In Praise of my Cousin Emma

If you have ever read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, then you will know the relationship that I have with my throng of cousins. John Irving completely GETS the specificity of what that whole cousin-thing is about, and it’s extremely specific. There is a manic quality to my relationships with my cousins – mainly because we would see each other rarely, and when we did see each other, we had to cram in months of fun into a 2 hour period. So we all would lose our collective minds. I have many many cousins. The oldest is in his 40s now, and the youngest is a toddler. Typical Irish stuff.

I have been wanting to write something about my cousin Emma for a while. Emma is now a teenager. However, her soul is probably about 45 years old. Her soul has ALWAYS been about 45 years old. Even when she was 3 years old, she had this wise-cracking world-weary persona. It was as though she always had an imaginary cigar clenched between her lips. She was a 3 year old Robert Evans: a freckled chubby-cheeked toddler, making weary wisecracks, saying stuff like, “Lemme tell ya, sweetheart, that’s what life is all about.”

Uhm … what? You’re three.

It makes me think that this is definitely not her first time around on this planet.

There is a picture of Emma, standing on a hill in Los Angeles, with the Hollywood sign unfurling behind her in all its blindingly white weirdness. Emma must be about 3 years old in the picture. She is wearing huge movie-star sunglasses (not kid’s glasses, but adult glasses, so they are enormous on her face – It looks like Glenn Close as Sonny Von Bulow), and a scarf around her throat. She holds up her arms in a victory gesture, and her face is absolutely insane. Her mouth is open, she is obviously screaming in Hollywood triumph. It’s like she’s Harvey Weinstein or something.

But she’s THREE.

Well, now Emma is a teenager. She’s a beautiful young woman, still with the freckles and the rosy cheeks, still with the same “lemme tell ya, sweetheart, that’s life” world-weary attitude.

Here is one of my favorite anecdotes, which will illuminate Emma’s personality.

My cousin Mike got married a couple years ago. It was a massive affair, with hundreds of people. Emma was 12 years old at the time. I sat next to Emma in the pew. Emma dresses like she’s Mary J. Blige or something. Big puffy coats, big chunky sneakers which match the coat … Anyway, at the wedding, Emma was in a powder-blue Mary J. Blige ensemble. She looked great.

The ceremony was wonderful – very detailed – with many different traditional moments. Emma, throughout the entire thing, peppered me with questions. Whispered under her breath.

“What’s happening now?”
“What are those candles? What’s that?”
“And what does that mean?”
“What’s that about?”

Finally, I hissed at her, “Emma. I don’t know.”

There was a long pause. Emma did not respond. She turned back to look up at the pulpit, and didn’t say anything. I went back to trying to lose myself in the beautiful ceremony.

Then, I heard her say, out of the corner of her mouth, her eyes still looking forward, “Hey. Lose the ‘tude.”

Oh God, I just burst into laughter.

She was so RIGHT. I had a ‘tude. She called me on it.

“Emma, you’re right. I have a ‘tude. I am sorry.”

We still laugh about “lose the ‘tude”.

A couple of years ago, I was busy at work on a one-woman show. I am not going to say what it is about, because I fear piracy. But suffice it to say, it is based on the life of a real person. Who had an insane husband. This woman would write letters, describing how she could hear him moaning down the hall in psychic agony.

Emma and her mom were visiting my parents while I was home – and we were sitting out on the patio. Regina (Emma’s mom) asked if she could hear a little bit of what I was working on. I said sure, fine. I gave a bit of background, before I launched into what I had written.

“So she has an insane husband, and he would moan all night down the hallway, and she would lock the doors of her study to keep him out.”

Then I did my little reading – which, frankly, I thought went very well, and I was very proud of it. Basically, I was moved by MYSELF. (Not a good sign for an artist, by the way.) But I was excited to share the monologue with them. It was heartfelt, it was tragic, etc. etc.

When I was done, there was a pause. Regina, who is also an actress, a wonderful actress, was deep in thought. I was excited for the conversation that would ensue.

Then Emma piped up. “Hey, Sheila, you know what you should do? When you’re doing that monologue during the production – here’s how it should be done.” (Suddenly, again, with the Harvey Weinstein persona.) “You should be standing downstage – and everything should be dark – and then – as you do the monologue – slowly – way over in the corner – a circle of light should come up on your husband and this is what he should be doing…” (Emma hunched over, biting her nails nervously, her eyes flitting about in a panic, and she began to rock – back and forth, back and forth – making strange odd moaning sounds.)

The precious little spell of my monologue was broken by this hysterical and almost Mel Brooks interpretation of how I should do my play – and I started roaring with laughter.

Suddenly the insanity of the husband is going to be used as a comic element??

Regina said, “Emma, please, let’s have a serious conversation about Sheila’s work.”

Emma kept rocking back and forth, back and forth, rolling her eyes around in her head, making these cow-like moaning sounds.

In spite of herself, Regina started laughing … I started laughing too – I’m laughing now…

Emma kept going. “So it’ll go like this.” She stood up straight, as me, and said, as though she were doing the production, “So I have always felt that life must go on – and that I must always focus on my work -” Suddenly Emma hunched over herself, and started rocking manically – moaning like a cow – Then she straightened up again, as me, and said, “My work. My work is the most important thing.” Back to the lowing-like-a-cow husband in the corner.

Regina and I were CRYING.

One other Emma story –

Regina, Emma, my other cousin Rachel and I went to the anniversary production of “Forbidden Broadway”, here in New York. The audience was full of Regina’s old friends, people Emma knew. It was a BLAST. Again, Emma looked like a little Irish ghetto goddess, with her puffy coat, and her big sneakers. Emma knew mostly everyone, too, because they were friends of her mother. One of the guys was the head writer on a major soap opera, I can’t remember which one. Days of Our Lives, or something.

Emma buttonholed him before the show. This is a paraphrase of the conversation, but here’s the spirit of it:

Emma said to him, point-blank, “Okay, listen, I just don’t like what you have done to my favorite character.”

He was fabulous, whoever he was. He said, “Oh no, which one?”

She told him how she didn’t approve of the plot-lines for this character, and that she thought the actor this character had to work with was terrible.

“It’s boring, my friend, boring.” Emma said to the head-writer of One Life to Live. She called him “my friend”, in this kind of world-weary cynical tone. “That whole plot line is very boring, my friend.”

He completely took her concerns seriously, which is why I loved him.

“Yes, we have had some problems with that actor. You won’t have to watch him for much longer.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. Because he’s very boring.” (Again, I had the impression that she was chewing on a cigar, as though she were Jack Warner or something.)

This man was hungry for more feedback from the teenager. “What else, Emma? What else?”

She launched into an in-depth analysis of every element of the show – character development problems, boring side-plots, bad actor issues – She also made sure she complimented him on what DID work. He was very grateful for her praise (which she gave to him with the tired attitude of throwing him a bone – which was equally hysterical). I loved this guy. I loved how he was with Emma.

He said, “I should have you come in to one of our script meetings.”

She is, after all, representative of a huge chunk of their audience.

As she continued on her long analytical monologue, completely unafraid, and also completely clear on what did work and what didn’t work – I suddenly saw that the victory-dance in front of the Hollywood sign when she was three could actually be a prophecy of things to come. This girl could do anything she wanted to do. She really could.

She could be a stand-up comedian (OBVIOUSLY) – she could be an actress – but she also could be a movie producer. Hell, Emma could run a movie studio someday.

She is a lovely girl, a kind person, absolutely hysterical, and also – mixed in with that – she is a wise-cracking world-weary movie producer who dresses as though she is Mary J. Blige on occasion.

I also love that she told me to “lose the ‘tude.” I’ll never forget it. I needed to be taken down a peg, and she did it. She talks straight, she tells it like it is.

Whatever Emma ends up doing – wherever her life takes her – I know that I will watch with baited breath. It looks like it is going to be an incredible journey.

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8 Responses to In Praise of my Cousin Emma

  1. Tanya says:

    Her soul has ALWAYS been about 45 years old.

    That’s so bizarre. I have a cousin like that, who’s also named Emma. She has these enormous, wise eyes that look right through you. I saw her get stung by a wasp when she was about four, and she didn’t even cry…

  2. dad says:

    Dearest: you captured dear Emma. She’s been making me laugh forever. She is very much like her mother, but her mother is the only sweet person in the O’Malley family. Emma is more of an O’Malley than Regina. By the way, Mike’s wedding was a fairly straight-forward Catholic mass/matrimony ceremony. If Emma hadn’t become a damned Unitarian she would have known what was going on. love, dad

  3. MikeR says:

    Great profile.
    Emma sounds like a delight – you do seem to have a very interesting and talented family, red.

  4. red says:

    Dad –

    I guess I’ve just been to a lot of truncated Catholic masses – so when it is traditional in length, it feels much more elaborate.

    Also: “her mother is the only sweet person in the O’Malley family”

    I beg to differ, Bilbo. Or should I say “Bags”

  5. Hunter says:

    I’m still giggling about that Thanksgiving when I nearly told her what REALLY happened to Princess Anastasia…that would’ve shattered her world.

    “Sulfuric Acid” should not come into a third graders lexicon, no?

  6. red says:

    Hunter, you make me laugh.

    “So, Emma, they sewed jewels into their corsets – and then after that all the little girls were riddled with bullets and thrown into a mass grave …… Happy Thanksgiving”

  7. Hunter says:


    As Emma is sitting wild and wide eyed…and your Aunt is thinking, “Where the hell did they find this guy?…and why did they bring him here?”

    The whole jewels-in-the-corset move was pretty slick…except, of course, when it prolonged their agonizing deaths on the floor of a Siberian basement…or was it Ukranian?

    We’re big dorks.

    Love, Hunter

  8. red says:

    Siberia. Yekaterinburg.

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