One of my earliest memories is sitting, more or less, on a large pillow on the floor next to the dining table while Mother typed at the cast-iron Royal. That unmistakable clacking, dinging, ratcheting and zirrring developed a rhythmic pattern.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Writing a play,” answered Mother without looking away from her work.
“Really?! A play?!” I asked, losing ever-more contact with the pillow, whose surface area defined exactly where I must be.
“Yes, a play.”
“Is there a part for me?”
“No, dear, there are no parts for three-year-old boys.”
“But you’re writing it yourself, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered with some hesitation.
“Then you can write a part for me!” Obviously. I don’t know why she needed me to explain it.
Then Mother reached into her sparse bag of delaying tactics and pulled out one that I was too young to understand.
“We’ll see.” The sole definition of which was, “If I say no it will only lead to arguing and I do not want this discussion to continue another minute so we will both pretend there is some chance in the future. But there isn’t.”
The next day was a repeat of the day before: me trying to be good and stay fixed to the pillow while overflowing with curiosity.
“Did you write a part for me yet?” I blurted out when the words just refused to stay inside of me.
“Not yet, dear,” she replied. Clack, clackity, clack-clack.
“Does that mean you will?” Those interested in the concept of Yogic Flying should spend an afternoon with a three-year-old to see how it’s done.
Mother, previously focused on her writing, suddenly realized she’d been out-maneuvered by a child not much more than a toddler. Desperate to secure a few moments of undisturbed concentration, she grabbed the easiest tool at hand.
So it went for days piled upon days. If Mother thought the feigned retreats bought her time to regroup then she hadn’t learned much from the previous five of my siblings. She did, however, stop saying, “Not yet.”
Mother had serious concerns about tossing me and my little brother, Jeff, at the time barely two years old, on stage. Anyone who has attended a dance recital is familiar with the youngest ones who stare out at the sea of faces and then freeze up and/or start crying. I have no idea why she projected this behavior onto us.
Much later, probably three or four full lifetimes as my recollection goes, the scenario played out like Groundhog Day. Except this time there was snow.
“Did you write a part for me yet?” I asked with the full enthusiasm and curiosity expressed on Day One.
Mother stopped typing. This was different. Different is good, right? Right?
She turned to me and said, “It’s just a small part, but yes, for both of you.” The ensuing squealing might have been the source of the cracked window in the living room, although this remains unconfirmed.
Jeff and I hugged and danced and whooped it up until we wore ourselves out.
So it was that at the ripe ages of three and two we began staying out late for rehearsals. Even better, there were girls at the rehearsals. Teenage girls. Teenage girls who thought we two were the cutest things ever. They stood us on a tabletop and crowded around making all kinds of strange teenage-girl-sounds while admiring our costumes. I thought every one of them was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.
Our parts were brief but Mother knew how to manipulate an audience. The lights were dimmed except for a small spotlight. Then she sent us, these two tiny little boys, out on the vast and empty stage. Alone.
We ran, Jeff chasing, me in a winding, looping pattern from upstage left to downstage right to the place marked by the spotlight, then sat next to each other. The gasps and sighs from the audience were loud but we never hesitated.
I pretended to have something hidden in my cupped hands that Jeff wanted to see but I kept pulling my hands away until finally giving in and letting him have a peek.
At that point an adult came along to shoo us off stage right.
That was our entire debut. People were amazed that we could just go out and perform like that, no fear at all.
For us it was not a foreign place, the stage. It was where Mother worked. It was the only place she was ever happy, or whatever passed for happy in her life. Trying to capture the attention of the older siblings at the dinner table was far more terrifying and challenging. Plus, we got all the hugs and pecks-on-the-cheeks little boys could dream of from the pretty teenage girls.
I was too young to understand the patterns of Mother’s play life vs. non-play life. The play, like every play before or since, ended. Then Mother crashed.
This was church theater although most of the productions were not religious. We did a fixed number of shows, and then it was over after one or two weekends, depending on the scale of the production. It didn’t matter the length of the run, the factor that put Mother into the tailspin was that it was over. When it was over then she was over. There was nothing left to do until months later when another production began to power up.
I remember her locking the bedroom door while everybody else was gone to work or school except Jeff and I. We’d knock gently on the door, for we had been instructed not to bother her. But we had questions! We needed permission for something vital!
We put our faces down to the crack of space between the bottom of the door and the dirty floor to call to her.
We went to the nearest heating duct, because we’d already learned that sound traveled quite well through the metal pipes, and called to her some more. Louder this time, naturally, because our little voices had to go all the way through the pipes to her room.
Such are the vagaries of fame for a three-year-old: mobbed by teenage girls one day, the next your agent won’t return your calls.