Can a woman who chooses to live for herself only do so if she hides away from the inevitable judgment of society?
Photo by Jennifer Waddell
In celebration of International Women's Day and Women's History Month, and in partnership with the online magazine Oldster we were delighted to present an evening of fabulous female storytelling on the theme of “Women Who Came Before Us.”
Abigail Thomas has four children, twelve grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, two dogs, and a high school education. She is eighty years old this year. Her books include Safekeeping; A Three Dog Life; What Comes Next and How to Like It.
Blaise Allysen Kearsley is a Brooklyn-based writer and the creator of How I Learned, a storytelling and reading series. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Catapult, The Boston Globe, The Weeklings, Midnight Breakfast, and the anthologies Mortified, Cringe, and Nonwhite and Woman. To learn about her other vanity projects and how to pronounce all of her names, visit her site.
Naz Riahi (she/her) is an Iranian writer and director. Her work explores the spaces, emotions and opportunities of otherness and isolation, informed by her experiences as an immigrant. She was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2021. Her short film Sincerely, Erik won a Vimeo Best of the Year Award and was named a NoBudge Best Film of the Year. It has garnered praise from Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), The New York Times T Magazine and Fast Company among numerous publications and cultural institutions. Her essays, journalism and fiction have been published widely in outlets such as Food & Wine, Pipe Wrench, Los Angeles Review of Books, Longreads, Catapult, The Fader, Flavorpill, Atelier Doré, Guernica and more. She holds an MFA from the New School, lives in Brooklyn and can be found on Instagram.
Emily Rubin’s debut novel, Stalina (2011 HMH/Mariner Books), was a selection in the Amazon Debut Novel Award Contest. She is a recipient of a NYSCA 2022 Literary Arts grant, the Sarah Verdone Writer’s Award, a finalist in the International Literary Awards, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She co-founded Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose, a reading and performance series that takes place in laundromats around the country. Her short stories and essays have appeared in journals including Good Works Review, Litbreak, Confrontation, Poets & Writers, The Smart Set and All the Restaurants in New York by John Donohue. She founded and runs the Write Treatment Workshops in NYC and upstate NY cancer centers. She has taught fiction for Bard College’s LifeTime Learning Institute and Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine Program. She is working on a novel about urban homesteading and lives in Columbia County, NY.
Read the original piece on Oldster.
Bigmom lived in an old house on a short road that stopped abruptly at the Atlantic Ocean. It had once been an inn, built back in the middle of the 18th century. There were seven bedrooms on the second floor, the furthest of which was always cold, and if I went in and godforbid had the nerve to sit down, there came a sudden urgent need to get out get out get out, which I did. Immediately. This happened more than once. The house harbored a ghost, a gentleman in a dark blue suit who had been seen occasionally on the stairs, although not by me, and it became obvious that the cold room belonged to him. So yes, the house could be scary, but we loved the ocean and we loved Bigmom. Our family made the trip to Amagansett every summer, to stay with Bigmom and our Aunt Rhoda, who lived with her.
They always had a dog. The first was Winston, an English bulldog named for Churchill, and he was fussy. He wasn’t interested in walking down the street they lived on, or any other street in Amagansett. He preferred to take his walks on Main Street in East Hampton, one town over. Rhoda’s job was to hold his leash, and carry a roll of pink toilet paper with which to wipe Winston’s behind if necessary. Bigmom’s was to drive her jeep alongside the curb, a companion to Winston’s walk. She slowed when he slowed, stopped when he stopped, resumed when he resumed. Otherwise, he simply sat down and refused to budge. I am trying to picture this now in 2022. Those were the days when the Marmador luncheonette was still in business, light years ago, where we got ice cream cones after the movies. There wasn’t much traffic back then, and fewer parked cars along Main Street, and anyway, that’s the story and I’m inclined to believe it. My dogs boss me around too.
I close my eyes and picture Bigmom’s chair, its seat cushion flattened by years of use. I have a similar chair, with a similar cushion. Nobody but Bigmom sat in her chair, nobody but me sits in mine. Next to her was a little table that held a radio on which she listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers. She told me that after they lost a World Series, the Dodgers fans all said, “Wait till next year,” and for ages I thought that meant the whole stadium stood up at the end of the last game and hollered it together. My radio sits on a windowsill next to my chair, but I don’t listen to ballgames, and anyway I gave up on the Dodgers when they left Brooklyn. I switch between WAMC Public Radio and 92.9 Classic Rock. Which reminds me, Bigmom insisted that it was she who discovered Elvis Presley. I like to declare that I discovered Viggo Mortenson. Sometimes I think I am turning into my own grandmother.
She got up every morning at five, and I followed downstairs on tiptoe lest my sisters wake up. For a little while I had her all to myself. Pasted to the front of her breadbox was a cartoon cut out of the New Yorker. It depicted a little girl sitting at the table looking with disgust at her plate. “It’s broccoli, dear,” says the mother. “Well, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it,” the child responds. I loved to look at that. Bigmom always percolated her coffee for exactly fourteen minutes, and she poured hers in a big cup, adding evaporated milk and saccharin. She gave me a smaller cup which was mostly milk and sugar. I was fascinated by saccharin, how could anything so tiny sweeten such a big fat cup of coffee, and after a certain amount of begging, she finally allowed me one saccharin per week. I sat in the rocker she kept in her kitchen, and it creaked as I rocked, and the floor creaked under it, and we talked about what I don’t remember, but I remember that she listened. There were geraniums on every kitchen windowsill.
There was always something going on at the back of her stove or in the oven and it always smelled good. Often a delicious smell was meant for the dog: chunks of beef cooking in broth. She made applesauce out of unpeeled granny smiths cut up and simmered in orange juice, not water, and put it through a sieve when they were soft. She cut the crusts off our sandwiches, sliced our morning toast into strips she called “soldiers.” Her recipe for fudge included the line “boil until the bubbles look as though they don’t want to burst.” I still make birthday cakes as she did, with a buttercream icing, and melted bitter chocolate dribbled like a Jackson Pollack all over the top.
She spent part of every morning in a room lined floor to ceiling with books, her writing room, and there at her desk she paid bills and she wrote poems. We knew never to disturb her then. I wish I still had those poems. I remember them as short and lighthearted. They were published in women’s magazines under a pen name, but I only remember the first name, which was Ruth. Her real name was Mabel, Mabel Lillian St. John Dawson. Nobody called her Mabel, she was everyone’s Bigmom.
At five o’clock, when the sun was over the yardarm, and we kids were back from the beach, salty and sandy and sunburned, people came for drinks, and whatever delicious thing Bigmom had made, I think I remember scallops wrapped in bacon, but I could be wrong. Interesting people, artists, writers, a dancer, and while they drank their pink gins, ate those scallops, and laughed and told stories, we kids could do as we liked. We drifted unnoticed into the hush of her parlor, and looked at treasures under glass domes, and bronze statues of women with one arm flung into the air, and a Buddha, whose belly when rubbed gave good luck. We touched things we were forbidden to touch. A gold clock that didn’t tell time. A tortoise shell comb, an ivory ball containing infinite number of smaller ivory balls inside, every one carved in a delicate filagree.
Bigmom was born towards the end of the nineteenth century. Old was the right age for a grandmother. It never occurred to me that she had ever been anything else. What I am thinking about now, for the first time, is how at home with herself she was. She didn’t seem to want more than she had, or to exist anywhere other than where she was at any given moment, or to be anyone else. At 80, neither do I.
Bigmom’s rocking chair has been mine for years. The wood was darkened by long use, the upholstery torn, cotton batting coming out. My son Ralph took it apart, sanded and refinished the wood, and put it all back together. I rocked my grandchildren there, as I had once rocked myself. Bigmom died in her sleep. My aunt sold the house. I wrote a poem:
After A Death
We clean up,
We pack books
We give away the evening bags,
A dozen pairs of gloves,
What we want, we take,
I take the portrait
That hung above her bed,
A woman with dark eyes shining,
From every closet, every shelf
We save what we can, curry powder,
Spoons, a radio,
But nobody gets the air,
Nobody gets the silvery haze
She kept in these rooms
Nobody gets the light
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It's so much easier for me to admire a tree, a bird or a vista, than to admire a human with our capacity to hurt. But, if I were to admire someone, it would be a woman who lives, truly and wholly for herself and the work of her mind.
Does this woman exist? Does she exist unjudged? Venerated, even?
I've searched for her, my whole life. I've aspired to be her, to live entirely for myself and the work of my mind—writing and making films. Not to be a woman isolated, but one who lives and thrives amidst the world, its social pleasures and pains.
When I separated from my ex-husband he told me I was selfish, a sentiment my brother and mother have occasionally shared. He suggested I learn to live for someone beside myself. I thought about our life together, the meals I'd cooked, the vacations I'd planned, the jobs I'd held when he was underemployed, the many painful visits to his hostile, racist family, for the sake of being a good partner. And, I remembered, also, he once told me I didn't have to be a writer just because it was what I'd always wanted to do. Instead, he suggested, I could try real estate because in his estimation, I was "good at sales."
I wouldn't say I lived for this man. In fact, I left him. But I certainly didn't live for myself while I was with him — eight years that will never be mine again.
In the film Nomadland (2020), Fern, the protagonist, lives seemingly for herself. She's lost her husband, her job and her home, and is traveling the country in her camper, taking seasonal work. She rejects the advances of a man whom she likes and who offers her an easier life. She rejects, also, her sister's comfortable home. But Fern is half in her situation because of her life's circumstances—because of the impossibility of life when you’re poor and aging in America. It's not a dedication to her mind's work that's put her on the road.
When I was in my late 30s, I confessed to a man I was seeing that I didn't want children. He had three, all nearly grown. He said to me, confidently, "you'll change your mind."
"I've never wanted children," I said.
"My sister doesn't have kids," he said. "So she's very self involved, to her detriment."
His sister is a great avant-garde musician who maybe was choosing to live for herself.
Fifty years before Fern in Nomadland, there was Wanda (1970), a film written and directed by Barbara Loden who also stars as the title character. Wanda surrenders the custody of her children to her husband, admitting that she is not a good mother. She then wanders alone, from a field to a factory where she briefly works, to a movie theater to a bar, hoping to find someone who will take care of her. Eventually she meets a robber, amidst a robbery, and walks straight into his life. Wanda has done something extraordinary, in the context of the era when the film was made, and even today: she has chosen herself over her children. Yet, not exactly herself either. Like Fern, Wanda is a victim of her circumstances and her gender. She is poor and misunderstood by the people in her life. Unlike Fern she still seeks connection and to be understood, and in doing so she chooses a foolish, violent man for whom she inadvertently begins to live.
Wanda and Fern are fictive, but they represent a true struggle of womanhood. They show me a way of life that both thrills and scares me.
The painter, Agnes Martin, left New York City in her 50s, and like Fern, drove across the U.S. and Canada for almost two years. Eventually she settled in New Mexico and famously received very few friends and visitors for the rest of her life. Though, she did participate in her career, writing, painting, exhibiting and giving talks on her work. While her life was dedicated to herself and the work of her mind, she did isolate herself.
Can a woman who chooses to live for herself only do so if she hides away from the inevitable judgment of society?
History is full of men who have lived for themselves, dedicated their life to the work of their mind while having partners, lovers, even children. Norman Mailer and Ingmar Bergman weren't known for the way in which they obliged and pleased their families. Quite the contrary, Bergman treated his children as an afterthought and Mailer nearly killed his wife by stabbing her in a fit of rage and reportedly saying to a room full of guests, “let the bitch die.” After Barbara Loden’s death, her husband Elia Kazan, a much more famous and powerful filmmaker than she, claimed all sorts of credit for Wanda—even a film that at the time was so small and unseen couldn’t be hers.
My grandfather, Rahim Moeini Kermanshahi, was a poet and lyricist—one of Iran's most notable. I grew up watching him in his study from morning to evening, reading and writing. Occasionally my grandmother, Eshrat Moeini, interrupted him with tea or to let him know it was time to eat the meal she'd prepared for him. In the evenings, he often held salons. My grandmother cooked and prepared for their guests, served tea and joined the audience, as my grandfather held court, reciting poetry, talking about art and politics.
Recently, I stumbled upon a video of the writer Olivia Laing's home. I love her writing for the mastery of sentences as much as the brain behind them. I appreciate the portal she opens into other great artists' lives and her analysis of their works and motivations. A glimpse is about all I can handle. I don't read biographies, because I'm afraid to know too much about anyone whose work I like. People who are real are disappointing. This is a way of saying, I'll likely disappoint you and myself.
Laing's home is bright, filled with flowers, art and books. There is a friendly dining room table which I can envision surrounded by her friends and topped with heaps of food and wine. There is her garden, which she tends to lovingly, even a rose there called the Poet's Wife. Her husband Ian Patterson is a poet, though he's not even mentioned on her Wikipedia page. In the video of her home, he is barely present, just a mention of his many perfumes and his poetry shed, and a few seconds of him cooking lunch.
I think about Laing and her home often, about where she might sit when she reads, where she might write and how passionate she is about tending her garden. I know very little about her, yet when I think about her life, I am washed over with contentment and hope. I can see myself in that world, of books and art, of living, primarily for me, with a partner who isn’t my primary focus, but exist alongside me in love and collaboration. That is one definition of admiration, pleasurable contemplation.
Yet, as I write this, I am half somewhere else, thinking about my own partner, his struggles, how they affect and consume me. My focus is shoddy, my energy for my own work, depleted. At the moment, I am half somewhere else with him, half here writing, and wholly afraid to lose myself.
Still, I search for that woman, the one who lives for herself and her mind's work.
Read the original piece on Oldster.
Perfume "is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure," Coco Chanel
My mother, Carol Rubin, turned 100 on Nov. 8, 2021. The year also marked the 100th year of the introduction to the world of her favorite perfume, Chanel No. 5. Two classy centenarians, heralds of longevity.
Coco Chanel insisted on a delicate and heady confidence for the scent. The scientists and parfumiers presented ten different samples. She chose sample number five. The formula for a bottle of No. 5 contains no less than 80 ingredients. The top notes feature doses of ylang-ylang and neroli with an undercurrent of jasmine. Each 30ml bottle contains 1,000 jasmine flowers (from Grasse) and May 12 roses. Adding to that are sandalwood, bourbon, vetiver, and vanilla. The singular scent reminded Coco of fresh laundry. The daughter of a laundress, she was smitten. The winning formula represented the beauty, mystery, boldness, and constancy of reinvention of the feminine. The perfume and my mother came into the world during the Jazz Age with independent flappers in smoky dance halls. The scent was a bridge to chic with a nod to the risqué.
My mother lives on her own in a house filled with art, books, overflowing clothes and linen closets, and an ever-present bottle of Chanel No. 5. Upon discovering the bottle, I asked if she had memories attached to the perfume. She reminisced about the first bottle she received in 1944 as a gift from my father, Morton, when they were married at the height of World War II.
She met my father, a City College grad, on his way to the service in 1943 at an uptown college dance. Their first date was on the Staten Island Ferry. Mom remembered the blue polka dot shirtwaist dress with matching hat and clutch purse she wore. My father, a man with a roguish sense of humor and a great admirer of women, recalled imagining the dress falling away. He was 25, she was 22. They were married in 1944—my father in his blue Navy uniform. My mother also wore blue. "I thought it improper to wear white during wartime," she said when we found the dress stored in a box in a crawl space.
During World War II, Coco Chanel and her team stopped all advertising from 1942 to 1943 and made the perfume available to the military tax-free along with other essential items. The fragrance was a gift of gratitude to the women holding their own on the home front or in service during the war, representing survival, love, and sacrifice.
In November 1921, my grandmother, Rose Begun, had a difficult birth at the Lying-In Hospital on East 18th Street. My mother’s head was pushing into Rose’s ribcage, and the specialist’s manipulations successfully birthed the baby. I still cringe hearing the story at family functions. Mother and baby survived. As Rose recovered, my grandfather, Solomon, relieved and thrilled, returned uptown to the Grand Concourse to receive the delivery of a baby grand piano. This was his gift to Rose on the occasion of their firstborn. The piano dominated the front sitting room of every subsequent Bronx apartment. My grandmother played Beethoven, Puccini, Mozart, Jewish folk songs, and theater tunes, humming while she played, often breaking into full-throated off-key revery.
During World War II, my father was stationed at a base on Narraganset Bay, RI. My parents began married life living in a Quonset hut on the base. My father heard from friends in the European theater about soldiers lining up to purchase Chanel No. 5 to bring home to wives, sisters, and girlfriends. My father bought a bottle in the commissary, one of several my mother would receive from him during their sixty-plus years together.
The popularity of the perfume soared when the playfully seductive Marilyn Monroe ignited passion across gender lines by she announcing she daubed it here and there before bed, "anywhere you want to be touched".
When I was growing up, during our hectic mornings getting ready for school and work, I was forever curious about my mother's morning rituals and ablutions. The girdle she pulled on appeared ridiculously restrictive; the feat of engineering called a garter belt, and the rolling of stockings upward to hook in the belt’s clasps, a true test of balance. Getting ready for her job as an elementary school teacher, my mother smoothed her hair and clothes in the mirror as if styling a mannequin. As she dabbed No. 5 behind each ear, her neck lengthened, just like Alice after drinking the potion. The perfume was nectar that nurtured confidence.
When I lift the rectangular diamond-cut stopper of Chanel No. 5, the ghosts of early memories arise. In our modest Cape Cod home, I remember my parents arriving home after a night out with friends in my early single-digit days. With my bedroom door ajar, a wafting of Chanel No. 5 mixed with the heat from gin and flirting took shape in the muted hallway light silhouetting my mother’s hourglass figure. I was awakened by the muffled clatter of their arrival, thanking the babysitter, Ruthie, and getting a report of the night.
"There's a bit of a mess from finger painting. We made popcorn, watched Creature Features, and read some Alice in Wonderland. She threw up a little after the monster was electrocuted. She wants to be tough, but scary mixed with buttered popcorn maybe wasn't a good idea."
I listened, lifting my head from the pillow to hear my mother's slurred whisper, but could only decipher laughs and the shuffling of my father pulling out his wallet against the worsted fabric of his back pocket, fingering dollars in his veiny hands.
My mother would tiptoe into my room, and through tight, slitted eyes, pretending to be asleep, I would catch a glimpse of tee-strap high heels dangling in her hand. She relaxed and exhaled after peering over the granny-square quilt, assured I was safely tucked in. Maybe she noticed my mischievous fake sleep-smile? While straightening her dress, she would slink out backward, gently closing the door. I would fall off to sleep knowing she was safe at home. In the morning she would return to wiggle me awake with a puffy face and smudged mascara under shrouded eyes with vapors of Chanel No. 5 lingering, along with her satisfied exhaustion from an evening of fun and the beginning of a new day.
With Chanel No.5, the makers brought our everyday dreams into the realm of romance and elegance. For my mother and me, memories of the past slide into the present and prevail in stories still to be revealed like the scent of our individual and shared chemistries. Breathe in, be present, breathe out, imagine the future, and prepare for the hint and possibility of new memories, here, there, and everywhere. Happy 100th birthday to you both.
Read the original piece on Oldster.
According to all the cable and Made For TV movies I watched in the 80s, adolescence was the time in a young person’s life when everything worked out perfectly in the end. If you were a teenager with a problem all you had to do was find an adult to turn to, who’d instantly recognize your potential and help you figure out what to do.
So, I imagined that when I got to high school, I’d finally find That Person. That Person: a cool-ass lady whose way of being I could aspire to, who made me believe in what was possible.
That Person would look at me with recognition, because maybe she looked like me—not in features, but in some esoteric, unnamable way. For years, I searched for this whole vibe personified in the face of basically any woman over the age of 18 who walked into any room. Are you That Person? Are you That Person?
I was a rudderless only child, pinched in between my parents’ chaos, an interracial former couple savagely separated, so I wanted That Person to be a mother figure, too. I imagined a metaphysical amalgam of Toni Morrison, Claire Huxtable, Glinda The Good Witch (in both “The Wiz” and “The Wizard of Oz”), Iona in “Pretty in Pink,” and JoBeth Williams as Carol Ann’s mom in “Poltergeist.”
I also imagined high school would be like “Fame”: As Coco, I’d break into song and dance in the cafeteria, then hang out at my locker in a leotard with all my friends, and we’d watch Leroy Johnson, the hottest guy in school, roller skate down the hall in satin gym shorts. In reality, the high school I went to didn’t have lockers. We didn’t even have guys. My nearly all-white all girls school was embarrassingly tiny, and for a private institution, afflicted with a lack of vision and few resources. We were legit known around town as “the lame school,” and no one came to our dances or any of our plays.
All our drama classes had to offer were weird exercises, like inventing and then embodying the sound and movement of a specific kind of make-believe machine, and then your classmates had to guess what your function was, which I found totally pointless and degrading. So tectonics seemed to shift when Margaret “Margo” Daly whirled in as a first-year educator, hired to be the new drama teacher. Ms. Daly ushered in a whole new era in our drama department.
Under her bubbly but rigorous direction, students memorized monologues from Greek tragedies and wrote their own late night talk shows. She didn’t simply ask us, “If you were a dog what kind of dog would you be?” She, herself, was a whole dog rescue shelter in a 1400-square-foot auditorium—actually just a gym with no athletic equipment. Ms. Daly had tulip-petal lips and a subtle red hue to her short, straight, floppy hair, but she didn’t look like any famous white woman I could think of. She was brought in at the forefront of a handful of young, cool teachers, early Gen Xers. They were so youthful, it seemed as if they could be our friends. When Ms. Daly called out to a girl in the hallway, she even sounded like one of us. I rarely saw her walking from one class to the next without a student by her side. Sometimes she gave us a glimpse of her personal life, joking about the perils of dating; how she was always getting set up by somebody’s mother’s neighbor’s cousin, and how this guy was too full of himself, and that guy wore Bugle Boy pants. I imagined Ms. Daly could be That Person.
Tiny as our school was, I wasn’t in Ms. Daly’s immediate orbit for very long. Despite years of “performance experience” (rigorous dance numbers through the house when I was home alone, and singing The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” with my best friend Mia on Cambridge streets, Camel Lights burning between our fingers, just to see if strangers would give us money), I was anxiety-riddled and debilitatingly insecure. Since drama was an elective after sophomore year, I elected to sit it out. I was too insecure to take part in public performance situations, especially ones in which things were expected of me and counted on my report card.
A part of me still wanted to be in drama class so that I’d feel included, but it wasn’t like I wanted to pursue acting, so it wasn’t worth the trouble. Besides, I already knew I wanted to be a writer. If I did sufficiently well in English, it was due solely to the writing. Not because my writing was good yet, but because I had big ideas, and I wrote all the time.
Still, Ms. Daly was a fixture on the periphery of my compact world. My friends were among her favorite students. Some of them, like me, didn’t even take drama. She invited them over for a pizza party one weekend, which I wasn’t supposed to know about, and I was pretty sure they called Ms. Daly “Margo” to her face, after school.
I was hardly the only one with trouble at home, but maybe mine was more public and looked less surmountable. Maybe it was the perceived difference between “trouble at home” and “troubled.” I was already in deep danger of flunking out. I didn’t discover until decades later that I had ADD Inattentive Type, which meant an inability to focus, trouble understanding directions, illogical thinking and a tendency to forget how to handle tasks I’d done a million times, and a general sense of overwhelm, and Dyscalculia, which meant my brain couldn’t process anything related to numbers. I worked at a coffee shop for six months and at shift’s end the manager would count my register, side-eye me, and say, “The till is off,” which might as well be a life-long metaphor.
The lack of teacher-student boundaries seemed wrong; it still does. But the high school had a population of only 50 girls and a handful of faculty members fresh out of grad school, so maybe it was unavoidable. While I resented the fact that no overseer kept that shit in check so that no one would feel left out of the fold, I would’ve been fine with the fold if I were on the inside of it. I couldn’t yet articulate the somatic otherness back then—that all those girls were white—or the optics of being the only student of color among my friends, and on the outside of their little group. Or the disillusionment, and how jealous I was of the girls who were kept under Ms. Daly’s wing. I could only wonder what was wrong with me, a resounding question. Was I just a lost cause?
Junior year, my head spun The Exorcist style when Ms. Daly announced our first all-school musical would be "West Side Story,” that epic retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City among rival street gangs in a race rumble. She quickly assured us she’d import as many boys of as many ethnicities from other high schools as she could find. Everyone was buzzing. Margaret “Margo” Daly had the balls to do “West Side Story” at a school like ours. And who didn’t love “West Side Story"?
Some basic concerns worth pointing out here in hindsight: Not everybody loves “West Side Story.” I can’t do math, but I know “zero,” and within the context of our school, Hispanic and Latino representation equaled 0% of the student population. As far as I knew, nobody lived in a tenement building either. That the 1961 movie’s Maria is played by Natalie Wood and her brother Bernardo is played by a Greek-American actor with a caked-on George Hamilton tan to look Puerto Rican didn’t help.
But I’d watched the original film, my mother’s favorite musical, countless times from the time I was in Wonder Woman Underoos. As an ethnically ambiguous kid whose skin color didn’t match that of her dark-skinned father or her white-pink mother, I thought about “West Side Story,” reimagined it, often. Bernstein’s score slithered and swam in my veins. I swooned over the iconic images on the screen—the colors and the choreography were like candy. In my mind I was every character all at once. I already knew the dialogue, the stage directions, and all the finger-snapping sequences, so I could have been a shoe-in. But I couldn’t actually sing, and I’d never auditioned for anything before. The thought gave me the sweats.
I managed to pull myself together at the last minute. Even after a humiliating vocal rendition of “Tonight” in front of the music teacher and Ms. Daly, I was cast as Snowboy, one of the Jets. I threw myself into four months of rehearsals. It felt like important work. I mostly mouthed the words to some of the songs because I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but I was a good dancer and my bad attitude and two-line delivery were on point. Rehearsal was the thing I looked forward to the most, rivaled only by weekends spent drinking, smoking, and making out with boys at friends’ houses perpetually void of parental supervision. The cast was a tight team, a family. During the last of just two performances some of us wept in the wings at intermission, realizing it was half over.
I requested Ms. Daly as my advisor for the following year, my last. It was a last ditch effort to make her That Person. I hadn’t processed that she was just a few years older than my new 22-year-old boyfriend. He was a walking cliché–an actor/musician/flagrant two-timer whom I’ll call Kevin, because that’s his real name. One weekend he said maybe we should break up, then said, I can’t not be with you, then said, let’s just see what happens. I ranted to Ms. Daly about it in an advisory meeting on Monday. She looked exhausted just listening to me.
“What should I do?” I pleaded. “Tell me what I should do.”
She looked down at the desk and said, “I just think you deserve to be with someone who knows they want to be with you.”
No one had ever said anything like that to me before.
I looked out the window and said nothing else. That I might deserve someone who knew they wanted to be with me wasn’t just about a guy. That “someone” was also extended to me. It was about all kinds of relationships. It was about my future. It was about my self-regard.
I last saw Margo over two decades ago when I was working at an organization that helped middle and high school teachers integrate discussions of racism and antisemitism into their English, History, and Creative Arts programs. I saw her at her wedding. I myself wasn’t invited; I happened to be dating a guy whose Hungarian parents went way back with hers. Everyone was at the wedding: Maria, Bernardo, Riff, almost all of the other Jets, and a few of the Sharks. My old friends who’d been close to Margo in high school were in the wedding party. Ms. Marshall, the cool 11th grade math teacher, asked about the non-profit and I filled her in on my work.
“I’m proud of you!” she said. Then she added, “We always thought of you as The Hellion.” My complicated relationship with that school, with Margo at the center, needled me. I tucked into myself, and kept to the back table with the Hungarians.
Margo and I reconnected last year, during the pandemic, having found each other on social media. Her cheery, casually confident voice sprang from my phone and I could imagine her on the other side of the call pushing her hair back, letting it fall behind her ears in feathered layers, like the shuffle of a deck of cards. We caught up on her life—her role as a teacher, and as the creative director of an award-winning arts center, and as a mother of two teens—and my life: as a writer, teacher, also a mother of two (cats). Then we shifted to our shared history.
“You were a hard nut to crack,” Margo said. “Lots of stomping up the stairs, lots of tears, and contentious parents, and just such sadness. I knew you didn't believe in yourself.”
I heard her shift in her chair and pop a crunchy snack into her mouth.
“But there was this light when you connected,” she said. “I made you a Jet for a reason. I was trying to pull you in to the community. You’d get pissed and you'd push us away. But we knew that. That was part of the job.”
I leaned my elbow on my desk in my work-from-home situation and rested my head in my hand. I smiled.
“There was no way I was going to let you not try out,” Margo said.
Margo wasn’t That Person I looked for, imagined with such longing—whoever that woman was, or could have been. But she came pretty close. Before that phone conversation last year, if you asked what made me decide to audition for “West Side Story” in 11th grade despite my fears and insecurities, I would’ve said I didn’t want to be left out and that I never would have forgiven myself if I hadn’t. I know now that was half of the truth. It may not be an actual memory, but I can visualize Margo poking her head out of a classroom and as I walk down the hall, her eyes follow me. She lowers her chin and asks, “Kearsley, you’re trying out, right.” without the suspended lilt of a question.
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