Depending on your age, location and/or proclivity toward old shit, you may or may not have some experience with the mid-last-century cultural icon, Auntie Mame.
The character, drawn in fiction by author Patrick Dennis from his real-life experiences as ward of his real-life aunt, is a free-wheeling spirit (or maybe a high-spirited free-wheeler) who exhorts her buttoned-up nephew and anyone else in earshot to grab life by the horns and ride the shit out of it. I paraphrase**, but you get the idea.
What I didn’t realize, and I’m a big fan of the film, as was my father before me, was how much Dennis took that message to heart. I dialed up Facebook this morning and found the most interesting post from my friend, the lovely and talented Polly Frost. She described a recent serendipitous walk she’d taken through the streets of New York City with Dennis’s former editor, Peggy Brooks, during which said editrix confided, “You do know he ended up working as a butler for Ray Kroc who didn’t know he wrote Auntie Mame.”
It blew Polly away to think that such a talented writer would just walk away from novel writing to become a butler. A few people on the discussion thread suggested, and really, if you’re not participating in discussions like this, you’re kind of missing the whole point of Facebook, that perhaps Dennis had made the move out of financial necessity, not absolute free will and desire. And it’s possible that money may have played a part: he burned through what must have been a considerable sum generated by the books and the rights (Auntie Mame was also the source material for the Broadway play, starring Rosalind Russell, a Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury and the film versions of both.)
I like to think, though, that he was just done with one thing and ready for another. Having had a recurring fantasy of being the Mailcart Guy for a while, and actually having had the exotic and deeply humbling experience of going from Corner Office Lady to 33-year-old gofer, I get that. It is wildly liberating to shuck off something as big and fancy as a career, especially, perhaps, one that has earned one money and acclaim, and embrace something totally different. Not as an “eff you” move, either, although it does tend to shake up people’s ideas of an ordered universe. It’s about acknowledging that something no longer serves, and releasing it to free yourself up for something that does. Because if it ain’t serving you, it’s clutter.
I ran up against it again with family mementos. Earlier on in the purge, the night of the workshop, in fact, I tracked down and sent an email to one of my father’s old friends, a fine illustrator by the name of Stan Tusan whose work I well and fondly remember from my childhood.*** They had collaborated on a children’s book, apparently, and I found what may be the one copy extant in my Pile O’ Shit that I’m sifting through. While I was fine pitching photos, I could toss 90% and still have more than I could view regularly in a lifetime, it’s much, much harder to throw away a project. I’ve made too many of my own not to get the insane amounts of love and energy, not to mention time, that go into such things.
The email reply stung.
Pitch it, it read, and just about that tersely. I was sure I’d offended somehow, which I generally bend over backwards to not do, as I’m (still…STILL!!!!) so concerned with what people think of me. But pitch it I did, and further down the line, I received more emails from Stan, we’re fine, we’re good, we’re back in friendly touch and neither one of us has to worry about this old thing he made with my dead father. Which, I have to tell you, is probably 100% fine with old Tony Wainwright. The man was sentimental about music and good times and great Spaghetti Westerns, but a keeper of crap he was not. I know: it drove his father, my grandfather, king-god of hoarding against future use, right up the wall of his cluttered-to-the-end study.
Here’s the thing: no one’s right. No one’s wrong. No one can tell me or you or Stan or my grandfather what to keep. (Especially my gramps, unless you’re one of them psychic types.) In the end, though, my grandfather died alone, in a hospital bed, of a broken heart. The most meaningful thing in his life was a person, my extraordinary grandmother, and she’d left the planet several weeks earlier. And her constant refrain, even as she’d hand over some cherished object still warm with her unbelievably beautiful energy? “Sell it!” she’d whisper, gleefully, conspiratorially.
Trade that thing for freedom is what I now realize she meant. Don’t get burdened by your choices; let them liberate you. Let each thing that touches your life enrich you in some way, with joy, with experience, with the understanding born of pain, and let it the fuck go. It is not that thing you want: it is the thing that thing makes you feel.
This is the last day of the clutter-clearing salute. But it is the beginning of a brand new, completely thrilling and not a little bit terrifying chapter of my life.
May it be the same for you, only completely different. And may we both meet up again at some point to share the things we’ve really kept…
*I’ve given up assuming that we all share the same cultural references which means, I think, that I have a shot at becoming a responsible grown-up in the back nine of my life.
**The actual quote I was thinking of is this: “Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” There are quite a few more at IMDb, along with a page for the movie starring Roz Russell. It’s a fab flick, and I recommend you rent it, or check it out from your public library. If you must be acquisitive about it, though, I’d be honored if you’d purchase it via my Amazon affiliate link.
***”My dog has fleas!” I still think of it every time I (try to) whistle. Thanks, Stan!