All of us, as the year ends, have a story about people, those here and those gone.
You have yours. This is my story.
On a cold snowy New Year’s Eve, you take out the albums, run the home movies. There are the old black and white snapshots of lovers and friends: he in his sailor suit, she in her high school formal, huddling at a party. All now have become shadows on the lawn, the long dead we so loved, frozen in silver frames.
Dead is a hard word, I know. We soften it, we say, “They passed” or “They’re with Jesus now.” We hope there is a heaven so that we can see them all again, well, maybe not all. But they’re gone. There is no hiding it. They are gone, and when we see them paraded before us in home movies and shared photos, doors open we thought were closed.
You can put the albums away, stick them in a drawer and turn the framed photos to the wall when it gets too hard. It’s not so simple for me. I come from the business of show, where once the camera looks at you, there you are, big or small, forever, here and all over the world. There you are. Forever.
On New Year’s Eve and year’s end programs, they run the obituaries of famous people, celebrities who have “passed.” Some of those were friends, dear friends, close friends.
Some became big stars, some already were. Do a scene with Dennis Weaver, for example. Fame doesn’t play a part. You’re both actors, and then you do another and then you’re friends. Forever.
Over the years as I hide out here in the forest, I put all of that behind me, all of those friends who passed, or went to whomever they believed in. I closed doors.
But every night when I turned on the television, watched Turner Classic Movies or re-runs of shows, there they were, old friends that I worked with, ate and drank with, old comrades, old lovers, who got sick and died much too young and left me here alone. Of course I’m not alone now, one of them stayed with me.
She knows what I mean. She knew them too.
One minute we were young and fun, acting and dancing, singing in saloons, sharing dressing rooms and bar stools and beds. I was at their weddings. I babysat their children.
In the mid-50s, New York was home and we were all poor but happy. We were working at our professions and not making much money. You won’t remember the great Geraldine Page. Gerry and I shared corned beef sandwiches and beer at an Irish saloon across from our acting classes on 14th Street. Sometimes Zero Mostel and Annie Bancroft, Bob Culp, and Dom Deluise sat with us in those old booths. The laughter never stopped. Mary Martin’s son Larry Hagman, before he was J.R. in “Dallas,” and I spent a year acting together in a play at the Actor’s Playhouse, where he introduced me to Natalie Wood. Gone. Both gone. Next door, sharing the same dressing room next to ours, Peter Falk and Jason Robards were working in Eugene O’Neil’s “Iceman Cometh.” We all ate dinner at Mother Hubbard’s hamburger kitchen and stole fries from each other’s plates.
The laughter never stopped. And then it did.
Jerry Orbach, my old Waukegan high school buddy, made history in “The Fantastiks,” and long after he was a big Broadway star in “Chicago,” and “42nd Street,” made “Dirty Dancing.” Jerry became Detective Lennie Briscoe in “Law and Order.” Once we danced with the red-haired girl with long legs in a dance hall in Gray’s Lake, Ill. He’s gone now. Much too young.
As the years went by, some moved up to rarified air, and some of us became other voices in other rooms — writers, directors, teachers.
Of course this won’t mean much to you. You have your own memories, your own names. And mine? They don’t need me to keep their names alive. They’re on your screens tonight. I write to keep that time and their faces alive in my heart. That’s what a survivor does. Isn’t it funny? It seems that when I think of them on the streets of Manhattan in the ‘50s, we were so young and we were always saying goodbye, shoving onto a subway, jumping on a bus or catching a cab, and it was always snowing as we waved goodbye.
It’s snowing now as I watch them on the screen tonight. Sometimes I wave.
JP Devine is a Waterville writer.