Friday, February 24, 2006

Vo Mila

My great grandmother died on Sunday, far away from me, back home. She was ninety-seven. She was born in 1909 in Portugal. A well to do young lady is how she told me she was raised to be. She did Conservatory and some kind of ladies finishing school. She was “learned”, as she said and “cultured.” She was extremely gifted at mahjong, all cards games, entertaining, baking and cooking like a chef, playing piano, dancing the waltz, and everything a person does with needles: sewing, knitting, embroidering and other things I don’t know how to say or spell in English. Most women in my family have these 12 foot long dining table cloths she handmade for each of our future weddings. They’re amazing, amazing things to look at, and took her months to finish. She used to knit while talking to me or starring at the TV, without looking at the work she was doing except when it was time to turn. She did all that minute work well after her eyes started to go and her hands got arthritis—in fact the work worsen both conditions. She lost a son to diarrhea when he was 8, her only son. Her husband, a brilliant doctor was in the city and they were in the country when he became ill. Desperate, she got on the train to meet her doctor-husband, but he was on the train to meet her. She said she realized on the train what had transpired, just had a sense that his train passed hers by, and she realized “that it was too late and he wasn’t going to make it.” Her two most prized framed pictures were the ones of him and of her father. Her father was her favorite person in the whole world. When she first started to get sick, she asked for the picture of her dad and hugged it, but then she lost consciousness and the ability to move the right side of her body. Sunday to Sunday it was 8 days of my grandmother and her sister and my family back home waiting for her to finally go. She had a very sad marriage. Her husband cheated for the duration and eventually left her with two young daughters to move in with her mistress of years, now the mother of another two young daughters. In a society small enough to fit into a country club the size of two large Starbucks, she watched him make a living with another woman—a “low life” as she used to say, and everyone watched her stick that humiliation some place unseen. She kept his name her whole life and presented herself everywhere as his Mrs. She almost wanted to die of shame and offense when her own daughters grew up to befriend the half-sisters. And she almost wanted to die of joy when the half-sisters backstabbed her daughters over inheritance. She wrote me the best letters ever because they were meant to tell me everything—she died before she could, but she told me a lot. About age and loneliness and a broken heart and the joy of children and grandchildren and how womanhood would feel like if you lived long enough to lose all vanity. She was hilarious and profoundly sweet. She was also a tyrannical colonial house mistress and independence and black grandchildren never changed that. Her sense of humor was polished: in someone with impeccable manners, every irreverence is made to be worth the while, you know, worth the breach of propriety. So every joke is fantastic. Her jokes were fantastic, theatrically delivered and perfectly calibrated. She had great maxims too, judgments of large issues that were reduced to simple tidbits. The wisdom of 9 decades, clearly being pimped for all the weight it pulls—she was not to be contradicted. Many such “sayings” were reserved for her oldest daughter, my grandmother, who I always tried to defend, to no avail:

“Your grandmother’s development ended at the age of 14. She has the common sense of a 14 year old, and being 60, that makes her borderline retarded.”

Everyone of us had by the time she died offended her deeply and disappointed her deeply at least one time. There was no other way. She was born in 1909! I told her one day, around New Year’s Eve 1999, “Grandmother, it’s the millennium… You’re like totally crashing the 21st Century at this point--none of what we do could possibly make sense to you. You shouldn’t judge—“ and before I could finish she said, “I may have been born in 1909 but there’s always been whores, my dear.” Her name was Maria Emilia Neto Duarte Fonseca. In the year 2000, Portuguese TV interviewed her as the longest living Portuguese citizen living in the ex-colonies. Knowing my family that probably wasn’t the honor—maybe it was more open-ended: one of the ones who had lived the longest in the ex-colonies? One of the oldest still living? One of five? We don’t care, we like our stories legendary: Vo Mila (as we called her) said her mother, who I had the pleasure of hanging out with until I myself was 8, was the first woman to ride like a man in public, wearing pants and straddling a horse, in Lisbon. She also was rumored to be carrying a pet miniscule monkey between her breasts when she did that. Vo Mila worked very hard to never be that woman: everyone else born of her is that woman in many ways.

She takes so much away with her and leaves us so much and we are so, so heartbroken. When I was little she did everything for me. It was so Everything that I wouldn't be able to list what Everything was.

Two weeks ago my son had asked me if everyone got old like Vo Mila one day and if everyone had to die and if so, where did they go and if up to heaven, did they fly. I’m not sure if now I should tell him. I will have to before the summer when he goes back, expecting to find her there again.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Dear Mr. Penn

Though my proudest moment was the realization that “embarrassment is highly overrated”, I do feel a bit played out when I say that I am a Big Fan of some people—mostly actors, directors and Jay-Z. It’s fine to be a fan, I tell myself, but only adolescents put pictures on their walls and act a fool about say, Sean Penn. Hell, nobody does that over Sean Penn... His is not a hypothetical name I just threw out there either… Let’s just come clean. I’m Sean Penn’s biggest fan. I love him. I have a picture of him on my fridge door.

About Sean. How to begin? My love of movies is deep and so is my love of actors—as artists. I think that what they do is profoundly life-changing for those who watch (like me) and I think the good ones pour huge amounts their own humanity into the work; I find the profession noble in that way, sacrificial and alive and everything that art should be. It’s love: it’s hard to explain why you love something without sounding like a rambling dumbass. Anyway so I have deep love of many actors, Sean foremost among them. The year of “21 Grams” and “Mystic River” was a perfect year for me, for instance, because the whole world was loving Sean Penn’s greatness—there was no escaping his genius and you had to be some kind of asshole to miss how much he was laying on the line in those performances. For your benefit. And mine. Love that. Love him. This isn’t celebrity fascination though I can do that with the best of them, and this isn’t some one-sided fascination that precludes me from understanding that other professions are objectively more noble and more great. I have lots of admiration to go around, but I am human too, and so I play favorites.

Yesterday I was diligently fixing the tape that secures Sean Penn to my fridge, or rather a photo of him. After that, of course, I had some lingering Sean thoughts on my mind and they led me to have a recurrent Sean dream I have, which involves that lovely show, The Actor’s Studio—where a kid can be a kid, or rather where an actor fanatic can be made happy by James Lipton’s shameless enamorate rendition of the Proust questionnaire: what is your favorite curse word? Sean’s episode is one of the all time best ones of that show. So what are the odds that, after a Sean-filled evening and night, I would come to work to find the following Village Voice horoscope for me (courtesy of the great Rob Brezsny):

GEMINI (May 21-June 20): Last Christmas Day, I had dinner at a sushi
restaurant in downtown San Rafael, California. The place was deserted
except for a drunk at the bar, me and my two companions, and the table
next to us, which was occupied by actors Sean and Robin Wright Penn and
their daughter. I thought of going over to compliment Robin on her work
in various films and to tell Sean how much I loved his articles in the
San Francisco Chronicle about his travels in Iraq, but I decided
against it. Don't follow my example in the coming week, Gemini. Express
your appreciation to those whose work has inspired you, even at the
risk of appearing foolish. It's a perfect moment to explore the
emotions of admiration and respect, and to pay homage to your influences.

That is deep. I hear you laughing at me, but that is deep. What am I talking about? I’m on my way to San Rafael, is what I’m talking about. I’m kidding. I’m not one of those people. I did write him a very sincere fan letter once, full of incoherent praise and appreciation. I, mortified at myself, tried to Google some fan mail address to where I could send the letter, and to my surprise I found a Malibu home address. I was shocked that it could be so easy to write Mr. Sean Penn a letter, but then I subsequently found out that this was his old address, for the house the he shared with Madonna back in the day and which, Google said, burned down. So I never sent the letter and I just threw it out. But in my James Lipton dream, the letter appears. And he loves the letter, of course…