I will not be posting this week. There is the Thanksgiving holiday ahead of us -- and I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving -- but I have something else to be thinking about, and, in truth, to be very thankful for. My mother, Barbara West, died peacefully in her sleep, in her own bed, sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning, after dinner and a movie with my husband and me. She was 93. She wasn't taking medications. She still made jokes, read books, and wrote her last letter to the editor a few days ago.
I cannot tell you how grateful we are that the end came this way, but now we mourn.
After that Saturday nite movie of ours -- The Maltese Falcon, as it happens -- Mom announced that she thought she had known Sidney Greenstreet's girlfriend. This is a hilarious thought given that the stock-in-trade of that great character actor was a hulking presence better matched to an ocean liner than a girlfriend; however, it was not out of the question that my mother might have crossed paths with her.
In her first career begun early in life, my mother was an actress named Barbara Belden. Her real name was Barbara Bergman, but just so there could be no possible confusion with Ingrid, she was urged to change it. High hopes! She starred in her first and only movie as a war bride (only the wardrobe lady suspected she was 14), and later in various stock company productions. Especially after she married at age 19 to my father, screenwriter and author Elliot West (d. 2003), she came to meet and sometimes get to know a most amazing cast of 20th-century-people in Hollywood and New York, from Aldous Huxley (who asked my father how he might get a job writing TV scripts) and Somerset Maugham (at his gorgeous home, Villa Mauresque), to Preston Sturgess, Alice B. Toklas, Vincente Minelli and Frank Loesser (they played parlor games with the London cast of "Most Happy Fella"). She went on to work as an interior decorator for many years in Los Angeles, and, later, after moving all the way across the country and up to New England, she found a wide variety of different occupations, including eight years as the Valley News' gardening columnist.
In her teen years, my mom was photographed by John Engstead, a famous photographer of the Hollywood Golden Age. She always told us he complained about her as a subject even as he took his pictures; he told she just didn't know her angles "like Lauren Bacall" and other pros who knew how to pose by the feel of the lights on their faces. Engstead didn't have a clue as to how young Barbara Belden really was, either!
I have the full set of her glamour portraits inside an old leather portfolio, but here's a lovely one I found online.
The name of her movie, by the way, was When the Lights Go On Again (1944), directed by William K. Howard. Not only was it her film debut, it was to have been a "comeback" movie for Howard -- which sounds a lot like the plot of more than a few Hollywood pictures. My mom liked Howard very much. He was a noted director of such A-list stars of the (silent) 1920s and 1930s as Rod La Roque, Paul Muni, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison and Merle Oberon. Although the comeback didn't materialize, it's a good little movie, and believe it or not, livestreams on Amazon Prime.
The title is from the 1943 popular wartime song of the same title, but the feelings it expresses seem well attuned to our own dark times.
The first verse pegs the song to its particular time and war, with the lines about "when the lights go on again all over the world/And the boys are home again all over the world ..."
But in the second verse I hear a contemporary resonance:
When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we'll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world
For most of my mother's life, the lights were on, not all over the world, but certainly in the USA. Here, where she lived and died, those lights were usually blazing. This was a bright place, yes, a beacon to the world; although, as few understood it, the "war within," which I have been studying -- and she, always reading along with me -- was underway, its penumbras and black holes casting their pall, its apparatchiks poisoning our ways of life, its dissonant vibrations making it harder to hear the sweetness of our songs of freedom. What were we? Sons and daughters of liberty, rugged and exhuberant individualists -- or racists, fascists, sexists?
I didn't set out to include politics in this memoir -- although I should have because, if anything, my mother was always and to the end politically engaged, and also willing to engage anyone politically. No longer the liberal she had begun adult life as by the 1960s, she spent a half century and more guided by conservative beliefs. She was deeply, darkly concerned for our country today, horrified by the stolen election, aghast at the insanity over "covid" -- she bemoaned masks, especially for children -- and convinced of the terrible dangers of the "vaccine." The endgame of digital ID en route to global dictatorship was a lot to wrap her head around but she got it. I didn't like to push it, though.
Far better for us all, really, to escape for a little into The Maltese Falcon -- dark only in a film noir way, and, of course, dedicated to "the stuff that dreams are made of."
Because her death was "unexpected" -- and, again, how grateful we are for a seemingly gentle passing into the night -- we, none of us, got to say goodbye in that grandly, lovingly culminating way one sees in fiction often, not so much in real life.
But she did. She wrote a couple of goodbye notes because she really did know she was going. She even knew she would be missing the upcoming arrivals of Thanksgiving-pilgrimaging-grandchildren. Oh, come on, Mom, of course, you'll be here to see them. They'll be here in a few days... But she knew different. In a letter left on a table she told them she was sorry she would be missing their visits -- eerie -- but her final message was upbeat. Emphatically positive. Fun.
Of course, it was. And this something I must not fail to include: More than anyone I have ever met in my life, she was upbeat, emphatically positive and fun -- all the way to her last day on earth.
Always enjoy the day, she told the kids. It's the only one you can be sure of.
Sorry to say goodbye! And me, so young. What can the good Lord be thinking?
Barbara West, RIP.