Espresso and Eyeballs
Dolly was the mother of Deedee, a friend of mine. Dolly had a glass eye. I find this fascinating. The only person I ever knew (and I didn’t really know him) with a glass eye was Sammy Davis Jr., who would perhaps be unknown to anyone born after 1970.
Davis was a singer, dancer, Broadway and cinema actor, and ran with the Rat Pack in Hollywood. The Rat Pack consisted of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford (who had a certain amount of fame as the brother in law of President John F Kennedy) and Joey Bishop, a comedian, though he never seemed to belong, in my opinion. A falling out between Sinatra and the Kennedys about Sinatra’s links to the mob got Peter Lawford booted from the group. It was all very sixties. Trivia tidbit: Sinatra once ordered 300 Bloody Marys from room service for a Rat Pack party.
Sammy Davis Jr. fondly called himself "the only black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world." Although he stood at a mere 5’6” and weighed only 120 pounds, Davis’ 60-year-long-career left a massive impression on the entertainment world. He was a dapper and wiry man, who even into the nineteen sixties was not permitted to perform in all the clubs in Vegas because of the color of his skin. Yet Sinatra always included him in their entourage. Sammy had large expressive hands bedazzled with flashy rings and jewels. His signature song, which he performed so poignantly, was Mr. Bojangles, to which he tap-danced as well. He made jokes about his glass eye, which often seemed to go in a different direction from his good eye. He lost his eye in a car accident, when he also sustained massive injuries to his face, and a broken nose. A consummate professional, he was back on stage only two months later. Sinatra, like a big brother to Sammy, paid all his medical bills after the accident.
But back to Dolly’s glass eye, which came up in conversation late one afternoon when Deedee and I were chatting in a beer and book café, over espresso and mulled cider. I remarked on the rough stone on the opposite wall, where bits of chunky stone were uncovered when the historic stone house, originally built in the mid-1600’s, had been remodeled. The current management artfully placed small votive candles amongst the rough stones. Deedee turned to look and said it reminded her of a grotto in the Bronx that she used to visit, near where she grew up. The grotto was dedicated to St. Lucy, patron saint of eyes. “It was underground and dark” she said, “and it scared me as a kid. There were candles like those set into the stones, and the statue of St. Lucy stood with one hand outstretched; I think she was holding two eyeballs.”
“Ewww” I said.
“You know my mother liked to go there because she had the glass eye.” “Wait, what? How did it happen again? How old was she?”
“She got hit in the eye with a bb gun when she was sixteen but she didn’t get the eye until years later, when I was about five years old. I remember her coming home from the hospital with a big bandage and a patch on her eye.”
“Did she ever take it out?” I asked. Not really thinking that would happen.
“Oh yes,” Deedee said “she had to take it out, to clean it or rinse it or something. And every so often she had to go and have it polished. She went into the city for that. She was very conscious of it, that it would look good and people would not notice it.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
“Yeah, you know I couldn’t deal with it when she was older and had problems taking it out herself. I couldn’t help her. I told her ‘Ma, I can’t do it.’ But Nina did it for her, she was so good to her in that period before she passed. She loved her grandmother so much.”
I told her about a short story I’d just read, written in the voice of a young woman, remembering an incident at the ocean when she was a child. It was about a chicken fight in the water and she was on her Uncle Pete’s shoulders. The day had been memorable to her because her uncle and cousins rarely went on outings with her and her mother and brother and because of what had happened on that brilliant hot beach day.
Betsy was on Uncle Pete’s shoulders and her brother was on their older cousin’s shoulders. In twisting and reaching to topple her brother off her cousin’s shoulders, she’d slammed her knee into the side of her uncle’s head and she’d seen, everybody saw, an eyeball fly from his head and sink into the ocean. The kids all dived and searched but came up with nothing. Betsy was afraid to speak, she couldn’t speak. She was horrified at what she had done. There was no forgiveness possible for this. She stood on the beach, trembling. But Uncle Pete came out of the water chuckling and said “Don’t worry about it Betsy, I’ll get another one.” That was when she found out he had a glass eye.”
Deedee said “I wish I had asked my mother more questions, not just about the eye, but about so many things. I just never asked her.”
“She might not have told you anyway. That generation kept things to themselves.”
“I wondered what they thought when I had her cremated.” She mused.
“You didn’t tell them?”
“No, I ever said a word.”
“Hmm, maybe they wondered how a marble got in there.”