Saturday, August 28, 2021

Family Affairs and Pieces of Our Childhood

by G. Jack Urso 



Some memories from our childhood are buried deep, yet they form the very basis of our life — how we look at it and who we are as individuals. Even the most ephemeral events can yield the longest-lasting results.
 
Sometime in 1970 or 71, I remember sitting with my grandmother, Nana Fran, in the family room of her home on Woodlawn Avenue in Albany. It was a split-level ranch with a modern open kitchen with wall-to-wall carpeting and a family room similarly decorated with the prerequisite iconic wood paneling and wet bar that defined the era. It was a long way from the crowded two-family homes on Second Avenue from where they moved, or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn where they started out.
 
Nana Fran was patiently helping me put together a puzzle of the main cast from Family Affair, the treacly, saccharine-sweet sitcom, which ran from 1966 to 1971, starring Brian Keith, Sabastian Cabot, Johnny Whitaker, Anissa Jones, and Kathy Garver. The show pretty much defined the stock sitcom with a laugh track and where all the world’s problems, no matter how serious, were resolved in thirty minutes — or maybe in a special two-parter during sweeps week. Every generation has its share of these shows. In the 1970s, it was The Brady Bunch. In the 1980s, it was The Cosby Show. In the 1990s, it was Saved by the Bell and Full House, among others. For me, born in 1964, it was Family Affair. Many of the aforementioned shows, including Family Affair, have had reboots or spinoffs that met with varying degrees of success. Instead of creating new memories, TV networks recreate the past and hope to capture the lost magic and fanbase, though mostly the lost advertising dollars.
 
The kids on Family Affair were about the same ages as me and my brother and sister. My sister, in fact, even had a Mrs. Beasley Doll just like Anissa Jones’ character Buffy. With the switch from black and white broadcasting to full color in the 1965-1966 seasons, Family Affair was among the first shows to take advantage of the technology, drawing in its young viewers with color-saturated film stock.
 
Reruns
 
My spatial abilities were never really good, and at six years old the 125-piece puzzle far beyond my capabilities. Still, I can remember being entranced by the image on the box, a beach scene with Jody and Buffy playfully covering up a dozing Mr. French with sand while Cissy and Uncle Bill come out of the surf in the background. It reminded me of our family’s annual summer vacations at Wildwood Beach, New Jersey, in the 1960s — a perfect family enjoying a lazy summer day without a care in the world.    
 
It stuck out because I sensed at even that early age all was not right with my parent’s marriage. My dad, bless his otherwise kind heart, had a few affairs. My mother, suffering PTSD from her experiences as a child in Nazi-occupied Sicily and abuse from her father, as well as dealing with my dad, would lash out — sometimes physically. A full-blown Sicilian meltdown is a natural disaster all unto itself. Some variation of this situation has been played out in millions of American homes and it is not uncommon for children to latch onto some TV show that gives a glimpse of something better, something almost perfect, no matter how fake and make-believe we know it is.
 
Like a lot of memories from my childhood, I put it away as I accrued the luggage of adulthood. Last fall, however, Decades TV aired a weekend-long marathon of Family Affair episodes. As I usually keep the TV on for background noise as I grade papers or work on various freelance projects, I couldn’t resist catching a few episodes. The show was as stereotypically syrupy as I remembered it. Though I must admit, the first season episodes played up the death of the kids’ parents in a car accident and their separation among various relatives. This was a complete rarity among children-oriented TV shows in 1966. Nothing preys on a child’s fears more than the possible death of their parents and the break-up of their family.
 
Yes, the show was formulaic. Whatever problems arose would be neatly resolved in thirty minutes. Every character had their weaknesses and fears, even the adults, and the underlying principle that everyone needs help and family sticks together stood out. Yet, there were some episodes that bucked the stereotypical formula. One episode, “Christmas Came a Little Early,” starred Eve Plumb, later Jan on The Brady Bunch, as a young sick friend of Anissa Jones’ character Buffy. The parents were concerned that their daughter might not survive until Christmas, so they decided to have Christmas early. When Uncle Bill offered his vast resources as a wealthy man to hire the finest doctor to treat the young girl, the viewer could see where it was going. A treatment would be discovered and the girl would survive. In the final act, however, the doctor reveals there is no cure and the child is going to die. Uncle Bill keeps it from the kids and after a happy celebration they return home. Later on, Uncle Bill discovers Buffy crying in her bed. No words are shared. No pithy pearls of wisdom. Buffy was aware the entire time what was going to happen to her young friend and kept up a brave face so they could enjoy a final Christmas together — and there the episode ends. No happy ending. No miracle cure. Fade to black.
 
Children often suspect the truth even when it is hidden from them.
 
Piece by Piece
 
Having watched several episodes that weekend, my memories of putting together that puzzle with Nana Fran were stirred. I jumped online and saw the puzzle for sale on eBay. It was an original copy, but still less than ten dollars, so I bought it as a Christmas present to myself figuring I would put it together over break. However, I couldn’t do it. Sometimes walking down memory lane is more walking away than walking down. Finally, I recently got around to it. As I put it together, I could easily imagine myself as a child sitting next to my grandmother.
 
I don’t think I put a puzzle together in the past five decades. As my spatial abilities are challenged, I admit to being concerned. While the final image was available, I just couldn’t see how the pieces fit together. Produced in 1970, according to the box, I was worried whether all the all pieces were still there. Some pieces, I discovered, don’t make sense until other pieces are put in place first. Slowly, the puzzle came together. How much like life is a puzzle I thought. We are handed a boxful of pieces and we don’t know how they all go together until we diligently work our way through it piece by piece — driven only by faith that it will all come together at the end.  

The puzzle comes together (author’s collection).
 
The Last Pieces
 
When I worked in radio, I was able to interview many celebrities passing through the area. Sometimes, I was able to connect with individuals who made an impact on me at a young age. Juliet Mills, of Nanny and the Professor, was performing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival when I got to speak with her and noted rather anxiously how when a young boy I tried to convince my parents to hire an English-speaking nanny like her in the show. She laughed graciously and indulged me as we spoke off-topic for a few minutes about the show.
 
I also got to interview Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary, about a concert he had planned for our area. I told him how much I loved “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as a child and how I played it over and over due in part to hearing my childhood name “Jackie” in the song (“Little Jackie Paper”). Even as a boy, I told Stookey, I understood that there was a sorrow to growing up and leaving our childhood behind as only memories that we abandon in time. Several minutes after the interview ended, as I was replaying the tape and choosing the best sound bites, the studio phone rang. It was Stookey saying how much he enjoyed the interview and speaking with me. I was touched, of course, but mainly shocked. No one I interviewed, let alone a celebrity, ever called me back to tell me they enjoyed speaking with me. That little moment drew me back to my childhood and helped to bring “Puff, the Magic Dragon” back from his cave for one more final mighty roar.
 
The various cast members' lives of Family Affair turned out a bit less than the idyllic epilogs to episodes of the series. Brian Keith, suffering from lung cancer, committed suicide in 1997 only two months after his daughter Daisy did the same. Johnny Whitaker enjoyed a successful career as a child actor after the show, though he developed a serious drug addiction that was only overcome with the intervention of his large Mormon family, later becoming a drug counselor. Sebastian Cabot died a few years after the end of the series on August 23, 1977, of a stroke at age 59; coincidentally, almost a year after Anissa Jones died at 18 of a drug overdose on August 28, 1976, at a friend's house where they were partying. As I write this, I notice that the day of this post is also August 28, making it forty-five years to the day since Jones passed away. I had not planned it this way. It's just how it all came together.
 
For those quick to judge Jones, I had my own misadventures as a youth and all I can say is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As of March 2015, outside her childhood home at 100 Rees Street, Playa Del Rey, California, one could still find Anissa's name that she wrote in the cement on the sidewalk.
 

Sidewalk graffiti by Anissa Jones (FindaDeath.com).

I was finally motivated to put the puzzle together yesterday after I saw a commercial for ClearCaptions, a telephone system that converts talk to text. I thought the actress looked like Kathy Garver, who played the older sibling Cissy on Family Affair. OK, so she’s not acting in series work anymore, but as actors say, a job is a job. I found her Facebook page, a modest affair where she updates her fans on her interests and convention appearances. I posted a brief inquiry asking if that was her, and she actually responded in the affirmative. I’m sure the young me would have been delighted at connecting with her, as the older me is as well.

 
In time, the pieces all come together.
 

●             ●             ●