2. My Mother Was an Actress

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Many nights, while other fourth and fifth graders were sneaking flashlights into bed or fighting with their siblings, I was up ‘til 11 or so – I remember hearing the heavy male voices reading headlines from the 11 o’clock News.  I was up reading lines from Neil Simon or Pericles, (which Pat would later perform in modern dress at midnight at a converted church downtown). I was with my mom in the living room, delightfully giving hints when she couldn’t remember a line, enunciating, or gesturing as I read my part.

On that sofa, I learned accents and foreign words while cueing my mother on her lines.  I learned that people from certain social groups speak with particular affectation, while others swallow words, or sling them at one another like warriors.

I learned to sing, “Consider Yourself” from Oliver with a cockney accent, and to sound bereft while performing, “Where is Love” in my nightgown for my mom’s drinking buddy Joan, the owner of a summer theatre. I managed to dip down an octave when joining my father in “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, and to master  duets with my mother, including, “Bosom Buddies” from Mame. (I guess she was Angela Lansbury and I was Bea Arthur?).

Friends came over after school to watch TV and eat Twinkies, Mallomars and Sarah Lee pound cake, washed down with whole milk, Hawaiian Punch, 7-Up, or Dr. Pepper. My father was a late onset diabetic, so all forms of sugary snacks were on demand. When schoolmates asked why my mother was napping under the cheetah print coverlet at 4PM, I could always explain nonchalantly that she was going to rehearsal later and needed her rest. Or I could report,  “She has a disease called insomnia. But don’t worry, she says it’s not contagious.”

The main thing was not to tell my father that she had been lying down in the afternoon because that would inevitably incite a storm in the living room. I tried not to act as a 4-foot 11-inch informant, despite my constant desire to do the right thing. A girl scout, a class vice president (I wish I could remember who had robbed me of the highest office), and an MLK poetry contest winner at my elementary school, I wanted always to be on the right side of justice. It wasn’t until the end of sixth grade, when a bunch of us started smoking cigarettes and I attempted to join the 84th Street Gang, that things went south.

The gang was made up of Irish kids who wore basketball jerseys with their ripped jeans and high tops. They drank beer, smoked Newports or Parliaments, had greasy hair, and liked jumping in the fountain in front of the Metropolitan Museum with their boxer shorts on. They also jumped over schoolyard fences, used curse words and sex words that I pretended to know, threw up a lot in garbage cans, spat on the street, and ate rum-flavored ice cream from Baskin Robbins. The big draw, I guess, was that ten times a day the girls in the gang, who had long stringy hair and magic marker slogans on their Converse, threatened to beat the shit out of someone…just because.

I wasn’t an official member of the gang. No way. But I did use the fact that my mother was napping or at rehearsals to sneak out and try to act like a badass kid who didn’t live in a doorman building. This went on for at least three weeks, but it seemed like a lifetime of crime.

One day, probably after reading my diary or something clever, my mother decided to take action.  I was on the “stoop,” a set of stairs belonging to a townhouse somewhere south of Lexington Avenue. I was planted next to Vinnie, 14,  an older guy, who smoked and chewed Bazooka bubble gum at the same time. Legend had it he’d gotten an exaggeratedly large number of stitches related to an incident in which he’d heroically defended his mentally retarded brother. I had been writing Vinnie’s name in graffiti letters in my notebook during the day, because I heard he was “crushing” on me.  So, I was there on the stoop with Vinnie and few other bad kids, when I looked up to find my mother: a cigarette hanging from her lips, wearing denim slacks and an unglamorous expression.

“C’mon, let’s go –  you think you’re a little toughie now, don’t you?” she called in her theatrical voice.

Then she grabbed me by the flannel shirt sleeve. I kept my head down and walked away from the life.  Shame…Humiliation…Relief. It was a mixed bag of consternation, knowing that my career as a young ruffian, a gang member of New York’s Upper East Side miscreants was never fully realized.

Lake Placid

That summer, I went to camp in the Adirondacks, while my mother was hired to perform in two plays at the Lake Placid Playhouse. After a month at camp, I moved out of my bunk and into my mother’s one-bedroom apartment above a restaurant, located 15 minutes from the theatre.  Her place had a big television, a kitchenette and a balcony overlooking a parking lot. We shared a queen-sized bed, even though there was a pull-out couch in the living room. I remember thinking this was a whole new pretend world the two of us lived in. New York and junior high school in the fall seemed light years away. It was also a world without my dad. He stayed in the city working. He wrote lots of letters and postcards, called every Sunday, and planned a visit when Pat’s show “went up.”

I was glad to leave camp and have more independence. I hated being told what time to go to bed and when to wake up. And some of the girls were mean. They hid my toothbrush in the bushes outside the cabin. And we all had to short-sheet each other’s beds—which was funny the first time. Besides all that, the water in the lake was ice cold and I definitely saw some leeches on my leg when I got out to the floating dock, despite the swimming instructor’s repeated denials. You know a leech when you see one.

As my mother’s roommate, I had different challenges, different concerns. I brought all my art supplies, and I drew a lot that summer. I drew, I learned to cook spaghetti topped with store-bought tomato sauce, stole the occasional cig from my mother’s crumpled packs of Winston’s, and made my acting debut as one of the seven dwarves. Dopey? I just remember I was told to project my voice, (I had maybe three lines) and we all wore knee pads and sang, “high ho…high ho…”

That summer in Lake Placid, my mother was the star of two shows: Cactus Flower and Dial M for Murder. She got great reviews in the local press, and tried not to worry about some “abnormal cells” that the doctor told her about before she left.

That summer, I hung around with the apprentices, young people who worked at the theatre. I danced close with long-haired, 18-year-old, Kenny, at The Marcy nightclub. He gave me sips of his beer when my mother wasn’t looking, and when he whispered into my ear I felt confused, lightheaded.

Driving back to our apartment that night in our green MG, my mother had trouble getting the key in the ignition. She drove a few feet and then — up onto a curb. I guess she’d had quite a few at The Marcy. We sat on the curb and she cursed a lot and lit a cigarette. Fortunately, another car full of actor friends pulled up, and they took us home. I looked back at the MG half on the street, half on the curb. I thought maybe next time we should take a taxi to the club.

That summer in Lake Placid, I discovered slow dancing to Roberta Flack, and what people did in night time rehearsals, and why everyone’s afraid of getting yelled at by a director. As I walked through town to the theatre, humming my happy dwarf songs and feeling strangely mature, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window. I looked like a small woman in my cut-offs, bandana, Indian print shirt and smart red clogs.  I was eleven years old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. My Mother Was an Actress

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Nine-to-five moms, moms who wore tailored office outfits, moms who looked at their newfangled digital watches, or sent nannies to pick up the kids, were still unusual in New York City of the early 1970s.  (Ms. magazine wasn’t launched until the end of ‘71). Emily’s mom raised a family of four and made marble sculptures.  Amy S.’s mom wore an apron all day — and had a computer in her house. Sarah M’s mom looked like Ali McGraw in Love Story, and seemed to work in a crummy office full of “chauvinists.”  But my mother was even more curious than some of the fancy East Side women’s libber moms.

My mother was an actress.

Both my parents stayed up late into the night reading, or talking and fighting. They often woke by 10, and my dad dressed in a dapper suit and tie, put on some aftershave, and went off to work.  When they eventually moved out of Manhattan in the mid 1990s, people in their North Carolina town joked about their bohemian schedule.

“Didn’t want to knock on your door before 10 AM. We know you need your beauty rest.”

Many weekday afternoons, my mom sent postcards and headshots to agents, took my father’s shirts to the cleaners, ordered groceries from Gristede’s, planned the social and cultural events of the week. When essential tasks were completed, she drank vodka. Bottles were delivered weekly in crisp white paper packages through the service door of the apartment. She tipped the guy a couple of bucks — and she was off to the races.

She had drinking buddies like Iris, a petite gal who lived a block away, wore cashmere turtlenecks, had a convincing facelift, and was married to a laconic heir to a publishing dynasty.  Mostly, my mom drank by herself in the private ritual many of us know, tucking glasses diminished to watery ice beneath the hemline of the paisley sofa, or between the legs of the wide back smoking chair, or behind the flap of a paper towel above the sink.

Though I didn’t understand it at the time, she lived in depression because the phone didn’t ring. Because the callback didn’t happen. They went with someone with wide hips, someone Slavik; they went with someone who’d already worked at The Public; someone who’d slept with Pacino in his lean years, they went with a name. She ran her hands through her thick bounce of hair, filled the ashtrays with her Winston’s, finished reading The New York Times (which was delivered to our door each day) and took involuntary afternoon naps under a cheetah print blanket.

Throughout my childhood, my father traveled for business often to Europe for several weeks at a time, leaving Pat and me in the apartment together for long stretches. We found our routines, ate some of our dinners in front of the T.V. in the tiny den, and stayed up late on school nights. She helped me with homework—unless there was math involved. We sat together on the sofa telling stories, reading or saying nothing. In the living room, I learned to cue her on her lines for an upcoming play, or listen to a monologue she’d memorized for an audition.

So, at the age of nine, alongside Pippi Longstocking and Charlotte’s Web,  I read pocket-sized playbooks in one sitting, sounding out the hard-to-pronounce words, the new vocab of sexual innuendo, and the memorable or weighty words of Shakespeare and Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Lillian Hellman, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and John Guare.

One of the first times I remember understanding that she did this “make-believe” thing as a pro, was when she asked me to help her memorize lines for Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a comedy by Neil Simon. I think she already had the role and was soon starting rehearsals at an Off-Broadway theatre.

With my freckly legs dangling off the sofa, I played, for example, the part of Barney,  a balding man in his 40s, (think Alan Arkin) looking to have an extramarital affair.  My mother, played the part of Elaine, the Sally Kellerman (“Mash”) role:

 ME/( Barney):… I’m sure it will come as no great shock to you, but you are the first “attempted” extramarital affair for me in twenty-three years of marriage… I got married to my high school sweetheart…having gone steady with her since I was sixteen. And how many experiences with other women do you think I’ve had prior to getting married? One!.. When I was eighteen my brother took me to an apartment in Newark, New Jersey, where I consorted with a forty-four-year-old woman who greeted me lying naked on a brass bed reading the newspaper. It cost me seven dollars and I threw up all night…

I asked precocious questions because, at nine, I couldn’t help it, I was precocious.  All New York City kids are. I asked about playwriting and telling the truth, and how the hell Neil Simon knew these people!

ME/ME: What’s “consorted” and what’s an “extramarital affair?”

PAT: It’s when a person who’s married goes to bed with another person they’re not married to.

ME/ME: Oh.

PAT: Yup.

ME/ME: Is that something they do?

PAT: Sometimes.

ME/ME: That’s weird. How come they don’t know whose bed they’re in?