by Ida Zeitlin
John Payne’s mother has just spent a month with him in Hollywood—her first visit. It’s hard to uproot her from her Virginia home. But when John phoned and said, “Mom, I’ve got this beach house now, so why don’t
you come out and stay a while?” she packed bag, baggage and a dozen napkins embroidered by Rosie, and went.
Though he rents his place furnished, linens and all. Rosie insisted on sending the napkins. A relative by marriage, seventy-five, perky, the world’s best needlewoman, she lives with Mrs. Payne, and her favorite character is John.
“He doesn’t sit me in a corner at parties with a glass of sherry, but pours me drink for drink with his own.”
Mrs. Payne herself is a native of Colorado, who’s lived in Virginia so long she’s acquired the accent. When her husband’s business associates, entertained at her home, murmured compliments about Southern hospitality, she’d reply sweetly: “As dispensed by a daughter of the West.”
She had a wonderful time in Hollywood. She met John’s friends. “Dear Anne”—which is how she refers to her ex-daughter-in-law—sent the baby over every day. She satisfied herself that John was well taken care of. When he was busy, she explored the country alone. He used his motorcycle, leaving the car for her. They celebrated her birthday together—just the two of them. And like any American boy’s mother, she was only too glad to reminisce about her son.
She’s a gracious person, but you don’t take liberties with her. There’s one, however, which as a reporter, you’re forced to take, since you can’t talk to his mother about John Payne and pretend Anne Shirley doesn’t exist. So you close your eyes and plunge—and bless the lady for a thoroughbred, who takes the unhappy business quietly in stride.
Yes, she’d been delighted when Anne and John were married. They’d phoned her after the ceremony. Anne had talked to John’s brothers, too, and bubbled over at the wonder of having a family—she’d been an only child so long. Having borne three sons, Mrs. Payne felt just as excited over the acquisition of a daughter. John had brought her down home after the baby was born. They’d all fallen in love with her. The separation came as an utter shock. John phoned his mother the night before the news broke. He didn’t want her to learn it from the papers. He said he thought he’d come home. She said, “Do, son.” When he got there, he didn’t talk much, didn’t explain.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t understand myself how the thing happened.”
Not being the kind to probe, she left him alone. “He was always one to carry his own load.” In Hollywood she saw Anne, but Anne doesn’t talk, either. One thing she’s sure of—there was no other man or woman in the picture. For the rest, “I don’t know,” she sighs, echoing John. “I still can’t understand it—
“He was always one to carry his own load.” If her story of John has a theme, that’s it. From babyhood almost, he went his own way, quieter, more self-sufficient than the other boys. His feeling for music showed itself early. Before he could talk, he’d lift an eager head to listen when his mother played or sang. Later he took lessons, but only for a year or two. “I can’t learn that way,” said the twelve-year-old individualist. “I’ve got to find things out for myself.” That was all right with her. She believes in letting people follow their own bent and, unlike some, considers her children people.
They moved from Roanoke to their beautiful home on a fifty-acre farm at Ft. Lewis—a dream of John’s father come true. The boys rode as naturally as they walked, had their own chickens to look after, learned to milk cows. Each boy had his own dressing-room and a big sleeping porch. George was five years older than John, Ralph, five years younger—too far apart to be playmates in their early days. They called George, Bill, to distinguish him from his father, and Ralph was called Pete for no particular reason. John was never anything but John. The other two tagged around with a bunch of kids, John went off by himself. Not that he was unsocial. If there were people around, he enjoyed them.. But they weren’t essential to him, and he didn’t seek them out. He could always have a good time on his own, swimming, hiking through the woods, building model airplanes. He’d spend hours in the big ballroom on the third floor—:which wasn’t used for balls—building planes that would fly two or three miles. The epic battle of those years was brought on by his failure to turn a sheet into a parachute. ” Y a h ! ” yelled the other kid, “it doesn’t work.” So John lit into him.
His fights were his own business, but this time he got home so gory that Mrs. Payne couldn’t smother an exclamation. ” ‘S’all right, Mom. I won.” As soon as she dared, she followed him to the ballroom where, still bloodand dirt-caked, he was trying to make the parachute work.
He was headstrong, but not hard to handle. There’s a difference, his mother maintains. Once set on a thing, he’d move mountains. Tell him he couldn’t or he mustn’t, and he wouldn’t hear you. But he had a logical mind, and if you took the time and trouble to reason with him—as she did—you could make him see the light. Except on one point. There were certain vegetables he wouldn’t eat. When sweet reasoning failed, Mrs. Payne turned in desperation to more Spartan measures.
“We’ll sit here,” she said, “till you’ve eaten them, if it takes all night.”
They sat till his head drooped, and she had to pick him up and carry him off to bed. “After all,” she protests, as if to some invisible accuser, “you can’t force food into a sleeping child’s mouth.”
So she gave him his vegetables in Brunswick stew, a Southern tidbit he dotes on. Traditionally, it’s made with squirrel. Mrs. Payne didn’t fancy that. Being one of your creative cooks, she fooled around till she got the right effect with a streak of lean and a streak of fat. Where food was concerned, John presented no other problems. He’d drink his daily half gallon of milk— still does—and consume a pound of bacon at breakfast if he could get it. Balked by paternal veto, he’d stroll out to the kitchen and snitch a few strips from the cook.
One year he grew seven inches, so where the other kids had two and three suits, he was rationed to one at a time and would barely get it settled over his frame before the frame started cracking the seams. John wasn’t exactly awkward, says his loyal mother, but you couldn’t be sure, when he was around, whether a pitcher would stay on the table or hit the floor. His dad split no hairs on the subject. “Put a bucket of water in a ten-acre field,” he’d say, “and John will land in the bucket.”
It was an idyllic kind of boyhood. Their place was the happy hunting ground for the crowd. They always brought their dates home, and why not. You couldn’t have a better time anywhere else. Dad set up a billiard table in the ballroom and taught them to play. The gardener thought they were nuts. “A special table? Just to run a little ball around on?”
Or you’d hear John yell, “Mother, we’re short a man. Help us out till he comes?” So she’d pull on her catcher’s mitt. She even tried football once. Only once, though. Or they’d all troop into the kitchen from the swimming pool, for milk and cookies hot from the pan. Mrs. Payne looked contendedly on while a week’s supply vanished in twenty minutes. That gave her an excuse to bake again tomorrow. Offer John cake or cookies today and he’ll turn you down. Hot from the pan is the only way he’ll eat ’em.
His father was a great hunter. So was brother Bill. They’d come home laden with quail and partridge or deer. John loved the woods. He’d take his gun and go out and stay just as long, and come home empty-handed. They’d razz him then, for he’d eat the venison with as healthy an appetite as any of them. “When it’s steak,” he’d explain, “I can’t see his eyes.”
All sports were his meat, but if he had to pick one for a desert island, swimming would be it. Dave, his great Dane, would follow him to the pool and, sick with worry, bark his fool head off while John swam under water. Dave weighed a hundred and ninety and ate like a horse—two quarts of milk, eight eggs, three pounds of meat mixed with three pounds of cornmeal in pones. John had raised him from a pup, and Dave was the light of his life.
One day the game warden sent for him to come down to the hollow. There he found Dave, trapped in a pen. He’d been caught on a neighboring farm, and a steer was dead of a broken neck.
“He’s a killer,” the warden said. “We’ll have to shoot him.”
John’s heart stopped. “Dave never killed anything. He’s like a kid. Might have been chasing this beef around— knocked him down maybe, in play—but Dave’s no killer—”
“Well, the beef’s dead, and we’ll have to shoot the dog—”
The warden was the law, and John was only fifteen. He didn’t know then that he could have appealed the sentence. All he knew was, he couldn’t stand there any longer, with Dave’s sad trustful eyes fixed on him through the bars. So he turned and ran, till the sound of a shot stopped him short, then crawled under a hedge and went through his agony alone. Not till he had himself in hand, did he turn up at home.
growing up . . .
His father’s death the following year brought an end to boyhood and probably changed the course of his life. Mr. Payne had figured M.I.T. for John, though he loathed mathematics. Mrs. Payne thought he’d go in for music or writing. Had it been ditch-digging, that would have been all right, too, providing it was what he wanted and not what somebody else thought he should have. When he told her he’d enrolled at Roanoke, she offered no protest, though she knew he was staying to be near her. By both their codes, people must work out their own salvation. Anyway, she felt sure Roanoke wouldn’t hold him long.
He hung on for a year. Roanoke was one of those colleges where you’re bound to take certain prescribed courses that bear no relation to your current interests or future needs. One day the stink of preservative in his nostrils was more than John could stand. He dropped the frog he’d been dissecting, went home and told his mother he might as well cut his throat as stay there.
“Where do you want to go?”
“Columbia. To the School of Journalism.”
“Then that’s where you’re going.”
Money being scarce, John took on a variety of jobs while he studied, to help cover expenses. It was often tough going, but his mother didn’t hear about that until it was over. He’s not what she’d call a letter-writer. In his scribbled notes and when he came home for holidays, everything was fine. Though Christmas vacations were brief, he’d always manage to get there. “If I had to walk! Christmases don’t come lovelier than we have them in Virginia.”
He told her he’d been taking part in college theatricals and that Mrs. Coit, head of the drama school, thought he had talent. She said Mrs. Coit must be a discerning woman. When the Shuberts offered him a stock contract, he wired: “What do you think?”
“Darling,” she wired back, “I wouldn’t presume to give you advice. If that’s what you want, take it.”
A year later she went up to New York to see him in the Bea Lillie show. “At Home Abroad.” Far from nursing illusions about the glamour of his situation, she tells you he was “one of these chorus boys and could hardly make ends meet.” But she remembers that he led her to a window and pointed to the teeming city below.
“Mom, one of these days you’ll see my name plastered all over this town.”
“Son, you’re crazy as a coot.” The funny part is, he was just talking, while she practically saw the lights blinking JOHN PAYNE.
reel boy . . .
She was thrilled when the movies took him, though she had her qualms and revealed them to Rosie. “John’s a quiet guy, and movies are a showy business. It won’t be any cinch.”
“Leave it to John,” said Rosie.
Of course after sitting tremulously through his first picture, they didn’t see how anyone could resist him. “But I’m his mother. Could be I’m prejudiced.”
“Well, I’m not his mother,” snapped Rosie. “And you take it from me, that child has oomph.”
Needless to say, John’s the perfect son. Still no letter-writer, he patronizes Tel. and Tel. generously. Mrs. Payne could live without bread, not without flowers. No birthday, no Easter, no Mother’s Day but brings blooms from John. And a check tucked inside for something he thinks she should have— like a radio-phonograph. She couldn’t understand why he never gave her a toby jug, for which she has the collector’s passion. So she asked him.
“Woman, you’ve got five hundred.”
“Five hundred and one would be nice.”
John and his mother together are a pleasant sight. He towers above her, his arm draped round her shoulder, their eyes laughing at each other. Coming and going, he kisses her where he hits her—nose, chin or ear. She thinks the beach house was a grand idea. John loves the ocean. Little by little she watched the strain of the last months dropping from him as he rode the surfboard and swam with her by moonlight, recalling their moonlight swims in the Ft. Lewis pool. Then they’d play records, though they never got to the end of his marvelous collection. Or, by request, he’d plank himself down at the piano and sing. There’s a quality in his singing voice, she says, never caught by the screen. Rosie would doubtless call it oomph.
After such an evening he’d sleep like a babe, with the boom of the surf in his ears. The beach house is what the ballroom used to be—a refuge where he can get off by himself, yet not too isolated for guests. Several times he had people in to dinner—couldn’t wait for his mother to meet Fieldsie and Walter Lang.
Mrs. Payne paid Jerry, John’s man, high tribute—called him a cook. “And when I say a man’s a cook, he’s a cook!” She tried to sneak into the kitchen herself, but John steered her out. “I can’t afford to get fat.” He can cook, too— learned hanging around his ma’s kitchen —tosses off a mean batch of hot biscuits, for which he recommends Bisquick. To John a woman who can’t make with the stove is nature’s freak.
At the ripe age of two, Julie Ann takes after her dad in at least two particulars — won’t get chummy with strangers and stuffs herself with all the bacon she can hold. Mrs. Payne is Grum-ma and wouldn’t be anything else. Modern-minded in most things, she’ll have no truck with this newfangled notion of being first-named by your juniors. “I’d spank any grandchild of mine who called me Ida.”
She can’t resist the back of Julie’s -neck. “What for you kiss me there?”
“Because that’s my sugar.” After which Julie always presented the back of her neck, explaining gravely to the uninitiated: “That’s Grum-ma’s sugar.”
The baby’s a fair-haired, brown-eyed roughneck who resembles both parents. John throws her around like a baseball and she hollers: “More!” Like any minx, she knows he adores her, and she also knows just how far she can get away with murder. Worshipful or no, her father has a theory that kids should mind. “Julie,” he says and she pays no heed. The second time he says “Julie!” his tone is different. She comes a-runnin’.
On Mrs. Payne’s birthday she arrived with a box of flowers somewhat larger than herself and stayed for breakfast, happily filching her father’s bacon. “Mom,” John had said, “we’re going to have the kind of birthday I think you’d like best.” So he drove her up to the Biltmore, which overlooks the ocean at Santa Barbara — where, incidentally, Anne and John were married. They had dinner by themselves. The dessert course was an elegant birthday cake.
There was no need for words between them as they drove home along the dimmed-out coast. He knew how she felt about birthdays—that they should be family celebrations, just for your own. This was the kind she’d always given the boys. “Thanks, John,” she said when he kissed her goodnight.
Just before she left he took her to the ranch he’s bought on a knoll in Malibu.
“I might have known you’d buy a place like this.” “Yes. It’s like home. I won’t be able to build till after the war. But some day I hope to live here—”
“Then here’s where you’ll live.”
His big arm tightened round her shoulders. He said nothing then, but at home in Virginia a package was waiting for her. On the card he’d written: “To the most understanding mother a guy ever had.”
Inside was a toby jug—numbered 501.