Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shirley Not

We're not telling Elizabeth that Shirley Temple just died. Is that wrong?

Maybe we'll talk about it some more and change our minds. But right now Pam seems pretty sure we shouldn't, and she's taken a lot more psychology a lot more recently than I have.

Elizabeth likes Shirley a lot. Last year Pam ordered a DVD three-pack consisting of Heidi, Little Miss Broadway and Curly Top. I've watched them all with her dozens of times.

We enjoy Curly Top primarily for the "Animal Crackers In My Soup" number, which is charming except for the line that goes "I stuff my tummy like a goop with animal crackers in my soup."  What on earth did "goop" mean, or was it just a cheap dodge for a writer who had run out of rhymes for soup?

My favorite of the three is Little Miss Broadway. I once read that it did poorly at the box office. But I think it showcases better than the others the astonishing show business package that Shirley Temple really was.

Her dance numbers with the talented though odd looking George Murphy are virtuoso performances for both of them. But she was hardly more than a toddler, whereas he had become so noted for his jiggling and dancing that California would soon send him to the U.S. Senate.

Shirley Temple's acting is remarkable too, full of small expressions and gestures that reflect maturity and experience far beyond her years and yet seem natural, not precocious as they often do with other child actors who have obviously been coached.

So Elizabeth and I are both big fans of Shirley the child star.

But Pam and I have hardly talked with E at all about the fact that Shirley Temple grew up and did a lot of other important though less famous things and was now an actual old lady with a family and a life that had nothing to do with being a make-believe orphan in movies made long ago.

I thought her death might be a good way to begin educating Elizabeth on the delicate subjects of grief and loss in a way that might help prepare her for the day they hit closer to home.

But no, Pam said,  it would only be gratuitous trauma if it was anything at all. And before we could inflict it we'd have to talk about fantasy characters versus the real actors behind them and try to give her a sense of the previously unknown and now deceased Shirley Temple Black. Before telling her she's dead.

In Pam's view, if Elizabeth didn't fall asleep in the middle of all this strained, self-conscious parenting, what's the point?

I admitted that the benefit I saw was entirely notional. I am as ignorant of how her little mind works as I was the day she was born.

One thing I am pretty sure of, though, is that she's farther along than we might think in distinguishing imaginative experience from real life.

This morning she was eating breakfast with her cheap but cherished inflatable Dora the Explorer that we got her a few days ago and from which she's been inseparable, day and night.  We were talking about the little homework task she'd done for school the night before.

"I don't think Dora's done her homework," I playfully remarked.

"Daddy," she said, in a way that conveyed some surprise that she had to set me straight on this. "Dora doesn't get homework. She's a balloon."


  1. This is a delightful post, as is all your writing, especially where Elizabeth is concerned. But I feel I have to defend the late lyricist Irving Caesar against your slander. He was not a tired writer running out of rhymes for soup. The Goops were popular characters in humor books that appeared starting in 1900 and famous for their comically boorish behavior. I met Irving Caesar once many years ago (best-known song: Tea for Two) and he sang parts of Animal Crackers in My Soup for me, though god knows why. But that's another story for another time.

  2. My favorite Shirley song is "The Codfish Ball" from Captain January. And if you want to teach your daughter about death, you could do what we did: get her a goldfish.