Everyone should have someone in their life that lived outside the box, who is fabulous and fun but imbued with common sense. Like the character Rosalind Russell portrayed in the 1950’s movie, Auntie Mame, they would be a person who no matter what, was intent on living life to the fullest.
I consider myself luck to have had such an Auntie Mame in my life. Her name was Melissa Caron, and she really was my aunt. She had a very eventful life, and from the moment I met her she captivated me much in the way Mame captivated Patrick in the movie.
Melissa had married a gambler named “Frenchy” Caron in the 1940’s and moved away from Dallas to the northwest. There in Bremerton and later Seattle She and my uncle Frenchy operated a club and restaurant. In reality it was a front for an illegal casino and with a military base nearby, they did very well.
My uncle unfortunately died of a heart attack leaving Melissa and her young son alone in Washington State. His business partner, the local sheriff, tossed my aunt out on her ear and so she had to reinvent herself.
She sold much of her jewelry and furs to finance a move to Southern California where she and my cousin Michael found a small apartment in Brentwood, long before it was the trendy spot it is now. She got a job at a local pharmacy as a clerk and on the side she took photos for the local society news. That gave her entrance to meet the glitterati of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I have a trunk filled with her photos that I must someday scan and put online.
By the 1950’s she was making a comfortable living, now managing the gif department of the Brent-Air Pharmacy. That’s when I first made a visit to meet her. My parents took me on a cross country driving vacation in December of 1957 to California. We saw the newly minted Disneyland, Marine Land of the Pacific, and stayed with Melissa. I had just seen the movie Auntie Mame in Dallas before we left and when I arrived at Melissa’s “Chinese modern” apartment I was sure I was on the set of the movie!
She greeted us in a flowing Chinese robe, smoking a gold filtered cigarette in a long cigarette holder. She was Auntie Mame!
The room was decorated for the holidays and not to be understated, she had a big black flocked Christmas tree decorated with gold bows and lights. Even her dog, a miniature poodle was decked out in seasonal attire. In that one day, she swept me off my feet and into her whirlwind, and I will never forget it.
That night there was a party at her place and there I met my first gay men. They were very effeminate and much like Melissa, fabulous!
Later in the week we visited her friends, and she showed me off like a prize. I distinctly remember a party at Gary Crosby’s house where I met Bing’s son and many entertainers who I had only seen on TV. Again, fabulous.
Melissa remained a part of my life, even from far away in California. She would visit my mom in Dallas occasionally and we would visit her in California on a semi-regular basis. She was very progressive, liberal minded and opinionated and though she was never rich, she always lived with a of touches of extravagance that kept up her image.
Years later, she befriended an aging neighbor, and took care of much of her daily chores. She helped her pay bills, shopped for her and many other kindnesses that I took note of. She did it not expecting anything in return. She did it because it is what you do for friends. Great lesson!
One day, her friend fell ill and was hospitalized. She never recovered, and that’s when Melissa was contacted by a lawyer. Seems her neighbor, Gladys, was wealthy though she lived very modestly in a small apartment. In her will she left most of her property to Melissa, property including blue chip stocks, bonds and all her possessions. While cleaning out her apartment she found a stash of jewelry in her drawers that most people would keep in a bank vault. Suddenly Melissa was well-to-do!
She promptly retired from her Pharmacy job and bought a house in Las Vegas and began the third phase of her life, that of wealthy socialite. Again, much like Auntie Mame, she rebounded with panache and soon became a fixture in the Vegas civic scene.
Not to belabor the story, but again she showed me how to live life to the fullest, and take whatever came her way in stride and do it with style. Long since she passed away, her memory still lives with me.
She was fond of one of Auntie Mame’s lines in the move, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! You’ve got to live, live, live!”
That advice is something I always remember, and for that I always thank my Auntie Mame.