Monday, February 19, 2007

Patriotism, Deconstructed

Today, of course, alternate-side parking is suspended in honor of George Washington, the Father of our Country, although his actual birthday is not till February 22nd (Thursday). My grandmother had the same birthday as Washington, except after a busybody aunt went and changed it. My grandmother moved to Cleveland from Ontario, Canada, when she was three years old. Aunt Harriet went to Canada when Grandma was in her seventies, poked around in old church records, and came back with the earth-shattering revelation that Mary B. had actually been born on February 20, 1887, and had been exploiting the connection with George Washington ever since. Grandma was an impostor, with a taste for cherry pie.

I experienced a similar irritation when our fearless leaders changed Washington's birthday, but of course I was mollified by the three-day weekend. Besides, it wasn't the first time George Washington's birthday had been changed. A new calendar was instituted in his lifetime, so his actual date of birth, February 11, 1732, was pushed back. I don't understand about the new calendar (did they add days or subtract them? and if they added them, why did they put them in February, which feels long enough as it is?).

If I associate George Washington with my grandmother, I have them both cross-indexed under Jack Benny. Now, does everyone know who I mean when I say Jack Benny? A few weeks ago, I mentioned the name and two people at my table of four didn’t know who I was talking about. One was Italian, so he has an excuse; the other was under thirty. I had to explain (in Italian, no less) that Jack Benny played the violin, made jokes about being cheap (“Era molto economico”), and had a television show and, before that, a radio show. Then I had to hasten to explain that the radio show was before my time—pul-lease. The Jack Benny Show was one of my grandmother’s favorite television programs. She also liked Lawrence Welk and Alfred Hitchcock. (I hadn’t realized that her tastes were so catholic.) Once, as a child, no doubt on my grandmother’s birthday, I saw Jack Benny play George Washington in a skit about chopping down the cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said. Then Rochester appeared, and I don't remember the punch line. I remember that, in a wig, Jack Benny looked a little like George Washington. And I remember Grandma showing us the trick with the dollar bill where you can turn the portrait of George Washington into a mushroom.

Well, now that I’ve paid my respects by free-associating the Father of our Country into a cheap trick with a dollar bill, I feel I can get on with my day. If anyone is interested, there’s a wonderful biography called “Washington: The Indispensable Man,” by James Thomas Flexner, a reduction of a four-volume scholarly biography into a single, extremely readable 400-page book. I read it while I was doing some research on a Washington impersonator. The best part was about the Battle of Manhattan, when the British came over the East River and landed at Kips Bay (Second Avenue at about 32nd Street, now a strip of Irish bars), sending the Continental Army into disarray, and Washington galloped down from Harlem to try to rally the troops. Incidentally, he hated the official Gilbert Stuart portrait that has become iconic; at the time of the sitting, his false teeth were really bothering him. Perhaps he foresaw his reincarnation as a mushroom.

Oh yes, Grandma also had false teeth. I don't know about Jack Benny's situation vis a vis dentures, but my mother always said he wore a girdle.

1 comment:

lucette said...

I wish I'd been there to hear your explain Jack Benny in Italian.