I watched a part of my childhood die last Saturday
A couple of weeks ago, Janet wrote to tell me Cousin Cliff was going to be on an HBO special about Alzheimer's. Cousin Cliff Holman hosted The Popeye Show when we were kids. There were several local kiddie shows in Birmingham Alabama when I was a kid, but Cousin Cliff was the only one that I ever wanted to go on. My brother went on with some other kids for a birthday party once, but I was too young to go. A couple of years later when I was old enough to talk and be aware of what was going on around me (we're talking VERY young here!) it frustrated me greatly to think that Pat got to go on the Cousin Cliff show and get a piece of Popeye Spinach Bubblegum, but where was MY Popeye Spinach Bubble Gum?
I'm getting ahead of myself. When Janet wrote and told me about this Alzheimer's thing, we both recoiled in horror and agreed that we did NOT want to see Cousin Cliff with Alzheimer's! No way!
A week later, I was working upstairs and Jeannie called out "come quick" and I went to see what it was, and it was Cousin Cliff with Alzheimer's on TV! His smiling face filled the screen and he was so sweet - it was surreal and sweet and creepy, like the Teletubbies sunshine baby face. I didn't want to look, but almost immediately it was okay to look. He was all mixed up, but so clearly full of love for the kiddies. It's hard to explain, and if I could explain it clearly then I'd just spoil it for you. If you get a chance to watch the HBO Special on Alzheimer's, watch the segment on Cousin Cliff.
Back in the day, he had many many sponsors and was a shill for Jack's Hamburgers and Pepsi Cola and junk food and of course it was all a big commercial, but back then it was all just FUN. That's the way you got Popeye cartoons on TV! You had to pay the bills, and besides, hamburgers and soft drinks are fun! There was absolutely nothing cynical about Cousin Cliff. If there was, just let me be blissfully ignorant. I never saw it, and I don't want to know about it.
Cousin Cliff was a magician and made balloon animals and DREW CARTOONS. I loved to watch him draw. He'd make a game of it, a line here, a curlicue there, and what's it gonna be, OH LOOK, it's a ship! Or he'd have a kid draw a squiggle on his giant drawing pad, then he'd make something out of the squiggle. I loved that guy!
He'd talk to the kids. One time a little girl was telling him about her new clothes she got for the show and he said something like "New clothes? What new clothes?" and she said "My dress... my socks... my shoes... and my panties!" Me and my little first grade buddies spent many giggle sessions recalling that "panties" line.
Here's another one: A group of kids were cracking up and couldn't stop giggling. Cousin Cliff asked them what was so funny and one of them said "Leroy farted!"
Janet, Ronald, Benny, Kirk, all my Alabama buddies, you really oughta watch the HBO thing. It's sad, but it's very sweet. And all of you folks who don't know who Cousin Cliff is - well, just watch it anyway.
Spoiler Alert: Stop reading if you don't want more details about the HBO thing.
They actually film his actual death. VERY sad. And Jeannie and I were both kind of shocked that the family would allow the cameras in the room. But we decided that since the guy totally lived to be on TV, it seemed appropriate. Why not one last learning and sharing experience? And when I say "lived to be on TV" I don't mean he was a glory hog. You can see the real man, what consumed him so much that it's all he thinks about in his dementia, and all he cared about was entertaining kids. That's the way it seems to me. I wish I could say that about myself. That's not a bad legacy!