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This Vaudeville Life

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It is often said that the things that happen once the curtain falls is what helps you determine what or who the person is. But what I can tell you, having stood in the scorching heat of that massive spotlight, is that it’s imperative you see the version of me on stage in order to put into perspective and understand by contrast what I am really like as I trod through life without the costume jewelry and powdered face.

Imagine this: At age four I was sold to a group of traveling performers that stayed with my family for a few days on their journey to their next city stop. Everyone had fallen on hard times then. I imagine my mother imagined I would have a better life, certainly a more interesting life, if I belonged to a group of out-of-commission musicians instead of growing up with a spade or pitchfork in my hands scraping at the dry land that refused to put forth anything but sallow yellow dust, unyielding in its entirety even if it meant the death of hungry mouths and wasting figures. The group consisted of both men and women, six of them in total. They pitied the couple with shrunken cheekbones who shared what little fare they had for the few days they chose to rest at the ramshackle barn in their empty yellow land. The least they could do was pay them back somehow. But they wouldn’t allow them to just give them money without being given something else in return, and because the choice was between a bad tempered scrawny cat or their 4 year old daughter, they asked if they could take their 4 year old daughter with them. The musicians figured it was better to subject the child to a life of wandering roads and some good music than one of poignant hardship and eventual death from starvation. And that is how I grew up with a group of traveling performers – some actors, some musicians, and one magician. Although the latter of the lot hardly ever performed since he spent a majority of this days with his rose colored nose dipped in cheap whiskey and wine. But even while I was adapting to my new life of amusement, music and performances, I remained unrelenting in my values like that of someone who had struggled miserably in life. Always consistent and almost naturally hardy in my core, like I had lived through the hardship the farm had promised anyhow.

I spent a good deal of my early teens wearing raggedy hand me downs and learning to play the harp for the theatrical acts. Of course life didn’t let me remain the gaunt girl with the skeletal figure playing the harp in the corner. The one I would have most liked to be till the very end. Life had plans. My auburn hair grew long and dark with curls in it. My breasts filled out the one size too large dresses I was passed down by the older women in the lot. My limbs lengthened and my skin turned an exotic brown from all the walking I did with the group. My unusually large rounded eyes added character to my performance in the theatrical bits, or so I was told repeatedly by the troupe leader. I was made to learn acrobatics from the acrobats in the group. From the day I was given my own solo performance my life became a cycle of solicited large audiences to keep us afloat and many an unsolicited attention from men with their wandering gazes and wandering hands. Despite the numbness I generally felt towards everything in life, fear…..and this is something people don’t tell you, but even in your state of being indifferent and unfeeling in anything, fear springs eternal just as hope does. That little protuberance of fear, the one that forms itself a little more prominently in the left side of your chest, will always be there. Even when you tell yourself you didn’t care whether you lived or you didn’t. And that was my contrast.

I used to perform to this musical number which was my favorite bit to do, and it was the act that either opened or closed our show. It was the one where all the musicians set up on the front row facing the stage and I danced alone, on stage, through metal hoops set up with shimmering bells dangling from them. It was the one where I forgot for the duration of the song that I wore clothes I did not feel comfortable in. It was the one song where I looked around to spot the children in the audience and wondered if it was a different feeling altogether to grow up with a family. To have a father and a mother devoted to loving just you. Sometimes the hoops I danced with were set on fire and even in the heat of the overhead light and the flames I was my most confident. No fear. No perturbation. And it is during this particular number that you will see my one stark contrast that puts into perspective the version of me on stage and the one behind the fallen curtain. It isn’t the contrast between the opulence of the velvet in my skirt on stage and my simple faded cotton dress I wear every day, or the color on my lips as I smile at the people to my constant lip chewing as I sit there thinking about a little more than nothing. It is mostly the contrast between the person I become in the most physically threatening moment during my performance and the person I become when threatened by fear, no matter how little, in real life.

I don’t wonder too much about my parents or the farm they picked me up from. That was not my life. That was not where I was meant to be. They tell me my life is better this way, with them, performing, and even though I cannot imagine how that might be so, I believe them.

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