There's a lot of 'Avalon' in me

Marion Weiss

January 11, 1991|By Marion Weiss

HOW OFTEN I've heard the phrase, "Art imitates life"! Yet, no movie or painting ever mirrored my life -- until now. Barry Levinson's film, "Avalon," hit me where I lived, both literally and figuratively.

Although my parents and I made our home in Frederick, my most cherished memories are in Baltimore, the setting of Levinson's autobiographical movie. (It is also the milieu for his previous works, "Diner" and "Tin Men.") It is there that I spent countless weekends and summers with my grandmother, Sarah; where I played with my best friend, Sylvia, who lived down the street; where my cousins, Neil and Gary, and I shared a myriad of childhood experiences, and where I treasured the family gatherings on the farm of my great uncle, Sam (the same name as Levinson's grandfather).

And it was in Baltimore where I, like Levinson, went to the movies every Saturday at the Avalon.

My memories of those days may not be as dramatic as the director's, but they are similar. My grandmother, like Levinson's grandfather, came to this country from Eastern Europe, her several younger siblings joining the group in America as circumstances permitted. As the oldest child, she became the family matriarch; her brother, Sam, assumed the patriarchal position. The family toiled long and hard to improve on modest American beginnings. Family members gradually migrated from the small Baltimore row house with marble steps to the "suburbs," including Forest Park, where Levinson grew up. My own grandmother opted for Baltimore's Pimlico section. She lived there in a traditional attached dwelling until her death in 1957.

Like Levinson's yearly Thanksgiving dinners, ours were communal meals. We would spend religious holidays and take summer outings at my great uncle's farm. What an experience it was for us kids to learn how to ride a horse or milk a cow, although at the time I was terrified that I might be trampled!

Despite these pleasant memories of togetherness, the fabric of family was torn and would never be fully mended. Two great uncles had a serious argument over who was to head the family circle. Subsequently, each refused to attend family events (including weddings and funerals) if he was to encounter the other. Their children (my mother's generation) took sides, and the familial bond has never been quite the same, even after some 30 years.

My cousins and I were mischief-makers, although, unlike Levinson, we didn't set fires. We would steal flowers from our grandmother's front yard and blame it on the neighbors' kids. We would unmercifully tease a child on the block and hide his bike every chance we got. We'd even switch the sugar and salt at family dinners. And for extra fun, we'd put on our famous "cousin shows" -- performances of singing, dancing and skits. The family would pay us each a nickel for our efforts.

As in "Avalon," long-lost relatives one year appeared from nowhere. My cousins and I took great glee in teaching our new cousin how to speak English, but I think we learned more about his language than he did about ours.

And, yes, come Saturday, my cousins and I went to see the double feature at the Avalon. I remember the movie "Destination Moon" particularly. It was the first science fiction film I had ever viewed, and I was enthralled. It was not unlike the "Rocket Man" series that Levinson used to watch.

When I think back to those days in Baltimore, however, I think most about my grandmother, Sarah. She was the center of so many lives, as Levinson's grandfather, Sam, had been. Unfortunately, unlike Sam, my grandmother died before my own children were born. My daughter, Shallah, is named for her. In many ways, Shallah is very much like her namesake: feisty, fearless, stubborn and strong.

So family tradition continues -- not the way it used to, when I was growing up in Baltimore, but in its way, nonetheless.

Marion Weiss teaches at the University of the District of Columbia.

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