Poof. It’s a gentle sound, not alarming, and it’s accompanied by a modest puff of pearly smoke. It’s me seeing a pattern that’s been there forever, a pattern that suddenly shifted like a kaleidoscope and settled into something distinct, and distinctly different. Poof. Look at this again.
In high school I began to find an affinity for acting through the Drama Club, whose initial attraction was that it rehearsed at 7:30 AM and got me out of the house soon after my father left for work: anything to cut down alone-time with my mother. To begin with, it was the experience of getting the parts that the cute girls wouldn’t touch, like Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. She was outrageous and bossy and had comic lines crafted to land like mortar shells. I didn’t remotely have the craft to support this, but I could feel the potential. Not for a moment did I comprehend that this had been the center of my mother’s profession.
She’d been a vaudeville comedienne for ten years, touring all over the country and earning very nice money once she got established. In vaudeville comedy you’d better be able to land zingers, and she knew how. It’s how she could reduce me to tears and snot in thirty seconds flat.
When I was a senior, the German teacher I had a huge crush on decided that the junior class should do a play, and it would be Our Town. I wasn’t in it, but I did some support work, and I saw the cast come together to become the beating heart that is the center of this play. I had no way of knowing that at the same time an Iowa high school actor was seeing part of this same play at a state contest, and that it would change his life forever. I only knew that I loved what John Deethardt had directed and given to the junior class. It was not at all what I’d been doing in the Drama Club, and it was what I wanted.
I graduated and went to the University of Michigan as a pre-med honors student, a goal I’d fixated on for four years, and then I got deeply involved with theatre. My mother was not supportive of this idea. “You have no heart, no looks, no voice, and no sense of humor. Forget it.” It was a pretty strong assault, but it wasn’t effective. I’ve lived my life in the theatre and I’ve been good at it.
Here’s what I didn’t realize. Theatre was her world. She’d fled a damaging childhood, made her way through elite theatre training in New York, and had become a self-supporting respected performer in a very harsh world. It was her world, and she’d paid her dues. Who was I to try to gate-crash? She’d voluntarily left that world to become a wife, possibly a mother, but I was a Hail-Mary adoption when that didn’t happen. I should be her fulfillment, not her competitor.
I never quite understood her vicious attacks on my attraction to theatre. I thought of it as an attack on me, but I never thought of it as a defense of what had been hers. Her image of me had been created by her own parenting, and it was the image of an unattractive weakling suited only for quiet intellectual activity. But in the Chinese zodiac, I wasn’t just a dragon, I was a Golden Dragon. In time, I realized that and claimed a world that was rightfully mine.
I came long ago to the point where I could forgive her abuse. Now, realizing that she was defending her private territory, the arena where she herself had come to power, gives me a new insight into forgiveness.