Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Mary Murphy who wasn't my sister

When I heard about Newsweek's plans to scuttle its print edition, I thought of Mary Murphy.

Mary wasn't related to us, but she was a friend of the family. She was from Ireland and worked for many years as a private nurse. By the time I knew her, she had retired and, having never married, lived alone in an apartment up in the next block.

Once a week, weather permitting, she would walk down to our house to visit for a while, often bringing her copy of Newsweek, which she would leave with us.

At the time (I was a kid), she was probably the oldest person I knew.

I particularly remember one time when we visited her in her apartment. I noticed a paperback book on a stand in her living room. It had a maroon cover and an odd but intriguing title:

“The Catcher in the Rye.”

I didn't open it. I figured it was a book for grown-ups, perhaps especially for elderly ones.

Some time later, my Aunt Helen was shocked to learn that my older sister, also named Mary and then a teenager, was reading the same book.

Leaping to my sister's defense, I told my aunt that the other Mary Murphy also had a copy of the book.

Aunt Helen, turning the full force of her indignation on me, said, "Mary Murphy is eighty-aughty years old!"

Yes, she actually said "eighty-aughty."

I wish I could say I learned a lot from the senior Mary Murphy. I had the impression that her career had taken her to many places. And of course she'd lived in Ireland.

But at best I just sat around bored while she chatted with other family members. She was usually kind enough to try to involve me in the conversation (and seemed to actually believe I might have some insight into the world’s problems), but although I was polite I could never think of anything to say.

At worst – and I'll always be ashamed of this – I sometimes quietly resented her visits when they delayed or interrupted a family game of Jeopardy.

If I were really as bright as so many people said I was, I would have paid attention, asked questions and remembered whatever she told us about her past life and surroundings.

One thing I do remember:

Once she was talking about how she worked for someone in Dayton, Ohio.

She said she knew a little boy in the neighborhood who spent a lot of time by himself.

He was an only child. His family had money, but his parents didn't get along, and he often seemed sad.

Years later Mary was on vacation somewhere, and the little boy, who had grown up and entered show business, was performing nearby.

She thought about going to see him – she was obviously happy for his success – but she decided against it. Too shy, I guess.

The chances that he will ever read this are probably next to nil at best, but just the same (and because I somehow feel I owe it to her), I’d like for him to know that my friend Mary Murphy always remembered Jonathan Winters.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Seventy-six paper clips led the big parade...."

During a lull in my workday, I sat back and looked at the mess on my desk – mostly papers and pens. Red pens, to be exact, and a lot of them.

(When you proofread things for a living, you don’t want to have a red pen run dry and not have another one – or, better yet, many of them – within easy reach.)

But there was something else on my desk, something that hadn’t been there the day before, something I think I prize even more than those pens:

A box of paper clips.

If you work in an office, especially one in which many pieces of paper are continually routed from one employee to another, I suspect you know what I mean -- especially if most of those pieces of paper have other pieces of paper attached to them, and if, during the course of a typical day, you ride so many paper trails that you can’t keep from getting at least a little saddle sore.

On this particular box of paper clips, which the office receptionist had obtained for me just that morning, I noticed that the wording was in English and French.

And I discovered something that was quaint and even charming. (Or should I say charmante?)

What I discovered was the French word for “paper clip.” I never would have thought of it in at least a hundred years, and I had six years of French. (Which sometimes felt like a hundred years.)

And that word, mes amis, is:


You could have knocked me over with a plume.

Because I saw the resemblance immediately. And I’ll bet that you do too, especially considering that I’ve been nice enough to dig up and post these two public-domain photos.

Paper clip = trombone.

Very clever. And to think that these are the same people who think that Jerry Lewis is God.

(Having said that, I should admit that as a kid I would sometimes go to a local movie house to see the latest Lewis flick – “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “Cinderfella,” “Who’s Minding the Store” among them – but still.)

The paper clip/trombone translation reminded me of how my uncle, who spent a lot of time in Canada, would sometimes bring us stuff from there that had labeling in two languages.

One time he brought us a bag of Kraft marshmallows, which taught me that the French word for “marshmallow” is “guimauve.”

This morning I bought groceries, then got home and realized I had forgotten to get bread.

But somehow I remember “guimauve.”

Perhaps I should do my grocery shopping in Canada....

Monday, November 5, 2012

A trivial pursuit that has yet to bear fruit

While watching “Jeopardy!” the other day, I heard Johnny Gilbert announce that one of the contestants was from Greeley, Colo.

I immediately remembered that Ted Mack was from Greeley, Colo.

In case you're too young to remember, Ted Mack (that's him at left) was for many years the host of the “Original Amateur Hour.” The program began on radio, hosted by someone named Major Bowes (Major of exactly what I don't know), and Mack eventually succeeded him. The program was the granddaddy of “American Idol” and similar shows, and some folks who appeared on it later became famous, including Pat Boone, Beverly Sills, Ann-Margret and (as a member of The Hoboken Four), Frank Sinatra.

I remember the program from its twilight years, when CBS showed it on Sundays, usually late in the day. I can’t remember anyone I ever saw on it, though I do remember that it was brought to us by Geritol (a tonic that was ubiquitous in early TV commercials) and another product called Serutan (“Nature Spelled Backwards”).

I can’t say I was a big fan of the show, so you might well wonder why I happened to remember Mr. Mack’s birthplace.

I can explain in two words:

Information Please.

That was the name of an almanac my family had, and the name came from an old radio quiz show. The book included a listing of famous people, their birth dates and birthplaces and (even better) their real names. If it weren’t for the Information Please almanac, I might never have known that Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt or that Raymond Burr (born in 1917) was a year younger than Jackie Gleason.

I also learned more about Milton Berle (born Milton Berlinger in 1908) and Wally Cox (born Wallace Maynard Cox), who came into this world in 1924. Not to mention game-show great Bill Cullen (to be precise, William Lawrence Cullen) who made his debut in 1920.

And I still remember that Imogene Coca was born in Philadelphia, Pa. – but apparently would not give her year of birth. It’s a secret she would have found impossible to keep these days, but I’m nothing if not a gentleman, and if you want that piece of personal information, you can look her up yourself.

Then again, when Andy Griffith died earlier this year, I was sure he’d been born in 1928. But the Internet Movie Database says he was born in 1926.

Perhaps my memory failed me.

Or perhaps my memory didn’t fail me, but Information Please got it wrong.

Or maybe Mr. Griffith shaved a couple of years off his age when the almanac folks came a-calling.

But Sheriff Andy wouldn’t lie to us – would you, Ange?

God knows why I immersed myself in this section of the almanac when I probably could have been learning much more useful stuff. But maybe someday it will prove useful, especially if I finally get to hear Johnny Gilbert announce my own name and hometown on “Jeopardy!” And if the categories that day include “Obscure Celebrities Named Ted” and “Famous Former Aarons.”

What are the odds of that happening? If I had to make a wager, I wouldn’t make it a true Daily Double….