in peril not only of hellfire but of lewd Shakespearean actors, skilled in the arts of seduction, and she pointed out that there was too much talk about talent in the world, and not enough about virtue. She predicted that God's wrath would be visited, in His own time, upon all theatres, beginning, like as not, with those in Paris, France. Mamie Fisher listened with what appeared to be rapt and contrite attention. Actually, she was studying Aunt Melissa's voice, so that she could learn to imitate it.

Deprived of a larger audience, the frustrated comedienne performed for whoever would listen, and once distressed a couple of stately guests in her father's home by descending the front stairs in her dressing gown, her hair tumbling and her eyes staring, to announce that she had escaped from the attic, where she was kept because of her ardent and hapless love for Mr. Briscoe, the postman. An entry in her diary of that period, dated Monday, May 14,1888, would have puzzled the shocked visitors: "Went over to Flora's to talk over yesterday's visit. I tell you that Ira D. is cute, but I do not like him very well -- he is a perfect gentleman, only he will insist on kissing me every time and I will not allow it. I can truthfully say I never kissed a fellow in all my life but once, and that was Charlie Thurber at the depot a few years ago."

Those of her relatives who drew no sharp line between life and art, the gifted and the mad, and consoled themselves with the hope that marriage would settle her down, could not have been more mistaken. Even the birth of her third son, in 1896, had little effect on her merry inventions, and her aunts must have been relieved when we left Champion Avenue and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1901. They probably thought of Washington, in those years, as a city of inviolable decorum, but it was there that we met a young Cleveland newspaperman named George Marvin, whose gaiety was to enrich our lives. He was a superior wag, with a round, mobile face, a trick of protruding his large eyeballs that entranced the Thurber boys, and a gift of confusion that matched my mother's.

Uncivil clerks and supercilious shoppe proprietors in the nation's capital came to regret their refusal to sell Marvin and my mother one dish of ice cream with two spoons, or a single glove for the left hand, or one shoe. The mild, soft-spoken Jekylls from the Middle West would be transformed into Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, to the consternation of the management. "Senator Beveridge will hear about this!" Marvin would shout, and they would stalk out of the shoppe, in high and magnificent dudgeon.

But it was when we were all back in Columbus two years later that these comics reached their heights. Their finest hour arrived one day at Memorial Hall, during a lecture given by a woman mental healer whose ability and sincerity my mother held in low esteem. She has always been a serious and devoted student of psychotherapy, even when it was known and practiced under foolish and flowery names, and she learned long ago to detect tommyrot. Arriving after the lecture had begun, our cutups found an empty wheelchair in the lobby, and my mother, bundled up in it, was rolled down the aisle by her confederate. The lady on the platform had reached a peroration of whoosh, during which she chanted that if you had done it before, you could do it again, whatever it was, and other candy-coated inspiration to that effect.

At the peak of this marshmallow mentation, my mother leaped from the chair, crying that she had walked before and could do it again. Some ten or twenty persons of the two hundred present must have recognized her, but the others were caught between cheers and consternation. The lecturer shouted, "Hallelujah, sister!" and at this point Marvin increased the confusion by bulging out his eyes, dropping his jaw, and mumbling that what he had done before he was now doing again; namely, losing his grip on reality. The crisis ended when a querulous man shouted, "Hey, that's my wheelchair!" and the culprits made good their escape.


Unlike actresses whose later careers are "marked by open dates and, in the end, a long period of retirement, Mame Thurber's "crowded calendar shows no season of repose, and the biographer is overwhelmed by instances," from which he "can only select a few more."




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