Whenever I go back to visit my parents in the upstate New York city where I grew up, I run into old childhood friends and classmates who have stayed in the area. One day, I ran out to the grocery store to stock up on the mac and cheese my daughters prefer, and when I arrived home, I said to my mom, "Hey, I saw Andrea Jordan at the market on East Avenue. She's working at a bank now. Seems to be doing really well."
To which my mother said, "Andrea Jordan. That little bizm."
To hear my normally serene mother utter the old school Yorkshire profanity she learned at her mother's knee --well, suffice it to say I've changed my classmate's real name to protect her innocence.
"What's wrong with Andrea Jordan?" I asked, curious to see if my septuagenarian mother and my former classmate had somehow been mixing it up on the mean streets of suburbia.
Now it was my mother's turn to be incredulous. "You don't remember? How in third grade she made a big deal about getting all the girls to weigh themselves and it was a trick so she could find out how much you weighed and then tease you about it? Oh, I could have knocked her block off."
Again, shock. I was a fat kid?
"I have virtually no recollection of that," I said slowly, racking my memory. "When I think of Andrea, all I can remember is that she once let me ride her bike, and that was the first time I ever rode without training wheels."
"Well," said my mom, still smarting over the dirt done her daughter three decades earlier. "I give her a wide berth."
At the time I thought it was cute, a show of loyalty, a little crazy. Then there was an incident that let me feel my mother's pain.
My two daughters and I had traveled to see Grandma and Grandpa on the East Coast for a short visit during winter break. We were scheduled to fly home to California on a Sunday morning. That was important, because the next day after we got back, my younger daughter's school drama program was holding auditions for a production of Alice in Wonderland.
This girl loves every tiny aspect of performing -- so much so that when she's not rehearsing a play, she's writing them and casting her sister, dog, parents and friends. During our visit to the grandparents, she gave my mom a private master class in acting called "How to Pretend to Eat Fake Fruit." Performing is her joy, and that's why I tear up when I see her onstage -- not necessarily because she's a gifted actress, but because it illuminates her from inside.
Accordingly, she had been preparing for the Alice audition for weeks, memorizing songs and lines, reading Lewis Carroll books, and choreographing steps to an original dance (which, à la Sarah Palin in the presidential debates, she planned to record on the palm of her hand in case she ran into any trouble). She was going for the main prize: the big A.
Only she didn't get to audition. Our flights were cancelled by bad weather in Chicago, two days straight. We emailed the theater's director, a young man who responded kindly and said "Shouldn't be a problem in this advanced technological age. Just videotape her audition and upload it to YouTube. Or you could Skype it."
When my dad wants to pick up email, he unplugs the wall phone. Then he walks the cord over to his laptop, and the only computer in North America still reliant on dial-up groans to life. Ninety minutes later, Dad's seven emails are finally in his inbox.
So no, we couldn't employ any technological trickery and when we finally got home, the die was cast and the cast list was already posted. Our girl got the part of "Lily," who has three lines, one of which is "I know, right?" My daughter whispered to me, bewildered, "That's the part they give kids who are too afraid to audition!"
Her shattered face, her sob of "I just wanted a fair shot!" and her sniffled request that I remove the balled-up Alice in Wonderland costume she'd carefully laid out on the floor the night before the trip felt worse than a punishment from the Red Queen.
The rational parent in me talked about rising above life's unfairness, making lemons from lemonade, no small parts, only small actors. I gave thanks for a husband who actually meant those things when he said them to her, and the compassionate friend who showed up that evening with a bouquet of lilies.
The feral lioness in me wanted to reach out and smite the airlines, the tiny regional airport with only three flights a day, AOL, and, for good measure, absurdist children's novelists of the late 19th century. When I went to bed that night, a burning ember of anguish pressed down on my chest so hard I couldn't even cry. I just lay there, catatonic, and wondering how to help my child get past the same pain.
The next day one of my daughter's friends was scheduled to come over after school -- the little girl who had been cast as Alice. I pulled up in the traffic circle at the end of the school day and there stood the girls, like giant accessorized rainbow turtles with their stuffed backpacks studded with dangly keychains. They tumbled into the car mid-discussion.
"He's going to be so funny as the Caterpillar."
"Let's practice Zip A Dee Doo Dah first."
"What color should Mari's costume be?"
Minutes later they were sitting at the kitchen table, heads pressed together over a single script, performing their own version of a table read. The other little girl sighed and said, "Lily is such a cool part. You're lucky." To which my daughter responded, "Don't worry. You're going to be an awesome Alice."
My kid quickly put it behind her and moved on. As for me, I will be able to recall the flight number that was supposed to take us home in time for the audition, even when I'm my mother's age.
But not out of regret or bitterness. I'll remember the Alice Audition Debacle for the same reason my mom remembers Andrea Jordan and her underhanded tricks--out of a sense of wonder and gratitude that the children we bore were strong enough to overcome them, even if we weren't.