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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, My Grandmother, & Me

Ten minutes ago, I went on Twitter to post a link to that Game Of Thrones piece.  And I found out that Roger Ebert passed away.  And now I'm back, typing through the tears because Ebert was a man who changed film criticism forever, who defined perseverance and passion for a craft, and who was a universally loved voice of good and reason in a world that is sorely lacking in both.  But part of my emotion comes from a much more personal place.

My grandmother died in 2006.  She had been diagnosed with cancer three years earlier, and, then 17 and out of high school, I moved to Los Angeles to take care of her and my partially-blind grandfather as she went through chemo.  It was a time that I'll always be thankful for, because she got to know me as an almost-adult, and we had so many moments together that I now cherish constantly.  My grandmother, who I called Mimi, grew up in LA.  We shared many characteristics - a strong, opinionated personality; a love of art and history and books and singing and travel and food and gin; some big-ass titties - but what connected us when I was a child, and what continued to bring us joy as I grew up, was our passion for film.

My parents and sister were never as interested in movies and television as I was, so when I visited my grandparents, not only did I get to watch CABLE (and The Disney Channel, which was a premium channel back then), but they took me to movies.  We would make a whole day of it - beginning by browsing through the LA Times to see what was playing and read the reviews.  I grew up in a small, isolated town where the movie choice was limited and often delayed, and I still remember the rush of turning page after page and being able to choose from all the newest, coolest releases.  But the reviews were always part of it.  We would read the newspaper reviews, but we would also be sure to watch that week's Siskel & Ebert.

I admit that as a kid, I would get frustrated by film critics.  Especially in my middle school teenybopper days, the critics were always panning the movies I loved the most.  But Siskel & Ebert wouldn't dismiss something just because it wasn't "high art".  They reviewed movies on their merit, and gave honest and balanced critiques.  Often they disagreed, and that was okay!  Watching the show with my grandmother, I learned how to have conviction in my opinions and express them in a positive way.  Mimi and I would see a movie and discuss it afterwards, sometimes thinking completely opposite things, but I always came away from those conversations feeling both like I had been heard, and that I had learned something.

My relationship with Mimi wasn't always easy; we were both so strong-willed, and she had a knack for being tactless, especially when it came to comments about my weight (a projection of her own weight issues, but still hurtful nonetheless).  She wasn't as funny or easygoing as my grandfather, but as I grew up I came to appreciate her for who she was instead of who she wasn't.  She didn't like that I got a tattoo on my 18th birthday, or that I pierced my tongue (and my neck, and my collarbone, and my eyebrows), but she made it clear that it didn't make her love me less.  She didn't approve of how much cleavage I wanted to show, but she bought me the low-cut shirts I wanted anyway.  We had established that we could disagree and still get along - that there were lessons to be learned in our differing opinions.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert taught us how to be honest with each other without creating enmity.

When Mimi died, after two years in remission during which she was able to travel and go to movies and do the things she loved, I know she was proud of me.  The last time I saw her I knew it was the last time, and we were able to say goodbye.  I read her some of my poetry and we talked about some of our favorite memories and then just sat together until it was time for me to leave.  I looked into her eyes and felt all the love and acceptance between us.  Her death was peaceful, and the years we had together had been a gift, and at the time although I was very sad, I didn't feel the loss as acutely as I might have.

But now I am an adult.  And it's been almost ten years since I lived with my grandparents and we went to see The Manchurian Candidate, the last movie we saw in the theaters together.  We both thought Liev Schreiber was great but that it couldn't possibly live up to the original.  And now I write about film and television, and now I'm going to graduate school to study film criticism, and I'll be studying at UCLA, her alma mater.  And I think about Mimi all the time these days because I miss her so much and want to talk to her about all of it.  I know how happy she would be with who I've become, I know she'd be so proud of me but I want to hear her say it and I want to see the look in her eyes when I tell her how much she's shaped my future, how she helped me become the strong and passionate and capable woman that I am today.  And I think that in many ways, every piece I write is a letter to her - a way to have those conversations like we used to, and to keep her with me as close as I can.

And now Roger Ebert has died, after his own fight with cancer, after his own years of survival that were a gift to all of us.  I don't believe in heaven, but I do believe that the good that we put into the world is what lives on after we die.  I hope that I can carry on Roger's spirit in my work, a spirit that calls for joy and honesty and humor and THOUGHT, and I know he'd be happy that a part of him now resides in my heart, along with Mimi.  The company and the conversation couldn't be better.

1 comment:

  1. What a heartfelt and insightful memoir, inspired by two wonderful people who were formative for you - another wonderful person!