She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother

BOOK: She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother
3.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

This book is dedicated to:
My mother, for her love;
Tom, for his love;
and New Orleans, the city I love!

Author’s Note

I applied for and obtained my poetic license many years ago, and have remained in good standing ever since. It has served me well through my life so far, and I hope that, coupled with what some consider a healthy sense of humor, it will continue to do so. On occasion it’s occurred to me that while life is happening around us or coming directly at us, we often are unable to take it all in, truly analyze it, and at the very same time live in the moment at hand. I’ve tried over and over again, but somehow my genetic makeup doesn’t sustain such a process. I believe that is why we have memory, a mysteriously subjective system that allows us to recall the events that form our lives. Everyone’s memory is different; each member of a family can experience the exact same event, and inevitably each individual will remember it slightly differently.

The following are my stories, and they are told as I remember them, or, rather, as I chose to remember and tell them. They are based on factual events and actual people who helped bend and shape my life, but a couple of alterations here and there have been applied for the purpose of theatrical impact and to protect the innocent and the punishable. And, remember, I do have a license.



















of my mother is of her cradling me as a baby and placing me ever so gently in my crib. I still can see the pale blue satin ribbon woven through the lace of her robe and the praying, bubble-headed, footy-pajama-wearing angels affixed to the wall of the nursery. Soft, calming tones flowed from her pink-painted mouth. Although I couldn’t understand what she said, I was comforted and I remember deciding at that moment not to cry. I recall knowing that I was safe, that I was loved. Scientists and psychiatrists may question the validity of this brief yet crystal-clear remembrance, and under any normal circumstances they might have a point. But these circumstances are anything but normal. And they have never met my mother.

Most of my memories are fond ones, and for that I am grateful. Of course there have been tough and rough patches, but I choose not to dwell on those as they are a dissonant chord and I prefer harmony or at least a jazzy minor seventh. But those discordances are few; the good
in my life thus far greatly outweighs the insignificant bad. Gayle Batt, the steel magnolia from whom I was fortunate to come forth into this world, made me the man I am today, and although I’m still discovering who and what that is, she gave me—or rather taught me by her example—some great life lessons: (1) defeat is not an option; (2) be happy in your own skin; (3) there is great beauty in great strength.

The bare facts are these: I was born on March 1, 1963, the second son to Gayle and John Batt of New Orleans, a handsome and stylish couple. I had what I then thought to be a typical middle-class to slightly upper-class upbringing until I realized that all kids didn’t have a roller coaster in their backyard instead of a slide. My father’s father founded Pontchartrain Beach in 1928, and for generations to come this amusement park was the biggest and best family entertainment in the Gulf South, that is, until Mickey entered the Everglades. I attended Isidore Newman School from kindergarten through twelfth grade, then, because of my father’s failing health, stayed close to home and went to Tulane University. Then, fresh out of college, I moved to New York, completely green, with delusions of a career in the theatre. Blind ambition, combined with hard work and a great deal of sheer luck, enabled me to work for nearly twenty years on and off Broadway. When there was suddenly a significant lull in my stage career, I decided to follow another dream and temporarily moved back south with my partner, Tom Cianfichi (pronounced chee-on-fee-kee, which loosely translates to “have a fig”), to live part-time and open a fine gift/home
furnishings shop called Hazelnut, named for my beloved maternal grandmother. From then on I was bicoastal, enjoying the vast dichotomy of the Big Apple and the Big Easy. I am a firm believer that life is an “and” proposition rather than an “or” proposition. However, while creating the shop during the excruciatingly hot, humid late summer and early fall of 2003, I would awaken in a cold sweat, questioning why I’d placed my portfolio as collateral on a business I knew nothing about. All I had was good taste, but thank heaven, Tom did know the business aspect, so those frantic panic attacks became fewer as the shop grew.

The real heart of the matter is this: we are capable of doing much more than most people expect of us. It’s easy for people to place you in a category or a group and define you by that alone. I’m not sure whether this is typically American or simply human, but ever since one of my most memorable and life-changing conversations with my mother, I’ve tried at all costs to avoid being defined by other people’s opinions or standards. Inadvertently, Mom taught me that, too.

My first day of kindergarten was an eye-opening entrée into a new world. When my mother questioned me about it, I asked her in all sincerity, “Why am I not colored, Jewish, and a girl?”

My unexpected and unfamiliar question literally cracked her perfectly applied ivory Alexander de Markoff foundation makeup, and tragically deflated the new coif in her black bouffant hair by at least an inch. In an effort to explain, she tilted her head in her signature style and said with a loving smile, “Honey, there are many different
kinds of people in this great big wonderful world we live in—boys like you and girls like me; Christians like us; and Jewish people like … like … well, they are people who don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God; white like us, and colored like … like … well, like Oralea; and we are all God’s children. But the blue birds fly with the blue birds and the red birds with the red birds, and the yellow birds with the yellow birds and so on.”

I was thoroughly confused by this analogy. “Hell, Mom, I’m not a bird!”

Now her makeup was really melting. “Language, doodlebug,” she managed to say through pursed frosted pink lips.

I kept trying to wrap my mind around how we were like birds and asked, “If God loves us all, and we are supposed to try to be like God, shouldn’t we try to love everyone, or since we’re talking birds, shouldn’t we all fly together in the same big blue sky, no matter the color of our feathers or the size of our beaks?”

I got the characteristic Gayle Batt tilt, lilt, and smile in response. “You’ll understand when you’re older, peanut.”

And although I tried, I never did.

And now I am an actor/designer/shop owner and live tricoastally in New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles. I thank you for buying this book because it is an odd and expensive life to maintain.

In spring of 2006, Tom and I had planned a special trip to Paris as a token of our gratitude for selfless acts of heroism performed by my eldest godchild, Ramsey. I have seven godchildren—seven! When Katrina hit the city, we were on vacation in Sonoma and literally unable to
return, so this young, highly competent nurse boarded up our shop and carriage house. Mom was panicking because her flight to Houston was canceled and Ramsey’s car wouldn’t start, so she took ours and drove Mom with her to Texas. By this point, Mom’s need for another knee and hip replacement was apparent, and she could not sit for extended periods of time. Due to the record mass exodus, the pilgrimage that would normally take five to six hours was now doubled.

Needless to say, the forced exodus to Texas was no easy trip to the beach. Ramsey saved our store, our home, our car, and my mom—though not necessarily in that order. A trip to Paris was most definitely warranted.

With the trip just about a week away, I received a call from my agent in New York: “Hey, Bry, I have an audition for you for a pilot called
Mad Men
. The role is Salvatore Romano, the closeted art director at a fictional 1960s ad agency, Sterling Cooper, recurring possible series regular.”

I asked when, and learned that the only days they were casting were in direct conflict with the Paris trip. This just reaffirms my belief that if you want an audition, the best thing to do is book a nonrefundable flight to a foreign country. Having mainly been a stage actor to this point, and sadly being able to count my television appearances on one hand, for the first time in my career I decided to choose life over show business. I told Bill that this trip to Paris was too important, but when I returned to the States, if the role had not been cast, I would love to audition, as I would be in New York to do a limited run off-Broadway. It was the first time I had chosen life over work in a very long time.

As fate would have it, the creator, Matthew Weiner, and the director, Allen Taylor, had not found their “Sal,” so weeks later, on lunch break from my show’s rehearsals, I slicked my hair back, threw on a blazer with a jaunty pocket square, and headed downtown for the call. There was one audition, and the next day my agents called with the good news.

Two weeks later I was on set at Silver Cup Studios in Long Island City; the series itself would later be filmed in Los Angeles, surrounded by a picture-perfect office set circa 1960. The midcentury desks, the chairs, the art, all stunningly embodied the era. After finishing with hair and makeup, I changed into my period vintage suit and skinny tie, and was led to Don’s office. Upon meeting Jon Hamm and shaking his hand, I thought,
Oh, they are doing this right
, and after the first take I was amazed at how spot-on he was in the role. Here was a perfectly prepared, extremely talented, highly skilled actor, and easy on the eyeballs to boot. I couldn’t help thinking that if this series was picked up, this man would be a sensation, and deservedly so. Thrilled and nervous as hell, I hoped to be able to rise to the occasion and match the high standard he set, all the while trying to forget that my first job on Broadway was on roller skates, playing a singing and dancing boxcar in
Starlight Express

Show business makes no sense. Like love, it is fickle, divine, and heartbreaking. But when it clicks, when the stars align, it is incomprehensibly magical. All my life I’ve wanted to be an actor, an entertainer, and now, after years of work, and another year of praying and hoping that
Mad Men
would get the green light, I was driving through Hollywood
to the L.A. Center Studios in my rented black Mini Cooper convertible, underneath the beautifully strange purple jacaranda trees. I actually slapped my own face to make sure I was not dreaming and that this was really my life unfolding before me. After a few days of working together, our cast started to bond like none other I’ve experienced. There suddenly grew a genuine sense of camaraderie which rarely if ever exists.

the midst of filming episode four or five and I was in my trailer on the L.A. Center Studios set. Because I had not relocated or toured to another city besides New Orleans or New York for over fifteen years, I was having a difficult time adjusting to L.A., especially driving on the freeways. Before leaving New Orleans, I searched high and low through boxes and boxes of family photos at my mother’s home for inspiration and comfort while away. Now I found myself looking at a 1960s photo of my mother eight months pregnant with me, martini and cigarette in her hands, just as women did in the early sixties and on our show. At a very early age I learned the story of how my mother badly wanted children but had trouble becoming pregnant. Temperatures were taken, and when the oven was right, Dad was called home from the office for “matinees,” hot oil forced through fallopian tubes and the postcoital headstands. All this to bring forth my brother. Jay was referred to as the science baby, and due to the fact I was conceived at Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, I was known as the love child.

Gazing at my reflection, seeing myself costumed circa 1960, I realized I looked just like my father. The face, the hair, the body—all John Batt. I have donned many a disguise for Mardi Gras, Halloween, and professionally on Broadway, but nothing compared to the strange mixture of emotions and memories that emerged when I saw myself as the physical double of my late father. I looked at my hands—they were his, the slight smile lines were beginning to form just as his, the gray temples framed my face identically. My entire physical being was a finely detailed replica, only I knew my heart was that of my mother. Just then my cell phone rang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which I had kept as my ring tone since Katrina. It was Mom.

“How’s my Broadway and soon-to-be Hollywood TV star, doodlebug, I am so glad I caught you before you went on stage, or to practice, or whatever it is you do out there, but pet, don’t forget to send something to Bailey and Kelly, your little nieces are so excited to be attendants to the Queen of the Spring Fiesta tonight. They looked so cute in their pantaloons, I almost started to cry. Just call Mr. Larry at the florist’s and he’ll know what to send to the girls … soft spring colors, of course, with no baby’s breath … isn’t it odd how some things just go out of fashion, things we loved, remember that Christmas tree we had on Pratt Drive in the seventies, we thought that baby’s breath was so chic, and you know it was then, but now, no way, oh baby dear look at the time, I really must run coach, Mr. Albert has to do his magic on my hair for tonight, and I cannot be late, I declare that man is a miracle
worker, a true artist. Call Mr. Larry, and honey, I am so proud of you … I love you.”

And she was off; I almost could smell the Chanel perfume, which lingered well after her many flourished exits
con brio

“Love you too,” I said.

There was a knock on the door, and it was Kyle, ever so respectfully letting me know that they were running late with filming and that there had been a freak accident on set. Part of the movable ceiling had fallen on our star Jon Hamm’s head, and quite a few stitches were required, so the day’s filming schedule would be revised shortly. Kyle told me to relax, as I would not be called to set for quite some time; in fact, my scene might be rescheduled for another day entirely. As fate would have it, Jon is a killer trouper and returned that day to continue filming. As instructed, I placed the floral order for my nieces and thought of my introduction to the New Orleans tradition of the Spring Fiesta, often referred to as A Night in Old New Orleans.

Reclining, my intent was to take a short nap because the evening before had been a
Mad Men
get-together, and as can happen it ended with me being over-served. But I couldn’t rest because my mind was swirling with memories and residual hooch. Maybe seeing my father’s face in the mirror combined with my mom’s doting call made it impossible to sleep. Memory is a strange friend, either the kind you sometimes wish would not call when they do, or the sort you dream could stay and play forever. Luckily I had my computer and some time to play with “the misty water-colored memories in the corners of my mind.”

BOOK: She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother
3.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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