II found it hard to fit in with a cliquey group of girls my age who lived across the street. Who would want to hang out with a bony, bucktooth, bashful kid from a weird family? Patsy, Judy, and Debby let me tag along behind them but never included me. The few friends I knew from school rarely invited me to parties.
So I had my own. Surrounding our creaky, old duplex with its tiny fenced-in backyard, were seemingly endless woods that abounded with lush, sky-high trees. I explored every inch of my enchanted forest, and my favorite place was a massive oak tree surrounded by a maze of large roots.
Whenever I had a chance, I gathered my family of little plastic Disney figurines and dashed off to my secret tree. The nooks and crannies of the roots served as rooms in my “home.” Mimicking what I’d watched on the TV sitcom The Donna Reed Show, I transformed from a child into a mother with a model family, creating my own perfect world.
When I was eight, I transformed my bedroom into a sanctuary. An RCA record player became my unfailing friend. I locked my door and danced to my favorite 45 records. When I danced, I sailed into paradise where my everyday world no longer existed. If only dancing could have done that for me in following years.
During my early childhood, on Saturday afternoons, Daddy retreated to his piano bench, a pipe dangling from his lips and a snifter of brandy on the piano top. “Come with Daddy, Kitten.”
Whenever he called me that, it meant he was in a rare good mood. Latching onto his T-shirt, I skipped behind him into the living room. I watched as his fingers danced across the keys. His love of the piano soothed him, and I never saw him happier or more relaxed. He let me hover over him and turned the music pages.
He often sat me in his lap and said, “Kitten, play ‘Chopsticks’ for Daddy.” Then he took my fingers in his hands and tapped each key with me.
“Am I doing it right, Daddy?” I always knew what he’d say next.
“You’re a real Beethoven, Kitten,” I had no idea who Beethoven was, but I knew my daddy was proud of me!
The melodies, the smell of Old Spice on him, the way he tenderly touched my cheek—those afternoons seemed to an opportunity to bond with him. The calming music mixed with fragrant cherry tobacco to permeate the air and create a sense of comfort throughout our home. It gave me a false sense of security.
I spent many nights in that room, lying on a plush beige rug over the heated floor, voraciously reading Nancy Drew books during the frigid winter months.
When I was five, I saw my first Shirley Temple movie. It left me spellbound. “Mommy, can you teach me to dance like that? Please? Please?” I looked into her eyes and fluttered my eyelashes. That always seemed to work. Her own singing aspirations dashed and abandoned, Mom had vicarious dreams for me.
The following Monday she drove me to the Leah Mauer School of Dance, not far from our New Jersey home. I fell in love with Mrs. Mauer the moment I saw her graceful dance. Bobby had dance aspirations too, so Mom enrolled him in classes with me. I studied ballet and tap in a breathtaking studio of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, dazzling lighting, and ballet barres lining one of the walls. Shiny wooden floors, tall leafy plants, and a row of coppery chairs completed this little place of heaven on earth.
I dreamed I’d be a famous dancer one day and perform in movies. I’d also become a happy wife and mother. Mrs. Mauer would say, “Never quit, Nancy. Never give up on your dreams.” She was a strong influence on me and always encouraged me to push harder. I’ll never forget her fun-loving teaching and patient mentoring.
Whenever I wore my ruffled tutu, I twirled round and round in front of those mirrors. I felt like a princess and adored being a ballerina. But when Mrs. Mauer positioned me as the lead dancer in a tap recital, my ballet interests faded. I rehearsed every free moment, determined to perfect the routine. The constant tapping vibrated my bedroom floor frayed my father’s nerves, and he screamed at me to stop. But I defied him because Mom stuck up for me, and he wouldn’t attend my recital anyway.
The day finally arrived two weeks after my ninth birthday. Mom set my hair in banana curls, like Shirley Temple’s hairdo. Adorned in a Lamé costume, glittery gloves, and golden tap shoes, I sparkled from head to toe. Striking a pose in front of a full-length mirror, I tipped my hip to the side and did a heel-tap. Just like Shirley.
My prized Shirley Temple Doll’
Wish I still had this memory