My college room-mate lost her mother shortly before Christmas in 1985. I remember the tearful phone call asking if I'd seen the news, requesting that I not talk to any media...and then begging me to come to her mother's home in Connecticut because she needed me.
I was twenty-two years old at the time and not interested much in the news...either local or national. These were my selfish years and if it did not directly involve me, I couldn't have cared less. I'm ashamed to say that if Maginel had not called, I might not have heard of her mother's death until...well, who knows when. As for talking to the media, well that seemed a bit far-fetched. Although my friend was the daughter of a famous actress, I was still an insignificant nobody from New Hampshire as far as the world was concerned. It wasn't likely that Entertainment Tonight would be pounding on my door asking for an insider story. And if they had, my memories of Anne Baxter were all good ones. I doubt they would have caused a big scandal...although, come to think of it, there was one really good story. Perhaps she was worried I'd tell them about that particular evening.
The only thing that had me packing quickly, kissing my own mother on the cheek, explaining the sudden trip and then hopping into my car was simply friendship. If Maginel said she needed me...then of course I would be there for her.
It's not a long drive from Manchester, New Hampshire to Danbury, Connecticut. Over the previous few years I'd driven the route several times. Still, it gave me plenty of time to reminisce as I covered the miles. I couldn't believe she was gone. It was like God had reached out and snuffed a bright flame with a quick pinch of His fingers. One moment, she was on her way to a hair appointment and the next a massive cerebral aneurism had taken her life. All things considered...it wasn't a bad way to go, I guess. I couldn't see such a vibrant life force going out gradually. It was probably best to be caught unaware just living your life.
In the dark of my car with the radio playing some oldies station softly in the background, I smiled remembering the first time I had met Maginel. The two of us had been assigned totally inappropriate roommates in our freshman year at college. Fortunately, our rooms were beside each other making us neighbors. It was only the second week of classes, but already I was tired of waking up every morning to my roommate, Claudia's punk rock music obsession. If I had to listen to one more explanation of bandanas and their significance when worn on different parts of the body, I would have been forced to show her the meaning of one wrapped tightly around her own throat. Maginel's room-mate, by comparison, wasn't so bad. Lori smiled often...but never spoke.
The four of us joined several other freshmen to attend the first football game of the season. Claudia was once again deeply involved in her bandana discussion, which had me looking for a graceful way to ditch the group in search of more interesting companionship. Leaning over to Maginel, I whispered that I needed to make a trip to the ladies room....and would she mind joining me. Having agreed, she was a bit puzzled when I strolled right past the bathroom door heading for the exit. "Uh....Laurie...the bathroom is right here," Mag pointed out. I smiled cheerfully and replied, "I know...but I really just wanted to escape them...do you mind terribly?"
I was overjoyed to find that she had been feeling the same way...but since Maginel was the type to suffer in silence, she would have just endured it in misery. Good thing she had met me. Before long, we were huddled on her bed, drinking hot chocolate laced with peppermint schnapps, looking through photo albums, giggling like girls having a pajama party and sharing woeful tales of our roommates. It was only a matter of time before we came up with "The Plot."
"Now?" Maginel asked, a wee bit unsure when I stood up and headed for the door.
"Of course now," I replied with a villainous waggle of my eyebrows, "they're all at the game so we should have at least another hour or two."
And with that we raced between the two rooms transferring all of Claudia's belongings and replacing them with Maginel's. Drunk as we were, we still made every effort to put Claudia's things away in as close an approximation to the way she had them in her former room as possible.
When we were done, Maginel collapsed on her bed in a sweaty heap and asked, "Do you think she'll like...maybe beat us up?" Given the propensity for violence in Claudia's music, I didn't doubt for a minute that she wouldn't be capable of getting physical. Mag was such a tiny, delicate little creature that I realized I'd have to be the one to defend our actions. "Don't worry," I assured her, "I'm pretty sure I can take Claudia...maybe." To be honest, my previous roommate sort of frightened me.
Fortunately, except for a rather blasé shrug of her shoulders, Claudia didn't seem to mind much. I guess when it came to torture, one roommate was as good as the next. Without any fuss, she exchanged room keys with Maginel and moved in next door.
I don't remember the exact moment in time that Maginel told me about her mother. It surprised me a bit only because my roommate seemed so...normal. She was not the only child of a celebrity to attend this college. Kelly, the athletic, freckled blonde that everyone found so likeable, put up with our bad behavior every time her father would come to visit. Giggling, we'd crowd the hallway waiting for a glimpse her Dad, nearly swooning when we were rewarded with a mega-watt smile and a "Hi girls!" At 47 years of age, James Fransiscus was still a very hot looking man...much to his daughter's disgust.
"No shit? Your Mom is Anne Baxter?!" I remember saying in surprise. Mag rolled her eyes and made like it was no big deal. I grinned and threw myself dramatically across the bed, clutching my roommate's ankle as I cried, "Moses....Moses!" Mag giggled in her girlish way and playfully punched me in the arm. "Cut it out, Laurie," she laughed, "it's no big deal...she's just my Mom."
Still, when Maginel informed me that her mother was in town and wanted to take us to dinner, I was extremely nervous. As I changed my outfit for the third time, a quick rap came at our door. Great, I thought as Mag stepped aside to reveal our visitor, bad time for the dorm pothead to arrive bearing gifts. I put up a valiant struggle, literally...but being pinned to the floor while laughing makes it hard to hold your breath. Maginel could be somewhat sadistic when she wanted to be.
As a result, my first meeting with the great actress is a little fuzzy. I remember trying to answer her polite questions about my career path as I concentrated on cutting the complicated piece of chicken breast on my plate. My mumbled replies must have had her wondering about the current state of scholarship programs, at the very least. Even worse though, somewhere during the course of the evening I discovered the all you can eat salad bar and developed an extreme appetite for carrot and raisin salad. By the time the night was over, I'd cleared out the entire pan much to Mag's amusement. "You must really love that salad, Laurie!" Maginel's mother exclaimed as my roommate snorted indelicately, stuffing her dinner napkin into her mouth to smother the sound. To this day, my stomach does somersaults whenever I encounter that nasty concoction...but it never fails to make me smile at the memory.
The next time I met Maginel's mother was marginally better. The occasion was her eldest daughter, Katrina's birthday and they'd planned an intimate gathering of family and friends. I had met Katrina several times before this event at her home, so I wasn't nervous in the least. Mag's sister could be somewhat intimidating if you weren't acquainted with her beforehand. She had a way of scrutinizing everyone with her ice blue eyes and leaving you with the impression that she missed nothing. To my relief, Katrina seemed to approve of me...which was good, because I thought she was an incredible lady. I admired her energy...the way she didn't so much walk as stride with a sense of purpose...ordering people around as if they were her personal army and expecting nothing less than total obedience. It came as no surprise therefore that while this was her birthday party...she had everything under control.
It was while I was chatting comfortably with several guests that Mag suddenly raced up to me in a panic. Dragging along behind her was our friend Eric, hanging his head in shame. She whispered fiercely into my ear, "Laurie...have you seen my Mom?" I shook my head in the negative and asked what was wrong. "Well this idiot," she hissed holding up Eric's hand, "decided it would be a lot of fun to add something special to the chili. Unfortunately, I think my mother got to it before I could throw it out...so I need to check on her if you know what I mean." I lifted my eyebrows and looked at Eric. "What did you put in the chili?"
Eric smiled sheepishly but looked completely unrepentant. "Well...I didn't have time to bake brownies," he admitted.
I groaned in horror and set off to help Maginel locate her mother. As luck would have it, I found her first...in the living room, bouncing up and down in great exuberance on the coffee table. In one hand she held a partially peeled orange...and in the other a large piece of orange peel that she was waving about in the air. Her mouth was a perfect "O" of wonder. She smiled widely as she caught sight of me. "Laurie...oh, Laurie...come here! You have to see this!"
I clapped my hand over my mouth trying to suppress a giggle.
"Look...look," she cried tearing off another section of the orange peel and waving it around. "Can you see it...can you? Isn't it marvelous...do you see the zest?! Here...I'll do it again!"
From behind me, I heard Maginel groan, "Oh...geesh...Mom!" followed by Eric's awed exclamation, "Wow...your Mom is so cool!"
Whenever I think of Maginel's mother...I think especially of that moment. While Maginel was convinced that this was the work of Eric's infamous chili...I'm not so sure. Anne Baxter was always so full of life, able to enjoy the "zest" if you will...that it simply could have been another one of her dramatic, larger than life gestures. Either way, it makes me smile remembering that moment. Eric graciously extended his hand to help her off the table, while I nodded and assured her that I had most definitely seen the zest.
With a sad smile, I put away the pleasant reverie as I pulled into the darkened driveway of the Connecticut house in the woods. It seemed so quiet...too quiet. It was as if the house was holding its breath waiting for the one person to return home that would breathe life into these walls. Truly, it wasn't the same place without her presence.
We were an introspective group gathered in the living room that wintry evening. A cheerful fire crackled in the great stone fireplace, totally at odds with the mood. Katrina was there with her husband, Michael. I had never met Melissa, the second oldest daughter, until now, but I recognized her from Mag's photo album. Maginel clung tightly to her boyfriend, Harvey with one hand and to me with the other. There was sadness...but there was also a comfortable peace to be found in the companionship we shared. Katrina had been in the middle of describing what was in store for us the next day, so Mag whispered an explanation to catch me up to speed.
"Umm...my mother used to hide things in odd places," she admitted with a bit of chagrin. "So...tomorrow we're going on a scavenger hunt to make sure we've found everything."
I furrowed my brow in puzzlement. "Hide things? Like what...and where?" I asked.
"Well...sometimes she'd put something in a baggie...you know...one of those plastic sandwich types and then tape it to the underside of things...like furniture, countertops...." Melissa volunteered a bit defensively having overheard us. I suppose she thought I might make fun of it...but the idea caught me completely off guard.
"Oh" was all I could manage to say.
The next morning, I was up earlier than everyone else, standing in the kitchen and looking out the window as I drank a cup of coffee. It had snowed during the night and the grounds were covered with a dusting of whiteness, looking rather depressing under heavy gray skies. It was so very different from my last visit here.
I always loved visiting Mag. While her mother was not a very domestic type, she was a gracious hostess and her attention to certain details always left me feeling spoiled rotten. On summer mornings, Maginel and I would curl up cozily in the kitchen, quietly nibbling on fresh fruit and buttery pastries. Waverly, the gardener, would stroll by with a smile and wave to us through the window. Sometimes Mag's mother was at home...and sometimes she wasn't. When she was there, the atmosphere was always electrically charged by her presence. Mag would never fail to groan in embarrassment at her mother's dramatic gestures...but I adored them. I always felt as if I was the luckiest person alive to be given a private audience to her performance. "All the world's a stage...," Shakespeare wrote...and Maginel's mother proved that sentiment to be true by living her life as if it was always her greatest role.
One afternoon, Mag and I were insufferably bored. We'd flopped on the couches in the great room, tossing about ideas of what to do when her mother happened to stroll in. With a keen eye, she assessed our current emotional state and quickly picked up a deck of cards. Shuffling them, she looked at me with a smile. "Would you like me to read your cards, Laurie?"
"No! Absolutely not!" Mag cried. "Please Mom...not the cards!"
"What?!" I said in dismay, "What do you mean no...absolutely not? Of course I would!"
Before Mag could protest further, I leaped off the sofa and claimed a chair opposite her mother at the table. With a smile she turned the deck over to me to shuffle until it felt right. With a serious demeanor, I did as she asked and handed the deck back to her. Carefully she laid them out on the table and then spread the remainder of the deck before me.
"Pick a card, Laurie," she said in that wonderfully husky voice she had.
I extracted a card from the deck and waited for her to turn it over.
"Wonderful!" she exclaimed looking at the card. "This signifies great luck in your life. No matter what woes befall you...you'll somehow always manage to land on your feet!"
Well that was certainly good news, I agreed.
With great care she began to turn over cards and tell me my future. There was a mysterious man of course...and travel over a great distance in store for me.
Once again she spread the remainder of the deck before me and asked me to select a card. I did...and as she turned it over we both looked at it in surprise. "How interesting...it's the SAME card as last time. You are a very very lucky person it seems!"
Again she returned to reading the other cards. She frowned a bit at them as she tapped one in particular. The mystery man would be a bit of a problem she said. Evidently he was going to try to hold me back from doing something very important...and above all else I must never let him do that. With a serious look on her face she looked up from the cards and met my eyes. "Promise me, Laurie," she said, "you won't let anyone hold you back. Promise?" I smiled at her and assured her that I would never allow anyone, especially not a man, to hold me back ever.
This seemed to satisfy her as once again she shuffled the spare cards and laid them face down on the table, requesting me to pick for a third time another card. I slid one away from the deck and nudged it toward her. As she flipped it over, I heard her gasp in surprise. "Maginel, you must see this! Laurie just picked the SAME card for the third time!" With a suspicious look at me she examined the card closely to make sure it was no different from the others. After finding no discerning marks on it she turned to me and asked, "So...just how lucky are you anyway?"
The last thing Maginel's mother predicted was that I would write a book one day.
"Really?" I asked somewhat breathlessly. The idea that I would do that held infinitely more appeal to me than some mysterious man and a long journey over water.
"Well," Maginel's mother said looking the cards over one last time, "that's what the cards seem to indicate. Is that something you've thought of doing?"
I nodded my head, suddenly a bit shy at admitting to a dream I'd harbored secretly. "I guess I always just thought...maybe someday, y'know?"
"Then you should do just that!" she exclaimed as if it had all been settled.
Saying goodbye after that particular visit was especially difficult. I wanted so much to stay there, wrapped up in that golden cocoon of lazy summer mornings and the idle life that my friend led. With the great reluctance of a sleeper being torn from an amazing dream, I stood at the door prepared to make my way back home.
"Oh...wait one second Laurie...I nearly forgot," said Maginel's mother as she raced from the foyer and returned rather breathlessly a few moments later. In her hand she was holding a paperback novel, which she extended toward me with a smile. Surprised at the impromptu gift she was giving me, I looked down at the cover and smiled. It was a copy of her novel, "Intermission" autographed to me.
Knowing how I perceived her...not as the famous actress Anne Baxter, she had signed it simply "To Laurie...from Maginel's mother." With tears welling up in my eyes, I hugged her tightly in thanks.
I made a quick swipe at my face, a bit embarrassed by my emotional response and tried to compose myself. There was a question I really needed an answer to...and I wanted her to take it seriously.
"How..."I began awkwardly, "How do you write a book? Whenever I think about it...I feel so overwhelmed. How do you know where to even start?"
With a dramatic wave of her hands, she laughed. "It doesn't matter where you start. If it feels right to start in the middle...then start there and work your way out. The only thing that really matters is to start...that's the secret."
I nodded dismally. I was sure this was probably very sage advice, but I didn't understand. Still, I didn't want her to realize just what a total failure and disappointment I would be...no matter what the cards had said. It seemed safer to just agree.
Maginel's voice called me back from that memory with a quiet clearing of her throat from the kitchen doorway. "Are you ready to start?" she asked softly. I had to smile at that. For a moment she had sounded so much like her mother...
"Not quite yet...but perhaps someday" I said with a strange smile that brought a confused look to my friend's face.
As everyone slowly woke up and set about searching the premises, I chose the office next to her bedroom. The space was actually more of an alcove tucked off the main room, overlooking the back gardens through a large window. The only furniture was a rather formal looking dark wood writing desk, a couple of chairs and a reading lamp. Dutifully, I knelt and checked the underside of the furniture and was relieved to find no plastic packages. As I was glancing through the contents of the bottom drawer though, I came upon a nondescript white envelope with rather puzzling contents.
Mag saw my frown as she was passing the doorway and stuck her head in. "What did you find?" she asked, her curiosity piqued.
"I'm not sure...come see," I said holding out the envelope.
Maginel peered into the envelope while standing beside me. "What is it?" she wondered out loud.
Tentatively, I dipped my forefinger into the dusty contents and stirred it slightly. The grey powder clung to my fingertip with a rather unpleasant chalky sensation. "I'm not sure..." I admitted.
At that moment, Katrina blew into the room with her usual exuberance and with one quick glance announced, "Wonderful! You found David!"
In horror, Mag and I looked at each other over the contents of the envelope. Quickly I tried to shake the remains of her mother's last husband off of my finger...and after failing that held the offending digit up in panic, not wanting to wipe it on my jeans. With cool disdain at our sudden shrieks, Katrina snatched the envelope from my hand and marched out of the room. By now Maginel was squealing in laughter, writhing on the floor...so I took advantage and wiped her stepfather onto the shirt that she was wearing.
On the bright side, Maginel's mother would now get her last request...which was to have her ashes scattered with her late husband's, minus a small amount, beneath the cherry tree outside.
I stayed through Christmas, sensing that this first holiday without her mother would be difficult for Maginel. I'm not sure exactly how helpful I was...but I have a feeling I would have been a more compassionate and understanding friend if I had known then what I know now about how hard it is to lose your mother.
Until now, my memories of Anne Baxter have been shared with very few people...mostly family and close friends. For a long time, I simply didn't want to offend Maginel, Katrina or Melissa by exploiting the relationship I'd gained simply by a chance encounter in college. It seemed...wrong somehow. But now, after so many years, I realize that in my eyes she wasn't simply a famous Hollywood actress. To me, she was something more...an incredibly vivacious woman that I once knew as Maginel's mother.