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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Peggy Page and her Grandfather Ernest on her wedding day

My grandfather adapted easily to change, which may be why he lived to ninety-seven. He defied the usual expectations of age that companies use to rationalize hiring only people with pre-pubescent arteries.

Ernest was born in a tiny log cabin in Virginia before automobiles and electric power. He served in France during World War I. He taught high school and was a school principal before getting laid off during the Great Depression, because he wouldn't falsify school enrollment to get more state aid. He was a whiz at geometry. No matter how many people were at the party - eleven, thirteen, seventeen - he could cut a round birthday cake into prime-ly equal slices.

He retired at seventy-nine from his job as a clerk at a school supply company that is still in business today. In his eighties, Papa discovered Chinese food. In his nineties, I remember him asking me "Are you getting paid enough at work?" - a radical question to ask a woman at that time. When reading the classics got harder for him to do, he became an avid fan and statistical expert on ACC basketball. He was the guy you'd call as your quiz show telephone life line.

He was so flexible in mind and spirit that a few years ago I dreamed he'd done his Christmas shopping online. When I woke up, I realized he couldn't have done that. He died before the internet entered our homes, but if he'd lived another decade, he would have been the neighborhood geek.

So for some people, the singalong version of The Sound of Music, which is playing at the Michigan Theaterat 7 p.m. Tuesday, is just some ancient, saccharine musical with corny, feel-good songs and children who adapt perfectly to their blended family.

But for me? This 1965 Best Film Oscar winner was the first film I remember seeing, and I saw it with Papa. We walked from his home in Cameron Village, Raleigh's version of the Old West Side, to the old movie palace on Hillsborough Street across from North Carolina State.

We went on a Sunday afternoon. It was cold. Papa wore his church suit and church coat, of course. My sisters and I wore our pastel Sunday school dresses, ankle socks and patent leather shoes.

Papa bought the tickets and turned to us. I can still remember that moment, that look of excitement on his face with those ticket stubs in his hand. He was taking his grand daughters to something splendid - a movie - today's equivalent of taking the grandkids to the moon or to Mars.

We sat in the worn burgundy velvet seats. Our petticoats rustled while we wiggled, waiting for the movie to start. I looked in awe at the gilded plaster ceiling and cornices.

When I was in college, I dated a guy who was a neighbor to the real Maria after the Von Trapp family moved to Vermont. My beau told me she was very different from the film Maria. He even used the b-word to describe her, but out of deference to Papa, I ignored his heresy.

To me, Maria is the rebellious, young novice nun who runs in alpine meadows, "is always late to everything except for every meal," who learned to look first before sitting down for dinner, finds her calling as a mother and a wife, and wears a knockout dress at her wedding in a cathedral that set the standard for my generation for what a royal wedding should be.

So on Tuesday evening, I will honor my Papa by taking my pierced, long-haired, twenty-one-year-old son to watch The Sound of Music at the Michigan Theater and see this film the way it is supposed to be seen.

I'll wear a flowered dress, perfume and heels, and ask my son to take a cell phone photo of me holding our ticket stubs in my hand as I stand on the sidewalk by the movie palace with the gilt ceiling.

posted by John Hilton at 2:16 p.m. | 0 comments


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