(From a previous Christmas, but still good. Yeah – yeah — still good.)
It was the hot summer of 1967 when we moved into my great-grandmother’s boarding house. (I know — what’s August got to do with Christmas?)
Honestly, it was a boarding house. Grandma Florence (whom we called “Grandma Florency”) had inherited the house at some point and had taken in boarders after her divorce in the 1940’s. Fortunately for her, the old house at 653 Garfield Street in my hometown of Valparaiso Indiana was a block or two from the University, so the house was always in demand by roomers ranging from drunks to college students to maiden ladies. The house was warrened into a subset of loose apartments by all the doors, but the only locks in the house were 1930’s versions that used skeleton keys readily available from the Ace Hardware store downtown. In the mid 1960’s Midwest, we really didn’t need anything more secure.
The house was old and had basement apartments, mid-level apartments, upstairs apartments, and an attic room my bachelor Uncle Howard lived in for most of his adult life. He’d never married and never shown an interest in anybody but taking care of Momma, so he lived in the attic and worked as a janitor at the Indiana General Magnet plant. So we were surrounded by family and a traveling collection of weirdos when my parents divorced, and mom moved us into the big, rambling boarding house.
It was the perfect environment to be a nine-year-old. Uncle Bud and Aunt Margaret brought Grandma Florency dinner a couple of times a week and stopped to look in on Howard and us kids when Mom was going to school nights for her Nursing degree. Uncle Howard would drift in and out, almost ghostly, from his attic apartment from time to time. The doorway to his attic was right next to my bedroom and right across from the bathroom, so there was a sort of intersection of traffic right outside my door at all times.
Mom’s sister and her husband (Aunt Marley and Uncle Gerts) would stop by once a month or so to make repairs to the old shambling house for Grandma Florency, and my grandmother (Florence’s daughter-in-law) would babysit us kids on nights mom was at school. I’m not sure we even missed the absence of my father or would have cared with all this family flipping merrily through our house at any given time.
The center of the house was Grandma Florency’s apartment. It was all dark wood and oak and crystal with beautiful oriental rugs on the floors and lace doilies on top of the furniture and backs of the couches. A pendulum clock on the mantle monotonously intoned the slow, steady passage of time when you stepped through it’s doors, and all running children were stopped in their tracks. The air smelled of mothballs and the furniture creaked when you sat in it, if it didn’t release a plume of long-withheld dust from deep inside the overstuffed cushions.
It was into this time-stifling atmosphere that I entered one day. I was to wait in Grandma Florency’s apartment for someone to come pick me up after school. I really wanted to ride my bike in the warm afternoon sun, but Grandma wanted to keep an eye on me. i knocked on her door and she admitted me into her sanctum sanctorum living room with grave solemnity — which is almost poisonous for a nine-year old. Another lady was sitting in the room with her, sipping tea in china cups and saucers, which was something she never did. This lady was important.
“Johnny, can you say Hello to Miss Bondy?,”asked my Great-grandmother. “Miss Bondy is one of my friends from out of town. She lives in California — do you know where California is?” Of course I knew — it was just past the land of Oz, on the end of the United States before you fell off the world into the Pacific Ocean, where strange and exotic human beings like Hawaiians and Alaskan eskimos lived. Grandma might as well have introduced me to Dorthy from The Wizard of Oz, or Santa Claus, or the Queen of England. They were all fictional characters as far as I was concerned, and I wasn’t the least bit interested in her fantasies. Grandma explained she had grown up with the fictional Miss Bondy in Valparaiso, but Miss Bondy had moved to California for some reason, and they only kept up through letters.
I looked at Miss Bondy and said “H’lo.” She very graciously smiled at me and had a mischievous twinkle to her eye, like there was some shared joke between the two of them that I didn’t quite fathom. I asked to go ride my bike and she let me do that, and the two old childhood friends stood on the hot August sidewalk watching me ride in circles until whatever relative it was arrived to pick me up.
And that was the day I met Beulah Bondi.
I had no idea who she was at the time, and I kick myself today for not being more polite and gracious. I had no idea my grandmother was personal friends with Jimmy Stewart’s screen mother, and John-Boy Walton’s grandmother. I had no idea this woman had been nominated for Oscars many times, and would win an Emmy in just a few years for her work in The Waltons TV show.
And what did I care? I was nine years old and knew everything in the damned world.
Of course, today when I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” the movie seems much more familiar to me. The Baily Boarding House seems to be startlingly familiar — and it should, because I grew up in a suspiciously similar house on Garfield Street. Bedford Falls could pass with few modifications for Valparaiso Indiana, and Ms Bailey looked just as “at-home” in that house as she had sitting in Grandma Florency’s living room that hot August day.
We don’t have anything like that day and place and time anymore. But at Christmas, we can pretend it is, just for a little while. We can sing “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” and hear Janie Bailey banging the tune out on the piano, and crowd around the tree with family and friends, seeing Ma Bailey in the corner with that little twinkle in her eye again.
And, I do.