Memories from the Depps
Johnny Depp preys on my mind these days. I can’t wait for the theatrical release of The Lone Ranger. I’ve laughed at the trailers as I saw Tonto’s over-the-top make-up. I should have expected as much, after all, this is Johnny Depp aka Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter or, my favorite, Barnabas Collins, vampire.
In the Tim Burton re-make of Dark Shadows, I appreciated Depp’s take on Collins. The staid British accent from the Eighteenth Century served to make his dealing with awakening in the radical Sixties in Collinsport, Maine hysterical. As I laughed in the darkness of the theater, I kept glancing around, thinking Aunt Thelma had to be nearby, although she had died several years earlier. I had watched the original series with her and always remembered that shared experience with fondness.
My presence in her home came about in a way that Collins would have loved. Some peculiar, even occult, power crept in and changed my life. When I graduated from high school in Ohio, I planned to attend Ohio University with a degree in education as my major. Then, I received a graduation card from Aunt Thelma. I loved that she had taken the time to do this. She had just given birth to twins known to my female relatives as change-of-life-babies. She had not planned get pregnant at forty-two-years-old. The stork missed the memo. Twelve years after her “final child”, the birth of twin girls shocked everyone. She had no close family nearby as she lived across the country in California and was coping on her own. Given her busy motherhood responsibilities, I appreciated her sending a congratulations card. I wrote a thank you note. It read something like this:
Dear Aunt Thelma,
Thanks for the twenty dollars. I can really use it to pay for books when I start college. In the meantime, if you need a babysitter for the twins let me know (wink, wink). I have great credentials–I have taken care of four of Angel’s* newborns, ridden herd on them as they grew up to toddlers, and taught them the words to all the Mamas and Papas’ songs, including “California Dreamin'”.
Within days, my mother, grandmother and sister assured Aunt Thelma that I hadn’t been blowing smoke about my experience with children. Before I could sing a single line of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Mom presented the one-way ticket to LA to me, fait accompli. I don’t think anyone even asked if I was interested or wanted to go. I sent regrets to the university, packed clothes, my new Gibson acoustical guitar, sheet music, books, my Bible and my journal. I didn’t understand their rush, but I didn’t dare ask questions because here was my chance to go to California, land of the flower children and the Jesus Movement.
None of my female relatives told me that during the twins’ birth, the doctors had discovered malignant tumors throughout my aunt’s colon. She needed urgent surgery. They knew that after the operation, some recovery time, when she got home, she would need extra help. She would need more than a nanny. She needed someone she could trust to look after the twins, Lisa and Laura, clean house, and cook for my Uncle Ray, and her older kids. I would be a laundress as well, with all the diapers twin newborns would generate.
So, in July of 1970, the girl from the hills of Ohio brushed her waist-length blond hair, dressed in her bell-bottomed jeans and tye-died shirt. With Mom’s “Don’t talk to hippies” ringing in my ears, I boarded the TWA plane in Pittsburgh to fly to LA, California.
Culture shock hit before I left the airport.
My uncle picked me up and as we made our way from LAX International Airport, I tried to make conversation with this relative I’d only met on his infrequent family vacations to Ohio.
I said, “Wow! I knew Los Angeles was big, but I had no idea just how huge it is!”
My uncle laughed, “It’s good you have a sense of humor.”
I asked in a puzzled voice, “It IS huge. Just look at those skyscrapers!”
He said, “But, Twana, we haven’t left the airport yet.”
The big surprises just kept coming
Their house amazed me. Not only was it modern and beautiful, but it had a swimming pool in the back garden. I quickly learned my way around, though. I had little time to acclimatize.
Aunt Thelma struggled with severe health problems after her surgeries, but her humor never let her plunge into depression. I did a good job taking care of the babies. I grabbed a swim in that kidney-shaped pool while they napped, and then settled with this little-known aunt while she rested. She had worked at one of the aircraft companies for many years, so she had never watched the day time soaps. We had a great time catching up on the ones I had watched after school. Then one day, she discovered Dark Shadows starring depp-voiced Jonathan Fridd as Barnabas.
At first we were bewildered by this odd, dark tale that was unlike The Doctors or As the World Turns. Actually, “unlike” doesn’t begin to cover the differences. I will never forget the moment she caught on. She looked at me, her eyes sparkling with mischief and started laughing. It took me a minute, then I realized the hilarity and boldness of the people who dared take on the afternoon dramas and turn the ideas on their heads. We laughed so hard, we woke the babies.
I lugged Lisa and Laura out and handed Aunt Thelma one of the wailing girls, all the while, we both laughed uncontrollably. From that day on, I warmed bottles and changed diapers to the atmospheric silliness of “Victoria, never Vicky” and Barnabas. Both twins have grown into amazing women, but I wondered at the time if we were scarring them for life. WE took the chance as those afternoons became precious. Aunt Thelma, the twins in porta cribs and I tuned in to watch vampires in Maine.
I learned Aunt Thelma’s sense of humor helped get her through hard times. A clever woman, she had many jokes that took a fiendish mind to sort out. She tried the old standard of “Stick out your tongue and touch your nose,” on me. Then fell about laughing when I could accomplish this literally given my odd jaw formation.
When a minor earthquake hit in the middle of the night, Aunt Thelma opened the door and whispered, “Don’t worry. It’s a little earthquake. Oh! You don’t have them in Ohio. Just pretend it’s a flood since you have those regularly.”
She howled with laughter when we were out with the twins and people congratulated me on my beautiful children. She got a kick out of the befuddled looks on their faces when she said, “Oh, I’m the mother.”
The time to go back to Ohio finally arrived with my uncle, aunt and grandparents who had come to see the kids and to take me home. One afternoon before we left, Aunt Thelma let them enjoy the babies and took me into her bedroom for a last chat.
One of the oddities of my stay was my correspondence with Cliff, my future husband. At the time, he was a “Rat” at VMI, a miserable time for him. We had dated in high school, and I had treated him badly. So I wrote to apologize. Thus began a long-distance correspondence between two 18 year olds both far from home. Aunt Thelma noticed the name on one of his letters. “Is his mother Margret Jane Thorn?”
“She was Valedictorian of our class and I was Salutatorian—we only had a point between to determine who had the speech. She lost. I hate public speaking.”
The depth of our magical relationship grew from this revelation. That day, she told me stories about her youth and asked me about my life and dreams. As we sat on her bed, she said, “No matter what they tell you, Twana, you can be whoever you want. Don’t let them take your guitar away. Don’t let them send you to the school that is cheapest. Don’t let them cut your hair. And most of all, don’t let them ban Dark Shadows.”
I nodded solemnly, “If they try, I’ll just suck them dry and hide the bodies in the basement.”
Our laughter brought knocks on the door, but just as Jonathan Collins would have done, we kept them out with the power of our formidable minds.
*My older sister, Angel, had 5 children at this point. She, too, had a change-of-life baby, as did my mother. I an one of those woman grateful to have had a hysterectomy in my late thirties.