Before There Was Color

by Teresa Miller


I grew up wanting to be a dramatic actress—emphasis on dramatic—because I spent my formative years in front of the television, mesmerized by such high-powered, Kleenex-laden shows as Queen for a Day, The Secret Storm and The Edge of Night. My father and grandparents were wonderfully progressive in that way, allowing my brother and me full access to uncensored TV. Not that they were negligent. They just felt that life itself had already placed too many restrictions on us.

The only series ever off limits at Grandma Crane’s house was The Waltons. Grandma believed that we were such a quirky family ourselves that tuning in to the well-balanced Walton clan might give us unrealistic expectations—and put undue pressure on our more eccentric relatives. She caught me mid-show one night, just as John Boy was telling his own grandmother that he wanted to be a writer. Dutifully, I switched channels to The Mod Squad, and Grandma smiled with relief as I focused instead on a drug shakedown.

“That’s more like it,” I could imagine her saying, as she pulled up a chair and watched with me.

But I’m leaping ahead of myself here and a little desperately, for I know full well that The Waltons didn’t impact our relationship until later—after Peyton Place had been cancelled and we’d struggled through Alison MacKenzie’s lingering coma. It’s not that my memories are all that tricky. There’s just this wildness, a reckless notion of eternity, that comes from conjuring up old dilemmas.

So suffice it to say, that despite our differences, Grandma and I knew how to watch television together. In fact one of my grandmother’s ongoing concerns was that her other grandchildren, in “normal” family situations, didn’t get to watch television often enough. We even enjoyed the advertisements, which gave us time to connect the storylines to our own lives, and we did it in perpetuity. Grandma, as she was quick to explain, would forever understand Constance Mackenzie—nothing was worse than having an ungrateful child or grandchild. And I could always relate to Allison’s frustration with small-town life. I wanted to get out of Peyton Place/Tahlequah, too.

As much as we identified with our favorite stars, we tried not to blur the often fuzzy distinctions between television and real life. Thanks to our favorite fan magazines, Photoplay and Modern Screen, we understood Allison’s coma was induced, not by a tragic accident, but by Mia Farrow’s own indecision about whether or not to leave the series and marry Frank Sinatra. Frank, Grandma emphasized, was old enough to be Mia’s father, her grandfather even if we’d been living in some backward country. This Hollywood tryst became Grandma’s lifelong grievance. After Peyton Place was cancelled, after the couple’s divorce, she would interrupt a new generation of TV characters to remind me how an “unnatural romance” had ruined one of the finest shows on television—“and all for nothing!”

But Grandma had more significant breaches of nature on her mind than May-December romances. My mother’s untimely death was the backstory that informed most of our conversations. Even idle remarks about the weather inevitably reminded us that my mother, age twenty-seven, had died on an unseasonably cold November day giving birth to my brother, Mark. That was our family’s ongoing cliffhanger, because Grandma, who’d survived the Great Depression and who was struggling through a personal one, refused to equivocate with me. My mother was irreplaceable, and she was forever cautioning me to ration my expectations.

My early need for embellishment scared Grandma and also put her at odds with my father, an only child who’d always been comforted by what his parents referred to as play pretties, the southern term for toys they hoped would “take his mind off things.” A lawyer born into a family of lawyers, he’d refused to exercise his legal options and investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mother’s fatal C-section—“so we can move on with our lives.” And he’d been even more adamant about not wanting to arbitrate the loss with me. His opinion, which became a family edict, was that at two I couldn’t process death and should be told—simply—that Jean Crane Miller had left for parts unknown and would not be returning to us.

Subsequently my father, Wesley, found consolation in a succession of play pretties who called him “Wes” and led him through multiple marriages. A short, charming man, diminished as much by circumstance as stature, he became known as the Tahlequah Mickey Rooney and was just as gregarious. In between marriages, he coped with grief—and two small children—by keeping us on a fixed social agenda, at least in the evenings. We spent Wednesday nights and weekends with Grandma and Grandpa Crane, Tuesday and Sunday nights with his parents, Monday nights with the soda jerk at the local Rexall store, and Thursday nights with the family of our state representative, who’d been elected to more responsibility than he anticipated.

We also grew up with an assortment of housekeepers who were responsible for the day watch, and one of them—we’ll call her Sally—first introduced me to afternoon soap operas. In between episodes, which often brought us both to tears, Sally would indulge in prolonged bubble baths, barricading herself in the bathroom. If we disturbed her by requesting, say, Kool-Aid refills, she’d bellow, “I’ll box your jaws” with the same Broderick Crawford-like authority we witnessed on Highway Patrol.

Highway Patrol and Dragnet, televised in black and white, had already made such a profound impression on me that, even before I started school, I began fixating on “distinguishing characteristics” in case any of us—besides Mother—ever went missing. I always looked for the colors in us, and I still recall our family in that way—my father’s red ties, accenting his dark Cherokee undertones; Grandma Crane’s navy sweaters, steadying her anxious blue eyes; and Grandma Miller’s dangling silver “ear bobs,” offsetting her deceptively soft cheeks, rouged to fullness. I also had a description ready for Sally, if we ever needed to report her. Even though she wore a pink, heart-shaped locket, her face was a clenched brown fist, exploding through layers of bubbles.

Fortunately Sally never followed through with her threats against us, partly because we’d slip into the spare bedroom to call Grandma Miller. A diminutive woman of Scottish-Cherokee descent—she was just under five feet—Grandma Miller would always phone right back, while we listened in on the extension, and tell Sally, “If you persist in yelling at the children, I’m going to have to shoot you.”

Grandma Miller had her own kind of pioneer eloquence, but throughout these exchanges, I longed for my mother’s voice in the conversational lapses, fantasizing that she might have suggested macaroni and cheese for dinner or reminded us to put on clean socks for the church picnic. I watched for her most often on Monday afternoons, when I’d grow anxious about the impending darkness and wonder who’d be sitting beside me later at the Rexall counter. Since Mother was so vague to me, even the drugstore shadows had begun to look familiar, and I was routinely startled when they darted past us.

Though my father had mother-proofed our house, so that no pictures of her remained, my grandparents Crane displayed numerous photos of her—her long dark hair swept back Hollywood style, suggesting to me at first that I was the daughter of a generation of women, those dated fashion models that were so recognizable in Grandma’s Montgomery Ward catalogues and Good Housekeeping magazines. It wasn’t until later that I became convinced I was the child of actress Jeanne Crain, whom I’d seen so often on The Late Show.

I was too young to read and catch spelling distinctions—Crain with an i. I heard the name in my heart—in a household that never enforced bedtime and that answered painful questions by turning up the volume on the television. I’d caught similar programs more than once with Sally—glamorous young woman abandons family for a life of fame and fortune, only to regret her decision later and return to her loved ones with open arms. Except that my mother was dead—as in forever. When I was six, cutting out a construction paper Valentine for my on-screen mother, Grandma Crane took me for a long drive and told me the truth that was to become the bond between us.

Grandma and I were almost always on the road after that, and her car—she never drove any make but Buick—became our unlikely sanctuary, where we’d both been indiscreet while admiring the hills in the distance. Grandma had admitted she could no longer cry, and I had storied. Storying was Grandma’s word for my tendency—not to lie—but to narrate myself through the gaps in life. “You don’t want to keep storying to yourself, Sister,” she told me, her eyes locking with mine in the rearview mirror and sparing me as much directness as possible. “This Jeanne Crain you keep seeing on television is no relation of ours.”

And that was it. There were no previews with organ music, clueing us in to what might happen next, only the quiet understanding that this loss, this hurt was to be continued.