Recently, my brother asked me for our mother’s potato salad recipe. It was a favorite on holidays, especially Thanksgiving when after having the big meal at 2 p.m. – on the dot – we’d gorge ourselves that night on turkey sandwiches and that beloved potato salad. I never wrote it down, I told him, but gave the list of ingredients I remembered her using. The recipe is just one item on a long list of topics I wish she and I discussed before she passed in 2011; and with her gone, so was our last contact with the generations before us and the stories she carried. What was it like waiting for Dad to come home from the War, knowing when he did, you’d two get married? Did you ever want to go to college? Were you an obedient child, or did you have a wild side? What was it like to get around Brooklyn on the trolley? I wonder about things like that now, and wish we had some of that time back.
Had Honey, Baby, Mine: A Mother and Daughter Talk Life, Death, Love (and Banana Pudding) been out way back then, we just may have. This recently released memoir, so to speak, is the creation of the mother-daughter team of Diane Ladd and Laura Dern. They first appeared together on screen in the 1991 film Rambling Rose and made Hollywood history as the first mother and daughter to be Oscar nominated for their work in the same film. Recently, they both shared the stage at Symphony Space to discuss the creation of the book that they hope starts the family conversations we’d like to have, with those who won’t always be around to share them.
Called a “deeply personal conversation of love, art, ambition, and legacy,” Honey, Baby, Mine came together because of Ladd’s 2018 lung disease diagnosis – something they believed to have been caused from years of pesticide spraying in her California neighborhood and given only months to live. Dern writes, “The doctor gave her a time limit. Six months. Hearing those words, I felt the walls crumbling around me.” Dern took on the role of caretaker, taking the advice of their doctor who said to keep her walking to strengthen the lungs and improve oxygen levels. After noticing how much further Ladd could walk when telling life stories, Dern began recording their conversations. “These walks might be our final moments together,” writes Dern. “The only way I can cope with my fear of her dying is by making sure that we talk about everything and that we leave nothing unsaid.”
It’s now 2023, five years later, and Ladd is still telling her stories.
Moderated by Hugh Jackman, the conversation at Symphony Space was honest, intimate and hilarious, with Ladd recalling her early days in Mississippi, desire to go into show business, and rise to the top as one of the country’s leading actresses of her day, appearing in Wild Angels with Bruce Dern (who she later married), Chinatown (with Jack Nicholson), and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (directed by Martin Scorsese). In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Dern spoke about the time when during the filming of Alice, director Scorsese invited the seven-year-old to watch her mom shoot an emotional scene with Ellen Burstyn. From that experience, Dern said to herself, “I want to be part of that thing,” and has gone on to have her own wildly successful career, appearing in two Jurassic Park movies, Wild (playing Reese Witherspoon’s mother), Big Little Lies (with an ensemble that included Nicole Kidman), and the HBO show Enlightened with Ladd, playing, who else, her mother.
As for the book’s title, Ladd is delighted to share that the line comes from an old folk song sung by the workers building the levees along the Mississippi River where she grew up. We’ll go down to the crawdad hole, Honey, baby, mine, was taken from that tune, one that became Dern’s favorite bedtime lullaby, and a family term of affection. Moderator Jackman asked about the book’s subtitle, the mention of banana pudding. Both Ladd and Dern took turns sharing the history of the recipe. “It was my Grandma Mary’s recipe,” remembers Dern and “it cures everything” and went on to rat out her mother, who one time stole a big helping of it and hid under the dining room table to finish it off.
When Dern spoke to friends about the walks with her mother, she was taken by how many wanted to start their own family conversations and she saw the importance of creating this book for readers who’d be encouraged to ask their own questions, even the tough ones, before it’s too late. At the start of Chapter 7, for example, Dern says to Ladd, “I realize that I avoid certain questions because I never want to hurt you and it must be hard to talk about” before asking Ladd about her first child, a daughter, who died tragically at 18 months old. Says Dern, “Is that OK to ask?” Ladd responds with “Of course.” Dern saw these recorded conversations with Ladd as more than a keepsake for her grandchildren but a starting point for families to experience what Dern and Ladd have — “a profound deepening of our relationship.”
Honey, Baby, Mine: A Mother and Daughter Talk Life, Death, Love (and Banana Pudding)
Laura Dern and Diane Ladd
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff
For more information about Symphony Space, and their upcoming list of impressive live readings, lectures and concerts, visit symphonyspace.org/events.
Symphony Space is located at Broadway and 95th Street.