My most vivid memory of my mom takes me back to Saint Joseph’s Elementary School and the cultural event of the year, the Christmas play.
In first grade, Jan Rigatoni (not her real name) got to portray a “cute toy doll” sitting in Santa’s lap. She wore a beautiful light blue dress with a big bow in the back and a very fluffy petticoat AND she had a speaking part. She got to say, “Mama.” This may have been the beginning of my suspicion that cute girls with blue eyes, straight hair and pretty clothes got more attention than those of us with frizzy brown hair, brown eyes and three dresses for the school year.
That was the secular portion of the play, but every play always included a finale with a re-enactment of the manger scene. Generally, any eighth grade girl with long brown hair got to be Mary, any eighth grade boy with facial hair was Joseph and Jesus was played by a baby doll. I started growing my dark hair long in 6th grade (because it was the 60’s) with the added bonus that I’d be a shoe-in for Mary. But when I got to 8th grade, with perfect Mary length hair, they canceled the Christmas play.
In first grade, I would have loved a speaking part, but was forced to make my Christmas debut as a lifeless nurse doll that sat on the floor. I should have never asked for that nurse’s outfit in the Spiegel Catalogue. As soon as the nuns got wind of it, I was typecast. I had to sit in my little white cap and navy blue cape with Red Cross emblem and do my best to look like a nurse doll. I perfected a sort of a glazed over stare that I think made me look more like a very small, dead nurse.
In second grade, the nuns decided that since I’d done such an outstanding job as dead nurse doll in first grade, I should do a repeat performance. By third grade my enthusiasm for the Christmas play evaporated as I graduated from lifeless nurse doll to invisible member of the chorus.
Finally, in sixth grade I got my big break as one of the snowflake dancers, a plum role! There were eight of us; four girls and four boys and we even held hands as we danced. This was clearly the big time because they brought in Kathy Helble (her real name) the local tap dance teacher. She worked with us repeating “step, shuffle, hop, step shuffle, hop, step shuffle, hop, step, step, step,” until we could shuffle no more. We practiced through November and December until the big night.
Our Christmas extravaganzas were held in the dry, dusty basement of St. Joseph’s Church. During the school year we quietly filed down the stone steps into its silent mustiness to get our ears and our eyes tested. In the fall we left shopping bags filled with canned goods for the Harvest Festival food drive. But at Christmas, the church basement was transformed into a winter wonderland. Backdrops with snow covered hills or magical Toylands set the scene for our annual production.
Mom and Dad even made a special trip to J.C.Penney because the nuns demanded I have a red skirt and white turtleneck for the occasion. The boys were in pants and white turtlenecks and we were all powdered and rouged to simulate a fever of 105.
I stood on stage in formation, holding my partner, Gary Mahey’s (not his real name) sweaty hand and started off with a step shuffle hop, step shuffle hop. The creaky plywood stage swayed with every move we made, but we were doing it!
Until some of us stepped when we should have hopped and our momentum was crushed. We all stood watching each other, like paralyzed sheep, waiting, thinking, Somebody hop for God’s sake!
Everything was hopelessly ruined, we all wanted the dance to end, and Gary, the boy with the worst temper in class, was making matters worse by scowling on stage. Even then, I knew the show must go on, so I smiled sweetly at the audience, hoping my joie de vivre would distract them from my lumberjack dance moves. Then I whispered Gary’s ear, “Smile or I’ll break your neck.” He broke into a nice smile, but we never spoke of it afterward.
Our parents were packed in on folding wooden chairs with even more parents crowding the back and the aisles. I looked up, flushed from excitement, embarrassment and several pounds of rouge, scanning the dark audience.
I spotted her in seconds. First the silver, horn rimmed glasses reflecting the light and then – the broadest grin in the entire group. There was no missing my Italian mother. As soon as she saw she’d caught my eye I could see her pointing me out proudly and probably loudly to my Dad and everyone else.
I couldn’t believe it. There I was, desperately shuffling, like I had a nervous condition, and she was pointing to me with pride. I looked away, but my stomach knotted up as I caught her eye. I flushed again, with what I realized was happiness and only a little embarrassment, that she was there for me as usual. We finished that performance deflated, but were perfect the next night.
I remember how calm, polite and, TV mom reserved, the other parents seemed as they sat smiling and clapping. But my mother was ready to burst out of her seat and explode with pride, having no idea what being reserved meant when it came to her children (even ones screwing up the snowflake dance).
All my young life I’d wanted my mom to be like June Cleaver; nice and normal… but this was one time when Mrs. Cleaver paled in comparison.