On January 22nd of this year I lost someone very close to me. The someone I was closest to, in fact. She was (is) my best friend, my daughter. The love of my life a lot of people say, though this someone wasn’t actually a person. She was better—she was a dog. A nearly 19-year-old Silver Dapple Dachshund named Elizabeth Alaina Freeman, Libby for short. I got her when I was 11 and going through my Queen Elizabeth I phase. I was there when she was born, was the first person she saw when she opened her eyes and the first to hold her. As fate mercifully had it, I was also the last person she saw and the last one to hold her. She died in my arms while I was sleeping. I woke to find her looking at me, eyes unmoving.
Last week I turned 30. It was the first birthday of mine she hadn’t been part of in almost 20 years. She was with me when my dad was in prison, when my mom worked two jobs, when I came back from the hospital after trying to kill myself, for my first kiss and high school and college graduations. She was there when I got married, when I got my first piece published, when I found out my first book was going to be published. She was even there when I watched my first Howard Hawks movie. We traveled all over the USA and Europe together. We moved across the world twice. Libby was puppy-sized her whole life and her small size coupled with her badass personality made everyone stop and take notice when she walked down the street. She has admirers around the world.
We did everything together—went to the movies, grocery shopped, worked, you name it. I never left her at home like a lot of people do with their pets (and children) because, well, I wanted her to be included in everything and she wanted to be included. In the last year of her life, she walked on the Brooklyn Bridge, pranced around Prague and celebrated her last Christmas in Portland’s Pearl District. She loved life. She loved adventure and smelling and exploring new things. I loved it a little too much when we had matching nail polish. She loved it a little too much when we shared an ice cream cone. I can also safely say that Libby loved movies or, at least, loved watching them with me. She watched damn near every movie I watched from 1997 to January of 2016.
That’s a lot of movies.
The night/morning before she died, I felt the end might be near. I told her all the things I wanted to and should have said. I also said—for the first time ever—that it was okay for her to go. I would be okay because she had made sure I would be okay. She was my greatest protector. I kept her on my chest the day she died because I wasn’t ready to hand her over to anyone just yet. I wanted to hold her for one more day. My husband made arrangements to have her cremated the next morning. Sometime in the afternoon, he thought it might be a good idea to turn on the TV and distract me with some silly program. TCM was on, though I wasn’t looking at the TV.
“Dad, is mom really dead?” was all I heard.
I immediately looked up. The movie playing was The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), of all fucking things. Baby Ron Howard was asking his dad, Glenn Ford, if his beloved mother was really dead. He stood on the stairwell at school and was almost eye-level with his father when he asked.
“Yes, Eddie, she is.”
Yes, Sara, Libby is really dead. I watched the movie like I had never watched a movie before because it was obvious the universe was trying to tell me something. I watched the whole thing with Libby dead, but seemingly asleep and snuggly on my chest. I wasn’t much older than baby Ron Howard when I got Libby.
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father has been on my mind a lot since then. Its director, Vincente Minnelli, has too. It seems obvious now, but I guess I had taken it for granted that Minnelli was such a beautifully melancholic filmmaker. There’s a sad, sometimes tragic undertone to nearly all of his pictures. Growing up in the Minnelli world is often a harsh state of affairs, just ask Tootie Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Gigi or Sandra Dee in The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Behind the colorful, gorgeous scenery and fantasy of Minnelli’s movies is always the cruel reality of, well, reality. St. Louis isn’t as great as New York. Van Gogh went insane creating his art. Buying a 43 foot trailer probably wasn’t a good investment. Appeasing the desires of a sad teenage boy might not have been the smartest idea in the world. These are all truths that are plain to see while watching the movies, but it all somehow seems gloomier after being wooed and wowed by Minnelli for a couple of hours. He made everything so darn glorious. You want to believe everything you’re being shown, want to believe that Gigi and Gaston live happily ever after, that Dean Martin and Judy Holliday will continue to dance under the moonlight long after the credits stop rolling.
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father isn’t glorious, however, at least not compared to the rainbow vibrancy of movies like Brigadoon (1954) and An American in Paris (1951). It’s a tremendously sad movie. You can feel it the first moment Glenn Ford is on screen, drifting from room to room, going through the motions of daily activities like making breakfast and coffee. You know it when you see Ron Howard curled up on his mom and dad’s bed in a ball under the blankets. Something’s missing, something important. The woman who chose the coffee cups that Glenn Ford’s drinking out of. The woman who obviously decorated their splendid Manhattan apartment with love, care and style. Ron Howard’s mother and Ford’s wife, the center of their universe is gone. Her name was Helen.
Like a far less sinister Rebecca and a less creepy version of Manderley, Helen’s spirit is felt and even seen via the décor in the movie, but especially when Ron Howard and Glenn Ford are in their apartment. The apartment, which is the emotional center of the movie, was her domain—she chose every piece of furniture, every color, every element to create the loving home that she did for her son, husband and herself. You can feel her presence every time Ron Howard and Glenn Ford walk from room to room, see the teal blue and yellow all over the apartment she chose (her signature colors, it seems) or catch a glimpse of her in the picture on the dresser in the master bedroom. Helen is still there and her family still wants her to be there, otherwise they would have moved or at least bought some new furniture.
Though Tootie Smith and Gigi definitely had a rough time of it, I don’t think any other Minnelli youngster went through half as much as poor Ron Howard. He’s too young to comprehend what happened to his family in its entirety, but old enough to know—and feel—that things aren’t right anymore. Throughout the first twenty minutes of the movie you see Glenn Ford make an effort at a normal routine—he prepares breakfast, takes Ron Howard to school, goes to work, etc.–all while Ron asks questions like the school conversation mentioned above or, “Dad, you’re not a husband anymore, are you?” The veneer of normalcy wears thin very quickly and the tension cracks wide open when Ron Howard discovers that one of his goldfish has died. He screams bloody murder and goes into shock, interrupting the surface-level contentment his dad had worked so hard to build that day. It gets even worse when their neighbor, Elizabeth (Shirley Jones), suggests that Ron Howard was thinking of his mother when he saw the dead fish. Glenn Ford goes ballistic, finally letting the anger and frustration he feels toward his situation show. He chases Elizabeth out, pours himself a drink and retreats into his bedroom, where he realizes he’s surrounded by his wife’s furnishings.
Glenn Ford misses his wife terribly. Ron Howard walks in and says as much.
They hug and promise to tell each other everything from that point on. They’re still a family, they just have a piece missing.
But she’ll always be with them.
This is one of the best scenes Minnelli ever directed. He visualized loss.
Feeling the effects of death and loss is a very strange experience. Until now, I’d never been through the grieving process before because I’d never lost anyone I was close to, let alone someone I love as much as Libby. I had a similar freak-out as Ron Howard’s after I came home from the hospital where Libby was cremated. I looked at my mother-in-law’s wood stove, saw the embers ablaze inside and panicked. You do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. You become angry for no real reason. You hope that people remember your loved one for a long time to come. You keep her sweaters, medicine and favorite toys around. You look at the 1950s pastel pink jam jar where her remains are kept on a daily basis. You sleep on your mom’s side of the bed sometimes. You sit in your teal and yellow bedroom just to feel her presence and maybe catch a whiff of her perfume. You watch the famous kissing scene from Mogambo and remember happier times.
Throughout The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Glenn Ford is pushed and pulled in every direction to find Ron Howard a new mother and himself a new wife. A blonde (Shirley Jones), brunette (Dina Merrill) and a redhead (Stella Stevens) wind up in the running, but only one of them fits in with the design and atmosphere created in the apartment by the previous lady of the house: Elizabeth the blonde neighbor. Of the three women, only Elizabeth is welcome in their apartment. The redhead, Ms. Dollye Dally, isn’t really a contender because neither she nor Glenn Ford or Ron Howard make any attempt to integrate her into their lives as a family. They only see her outside of their apartment. Pure friend zone. Rita, the brunette (and eerily similar to Nina Foch’s character in An American in Paris), is a serious candidate, but ultimately her lifestyle clashes with Ford’s and especially Ron Howard’s. It’s a nuisance and interruption every time she calls their apartment because she can’t be bothered to visit. They have to wear suits when they go out to lunch. They just can’t be themselves. Elizabeth, on the other hand, drifts between her room across the hall and Ford and Howard’s apartment as if it were hers already. She’s a caring, loving but neutral presence. She can ease in as their replacement mother and wife with hardly an eyelash batted, almost as if, like Gaston when he visits Gigi’s Parisian flat, she’d always been part of the family.
This morning, as I was drifting to sleep around 5 in the morning, I wondered what the movie would have been like if it were Ron Howard’s father that had died, not his mother. Would she have found a new husband as easily (and quickly) as Glenn Ford found a new wife? Would it have been as acceptable and encouraged? What if Ron Howard had died? Would Glenn Ford and Helen have tried to have another baby right away? I doubt it on all counts. I also doubt that their apartment will change much once Elizabeth is officially a member. Saying goodbye to the ones you love most is hard, but moving on after they’ve gone is even harder. I really miss my kid.
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