Grandparent figures

For this filmmaker, the story resonates on a personal level

I'm touring throughout Vermont this summer with my new film, Northern Borders, based on the award-winning novel by Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher.

Northern Borders focuses on 10-year-old Austen Kittredge, who is sent to live with a pair of Vermont grandparents whose thorny marriage is called “the forty years war.”

Mosher's novel was recently named by The Guardian as one of the 10 best books that address relationships with grandparents. Northern Borders joins other titles on the list, including Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Not many stories include grandparents as developed and complex characters, even though many of us have or had deep and illuminating relationships with our own parents' parents.

I was raised by my grandparents during the time I attended grades one through four, so my experiences informed my film.

* * *

My grandfather was not unlike old Austen Kittredge in Northern Borders. He didn't suffer fools gladly. And he was considered to be a pretty tough character.

Toward the end of her life, my grandmother filled me in on some of his early exploits, one of which landed him in a Massachusetts penitentiary on charges of grand larceny from the Bank of Nova Scotia.

He was captured by FBI agents while on the lam in Havana, but he was inexplicably pardoned by the governor after serving only a year. Which raises even more questions.

He also ended up as Franklin D. Roosevelt's assistant secretary of agriculture.

I'm mystified - but I took some of what I knew and suspected about my grandfather and incorporated it into my film.

* * *

Like the grandmother character, Abiah, in Northern Borders, my Texas-born “Geema” was blunt and enigmatic, with a steady stream of cryptic life lessons, off-the-cuff poems, and a biting tongue-in-cheek wit. She also looked beyond what was visible.

Geema was daring. When I was 10, she bluffed her way past security guards and steered me into the San Francisco Giants' locker room at Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium to get me Willie Mays' autograph. She told the cops she was the wife of the Giants' general manager.

Within a minute, there we were, staring straight at Giants' star outfielder Willie McCovey lathering up in the shower.

My grandmother didn't flinch.

“Mister Mays?” she said, with her indelible Texas drawl. “My grandson would like your autograph.”

The tall, soft-spoken McCovey shifted on his feet. “Ma'm, I'm not Mister Mays. I'm Mister McCovey,” he said. “But if you'll just toss me a towel, I'd be happy to give your grandson an autograph - then I'd like to finish my shower.”

He did, and a minute later, we found Willie Mays dressing at his locker. He signed my Phillies yearbook, and I'll never forget it.

My grandmother also introduced me to movies. She loved westerns and Tennessee Williams films - anything with gunslingers or distraught Southern women. So while my second-grade peers were checking out Disney's Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp, Geema and I were cruising Philadelphia and the suburbs in her red '54 Chrysler to check out weekend matinees of Red River and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

During her life, Geema was a competitive swimmer, journalist, and secretary to a U.S. Senator. She was fierce on grammar and, when I was out of line, she'd send me to an ancient willow tree to cut a “switch” that she threatened to use on the spot. She never did. On the contrary, she was the single adult in my life who most expressed the complex but warm emotions that I came to know as love.

While working with Geneviève Bujold on Northern Borders, I shared many of her stories. Now looking at Geneviève's finely layered characterization of Abiah on screen, I'm reminded of how my grandmother remains with me.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates