Monday, March 02, 2020

The magnificent Ambersons of Merchantville NJ

I doubt the magnificent "Ambersons" of Merchantville NJ were the richest family in Merchantville, but to us working class kids, coming from the Pennsauken side of Centre Street, they seemed exotic and cultured and well-off. We were Catholic, mostly of Irish and Polish and Italian ethnicities. They were WASPs. Our parents were office workers, but it was said that Mr. Amberson worked in television.

Although perhaps they weren't as well-off as all that, since their eldest son Blake attended Pennsauken High School with us schlubs. Still though, the Ambersons had an in-ground swimming pool (which I swam in once) and named their home on Lexington Avenue "Amberthorne" - I seem to remember they actually had a plaque with the name on it above their doorway. It was a pretension that used to amuse John and Dan long after Blake left our under-achieving Pennsauken/Merchantville circle.

I was thinking of the Ambersons because I was lately looking at the prices of homes in the Pennsauken-Merchantville area. My mother currently lives three or four blocks away from Amberthorne.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I was anyway, that you can now buy an entire Victorian-esque house there for the same price as a tiny studio apartment in Manhattan. And then it hit me - I could buy Amberthorne.

As it happens, it's not currently on the market. But still, the realization was a shock.

The Ambersons seemed more cultured to me perhaps even than to the other teenagers in our motley circle because my parents were such enormous Philistines. They are not bad people, and my father was quite amiable and a very good father compared to most I had seen. But network sit-coms, bowling, the local daily newspaper, self-help books, Disney movies, Catholic Church-related activities and grammar school play productions were the extent of their cultural interests. My mother would claim this was due to having so many kids (6) and therefore not having enough time or money to indulge, but really she had no use whatsoever for the arts. She occasionally writes poetry but has no actual interest in the art of poetry itself and never reads any poets. I think the only poem she knows is Emily Dickinson's "I'm nobody, who are you." We had a decent local library, within walking distance, so money was not the reason she didn't read poetry and she has nothing but time on her hands these days and I've seen no evidence of her reading poetry, not even other poems by Dickinson. As a result, her own poetry is written in complete innocence of rhythm, meter, pattern etc. But it rhymes.

As if that isn't enough, she used to brag that she was able to get through high school English class by reading the "Classic Comics" versions of the assigned novels. Because obviously the only point of great novels is to get a grade for them. She had no shame about admitting to essentially cheating her way through high school, although she is liable to go to Confession once a week to ensure that, in case she dies suddenly, she won't head straight to hell for whatever heinous offenses she had committed against God in the previous seven days.

In case you're wondering: no my mother is not going to read this. She has no interest in my life, and never has except, mainly, whether or not I am currently gainfully employed. But then none of my immediate family has ever read this blog in its thirteen plus years of existence, because, clearly, I am the most boring person in the world.

So anyway, compared to my family, the Ambersons seemed like the School of Athens.

I didn't interact much with Blake's father, I actually don't remember ever having a conversation with him. But I was impressed at the time to hear that he was a fan of Monty Python. As a teenager I had to sneak around to watch episodes of Monty Python, then being broadcast on a Philadelphia public television station, with the sound very low, ready to spring for the channel-changing knob the moment I heard my mother stirring. She would not have appreciated their humor nor their cartoon nudity. To this day she's never seen a movie more naughty than rated-PG. And even a PG movie is likely to have plenty she finds offensive. 

But realizing I could buy Amberthorne set me off on a search to find out whatever happened to the magnificent Ambersons - or Amberthornes? - of Merchantville NJ. As I've mentioned on this blog, looking up old acquaintances online is a compulsion of mine, which lead in one case to discovering my most vicious grade-school tormentor died of AIDS in 2011 and one of my Pennsauken school friends Rita died in 2014. Just this year one of her former boyfriends found my blog post about her and emailed me some memories of her. And confirmed, as her online obituary did not, that she had died of cancer.

In 1999 I contacted Blake, just because I could, I guess, when everybody suddenly had email. I inquired about his parents, but he didn't respond to my questions about them, and I wondered if maybe they had died. I also attempted to connect to him on Linked-In in 2008 and he rejected my request - the only time a Linked-In request has ever been rejected by anybody - saying he only linked to people he actually worked with.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet I have just discovered that neither of his parents was dead in 1999 and in fact Blake's father is still living and his mother only just died last autumn.

When I was a teenager, Mrs. Amberthorne took an interest in my art career prospects.  I did not realize until I read her obituary that she was very artistic herself:
...a 1959 graduate of Temple University where she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theatre...
...Roberta worked as Program Director for "Girls on the Move" and as an educator in a career path that would span fifty years. She created fashion shows and promotional programming, was the Manager of the Atlantic City Ballet, and was the first Executive Managing Director of the Church Hill Theatre. She initiated a theatre program at the then new Stevensville High School and taught Theatre in After School Programs until her retirement...
This explains her interest in me - girls' careers and fashion were kind of her thing. I'm a little disappointed now, I had always assumed she heard really good things about my talent.

One day when I was sixteen, out of the blue, Mrs. Amberson contacted me and said she wanted to introduce me to a fashion artist. I had never had the slightest interest in fashion design, but I was flattered to be noticed.

So one evening, there I was, in the very bowels of Amberthorne - actually the attic, if I am remembering correctly - talking to Mrs. Amberson and a fashion design artist friend of hers. I have no idea where Blake, presumably my friend, was during this career counseling event. But really Blake and I were never exactly close. I met him through Dan, but that was a short-lived romance, and Blake briefly dated a friend of mine, Lynn, and I gather she broke his heart but even that was ancient history by then.

I have virtually no memory of Amberthorne Career Day except one thing: the very scary story Mrs. Amberson told of the noise in the wall. I think the noise had been in her wall but I don't remember for sure whose wall. She framed it as a ghost story: there had been a whining noise in a wall during the same time that a woman who used to live in the home (with the whining wall) died.

As a result, the only thing I got out of this event, which was admittedly a lost cause anyway, career-wise, was a fear for the next few years of hearing an inexplicable whining coming from a wall. Any wall.

It was nice, anyway, that Mrs. Amberson (impossible to think of her as Roberta) made an effort to encourage my artistic ambitions. I was sorry to hear she died last autumn, although I was glad at least she hadn't died prior to 1999.

And Mrs. Amberson also took an interest in my spiritual life, which I will talk about in the next post.