I like it when my mother tells me shocking things about family members who are dead, though sometimes she shares bits about those who are alive, too. Today she told me that my great-grandmother’s brother died of syphilis in his thirties. This man has always fascinated me, as has his sister, the glamorous one we called Grandmother. She was always so done, so red and so vibrant to me. Nowadays she shows up in dimes, in yellow roses, in butterflies. Back then she sold Bourghese in a shiny white department store and smelled like Shalimar. And good Lord she was pretty. My Dad’s grandmother. His mother’s mother. Her brother, Reggie Vestal, was a Vaudevillian. You know what that is, right? Those fellas who sang and danced and bantered in sharp clothes and smart hats. Canes were swung around a bit, every man was a Renaissance man. Girls wore glitter and sparkles and sang like trumpets. They were gypsies inside smoky theatres; pancaked sages, saints, and sinners.
My great-great Uncle (or is it great-great-great Uncle?) Reggie had a partner named Bob, a partner who went to Australia after Vaudeville died down and sustained a successful career in radio. Reggie stayed behind. I wish I knew more, but the stories have come in whispers from my mother, who tells me these things on the phone in offhand ways, before asking me what I’d like to eat on Thanksgiving. I have a letter from Bob to Reggie, and a photo of the two.
The caption on the back reads, “To my best girl, My mother. With lots of love, Reggie. Your two little boys, Bobby & Reggie”
The letter is long, and full of slang and industry jargon, and I LOVE IT. As soon as the scanner is working again I’ll post the whole thing.
Here’s a gem of letter-closer,
“Sit down, Pappy, and write me a long letter, and give me all the lowdown; it’s really good to hear from somebody back home, who know’s what’s cookin’.”
“When are you and I going to get together and write a book? Pal, we could really do a best seller, and not tell one little fib.”
Here’s a video of this old family friend hosting an Australian game show called Pick a Box.
I have more to say but it’s late, and my heart is full and weary and I want to rejuvinate my brain with sleep. I have a lot of sheet music that was Reggie’s and some photos of famous Vaudevillians. I don’t know why I haven’t thought to bring it all out of its box and share it with the world until now, but I do know that I’ve felt my great-grandmother really strongly around me lately. I was thinking about her just today, as Xander and I ran through the rain and jumped in puddles in the University gardens. When I stopped a moment to my immediate right was a single yellow rose, still living, still in full bloom. Yellow roses were her favorite.
When I go up for Thanksgiving I need to sit down with my Grandma and talk to her about her mom, and her Uncle Reggie. I know she talked about Reggie a lot when I was performing but I was too stupid and naive and full of myself and didn’t listen enough. So here we go.