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Grandmother And The Good Life—Janet Leigh

When I got back from Hawaii a year ago last summer after losing the baby I had expected, I learned that my grandmother Lita was dying of cancer. For two months all of us were in attendance on her, my mother and father, my two aunts and their husbands. To help out, I made it my business to have dinner for everybody cooked in my house every evening, and when I got home from work I would bring it over to my grandmother’s house where they were gathered.

While the others, who had been with grandmother all day, ate, I would sit with her, stroke her forehead with a cool cloth, and hum or sing to her if she didn’t feel like talking. Sometimes this could soothe her to the point of forgetting her pain and she would drop off into blessed sleep. When this happened we used to weep sometimes in gratitude at her surcease from agony—and perhaps weep all the more because she never once complained.

Grandmother’s trust in ultimate goodness, as shown by her acceptance of her lot, was a beautiful one. She never moaned, she never asked once why this had happened to her, she never once lashed out at anyone or anything in retaliation as stricken people sometimes will. More than this, she even retained a sense of responsibility; she could not, even in the teeth of convulsive pain, shirk what she felt was still her duty.

“Has Grandpa eaten his dinner?” she’d want to know. What did he have? Were we sure we didn’t give him any greasy gravy? Were things going well generally? How was I doing in the studio?

Thoughts of death might be in our minds, but not in hers. She was too occupied with thoughts of the living. And sometimes, as she lay sleeping, I would look at her and become again conscious of the convictions I have come to in my life.

Her body, I saw, was just a shell, a place in which was stored love and experience and learning and skill—certainly not to be lost when the shell cracked and had to be laid away! Why, this little gentlewoman, as she lay dying, was still developing in stature. She showed it in her superiority over her pain and her indifference to her mortal fate! Why, this was beyond the flesh and into the realm of the divine; this must go on. There could-be no doubt.

This, in essence, is my faith.

I am pretty sure that I am held to be a lighthearted person, not only by those who know me, but also by those who have had occasion to read about me. And this is true. So what I have said, or rather the way I think, may be a surprise. Let me then make it clear that if I am associated with the quality of happiness, credit should go to the fact that I do think the way I do.

I have always, even as a child, had a sense of being which did not depend wholly on the flesh. Don’t all children? They never for a second think of themselves as temporary in nature, existing between never was and never will be again. But as I grew older I needed a little more than just this “sense,” I needed the support of logic behind it and I got this out of a realization of what I have to call the continuity of goodness—continuity in the sense that I knew my grandmother’s goodness must continue somewhere.

When people anywhere in the world talk about a “fully developed man” don’t they always mean that in addition to whatever fields of knowledge he has specialized in, he is also a good man, morally? Is it not acknowledged that a clever man who is not good is incompletely developed?

Ten years ago (just to use a good comparison point in my life) it is my opinion that I was about as bad a person as I was good. About this time my leanings toward either direction were about equal, I figure. There was a desire to be good, a series of temptations to be bad. Before this my Major impulses belonged to childhood and can be discounted. Since then, I know I am definitely a better person than I was. I may even in time become a good person. To be good is the basis of my belief.

Maybe I should make what I said more clear. I don’t mean that I am less evil today than I was as a child, but rather that I am better for having improved those qualities of character that come with time; wisdom, tolerance, understanding. After all, a child can be willful, greedy, argumentative, noisy, impolite—and yet truly innocent in that he is not any of these things by intent. Only if he persists in them beyond the phases of growing up, would he take on guilt.

In my religious lexicon there is no such word as punishment, so that a state of guilt does not mean that one is damning himself in an active sense. That you are not good does not necessarily mean that you are bad. I don’t think any of us are all of one or the other.

I know there are days when a test will find me wanting and other times when I will undergo it in a manner to make myself feel quite proud. And it takes energy to be good. While driving the other day I found myself trapped behind a truck making an improper left turn, and I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to fight off the temptation to be angry. So I let go. “Go ahead and have yourself a ball, girl,” I told myself. And I did. I out and out swore. (Not that he nor anyone else could hear me!) But such relinquishment of my main drive to improve myself as a person is pretty infrequent. I’ll never even be nearly perfect; but I’ll never quit trying.

In this I am not just working for benefits to come in another world. Believe me, it is making me stronger, better, happier in this one. What I can face today I never could have faced when I was younger. It is pretty comforting to feel this about yourself, It is worth striving for in itself even if it were not part of a whole faith.

There is no one religion which interprets existence for me, both here and beyond, as I have come to interpret it for myself. Not Presbyterianism, into which I was born and will forever hold fondly; not Unitarianism, which has stimulated so much of my thinking; nor Christian Science, which I devotedly read. Yet in all three of these, and partly in others as well, I have found inspiration I needed. They have helped me come closer to knowing that which, perhaps, I shall never know—but must always go on seeking.

This search began seriously at the time my first marriage was breaking up.

I didn’t find it easy to contemplate divorce; I was sad and frightened. I would sit and try to imagine how it would feel to be single again. And though there were pleasant aspects my predominant reaction was uneasiness.

At this point my husband’s mother suggested that he and I both read Christian Science. I know she did this not only because she felt it might help keep the marriage, but because she knew it would bring us comfort. She was right about that and I will always be grateful to her.

As I read, and mulled over what I read, curtains seemed to be lifted between me and the future; and I saw that with courage I could walk through glorious vistas ahead. With courage, that is, and with truth. To fear the end of my marriage was not being in truth, but in weakness.

To continue to be a wife when wifehood was not making me happy was simply to be afraid of losing a label which supposedly gave me distinction because it read “Married.” Actually it was a misrepresentation, and I was the one most fooled by it.

I am not a Christian Scientist but I still read Science. I need it as I need essentials of my Presbyterianism and Unitarianism. I discovered that my mind was of a type which was not satisfied to stay on any one path to spiritual understanding and thereby close off all the others. Being what I was I had to think my way spiritually, and my thinking is still going on. God has to make sense to me—at least as far as I can understand. It is good that His teachings through Jesus did not encourage passivity, that religion is properly dynamic, because God to me represents a search I must make, not a goal I have achieved.

It may seem that life might be a little disturbing for someone of my type who cannot accept a formal faith because none answers all my questions. And it is true that for those who can fulfill their spiritual needs by worshiping in the established church of their choice there would seem to be less time-wasting indecision. But for a Janet there can be no other spiritual disposition; because wherever a question remains unanswered she cannot forget it, but must keep asking it.

What would be the point of sitting in any one church if your mind kept asking a question that might only be answered in another church; or sitting in the second church when queries arose that could best be satisfied in the first church? And so I feel that all who seek God are joined, no matter how separated their temples.

I know that to many I would seem to be floating nowhere, but I can assure you that here and there I find a marker which tells me I am not astray. It may be just a line, like the one in Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science writings, “Life is a showing forth of God.” From this, in a simpler interpretation, I came to understand that if there is a God the only way He can be expressed on earth is through people. And there was a singular happiness in this for me. I was not only able to think, “Well, my job is to express God through me,” but that I will be able to see God now many times in what other people do. I have. In the little things as well as the big.

I sat in the Brown Derby restaurant with friends the other day as a waiter—a little, old waiter—gave me a second cup of coffee when he saw that my first one had gotten cold, what with all the time I had taken out for talking. It came to me as he did this that while being attentive was part of his duties, he was really at an age where a gabby girl could rightfully be a nuisance to him. But instead of annoyance there was a fond, almost fatherly, look of understanding in his eyes, as he put the second cup down and took the first one away. For a split second as we looked at each other, we were more father and daughter than we were waiter and patron. And that meant, of course, for that split second we were human and real and doing good—God’s good.

Now comes further benefit from this phase of my faith. If God can do His work through others, then these others become important to me; the waiter, the truck driver who delayed me, the girl who waits on me in the drugstore—there is as much to their lives as there is to mine. And with this my relationship to my fellow man becomes clearly a responsibility I must never evade or hold cheaply.

A few years ago I met a group of people, and when we began to talk of religion I mentioned some of the ideas I have given here and they acted as if I were silly. It threw me a little. I admired a few of them and I began to wonder if I could be wrong, if perhaps I had no right to spread my particular kind of “good.” Then a few nights later I found myself alone with one of the women, and out of a clear sky she told me she had been greatly helped by my words of the previous evening. More than this—she had needed the help inherent in my viewpoint. But she hadn’t wanted to reveal her trouble to everyone, of course, so she had said nothing. She hadn’t wanted to tell me either, for that matter, but she had to in justice to the comfort she had gotten, and, you might say, to practice the preaching which had helped her. Here was the continuity of good again; from Grandmother to me to this friend and back to me again; enriching all to whom it came.

There are side benefits to such an attitude. I remember last spring when I sprained my ankle at a time when I had dozens of plans which necessitated my being on my feet, not off them. My first reaction was to get myself steamed up into as mad a mood as I could achieve. But then I talked myself out of it. I decided to see if I could possibly profit from that sprained ankle. I did. Tremendously.

I did it by thinking. For the two weeks that my ankle kept me home I tried to do all the thinking I could about my life and the problems in it. As a matter of fact, I did my thinking for practically the next five years in that two weeks, and then went back and did it all over again for Tony as well. And the things I got to know, as a result of this, of what we should and shouldn’t do, in our private lives and in our professional ones, and all the reasons for same; I mean the actual worth of the information made us feel twice as rich.

It’s incredible what you can do for yourself just by keeping quite still and letting those little wheels in your head turn; you can’t afford not to!

Last May, for instance, Tony and I were getting ready for a real vacation—a three-week hideout in Connecticut. Then one night Tony walked in with his face way down to here and announced that he was in a new picture and would have to leave for Boston location for those three weeks.

Anger flared up in me. Something was wrong somewhere. Hither the studio had an awful nerve to intrude into Tony’s vacation period or he had said yes when he should have said no. But where previously this would have been the extent of my thinking and I would have acted on it, now my mind carried on unbidden to a saner and better conclusion.

If I raised the devil and demanded that Tony keep to our original plan for our vacation, he would. This would mean notifying the studio that they would either have to change the schedule for the picture, or use someone else for the lead. This in turn would mess up the studio’s production plans, affect Tony’s relationship with the studio so that he would feel miserable, and when it was all over what would I have gained? Answer: nothing.

“Boston?” I asked. “Well, at least Boston is in New England and being in New England was to be the main feature. Well still have our week-ends together.”

Tony’s face lit up as if he thought I were wonderful. Well, I’m not wonderful. But any time he wants to think so—

I see the power of goodness as something as mysterious as the power of the atom, but far more enduring. Whence comes the power of the atom? The scientists can’t tell you. They only know that something which holds an atom together, and which they label “the binding force of nature,” is where this power originates. Man has a binding force just as mysterious in its persistence; the power of good. Even the mighty power of the atom is depleted in its explosive death. But the power the human heart exerts is never gone—the more good we do the more good there is. Somewhere here is the secret of living past life itself, I believe. 



(Janet Leigh can now be seen in MGM’s Rogue Cop.)