The Capital of Garbo

My grandmother loved to watch movies. Mainly the silver screen 1930s screwball comedies were her favorites. Capra, Sturges, Lubitsch, It Happened One Night, Palm Beach Story, Trouble in Paradise, I could go on and on. She also liked the Cagney gangster pictures, Astaire/Roger's Musicals, and all of MGM's famous “Stable of Stars.” Greta Garbo was her favorite. I'm not sure if Garbo watched a lot of movies. 

After my grandfather died I took it upon myself to move in with my grandmother. She was eighty-three, alone and depressed. We - the family - were worried about her. The rent was cheap - absolutely nothing - and the food was great - a home cooked meal every night, so I wasn't putting myself too far out there into inconvenience land.

I never really liked her all that much. She was cold. We all knew it. When my father the hippie slacker was pronounced 4-F and successfully avoided the Vietnam draft, she made calls and wrote letters protesting the draft board's judgment. For all the frothing desire to see her son make a man of himself, nothing ever happened. My dad survived while his mother's favorite nephew, to her delight, died a hero. 

I must admit that after living with her, I can muster up a bit of sympathy. Less than one month after I moved in she had a human moment that struck me. One day I watched my grandmother as she walked out to the mailbox, opened it up and pulled out a handful of magazines. She looked at each, shook her head and then walked in. She took the magazines and tossed them into a pile beside the door - National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Field and Stream. The pile was about a foot high.

“God damn them,” she said, “I told them Burt Janikowski doesn't live here anymore. I called them up. I told them to cancel these subscriptions.” She looked to me. “You want some magazines? You want to read? Here.” She bent over and picked up the pile and thrust it into my arms. “Take them; put them in your bathroom. You certainly spend enough time in there. God knows I don't read them.” I took the magazines. 

She tried to play it off like she was angry. She even made a few more phone calls to the companies - very irate!  I knew better though.  Whenever she handed me over one of my grandfather's magazines I could see a watery stain in her eyes - and for the rest of that day she would sulk. Four months later they stopped coming. The last issue of anything was a Sports Illustrated, my grandfather's favorite football player, Brett Favre, was on the cover. I thought it was fitting.   

My grandmother died about eight months after that last issue was delivered. This is where Greta Garbo comes in. I found her slumped over her treadmill, a video - The Two Faced Woman, Garbo's final film - playing in the VCR; I watched the last half hour before I called 911. 

An odd coincidence. Garbo and my grandmother were practically twin personalities. Both were fat little girls who blossomed into beauties, both “wanted to be alone” and both loved to shop.  Greta Garbo was a fanatical clothing shopper.  Gore Vidal, a close friend, claimed she spent the rest of her life - forty or so years after she retired from the movies - looking for the perfect pullover. The punch line is that she never found it. 

I remember one day last fall I took my grandmother shopping. Every week she'd drag me to the Goodwill, St. Vincent DePaul, and the Salvation Army. She had three closets and half a basement full of used clothing. We got in an argument that day. She told me we were nearing the end of days. She said that it was written in the Bible. I asked her if Able married his sister. She told me that a fancy degree doesn't make me smart. I smoothed the whole thing over by telling the story about Greta Garbo and the pullover.

Before she died, my grandmother ordered three movies on Amazon.com. She didn't pay the extra three dollars for overnight. She never did, opting for the seven to ten day shipping. In the mornings she would peer out her window waiting for the small brown package carrying that week's prize. 

The Garbo picture was one she wanted to see practically her whole life. She missed it when it came to town years ago, and it never played as the late night movie. She had even invited me to see this one, calling it a date. My grandmother hadn't been on a date in over sixty years.

This last package arrived on the thirteenth day of shipping, four days after her sudden stroke. By their covers, the movies didn't seem all that interesting; but I took it upon myself to watch the Garbo vehicle, a vintage 30s film. 

The Garbo picture was too much of a melodrama. I can imagine the faces of the thousands, maybe millions of people that movie has let down over the years. My grandmother, even with eighty-three years, had not even had enough time to be disappointed in the Garbo picture which had been disappointing for seventy two years.


words: R. Paul Klein, Minnesota (Tobybashi)
image: Jeff Crouch, Texas (more)


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