Tidewater Review August 2006
Becoming Ann: A Baltimore Childhood, by Ann Hennessy. Baltimore: American Literary Press. Illustrated. 168 pages. Paperback. $14.95. ISBN 1-56167-903-8
Diary For a Daughter: August 1969-August 1970, by Katherine Dixon. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation. 116 pages. Paperback. $20.99. ISBN 1-4134-9413-7
These two new memoirs based on personal diaries written by women now living on the paradisiacal Eastern Shore of our Great Free State will probably inspire many wives to cry “Yeah! That’s how it is!” and many husbands to say, “Say what?”
Both are pretty well written. Becoming Ann, by Ann Hennessy, now living near Rock Hall in Kent County, is a beautifully organized, although not altogether pretty, account of her childhood in Baltimore and her innocent romantic summers near – where else? – Rock Hall.
Diary For a Daughter, by Katherine Dixon, now living in Greensboro in Caroline County, is more counter-culturoid. That is, the time, place, thought and feeling of her diary entries often change without warning or explanation in the middle of a sentence.
Hennessy was born in 1929 in, and was raised near, the northeast corner of the Baltimore City limits, then still semi-rural. She grew up there and was well-educated in Roman Catholic schools in Baltimore, including college, according to pretty strict Catholic principles. As depicted by Ann, her mother (not a Catholic) was selfish, mean, loud-mouthed and lazy. Excepting the description of Joan Crawford written by an adopted daughter in Mommy Dearest, Mrs. Hennessy is one of the worst mothers I’ve ever read about in a memoir by her child.
At times, Ann and her tolerant father and cooperative younger sister, had to keep house and cook meals while her mother screamed at everybody and complained about everything. According to Ann, her mother sat in a hospital waiting room and, immediately after her husband died there, berated him aloud for leaving her. Ann later forgave her, God knows why.
Her father died in Baltimore at age 52 in 1958 – “The only honorable way out for him....” Ann writes in her memoir. Her mother “became my responsibility” at a nursing home in Chestertown before she died at age 93 in 1994. And so it goes.
One Catholic principle that Ann grew up with was: a Catholic girl does not go “all the way” with any man or boy except her husband and only after they’re married. And, she notes in Becoming Ann, she didn’t “do it,” with the love of her life, a young Rock Hall fellow she met on one of her summer-long visits with one of her favorite aunts who lived near that Kent County garden spot. The pair, both teen-aged and considered engaged, “necked” heavily, 1950s-style. Ann declined his request and the young man didn’t insist. She continued her education. He married another woman and had children. But even after Ann married, had children and “chose life beyond marriage,” she and the love of her life met – and talked – occasionally. And so go some innocent love affairs.
The names and identifying details of people in Becoming Ann are presumably real; the book carries no disclaimer or explanatory note. Diary For a Daughter does, viz: “...some names and identifying details have been changed.”
Both Dixon and Hennessy repeatedly mention they have lived in “Cherry Hill” and didn’t enjoy it, but neither notes which of three Cherry Hills in the region is meant. My guess is that Hennessy once lived in the Cherry Hill district in south Baltimore and Dixon once lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. But there is a Cherry Hill, Maryland – Cecil County, far closer to the Delmarva towns both authors wound up in.
Dixon was born (she doesn’t say when) and raised and educated in Boston and apparently once lived and worked as a librarian in New York City. She married and had three children, the second of which was born September 21, 1969 and is the daughter for whom the book was written.
Diary For a Daughter begins with an entry dated August 17, 1969 and ends with one dated August 25, 1970. The prose is a little slapdash in places, which (to me, anyway) suggests that it reads like a real diary. The daughter is identified as “Katherine Louise,” named after her two grandmothers. Her father is identified as a “dentist” named “Frank” (although Dixon’s husband’s first name in mention of him on the dust jacket is William).
Moving from Cherry Hill to Kettering, Maryland – in Prince George’s County near D.C. – Katherine complains in her diary that keeping house and children doesn’t leave her time to do what she dreams of doing: writing (what else?). Her husband wants her to be a housewife or get a job and help pay the family bills. It looks as if they’ll separate or maybe divorce, but they don’t. Katherine, at any rate, has another child and moves from Kettering to Greensboro. Who could ask for anything more?
Racing My Father: Growing Up in the Shadow of a Jockey Legend, by Patrick Smithwick. Lexington, Kentucky: Eclipse Press. Illustrated. 362 pages. $24.95. ISBN 1-58150-140
A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father, Jack Lemmon, by Chris Lemmon. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 193 pages. Illustrated. $22.95. ISBN 1-56512-480-4
In new tribute to two Dear Old Dads we’re confronted here with memoirs about two famous fathers written by their sons, for the most part in admiration. The subject of Racing My Father: Growing Up in the Shadow of a Jockey Legend is the late Patrick (Paddy) Smithwick, the famous Maryland steeplechase rider; the author is Patrick (Little Paddy) Smithwick. A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to my Father, Jack Lemmon, stars the late Jack Lemmon, also star of stage and screen, and was written by his son Chris.
Both authors are published professionals. Little Paddy is a journalist; Chris Lemmon has also been an actor. Both loved their talented fathers at least as much as good sons should. And both apparently called their sires “Pop” – not “Dad” or “Daddy” or “Pater” or “My Old Man” or, perish the idea, “Father.”
Smithwick, the father, was a middleweight and slightly taller and heavier than average featherweight jockey. For 20 years, before many of the horse races he rode in, he laboriously sweated down to the required weight by wearing rubber suits (and drinking and smoking). He rode a many of the famous tracks and won so many races he became legendary.
He married, divorced, then married the same woman again. His riding career ended after his back was broken when he was catapulted by a horse that fell at a hurdle. Smithwick was seriously paralyzed, but he and his brother established and ran a racehorse training farm in horsey northern Maryland. Paddy Senior died of cancer in his 40s.
Oscar-winning Jack Lemmon, son of a Boston bakery owner, was well and expensively educated at Choate and Harvard. Fairly quickly, he then became legendary as an actor with considerable range and, especially rare among American performers, a keen ability to play high comedy. Some of his best movies, in my opinion, are Some Like it Hot, Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men (I and II with Walter Matthau) and The Apartment. He married once and sired Chris, married again and sired a daughter. He played a lot of golf, but not well enough to make the cut at Pebble Beach.
Lemmon dubbed himself “America’s Sweetheart” before he died at age 76 in 2001.
Paddy Smithwick introduced his son Little Paddy, when he was still teen-aged, to beer and (as Racing My Father makes fairly clear) to several good-time girls in bars near some of the major racetracks. Little Paddy, who was slightly larger than his Pop and “too big to be a jockey,” felt he was pressured a bit too hard to become legendary in that field. He had, after all, been well and expensively educated in Baltimore at Gillman and Johns Hopkins University. He married, sired three children, taught school and wanted, of all things, to be a writer!
And so he did. And so did Chris Lemmon, who also became a writer as well as a pianist who played duets with his Pop.
I enjoyed both of these paeans to Pops. Jack Lemmon was one of the best movie actors I’ve ever seen perform. Steeplechasing, on the other hand, is against my religion, but I’m tolerant enough to permit sporting people play at it in this great Free State if they insist.
I’ll note that both of these books need a thorough index. Both are slightly overwritten. And both could use more dates in the text. I know there’s a school of writing, probably a product of the advertising game, thatinsists that dates in the text are boring. Often true, I say. But not so, I think, when the story line jumps around a lot in time and the reader is not sure when the excitement occurred.