Tuesday, January 25, 2011

frame up #002 - kate lawrence

Sada Thompson as "Kate Lawrence" (High St, Northcote)
Summer’s a good time to get through some of the towering stacks of unread books piling up around the house. I finally got round to reading Granta #37 (published in 1991). Focusing on "the family" and aptly subtitled: "they fuck you up", I started reading it after my family Christmas, taking solace in confirming the generally destructive tendency of the family from the collection of (now not so) new writing.

The subtitle is taken from a poem by Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don't have any kids yourself.

Unperturbed by this image of the family (coming, as I do, from one that is lacking in solicitude and inclined to the usual lies and self-deceptions practised by family members), I prepared to settle down to familiar stories of dysfunction, suffering and damage.

Most of the stories (and photographs) in the collection are indeed confrontingdisturbing even, but they are also genuinely gripping depictions of the family. The first three make for especially difficult reading: "Family Album", Mikal Gilmore’s memoir of his violent family and notorious brother Gary Gilmore, later executed for his crimes; selections from the Journals and Letters of Sappho Durrell, daughter of the writer Lawrence Durrell with whom she had an intense love/hate relationship and who later committed suicide; and "Field Burning", William Wharton’s account of an entire family killed in a car accident as a result of field burning (burning off) based on the loss of his own daughter, her husband and their two children in such an incident.

Lighter in tone, Mona Simpson’s story, "Ramadan", a wry, bittersweet account of a daughter’s search for her absent father, is also impressive. Meeting her grandmother briefly for the first time, she poignantly reflects:
    “I was sad over how many different lives there were and we only got once.”
A reminder of the arbitrariness of the family we end up in and that we only get one turn.

Geoffrey Wolff’s contribution, "Waterway", dubiously described as a story about “the bliss of a family properly on course” (!?), is the least impressive contribution in the collection. As a story recounting a harrowing boat trip, it’s harrowingly dull. As a metaphor for acceptance (a father realises that he’s had his day in the sun and that it’s time to hand over the keys [of the boat] to his son to steer his own course through life) it’s unconvincing. (Beware of parents bearing boat keys! Paul Bowles had the right ideawisely fleeing his family [by boat!] at age 18). In the end, Waterway is really Geoffrey Wolff’s chance to paint his own portrait as the benign, benevolent and trusting parent. Had the circumstances of the story been inverted (a harrowing family life in which the father is reluctant to give up control and a smooth, uneventful boat trip), it would have been more in keeping with Larkin’s idea of the family and might have been a more convincing family portrait.

But I digress . . .

Summer’s also a good time to watch some classic TV on DVD. This summer I re-watched seasons one and two of Family which originally aired in 1976/1977. Made at a time when television executives had not yet begun to infantilise adults or teens, it is a sophisticated, well-written and well-acted series. A serious (melo)drama with a conscience, the show tackled sensitive issues such as abortion, adoption, alcoholism, teen sex and homosexuality.

Kate Lawrence, the humble homemaker and marvellous matriarch at the centre of the series (played consummately by Sada Thompson), makes her appearance in the pilot episode cleaning the garbage binan unflattering debut, perhaps, but appropriate as a metaphor that establishes her willingness to confront the inevitable family garbageeven that of her own making.

No sooner does she finish cleaning the bin, than she makes a mess of her relationship with her youngest daughter ‘Buddy’ who overhears Kate confessing to husband Doug to almost having aborted Buddy:

If I got rid of a baby every time I thought I didn’t want it, we wouldn’t have much of a family.
You don’t mean that.
Don’t presume to tell me what I mean. I’m 46 years old and I’ve borne three children. Some of the time of those pregnancies, I wanted out. It’s the body that makes the baby and hangs on to it for nine months. Why can’t men understand sometimes women just want out! My god, when I found out I was pregnant with Buddy, I even got as far as tracking down an abortionist.
Buddy storms off and doesn’t hear Kate finish:

Why can’t you understand? Eventually I wanted all of them. Now, I can’t imagine life without them. But sometimes, sometimes, just for a minute, I didn’t.
Kate handles the reconciliation beautifully. Instead of serving up the Babies Make Everything Better in the End trope, she opts for candid confirmation of her ambivalence towards becoming a mother. Her forthrightness about the lows of being pregnant and having children and her healthy sense of perspective is admirable. Kate’s unwillingness to mythologise her children (The Baby Trap) and her tendency to bluntness may make her appear remote but we don’t doubt for a moment her enviably convincing, ingenuous loyalty and commitment to her family. 

Buddy’s got nothing to fear. Kate’s not going to fuck her up. She’s got far too much insight and integrity to do that. It’s a restrained and moving reunion:

The memorable opening credits of Family feature Kate passing framed family photographs on the piano. Her sober, earnest nature is underscored by her serious mien, her no-nonsense cardigan and the subdued, sombre accompanying musical theme. 

still of Kate from season 1 opening credits
However, the producers of the show must have expressed concern that Kate appeared too severe and were perhaps worried that viewers would think the show was about chronically upset, depressed people, full of angst because from season two onwards, the opening credits show Kate taking off her cardigan and folding it casually over her arm before walking past the photographs.  This more relaxed attitude is accentuated by the hint of a smile and a new, upbeat, less strained (but less appealing) musical theme. 

still of Kate from season 2 opening credits

My framed stencil portrait tribute of Kate Lawrence is called: 
Portrait of a Woman of Integrity.


Sneak peak at Family - Season 4, Episode 14 – Disco QueenBuddy sneaks into a disco club, with the help of an older acquaintance, and finds it more than she bargained for (a must see episode for the “Woo, Woo!” chanting disco dancers).

Granta Magazine (currently at issue #113) is available here.

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