When I was five, I saw my first Shirley Temple movie. It enchanted me. “Mommy, can you teach me to dance like that? Please? Please?”
Her 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. Mom enrolled him in classes with me.
I studied ballet and tap in a breathtaking studio of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, golden lighting, and ballet barres which lined one of the walls. Shiny wooden floors, tall leafy plants, and a row of copper chairs completed this little place of heaven on earth.
Mrs. Mauer would say, “Never quit, Nancy. Never give up on your dreams.”
She was a strong influence on me and encouraged me to push harder. I’ll never forget her fun-loving teaching and patient mentoring.
Whenever I wore my ruffled pink 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 any free moment, determined to perfect the routine. The vibrations on my bedroom floor frayed on my father’s nerves, and he yelled at me to stop. Fearful he would punish me, I took off my tap shoes and practiced in my socks.
The day finally arrived a month after my ninth birthday. Mom set my hair in Shirley Temple banana curls. Adorned in a Lamé costume, glittery gloves, and golden tap shoes, I sparkled from head to toe. I struck a pose in front of a full-length mirror, tipped my hip to the side and did a heel tap.
No stage fright for me. I beamed throughout the entire recital. Five girls danced by my side, but I knew all eyes were on me. The audience rose to its feet as I bowed. I shut my eyes and soaked up the applause.
After that, I transformed my bedroom into a sanctuary. An RCA record player became my unfailing friend. I danced to my favorite 45 records. My world of dance and imaginary family would define my life’s greatest desires.
I created a Neverland in my mind. Gyrating in front of my bedroom mirror transported me to wildflower fields that overflowed with other tiny dancers like me and dispelled my loneliness.
By the age of nine, I had mastered tap dance and the latest dance crazes, such as “The Twist” and “The Stroll.” I became alive through my fantasy life. No one could hurt me there. When I danced, I sailed into paradise where my dreary world no longer existed. If only dance had done that for me in the years that followed.
When Mom gave birth to my second brother, Billy, (eight years later), his face had a gaping hole where his upper lip and nostrils should have been. Not one to express emotion, Mom set about the task at hand of caring for my brother. Billy underwent several surgeries to correct his cleft palate before his first birthday.
A sweeter, happier baby did not exist. Billy brought a unique joy into our lives. My brother, of course, had no awareness of his affliction, and although he suffered obvious pain, he cooed and smiled.
Billy remained cheerful until that awful first day of school. He had looked forward to making new friends. But he came home sobbing. When he could finally speak, he said the other children laughed and called him names: “Hey, crater face.” “Ewww! Gross!” The ridicule never ended.
Billy possessed an extraordinarily tender soul. His tears escalated over the years into a severe depression that lasted throughout his lifetime. Mom cared for him until the day she died.
Mom found herself pregnant again in August of that same year. Would she give birth to another disfigured child? Kathy’s appearance relieved her. My mother delighted in my cuddly baby sister, and so did I.
Mom adorned Kathy in cute dresses—she looked like my baby dolls. A natural-born nurturer, I mothered my siblings. Besides, since my weary mother insisted that I help her, I watched them, changed diapers, and walked them in their carriage. I had hoped to recapture her love, but that didn’t happen.
My relationship with Mom changed after Kathy was born. She fought with Daddy more often and constantly yelled at my siblings and me. And she acted awfully sad. I often heard her cry when she cooked dinner.
My father grew angrier, often snapping, “Will you all shut up! I just got home from work, and I want some peace and quiet.” He poured himself a drink, then another.
After dinner, my father settled into his recliner in our music room, lit his pipe, and listened to classical records with a bottle of brandy on the side table. Mom left in her car for her usual evening drive and didn’t come home until after we children were already in bed.
I covered my head with my blanket and read a book with a flashlight until I heard Mom return. Sometimes I feared that she wouldn’t. I didn’t think she liked us anymore.
When she and Daddy were in the bedroom with the door closed at night, I often heard her cry, “Bob, no! Stop!” through my wall. He was hurting her. Knowing I could not help her, I covered my ears with my pillow. I was too young to know what spousal abuse was or to see her childhood dream slip away,
Neither of my parents hesitated to take out their irritations on my siblings and me. I tried to hug my father, but he brushed right by me each time.
While Mom worked, driving a Mister Softee ice cream truck, Daddy, routinely drunk, taunted me about my buck teeth, called me Mom’s little bastard and yelled at my younger siblings. Then he punished us with no TV, no toys, and no playing outside. I did not understand the word “bastard,” but I figured it meant that I was disobedient. If my mother knew about his mistreatment, she did nothing to stop it.
Mom grew cold toward me and often slapped me across my face, yanked my hair, or yelled at me for the smallest offense. One afternoon she tugged my ponytail and dragged me up the staircase, then threw me onto my bedroom floor.
“Young lady, I hope you’ve learned your lesson about walking into this house late.”
“Mommy,” I blubbered, “I had to erase the blackboard for Mrs. Norris today.”
“Shut up! I am not interested in your excuses.” No dinner for me that night.
But my parents bought us Easter baskets and all that we wrote on our wish lists for our birthdays and Christmases. We each had a closet full of clothes. Mom took us to McDonald’s and the drive-in movies on Saturday nights which left me confused. Did they love us or not? And if so, why did they hurt us?
Our childhood grew into a pattern of never-ending confusion, negligence, and abuse. The sting of my parent’s rejection haunted and drove me for years. When I look in mirrors, I sometimes still see the profound sadness in that little girl’s eyes.