memories, nostalgia, tragedies, Virginia

German road signs that make me fall down rabbit holes…

A few days ago, when Bill and I were heading home from our trip to the Black Forest, I looked up and noticed a road sign for a town called Hirschberg. Google tells me that Hirschberg is a town in the northwestern part of the German state of Baden-Württemberg (as well as a place in Thuringia). I’ve never been there, and before Monday, I had never noticed that sign. But seeing the name of that town brought back some very old memories from my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia.

This is something I’ve noticed in Europe and the United Kingdom. A lot of the place names here, and in my home state of Virginia, come from surnames. A lot of places in Virginia, especially, are named after places in older establishments. Take, for instance, the town of Kilmarnock, Virginia. It shares that name with a place in Scotland. I guess people from Scotland settled the town in Virginia and named it after their original hometown across the pond. I have to agree, having been to both places, the landscapes are kind of similar.

In any case, when I saw the name Hirschberg, I was immediately reminded of a tragic story from my childhood, over 40 years ago. The date was March 23, 1981. I was eight years old, and a third grader at Botetourt Elementary School. In March 1981, I had only lived in Gloucester for about nine months. My parents bought their business, The Corner Cottage, in the spring of 1980 and we moved to Gloucester on June 21st of that year, the day after my 8th birthday. I experienced quite a culture shock in Gloucester, because we had come from Fairfax, Virginia, which is a MUCH more populated place. And we’d only been in Fairfax for two years; prior to that, we lived on Mildenhall Air Force Base in Suffolk, England. In 1981, I still felt kind of like a foreigner in the United States, having spent three of my conscious years abroad. I wasn’t fitting in very well in Gloucester and, truth be told, I hated it there.

My next sister, Sarah, was sixteen years old on March 23, 1981. She was soon going to be 17 years old, and she attended eleventh grade at Gloucester High School. I would graduate from there myself in 1990. In 1981, 1990 seemed like a million years away. And in 2022, 1990 seems like it was yesterday.

In 1981, the principal at GHS was Mr. Donald W. Hirschberg. I didn’t know anything at all about him, but I do remember Sarah talking about her life at GHS. She probably mentioned the principal, too. She seemed so grown up to me at that time. I remember she was studying French and was even allowed to come to Botetourt to “teach” French to some of the gifted kids. At the time, one of my friends was one of Sarah’s “pupils”.

I don’t think Sarah was at Botetourt on Monday, March 23, 1981, though. That was a day that is still remembered by a lot of my peers because it was the day that Mr. Hirschberg’s wife, Nancy, and their twelve year old daughter, Julie, would die in a horrific car accident. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think another child also died in that crash. I make that assumption because I found a Facebook post about the accident that mentioned another girl who died. Strangely, I don’t remember hearing as much about her.

I was still very new to Gloucester in 1981, so I never had the pleasure of meeting Julie. She was three years older than me, and went to what was then called Gloucester Middle School and later became an elementary school (after I had finished GMS myself). I do remember the accident, though. It happened at a time when Gloucester had very few traffic lights. I know it’s a cliche, but in 1981, that county was still very much covered in farmland. We had a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut that served the whole county. The water in Gloucester Courthouse, which is about a mile or two from where I lived, had really disgusting water that tasted like sulfur. Our house had well water, which was only marginally better. I remember turning on the taps and seeing rusty water.

I’m not totally sure where the fatal intersection was, but I know I drove past it many times. Route 17 runs from north to south through Gloucester. It’s the main artery through the county, and it’s virtually impossible to avoid driving on it if you’re traveling through Gloucester. I actually think the intersection was one very close to my home. For years, there was nothing but a stop sign there, where people would wait as traffic coming down Route 17 barreled down the highway. Since 1981, the farmland has been turned into a huge Walmart complex. People probably don’t zoom past that intersection anymore, because it’s now heavily moderated by traffic lights. If that wasn’t the intersection, then it was one not far from there, and I would have passed it many times over the 19 years Gloucester was my actual home.

So there I was on Monday, October 3, 2022, speeding down the Autobahn, suddenly remembering Gloucester in the early 80s. I saw that sign for the town of Hirschberg in Germany, and it made me think of twelve year old Julie… a girl I never knew, but heard a lot about when I was growing up. Knowing how Gloucester was in the 80s, I feel very sure we would have probably met at some point. Back then, Gloucester was the kind of place where most people knew each other. I don’t think it’s like that anymore, though. I do still know a lot of people who live there, as a number of my classmates either never left or have returned with their own families.

I got curious about Mr. Hirschberg, too. So I looked him up, and discovered that he died in 1998. He had moved to Poquoson, a city not far from Gloucester, and remarried a woman with the same first name as his late first wife’s. Mr. Hirschberg, at age 61, wasn’t that old when he passed. I wonder if he never got over the grief of that terrible accident. People on Facebook were still discussing it as recently as 2011, with some saying they would never forget that night. A few said it was the first tragedy of their lives, and the first funeral they ever attended. Some said that they still think of Julie and the other girl who died every time they go through that intersection.

I think about the fact that Julie was just three years older than me, and it appears that she was a very popular girl with a lot of promise. She was involved in many community activities and probably would have gone on to live a very productive life. It amazes me that her life ended the way it did– so suddenly, tragically, and randomly, it seems. It could have been any one of us who met that fate. I wonder what she would think about me– someone who never met her, but was one of her contemporaries– thinking and writing about her 41 years after her death, reading about her on the Internet, which didn’t even really exist for regular people back in 1981. I wonder what she would think about people in the “You grew up in Gloucester” Facebook group, still remembering her in 2011 and posting about that dreadful day in March 1981. Julie never experienced Facebook, but I bet she’d know it well if she had lived to see adulthood. I never knew Julie, but I knew a lot of her friends, and they still miss her so many years later. That amazes me.

I haven’t been to Gloucester since 2010, when my mom finally sold the house I grew up in. I was astonished by how different Gloucester was then. It was weird to walk through the house and see things I hadn’t seen since we moved in back in 1980. Our house was old, and kind of weird, so there was a big plumbing pipe coming up through the floor in the tiny room that had served as my bedroom in the early 80s. It had been covered by my twin sized bed for many years. Now it was laid bare, looking as strange as it did in 1980. Even our house is very different now than it was in 1980. My parents doubled its size in 1984, when they added on a new kitchen and a knitting and needlepoint “shop” for my mom to run. My dad had a new custom picture framing “shop” built in 1997, knocking down the weird building that was erected there some decades before. Now, it’s owned by the lady my dad hired in 1989 to help him frame pictures.

Isn’t it funny how the most random things can cause a person to fall down a rabbit hole of memories? Or, at least that’s how it happens for me. I used to wish I was born in 1968, so I could be closer in age to my sisters and have more of a relationship with them. But now I’m glad I was born when I was. I think it was the right time. I don’t know why my mind takes me on these tangential rides, but I have a feeling someone else out there still remembers Julie. I’ll probably be “visited” here by people from Gloucester, who can recall the spring of 1981, too. I am not a Gloucester native, but I know a lot of people are, and they have long memories.

I was pretty fortunate to grow up in Gloucester, even though I hated it in the 80s. My sisters were all Air Force brats, so they were moved constantly. I don’t know if they really feel like they have a “hometown” like I do. They’ve settled in different places, but their childhoods were nomadic. I used to be envious of them, but then I became an Army wife and experienced that lifestyle myself. I think it would have been hard for me as a child. It’s hard as an adult. It’s nice to know that there is a place where people remember me, even if no one in my family lives there anymore. I’m glad to have some roots… although I doubt I’ll be moving back there. I don’t think I fit there anymore. It’s like the old Neil Diamond song, “I Am… I Said”, when he sings:

Well I’m New York City born and raised
But nowadays
I’m lost between two shores
L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home
New York’s home
But it ain’t mine no more

Yeah. I can relate to that.

Just because it’s a great song that still works in 2022.
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movies, narcissists, reviews

Repost: My review of Mommie Dearest, the film… 

I wrote this review for Epinions in October 2007.  We were living in Germany the first time and I needed stuff to do.  So I watched Mommie Dearest and reviewed it.  Here it is reposted for your perusal, because I mentioned it in today’s fresh content. I have not edited this review from its original incarnation.

I wonder how many kids dream about growing up the child of a movie star. On the surface, it seems like it would be such a sweet life of untold indulgences. After all, movie stars don’t have problems. They all live in mansions and never have to think about money or consequences for their actions. They’re surrounded by people who come at their beck and call. Surely it must be the same for their children, right? Of course not. As CNN shows us with its daily reports on Britney Spears’ legal troubles, stars have their problems, too. And their children often have to deal with the aftermath.

Christina Crawford is the late Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter. In 1978, she published a tell-all book about her experiences having Joan Crawford as a mother. The 1981 film Mommie Dearest, based on Christina Crawford’s book of the same name, is the dramatized story of what Christina endured growing up in Hollywood’s glare. Mommie Dearest, the book, made quite a controversial splash back when it was first published. Three years later, the film version, starring Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, made a very different kind of splash. Even though a lot of critics panned Mommie Dearest, it still gets regular airplay today. Certain audiences, most notably homosexuals and transvestites, love this film and have made it a cult classic.

I have seen Mommie Dearest dozens of times, first on HBO, then on regular cable, and finally on my own DVD. I recently purchased the Hollywood Royalty Edition of the Mommie Dearest DVD. At $9.95, it was a steal and a great way to kill time until my husband and I can move out of our German hotel room and into our new home. I watched Mommie Dearest again last night. Every time I see it, I notice something new.

Thanks to Crawford’s book and Dunaway’s over the top portrayal of Joan Crawford in the movie, Joan Crawford has become sort of a poster child of child abusers. Indeed, there are several infamous scenes in this movie that can be, depending on how the viewer takes it, either very disturbing or hilarious. Take, for instance, the “wire hangers” scene, the scene for which Mommie Dearest is perhaps best known. Dunaway, as Crawford, comes into young Christina’s room to say goodnight to her sleeping daughter and make sure that everything is in its place. Wearing cold cream and a headband, Joan goes into Christina’s closet and starts thumbing through her clothes, all neatly hung on satin hangers. Suddenly, the movie star comes across a dress on a wire hanger. Enraged, she snatches the frilly creation off the rack and cradles it in her arms. Then, at the top of her lungs, she screams “NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER!”

Sure, lots of people make fun of that scene. Dunaway’s cold cream mask and wild hair make her look like an outraged modern day Michael Jackson. She tears all of the clothes off the rack, dumps them in a pile, and forces Christina out of bed. Then, completely out of control, she starts beating the crying child with the wire hanger. The scene is totally over the top and yet it always sends a chill down my spine. When I look in Dunaway’s heavily made up eyes, I see fury that makes me believe that she’s an angry, abusive mother and Mara Hobel, very impressively playing the young version of Christina Crawford, is her terrified little girl.

Diana Scarwid, who plays the teenaged and adult Christina, is also very compelling in her role. Somehow, she’s able to convincingly demonstrate the paradox that affects children of abusive parents. She hates her mother, yet she also loves her. As she grows up and her mother inevitably starts to lose power over her, viewers still see that love/hate struggle. She knows her mother is crazy, yet she can’t bear to lose her. She faithfully puts up with her mother’s insanity, seemingly unable to cut the ties. Then, when Joan Crawford dies and the will is read, Christina and her brother, Christopher, learn that she didn’t leave them a cent “for reasons well known to them.”

Mommie Dearest was produced by Frank Yablans and directed by Frank Perry. Yablans also wrote the screenplay. According to the special features that are included with the Hollywood Royalty version of Mommie Dearest, Yablans originally meant for Anne Bancroft to play Joan Crawford. But Bancroft’s Joan Crawford didn’t seem to be working. Faye Dunaway wanted the part and when she was made up, looked just like the star. I wasn’t around when Joan Crawford was a big star, but I have seen pictures of her. Dunaway is a dead ringer. Moreover, the makeup and costumes in this movie are fantastic. The sets are also incredibly authentic. Whenever I watch this movie, I often forget that it was made in 1981. It really does evoke the glamour and style of the 1940s. It’s not until the very end of the movie that I remember that the film adaptation of Mommie Dearest was made less than thirty years ago.

Despite the fact that I love this movie for its sheer camp factor, there are a few things about it that I don’t like. First of all, the movie isn’t entirely true to the book. Of course, Mommie Dearest is a dramatization based on a book, but it leads viewers to believe that Joan Crawford only had two children when, in fact, she had four. Her adopted daughters Cathy and Cindy wanted nothing to do with the film, so they aren’t mentioned at all. Also, Dunaway’s performance is often really outrageous, so much so that it draws attention away from the very serious topic of child abuse and almost turns it into a joke. Is it funny to see Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford so outraged by being called “box office poison” that she feverishly destroys a rose garden with a pair of hedge clippers? Sure. But imagine being a child in real life watching something like that. Dunaway’s performance is so crazed that a lot of audiences react with laughter instead of shock.

Ditto the scene in which Dunaway, as Joan Crawford, brings Christina (played by Scarwid) home from her boarding school in a snit because Christina got caught kissing a boy. When Christina openly defies her mother, declaring that she’s not one of her fans, Dunaway, as Crawford, tackles the girl, grabbing her around the neck and choking her. It’s a grotesque, disturbing scene that, again, is so over the top that people make fun of it. It turns what should be a tragic scene into something that’s funny. While I agree with comedian George Carlin’s assertion that a person can make a joke out of anything, somehow it seems wrong to do it with child abuse.

The Hollywood Royalty version of Mommie Dearest consists of the movie, which is rated PG and runs for 128 minutes, commentary by campy filmmaker John Waters, three features that explain how the movie was made and include interviews with the movie’s makers and actors, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. Although I saw this movie many times when I was a child, if I were a parent, I would probably think twice about letting a young child see it. Although I counted only two swear words (including one use of the f word), there are several violent scenes that involve children that might be frightening for them.

Loved or hated, Mommie Dearest is rarely ignored or forgotten. I’m proud to have it as part of my personal movie collection. And, after watching this, I can’t help but remember that movie stars and their children have problems too.

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