When my mother passed away, just a short month ago at the age of 95 years my friends all marveled. “What a life, what a unique and extraordinary woman!” My mother was part of a century that represents an entire age as did my father. Both members of “the greatest generation” each with their own unique stories l0ng before they met. What happens when your parents go to the next life is that you realize that there are entire conversations you wish you had or histories you are just beginning to discover; even that last few words that you might have wanted are unsaid. I was lucky. I spent that last year living in my mother’s home after quitting my job and just enjoyed what I could of this unique life and her take on what history had made in the last ninety-five odd years.
Who were my parents? Who indeed, are yours? We often forget in the rush of new technology and faster paced lives that the world just 50 years ago was entirely different.
My sister and I discovered we had many generations to look at, not just our own; our mother’s family who were Norwegian immigrants, our father’s family of Irish, English and Scottish ancestors who ranged in station from hired Irish mercenary to Lord of the manor. By the time I came along, this was already a known history. As a kid growing up in the 1960’s my father’s wonderful “KODAK Carosel” of images from my childhood was like a dull evening after a network TV news show; all shot at every waking moment which drove us crazy. This is now a huge libary of images that I will go through, one by one; I don’t want to miss a thing and yes, I will be ready for things I may not want to see. Now, I can finally open the boxes, unearth the treasures and put together the fleeting images and stories I remember as a kid. There is a unique value in this and with the help of technology it will be pretty easy.
My dad was the son of a 1920’s flapper and handsome debonair professional movie stunt man and cinematographer; their marriage was in the local papers, she a stunning local Irish beauty and my grandfather looking like a dashing version of an English lord. His family went back almost 500 years in England. They were successful merchants who bought a title and a castle outside London during the time of Henry VIII who visited there with his then wife, the ill-fated Catherine Howard (who was busy sleeping with one of the King’s courtiers). The Hickman’s, my grandfather’s family owned the castle and dutifully hosted the King even while practicing their own Catholicism in secret. This family name is still in the Royal Register, today. We are related to what is today, a Baronetcy. So, I guess you might say we are a bit posh, but the family lineage is just distant enough that we might not be invited to the castle. Oh, darn.
The Hickman family is a very large one in the U.S. and many of our relatives have unique connections to Hollywood (My great uncle Howard Hickman was a secondary role in GONE WITH THE WIND) so when I got to Hollywood, it was no wonder I was already in the family in the business. My Hollywood realtives were part of early Hollywood and its inception; my great AUNT BESSIE was the film star “Bessie Barriscale” the “oyher’ girl next door to Mary Pickford as the “queen” of silent pictures. Her star is today on Hollywood boulevard just shy of Cherokee Street. She worked with Cecile B. De Mille and made many many films and later even becomming her own producer. Columbia University has honored her as one of the founding women of the film industry. It took about 100 years for her to receive the recognition she deserved. She was a trouper, making movies even after her blockbuster silent career had all but ended. She remains one of our family “treasures” for her contributions and will hopefully come to light in the future.
My father was always my greatest fan. I discovered my talents as both a performner and writer and was lucky he was all for it. My mother wanted me to become a lawyer. She did encourage my musical training however recently telling me if I wanted to become a professional cabaret singer that it would be alright with her. Needless to say this approval took about 45 years to attain. Thanks, mom!
Judith (pictured with her camera) was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants and had her own unique history, too. We discovered that her mother was a servant in the family of the Vanderbilt’s (we found documents of the paycheck from them) and my mother was a simple country girl from upstate New York and the first daughter in her family to go to college at the COOPER UNION on a full scholarship. She majored in art and design graduating in 1944. Sunday dinners at our mother’s childhood home were filled with all the relatives who were the servants of the wealthy founders of New York’s elite. Tables were set with family crystal, linens, china and everyone wore their Sunday best to celebrate. This was a unique group of people much like the servants at Downton Abbey, their own lives part of the changing times and social history of the city of New York. This taught us the importance of family gatherings and traditions and the art of the table setting.
Mother was full of stories, but like many of her generation, she did not boast, brag or share. She recently told me her office in Manhatten (her window overlooking the rear of a very distinguished old hotel) was a cavalcade of movie stars, illicit romances, large dark cars driving up to its back door and movie stars sneaking into the back of the hotel while she looked on as a silent witness to their indescretions. She confessed this one morning, at breakfast after some prodding from me.
There is more to tell with the opening of boxes of photos and the unearthing of family treasures that is not for the faint of heart. You might find things you don’t want to know and the revelations you don’t want to re-visit. Either way you must own all of it, good and bad; realize that is is part of you no matter where you are in your life. We plan to go forward and take on the responsibility of storytellers, with a century of lives behind us. My sister and I feel compelled to go forward into our own future, by acknowledging our past.
May the family force, be with you, too.