Famous disappearing act

Of course it’s also entirely possible that Judy never mentioned Aunt Ada’s name because the twins Ada and Ida were the slightly better looking, though far less talented, sisters in their act; it might also have something to do with the fact that Aunt Ada disappeared, in the time honoured tradition of people in my family. Not for us the natural course of events, no, not we: it is either a bloody, violent end, or an act of erasure, a fade to black, if you will. I can only think this propensity to disappear or be bludgeoned is somehow linked to the possibility we might otherwise live forever. We have strong, some might even say mulish, genes. It is the peasant blood Mother won’t admit to. Or the fact we are perfectly preserved in alcohol. Either way. 

A family history lesson. Mother was the elder sister; Aunt Rosemary second born and second best before their sour mother, the original Judith, was replaced in their father’s affections by a much younger and much better-looking stepmother, who had twin girls Ada Ivy Ador and Ida Ava Honor before she too disembarked from this world for another cleaner port. Because of the significant age gap between them which mother won’t admit to, the twins were never a part of the original sister act; no sir, it was just little Judy and rollicking Rosie Holliday hoofing for sailors and soldiers and perchance the smallest piece of their father’s attention up and down the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line. Mother was the triple threat and Aunt Rosemary appealed to lesbians, or so she tells me. But the twins, who couldn’t sing for tuppence, joined in the 50s because they were good at department store appearances, posing with leopards between them, modelling shape-making brassieres, & all of those other no-talent-required things good for publicity that Judy felt were beneath her or do I mean behind her by that time. Those were the good old days, the days of youth and innocence. 

American actress Lana Wood (Svetlana Nikolaevna Zakharenko) playing with a dog and a leopard. USA, 1966 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images)

After Aunt Ada Ivy married Tony Anderson and had Apollonia, she went AWOL and had two more children, also twin girls, cousins I’ve never met named Poppet and Petal, who lived with their father in New York after Ada went properly missing. A year to the day after she disappeared, Tony Anderson married her sister Ida, and they had three girls, Lana, Lily and Adrienne Anderson, Apollonia’s half-sisters, before Aunt Ida disappeared as well. So perhaps Mother doesn’t like to mention her names, can’t remember her names in order, or has trouble distinguishing between the twins and all of their names, it is still not clear to me. Laudable Tony Anderson, by the way, has managed to retain a very benign image despite the multiple disappearances and presumed-deaths associated with marriage to him and/or his business partners. 

(His third wife was mercifully no relation; their son was named Adonis to round off the set.) But at the time of which I write, he had just married Aunt Ida, and so maybe the real reason Apollonia was always inflicted on me was because her mother had disappeared and she needed to be sent from the house while her father and aunt were fucking. In hindsight I ought to have let her choose the tape. 

Lawd you made the night too long

I suppose I’m telling you this to explain why I returned to the visions from Dante’s Inferno known as the Martin/Sinatra Christmas specials year after year: surely it was out of a desire to rescue Nancy from the silver tinsel Christmas trees and fake snow. If only I stared unblinking at the telly long enough I might one day succeed telepathically; and then of course I had to consider smashing the screen and reaching in to find ageless Nancy shrunk to the size of a Barbie doll.

But we mustn’t be too hard on ole Frank Snr, of course. There were the Bing specials and the Judy specials too. Perhaps a seed was planted then which explains why I must ritually drink my way through all festivities and family-related events even now.

Of course, mama had lots of cocktail parties but the Christmas ones stand out in my mind for reasons that must be attributed to the fact my cousin Apollonia was always inflicted on me. I didn’t, by the way, have any real beef with Apollonia at that age as much as I resented her intrusion into my life in an abundance of bouncing frills which were eloquent of that facile  insistence we must be great friends for no other reason than that we shared, almost, a birthday. Mother, I reasoned, was not great friends with Apollonia’s mother, my aunt Ada Ivy Alana Ador, the sister she never brought herself to name — I imagined it was because she had too many names and that my mother found that tiresome too. The autocorrect function, by the way, keeps correcting my cousin’s name to Apologia, which seems fitting. We all called her Polly; she’s known as Polly Holliday now, which could be either the name of a porn star or a very glamorous lounge singer, depending on how the light falls on it, though as a matter of fact her given name was Apollonia Anderson, and even that original ‘Anderson’ was fake. 

So along came Polly in her puffy skirt and petticoat, her pouffy sleeves, her pussy bow and Peter Pan collar, white socks and Mary Janes, and there was I, ever a modern child, in a shift dress, short shorts and sandals, or perhaps barefoot in a playsuit. We would eat at the children’s table wishfully scraping the mayonnaise and bacon from the sides of the potato salad bowl as if it were really ice-cream and sprinkles, then run upstairs to watch the TV in my room as soon as the adults got rowdy, in my case because I wanted to avoid the worst excesses of Judy/Diana’s performances, tho I suspect Polly was simply used to going to bed on time, and thought that TV after dark was rather a treat. 

I’d ask Polly which tape she wanted to watch and she’d say, ‘You choose,’ which I also confess I found a little tiresome, but perhaps that’s what comes from having a mother with far too many names. Whatever it was, she’d sit back on my bed happily bouncing those patent Mary Janes, which in my world view was simply not the done thing; didn’t she know Christmas specials were to be endured, not enjoyed. Christmas songs were schmaltzy. And all those large happy smiling families with their benign paternal heads were to be held in deepest darkest suspicion.

Thing is, I could never shake the feeling that Nancy, Frank Junior and Tina, or Liza, Lorna and Joey, or Craig, Claudia, Gail, Deana, Dean Paul, Ricci and Gina were all born to be performing dogs in a hellish Kodachrome-coloured circus, singing endless medleys of increasingly abstract Christmas songs under blinding stagelights, only to perpetrate their parents’ stage names and singing pipes through the rest of eternity. Of course my own showbiz matriarch treated her dogs much better and tried her best to keep me from the spotlight, but the feeling haunted me. Meanwhile Polly hummed along.

LOS ANGELES, CA – DECEMBER, 1967: Singers Deana Martin and Tina Sinatra get a gift from Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) on the set of ‘The Dean Martin Show’ Christmas special in December, 1967 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

The view from the children’s table

I used to believe the muppets performed live in servitude every day before a giant screen which depicted the faces of the millions of children watching them. I guess it was a sort of Zoom, before the time of Zoom and hacked computers, though today I’m not as keen on the idea Snuffleupagus knows I’m watching, lest he is a front for Russian spies.

I even considered the possibility you could get to Sesame Street by crawling inside the box and falling down the tubes on the other side, like a sort of Alice in Wonderland. All I had to do was smash the screen.

The feeling came over me very strongly one day, and I battled for a few tense minutes against my instinct to put my foot through the glass. I had to think about it very, very carefully, weighing up the possibilities: I might really reach into the TV and touch the face of my gods. Or find only a single buzzing bulb. Either way, Mother was going to be mad about the screen.

I suppose many children think like this, but it was harder for me to understand given my own parents were so often smiling out at me from an alternate reality on the other side of the glass. Snuffleupagus, by the way, is afraid of fruit. He dislikes apples because he fears they might fall from the tree & hit him on the head, and he dislikes bananas for fear he might slip on the peels. I also believed people said Mother’s fruity cocktails ‘were dangerous’ for this reason.

For I must have you or no one, so baby I’m thru with love

I was going to tell you about the Christmas parties, the party-pieces, and those miserable Martin-Sinatra family Christmas TV specials I had on video tape. As you can imagine, Judy’s cocktail affairs were all taffeta and tuxedos; satin CFM heels and wingtips; the litter of toothpicks and crumpled napkins on a shag-pile dusted with cigarette ashes. When I was a babe I’d hide beneath the midmod lounge and view the party from there, and occasionally sneak eat broken bits of pavlova that’d fallen into the carpet. My daddy wasn’t invited – or was he on tour. Either way, I never acquitted myself of that feeling he’d been banished out to the stables for one of his caterwhaulin hoo-has in the same way I got relegated to the children’s table with my cousin Apollonia, who was presumed to be my friend, for the spurious reason that she and I were the exact same age. Apollonia was always dressed in frilly hellscapes of velvet and ribbon.

These parties always started out the same way. About seven o’clock my mother Judy (Diana to her friends) made a great show of wheeling in the tea trolley from the kitchen, to a polite light applause for the engorged iced Christmas cake on its bottom tier, and the cut sandwiches and wee things on the top, though of course she had prepared neither, couldn’t cook, and didn’t eat a thing except for the olive in her martini. (Fruit was for cocktails.) Hermann was there and Alfred Paul and all those people, the Bettys and Beths and Janets and Barbaras who shaded into Palms Springs style bohemianism in summer, wearing kaftans with large spangly beaten brass earrings to match the rubber plant pots; hair piled so high it gave proof to the lie they would ever enter the pool the parties were ostensibly organised around. The men all called each other by their surnames. Or perhaps their given names all sounded like surnames. 

Then when I was older and couldn’t fit beneath the lounge anymore I was trotted out in patent buckle shoes to sit on the sofa swinging my soles and longing for 9 to strike on the Sessions clock, when Judy (whom I called mama for show at these parties) waved me off upstairs because I was ostensibly tired (I was not; it was still daylight out). At 10 o’clock I knew the real party was going to begin, with a clunk on the piano, and the sort of drunken dynamism you see in Seven-Up ads, square-jawed men shouting across the room to one another over the heads of their servile girlfriends. Though of course mama’s punchbowls had six parts hooch instead of Seven-Up.

About this time someone inevitably called for Judy or do I mean Diana to bless them with a piece, a piece of her past and not one of her detached paps, I am informed, though as a child I was never certain, as I could only speculate about the adult happenings based on the thumps and thuds and cackles I could hear if I pressed my ear to the floor. But the 88s floated upstairs clearly.

Mama was fond of numbers from the mid 50s because songs from her very early past would place her as a teen in the 20s; but give a little swing to Ol’ Man River and perhaps nobody will notice you and the river are of the same vintage. She used to have a sister act with aunt Rosemary and the other sister whose name she never mentioned, the mother of my cousin Apollonia. They sounded a lot like the Boswell sisters or the Andrews sisters, i.e. they might’ve supplied the sound of the woozy haunting wind in the earliest Disney shorts; you can almost hear the cartoon leaves blowing off in a storm backing Bing in ‘Lawd, you made the night too long.’

I’ve locked my heart, I’ll keep my feelings there/ I’ve stocked my heart with icy, frigid air

The day has come when I must needs transfer my rubber plant into one of those beaten brass receptacles; but where does one acquire such a pot? Is it a mystery known only to old ladies, who are surely drawn to dark low lush and overheated rooms in their retirement as a kind of counterbalance for their dark low lush and overheated youths.

The metaphor of rotting abundance and wasted fertility has been many times mined; so too the noir tiger stripes and chiaroscuro shadows of a jungle in silhouette; I’ve pointed out to mother, who likes to be original, that perhaps the Sternwood greenhouse in The Big Sleep was not intended for decoration inspiration.

But prostrate Mother, languid and blindfolded against the bright dawn, replies that the hothouse climate, with its blue shade, heat, oxygen and spore-eating lilies, is the environment best suited to sustain her to infinity even as an IV sluices fresh virgin blood into her haphazardly assembled form and her moisture departs as an aerosol exhaled with her cigarette smoke.

And as Judy Shitsville is ageless, or do I mean I’m resigned to the fact she will never die, I must defer to her wisdom. Far better than to think that an abundance of greenery, like an abundance of cats or dogs, is a slip a little farther along the scale into madness. I do not mention she has affixed her right leg to her left knee in her haste to reach the liquor cabinet today, pending the midday chime of her Sessions mantel clock. (It is Johannes’ day off as servant and husband, both.)

But what precisely marks the point when normal tips into unhinged. A child may get its left and right shoes mixed up, sober. In my own more modest abode, I have bangalow palms, tiny parlour palms, golden canes and kentias, Chinese fan palms and lady’s fingers; Boston ferns, fruit salad plants, hedera helix for the bathroom; lavender pots and aloe vera on the kitchen window, and both the common bird of paradise with its orange head and its towering jungle sister the Giant White Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia Nicolai, which is so tall now it will never be able to leave the apartment; and any number of philodendron — heart shaped philodendron, Devil’s Ivy, and what have you, each more poisonous than the next — climbing up the wall without support until the inevitable day when the ivy wraps around my bedhead and strangles me in my sleep; it is I confess a sort of slow-motion suicide, with plenty of time to change one’s mind.

Don’t they say that love expands in an infinite capacity conveniently to accomodate the number of children you end up with? I’ve never quite understood this, since I’m an only child, and my mother has never been shy to admit that even one child stretched her limits. Would she have loved me a little more, I think, if I was self-sustaining, like her plants, or a little more poisonous, the quality she most admires. Or if I simply stayed in the background and showed up her best colours.

As it is, I’m left with the suspicion that Judy precipitated my existence, in the old dark days before cloning and meat grown in labs, as a kind of back-up copy; long has she told me to mind what I do to my liver, methinks more for her own sake than mine. And of course every devoted daughter has a kidney to spare. But again I digress.