I don’t think any of us make it into adulthood without accumulating a collection of memories that make us wince in embarrassment. I know I have my share. The one that’s been haunting me lately was when I made an idiot of myself in front of Captain Janeway.
Maybe I’d better back up a bit.
Last Summer, I went to a science fiction convention, and Kate Mulgrew, Captain Katherine Janeway of the USS Voyager herself, was one of the guests. Now while I have my issues with “Star Trek: Voyager” and in particular with how Janeway was written, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Kate Mulgrew. What I always believed (and had confirmed when I saw her speak at the convention) was that she was a very cool woman saddled with an inconsistently-written character.
As a fan not only of Star Trek but also of her (Have you seen her as Kove on “NTSF:SD:SUV”? She’s fantastic!), I wanted to get her autograph, so I dutifully got in line at her signing table to wait my turn. Honestly, I find these autograph sessions to be a bit stressful. I know I’m going to have a matter of seconds, maybe up to a minute if the line isn’t too long and the celebrity is chatty, to have some kind of conversation with this person that I’ve admired. Sometimes, I struggle to figure out what I want to say in those few precious moments.
With Mulgrew, though, I knew exactly what I wanted to tell her. I waited my turn, handed her the picture I wanted to have autographed, and told her how much I enjoyed her performance as Janeway. But then I added…
“You reminded me of my grandmother.”
Kate Mulgrew then looked up at me in a way that immediately told me that I’d said something wrong. And then I realized what. “My grandmother”? Oh Great Bird, Kate Mulgrew thought I was saying she was old! Sure, she’s a few years older than me, but she’s not old enough to be my grandmother. She’s barely even old enough to be my mother. I would have had to be a teen birth and…
But that’s not what I’d meant. I wanted to tell her the whole story behind what I believed to be a compliment, but it was too late. She handed me the signed picture, said a flat “Thank you” to me, and then she was looking to the next fan in line.
I’d blown it. I’d made it to Santa, frozen up, and agreed to a football instead of the Red Ryder BB Gun I really wanted. Even worse, I’d possibly insulted someone I admired. My only consolation was that, while this was a momentous occasion to me, for her (to paraphrase Raul Julia’s M. Bison from the “Street Fighter” movie) it was Tuesday…well, Saturday, actually, but you get the idea. She probably has had hundreds of fans go tongue-tied while talking to her.
To me, though, the whole thing was really embarrassing, but the part that still gnaws at me is that I never got to explain myself. Kate Mulgrew had no idea that I didn’t know my grandmother very well. I grew up living hundreds of miles away from either set of my grandparents, and I only got to see them maybe once a year for a couple of days. They were family more in the factual than emotional sense.
What I remember of my grandmother is that she didn’t seem too interested in interacting with my brother and me that much when we visited. She’d emerge in the morning from her bedroom wearing a long housecoat/mu-mu thing, go out onto my grandparents’ back porch, and watch the birds while she smoked several cigarettes.
My only other really vivid memory of her is from the mid-1980s. I saw the movie “The Right Stuff” and was immediately enthralled by the original seven astronauts. Much to my shock and delight, my mother informed me that my grandmother had met all of them. While visiting my grandparents later that year, I finally got to ask my grandmother about my new heroes. Her response? “Ehhh. They were all jerks.”
Okay. Admittedly, this still isn’t helping explain what I said to Kate Mulgrew. Bear with me.
My grandmother died when I was in college. Lung cancer, unsurprisingly enough. The whole thing happened quickly. Very quickly. She was dead within a couple weeks of being diagnosed. I went to her funeral, the first one I ever attended, and mourned the passing of my relative. Honestly, though, I was more upset at seeing my mother so distraught than by the loss of a woman I barely knew.
It wasn’t until later that I really started to put the pieces together and figured out something: my grandmother was an amazing woman.
In the 1950s, the era of June Cleaver, my grandmother was a chemist for the United States Air Force. She met not only the original seven Gemini astronauts but also Dr. Wernher Von Braun because she was working on rocket fuel. She received a special commendation from the Air Force, which I finally saw at my aunt’s house over a decade after my grandmother’s death.
Like I said, she was amazing and incredibly intelligent and accomplished, but I don’t remember having a single conversation with her except for the one where (in my view) she insulted my childhood heroes. I wish she’d lived long enough for me to realize that I desperately wanted to get to know her.
Less than a month after my grandmother died, “Star Trek: Voyager” premiered on the now-defunct United Paramount Network. The star of the show was Kate Mulgrew, playing Captain Katherine Janeway. Janeway was smart, accomplished, commanding, and a scientist. And while I had absolutely zero evidence to back this up, sometime during Voyager’s seven year run, I got the idea in my head that Janeway was what my grandmother was like in her prime.
Typing it out like this, the entire notion seems a bit ridiculous, but it meant something to me. That’s what I wanted to tell Kate Mulgrew at the convention that day. Strange as it may sound, her performance as Janeway made me feel closer to my grandmother, a woman I’d never really known.
Maybe I’ll see Kate Mulgrew at another convention someday. If I do, I think I’ll have the sense not to try to tell her all of this in the few seconds I’ll have with her in the autograph line. I’ll stick to a simple, “Thank you.” She won’t know exactly what I’m thanking her for, but that doesn’t really matter. It will be enough for me.
- Alan Decker
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