Tilting At Windmills: Star Quality
Published: May 12th, 2023
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: Star Quality

From an early age, Venetia Ruskin, the only child of Mitzi and Orin Ruskin, knew that when she grew up, she would be a famous movie star. Her parents, financially stable and easily able to accommodate her wishes, sent her to dancing lessons, voice lessons, piano lessons, and expensive theatrical summer camps.

Although both Mitzi and Orin loved their daughter, it was a timorous love, like a puppy pawing at a rosebush, curious about its intoxicating smells, but apprehensive lest it be stabbed by a thorn.

My name is Bridget Sandoval.

I am 24 years old, and a figurative artist, which means I draw things that look like things. I live in California, and I make an adequate living painting book covers for publishers and illustrating science fantasy magazines and children’s books.

Venetia Ruskin, the aforementioned aspiring movie star, is my mother. As expected, she realized all of her childhood dreams and is now an elder statesman of sorts in Hollywood, having been nominated five times for Academy Awards and winning once. Without a ripple, she successfully segued from ingénue roles to leading lady to character parts; and with her exquisite bones and enormous sapphire eyes, she is still viewed as a classic beauty.

Mother has been married seven times. Her third husband, my father Arthur Sandoval, is a veterinarian and a darling man. After their divorce – I was three years old at the time – Dad made only one demand of Venetia: that he get custody of me. She did not object, so he raised, educated, and delivered me to adulthood with nary a traumatic scar from maternal neglect.

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It was his sense of humor, which I inherited, that got me through my relationship with “Venetia,” and through him that I formed all of my emotional attachments. His second wife, Amy, a graphic designer, also a darling, encouraged my interest in art and helped me get where I am now.

Over the years, my relationship with Movie Star Mom has been insincere and intermittent. I did manage to spend a few weeks with her one summer in Saint-Tropez, my survival technique (thank you, Dad!) being to smile, agree with all her opinions, and pepper our conversations with phrases like “I loved your last movie” or “You don’t look a day over 30.”

Therefore, unlike Venetia’s best friend from college – banished to the boondocks of her heart; her faithful agent, fired after 30 years; her parents, disowned once they had paid her way to Los Angeles and bought her a condominium; her attorney...don’t ask; and her seven ex-husbands, I have, at least so far, remained an innocuous constant in her life.

Which is why, last June when she asked me to stay in her gorgeous Malibu home and take care of her yappy Chihuahua while she was off shooting a movie in Spain, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It would be my first chance to inhabit Move Star Mother’s luxurious surroundings without having to deal with Movie Star Mother herself.

Most of all, though, I loved being afforded the opportunity to snoop through her things.

I’ve asked my friends about this, because I wondered if my inclination to snoop was a manifestation of aberrant behavior. But five out of six of them admitted to having done the same thing themselves. Looking for ... stuff. What stuff? They didn’t know, and I didn’t know. Just any old thing that might provide clues about who or what our parents were before they had become Mom and Dad.

So that was how, on the top shelf of a closet in her never-used third floor guest room, I came upon a box containing mother’s birth certificate.

Born: April 7, 1973

Name: Venetia Ruskin

Place of birth: St. Albans Hospital, Tallyville, New York.

Mother’s name: Mitzi Ruskin

Father’s name: Orin Ruskin

And so on.

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Predictably, having had only sporadic contact with her over the years, I’d never thought to ask my mother about her childhood. After finding her birth certificate in that box, however, along with several black and white photographs, my curiosity (this is a vast understatement) was aroused.

Both of Venetia’s parents had been attractive people, Mitzi, my grandmother, looking very much like my mother looks now, and Orin, my grandfather, lean and handsome, with a benign expression on his face. Their body language was interesting, as in all of the photos, Mitzi and Orin stood with their arms linked, while future Movie Star Mom stood far off to one side, definitely suggestive of a future disconnect.

Anyway, this invasion of Venetia’s privacy was like the proverbial potato chip, of which I could not have eaten just one. Instantly, I consulted my computer and, one after the other, I searched for: Mitzi Ruskin • Orin Ruskin • Tallyville, New York • and all combinations thereof. From back issues of the Tallyville Times, I discovered that Orin had owned a painting contracting company, and had died 10 years ago. After his death, Mitzi sold the business and went to work as a librarian at the Tallyville Free Library, a job that at age 80, she still held to that day.

Continuing my probe into her life, I subscribed to one of those background investigation services to explore my grandmother’s income, arrest record (none. Of course.), and family background. I learned that she’d once had three siblings, now dead, and a daughter, about whom nothing was known. She owned a detached house in Tallyville, and since 2013, she had worked at the library.

Lean pickings.

Mitzi Ruskin also appeared to belong to no clubs, had no Internet presence, and – I know I romanticize things – but she put to mind “The Last Rose of Summer” in Thomas Moore’s poem.

No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes
Or give sigh for sigh!

Everything about my grandmother just seemed so ... lonesome.

I wondered if she knew that she had a nosey granddaughter in California. I wondered if she ever thought about her movie star daughter. I wondered if she ever asked herself the usual “what ifs” about a relationship that goes wrong.

And then, without first having filed a flight plan, an idea made an unauthorized landing in my head. It was a silly idea, but it sent me back to my computer, and I soon discovered that there are several companies in existence from which, if I so desired, I could purchase the right to name a star.

Along with naming rights, the better of these star registry websites offered buyers an exquisitely calligraphed certificate testifying to the star’s new name, as well as to its exact coordinates in the sky.

And so, just like that (imagine me snapping my fingers), I bought my grandmother, whom I had never met, a star. I named the star Mitzi Ruskin, and within a week of filling out all the forms, I received a gorgeous certificate – it looked like an illuminated medieval manuscript – testifying to Mitzi’s ownership and the star’s name. That very afternoon, I sat down and composed a handwritten letter to my mother’s mother, telling her about myself, my work, and my life, and suggesting that we meet. I put the letter and certificate into a sturdy manila envelope, and I popped it in the mail.

A few weeks later, my telephone rang. The caller, who had a deep, evenly modulated voice, introduced himself as Bernard Shallcross, and told me that he was resident astronomer at the James M. Morton Observatory in Corinthia, New York. He explained that he had come into the possession of a package left at the planetarium by a recent visitor, and asked if I was the Bridget Sandoval who had ... and he described my letter and the certificate that I had sent to Mitzi Ruskin.

I admitted I was.

Then Dr. Shallcross told me this remarkable story, which I relate below in his own words:

“Two weeks ago, on Wednesday April 26th at 4:00 p.m., a fashionably dressed elderly lady began to push against the heavy double doors to the observatory’s Visitors Center. Not realizing that we were closed, she had somehow managed to navigate her vehicle up our serpentine driveway to the top of the hill. However, no one was left in the building at the time of her arrival but me.

“My responsibilities at the planetarium are limited to giving astronomical talks to the membership once a month, and advising the school programs coordinator and other instructors when they have questions pertaining to my areas of expertise. In exchange, I receive a nominal salary, a well-equipped office, a fancy title, and unlimited access to the observatory’s telescope.

“I had stopped by that afternoon to retrieve a book from my office, but seeing the old lady’s futile efforts to open the Visitor Center’s doors, I rushed forward to assist. It was then that I noticed her face, delicately wrinkled with small, elegant bones, and her beautiful, golden, harvest moon eyes. She moved slowly, and leaned heavily on a slender ivory-handled cane.

“She introduced herself as Mrs. Mitzi Ruskin, and I introduced myself as Barney Shallcross, resident astronomer. Then I asked how I could be of service to her.

“In response, she pulled an ornate certificate out of a manila envelope, handed it to me, and said, ‘I would very much like to see my star.’

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“In the past, I had read about companies engaged in the dubious enterprise of selling credulous customers the right to name a star. Many of my colleagues vehemently object to this practice, as these alleged star registries are not recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and have no scientific authenticity.

“On the other hand, there are approximately 100 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone. Surely enough to go around. Therefore, my attitude toward allowing someone to claim the ‘right’ to name a star was similar to that of allowing a child to believe in Santa Claus.

“Where’s the harm?

“Nor was I about to turn away the tiny, determined lady who had come so far – our observatory is well off the beaten path – and who had so optimistically submitted her request. So I led Mrs. Ruskin out the back door of the Visitor’s Center and along a gravel path to the observatory. As we moved forward, she clutched my right arm with her left hand, held her walking stick very tightly in her right hand, and proceeded unsteady on her feet.

“Since our telescope is on an elevator, I was able to lower it to the platform closest to the floor. Then I scooped up Mrs. Ruskin in my arms, carried her up five shallow steps, and deposited her in front of its eyepiece, so that she could look up at the sky.

“First, though, instead of trying to locate the obscure star indicated by the coordinates on the certificate she’d brought with her, I focused the optics on Proxima Centauri, which, at 4.2465 light years from earth, is quite bright, and the closest known star to our solar system. I did not, however, pass that esoteric bit of information on to your grandmother. Instead, I told her that now and forever, all who peered through a telescope in search of the intergalactic object I was about to show her, would be able to identify it as Mitzi Ruskin’s star.”

Other than exchanging a few personal details about our lives, that pretty much ended my first conversation with Dr. Bernard Shallcross, astronomer-in-residence at the James P. Morton Observatory in Upstate New York. But it was not the end of the story, because three days later, he called again. This time to ask if anyone had alerted me about my grandmother’s death.

Shocked and shaken, I responded, “No. When? Where? How?”

“The night of the day that she came here to look through the telescope at her star.”

“Tell me more,” I demanded.

So this kindly astronomer told me that after they left the observatory, he had guided my grandmother along the gravel path back to the Visitors Center. But that on their return trip, her step was firmer, her conversation was sprightly, and she appeared to be ... happy.

“As we walked,” he said, “Mrs. Ruskin told me how glad she’d been to discover that she had a granddaughter who, for some deliciously incomprehensible reason – her words, not mine – had decided to give her a star.”

Dr. Bernard Shallcross ended his call to me by quoting from her obituary that “Mrs. Mitzi Ruskin died peacefully in her sleep.”

And that was that.

Which means that despite my best efforts, I never did get to meet my elusive grandmother. At least, though, I have the consolation of knowing that there are two stars now in my family. One, a self-absorbed movie star with seven ex-husbands, a house in Malibu, and a yappy Chihuahua lapdog.

The other, a celestial librarian (as an aside, I am thinking of flying to New York to meet Dr. Shallcross) who’d had a delicately wrinkled face, small, elegant bones, and beautiful harvest moon eyes.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com