Monday, November 24, 2014

James Byron Dean, Individualist A personal remembering

by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster 

When someone is 45 years in the grave we stop thinking about him as he was, especially when that person lives in the memories of others as a legend. But Jimmy had not become the legendary James Dean when I met him. He was just a skinny young man who hunched his shoulders and peered at the world through thick glasses.

You have probably seen his three movies. You certainly recognize his face and the stance of angst he came to represent. Most people hold an image in their minds of Jimmy that is more movie than reality. That is not unreasonable. He did not live long enough to express who he was through a lifetime of acts. But the Jimmy I knew was not like the image. 

Jimmy was the first person I knew who talked to me about ideas as if I was a thinking person instead of a child. He had a talent for making me look at things in ways that surprised me. He helped me see things more deeply. Jimmy was the magic of ideas and spirit. He seemed like one thing and then suddenly his eyes would twinkle and he would say something that turned my world upside down. Stars, leaves, faeries, kittens and death, he talked about all of them. He helped me believe in fairies and also to understand that fairies were a different kind of real. 

With Jimmy I went on voyages of discovery into places inside my mind. After he was gone that magical shifting stayed with me. His gift. So I want to introduce you to the James Byron Dean who was laughter, insight, and amazement. That Jimmy is the truth that bubbles up when I see a picture of him. That is the Jimmy who is real. 

Each of us assembles who we are from the materials at hand and Jimmy was a foundational influence in my life. We all hunger for things beyond our experience. I did not realize I could love the taste of thought until Jimmy. Jimmy taught me to doubt, to think and to glory in discovering new ideas.

We touch the lives of others every day without knowing at the time how much those contacts really matter. Jimmy spoke of many things. Some things I did not understand at the time. But I remembered. Life gives us gifts if we choose to see them. But sometimes-even gifts most true - need time for understanding and I am still understanding Jimmy. 

Jimmy had an innate empathy for the human need of ceremony. This was Truthing - making things clear and giving direction. He never said why, but over the time I knew him he led me through what I now recognize as ceremonies of understanding. 

I carried that on into my own life, thinking and creating ceremonies as I came in contact with the world around me. Some were about healing; some about making my intentions strong and true. 

Life is a constant seeking for the truths that light places within us.

The first time I met Jimmy

It was before I started going to Kindergarten. It had to have been because I was alone at home with Mom and Stephen, who was still in diapers. Stephen made wet places on the floor sometimes. You had to watch for the dark patches. Stephen didn't eat lunch with me. I ate alone at the little table in the kitchen. My table had a tiny drawer where I stored my crayons and other items of interest and great value. I had not stopped chewing on crayons, at least occasionally, at that point. They looked like they should taste good - and they didn't taste too bad, actually. Interesting texture, too. 

Mom usually made me a Beanie sandwich. If you have not tried one of these you have not lived a full and complete culinary life. A proper Beanie sandwich oozes with filling; the bread is very soft and only white bread will do. I remember my teeth biting through the bread and the small explosion of flavor from the peanut butter and jelly followed by the pasty feel of the peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth. The jelly was usually strawberry, then my favorite. I had mine with potato chips or Fritos, if there were any; Just a few on the side of the plate, and milk for a beverage in one of the little plastic glasses that bounce, not break. They bounced all too often.

That day I was just sitting down to the sandwich when there was a knock at the front door. I wandered out of the kitchen to peer around the corner. Mom was talking to a skinny man. The skinniness struck me first. He introduced himself as the son of someone. I didn't remember the name. Mom invited him in with cluckings and the offer of lunch. He stepped into the entryway and noticed me, sandwich in hand. Beanie sandwiches are cut in long thin slices, fourths. This strip was drooping badly and leaking onto my hand. I licked it off. Tasted even better that way. 

Mom grabbed me and returned me to my little table and chair. I twisted around to look at the man as he followed us into the kitchen. He sat down with me in the other little chair. He fit snugly. I laughed. I had never seen a big person sit at the little table. 

So Mom made him a Beanie sandwich of his own. While she was fussing with the sandwich and a glass of milk for him Jimmy showed me how to peel up the top of the sandwich and scrunch the potato chips into the peanut butter. I liked it. It was different and it sort of tickled the roof of my mouth when I bit into it. Salt against the strawberry jam was interesting, I thought. 

Jimmy asked my Mom for some more things for his sandwich. It was a Beanie, too. But into his he put pickles and tomatoes and ketchup. It was wonderfully icky. I made a face and he made the same face back at me and rolled his eyes and said, "ummm....yummy!" So then I wanted a bite of his. It was interesting. I was not sure I liked it at first but I liked the way Mom looked when I ate it. Jimmy laughed and I laughed, too. 

After lunch we went into the back yard. The house on Colby where I grew up was green. All of the houses Mom occupied were green. She struggled to make them that perfect shade of light celadon but this rarely worked out. At that point the house was a rather determined institutional green with dark shutters on the windows. I was then occupying the front bedroom with my sisters Anne and Carol and occasionally my mother's mother, Darling Daisy. I had a tiny bed that had graduated me just in time from the crib that was then occupied by Stephen. There was a living room, dining room and kitchen with laundry area. I liked it there. It was cozy and snug even for someone of my dimensions. 

The Avocado Tree dominated the back yard on Colby Avenue. Eventually, it would grow into a great-grandmother of a tree, bearing avocados all year long. Then, it was still young but good for climbing. 

Mom was showing her roses to Jimmy. His Mom liked roses, too, he said. Later I realized that his Mom was dead. 

I went off to play under the Avocado Tree while they talked. That was my favorite destination in the back yard for making mud pies. For some reason the mud there was especially fine grained and therefore looked like chocolate. Didn't taste like chocolate though. I had already ascertained that on a previous occasion. Then I had a great idea. I had something I wanted to show Jimmy. I knew he would like to see it. 

I still feel a tingle of excitement when I remember dragging someone by the hand over the concrete pathway along the side of the garage. My arm is up at an angle because he was so much taller than I. I am looking ahead to a rather dense and tall bush against the back fence. On one brief occasion I am off the ground because I am pulling so hard. 

I round the bush and there is the prize. I don't know how it got there. It certainly had not been ours. But the dead tortoise had certainly been past all hope when I first found it. I had been watching it being eaten by ants for some time. I tried to look every few days, although I knew that I should not tell Mom. She would remove it, I was pretty sure.

Jimmy looked at the turtle for a long time. He squatted down to get a better look. Then he smiled. 

Jimmy told me then that he had watched the same process only it was with a cow, I think. I shuddered. Cows were huge. My first contact with Jimmy was also the first occasion when I talked to anyone about the physical process of mortality. We had a cat then, Tiger Lady, later Tiger when his gender was correctly identified. But Tiger was still a fluffy kittenish presence then. I had yet to bury a deceased goldfish to be dug up later for minute examination. The tortoise came first. Jimmy filled me in on various aspects of the process with horrid expressions of face and gestures of hands. He also introduced the idea that the essence of the tortoise, the thing that moved it and made it Tortoise, was no longer there. It had gone someplace else. I was skeptical. I was always skeptical. I had learned that people would tell me things that were not strictly factual. Jimmy didn't do t! hat. Jimmy told truth.

That was the first time I met Jimmy. I think he was going to UCLA then and as a starving student was making the rounds of families who had known his mother to give him access to a fuller diet. But he did come back - usually at lunchtime. 

Having Jimmy come by was exciting. The pattern became set. He would wolf down sandwiches, cookies, and other edibles while talking to Mom and instructing me in the ways of culinary augmentation of taste sensations until every speck of food on his plate and mine was consumed. He would drink milk usually because that is what there was. But once in the springtime it was lemonade. We did not have soft drinks in the house then.

On one occasion I remember showing him the contents of the Thing on what must have been the second visit. How do I explain The Thing? It was a very odd piece of furniture that served as a storage unit, build by my Uncle Ernie. Finished a light oak color, it was actually made out of pieces of wood salvaged from the old Los Angeles Court House, torn down in the 30's. He was Father's elder brother. Later I learned from my sister Anne that he used to stay with them from time to time, years before I was born. Anne didn't like him. I think he drank too much from what she said. But she did say that he was jolly and made jokes along with the furniture. 

I remember the day when the phone rang and I watched Father learn that Uncle Ernie, his brother, was in the hospital and not likely to live. Father left the house abruptly having lost the smile that usually lingered on his face.

That weekend Father went into the garage and burned the contents of a dusty trunk he pulled down from the rafters. There were piles of glossy pictures that curled and darkened into the fire, one after another. Father looked at each one, sad and also distant. He didn't seem aware I was watching, which was not like him. 

Later, Father told me that Ernie asked him to burn everything while he was in the hospital dying. In the years since I have learned much more about Ernie. I have stood at his grave, located just a few steps from his parents joint resting place, and read his words on cards, looked at his face frozen in time with the steep walls of Yosemite in the background. I have gotten to know the cousin who is his only child. I listened carefully to her story and watched her face as she described the man who was her mother's first husband and the father she could not remember. 

I treasure the bookcase Ernie made. It is beautifully turned and finished with a dark stain. Mother and Father hung it over the secretary disk that had belonged to Grandmother Sylvia and to Dr. Harriet, Father's grandmother, before her. Only very special books and items were placed there

The Thing was very different. It was a toy box on top with two little shelves on the bottom. Massy and sturdy. I know that it was used as a children's toy box originally when Anne was tiny. But when I was growing up it lived in the living room and contained Treasurers.
These were real treasurers, the kind that Dad showed people when they came over. The people looked very closely at them, murmuring. They were stiff paper, all curled up on themselves, holding tiny pictures. 

The curling stiff papers were proof sets of the photographs that A.C. had taken of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in 1906. I liked looking at them so I knew that Jimmy would, too. He did. He exclaimed over the clarity and the feeling you got that you could feel the heat and smell the dust, still in the air from the shaking of the earth. He looked for a long time. He also looked at the gold pictures, orotones, with images of the south seas and Yosemite, the Desert and other distant places I had never seen. The gold color gleamed deeply. There were other pictures, too. Still shots of plant curling into bloom and tiny shots of cells with an image of AC caught seeming to be exclaiming in excitement. 

That was when he told me we were cousins. I do not know that this is true, actually. I do know that our families on my mother's side came from the same very small town in Indiana. Thereafter I referred to him interchangeably as Jimmy or Cousin Jimmy.

Jimmy told me stories about himself and his dreams. On that day he told me he wanted to make movies and be an actor. I thought that was ridiculous. I knew he was going to college then and he was going to be an attorney. I don't think he told me that. I think it was the kind of thing you pick up listening to adults talk. But his dream was not one that his father did liked. I could understand that. I wanted to do things my parents didn't like, either. Mom had taken away the tortoise, just like I thought she might. 

I think that is the first time Jimmy talked to me about his future. He talked great big things for his future. He talked about people I did not know who he told me were in the movies and then on television. We had gotten a television at some point and it was established in the living room at the end towards the bedrooms in a big wooden cabinet. I thought it was elegant then. Smooth varnished wood and very glossy high lights. 

When it needed repair, which was all too frequent, Stephen and I would climb in the cabinet and pretend we were actors in a show. That came from Jimmy and his stories about being in the movies. Stephen was diaper trained and usually reliable by this time. 

Jimmy did not talk to Mom about his dreams. Or he did once. She fixed him with a piercing stare and told him that actors starve and accomplish nothing useful anyway. I know that the family felt just that way about actors. There were some in the neighborhood. 

Lloyd Bridges lived around the corner with his kids and scandalized my mother by walking around outdoors with his underwear showing. That was a definite no-no then. Later, Dave Brew would tell me that he borrowed the Hardy Boys books from Jeff who was very unwilling to share. Since sharing was a cardinal virtue and something we did between houses that was a shocking dereliction. I know that Mr. Bridges was active in scouts with my Dad. I do not remember for which brother, Cap or Stephen. 

Jimmy introduced me to the living world of plants in the backyard one afternoon while I was climbing the lemon tree. Climbing the lemon tree was a riskier business than climbing the avocado tree. It had little prickles. But its smell seemed to sink into my skin and stay with me even after I was tucked in at night. So I was careful of the prickles and climbed it when I hungered for the headiness of lemon. 

It was a quiet afternoon and you could hear the sounds of Mom washing up in the kitchen. I laid my head along the branch to breath in the lemon scent deeply. Jimmy was lying on the lawn, looking up but with his eyes closes. 

Then he spoke. "Trees breathe. Can you hear the tree breathing?" I listened. I heard the faintest movement of leaves brushing against each other, but I heard no breathing. I told him that trees do not breathe. He laughed, and said again that they do. I jumped down, thoroughly saturated with the scent of lemons now. I walked over to him, put my hands on my hips an told him that trees do not breathe. 

Jimmy sat up. The sun twinkled off his glasses. He got up slowly, stretching a little. He sat there, eye to eye with me. 

"Trees breathe", he said again. "They breathe in light and breathe out life." He blew gently into my face and smiled. 

This was a moment of revelation for me. Plants possessed life, just as the tortoise had. Somehow I knew it must be true, although I would not understand the technicalities of photosynthesis for many years. Jimmy went on to tell me that all plants breathe, making the air we need to survive. I almost forgot to breathe myself in that moment. 

Jimmy had changed my world forever in ways I did not yet imagine. That night, I went to sleep hearing the whole great green world breathing slowly and firmly all around me. 

Jimmy had introduced me to plants as living things that struggle to survive. He had introduced me to the great circle of life that subsumes everything on Earth. He later told me that all things are connected, some obvious and some so tenuous and complex that we will never know just how they touch through time and space. 

Our thoughts touch too, he said smiling with a little sadness. 

Between visits I thought about what Jimmy had said, rolling his words and expressions over in my mind and examining them from every possible direction. 

On another visit, Jimmy taught me to draw a star on a discarded piece of paper. He picked up the pencil and his hand moved and, voila! There was that little five pointed shape right before my eyes. I thought he was a magician for part of one breath. Then I insisted he show me how he did it.

We filled up that paper with stars. I made him do it again and again until I could do it myself. I was hard to put off in those days. That was when he told me about stars. Here is what he said.

Jimmy said that the sun was a star. I disagreed. I knew that stars were little points of light. This was evidence of my own eyes. But he said it only looked like that because they were so very far away. He pointed to a bird off in the sky that was a speck. 

I thought about this and conceded that it could be true. 

The first revelation under the lemon tree in the back yard fit neatly into the next one. Jimmy told me that all life comes from the sun. I disagreed. Life comes from the Earth, plants and babies, I said. I had learned very recently about babies from the pregnancy of a neighbor, Mrs. Grimes, who let me put my hand on her very pregnant belly. I knew therefore that mommies make babies. Yes, said Jimmy. But mommy persons make babies just like them. They are human, and all babies, human and otherwise, need the Earth and the life in her to keep living. 

Jimmy reminded me about the tortoise and said that the tortoise went back into the soil and that plants and other animals ate what was left of the tortoise after its essence was gone and therefore didn't need its body any more.

That was a moment I have never forgotten. I saw things, plants, animals, people, moving through time, consuming and consumed with the steady infusion of light becoming life. 

Jimmy took that opportunity to say his goodbyes to my mom and be on his way. I think the stars tired him out. 

In the summer of 1955 I must have seen Jimmy at least two times. Once he took me to see a movie he said was about a cowboy. The movie was East of Eden. I don't know if you have seen this movie but there is no cowboy and no horses. Horses were a strong selling point when jimmy introduced the idea of a movie. So Jimmy took me and various other family members to the theatre on Pico Blvd. and settled me into a seat with my very first Baby Ruth candy bar. 

There were no horses and no cowboy. I now believe that Jimmy meant that HE was a cowboy because he had just finished making the movie Giant. But this cut no weight with me when I was six. The guy in the movie did not look like Jimmy. He was not wearing glasses and he whined a lot, very unJimmy-like behavior. (Jimmy was practically blind without his glasses. I understood this, having very thick glasses myself.) I had been defrauded, something I did not expect from Jimmy. Afterwards he took me on the pony rides to make up for it. I also received a lasso and lessons in twirling. The best part of the occasion was getting to climb and run along the scalloped wall that surrounded the pony ride. This made Jimmy nervous and he insisted I let him fetch me down as he ran along beside me. Eventually, when the wall ran out, I did. 

On the last occasion when I saw Jimmy, it must have been toward the end of that summer, he told me the story of a man who wanted to speak his truth to the world by being an architect. He told me that many times the world will not listen to such truth and that it tests the spirit of the individual to make the world see him or her as they are. Testing makes us stronger, he said, and forces us to become most truly what we are. His voice trembled a little as he talked. He said that someday he would tell the story as it should have been told. He was starting to tell the world who he was, he said. 

The story, I later realized, was The Fountainhead and the man was Howard Roark. We take inspiration where we find it, making it our own. The story he told me had a strong spiritual tone, very different than the book I would later experience. I like Jimmy's version best. 

Jimmy had taught me to doubt the obvious and see past what I thought I knew. He taught me to be strong and do what I believe is right no matter how much others might disapprove or even try to stop me. He had taught me to think and that thinking was a joyous pleasure that would never fail me. He was right about that. 

We talk a lot about the skills we give our children in school. But the greatest and most lasting lessons I have learned through life came long before I started my formal education. I don't think Jimmy thought of himself as a teacher. But he was. He was a teacher, a philosopher, and an ardent soul in flight through a life that was all too short. 

I will always be grateful for the lessons of Jimmy.