It used to be that a smile could fool me, but I’ve learned that apparent happiness can happen even when sadness persists beneath it all. I was put in mind of this when I saw Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) the other night…a movie that won the Oscar for Shirley Booth as Lola. Justifiably. (She may be the first Best Actress winner to stumble up the stairs, but it does not prevent her from delivering a very gracious acceptance speech.) Booth is magnificent in the role and I think it’s because she creates an unrelenting sadness at the base of the character, even when she plays joys and laughter and diversions over top. A sadness underlies the entire character, no matter what moment she is playing in the movie. When the sadness finally comes to the top—when she discovers that the whiskey bottle is missing and the source of her sadness breaks through—she simply reveals what the character has suppressed all along: sadness. She makes a panicked call to a friend, she serves dinner to the two young lovers, she entertains her guests…but her sadness is as thick as an encyclopedia. I hate the movie because I love it so much…Shirley Booth’s performance and Ketti Frings’s screenplay (based on the play by William Inge) are poignant, piercing, and very human.
Throughout the movie, the character of Lola and her underlying sadness put me in mind of my very favorite great-aunt, my Aunt Ada. We always included Aunt Ada in all our birthday celebrations—we counted on her each year for new underwear and socks and a soggy kiss on the cheeks. We included Aunt Ada in all our holiday celebrations—as a child, I always sat next to her at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, where she would load my plate and then praise my great boyish appetite. But like Lola, Aunt Ada had an unrelenting sadness underneath her joys and laughter. It may have started when, at the age of 5, she lost her mother and was then sent to the care of relatives at age 11 with the death of her father. But her sadness was surely established when, in 1938, returning home from work, she discovered her husband’s body in the kitchen where he had committed suicide. I don’t know what had driven him to such an act on the eve of his 38th birthday, but I know that she regretted having stopped to pick up a birthday cake on her way home that night…right or wrong, she thought she could have prevented his actions. That was 1938 and I believe that she never really shed the sadness…
She went on to reunite with one of her sisters—my grandmother (a third sister was lost through adoption)—and become a beloved fixture at all our family events. Aunt Ada loved the attention my mother heaped on her and loved us as if we were her very own grandchildren. She delighted on being introduced, escorted to her seat, and applauded at our wedding reception… “such an honor for me,” she said. But regularly, the sadness below would rise to the top.
Emily Dickinson wrote a powerful poem of sadness, “My life closed twice before its close—” because she had suffered and carried with her all through life two terrible losses…and yet she also wrote poems of great joy, bliss, and optimism. I don’t know that it is particularly a womanly strength, but I’ve known many women who have lived that kind of occasional happiness on top of sadness, layer on layer.