I was reading an old magazine. It was probably O! or Martha Stewart Living or something. I think I was in the doctor's waiting room. Anyway, I came upon an article about very elderly women. It featured I think six women, all of whom were over 100. For one woman, it mentioned that her grandson had made a documentary about her. I love a good documentary, so I requested it from the library. And so it came to be that I spent a piece of Sunday watching Nine Good Teeth.
Nine Good Teeth is the life story of Mary Mirabito Livornese Calviere. Her grandson, Alex Halpern, filmed in between her 96th and 100th birthdays in the late 1990s. Mary was born in Brooklyn, to Italian immigrant parents, in 1899. Through interviews with her, her sisters, her daughter, and her nephew, Halpern tells both the story of her individual life and of many of the major events of the 20th century.
Many elements of the story are not surprising--Mary went to school until the 8th grade, then stayed home with her younger siblings after her mother took ill. Her father was a well-respected longshoreman and she was raised in a traditional Italian Catholic family. She married early, though not exceptionally so (she was 20, her husband only 17). She had two children. Her son served in the second World War. Her husband died in the 60s and she remarried. Her second husband died four years later, then her son. Several of her siblings died, but at the time of the filming, six of them were still alive. Other than the long lifespans of her family, her story is pretty classic.
The surprising bits are the more personal details. There is resentment between Mary and her sister Gladys, because Gladys lived with Mary and her family from the ages of 15 and 25 as sort of a nanny, and feels Mary stole her best years. Mary's daughter, Maria, also holds some resentment towards her, saying that Mary always favored her brother. And it's Mary's son, Tommy, who is perhaps the most puzzling part of this equation--he was a musician, scarred by his time in the Pacific Rim, who was friends with Jack Kerouac.
Much is made of some of these elements, others it seems are nearly swept under the rug, either by Halpern or by his subjects. In one scene, Mary and her sister Janet are asked about their regrets. Both of them say they wish they had more children, and Mary comes out, surprisingly, with, "I should have had four--I had two abortions." Considering that Mary's childbearing years were in the 1930s and 1940s, and she's Catholic, this is an unexpected confession. It is not mentioned again.
Mary's general attitude towards sex, which is touched on at several points in the film, is perhaps the most surprising thing of all. She says, at one point, that she is lonely and wishes she had a companion in her old age. Then, with a bit of prodding, she follows up by saying that she thinks she could have an orgasm at her age. She also mentions regretting that she didn't more frequently "say yes" to her first husband, with whom she had a troubled relationship. She also confesses to an affair with the man who would eventually become her second husband early in her marriage to her first, and talks about his affairs as well.
Though Halpern's portrayal of Mary is ultimately flattering (he is, after all, her grandson), it's not perfect. She's clearly a stubborn woman, perhaps a bit self-centered, and definitely someone who made some bad choices during her long life. As always, though, I am thrilled to see someone take the time to tell the story of one woman's life, particularly when that life spans a century. She's amazing not just due to her longevity, and her willingness to talk about it, but due to the complicated, heartbreaking realness of her story. Every time someone writes a book or makes a film like this one, it's another nail in the coffin of history being written about only the "important" white males. I though of this in particular when comparing the film to the obituaries and memorials I've been reading this week about Walter Cronkite, who didn't live quite as long as Mary did, but was still quite old. Cronkite, love him or not, was the type of person about whom history is usually written. Unsurprisingly, I find more connections with and learn more from Mary.