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Thumbnails Special Edition: The Personal Essays of Matt Zoller Seitz

Our Editor at Large Matt Zoller Seitz's deeply personal essays about the deaths of so many of his family members in the month of April tore my heart to shreds. In this special edition of Thumbnails, I've decided to put them all in one place in order to help anyone who may be grappling with loss. In his new six-part series of essays entitled The Cruelest Month, Matt pays tribute to his mother, Bettye Seitz, who passed away on April 2nd, 2021; his second wife, Nancy, who died on April 27th, 2020; our site's founder and my late husband, Roger Ebert, who passed away on April 4th, 2013; his stepmother, Genie Grant, who died on April 25th, 2009; and his first wife, Jennifer, who died on April 27th, 2006 (just minutes apart from Nancy). 

Coincidentally, we include his review of "Life Itself," Steve James' 2014 documentary about Roger, because Matt wrote it while waiting outside the hospital room where his father, Dave Zoller, was recovering from a stroke. Dave passed away on November 9th, 2020, and we have included Matt's tribute to him as well.

Matt's honesty, sometimes shockingly frank (his childhood experiences were not always pretty), helps us process grief through several lenses. Through these essays I also found a deeper understanding of Matt, himself, and the development of his capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Ultimately, this grouping of Matt's writings inspire us to embrace the full richness of life during our time on this planet.Chaz Ebert


1. 

"The Cruelest Month, Part 1: Hurricane Bettye": The first in a series of essays about the significance of the month of April in Seitz's life, and his contentious relationship with his Mother.

The title of this series comes from a line in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land": April is the cruelest month. It's certainly the cruelest month for me. I don't understand how so many tragedies managed to gather so close together within the span of 31 days. I do know from talking to other people that sometimes it happens this way, and there's no useful explanation for it. It's just one of those things. On April 2 of this year, I lost my mother, Bettye Seitz, with whom I had a long and contentious relationship. On April 27 of last year, I lost my second wife, Nancy, to metastatic breast cancer. That's the same day I lost my first wife, Nancy's younger sister Jennifer, to an undiagnosed heart ailment, fifteen years earlier, on April 27, 2006. Nancy and Jennifer's times of death were minutes apart. 

2. 

"The Cruelest Month, Part 2: Love Song to a Genie": Seitz's remembrance of his loving Stepmother Genie Grant.

Mom used to make fun of Dad for settling down with Genie. Dad dated conventionally attractive singers and actresses and dancers, women who tended to be curvy or slim and about his age or slightly younger. Genie was a pumpkin of a woman with a big laugh, a big appetite, and zero tolerance for any sort of bullshit. She was also thirteen years his senior. "What does he see in her?" Mom would say. "She's not a looker. She's an OK singer but she doesn't have my range. She's almost old enough to be his mother. Maybe that's it? Maybe he needed a mother?" She couldn't imagine that Dad just dug Genie for all sorts of reasons and wanted to live the rest of his life with her. Mom thought there had to be some mysterious element she was missing, or some kind of subterfuge or false front, or that perhaps Dad was just settling, for reasons that only a therapist could unpack. What she couldn't see, or recognize, was that Genie was a healer. She went about her life trying to make things better. Day by day. Person by person. Problem by problem.

3.

"The Cruelest Month, Part 3: Sorry-Grateful": Seitz's remembrance of his second Wife, Nancy Dawson.

Nancy was tough. Nancy was fast. Nancy was elegant. Nancy loved to dance and sing. She'd dance and sing through the house while she was cooking or cleaning or talking to clients on the phone. She'd even dance a little bit behind the steering wheel as she drove, singing along with the cast recordings of "Ragtime," "The Music Man," "Oklahoma!", "Guys and Dolls," and the list of Sondheim favorites, including "Sunday in the Park with George," "Follies," "West Side Story," and of course her favorite, and mine, and her sister's: "Company." I think about Sondheim's "Sorry-Grateful" a lot. It sums up my relationship with Nancy. And Jennifer. And my dad and mom and stepmother, and everyone I've lost that I miss dearly. The hyphen in the song title says it all. You're never just sorry or grateful for people like Nancy. You're always both, at the same time. The last few years with her were terrible and wonderful. She was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, and one of the best. The two ideas will remain entwined. There is no contradiction.

4.

"The Cruelest Month, Part 4: A Leave of Presence": Seitz pens a heartfelt tribute to the personal legacy of Roger Ebert.

Roger becomes lyrical, absolutely magnificently lyrical, when you read him out loud. The words are meant to be spoken in the mind. He was like a film actor who understands that you don't need to project in closeup, and that sometimes you don't even need to do anything except sit there in the frame and be that character, because there are so many other forces contributing to the overall effect of the moment, from the direction to the lighting to the cutting to the score. So many film critics, even the important ones, don't understand that, or actively sneer at it. That's why Roger was so beloved: he spoke in common language, not in the way that an ineloquent person speaks in common language, but in the way that a gifted oral storyteller or cleric or emcee or eulogist speaks in common language. The goal is not to demonstrate mastery. The goal is to reach people. To connect. 

5.

"The Cruelest Month, Part 5: At the Zoo": Seitz recounts his meaningful family trip the zoo on April 27th of this year.

I saw myself in them: in the lions, the tigers, the monkeys, the hippos, and the gorillas, of course—one should expect to see oneself in the types of animals that are the subject of children's books and movies, and models for stuffed animals. But I also saw myself in the birds, turtles, fish, and reptiles. Even in the alligators, who seemed from certain vantage points to be smiling at a private thought—perhaps a species memory of swimming alongside a plesiosaur tens of millions of years ago. All these creatures have also experienced loss. The loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of a fellow pack member. The loss of an entire epoch. Animals grieve, too. We know this from observing our pets reacting to the deaths of other pets, or the death of a human in the household, or in their orbit. Our beagle Toby used to sleep in bed with me and Nancy—I used to joke that he was her man before I was her man—and for a while after Nancy's death, he stopped coming into the bedroom. But then he started doing it again, and now I am rarely without Toby. In fact, he's snoring behind me on the bed as I write this.

6.

"The Cruelest Month, Part 6: The Wreck": Seitz's research into the historical significance of the number 13 leads to a discovery about geography.

Four plus two plus seven equals thirteen, a number that is often considered unlucky in the West: there were thirteen people at the Last Supper. The arrest, torture and destruction of the Knights Templar happened October 13, 1307. Apollo 13 was the US moon mission that went awry. Many tall buildings omit the 13th floor (which is of course absurd, because that means the floor officially listed as 14 is the 13th). And so on. But on the other hand, according to Britannica, the fear of the number 13 is not as commonplace in Asian or African cultures. The ancient Egyptians considered 13 a lucky number. And "in much of East and Southeast Asia, where tetraphobia is the norm, you’d be hard-pressed to find much use of the number 4 in private or public life, thanks to similar sounds for the Chinese language (and Chinese-influenced linguistic sub-groups) words for 'four' and 'death.'" 

7.

"All the things that remind me of her": For Salon, Seitz wrote about the music and movies that he and his first Wife once loved that became the very triggers he had tried his hardest to avoid.

I had little interest in musicals before I met Jen. She took me to my first midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and showed me how to do the Time Warp in the dorm beforehand so I wouldn't feel left out. She adored circa-1950s and 1960s "talking" musicals -- productions built around non-singing performers such as Rex Harrison ("My Fair Lady") and Louis Jordan ("Gigi"), who talked their way through lyrics. I pretended to like these movies, but without much conviction. I don't think I ever made it all the way through the film version of one of Jen's favorites, "The Music Man," without nodding off. When Jen took me to see a repertory screening of Bob Fosse's film version of "Cabaret" -- a film I'd only read about -- I was impressed but not moved, but Jen watched it so often that it grew on me. Now I could sing you the score from start to finish -- although with a voice like mine, I doubt you'd want me to.

8. 

"Life Itself": Seitz's review of Steve James' 2014 documentary on the life of this site's co-founder, Roger Ebert. This also prompted memories of Matt's Father, Dave Zoller.

I'm writing this review of the Roger Ebert biography "Life Itself" in a hospital waiting area, so that my typing won't wake my dad. He's sleeping in a room down the hall. He had a stroke on the Tuesday before "Life Itself" opened. I don't want to get overconfident, because the tests aren't all in yet, but he's doing pretty well, all things considered, and the doctors seem to think a full recovery is possible. Why did I just tell you that? Lots of reasons: First, Roger often worked personal details into his reviews. Second, a good chunk of "Life Itself," a documentary inspired by Roger's same-titled memoir, takes place in a hospital; director Steve James shows us graphic medical details that were previously hidden from public view, including shots of Roger, whose cancerous jaw was cut off in 2006, having his throat irrigated. Third, Roger was a professional father to me, as he was to a good many people, a fact that I'm more keenly aware of than usual at this moment, sitting on a couch under florescent lights, typing on a laptop at midnight. Last but not least: when critics review films, they bring the sum of their intellectual capacity and life experience to bear, along with whatever drama (or comedy) they're going through at that moment in time. "Life Itself" gets this. Life itself, that loaded two-word phrase, is what Roger really wrote about when he wrote about movies. Life itself is what I'm dealing with as I sit here in a hospital waiting room. And it's what you're dealing with as you sit here reading this review of "Life Itself." 

9.

"427: Ten years without Jen, twenty-six with": Seitz offers reflections on his marriage, and what came after it. And "427" plays an eerie role in that it is both his address and the day both of his wives passed away.

I try to make a point of being kind to people when they’ve royally messed up, and trying to ask what’s going on in their personal lives before offering criticism or a reprimand, because I’ve spent a fair amount of time being called on the carpet for my own mistakes without anybody considering that there were genuine extenuating circumstances, and I know how worthless that can make a person feel. But here, too, I don’t know how much of that is Jen-related and how much is just getting older and better rather than older and worse. Maybe losing Jen accelerated the process. Or maybe it just caught me up to where people are supposed to be in their forties. The only thing I can say for sure is that when you give yourself permission to just live—to fall apart when you need to, to feel whatever you’re feeling, to make mistakes and own them, to forgive yourself for what’s recognizably human, to make amends for egregious behavior to the extent that such a thing is possible, to let bad moments and bad days roll off your back instead of masochistically marinating in them—you get through it all with your sanity intact.

10.

"The last stand of Smoky the pig": Seitz's 2016 essay on "Corinthians and the rodent."

I told them that I asked my friend Alan Sepinwall to read this passage at Jen’s memorial because
it was at the center of Jen’s favorite scene from her favorite TV show, David Milch's “Deadwood”:
the funeral of Will Bill Hickok. I told them that this passage was about the body as a metaphor for the family or the community, and how one part needs every other part, even the seemingly small ones, and how everything is connected. Milch rewrote the Bible a little bit, perfectionist that he is, but I couldn’t find his exact wording, so I settled for reading them the first halfway decent rendition that came up on Google: “The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don’t need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don’t need you!' On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

11.

"Love You Madly: Dave Zoller, 1941-2020": Seitz remembers his Father, pianist, composer and arranger Dave Zoller.

His attention to detail as performer and composer was legendary. Decades after computers simplified the composing process, Dave still wrote out all of his charts by hand, in beautiful script that was instantly recognizable as Dave Zoller's, from the jabbed dots of his periods, to his science fiction capital E's (three vertical slashes, no sidebrace). He rarely had fewer than three bands in operation at the same time. Each performed a different type of music, from New Orleans jazz and bebop to fusion and experimental. The size ranged from trios and quartets to sextettes and big bands. His charts were so beautifully wrought that trombonist Tony Baker once said that while playing them, he had no desire to solo. Early in his career, Dave went by the nickname "Captain Weird," for the off-kilter imagination he displayed in his playing and composing. As he aged, accumulating pupils, he started to be known by another name: The Professor. "They call him The Professor," a local jazz bassist explained, "because every time you play with him, you go to school." 

Song of the Day

Seitz concluded the second chapter of his essay series, The Cruelest Month, with this song penned by his late father, Dave Zoller, to his late stepmother, Genie Grant. It is entitled, "Love Song to a Genie."

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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