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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Edna Wilmington 1915-2009



Edna Wilmington (1915-2009).
By Michael Wilmington

Last Wednesday night, September 30, my mother, Edna Wilmington, died at the age of 94, several hours after being discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital after repeated hospital stays there, and at St. Joseph’s, for a variety of health problems. She had requested me never to send her to a nursing home, but instead let her remain at home, and I honored that request. I wish now I hadn’t. I desperately want her still alive. If a nursing home could have given her even a few weeks or months more, it would have done us all a great service.

Me most of all.

My mother was a small town girl from Williams Bay, Wisconsin, who married a fugitive from Hitler. She raised me alone, despite great hardship, with no alimony, help or child support from my father, Professor Martin Wilmington of New York City, until shortly before Martin died of leukemia in 1963.

She was a brilliant all around artist and amateur scientist, so good at so many things that I had to marvel all my life at her genius and versatility — a wonderful oil painter, a fine water-colorist, sharp caricaturist, peerless charcoal portraitist, wizardly theatrical backdrop painter, deep delver into physics and magnetism, an inspiring teacher and the best letter writer I’ve ever known.

She was also an incredibly brave, generous and fine human being. She was the daughter of a Swedish immigrant carpenter, my grampa, Axel Tulane, who designed and built several houses in and around the Bay, and did it all my himself — into his 70s. She put herself through art school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (while helping her parents with their mortgage), and graduated with a masters degree in art, magna cum laude.

Much of her life though, she suffered career-wise from the sexist prejudices of the time and that other prejudice by chic critics and the art and art education establishment toward abstract expressionism and against realism. In her fifties, she tried to re-enroll for her doctorate in art at Madison, partly to save our belongings, which were back in storage at the bay, and she was refused, in what seems to me a case of both sexism and ageism. Later the UW art faculty member and well-known painter Robert Grilley, told her she had been turned down because “we were afraid you would be contemptuous of us.” Grilley was wrong, she wasn’t unkind. She wouldn’t have hurt anybody, despite her occasionally sharp tongue. And she herself could work superbly in more painterly or abstract styles. But it broke her heart.

She was certainly a realist. Everything she painted, made, wrote or drew breathed with life and vibrated with humanity. I remember her wonderful sense of humor, her happy laugh, her sometimes scathing wisecracks. She wrote wonderfully too, Here is a poem she composed on a Madison bus, an impromptu response to a poem given her by her friend, fellow Madison student and later art professor Dudley Hupler. Dudley, who wanted to marry her, had whipped up some doggerel, in which he defended “selling out” in art, because “to a peacock, spreaying feathers onobserved would he absurd.”

She responded:

I am appalled.
But pen your patter if you must.
Know you this, eclipse will bring
Silent, mongrel poet’s dust.

Spray your feathers!
Shoot your quills!
Gather peanuts while you may.
Who can taste their five cent flavor,
When his jowls are in decay?

Abdicate the throne, climb down.
Jig a while, and strut.
Stoop with eager, fumbling hands
To scoop the scattered silver up.

I am a loon.
Strum the thin, contemporary tune.

What a writer! (And that was only her secondary gift.)

She was also a parent, guide and teacher-nurturer who was (as Duke Ellington would say) beyond category. It is thanks to her that, in one crucial evening in Hyde Park, Chicago, I learned to read in a single night after the first month or so of first grade, and after the prevalent “look and say” anti-phonics method I was taught, had sort of failed me. It is thanks to her that I knew all kinds of literature (including Shakeseare and Agatha Christie) so early, before I was ten. And all kinds of music. Every night when she came back from her daily work, she would sit at the piano in our Williams Bay garage apartment (which Grampa Axel had built) and play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

She also taught me painting and art, of course. And theatre. And comics. (Her favorite was Carl Barks’ “Uncle Scrooge.”) And history. And sports (She was the fastest touch football player in the neighborhood when she was in grade school.) And everything else, including movies.

Despite her lack of funds, she rarely refused to buy me a comic or book when I was growing up. And she took us to a movie every weekend at the little theaters in Lake Geneva, Walworth, Elkhorn or Delavan. Her two all-time favorite shows were Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain and Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes, and she was also fond of the western sweep of Stagecoach, the swashbuckling of Douglas Fairbanks, the scorching fury of Mean Streets, the Gothic terrors of Night of the Hunter, the Scottish whimsy of Local Hero, the comic cowboy fireworks of Rio Bravo, the wry tension of Alfred Hitchcock and — another taste she bequeathed to me, the magic virtuosity of Orson Welles.

When Edna was in high school, her class was taken to one of Welles’ very youthful stage productions, “Trilby” And often afterwards, she would describe how supremely, joyously theatrical Welles was, coming out afterwards, tall and magniloquent, to deliver the cast its notes in front of the mesmerized audience.

She was a wonderful, wonderful mother, beyond category or comparison. Thanks to my father, ignoring his family while he hobnobbed with Shanker (a famous New York figure who later became a joke in Woody Allen’s Bananas), she had almost nothing. But she gave me everything anyway. Books, records, basketballs. When I was in college at the UW, because she had been unable to find work as artist, draughtsman or teacher for years, she helped put me through most of it by working in a factory, driving to work every day, sending me most of her money. I never finished, despite her years of effort. But I could never, never repay her — for that or a million other things.

Some of my friends never understood why I would always bring my mother to new cities with me when I got new jobs, why I would take her to so many movies and screenings. Some of my not-friends ridiculed me for it. But how could I not try to repay, however inadequately, someone who gave me so much and who asked so little? How could I not find apartments for her near me or sometimes share with her my own messy domiciles, digs unworthy of her, but in which she held a place of honor?

Lately two film directors, Michael Reano and Bud Young, have been shooting a documentary about me and the changes in film criticism (not my idea) called “24 Frames a Second, 24 Hours a Day.” They shot some precious hours of my mother too, as recently as last weekend. I wanted them to do more. She easily steals the movie away from me and others; she’s a magnetic camera subject in her 90s. And though she thought lightly of her looks, telling me once, “I wasn’t pretty; I was smart,” I think she was wrong. She was beautiful.

One scene which Mike and Bud didn’t get — and I wish they had — was an incident that greatly moved election poll workers and firemen at the local firehouse last November, including one ambulance driver who later came for her, too late, after she died. I brought her on election day by cab to the firehouse polling place, where, though a lifelong Republican, she cast her vote for Barack Obama for President.

I think the reason she may have stayed a Republican (like almost everyone in Williams Bay) was because my father Martin, a liberal Democrat (like after college, me) had treated her so badly. But in fact, her last three presidential or primary ballots were cast once for John Kerry and twice for Obama. And she spent much of her hours the last few years watching the liberal cable news network MSNBC. (She disliked Fox.)

My mother was not a total saint. She could be cranky and stubborn and she could scream out her frustrations, and she messed up or tried to mess up my love life a few times. I loved her anyway.

To me, she seemed invulnerable. But nobody is. She was amazingly healthy for almost all her life, despite never going to doctors. Then, last year, she took a fall in our Chicago apartment — and was brought to Northwestern, characteristically demanding that the drivers leave her alone and that the doctors immediately send her home.
My mother was not a total saint. She could be cranky and stubborn and she could scream out her frustrations, and she messed up or tried to mess up my love life a few times. I loved her anyway.

The last two months were a Hell for her and for me, from the moment I walked into her bedroom one Thursday, and saw her lying, wide-eyed but speechless, on her bed, unable to answer my frantic calls of “Mother! Mother!” as she lay there — and then for the next two months as she kept being rushed to the hospitals by ambulance, and kept being brought back from the brink. The doctors kept saving her, but it was sometimes a nightmare worthy of Stephen King. One night I went into her hospital room and found her alone, and with her sheet and blankets drenched with blood, because, I was told, a doctor had done something wrong with her IV.

But those months were, in a way, a treasure as well, because, as she lay in her hospital bed or at home, often quietly, her eyes still shining, I got the chance to read to her (Selma Lagerlof’s “The Adventures of Nils”) as she had once read “Winnie the Pooh” to her young son — and to tell her, over and over, how much I loved her and admired her. “Best mother in the world! Best artist in the world! Best scientist in the world!” I told her, over and over. I meant it — and though it was the kind of hyperbole that would usually make smart Edna snort derisively, it was a joy to unabashedly compliment her, as she would always compliment and encourage me.

Finally, she succumbed Wednesday to what she called a “great pain” – only hours after being discharged again from Northwestern, and, ironically at the very moment I was discussing her care in the living room with two hospice representatives. As we talked, they suggested that she might belong instead in a nursing home, and ironically, I now mostly agree. But to me, you see, my mother was invulnerable. I believed that her repeated desire to die at home was sacred, and that she would always bounce back, as she already recently had.

Instead, it was another nightmare. I had asked that the hospice nurse come early when Mother started talking of pain and I started giving her aspirin. But the shifts were changing, the nurse couldn’t be reached at first, and then she had to come a long way. It took hours. After she arrived, they somehow neglected to check Edna’s vital signs, waiting until we went to her bedroom and discovered my mother had died.

Later, before the funeral home workers came to take her away, I cradled Mother Edna’s sweet, tired head in my arms, talked to her, crooned to her, sang to her one of her favorite songs (Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child”), and died inside myself, as gradually the capillaries burst in my mother’s beautiful, shining blue eyes and turned them purple and black.

It was the saddest sight I have ever seen, or will see. And, before that, the most horrible words I have ever heard were the nurse’s nervous “She’s not breathing. ”

Ah, but she is, she does, she always will. She is alive and she breathes in my heart and soul, and in the heaven in which she believed so strongly — and I hope now that she lives in some of yours as well. Though the last words I ever heard my mother say were “Help me! help me!” she was instead the person who, all her life, always helped others, helped me. In the hospital room, when I would rest my hand on hers, to comfort her, she would often pull it out and place it on top of mine, to comfort me.

That was Edna Marie Tulane Wilmington, a woman whose munificent gifts and great heart the world mistakenly ignored.

The last movie she saw in a theatre (Facets) was, once again, Citizen Kane. The last DVD she saw, in the hospital, on her food table, on my laptop computer, was The Wizard of Oz. I wish it had been her all-time favorite, Singin’ in the Rain.

When I was a little boy in Chicago, and my mother, whom I then called “Mommy,” would drop me off with a sitter or at Hyde Park Nursery School, before she went to work, we had a little ritual goodbye we would say every morning to each other. Mommy would say “Be a good boy, have a nice time…” And I would answer enthusiastically, “I will, goodbye and come early!”

In our last months together, those sometimes happy and sometimes terrible days, we had another ritual goodbye, which I would say to my mother at her bedside, and which I said again and again, as I sat beside her after the end. “Good night, dear mother, Good night, beautiful artist. See you in the morning.” I say it here now, to the woman who gave me everything, for the last time.

Good night, dear mother, Good night, beautiful artist. See you in the morning.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Edna Wilmington 1915-2009”

  1. John Fuchs says:

    Michael; I’m very sorry to discover this so many years after the fact. I was very impressed by the strength, wit, intelligence and beauty of your mother lo those many years ago in Madison when I was able to assist you and her and many boxes of worldly posessions relocate (several times I think!) with the We-Haul van. It was thrilling to see her again (and you of course) in the 24X24 trailer.My sincere condolences, John Fuchs.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon