By Barbara Riddle
It’s in the nature of teenage girls—it’s almost their job description—to disrespect their mothers, to assert their independence as part of the necessary task of growing up and cutting that adult umbilical cord.
That said, I may have been one of the most critical teens ever to stalk the streets of Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. My beautiful, free-spirited mother worked by day as a hugely over-qualified secretary (for an ever-changing cast of unsatisfactory, leering bosses). By night and on the weekends, she wrote story treatments for independent films. Money was always short. Did I sympathize with her plight as a single parent who labored to keep her creative juices flowing and maybe one day have her proverbial ship come in? I did not. I wanted better clothes, better food, a larger allowance. (She often borrowed my dog walking money, to the point where she once owed me $70.) Most of all, I wanted to live in a real apartment, not the suite-with-kitchenette at the fleabag Hotel Marlton on West 8th Street (recently restored to its 1920s-era elegance.)
Thus, when she excitedly informed me in 1958 that one of director Morris Engel’s films (Weddings and Babies), on which she had collaborated as a writer, had shared a Critic’s Choice Award with Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries at the Venice Film Festival, my reaction was a big yawn. It wasn’t Cannes; it wasn’t the Oscars. Who cared? Not me.
She had already sold her rights for a small, fixed sum. The award had no discernible impact on my life.
Fast forward to 2001: I am sitting in the audience with my husband and daughter at the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of three films directed by Morris Engel, all of which are now in the museum’s archives. The films—Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, and Weddings and Babies—are considered early classics of American independent cinema. Director Francois Truffaut credits Engel’s handheld camera and naturalistic style with inspiring the beginning of the French New Wave cinema movement. My mother, who died of lung cancer in 1981, would never live to see her name, Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, listed as a writer on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). She would also never know that two of the films she co-wrote can be ordered in boxed DVD sets or streamed on Netflix. Her efforts, eked out in furnished rooms all over the Village, her packet of Pall Malls right beside her, are part of the history of film, forever.
How I wish I could apologize to her for being that snobby 14-year-old. The greatest tribute I can give her now—and the only meaningful one—is to carry on her work ethic. Thanks for giving me that, mom. And, sorry.
So very sorry.
Greenwich Village native Barbara Riddle is a frequent contributor to Westview News. Her memoir-in-progress can be read at talesfromagreenwichvillagegirlhood.blogspot.com. (Segments from that work have been excerpted in these pages.) Barbara’s novel set in the 1960s, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, is available online as an ebook or paperback. Visit girlpretending.com. You may contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.