I’ve just finished my new film, “Northern Borders,” and it will play August 8 at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center (my 1994 feature, “Where the Rivers Flow North” will also play, on Wednesday, August 7). Both films are based on novels 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. Mr. Mosher’s novel was recently named by the London Guardian as one of the 10 best books written that treat relationships with grandparents. 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. Other stories the Guardian named included “Little Red Riding Hood,” Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
I was raised by my grandparents from first through fourth grades, 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 ended up as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. I’m mystified — but I took some of what I knew and suspected for 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’s 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. 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 matinées 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.
Jay Craven is a filmmaker who has been visiting the Vineyard since 1968. He completed the screenplays for “Where the Rivers Flow North” and “Northern Borders” in West Tisbury and Chilmark, respectively. His next film, “Peter and John,” is a seaside film shot here and on Nantucket.
“Northern Borders,” with Mr. Craven, Bruce Dern, and Geneviève Bujold at the M.V. Film Center, 7:30 pm Thursday, August 8. He will also show his 1994 feature, “Where the Rivers Flow North” a Sundance selection and finalist for Critics Week at Cannes – at 7:30 pm, Wednesday, August 7. A Q&A with director Craven will follow each screening.