My Great Aunt and Marlon Brando

August 26 2016

When I was young, I would go to flea markets with my father. Cold mornings. Damp, slatted pine tables full of boxes of what my father called ‘smalls’. A few dollars in my pocket. Hot dogs for lunch. These were the Saturdays of my youth. Cherishing the idea of not knowing what I would find.

Along the way, I was drawn to tattered boxes of black and white photos and film canisters loaded with 8mm. Here were forgotten lives. Here were moments in time. Here was human history, relegated to the back table next to a pile of Mad Magazines and hand-forged iron tools.

I've heard it suggested that we die two deaths: The first is when you take your last breath. The second is when someone speaks your name for the last time. As I flip over a photograph and say, to myself, “Billy and George at the swimming hole - 1937”, have I resurrected them, or is someone out there still speaking their names?

Is it possible that there is no value in peering into the past at strangers? Are our lives separated by something as abyssmal as time, or something as ephemeral as a browning sheet of glossy photo paper?

Hundreds of years from now, what will become of audio recordings of my father playing whimsical, freestyle versions of Beatles songs on the piano? What about videos of my mother touring me around her home town? What about photos of my sisters and I wearing bee hats and pretending to play baseball?

In the spirit of keeping stories alive, I haven’t forgotten that I promised you Brando.

My Great Aunt Anne was a ghost.

I recall as a child climbing the faded, concrete steps into my great grandparents’ house to find her smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table. She was grey, hollow, alone.

Her family had committed her in the 50's. With years of electroshock therapy and experimental drug regimens, life was drained from her slowly. She whispered, she mumbled, she told stories that made no sense. She said that she had once worked with Marlon Brando.

When she died, I found her books, her poetry, her journals. From a family of blue collar workers, she had somehow become a poet, a dancer, an actress. A beatnik. An artist. I looked through her old playbills.

In the summer of 1953, George Bernard Shaw's play, “Arms and the Man” took the stage at the Theatre by the Sea playhouse in Rhode Island. Flipping through the playbill, I found my Aunt's name: Anne D., Stage Manager.

Flipping further I noted one of the stars of the show: Sergius Saranoff, Marlon Brando.

It had been the last stage play of his career.

Maybe they shared a conversation, a laugh, a glance. I'll never know. I never got the chance to ask her. But she remembered.

Maybe I can save this story. Maybe I can save others. Maybe I can leave something behind that doesn't wind up on a flea market table. Maybe if we try hard enough, people’s lives don’t need to blink out of existence.

If any of you want to preserve stories, let me know. I have a web domain that I would love to someday turn into a resting place for these memories I've collected.

If any of you spent time in Stamford, Connecticut or Mt. Kisco, New York before the 1970's, let me know. You may have known someone in my family!

Shout out to my friend Dan for introducing me to the List Serve.

Peace be with you.

Ben D.
[email protected]

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