My glittering grandmother, Helen Temple, was a London stage actress and singer during World War I. She was first known for her roles in a variety of Shakespeare plays, then in Galsworthy’s Fugitive and The Skin Game. She played Regina in Ibsen’s Ghosts and starred opposite Ronald Colman in The Little Brother. She also played opposite James Carew in four silent films, and became known for her mezzo-sopranic roles in the popular melodramas: The Boy of My Heart, Jerome Kern’s Very Good, Eddie, Arthur Shirley’s The Wild Widow, and, perhaps most notably, the musical Chu Chin Chow.
I remember—eyes wide—her telling me how the plays had to go on during the air raids of World War I, even as the sirens sounded and the theater emptied into shelters. Sadly, she refused to sing for us. She had put her voice to rest to have a family, or so she said. She’d met my grandfather aboard a ship bound for London, after a tour of Australia with the company of Chu Chin Chow. Instead of returning to her busy celebrity, she followed my grandfather to the United States, giving up her career as a singer and actress to be the wife of a Pennsyltucky oilman and mother of two.
In her later years, she took up painting and spent summers taking art classes at the Chautauqua Arts Center, under the tutelage of Remington Arthur. I remember visiting her there when she was hard at work on one of her whimsical creations, which my mother and uncle and other members of her family poo-pooed as not being any good.
I was fascinated by the movement of her stick figures, and the vibrant colors she used to animate them. They were funny and scary and surreal, all at once. I was amazed that any old person stooped with arthritis, and needing a walker to get around, could have such a punk rock imagination. That was my grandmother.
During her time of stick people I also played the piano a lot, forced to play was more like it. I didn’t respect the talent everyone else heard in my playing, but I used it as an easy go-to when I couldn’t decide on anything else to major in at Cornell. I dropped the major in favor of literature as soon as I could.
As far as the piano went, I would learn one or two pieces really well and play them for everyone and impress with my talent, not letting on that they were the only two pieces I could play, because I never developed a work ethic at the keyboard. One of those pieces was “Chopin” from Schumann’s Carnaval Suite. My present goal is to learn all 56 pages of the suite.
Skip ahead forty years and I am nearly as old as Helen Temple. My body is less supple with its own forms of arthritis. Like hers, my fingers have gone catawampus at the knuckles and have grown every which way— determined, as I now am, to return to the vivid palate of my childhood piano. I have Helen to thank for that impassioned drive to seek artistic expression through a variety of forms throughout one’s lifetime. The personality of the artist will shine through, whether in painting, or music, acting or singing or writing, or even through the artistry of jumping a horse.
“Can you make them come alive?” I asked Adam, when working on the video poem. “I want them to move.” And Adam, through his own artistic medium, made my grandmother’s sticks do exactly that.