Fed by the Factors

Monte and Betty Factor have been on my mind a lot lately, so I’ve decided to post the piece I read at his funeral in December of 2011. I wrote it for both Monte and Betty, actually.  I don’t think Alice will mind at all.  And I think you’ll enjoy the Factors.

Prologue:

Monte and Betty Factor were an elderly couple that I trained for a decade when I first moved to Los Angeles.  Though Octogenarians, they were cooler than anyone I know, and probably cooler than anyone you know. 

Monte had a suit company in the 40’s, and kept a bookie for his clients in the upstairs office.  Betty had a strong passion for the importance of Early Childhood Education, eventually founding Mar Vista Family Center, which was visited by Hilary Clinton after she wrote “It Takes a Village.”   Upon retiring, Monte helped at the Center, and founded The End Hunger Network with Jeff Bridges.   As a couple, they collected art—mostly from artist friends such as Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Llyn Foulkes, George Herms, Rauschenberg, and even Andy Warhol.  They had dinner at the Derby with Duchamp.  They had a monthly poker game that included all hell of art big wigs.  They traveled around the world seeing art and learning about new cultures.  Every summer they spent two months in Idaho with their art friends (in a house that Kienholz built).  They cherished the time they spent there playing cards, listening to jazz,  swimming, and riding horses.  They saw all the great movies, plays, dance events, and art shows, and the discussion of the aforementioned was vigorous and passionate.  They loved Charlie Rose, and loathed, well, I will let their loathing die with them.    But above all, they loved their family, friends, and their diverse community. 

I had the great honor of saying a few words at Monte’s funeral. Betty died first, and Monte’s funeral was a far more casual affair. It took me some time to decide which story to tell. Pilates with the grandchildren? The time I visited them in Idaho and Monte encouraged me—a novice rider—to have my horse to jump a fence? (When I didn’t jump, he called my horse, and I went flying into the private yard of the CEO of a major hotel chain. I was pretty sure I was going to be shot or thrown from the horse. Neither happened. Without a word of apology, 88-year-old Monte led me to Kienholz’s “Mein Camp,” something I’ll never forget.) I decided against that last story, because half the speakers would speak to art, I was sure. In the end, I went with I found most humorous about Monte and Betty: Food.

I felt pretty good about my piece—the only thing I had written since starting grad school— until I walked in and realized I’d be speaking after Monte’s life-long friend Bob Schiller, writer of my two favorite shows:  I Love Lucy, and All in the Family.  No pressure.  I’d also be speaking after George Herms, Llyn Foulkes (who was seated to my right), and Jeff Bridges (who literally dialed it in, from on-set in some far flung country).  No pressure at all. 

I took a shot of the vodka being passed around (Monte loved having” just a nip”), and read the following:

“Monte and Betty were who I wanted to be when I grew up.  I had the privilege of teaching them Pilates for over a decade, though, let’s be honest, I learned a lot more from them then vice-versa.

Monte made sure of that.  He always had “helpful suggestions” for me.  Some of these suggestions were more helpful than others.

I came to the house every Friday to give them back-to-back Pilates lessons.  More often than not they served me lunch afterwards, which, I think, in retrospect, was really the whole point of my weekly invitation.

Betty was consistently Betty: cool as a cucumber, yet undeniably warm.  Throughout her workout, Betty would grill me about my dating escapades.  (Betty’s interest in my dating life is as surprising to me today as it was then.)

Monte’s mood, however, was a bit more varied, and his mood was the #1 predictor of how lunch would go down, and what would be served.  Some weeks he was in a great mood, and would whip out the sweet wine declaring, “They do this in Europe, you know!  It’s OK to have wine with lunch on occasion, Monroe.”   Other weeks, he was crabby, which meant lunch was on, but no wine, and he wouldn’t look at Betty or me until one of us made him laugh.  On rare occasion, he was in a mood so foul, even lunch could not cure it.  On these weeks, Betty and I would give each other a knowing nod as I waved goodbye and got the hell outta Dodge.

The lunch discussion began before the workouts even started.  Monte would excitedly tell me what he made for me as he walked Betty and me back to the workout room. As soon as he was out of earshot, Betty would whisper, “It’s OK, Melissa, you don’t have to eat that.  I made you ______.”

Thus, Fridays with the Factors left me with several impressions:

  1. I had the distinct impression that one had to pass some unwritten test in order to even TALK about food with the Factors, much less be invited to break bread with them.  I wasn’t sure how I—a young girl of 27 when I met them—had passed the test, but I was grateful that I had.
  2. I began to develop a deep suspicion that their marriage hung in the balance of whose food I more heartily consumed.
  3. I was left with a pretty clear notion that I was the only human on Earth who would eat Monte’s culinary concoctions.

For some time, I didn’t really understand the last one.  Monte often made me lima beans. And he made very good lima beans.  As a girl from Central Illinois, lima beans were a Sunday Supper staple.  It greatly pleased Monte to relive this with me.

One week, however, Betty and I walked in to find Monte mixing up ketchup and Roquefort cheese dressing.  “Whatcha making there, Monte?” I asked.   Excitedly, he informed me that he had purchased some great shrimp for lunch, and was making homemade shrimp cocktail sauce.  “OH!” I exclaimed, as I gave Betty a concerned glance.  Betty met my concern with a “Pft,” turned heel, and walked out.  It was a silent way of saying, “Eat at your peril. You’ve done this to yourself.  You’re the one eggin’ him on by eating his food every week.”

So, I found myself, week after week, to be an unwitting referee in the silent food fight of an old Jewish couple. A tricky business indeed, the table often covered with the various food offerings from the two of them.

One week, Betty continued to grill me on my dating life through lunch.  I told her that I had a first date that night.  Monte perked up and asked, “Is this guy paying?”  “I think so, why?” I replied.  “Because he might change his mind when he sees how much you eat.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I only ate that much because I felt it had become my civic duty to eat it all, in order to save their six-decades-long marriage.  I idolized them, and their marriage, so, selfishly, I really needed their marriage to survive these lunches.

I ate it all.  And I ate up as much of them, their friendship, their style, their wisdom, and their humor as I could, every Friday.

They are still who I want to be when I grow up.

It is hard to believe Titans like this are gone.   I can actually visualize the enormous hole that their deaths leave in the fabric of my Universe.  A hole that can only be filled with lima beans, Betty’s Kale soup (that I still make to this day), shitty shrimp cocktail sauce, sweet wine, dating discussions, art lessons, political tirades, and hilarious stories of our crazy friends.   I love them so and I’ll miss them forever, for no one will ever feed me in all the ways that the Factors fed me.  I am forever changed by knowing them.

I love you Monte, and I’m so happy for you that you finally get to join the love of your life, Betty.  (Love you too Betty, but you already know that.)”

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