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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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