By the time I was five, it was just Mom and me living in Florida. When Mom wasn’t reading tarot cards at the Greek Sponge Docks in Tampa, telling the tourists’ fortunes, she would make giant stained glass windows or lie for hours in the bathtub or by the pool.
We were writing and planning to star in our own play, in which my mother, babysitter and I played orphan sisters. I was advocating for my character to be deaf-mute. I was obsessed with deaf-mutes at the time and had trouble fitting them into games with children my own age. Mom and my babysitter wanted it to be a musical but we were sure we could find some middle ground. As the deaf-mute youngest sister, I would dance my parts.
My mom came up with a lot of ideas that we would embrace for a time with total gusto and then forget entirely. At one point, we were planning to move to India and become belly dancers. She was sure we could make a bundle as exotic Westerners. I had pudged out that year after the divorce and one of the selling points for India was that, according to my mother, a bit of chub was a sign of class there, a mark of beauty.
My mom threw a lot of parties in those years after the divorce, and I was always invited. I would play cocktail waitress, pouring wine from boxes and delivering it to the guests with, what I imagined, was the serious air of a professional.
By the time I was six, I had discovered Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee. And when company came over, I would go into my mother’s closet and choose something wonderful. We both preferred costumes to regular clothes. I would put on my blond shag wig and long black gloves from the Salvation Army. Then I’d perform for the guests, shimmying my shoulders and slipping off one glove at a time in a slow motion strip tease, singing, “Let me entertain you. Let me make you smile…”
Periodically over my childhood, my mother would say, “You’re old enough to hear this now.” And she would tell me, again, the story of her nervous breakdown. How she made passionate love in the hot tub with a man she barely knew. How she found herself set free in a world she didn’t recognize where everything was ablaze with light and color. How she’d seen Jesus’ face coming toward her through the sky, until his face met her face and his eyes became her eyes.
As a kid, I saw it like this: My mother had communed with Jesus and had the same cosmic appeal as Gypsy Rose Lee. She had gone outside the known world in the mental hospital, touched God, and returned to be my Momma. So when we sat around in our bikinis singing show tunes or practicing our Miss America speeches, we did it with the knowledge that the fabric of the world is shimmery – not solid – and at any time you can slip through and everything can be entirely different.
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