Watch The Bad Seed
Epic pigtails, a serial killer and an increasingly haggard and horrified housewife. Those aren’t memories of my parenting career, at least in terms of hairstyles and death count, but of the 1956 movie, The Bad Seed.
Probably it signals some grave psychological dysfunction, this intense interest in grave psychological dysfunction. Each of six siblings in my original family, in fact, suspected they might be a “bad seed,” a competition of sorts in which different winners emerged decade by decade.
It was reassuring, though, to fall far short of the mark compared to little Rhoda Penmark, she of an era’s rigidly plaited pigtails, a mistress of chilling looks and incessant toe-taps and memorable lines like “Gimme those SHOES back.”
As a child, I thrilled at the slow revelation of evil… “The whisper of suspicion grows… into the thunder of the terrifying truth.” I always supposed that if you knew that truth, you might not make it out alive, and of course in the greater sense that’s all too true.
Part of the movie’s charm was an express request not to reveal the shocking ending. Which of course I won’t — I take these movie promises seriously — except to say that she gets cosmically spanked.
Sleeping with a cat on your neck
Don’t try this with a baby in the house, but if you’re baby free consider wearing a cat at night.
Photos of my mother-in-law circa 1950s show her raking leaves with a dead animal curled around her throat, a fox or mink or some other unfortunate fluffy tailed soul.
Perhaps that pleasure she must have derived — clearly, it looks like the leaf raking takes a backseat to the fur displaying — is akin to this wearing of the cat.
Eight months ago, my daughter Hallie and friend Adia rescued two kittens from dire circumstances and bestowed them upon me as gifts. Gracie is shy and prone to hide; Molly is the gregarious one who has claimed my neck at night.
The cat derives a great deal of warmth, I suppose, and an abiding sense of power as she rapturously settles into full curl, paws wrapping around to knead the skin under my eyes.
I derive worry, wonderment, questions: Worry over those future visiting grandchildren — steel-capped cribs, I’m thinking. Wonder at the audacity it takes to claim shifting human turf for your own.
Questions about the actual mechanics of purring, an engine that starts at exactly the time restorative oblivion should be under way. If I weren’t so tired I’d look it up. Do cats decide to purr, or is it a bodily function devoid of meaning any deeper than “You’re mine.”?
The question being, as it always is with cats and perhaps even my mother-in-law: do we own the fur or does the fur own us?
Talk to old people
The most interesting people I know are old. Not old as in you’re 20- and 40-year-olds seem ancient. But really old, like deep-rooted trees battered by storms you can’t even imagine.
I didn’t always feel this way. I used to be scared of old people, from the time my stern grandmother lost it over my failure to properly hang a broom (“I have a bone to pick with you” was her alarming introduction to the reprimand.)
Fifty years later, to my surprise, I publish a senior magazine and interview the oldest of the old.
There’s 105-year-old Bill, who at 103 drove across country with a loaded pistol in the trunk. Car and driver returned safely, no shots fired. (In 1926 he joined the 7th Cavalry and was issued a horse — Number E-213. Eighty years later he bought an iPad.)
Lola, who at 89 was still mourning her eldest son’s suicide when she fell off a rural hillside and broke her neck. She downplays her constant pain, is quick to welcome visitors with tea and a companionable chat, and vows to keep helping her family members with their challenges “for as long as I’m able.”
And Rusty, 86, who recalls the day when as a stressed-out middle-aged businessman he swapped cigarettes for running shoes. He divides his time between two gyms these days and hangs out with his 73-year-old girlfriend.
Maybe it’s my childlike desire to hear a story that makes me love these folks. But I also appreciate how advancing age seems to lift the fog of vanity.
Ask to take a 40-, 50- or 60-year-old’s photo and their first concern is how they’ll look, with break-your-camera jokes quickly following. An 80-year-old is more likely to say, “Sure, what time?”
These old folks often have lousy hearing, failing eyesight and take a long time to answer the door. And while they may not lord it over you, they’re probably smarter (who can help it, with all that extra time) and can run circles around you in the life-dealt-me-a-storm department.
The thing is, they hung on and kept going, grateful to get another chance tomorrow. I like hearing the stories, but I love learning the lessons.
Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by Hallie Bateman