My Grandparents (and "Northern Borders")



Special to the Reformer

CHESTERFIELD, N.H. - I’m touring throughout New England these days, screening my new film, "Northern Borders," and it will play two local dates next week - Monday, August 25th at the Chesterfield Town Hall and Tuesday, August 26th at the Walpole Town Hall. I will attend each screening. Showtimes are 7:30pm.

"Northern Borders" is based on the award-winning novel by Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher. It focuses on the experiences of 10 year-old Austen Kittredge who is sent to live with a pair of Vermont grandparents whose thorny marriage is called The Forty Years War. Mosher’s novel was recently named by the London Guardian as one of the ten best books written that treat relationships with grandparents. Not many stories include grandparents as developed and complex characters, even though many of us have or had deep and illuminating relationships with our own parents’ parents. Other stories the Guardian named included Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I was raised by my grandparents from 1st through 4th grades, so my experiences informed my film. My grandfather Phil Hatch was not unlike old Austen Kittredge in "Northern Borders." He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he could be a pretty tough character. Toward the end of her life, living in a few tiny rooms in Eastham on Cape Cod, my grandmother hinted that she would tell me a deep secret about him--but she never did. Instead, I recently discovered some startling family backstory by searching for my grandfather’s name in the New York Times archives.

It seems that my granddad landed in a Massachusetts penitentiary, around 1927, on charges of grand larceny of $140,000 from the Bank of Nova Scotia. Phil was captured by FBI agents while on the lam in Havana and after successfully slipping the G-men’s net in Honduras. After being taken in handcuffs to New Orleans and serving a year in a Massachusetts pen, Phil was inexplicably pardoned by the Massachusetts Governor, against unanimous protest by the parole board. Which raises even more questions. A veteran of WWI, Phil ended up as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, in charge of procuring and sending food overseas to soldiers in WWII. I’m mystified--but I took some of what I knew and suspected for my film, where an unsolved bank robbery bubbles up into the story.

Like the grandmother character, Abiah, in "Northern Borders," my Texas-born "Geema" was blunt and enigmatic, with a steady stream of cryptic life lessons, off-the-cuff poems, and a biting tongue-in-cheek wit. She also looked beyond what was visible. Geema was daring. When I was ten, she bluffed her way past security guards and steered me into the San Francisco Giants locker room at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium--to get me Willie Mays’ autograph. She told the cops she was the wife of the Giants’ general manager. Within a minute, there we were--staring straight at Giants’ star outfielder Willie McCovey lathering up in the shower.

My grandmother didn’t flinch. "Mister Mays?" she said, with her indelible Texas drawl. "My grandson would like your autograph."

The tall soft-spoken McCovey shifted on his feet. "Ma’m, I’m not Mister Mays. I’m Mister McCovey. But if you’ll just toss me a towel, I’d be happy to give your grandson an autograph--then I’d like to finish my shower." He did--and a minute later we found Willie Mays dressing at his locker. He signed my Phillies yearbook and I’ll never forget it.

My grandmother also introduced me to movies. She loved westerns and Tennessee Williams films--anything with gunslingers or distraught southern women. So while my second grade peers were checking out Disney’s "Dumbo" and "Lady and the Tramp," Geema and I were cruising Philadelphia and the suburbs in her red ‘54 Chrysler to check out weekend matinees of "Red River," and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." She was also an instant fan of the James Bond movies when they surfaced during the early 60’s--so we made annual holiday season pilgrimages to the city to see "Dr. No," "From Russia with Love," "Goldfinger," and "Thunderball."

During her life, Geema was a competitive swimmer, journalist, and secretary to a U.S. Senator. She was fierce on grammar and, when I was out of line, she’d send me to an ancient willow tree to cut a "switch" that she threatened to use on the spot. She never did. On the contrary, she was the single adult in my life who most expressed the complex but warm emotions that I came to know as love.

While working with Geneviève Bujold on "Northern Borders," I shared many of her stories. Now looking at Geneviève’s finely layered characterization of Abiah on screen, I’m reminded of how my grandmother remains with me.

Jay Craven will present his new film, "Northern Borders," with Bruce Dern and Geneviève Bujold on Monday, Aug. 25 at the Chesterfield Town Hall and Tuesday, Aug. 26 at the Walpole Town Hall. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m.


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