By Lynn U. Stewart
The timing was right. The dates were clear on five people’s calendars and all indicators were “Green Lights.” Phase II of the Docudrama would proceed in spite of the funding process being in its infancy… the message was to “seize the moment.”
Cherie, Michael, Brenda, and Will Harper had a brief hiatus between projects. Lynn had a break from teaching in Holland, Barbara could break away from her responsibilities in New Jersey. Synchronicity is often about reading the signs and taking action even when all the “I’s” are not dotted. Everyone booked their air travel while Cherie and Michael located an apartment for six of us in the Murray Hill district of New York’s East side, John Robert Powers modeling was contacted for young female actors, and the request was initiated for an afternoon shoot at Convent of the Sacred Heart, our Alma mater.
Oct 18, 2009 –We landed at Newark airport within hours of each other, boarded our mini-van, and descended on our sister Barbara for two of the six-day shoot.
It was a chilly autumn day in Elberon, New Jersey. Michael and Will were headed off to 900 and the sisters were staying behind to welcome Cherie’s daughter Jenn who was arriving from Dubai by train from NYC. At the final moment, I got a message. “Get in the car!” the inner voice commanded and before I knew it, the “Go/no go” decision was silenced as I watched the scenery fly by the van cruising down the driveway. Something was compelling me to accompany our production team. I didn’t know why I had to be there, but I trusted the feeling.
After winding our way through the autumn foliage of Locust, finding Shrewsbury Bridge, we drove through the flooded streets of Long Branch, and cruised up Ocean Avenue. We turned into a driveway, flanked with stone pillars crowned with eagles. The experience was about to be launched. When the ancient stained-glass door opened to the warm welcoming of Douglas Jemal, we knew there was magic in the air. Douglas is the home-owner of our family home for the last forty years. He was anticipating working in Washington on the one day shoot at the house. Wood-worker and caretaker, Andy was supposed to greet us, however, at the last minute Andy opted to be elsewhere. Douglas jumped at the opportunity to be there himself. There was an instant connection between all four of us. As we started to scope out the location, Douglas went in search of coffee.
When he returned, we chatted about his love for cold weather, running with his dogs on the beach and the recounting of the day he chose to buy our family home. When our home became his home, it changed his life. He bought our once, forty-room mansion from our father in 1971 for $100,000. That was the moment he connected with the “spirit of the house.” He talked about the changes his wife had made to the house and how he had removed the circular porch and port-cushier. On a psychic level he recalled, “the house was unhappy and I felt it.”
An renowned master of restoration for period buildings in Washington D.C., Douglas Jemal began a serious restoration project. In addition to paneling the halls, painting a mural on the central atrium ceiling, leveling the floors, and replacing every pipe, he had upgraded the lighting, refurbished every mantel, sent carpets to Cairo for reweaving and installed alarm and sprinkler systems throughout the mansion. The piece-de-resistance was importing original paneled walls from Napoleon’s Castle outside of Paris. He had been installed the antique panels in one of the downstairs sitting rooms. Our home had been magnificently restored to period by a team of master-craftsmen.
As we walked and talked about the shoot on the following day, Will felt compelled to do a brief segment on Douglas. He recounted parts of his retail-family story, and his relationship to his brothers. His story was going from rags-to-riches. Our story was going from riches-to-rags. That in and of itself was a connector. As he told his story the bond between us deepened. Will asked me to step into the shoot. I had a moment with Douglas that touched me. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude to this man who cared for, upgraded, restored, and honored our family home. As I stood there, I looked into the eyes of another father who had raised his family of six during these last forty years. At that moment, Douglas glanced at Will and told him that many filmmakers had approached him requesting to film his story. He confessed that he had never felt comfortable enough to do that. His connection with Will was strong enough to state “Your face is full of sunshine.” Then the two men exchanged business cards.
At a certain moment we told Douglas the story line for the following day. In addition to having the three sisters reminisce about the house, we were looking for someone to play our mother and a six-year-old little Cherie.
“My daughter Sally could be Mary and my granddaughter, Joyce, is the perfect age to be little Cherie.”
Without further ado, Douglas was on the phone asking Sally if she and Joyce could make themselves available for the shoot on the following afternoon.
The requisite cast was magically manifested as a result of that interview with Douglas. Mother and daughter appeared the next day to give a stunning performance as the missing members of the Untermeyer family cast.
A most unexpected family-fusion launched an unforgettable week. The soul of our home magnetized the union of two families.