Sunday, April 3, 2011

April 3, 2011 ~ Day 115
Happy Birthday, Venusian Girl

Something very important happened for me on this day in 1938... my mother was born in the city of Los Angeles to hardworking parents that loved her very much.

My mother's childhood was not easy though; her father contracted a water-borne parasitic disease from swimming in a local pool and died when she was only seven years old. In the coming decade, she experienced life as a "latch-key" kid in the late 1940s and early 1950s - taking care of herself as best she could while her own high school educated mother worked full time as a secretary to put their dinner on the table and pay rent.

When her mother remarried a man who had no children and wasn't especially fond of her, my mom decided it was time to head for the hills. The Hollywood Hills, that is! She moved into a home for working actors and with a dear friend and that friend's mother, she began to take acting classes and pursue a career in "the business".

My mother was sixteen years old when she moved out on her own. Sixteen! This means she has now been taking care of herself for 57 years.

I love hearing stories from my mother's "prior life" - the one she lived before she met my own father and moved to this city. The life she lived before having me. As a child I could never understand why she would have left the glamour of acting to settle down as a housewife and mother.

Now that I am a wife and mother though, my relationship with her life story has come full circle. I cannot believe that I am now the same age that my mother was when she first met my father (35) and that in less than two years, I will be the same age that she was when she gave birth to me. This kind of freaks me out because I was always the kid with 'old' parents compared with the rest of my friends. I wonder if my children already see me as old...

Once I hit 37 I will actually have my own memories to turn to when I want to know what various times were like in my parents' lives. It blows my mind to think that my mother must only have been about 46? years old when my elder sister got married... I remember that time in life so clearly (I was nine, her wedding was like something out of a fairy tale) and I definitely did *NOT* think of our parents as being "young" back then. Wow. I can't believe how young my mother actually was... or how 'seasoned' my husband and I are becoming!

There are many stories from my mother's younger years that have apparently been too racy to share with me. I've caught glimpses here and there from looking through her old black and white photo albums, sifting through her casting head shots, reading a few love letters saved from her first marriage.

I know, for example, that at the age of seventeen she headed out to Las Vegas to work in a nightclub as a showgirl. She stayed with relatives near town and spent a few weeks rehearsing for a big show, tanning by the pool by day. I'm not sure what kinds of activities filled her nights... but I do know that she said she figured out pretty quickly that most of the girls she worked with in the chorus line had come to Vegas with big dreams but had fallen into a more sordid world, becoming "gentlemen's escorts" by night.

Mom ran in a circle there that contained Sammy Davis Jr. and other members of the Rat Pack. She once told me, "I looked a lot older than my age, so I got a lot of attention. The only reason they ultimately left me alone was that I told them I was underage and had family in town. If they'd tried to "have their way" with me they could have gone to jail".

My mother apparently decided that she'd better get back to Los Angeles before she turned eighteen and Vegas turned on its 'brightest' lights for her; so return she did, and during the years between eighteen and twenty-four her acting career thrived. "I was always up for roles that would go to either Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor" she told me, "because we had the same general look". She could speak 'broken English' in a wide variety of dialects, and got a lot of acting work as an "Indian maiden", "Russian gypsy", "Mexican girl", etc.

In her most unusual role, my mother played a "Venusian Girl" in Zsa Zsa Gabor's critically panned cult classic "The Queen of Outer Space". The movie synopsis cracks me up - "Three American astronauts are on the first manned mission to Venus, and when they arrive, they find the planet to be inhabited solely by women with high heels and short dresses. Unfortunately, they are immediately imprisoned, for the queen who rules Venus hates men... Suspecting the astronauts to be spies, she now plans to destroy the Earth. So now it's up to the three men (and some friendly Venusians) to overthrow the wicked queen and save the Earth."

I have never seen this movie but I get a big kick out of thinking of my mother as a "friendly" Venusian bad-ass. In fact, I just found the trailer for the movie and I can't stop laughing. Wow mom! "Let me kill her now..." she says with a massive weapon in her hand pointed right at Zsa Zsa. You go girl.

Other tales from my mother's early years are not as amusing. A difficult first marriage filled with love (hers) and wretched alcoholism (his). Getting passed over for key roles because she wouldn't accept them 'on the casting couch'. The strain of waiting tables at night to put food on the table for her kids, while still trying to make auditions by day. In the world where beautiful actresses were a dime a dozen, my mother scraped and saved to do right by her children and prayed for the big break that would lift them from poverty into safety and comfort.

My favorite story from this time period is the story of the broken water jugs.

My mother was newly divorced, living in a small apartment with her two children and two dogs. She rarely had time for dates but had gone out for the evening with the friend of her neighbor who said he was a nice guy. A tall, gangly music professor from the Midwest, the man had two sons of his own; she'd never met them. He spoke with a twang, wore thick black glasses and combed his hair over the top of a rapidly increasing bald spot.

Despite all of this, the man was truly kind and very smart, athletic and (blessedly!) stable. Unlike her ex, he didn't drink. The man was passionate about music, something that she as an artist could relate to pretty well. He too had been through a difficult first (and second) marriage. Perhaps more importantly, he looked at her like he was a cat and she was the cream.

On one of their first dates, he brought her back to her apartment and she asked him for a favor. "Could you please lift that water jug for me onto the stand?" It wasn't a test of strength or even courtesy - she really needed the help. The five gallon jug in question was made of glass, very heavy and unwieldy.

"Certainly," he replied and strode over in his manliest way to heft the jug with ease. Except, right at the stand he fumbled. The jug dropped. It shattered into a thousand small pieces with a sea of glass and water covering the entire kitchen from wall to wall.

"I wanted to sink into the floor," he would later tell the story. "Here's this poor woman with a house full of barefooted kids and dogs and a kitchen full of glass. I didn't think she would ever want to see me again."

Instead, my mother laughed graciously and began to clean up the mess as though nothing much had happened. "No sense crying over spilled milk," she said, and began to talk of something else as she put the room back into order.

"That's when I knew," he would tell us. "That's when I knew that your mother was the one for me. Any woman who could manage such a terrible situation with such a great attitude was someone to hold onto. I asked her to marry me just as fast as I could."

Thirty-six years later I have to thank my father with all my heart for recognizing the quality in my mother that I most prize in her myself... her incredible grace under pressure and calm in any crisis. Perhaps due to a long life full of hard knocks, my mother views any situation - EVERY situation - as a potential gift from God and a miracle waiting to happen. She has so much faith and perseverance.

On this day of my mother's 73rd birthday I am so full of gratitude to have had a mother such as she. An incredible artist with amazing visual and kinesthetic abilities, she can do just about anything she puts her mind to. My mother is as graceful as I am awkward; generous to a fault, humble without allowing herself to be humbled by life.

She is so bright ~ self-taught in almost every way ~ an "A" student who never got to go to college but who dove headfirst into life and figured things out for herself, step by step. She is also a deeply spiritual person with true, profound faith that I both admire and envy. While I desperately seek evidence of God in the world, my mother *knows* God in the core of her being. Her own inner faith is so ardent, I believe that the mere strength of her belief is powerful and world-changing.

This particular birthday also marks a crucial rite of passage for my mom. Her own mother passed away at the age of 73 after a protracted and gruesome bout with ALS, Lou Gerhig's disease. My mother is now the same age that her mother was when she died, yet she is still sharp as a tack and in full possession of her physical skills. She plans to usher in the new year with an upcoming trip to Spain where she and a friend will enjoy the magnificence of Barcelona for the very first time. Not only has mom not given into the "Golden Years" ~ that exciting girl is just getting going!

My mother has always been the largest and most important influence upon me. I suspect that even when she is no longer with us, this will remain true. With every passing day she teaches me by example to grow older with grace and joy.

She inspires me to be a more positive and hopeful person, to take life's many hard knocks a little more circumspectly. I have watched her bounce back from incredible loss and suffering, turning the page on events that would topple others. To me, her life reads like one hell of a success story.

In short, my mother is my hero.

They say that to the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world. Mom, you are the world to me. Happy Birthday.

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