Michael Frank’s aunt and uncle were well-known screenwriters (Hud, Norma Rae); his Aunt Hank, Harriet Frank Jr., was a legend of her own making, a glamorous explosion of opinions and aesthetic judgments and condemnations. A not-so-benign Auntie Mame. And for years young Michael remained in her thrall, exactly where she wanted him. Finding out where she left off and he began took him decades. The Mighty Franks is the story of the family, and that disentanglement, published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Author Michael Frank will discuss his book at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on Saturday, June 24, at 6pm.
FOR A LONG TIME I used to wait in the dining room window. I waited in the afternoon, when I returned from school, and I waited on Saturday mornings. Now and then I waited at the edge of the driveway, because from there I could see farther up the hill, almost to the top. When the Buick Riviera appeared, its fender flashing a big toothy metallic grin, I felt happiness wash over me; happiness braided together with anticipation and excitement too, since it meant that within minutes my aunt would be pulling up to take me on one of our adventures.
My aunt was the one person in the world I was always most eager to see. Sometimes she came bearing gifts, special books or treasures related to the special interests she and my uncle and I shared: art and architecture, literature, and, since my aunt and uncle were screenwriters, movies (never “film,” that was the celluloid of which movies were made). But what I loved even more than receiving tangible things was going off with her, alone, without my younger brothers or my parents; being alone with her, with the force of her attention, the contents of her mind. And her talk, which was like an unending river emptying itself into me. Our time together was larky. You really are the best company a person could ever hope for, Mike, she said, bar none. She made me feel clever merely by being with her and listening to her, learning what she had to teach, absorbing some of her spark—her sparkle.
My aunt and I went off alone together often because she and my uncle didn’t have any children of their own, and they lived within minutes of our house, and because we were doubly related. There was a refrain we children learned to recite when
people asked us to explain our intertwined family—
Brother and sister married sister and brother.
The older couple have no children, so the younger couple share
The two families live within three blocks of each other up in
and the grandmothers live in an apartment together at the foot
of the hill.
It wasn’t very poetic, but it got the facts across and made the situation seem almost normal, as summaries sometimes do.
The situation was not remotely normal, but naturally I did not understand that at the time.
Our relationship, my aunt said, was special. She called our two families the larky sevensome or, quoting my grandmother, the Mighty Franks. But even within the larger group, she said, you and I, Lovey, are a thing apart. What we have is nearly as unusual as what I have with Mamma. The two of us have pulled our wagons up to a secret campsite. We know how lucky we are. We’re the most fortunate people in the world to have found each other, isn’t it so?
Only we hadn’t found each other. We had been born to each other; to—into—the same family. Did that make a difference? Was a bond this strong meant to grow in this soil, and in this way? I was far too besotted with my aunt to ask any of these questions. My aunt was the sun and I was her planet, held in devotional orbit by forces that felt larger than I was, larger than we were. You could call it gravity. Or alchemy. Or intoxication. Or simply love. But what an unsimple love this was.
Excerpted by permission from The Mighty Franks: A Memoir, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Frank. All rights reserved.