Baby Jane

(This is a reposting of a 2018 Growing Up Boomer post.)

Not so many years ago, my mother, Lois, who was at the time but weeks away from moving into skilled nursing care, joined my wife and our friends at our favorite Italian restaurant, a very casual place in a strip mall where the owner, Domenico, turned out the best cibo da Napoli anywhere.

Lois, once incredibly loquacious to the point of being obnoxious (yes, yes, I know; I do take after her), sat quietly at the head of the table and smiled at the ten youngster-Boomers seated on either side of the long table. Her silence was the result of the fate of anyone who lives long enough: she had difficulty hearing, especially in a restaurant; her Parkinson’s-related dementia made it difficult to focus on and understand what she could hear; and she was a stranger among folks who were the very best of friends.

We made a habit of not saying goodnight to Domenico until we smelled the Pine-Sol—the crew was mopping up—and this night was no different. We had finished our espressos and the conversations were winding down when Lois said something to the effect of, “This has been a lovely evening, and as a way of thanking you, I’d like to sing you a little song.”

For some of the friends, this evening had been their first introduction to Lois, and I could tell they were uncomfortable. Hell, I was cringing, but my quandary was whether to embarrass her by quashing her solo or by letting her sing. She made the decision for me by breaking out into song in a frail and faltering but pitch-accurate rendering of a song I first heard when I was a small boy. It was a song written in 1911—fifteen years before Lois was born—for a popular singer named Ada Jones, who is pictured here and is someone about whom I knew nothing until I Googled the song title.

I had not heard Lois sing the song for almost sixty years, but I still knew the first verse and chorus by heart:

When I was born, my Pa and Ma, they looked at me and said, “Oh, pshaw!” The doctor said, “It’s a girl, I think,” and Pa went out and got a drink. Then Ma said I looked just like Pa, and Pa said I took after Ma; Aunt Jane said I looked like a quince, and I’ve been a stepchild ever since.

(Chorus) They always, always pick on me; they never, never let me be. I’m so very lonesome, awfully sad; it’s a long time since I’ve been glad, but I know what I’ll do by and by, I’ll eat some worms and then I’ll die, and when I’m gone, you wait and see, they’ll all be sorry that they picked on me.

It ended up being the kind of awkward moment that those of us who have been principally responsible for our elderly parents have accepted as our fate. It was not a grand performance, and most of my friends, I learned the next time we got together, were understanding and able to see the humor of an elderly woman breaking into a rendition of a century-old song in the middle of an Italian-American restaurant. We can still chuckle about that night.

Deep inside my soul, that moment was poignant. Now in our seventies or thereabouts, a greater proportion of our generation has been or is now responsible for elderly parents than has any preceding generation, simply because the vast majority of our parents’ parents never lived into their eighties and nineties. I know some of our parents did have responsibility for their parents, but there have been so many of our parents living to advanced ages that an industry has arisen—think Joan Lunden and “A Place for Mom” et al, along with retirement communities out the wazoo—to accommodate our parents, an industry that has practiced on them in order to be ready for an onslaught of Boomers. God forbid that we would have to rely upon our own kids to take care of us!

There are many things that make Boomers unique, but one of those things is that we are the last Americans (and those few of our parents who are still hanging in there) who are linked to two of the most challenging episodes in American History: The Great Depression and World War II.

Growing up, we Boomers did not live through those times (all right, a few of us were born during the war), but we were inundated by stories of those times by our parents and grandparents. Frankly, I found those stories fascinating. If you were a “Christian” boomer, how often were you reminded at Christmas time about how lucky you were?

“You kids don’t know how good you have it,” Uncle Clarence would say. “I remember back in The Depression, we considered ourselves lucky to get a couple of oranges in our Christmas stockings, and that was it!”

“Yes,” Aunt Mary would respond, “But don’t you remember, Alice, how mother made us those little rag dolls that one Christmas back in The Depression? You were what, five? And I was three. Now that was a Christmas!”

Those stories have stayed with me all of my life. There is a caveat that must be stated here: anything I am sharing is related to middle and upper-middle class Americans, and not to the over twenty-millions of our too-often forgotten fellow Americans who are still living in the unforgiving deprivation of their own and on-going Great Depression.

Yes, we Boomers are blessed to have grown up in a time of plenty, but many of us have a second-hand but powerful appreciation of the hardships associated with doing without. Never once have I felt entitled. Never once has the real fear of potential loss, of the tenuous nature of plenty left me, something that we Boomers have not, apparently, conveyed to most of our children. They cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like “to do without” in the Thirties, which brings me to Baby Jane.

Beginning at the age of five, Lois’ mother would put her on a trolley in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, for the fifteen-mile-trip into Pittsburgh, where Lois would get off the trolley and scoot to a radio station where she sang every Saturday morning for years as a regular guest on a local amateur hour. Her stage name was Baby Jane, and the picture heading this chapter is one of Baby Jane’s “glamour” shots, paid for with significant sacrifice and distributed by her mother, Mary, with the hope that Baby Jane would be discovered and become the next Shirley Temple.

As Lois loved to recall, Baby Jane also sang at various events multiple times a week—one of them having over eight hundred adoring fans (she claimed)—none of which, according to my mother, paid anything.

The idea of serendipitously making a fortune by your child being discovered by a Hollywood mogul and other such fantasies was fostered by the dire straits in which millions found themselves during The Depression. Lois loved to regale anyone who would listen about the time Mary found an ad in the back of a “movie magazine,” which declared an open audition for a child’s part in a movie. Incredible as it might seem, in the depths of The Depression, Mary convinced her youngest brother Victor, to drive her and nine-year-old Baby Jane to Hollywood.

Based upon Lois’ vibrant description, I imagine the trip as something like the road scenes in the movie, The Grapes of Wrath. Building to the climax of the story, Lois would build upon the myth of discovery, and each time as a little boy that I heard her tell the story, there was a part of me that hoped with that retelling, the myth would be revealed as true; unfortunately, when the traveling trio arrived at the studio in Hollywood, they found a line of a few hundred (I think the number may have grown with each retelling) of Baby Janes—each one cuter than the next—that ran down the street and around the corner, each one accompanied by a desperate mother holding open the page of the magazine that advertised the audition.

Lois’ story’s denouement portrayed her mother, who was a very proud woman then and until her death in 1985, as having broken into tears when she saw the line of children and their mothers. Lois claimed her mother admitted her shame at having fallen for a dubious opportunity and refused to allow her daughter to get into that line of wannabees. As a little boy, my favorite part of the story was Lois’ description of the three-thousand-mile return trip.

Believing that Baby Jane would be making her fortune in Hollywood, Mary had not been as concerned as she might have been about having enough money to make it back home. Lois would recall drinking milk as their primary sustenance during the return trip because they could not afford diner meals, and—my favorite part—Uncle Victor would turn off the engine at the top of hills and coast to the bottoms to conserve gas.

That trip and a myriad of other events shaped my mother’s perception of the world as a desperate place where salvation only came in the form of lucky breaks, and she conveyed that to her Boomer son. How many Boomers still carry that wishful thinking somewhere in our subconscious minds, implanted there by mothers who were traumatized by seeing the agony of poverty in their own mother’s eyes?

We middle-class Boomers may have grown up in a time of prosperity, but I think many of us retain and benefit from a vestige of the fear of loss and desperation that is a result of our second-hand connection to The Great Depression, a time which younger advantaged Americans cannot possibly imagine. That connection still grounds me and allows me to appreciate the quality of life I enjoy, not a quality of life to which one is entitled as our children seem to believe, but a quality of life that is a blessing for which I will be grateful until the day I die.

And whatever happened to Baby Jane? No, she was not held captive in an old mansion, nor was a movie made about her story. At fourteen, Baby Jane told Mary she was done playing the role of a small child, and despite Mary’s fury at having to relinquish her decade-long dream of having Baby Jane provide her with a fortune, Lois got her way. Baby Jane was resurrected from time to time in the Fifties and Sixties when Lois was in the spotlight as a soloist in a church choir or at a wedding. The audience never saw Baby Jane singing the Ave Maria, but I always did. And still do.

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