LOUCILLE AND CHARLES
I just found a priceless treasure, a precious letter that moved me to tears. Like a match struck in the darkness, it illuminated memories that occupy a cherished place, deep in my heart and history. The letter tells a story of affection that, to some degree, defied convention. It was a love story, although, I was too young to realize it at the time. I am speaking of dear friends, brought into my life by destiny, when I was twelve years old. They won my friendship instantly, and over time, became much more than friends to me; they became my family.
Several days ago, I was thinking back upon my history, and trying to find a single word, just one word only, that could describe succinctly how it felt, throughout my lifetime, to be me. Because I spent so much time alone, a word that came to mind was “lonely.” But I knew that was not right, nor would it be fair, or kind, to my friends and family. Suddenly, the perfect word revealed itself. It is a common word, used as both an adverb and an adjective that, here, takes on a whole new meaning. The word that best describes my life isn’t lonely; it is “ONLY.”
I was born an only child, and I have remained “only” all my life. I was the only Jewish kid in an anti-Semitic neighborhood, until I was five. Then, we moved, and I soon became the only student in elementary school my size. By the time I got to high school, I was bigger than any of the teachers too. And in-between schools I was the only camper in the history of National Music Camp at Interlaken Michigan who was there for just the art program. My fellow campers were all musicians, and, most of the time, they were either practicing or performing in the orchestra. Therefore, with all my cabin mates on the stage each night, I was the only thirteen year old, sitting in the audience of the rustic outdoor music bowl alone. When I was sixteen years old, I acquired a massive Hi-Fi set, so I could continue to do the same at home.
Throughout four years at Mumford High, I was the only art student with aptitude among the two thousand in the school. My mentor and art teacher Mr. Siddal and his charming wife Dorothy took me into their fold. They were the only artists that I knew. Thus, from elementary school through high school, I continued to be only. But I was not lonely, for I had Loucille and Charles at home.
If one could choose one’s family, I would, in retrospect, have chosen Loucille and Charles Lahr to be my best friends and dearest family. Miraculously, God sent them to me! But, alas, he failed to grant me the wisdom to fully appreciate that blessing at the time. I took too many things for granted in those youthful days, and couldn’t let myself believe that they accepted me totally, in spite of the fact that I was big and fat and only. Nonetheless, I came to realize, late in life that, even though, I could not imagine myself as being loveable, they were genuinely fond of me, and not merely because it was their job.
This curious history recounts a precious segment out of time that in so many ways was happy, but, sadly, long after that lovely time was over, turned into a murder mystery. Thus, adding another incident to my ever growing list of evidence that life inevitably ends badly.
The story is difficult to tell. But I have long felt that I needed to express this tale, although, I fear I cannot do it justice. If nothing else, it may turn out to be a thank you note, addressed to the dead letter office, and mailed too late in the hopes that it can, somehow, reach its intended recipients beyond the grave. Nonetheless, I am convinced that discovering this long lost letter is a sign that tells me, if I’m ever going to speak of this, now is the time.
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
I can barely remember the days when I knew my mother, days when I was very tiny and she was very motherly. Did that time ever really happen, or was it just a dream? Sometimes, she tickled me. I squealed with glee, and I was happy.
I used to hang out in the kitchen a lot in those days; “Nearer my food to thee!” And my mother did the cooking, fried chicken mainly. She whipped up several batches a day in an all too successful effort to fatten me up. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was boiling hamburger, gray and granulated, in a beaten up tin pot To this she would always add a little bit of water, a step which she referred to as making gravy. And then she garnished this overcooked concoction with bright green frozen peas. This was the dog’s cuisine. I can still see her doing that, a lit cigarette, dangling from her lower lip held there by spit, and one smoke enveloped eye forever in a squint. Then, my father made more money, and we got a maid.
My father was always a mystery to me; I never really saw him clearly. Or did I? That question still remains unanswered. He had a kind of dreamlike quality, as if he was living in his own private reality. And I realize, in retrospect, that is, perhaps, the message that I myself convey.
All of us went through the motions of living, never quite connecting with life’s meaning, or questioning if there was any. Each of us were on our own, doing what society told us we were “supposed to do” in some great unchallenged scheme of things. I now realize my parents were quite only, too.
There was stuff that needed to be done. My father had to make a living and he went about it in his own unconventional way. As for me, I just knew I had to go to school, and felt that if life had set any task before me, it was an obligation to learn everything. Having no concept of longevity and its limitations, at least, until people in my life began to “pass away,” I assumed that I would live forever, and during that time would be required to acquire all the combined knowledge of the human race. I took that to be my job.
As my father became more successful, around the time I entered the third grade, the loving mother I had known as a baby went away, and was replaced by the new maid. That is not to say that my mother was no longer there! But, freed from the drudgery of domesticity, she found more amusing things to do. Her new mission was to look attractive, wear the conspicuous status symbols that my father proudly gave her, and play canasta.
Leila played lots of canasta. She spent her days, at least five every week, and nights, at least three, playing canasta. She had a group of friends, always referred to as “the girls” who did the same. God forbid, a day would pass when she didn’t have a game. My father would accompany her on the nighttime outings and play "Gin" [rummy] with “the boys." Some of the boys were really bad at cards, like my dad, and a seemingly senile doctor named, "Bookie" [for Dr. Bookstein]. The other men used to complain. But all the girls were card sharks.
This is a curious photo of my parents and Bookie, in Miami. My “Pop” is on the right. The photo was no doubt shot by Bookie’s wife, Paula. Taken out of context, it seems to imply a story that I’m convinced didn’t exist.
Throughout the card games, a thick cloud of cigarette smoke hovered above the table. Ashtrays were set at every place. And, God forbid, they were ever short a player! My mother even taught me to play Canasta, just in case someone got sick, and they needed a replacement to sit in. On a few occasions, I did.
And so began a series of domestics who cleaned and cooked, and cooked, and cooked, and cooked again. And everything they made, I ate, and ate, and ate!
The first maid I can remember well was a silly girl named “Lizzy.” Lizzy could out flutter Butterfly McQueen. She was a very superstitious lady who managed to convince me that she was afraid of everything. I often wondered if she was only putting on an act to please me. If that was her aim, she succeeded admirably. Thinking up practical jokes to frighten Lizzy became my hobby. To my delight, she overreacted dramatically to every stupid thing I did, with high-pitched screams that would put Faye Rae to shame.
Scaring Lizzy was so easy, especially after she revealed, to me, that she believed in the Bogyman. Every night, she looked for the him, first in the closet, and then, under the bed, before she went to sleep. I frequently joined her on these hunting expeditions. But I believe that even when I wasn’t present for this nightly ritual, she’d look for him without me. Fortunately, I was often there to help her. Being that I was a kid, it seemed all right for me to hang around her bedroom. And Lizzy was always discreetly dressed for bed with a floor-length flannel nightgown with an old-fashioned matching “night cap” on her head, and fuzzy bunny slippers on her feet.
always maintained that I was not brave enough to look under the bed, and pretended to be scared. So Lizzy got down on her hands and knees, beside the bed, and dared to take a peek. Meanwhile, I held the flashlight. Needless to say, strange things were often hiding there; things, such as a rubber rat or a scary teddy bear. I wonder how they got there? Whenever the flashlight beam illuminated one of these, Lizzy would oblige me by hollering hysterically. Fortunately, we never met the Bogyman.
My final memory of Lizzy involves a rubber hand I got from Johnson Smith and Company, and smeared its severed wrist with ox-blood shoe polish, which was my secret formula for blood. I suspended it by thread, inside the kitchen broom closet. It was rigged (I was a toy inventor even then} to fly out at Lizzie, when she opened the closet door. And the next day, it did! Lizzy screamed spectacularly!
Soon after that, we got a new maid. Her name was Lulu. I found everything about Lulu, including her name, to be absolutely fascinating. She had a unique vocabulary of colloquial expressions of her own invention. I often stood around the kitchen, engaging her in conversation, because I loved to hear her speak. She called me “Mr. Mel.” We joked around a lot. She had an infectious laugh. My seven year old sense of humor was juvenile in nature, as some would maintain it remains today. And I was not beyond making rude noises. To which Lulu would reply, “Mr. Mel, don’t you be “pootin” around my kitchen!” To this day, every time I hear the name Vladimir Putin on the news, I think of Lulu.
Even though we became friends, I could never divest myself of the awareness that we were from different worlds. And I cherished every glimpse that Lulu shared with me into the exotic mysteries of her own. On her day off, she’d “go home” to that mysterious place that was then called “the colored section.” And when she returned, she often brought me treats. These were small things, but they were a big deal to me. The very best gift Lulu ever gave me was my first bottle of Franks Red Hot Sauce. This rare and potent condiment, good (and hot) to the last drop, became the spice of my young life. At the time, it was only available in Lulu’s neighborhood. I savored both the sauce and the delicious thought that I might be the only white kid in Detroit, and definitely the youngest, who even knew this secret elixir existed, and was lucky enough to get it.
Lulu remained a member of our family throughout my grade school years. During which time, I consumed great quantities of Franks Red Hot Sauce. But I never got to the last drop, for Lulu kept a keen eye on the bottle and quietly replaced it with a new one, whenever the old one was nearly gone.
Franks Red Hot Sauce has remained a lifetime preference. Thank God, this small company that began so modestly has succeeded so spectacularly. It continues to amaze me that I can now buy it by the gallon at Sam’s club. And I pour it, generously, over nearly everything I eat. Now, seventy years later, I regard it with a certain reverence. It still makes me feel warm inside, but more than that, it is kindness in a bottle to me.
In the once wondrous city of Detroit, there was a chain of grocery stores called “Big Bear Markets.” They were owned by some friends of my parents, “the Greenspoons.” Mrs. Greenspoon was one of the ladies who played canasta with my mother. There were some eight to ten women in the canasta club, so the game was at our house only a few times a month. But whenever it was my mother’s turn to host the club, Lulu was all a twitter. Mrs. Greenspoon was a celebrity to her. She called her “Mrs. Big Bear.” And talked about the coming event, nonstop! “Mrs. Big Bear ‘s coming!” she’d exclaim, again and again, days ahead of time. When Mrs. Greenspoon finally arrived, Lulu was all over her. I think Mrs. Big Bear liked being referred to as Mrs. Big Bear, and being so enthusiastically admired.
Around this time, my Father had his second heart attack. He was in his mid-fifties. There was little one could do to combat high blood pressure in those days, except lose weight and not eat salt. Oh, and not drive! Not to be able to drive was like a death sentence to my dad. The two ostentatious Cadillacs that dominated our driveway were life itself to him. They were the tangible, and to my chagrin, highly visible, evidence of a life well lived in the great Motor City. No one had heard of foreign cars back then. Cadillacs were the ultimate status symbol, the epitome of success!
Furthermore, my father was not ready to retire. He was still actively forging a chain of “chain stores.” Therefore, there was only one solution: he would have to hire a driver! And, as the so called “maids quarters” over the garage were not suitable for two unmarried individuals, the only answer was: “a couple.” Oh, No! The first though that occurred to everyone was: What about Lulu?
Sometimes, real life can be better than a fairy tale. My mother made a phone call that resulted in a miracle! I’m not making this up. It’s true! I swear! Lulu went to work for Mrs. Big Bear! Lulu was thrilled out of her mind! And the feelings were mutual. Mrs. Big Bear was equally excited to get her paws on Lulu! And so it came to be that Lulu lived happily ever after in Mrs. Big Bear’s lair, and for all I know, she is still there.
A “Couple Wanted!” ad was placed in both the Detroit papers. And the first applicants to appear were Loucille and Charles Lahr. I remember the interview as clearly as if it were yesterday. They all sat in the breakfast room, Charles, Loucille, my mom, and dad. Meanwhile, I discreetly hovered in the hallway, and peeked around the corner, frequently. I was keenly aware of the absurdity of a 260 pound fat kid trying to look inconspicuous. Nonetheless, the instant I laid eyes on Lucile and Charles I forgot about myself completely! I thought that they were simply gorgeous! Lucile looked like Dorothy Dandridge, and Charles was a cross between Harry Belafonte and Lil’ Abner.
Then, it happened, a moment that I will never forget: Loucille smiled, and winked at me!
Oh My God! My heart stopped, and then, it skipped a beat, and then, it melted. I was in love! I prayed, almost out loud, “Oh Please, God, Please, Please, Please, let them stay.” And, he did! I am convinced to this day that they were Heaven sent.
And so we began our secret life, a life that I am tempted to describe as “hidden in plain sight.” But seeing that nothing about our life was hidden, or for that matter, secret, a better term would be “unnoticed.” Our not so secret life was “unnoticed in plain sight,” simply because my parents weren’t paying any attention. Nor did they realize that they were being displaced a notch in my affections.
Charles and Loucille had just arrived in Detroit from Philadelphia. Loucille had family there, a sister. There was an involvement, about which my parents knew, but was always kept secret from me . Years later, I overheard mention of the possibility that Charles had been married with children when he met Loucille. And they might have been running away from Charles’ former wife. Clearly, they were running away from their former life. I never learned the details. I realized, even at the time, that all I had to do if I really wanted to know, was ask Lou. But the truth is, I really didn’t want to know. I was determined not to let anything alter my image of them as perfect. Nonetheless, I understood that there were some legal issues that my father, being a lawyer was able to help them resolve.
I held them both in such high esteem that I would never dream of saying anything that might offend or upset them. We were together for the next six years and in all that time there was never an unkind word spoken between us, never an argument of a hint of anger. It was such a wonderful relationship for all five of us. The more I ponder it, the more I marvel at the complex cleverness of the almighty author who I believe put this cast of characters together .
Loucille was not only good looking, and very kind, she was also extremely bright. Among some of my most cherished memories are the times we spent together, when Loucille patiently helped me with my homework. She always succeeded in making me believe that she enjoyed it. I am not speaking of a small matter, but rather hour after hour, several nights a week, quizzing me repeatedly on endless lists of spelling words, French conjugations, and vocabulary. We went over these lists repeatedly, eliminating the words that I got right, and then, starting over again. Every time, the list got shorter, until there were just a few words left. These I would write ten times, and then, she would test me again.
Loucille never gave up, or tired, until I had every word perfectly memorized. Naturally, I forgot them all, the day after the test was over, but Loucille remembered everything. At the end of four years, she knew more French than I did. She had a way of quizzing me that made it fun for both of us. When I couldn’t remember something, the witty hints that she would offer were constant evidence of her playful cleverness, making each clue more tantalizing, while never merely giving away the answer.
Throughout the many years that have passed, since those lovely days, I’ve often looked back on those countless hours of selfless coaching as evidence of genuine affection. Loucille never had children, but she had an endless supply of maternal love to give, and by the grace of God, she showered an enormous amount of it on me.
I adored Charles, almost as much as I did Loucille. He was like a brother to me, a buddy, and a playmate. Charles was a child at heart. He was perhaps not quite as bright as Loucille, but neither were most of the people that I knew, including me. The resemblance that he bore to Lil’ Abner was more than just skin deep. Loucille was a smart gal from Philly, Charles was a farm boy from Tennessee.
When I first heard that my father had to hire a driver, my heart sank . It was bad enough that we had those God Damned Cadillacs, but God forbid anyone from school should see me being driven in one of them, and now, worse still, with what might appear to be a chauffeur. And to my horror, Charles had a little chauffeurs cap that he picked up himself. He was proud to be driving my dad around, and liked playing the role of chauffeur. Which is a role that my father, who always sat beside him in the front seat, would never cast him in. Sam, most likely, didn’t notice the hat, but I did. Charles never wore it when I was in the car. I didn’t need to ask.
There were many winter mornings when he drove me to school. I only needed to hint one time at what I had in mind, and every time, thereafter, without ever mentioning it, like it was the most natural thing to do, he discreetly took a secret route, and let me out on a secluded back street, several blocks from school. Charles was never judgmental; he understood and accepted me completely. I walked the rest of the way to school. When the school day was over, I rode public transportation home. Throughout four years of high school, those Cadillacs remained a secret that only my few close friends ever knew.
Charles and I did a lot of things together. He loved to go places with me, even after I was old enough to drive myself. And he loved the places that I found to go. The art store, the photo store, the magic store, and hobby shops galore, my interests became his interests too. One favorite destination was Polk’s Radio. We both bought kits to build short wave sets. And Charles climbed a tall ladder, with my 260 pounds of weight holding it in place, to string an aerial from the rooftop to one of the two tall trees in the front yard. And we searched the airwaves, sometimes, late into the night, to see what foreign stations we could find. We both had maps, into which we placed “map tacks” to mark their locations. It was a friendly competition.
We also shared a love of music. Each of us had hi-fi sets. Charles tended to like country, I preferred classical, but we met in the middle with composers like Albert Ketèlby. Each of his short pieces featured novelty effects, like cowbells ringing, or birds singing, and everything from Oriental temple gongs to roaring thunder, the more sound effects the better. Charles was crazy about these.
And between the three of us, Charles, Loucille, and I, we had a favorite LP record. It was the sound track recording of the movie, “Carmen Jones,” which, by the way, starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. The film was actually the Bizet opera translated into English, and adapted to take place in America. Not only did I identify Loucille and Charles with Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen and Harry Belafonte as Don Jose, but Loucille and Charles, themselves, drew the same association with these characters, both in appearance and, ironically, in real life. For their own story was not unlike the opera’s plot. Loucille had a beautiful voice and could carry a tune. So, when the recording was not playing, she was often singing all the songs. I thought this was so magical. My home had become a place where I felt comfortable.
As good as Charles’ relationship was with me, the one he shared with my father was even better. They were two birds of a feather . When Charles was not driving Sam around, they worked together in the garden. Charles would do the planting and my father would do the art directing. And the garden was a thing of beauty, and a source of well-deserved pride for both of them. Charles admired and understood my dad, and It was no secret that he aspired to be just like him. And, believe it or not, he succeeded, with just a little help from Sam.
Perhaps, the coolest Cadillac my father ever had was a bright yellow Eldorado convertible. It was two years old, and perfect, except for the flames coming out of the vents on the door that my father had painted himself with red nail polish, on the day he got the car. This, being Detroit, one was compelled by some unseen force, to trade in a car for a new one, every two years. But this time, when Sam got a new car, he didn’t trade in the old one; he sold it to Charles, instead. Charles built a shelter for it, a sort of garage extension of corrugated fiberglass, to protect it from the weather. And, now, to my dismay, there were three Cadillacs in the driveway.
How well did Charles know my dad? When company was coming over Sam only had to nod to him, and that was the signal for Charles to take out any Cadillacs that might have been in the garage, and line them up in the driveway, all three! Things like this appalled me. Now, I see them as innocent and naive. My father was so proud of the success he had achieved, and Charles was just like him.
I mentioned above that this was a good relationship for all five of us. So where did my mother fit in? Loucille was not only a fabulous cook, and kept the house impeccably clean, she also possessed the flair and savoir-faire to throw together a spectacular dinner party. This allowed Leila to primp and preen and present herself as the perfect hostess at a variety of social events, and in between, she never missed a canasta game.
At least three nights a week my parents would go out. And these would be the times that Loucille and Charles and I could spend together as a family. We took over the den or the rumpus room and watched TV or played games like Monopoly, and did the things that most families did in the 1950s. We ate dinner on what were called TV tables, listened to the Hi Fi set, and played with Kelly.
Kelly was a parakeet. He was brilliant both in intellect and color, a bright shade of Kelly green. He was actually Loucille and Charles’ pet, but, in effect, he belonged to the whole family. Because they didn’t want him to be lonely, he lived downstairs on an elaborate chromium plated cage full of mirrors and fancy toys, on a stand in the den, right next to the omnipresent TV. Kelly chattered away all day, usually tapping on a mirror and demonstrating his impressive vocabulary. He was never at a loss for words. His most impressive and often repeated phrase was one that Loucille had taught him, in case he ever flew away: “My name is Kelly Birn...Say krant! Say krant! Kelly Birn-krant! My name is Kelly Birnkrant!” He said this perfectly, to the bird in the mirror, about a hundred times a day.
My father adored Kelly. He walked around the house with him on his shoulder, and often took him to the rumpus room where the ceilings were high and he could fly. When my grandmother came to stay for several weeks at a time she also played with Kelly. I look back on these times and realize that in many respects, even though, I remained only, we came very close to being a happy family. Providence had been kind, and blessed the house on Seven Mile Road.
Christmas was the best time; and so was New Year’s Eve. Loucille and Charles and I spent these holidays together. My parents always had someplace to go on both occasions, so they were reserved for just us three. In the days, leading up to Christmas, Charles and I would go out and pick out a Christmas tree, and it was the three of us who trimmed it. Loucille was not very tall, at 5’ 3.” Therefore, from that height down, a thousand strands of twinkling lead tinsel were hung meticulously. Loucille placed every strand perfectly, making sure no odd branch interrupted its downward journey, carefully threading it in-between the branches, without touching any.
Moving up the tree, I tried, with less success, to emulate Loucille’s technique. While Charles just threw handfuls of tinsel into the highest branches. Loucille and I would never criticize him, but we would look at each other, knowingly, and delicately put him in charge of decorating the back of the tree.
I am about to seize this opportunity to try something unusual. For anyone who might have mastered the art of crossing your eyes to see two stereo images merge to create three, the center one appearing in 3-D, here is a 3-D photograph my father took in 1953.
Looking back, I realize that even on these happy occasions, my only-ness never completely left me. My life was enveloped in an invisible clock of insecurity. Thus, I was always prepared for some sign, no matter how subtle that Loucille and Charles, being a loving couple, would prefer to be spending New Year’s Eve, or for that matter any evening, with each other, rather than hanging out with me. But in all the years we were together, my radar, which I could not disable, never picked up a single signal, not even a tiny blip to indicate my fears were founded. How I wish I could have fully embraced this blessing of affection, free of doubt and uncertainty, at the moment that it was embracing me. But I did the best I could, which was pretty good, considering I was only.
Charles and Loucille had a master plan that they followed religiously. They dreamed of owning their own home, just like the one on Seven Mile Road. My father was a generous man. He paid them a good salary, as well as room and board. And as they had so few expenses, they were able to save nearly every dollar that they made. At the same time, they also realized we were a family. Therefore, for my sake, they promised my parents that they would stay, until I went away to college. They kept their word to the very hour of the very day.
If I could live just a few days of my life over, that final day is one of those that I would choose to replay. At the time, I was too involved with all the small insignificant things that packing the car for school entailed to appreciate the profound significance of the occasion. Two Cadillacs pulled out of the driveway that morning, at exactly the same moment. In one, my parents, were taking me to U of M. In the other Loucille and Charles, were heading for their new home, and the long awaited realization of their dream.
We bid each other good bye, far too casually, as if we were going to see each other, later in the day. When, in fact, several years would pass before we met again. And thus, on that September morning, in 1955, a happy chapter in the book of our lives was coming to an end, and a whole new chapter was about to begin. As we drove away, the hand of fate reached down and turned the page. And from that moment forward, the house on Seven Mile Road would never feel the same.
Now, fast forward seven years. So much happened in that short span of time. My father passed away. My mother sold the house on Seven Mile Road, and moved to a condominium. Meanwhile, I had attended the University of Michigan for one year, followed by nearly two at Pratt. Then I dropped out of art school, and lived a year in Paris France. That’s where I met Eunice. Six months later, we were married in Ann Arbor, and before the year was over Eunice gave birth to our first daughter, Samantha. We moved to Manhattan one week after that. And now, in 1961, on Samantha’s first birthday, we returned to Detroit for the last time. And we spent our final day in the city of my childhood, visiting Loucille and Charles.
Detroit no longer seemed welcoming to me. Well, why should it be? I couldn’t wait to get away, when I was eighteen. Now, driving past the house on Seven Mile Road filled me with melancholy. It seemed to have diminished in size, as well as in my memory. And my mother’s new condo was as cold as a motel. During the week, we met with my remaining family, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that was pleasant enough, while seeing my least favorite uncle again reminded me of why I had been so eager to leave. All things considered, the expression “You can’t go home again” was proving to be true, until we visited Charles and Loucille. This was my homecoming!
My father had helped them purchase their new home by guaranteeing the mortgage, but, other than that, they did it entirely on their own. It was a lovely house in a nice neighborhood, certainly not as ostentatious as Seven Mile Road, but charming. Ironically, if they had stayed with my parents, four years longer, they most assuredly would have owned the house on Seven Mile Road.
It was a glorious day. Loucille and Charles radiated warmth and hospitality. They embraced and welcomed Eunice wholeheartedly. Samantha took to them immediately, and at one year old, she absolutely glowed. And as the hours sped by, far too quickly, a revelation suddenly swept over me: This WAS the house on Seven Mile Road. I had come home.
Loucille and Charles were as proud and pleased as any parents could ever be that their “only” son had grown up, married an extraordinary lady, and had been blessed with a beautiful baby. I could see my life reflected in their eyes. From their vantage point, and mine, it was a success story! Touring the house was both touching and amusing, I was torn between tears and laughter. Wherever I looked, I could see my father. His influence was everywhere. Everything we had on Seven Mile Road was replicated here. The TV set, the furniture, were all so similar. It looked and felt like home to me. And in the yard the gardens were transplanted directly from my memories of those Charles and My father created together. And in the driveway there was new yellow convertible. I guess the Cadillac had grown old and been replaced by this one, which was a Buick, another GM auto, nearly as prestigious in Detroit’s automotive hierarchy. Clearly, Charles had made sure it was showroom clean, and parked it in the driveway.
The absolute highlight of the day was when Charles proudly demonstrated his Stereo. I had lost my glorious Hi Fi set when my mother sold the house, and it had never been replaced. And now, it was Charles who had the spectacular sound system, and it was my turn to be impressed. And I was impressed, and happy, far more than words can convey . Charles put on his favorite recording. He knew that I would love it; and I did. And so, we sat together, side by side, as we had so many years before, and the sound of music filled Charles’ version of my father’s rumpus room. He played, “The Teddy Bears Picnic,” elaborately orchestrated, with the sound of real bears, added. And what a grand rumpus it was! Instantly, the room became a forest, and among the trees, bears were hiding and growling ferociously. I had never heard a stereo before, and I was blown away. With the sound of bears right, left, and everywhere, Charles grinned from ear to ear. And the room was filled with the radiance of that infectious smile that I had come to know so well over the years. I realized that Charles had often visualized playing his stereo for me. I believe I had been sitting beside him many times in his imagination. And my genuine reaction was everything he’d hoped that it would be. Then, Loucille called us to lunch.
My God, how I loved Loucille’s cooking. And that day she made my favorite thing, her own unique stuffed cabbage. She had a secret recipe of her own invention that involved sauerkraut. She gave Eunice the recipe, and she still makes it for me today. This was more than just the best meal I had in years, it was a culinary time machine. Every bite melted in my mouth, as bite by bite, the years melted away. And I became that chubby only kid again, woofing it down eagerly, in the breakfast room on Seven Mile, where I first laid eyes on Loucille and Charles.
Then we all went out and sat on the front porch, and miraculously, for once in my life, I had a camera with me. Throughout the first few years of our marriage I took a lot of photographs. And although, I had the negatives developed, I never ordered prints. I believed that I would be setting up a darkroom any day. I never did! And the negatives, hundreds of them, were packed away. Thus, for over seventy years the images on them remained unseen. I rediscovered a box containing many of them, earlier this year. And this time, I didn’t need a dark room to print contact sheets; I could do it on the computer. Among these ancient negatives, I discovered the photos that I took that lovely day. I still never managed to find the time to enlarge any of the images, but I’m about to do that now.
Double click to edit
When the day came to an end, this time, I was fully aware of the significance of saying good bye. Good bye to Detroit, good bye to my childhood, good bye to all of it, bundled together with saying Good bye to Charles and Loucille, my dear friends and loving Family. Would this be the last time that we would say good bye? I was keenly aware of the poignant possibility that we might never meet again. Ironically, the casual farewell that I bid them seven years before, I now tried to emulate, attempting to make this too seem casual, once again. But. “See you soon!” was not meant for their ears only. It was both a parting, and a prayer.
The prayer was answered, but not until several decades later, when Charles and Loucille took a trip to see Loucille’s family in Philadelphia, and on their way home, they visited the schoolhouse. We had a wonderful time. And, now, it was my turn to be proud, proud of how my life turned out, proud to still be that same kid who was obsessed with Disney, proud that this fat kid who had a wealthy father had made his own way in the world, earning everything he had himself, and proud that what he had was status free. His values hadn’t changed an iota since those days on Seven Mile Road. He still loved Disney figurines. Now, he just had more of them. But there were not, nor would there ever be, Cadillacs parked in the driveway. And, above all, I was proud that Charles and Loucille were proud of me. For dinner, Eunice made Loucille’s stuffed cabbage.
Several more years passed, I have no idea how many. Then, one terrible night, we got a phone call. I vividly recall that when I lifted up the phone, I was sitting on the same couch where, not that long ago, I sat, talking to Loucille. It was Loucille’s sister, calling, not from Philadelphia, but Detroit . She told me that Loucille had passed away the day before. She had been in seemingly good health, but, suddenly, got a stomach ache and died the following morning. Then I spoke to Charles. We both sobbed inconsolably.
Over the next few days, I spoke to Loucille’s sister many times. She was so like Loucille I felt like I had known her all my life. Eunice spoke with her as well. Loucille and Charles were relatively religious. And they were both active in some kind of church group. Loucille had taken out an insurance policy that covered her own burial. Charles apparently had not. What the insurance didn’t cover was a plot large enough for Charles to be buried beside her when his time was up.
Providence had been good to me, and I was glad to cover the cost of the double plot. I considered it a privilege that fate had offered me this opportunity, as well as the ability to help. It was meaningful that this loving couple should remain united in death, as they had been in life. And I immediately sent a check for the full amount. It was the least that I could do. And the anguish of this terrible news was eased just a little, knowing that had been able, at least in some small way to say “thank you!”. With Charles, eventually, beside her, I hoped, with all my heart, that Loucille would Rest In Peace.
But, that was not to be! Nearly a year later Loucille’s sister called, from Philadelphia. She recounted a most troubling story:
Immediately after Loucille’s funeral, Charles began acting strangely. He refused to talk to anybody, in either the church group, or Loucille’s family. And within a week, even though he was in his eighties, he was living with another woman! Loucille’s sister and her family in Philly had been trying to put the pieces of this mystery together, with the help of Loucille and Charles’ former friends in Detroit, and members of the church, in which both Loucille and Charles had been so active. Lucile’s friends and family had unanimously arrived at the conclusion that Charles had done her in, so he could be with that other woman! And everybody was convinced that the sudden illness that killed Loucille was the result of poison, administered by Charles. By the time Loucille’s sister called us, the family had already contacted the Detroit Police Department, who took a serious interest in the case, and arrangements were being made to have Loucille’s body exhumed for an autopsy.
Words cannot describe how heartbreaking and disturbing this news was to me. The very foundation of my faith in humanity was crumbling. Loucille’s death had been a tragedy, but it was all part of the natural state of things. This, if it was true, was infinitely worse. Part of me could not allow myself to believe that Charles was guilty. Another part was beyond angry, and deep in my darkening soul, that part of me wanted to strangle him. Whichever way one looked at this, it was a horrible situation. I waited, with both hope and dread, for the results of the autopsy. They never came! Eventually, the matter was resolved, but the mystery was never solved.
Resolved but never solved? You might ask how that could be. The answer is a sad one. Loucille’s sister called a few weeks later. I thought that she was calling to inform us of the results of the autopsy. Instead, she told us Charles was dead. He had passed away suddenly, from natural causes, she believed.
Therefore, Loucille’s autopsy, which hadn’t happened yet, never did take place. It would have been pointless, anyway. As the saying goes, some secrets are best taken to the grave. But I have never stopped wondering if Charles had been falsely accused, or if, like the opera that paralleled their lives, Don Jose had murdered Carmen in the end. And there is also one more question that, for me, remains unanswered. Although, I could have simply asked Loucille’s sister, my intuition told me not to. Where was Charles buried? Even now, I don’t believe I want to hear the answer.
And so this brings us to the letter. It is two pages long, one page was written by Charles the other by Loucille. It is dated, January 2nd, 1996. On Christmas morning, the week before, I had been on TV. I taped the show. The only copy I sent out went to Loucille and Charles.
I have debated whether or not to add the letter, here. Rereading it, just now, I realize this is like the movie Rashomon, revealing how several different participants see the same series of events. The first of the two double-sided pages is from Charles. I forgot that he was the age that I am, now, when he wrote this, nearly twenty years ago:
The second letter is from Loucille. I am reading it again, right now, as I type this. And a stunning revelation has occurred to me: Lucille spoke very much like me! Her speech patterns were the same as mine; the tendency to end a sentence with a word that vaguely rhymes. And knowing what her future held for her, the way that things turned out, makes what she says here all the more heartbreaking. It is impossible for me to read it now, without tears in my eyes, beginning with the very first line and the prophetic words “as long as I live”:
“Mel, my love,
What a wonderful gift. A gift I will treasure for as long as I live. And I pray a long healthy, happy, blessed life for all of us. I’m speaking now of the letter you wrote. I laughed, and cried, remembering the old happy times.”
She goes on to describe the fact that she always felt like family and recounts our first meeting.
On the second page she mentions moving to Philly. Nothing had changed. She spoke of that, repeatedly, since the beginning. But this was the first time that she revealed that Charles had children.
And then she says something that speaks to me, between the lines:
“You do look very much like your father, How proud he was and is of you. And so am I.” Loucille was a religious person, it is revealed in the words “and is,” indicating her belief that my dad is still “alive.”
Then she reminds me of something I forgot, the boat I built in “shop,” and raced in the all Detroit competition at Belle Isle. I came in third. I worked on that boat for months, sanding , painting, and perfecting it. My parents had no idea what I was doing in the basement. And on the day of the big race, naturally, it was Loucille and Charles, and my friend Ed Goodman who went to Belle Isle with me. When my mother sold the house on Seven Mile Road, I gave that boat to Ed. He still has it today.
And last of all, she ends with a final line that I am destined to think of often, in the dark and only-ness of night:
“When you’re remembering us, know this, for as long as I live, you will be loved”