By the time I was four years old, I knew I would be an actress. I didn’t know that it was a career option, per se, or even something one chose to be -- I simply was an Actress. Although I’m sure there had, heretofore, been certain indications, this fact was indelibly impressed on my own little heart -- and my young mother's -- one snowy Buffalo afternoon in the 1970s.
We were in a gift shop near our house. Actually, “gift shop” doesn’t do it justice; it was more of a studio, an atelier where one-of-a-kind pottery, crocheted angora shawls, and hammered silver jewelry – high class hippie handicrafts -- were artfully displayed, gallery style, prices upon request. This is an important distinction, because if a young lady is about to have a defining artistic moment, it would be a tragic thing indeed to find oneself in a Hallmark store, Yankee Candle or, for the love of mercy, Spencer Gifts.
Even now I can conjure the loamy aroma of corkwood, clay, and hemp yarn macramè that suffused the room. For my mom, herself a prodigiously creative, gypsy-skirted painter-potter-jewelry maker, this store was heaven. But it wasn’t the kind of place a preschooler finds very appealing. I lolled around on a sheepskin rug by the window with my corduroy jumper pulled up over my head while my mom chatted with the owner, admiring her wares.
And then, it caught my eye. Sweet Mary, Mother of our Lord. Over in the corner, just beyond me – how had I missed it till now? -- on a carpeted pedestal, sat… a beaver.
I mean to say, the softest, most impossibly adorable stuffed semi-aquatic rodent you can imagine. Unique! Improbable! Lifelike, but not creepy. Tenderly hand sewn of lush brown suede and real fur, with gleaming glass eyes and little white leather buck teeth. A Teddy Beaver!
I held my breath and ran to it, moved beyond words. My lower lip quivered; tears of recognition burned in my eyes. For this was MY beaver, my own, my very, very own, and we had found one another at last, two waifs adrift on a sea of shag carpet. With trembling fingers I lifted it from its DuPont perch and clutched it to my breast. I murmured gentle words into its velvety ear, and lo, the bonds of eternal love were formed.
Well, when my mother realized what was going on, she no doubt sensed there was a world of heartache in our future. She approached me gingerly, and said something like, “Oh, that is a nice thing, isn’t it. Where did you find it? Almost time to put it back now.” But equivocation flickered in her eyes. She studied the toy as we talked. She wanted to buy me that beaver, and I knew it.
She shillyshallied in the store, and I pulled off an air of insouciance as she spoke on the sly with the shopkeeper. “She’s limed, I warrant you,” I whispered to my toothsome little friend. No way on God’s white frozen earth was I going home without that beaver.
At last, my mom turned in slow motion and strode toward to me, and I beheld something in her face that made my throat feel as if I’d just swallowed a large tuft of fur.
Ninety dollars they wanted for this beaver. In 1976! It was over.
An Ojo de Dios of rainbow colored yarn stared down from the wall, as I cast myself upon the floor and wailed.
My mother knelt beside me. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I know how much you love it. But you have lots of stuffed animals.”
“Not like this! Not like this!”
My hiccupping sobs were muffled by the carpet, and a terrible, sorrowful, helpless silence hung in the room. I let it.
And then, I lifted my head and torso and struck a pose of graceful wretchedness, like “Christina” in the Andrew Wyeth painting. I tilted my tear-stained face to find my light, letting just enough snot run that it was authentic but stopped short of truly gross. It was a strain even to speak, and just to drive that point home, I raised my fingertips to rest lightly at my throat...
It is said that when the legendary actress Sarah Siddons portrayed Lady Macbeth, her “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in the harrowing sleepwalking scene caused audience members of the fairer sex to faint dead away.
My performance wasn’t that good – to be fair, I was still quite green! -- but almost.
I gazed up through the distorting orbs of my tears, until finally, the…er…dam…broke, and the words flowed forth –
“But it is very, very special to me!”
Now, this is the moment when any idiot could plainly see that the shop’s proprietor was called upon to intercede on the side of good and say, “Oh, she should have it. She must. Ninety bucks is a small price to pay for such artistry – the designer’s and the child’s. Give the girl her beaver! Oh take it! Just take it. It’s yours.”
But nothing. Crickets, as we say in the theatre.
Instead, my mother turned her head away momentarily, and I thought I saw her exchange a snicker with the shopkeeper.
“Jenny,” she said, “You should win an Academy Award.”
I had no idea what that meant, but I immediately liked the sound of it.
In a hoarse stage whisper I replied, “Your lips to God’s ears.”
My mom leaned in close to scoop me up and extract me from the shop before I had the chance to begin a performance of a less artful kind. To her eternal credit, as she did so, she spoke privately in my ear.
“Let’s go home now and we will make an Even. Better. Beaver.”
What can I say? Stravinsky, Picasso, Eliot, virtuosos in every discipline have admitted it -- “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.”
I left the store dejected, licking my wounds, but with renewed hope, and, most importantly, the determination to make the very thing I wanted most in the world. Which, come to think of it, has pretty much characterized my whole creative life.
We went home, dried the tears and got to work.
And although its fur was faux, its suede, ultra, and its eyes, shiny little black plastic buttons instead of glass, it was, to be sure, a superior beaver. And very, very special to me.
I was a young girl, just beginning to discover her creative potential. And perhaps, that day, I'd gotten my first in what was to become a long line of tough lessons -- that if you’re going to be a woman in the arts, chances are, riveting performances won't be enough. You have to be canny and resourceful and ferociously independent. You can’t wait for anyone to give you anything, you have to let go of the need for outside assurance that your work is the genuine article, and you must never, ever, take “no” for an answer.
If you want to make something meaningful, you have to embrace and embody the full scope of your fundamental, unique, intrinsically productive feminine powers, and just keep banging it out.
I didn’t really start learning that lesson till 40, but looking back, it’s as clear as the tears that streaked my four-year old face.
I’d like to thank my mother -- for indulging my artistic whims, and for setting an example of ingenuity and relentless, ever-evolving creativity.
I’d like to thank the shopkeeper, and the artist -- for that great idea we stole.
I’d like to thank The Academy -- for nothin’.
But most of all, I have to thank --