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How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoirby Jessica Hendra
Red Mill Road
For many children, death is one of their first vivid memories. Usually, it's a grandparent or great aunt, someone distant, someone old. You see your parents cry, perhaps for the first time. And it startles you. But they console and soothe you, they reassure you because they know that you can't possibly understand death, not when you are just four years old.
For me, the man who died was in his twenties — about the same age as my mother and father. And though I was four and too young to understand exactly what had happened, I was old enough to be scared.
They found him in his Hollywood apartment, and those who knew him — my parents included — gathered the next day in the living room of a friend's house. I was sure — absolutely convinced — that his body lay somewhere in that house. I still remember how I clung to my mother, my wide eyes searching the pale, shocked faces. They seemed at least as scared as I was, huddling on the couches as if they were telling secrets — whispering and hushed, as though whatever killed their friend lurked just around the corner. They said he'd "OD'd," but of course, that meant nothing to me. Then "choked on his own vomit." Then: "Poor Chris. Heroin killed him." What I saw, what I was sure would happen in just a few seconds, was the man walking toward me, covered in vomit, snarling with his nose and mouth and body dripping with this black goo "heroin." Behind him there'd be a trail.
Heroin. I wanted nothing more than to get away from that house, to go play with my sister, Kathy, in the sun, to go home to Laurel Canyon. But I had to stay here with adults who seem as bewilde red as me. And I was terrified: Would Heroin get me too?
It's not the most ideal of childhood memories. But you have to consider the time (1969) the place (California) and of course, the parents. Mine had come thousands of miles from England to experiment with the Southern California scene of the late 1960s. They were born during the Second World War, part of the generation that would be responsible for the Swinging Sixties. My mother grew up in Wimbledon, a suburb of London. Her father, Alfred Christmas, owned a chemist's shop. She, her sister, and her brother lived with my grandmother and grandfather in a mock Tudor house built on a lot leveled by a V-bomb in the waning years of the war. My grandfather spent his time growing roses and humming. Kind but emotionally reserved, he had a habit of walking with his arms behind his back, his right arm bent with the hand clutching his left arm, as if holding himself back. My grandmother proved warmer than her husband. On our visits, she played with us and baked jam tarts and Victoria sponge cakes for afternoon tea.
One of her great sorrows was her name: Doris. My grandmother said my great-grandparents had planned to name her Kathleen. But at her christening, when the godfather was asked to name the child, he announced — much to the horror of the assembled relations — "I name the child Doris." And Doris she would stay. When I heard the story some years ago from my mother, I asked, with a degree of skepticism, what any American of my generation would: "Why didn't her parents say anything?" At the same time, I was saying to myself: because they were English. As I can attest, the value of keeping silent for the sake of maintaining family peace seems to run in our veins.
Doris and Alfred named their second child — my mother — Judith. But for much of her life, Judith was Judy. I imagine it must have been hard being called "Judy Christmas." As I told my mother during one of my more obnoxious moments as a teenager, it seemed a name more suitable for a stripper than for an intellectually gifted and talented girl like my mom, who became the bright light of her family by earning a place at Girton College, University of Cambridge.
Anthony Hendra, my dad, was born the son of a stained-glass maker and raised in rural Hertfordshire, the region in which Jane Austen set Pride and Prejudice. Even as a child, he seems to have been eccentric. My grandma Georgina told me how little Anthony used to ram his tricycle at top toddler speed into a brick wall over and over and over again. "All day long, just riding right into the wall," Grandma Georgina said with a smoker's laugh. My uncle recounted how my father, then a teenager and obsessed with becoming a monk, instructed his brother and sisters to send letters to the Pope recommending one Anthony Christopher Hendra for sainthood. The Pope failed to respond.
My father, like my mother, was tremendously gifted intellectually. To his family's surprise (but no one else's), he easily won a scholarship to Cambridge. Initially, he resisted accepting the place, having already decided on his vocation as a novice in a Benedictine monastery. But at the insistence of the more senior monks, he went off to the university.
It was at Cambridge in about 1962 that my parents met. By this time, my father had put his monastic aspirations in the deep freeze and instead embraced the world of earthly delights. By the end of her senior year, my mother was very pregnant. At twenty-two and dreaming of success as a comedian, my father was understandably reluctant to marry. My mother, more in love with my dad than he was with her, could neither face an abortion nor give the baby up for adoption. So, unsure of what was going to happen, she continued on with her pregnancy. In her Cambridge graduation pictures, though unmarried and visibly with child, my mother wears her gown and rounded stomach with pride. She smiles into the camera defiantly, holding her diploma over . . .
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