Jul. 17, 2010

Hospital Days

by Sue Ellen Thompson

The tests, the bloodwork—they
were good days, with magazines
to absorb the time spent waiting.
The nurses' banter spread a sheen
of normalcy over everything,
and the doctors left a little space
in their advice where spirit
might lodge. The three of us
went everywhere together, and at last
I knew the pleasure that the only child
takes in the company of her makers.

Then the doctor came to us one day
and said the chemo hadn't made
the kind of progress he was looking for,
that we could take my mother home
and stay. We sat there, stunned by what
our weeks of rushing to appointments
had not left us time to contemplate,
then drove home without speaking. This day,
unlike the others, would not end
with smiles and good-byes, my father's
and my arms tucked beneath my mother's
and hope's modest, steady flame
still unextinguished in us at the thought
of eating supper at the kitchen table
before we called the cats in from the dark.

"Hospital Days" by Sue Ellen Thompson, from The Golden Hour. ©Autumn House Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the great church composer Isaac Watts, born in Southampton, England (1674). He wrote more than 600 hymns, including "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "Joy to the World."

It's the birthday of the Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon, (books by this author) born in a small village in Ukraine (1888). His greatest work, The Day Before Yesterday (1945), was about the difficult lives of Westernized Jews in Israel. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1966.

It's the birthday of one of the best-selling American novelists of all time, Erle Stanley Gardner, (books by this author) born in Malden, Massachusetts (1889). He's the one who created the character Perry Mason, that noble lawyer who has starred in 80 of Gardner's novels as well as a radio program, a couple of television series, and two dozen TV movies. Perry Mason defends innocent people accused of murder, and he also doubles as an astute crime-solving detective who is able to prove not only his client's innocence but also the identity of the real murderer.

Perry Mason first appears in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). Gardner told his publishers that he was creating in Perry Mason the character of "a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience." In one novel, he describes his lawyer hero like this: He was "broad-shouldered and rugged-faced, and his eyes were steady and patient."

Gardner himself was a lawyer. He was suspended from law school for getting into a fistfight and never returned, but then worked as a typist in a law office, studied on his own, and passed the bar exam. He set up a practice in Merced, California, in 1911 and then in downtown Ventura, California, in 1921. His law office in Ventura is still there, being used by other lawyers today. It's one of the stops on the "Perry Mason" walking tours offered in Ventura; so is the old courthouse where he once litigated, which is now the City Hall.

It's the birthday of comedienne Phyllis Diller, (books by this author) born in Lima, Ohio (1917), and often called the "Funniest Woman in the World." She didn't start her career in stand-up comedy until she was middle-aged. But she had spent much of her life as a housewife, telling jokes and doing impersonations and making groups of people laugh. At the Laundromat, she would tell other housewives things like, "I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard" and "Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?" When she became a professional entertainer, she drew extensively upon her experiences as the mother of five children who struggled to keep her house clean.

In 1955, Diller made her debut at the Purple Onion, a club in San Francisco. She was originally given a contract for two weeks — but her show ended up running at the Purple Onion for 89 weeks.

In her shows, she caricatured the frumpy housewife and appeared on stage with outrageous makeup and ludicrous hairdos. When she took her show on the road to different states, she traveled with two dozen suitcases' worth of costumes and props. She routinely used a cigarette holder, though she did not smoke, and also a fur scarf that she insisted she trapped under the kitchen sink at her home.

One of her trademarks was her distinctive laugh, which has been described by critics as "a braying, cackling laugh." Diller herself said: "My own laugh is the real thing and I've had it all my life. My father used to call me the laughing hyena. Like a yawn or a mood, it's infectious, and that's a great plus for a comic, but I don't just turn it on like some of today's performers. In fact, during the early stages of my career, it was a nervous laugh. I was scared out of my mind. The sweat ran down my back into my shoes."

She became well known when she began to perform regularly on television, often on The Jack Paar Show. She also was a guest on the shows of Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Jack Benny, and Andy Williams. She played a role in the film Boy Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966) alongside Bob Hope.

She's the author of several books, including the memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse (2005).

Phyllis Diller said, "Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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