The Artist

“How was the movie?”my dad asks me as I settle into one of his armchairs.

“What movie?” I say. My father is 90, lives in a retirement complex and now uses a walker.

“The film Bob took you to see… in Ann Arbor…last weekend. Laurie?”

“Oh, that movie…that was…ah…it was the…”

“The silent film,” my father says. He shakes his head.

“Entertaining,” I say, amazed at his memory. The man has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has been living in an assisted living apartment for almost a year. My mind is blanked on the movie’s name. “It was a historical piece about how the change in film from silent to talkies affected the lives of the actors.”

“Was it in black and white?”

“It was made just like they were in the old days. The lead character of the story was a big star…on top of the world all through the 20’s. When Hollywood began producing talking pictures he was out of a job. His voice couldn’t match the dashing characters he had become known for playing. He lost his home and wife in the crash of ‘29.”

“Sounds like Rudolph Valentino’s life,” Dad said.

“The lead character was Clifford Valentin. I think the film might have been patterned after Valentino. Living during those times must have been tough…the ‘20s, the crash of ‘29, and then the Great Depression. Did you ever see a silent film, Dad? I don’t mean Charlie Chaplin reruns. I mean a silent film at the time they were considered the latest in entertainment.”

“I saw one,” he says.

“In Standish? At the Our Theater? Was it open then?”

“It opened when you were in elementary school. Mom took you to see ‘Gone With the Wind.’ Remember? Didn’t one of your teachers own the theater?”

I can’t believe a man with a disintegrating brain can remember that. I do remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Pearlman. I remember standing on tiptoe before the glass window to give her my quarter on Sunday afternoons. My brother and I watched every Abbot and Costello or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film made. “The silent film you saw, Dad, can you remember anything about it?”

“Sure. It was shown on an outdoor screen in Bay City. Seats were in a grandstand. Rudy drove us in the seven passenger Buick that belonged to Ma and Pa.”

“Rudy?”

“My brother.”

“I thought Rudy Schmidt was a cousin. Was Mary his mother?”

“Rudy was my brother from my mother’s first marriage…the one to the crazy man,” he says.

“Dad, I’m confused.”

“So was he. Mary Schwab, your grandmother, was about 18 in 1898 when she married old man Schmidt. During the ten years their marriage lasted they had three children, Linda, Rich and Rudy. After their divorce in 1908, she left the older children, Linda and Rich, with Schwab relatives in Bay City where the couple had lived. Crazy Schmidt was institutionalized. Mary moved to rural Standish with her youngest son, Rudy. Mike Schwab and his wife, Martha took them in. Mike was her brother. That’s where she met William Hartman, my father and your grandfather.”

A divorce in 1908 must have been socially sticky. No wonder she got out-a-town. “How did Grandpa and Grandma meet?”

“He was raised on a farm less than four miles from Mike Schwab’s. Pa told me they met at a barn dance. They were married about 1910 and had their first child, Curly, in 1911. Pa was 37. Ma was 31. Rudy Schmidt lived with them on the farm.”

“Why did it take Grandpa so long to find a wife?”

“His parents homesteaded the land. They were already old when they emigrated from Germany in 1881 at that time the government gave out parcels of land. You had to be at least 21 and the head of a household. ”

“That would have been the Homestead Act of 1862 and the land they gave away was public land. Did you know President Lincoln signed that act?”

“No I didn’t. You had to improve the land and live on it for five years before it was legally yours. Grandpa and Grandma built a big log cabin on our side of the road, cleared the land of trees and farmed a hundred and sixty acres, eighty on each side of Johnsfield Road. When Pa and Mary were married, they tore down the log cabin and built the house both of us grew up in. Pa and I were still dynamiting tree roots from those fields when I was a kid. ”

“Where was Mike Schwab’s farm?”

“I thought you wanted to know about the silent film.”

“What was playing?”

“Laurie, that was 80 years ago.” He rolled his eyes. ” I do remember the Buick had an electric start and a jump seat built into the back of the front seat. That’s where I rode. My mother was with us.”

“Was there organ music with the silent film?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t remember that.”

I’m glad this old man with dementia can forget something. “What else do you remember about going to that movie?”

“I lost my shoe. It fell down under the grandstand. I had to walk back to the Buick with one bare foot.” He laughs, remembering. “When we got home Pa was so mad he threw the one remaining shoe up into the attic. I found it years later. It may still be up there.”

My brother now owns the family farm. I remember playing with him in that attic. It was hot, but the best hiding place in the house. I remember balancing on those floor joists with nothing between me and the ceiling below but battens of insulation. I hid my diary from my brother up there the same day I caught him reading it, and the last day I recorded my personal thoughts. I found the red plastic covered journel years later, but never saw that shoe. “Dad, how old would you have been when you saw the silent film?”

“Maybe ten,” he says. “Let’s see.” He counts on his fingers. “I remember where I was born in the farmhouse in 1921, the exact corner of the living room. We didn’t call it the living room then. It’s the same corner where my mother died. She was 52. For a whole year before she died she stayed in Bay City where her family could nurse her. She came home to be with us for a short time before she left us, but now I can’t remember what she looked like.”

“Didn’t she have cancer?”

He nods. “They removed her eye. I remember seeing her in bed in the corner of that room with a bandage covering part of her face. All seven of us said goodbye to her, one at a time in that room. She told us she was going to see our brother, Gilbert in heaven.” Dad slips into his memories.

“What was that room used for before your parents were married?” I say

“For navy bean storage in anticipation of the price going up, or until we needed cash. Ma let us play in that room when I was little, but after she died the room was used to store burlap bags of wheat or oats…whatever crop we needed to keep dry.”

When I grew up the room had reverted back to happier uses. My brother and I watched television in that room. I dusted wine goblets that were never used in that room. I read Mom’s Book-of-the-Month Club adult novels from a book-case in the same corner of the room where my father was born and Grandma died.

“Dad, you couldn’t have been ten when you saw the silent film.”

“Let’s see,” he says. “I was five when Ma died. She had been sick for a more than a year. I don’t remember my little sister being at the movie. She was born two years after me. I remember Pa giving her to the Pearlman family in town after Ma died.”

“He gave your little sister away?”

“She was three. Pa had his hands full taking care of the rest of us.”

“That must have been tough.”

Dad shakes his head in affirmation. He’s quiet for quite a while.

“So Dad,” I say to bring the conversation back. I did the math. You couldn’t have been ten when you went to the movie. Aunt Ester wouldn’t have been born yet.”

Dad nods. “It was during the mid-20’s.”

“You were born in 1921. Ester was born 3 years later and she wasn’t at the film. You were three. So you must have seen the film in 1924. Right?”

“I guess that makes sense.” “Dad, I never knew you had a brother that died?”

“You mean you don’t remember that photo you found in the album upstairs…in the junk room. You better get your head checked. I remember you asked me why we kept a picture of a boy in a coffin.”

“That was your brother?”

“That was Gilbert. He was three when he died. It was a terrible farm accident. He was riding on the seat of a manure spreader with Pa who was driving the horses. Pa didn’t see Gilbert fall backwards until it was too late. That happened a couple of years before I was born.

“Who took care of all of you after your mother died?”

“Hattie. She was 14 and the oldest girl. Rudy, Curly and Lenny went to work in the CCC camps. They had to be 16 to work there. Pa worked there, too. He was the camp cook. Hattie, Sally and I worked the farm and went to school.

“You stayed alone.”

“We weren’t alone. Uncle Ralph’s family lived across the road. When the war started Curly and Len joined the Army and sent money home to help the rest of us.”

I look at my dad. This is the man who had to work the farm during the war to produce food for his country. This is the man who promised me when I was little that he would never let a black bear come out of my closet to eat me. This is the man who told tall tales around the dinner table to amuse his children. This is the man with an eighth grade education who worked two jobs to send his kids through college.

I don’t think Rudolph Valentino had such a tough life.

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