“Skinny is as skinny does.”
But wait my friend, contrary to what you may be expecting, this little lesson is not about diets or exercise or dress size. It’s about filling up on life.
I saw the movie Auntie Mame starring Rosalind Russell at a drive-in theater at the highly impressionable age of ten. I went to see it with my Auntie Alice. She was the kind of aunt who was excellent at letting children be children, and she always did special, individual things with my brother, sister and me. She didn’t lump us together into group activities we couldn’t all possibly be interested in. And I loved her dearly. (She passed away several years ago and I miss her great observational wit and wisdom.)
Aunt Alice was actually a great aunt-not because of her personality which was indeed great, but because she was my mom’s Aunt first. Alice was a cook by profession (I’ve had the good fortune to have had two aunts who were professional cooks—YUMMY!) and I loved going to Auntie’s house. Loved watching her bake cakes from scratch, whipping egg whites with a whisk, not a beater (not the kind you plug in, the kind with the handle you turned) and gently folding the fluffy mixture into the batter. She always put a little coffee in her chocolate frosting—which my mother never did and I thought that made it sophisticated and extra delicious. She told me silly stories about her own childhood in a small rural town in western Pennsylvania. I was fascinated by the details of her preparations for Uncle Al to come home from work—he was a Pullman porter for New York Central Railroad and was often gone several days in a row. Aunt Alice always made his arrival back home something special, always. She was the sweet, kind, loving, gentle, buxom, sturdy shoe, flowered apron wearing kind of aunt you always saw in the movies—and she and Uncle Al always drove a Chevrolet–which she unfailingly pronounced “Chivvy.”
Uncle was working and I don’t know where my brother and sister were, but the Auntie Mame movie night was one of “my special nights” with Auntie Alice. Just me and her and plenty of popcorn in the Chivvy on a warm summer night. It was my idea of perfect “Auntiedom”—until Mame Dennis burst onto the screen.
From the moment Mame appeared at the top of the stairs of her Beekman Place townhouse, in her black lace Chinese-style pajamas with a Mandarin collar, gold duster carrying a mile long cigarette holder and talking a mile a minute, I was hooked on a new kind of Auntie. Mame rushed down the stairs, but moved like she floating –her dramatic bejeweled jacket flapping and flying out behind her like wings as she descended into a party already in full swing. The guests were an eclectic bunch—by 1950’s standards. There were men wearing turbans, thobes and kufiyas, women dressed like men, all sorts of things that at ten, I only “sort of” understood were different from the normal party scenes in movies. My parents gave parties where adults got dressed up and drank whiskey sours, daiquiris and munched on canapes and everyone smoked and talked and laughed and listened to music. Other than the fact that the guests in my house were black instead of white, my mom and dad’s gatherings looked pretty much like any other party I’d seen on TV. But Mame and her party were not like anything I’d ever seen before.
Growing up, I had a host of aunts. Most were really family. Others were the adult women with whom my family was close—too close for us children to call them Miss or Mrs…you know, we all have those aunties (and uncles.) And they were, to a one, all kind, good women. They wore good simple, dark dresses to church on Sunday with coordinating modest hats, sensible shoes and Supp-Hose or too beige stockings over brown legs. They kept neat houses. They made potato salad, fried chicken and pot roasts. I even had a much younger aunt who was in college in the 50’s and she dazzled me with her circle skirts and sweaters and the pouffy strapless dresses she wore to dances. She had a manicure set with Revlon Cherries in the Snow—very very red nail polish on the dressing table in her bedroom. My other aunts didn’t wear nail polish—red or any other color. They were too busy snapping string beans, scrubbing floors, ironing sheets and dealing with their children.
But of all the aunts I had known, mine and those of friends, of all the aunts I’d read about in books I’d never run into an aunt—or anyone else for that matter, who wore black lace pants, ate with porcelain chopsticks, had white Austrian shades in their bedrooms, slept in bias cut satin nightgowns with matching sleep masks or just seemed so totally, utterly happy and free. “I’m your Auntie Mame!!” she shouted with enough joie de vivre for a host of aunties.
And I was smitten.
I was charmed by Mame’s style. Yes, she was rich—at least for part of the movie, but that’s not what won me over. I was intoxicated by her unabashed, exuberance for… EVERYTHING. I had never, in my short ten year life span, seen an adult act quite so—full-out ALIVE. Where was her reserve? The caution of editing your speech because “little pitchers have big ears”? The mature, mellow tones of warning about appropriate, inappropriate or ladylike behavior? Where were her sensible clothes? Where was the sturdy furniture upholstered in Herculon fabric meant to endure a lifetime of indignities and abuse from dirty sneakers, cookie crumbs, crayons, Elmer’s Glue, dog hair, spilled milk and Kool-Aid, puke and dropped Popsicles? None of these trappings of responsible adulthood were part of Mame Dennis’ life before she became the guardian of her young orphaned nephew Patrick—nor did they creep in, and ever so slowly take over, after Patrick moved in—and grew up. I kept waiting for Auntie Mame to turn into Aunt Bee from Mayberry (even though the Andy Griffith show wasn’t on the air yet, you know the kind of auntie I mean.) But it never happened.
I was fascinated by Mame’s quick wit and outspoken intolerance of those who were intolerant. I was seduced by her keen, wise observations of the big and little things around her. To me she was a living (albeit on the movie screen) version of the Serenity Prayer,
which I had just learned in Girl Scouts. (No we weren’t secretly a bunch of boozing little girls who learned Bill W.’s prayer for any reason other than our Scout leader taught it to us.) But Mame Dennis changed what she could. Accepted what she could not change. And in my ten year old heart and mind, I just knew she was smart enough to know the difference between the two.
Mame had a unique perspective on life—her own life, not anyone else’s. She didn’t preach or proselytize. She didn’t judge. She didn’t much care what other people thought. She didn’t worry about whether they approved of her. She enjoyed the good times with unembarrassed, unbridled joy. She weathered the bad times with equanimity, grace and hope. And Mame Dennis allowed no space in her life —not even one tiny little corner, for the mundane or the dull. Mame was fully involved in LIVING the moments she was in. When things got bad after Mame lost all her money, she tried her best to “settle down” to put a lid on herself and her life. She tried to dress conservatively, to be more formal and reserved and adult like.
But no matter how hard she tried, it wouldn’t take. Mame was like Teflon and the ordinary couldn’t stick to her.
And I was, for all intents and purposes, smack in the midst of the biggest “girl crush” of
my life from the moment I met her in that 1956 Chevy on a summer night in 1958 at the Wherle Drive In.
The most famous line from this movie, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to
death!” has also been declared among the top 100 movie lines in one of “those” polls. This is the starvation I refer to in the title of this Lesson.
I wanted to be like Mame Dennis. I could barely wait to be grown up enough. I wanted to dine at her banquet. I took her invitation as a challenge, one I heard and accepted—at ten. And I secretly vowed (to no one but myself) that I would not ever be one of those “poor suckers starving to death.”
I grant you that Mame Dennis as portrayed by her nephew Patrick, was in all likelihood only supposed to be in her early 40’s, but as a kid, there was no discernable difference between forty-something and fifty or sixty-anything. All of those decades were too far removed from my little ten year old self to seem real or possible. But actual numbers notwithstanding, I was aware that I wanted to be older. Not seventeen or twenty five, but a real, grown up WOMAN, who, like Mame, knew that living should be, could be, a full time occupation.
I became an Auntie myself thirty three years ago—and I was determined to share my hunger for the banquet of life with the progeny of my siblings. I did not have the constraints or responsibilities of parenthood. I was going to be their Auntie Mame. I wanted them to know me, what was important to me, who I was as a person rather than who I was supposed to be in my role as Auntie. I dressed up to make a Tuesday an occasion. I took off for New York and the fashion business. I wrote books. I gave my nine year old nephew a box of money for Christmas. It was only fifty dollars but all in singles looked and felt to him like so much more. When they were little, my nieces and nephew called me “Auntie Martini.” The name is one I happily earned.
My nieces and nephew have all now seen “Auntie Mame” – the Rosalind Russell version and they get it…and me! (Do not waste your time with the Lucille Ball one. Don’t get me wrong, Lucy was a great comedienne and she had her time and place but attempting the role of Mame Dennis should not have been on her list of accomplishments.)
There is a quote by Clarence B. Kelland, I use often around Father’s Day—“My father didn’t teach me how to live. He lived, and let me watch him do it.” This is what I have done, or hope I have done as an Auntie—exactly like Mame did. But not just as an aunt, I firmly believe the “Banquet Mentality” is at the core of my life’s philosophy and if when I am gone, people say about me “She knew how to LIVE!” I will have done it right.
We are all invited to partake of the banquet. I wish more people believed that. The feast may not always be lobster and Kobe beef filet mignon. You may find a tough little piece gristle or bit of unchewable, bitter tomato stem on your plate more often than you like, or think is fair. But on the whole, the table is heavy laden and bountiful and the choices are plentiful.
We can take the trouble to look for the good and fill up on it, or we can chew and choke on the bad that’s right in front of us—and complain.
The choice is yours. But I’m not into starving yourself to a size zero. That leaves you with a middle that’s empty, void. I am all for “supersizing” your portion whenever possible. Gobble up as much of the good and joyous in the world as you possibly can—love, friendship, sights, sounds, smells, feelings, moments are all there for the taking and enjoying. Don’t live skinny! Fill yourself up! Get FAT on life!
I am the older, fully grown up woman I wanted to be at ten. I am LIVING as though my very soul and heart and mind depended on it… because it does.
This very day, you will find a framed “Mame” poster on the wall of my bathroom and a small photo in my bedroom. She keeps watch every day—making sure I don’t give up my seat at the banquet table—at least not without a fight!
Look for your invitation to the Banquet. Hmmm— did you toss it out with junk mail? Jam it in the corner of the desk drawer with the bills? Keep looking it’s there someplace.
Still can’t find it? I’m not surprised. Of course now the work is on you.
Go to the card shop. Buy the most beautiful invitation you can find. (To those of you clever and crafty enough, feel free to make your own.)
Fill out the inside as follows:
Date: Year In and Year Out
Time: Every Minute of Every Day
Place: Wherever You Are
Occasion: The I Woke Up Today Banquet—All You Can Eat!
Mail this invitation to yourself.
When it arrives open it and leave where you can see it—a bulletin board, the fridge door—as a regular reminder not to skip a meal.