Sometimes A Great Notion

Sometimes A Great Notion

Sometimes A Great Notion

The summer after my father passed away, my family rented a beach house in Lincoln City, Oregon.  What better way to remember him, I thought, than revisit a time that still felt magical?  I’d been a young teenager and a budding actress when Dad took us on location for Sometimes a Great Notion.  Thrilled to be around movie stars all summer, I’d relished every moment.   

One of our first stops was the Salishan Coastal Lodge, where my family had spent many fun hours.  As my husband and I walked from the lobby into the old, familiar restaurant, I thought I saw the same booth, just over there, in the center.  I pictured my father sitting with Paul Newman, who directed and starred, and co-star Henry Fonda, next to Paul’s wife, Joanne Woodward, with their friend, the director, George Roy Hill.  Closing my eyes, I traveled back in time and heard my father tell me the story I’d loved so much from his memoir:

“…Paul, Joanne, Fonda, Hill, and I were having lunch.  Paul, as usual, sat with his back to the room so as not to be recognized.  A woman spotted him, however, and approached us with a menu in hand.  She wanted Paul’s signature for her daughter, Nancy.  Paul explained that we were having lunch now, but if she notified the studio, they would send her an autographed photo with her daughter’s name on it.  With that, he thought, she’d go away.  As she started to leave, miffed, she suddenly recognized Fonda. 

“Mr. Fonda!  I didn’t see you there!  Would you please sign this menu for my daughter, Nancy?”

Henry turned on the charm.  “I’d love to.”  He took the menu from her, wrote down something, and then handed it to Hill, who grinned a huge wide grin before handing it to Joanne.  She, too, smiled and shook her head, handing it to me.  I couldn’t quite believe what I saw and gave it to Paul who burst out laughing before handing it back to the woman.  The note said, “Dear Nancy.  Paul Newman is a shit.”  It was signed, Henry Fonda.  The woman walked off without even looking at it.  What a nice surprise for her daughter.”

“Would you like a table?”  The restaurant host shook me back to the present.  I pointed at the booth in the center. 

“That one,” I said, giving my husband a wink. 

“Are you sure?” the host said.  “It’s a big one.”

I could feel Dad laughing, a slight whisper of air moving past my shoulder.  “Yes, that’s the one.”

  

 

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Side by Side…

Side by Side…

Side by Side…

It took some convincing.  “Who the hell wants to hear about my life,” he grumbled.  Who the hell wouldn’t? I thought.  With credits that spanned fourteen feature films and 39 television movies and miniseries…

In 1998, my father and I started on a decade long journey, chronicling his life.  It took some convincing.  “Who the hell wants to hear about my life,” he grumbled.  Who the hell wouldn’t? I thought.  With credits that spanned fourteen feature films and 39 television movies and miniseries, there were more than enough stories to fill out a book. 

Dad’s best friend, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Frank Gilroy, weighed in.  “Come on, John, you’ve worked with stars like Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, and Gregory Peck.  I love your stories!”  

And so we began.  Every Saturday, I traveled to his house, recording his memories from daily journals onto eighty-eight cassette tapes.  Then, I transcribed them into 400 pages.  Once again, he grumbled.  “I don’t do prose.” 

“Just write, Dad.  We’ll figure it out.”

 

All we had were Saturdays, so our weekly ritual continued.  He wrote, I rewrote, and we edited together. My husband and I welcomed a child into our lives and I left teaching, taking on an internship at a magazine.  Eventually, I saw my essays appear in magazines and anthologies.  Enough to believe I could write a book with the man I’d put on a pedestal.  And Dad learned he could write prose with his snappy style, sparing the words, and punching up the dialogue. 

Many Saturdays later, our manuscript was complete.  Dad was 80 years old now, driving to my house to accommodate my heavier working load.  I typed “The End” not because I needed to, just because it was.  We high-fived and let out a whoop of joy.  Then, we looked at each other.  It was that exquisitely triumphant and painful moment in time when our lives, so intertwined for a decade, would have to separate again.  Through my tears, I watched as he strode down my front steps to his car, hand clutching his briefcase, glittering JTG initials winking back.  I wanted to stop him, to bring him back into my office and start our book all over again.  I blew him a kiss goodbye.  

Dad passed away at 92.  I still see him in his office, sitting at his desk, his lively, blue eyes regarding my own.  “Ready, Jennifer?”

“Ready, Dad,” I say, every morning now as I delve into my own memoir.  That memory of us, side by side, inspires me every day.

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