Full-scale families are filled with people who are known by the rest of the family, whose history is familiar, whose mythology enriches us, and whose stories are pulled forth to enlighten the next generation. Whether these mythic, in-and-out inhabitants exist in the neighborhood or in the graveyard, whether they are personally known or unknown, real or imagined, they share our lives with us as fully as the faces on the cover of People magazine or the names or numbers of our "friends" on Facebook. We need other people, even if we don't want them around all the time and we may know only one story about them.
Everybody has a story to tell, perhaps a story that is told about them, and sometimes that story becomes their identity. Often these stories bring the wisdom of the ages and thus are circulated endlessly-or certainly should be.
My Uncle Harry was married to my mother's sister, Aunt Emily. He was a surgeon and she was the first female sports editor of a daily newspaper in this county. They never had children, but they more or less adopted me and my sister, Joanna. Uncle Harry delivered me and gave me my first electric train. Aunt Emily introduced me to Betsy, my future and permanent bride. To us, she was always our Beloved Auntie Cupid.
One of Uncle Harry's great loves was baseball. He was the doctor for the Atlanta Crackers and then the early years of the Atlanta Braves. In the 1950s, Earl Mann, the owner of the team, called Uncle Harry to come to the rescue for medical emergencies or for visiting celebrities.
Once, at the end of WWII, Earl called his friend Harry to come tend a temperamental and demanding actress who was starring in a play coming through Atlanta, and was suffering from a sore throat, despite her self medication with heavy doses of bourbon and cocaine. Uncle Harry met the incomparable Tallulah Bankhead, a famous actress who dominated the stage but was too much for the screen. She came from a long line of Alabama politicians, senators, congressmen and, memorably, Speaker of the House.
The Bankheads' commanding daughter, of the booming family baritone, was made for the stage. She was a lifelong lover of bourbon, baseball, and all things flamboyant, loud, and defiantly Southern. She was a beauty queen and movie star in the 40s. She conquered Broadway in Lillian Hellman's play THE LITTLE FOXES soon after. When she came into Uncle Harry's life, she had already made her greatest movie, LIFEBOAT (by Alfred Hitchcock, no less).
Uncle Harry was not a glamorous man, but he was the spitting image of Alfred Hitchcock. Uncle Harry gave the flamboyant Magnolia of Alabama a cough drop or something, and bowed. At his size and shape he did not bend in the middle. Tallulah gave a pair of first-row tickets to Aunt Emily and Uncle Harry.
The play, so I've heard, was THAT LADY, about Princess Eboli, the one-eyed mistress of both King Phillip II of Spain and his son Don Carlos. Emily and Harry loved the play. A few hours into the night, the imperious lady needed another dollop of whatever it was Uncle Harry had given her earlier. She called from the Biltmore Hotel. Uncle Harry answered the call and arrived with his doctor's bag and magic elixir. Tallulah came to the door.
It was not quite clear what Tallulah was wearing other than the bottle of bourbon in her hand. Uncle Harry was a man of few words, none of which worked to cool the passion of the most commanding woman on the stage. So Harry did what a longtime baseball player and surgeon would do: He cut and ran. Harry ran the full length of the hotel with Tallulah in hot and loud pursuit, calling out Harry's name and awaking every theatergoer and baseball fan in Atlanta.
He beat the lady from Alabama to the elevator and disappeared unmolested to parts below. He sped home and recited for Aunt Emily every word of this battle of wit and will. Harry won the race but what meant more to Aunt Emily, she won the prize: Harry came home to her.
There remained the question of just what Tallulah was wearing at the Biltmore. The silent Uncle Harry never answered, just smiled. Within days, Harry was a local hero. He had excused himself gracefully from a messy situation. Harry had defended his marriage, he had protected Emily's honor, and he had paid the great complement to his wife by choosing her over a world-famous glamour girl. No one ever stooped to questioning Harry's fidelity.
And he gave his admiring nephew techniques for dealing with predatory women who cross boundaries and shock their captive audiences into states of stupor and temporary mutism. When words fail, running may be more definitive. In other words, say "No thank you to the nice lady." Then cut and run. Go right home and tell the truth. The life you save may be your own.