I didn’t know it at the time, but that day when I was five years old, the thing that happened, was a type of my whole life. Looking back I see how it has predicted the rest of my life, as if it set my life on a trajectory it has never fallen off. Sometimes spinning. Sometimes sliding. But always powered by the same missed cues.
Mornings Mom worked hard at scrubbing, washing, dusting, putting away, sweeping, anything that made things cleaner or neater. Even at the young age of five, I was aware that she couldn’t stop. Once her feet hit the floor in the morning it was work, work, work until dark had long had its way with the world. Anything that kept her from her work, no matter how wonderful it seemed to me, amounted to an unwanted interruption.
That’s why Mom vigilantly peered through the kitchen window while she worked watching for visits from Geneal Fowler who lived next door. I never figured out why she watched, because it didn’t change anything. Mother could never be dishonest and not answer the door or pretend not to hear the knock. Instead she would see Geneal coming and say, “Oh, no. I don’t have time to visit today,” then she’d answer the knock, smile, and invite Geneal into her kitchen. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Geneal. They were best of friends. It was just that Mother had to be working–had to be accomplishing something on her always long to-do list and couldn’t bear to be interrupted. Often during the visits she’d keep right on scrubbing and washing while Geneal sat at the kitchen table and chatted. This particular morning, however, Mom sat down across the table and listened.
I liked Geneal. She was everything Mom wasn’t. She moved leisurely, like she was dancing, and she read books, and played the piano, and hummed and sang right out loud. While raising her small children her house was never tidy, but it didn’t bother her. At the time I even suspected that she planned it that way. My guess was that it actually made life more interesting for her because finding anything in her house was like going on a treasure hunt—like playing a game all day long. Among her other talents, Geneal was an actress. I’d heard talk about her great role in the Ward play (which I hadn’t been allowed to attend) and knew that this year she had been chosen director of the Roadshow.
Discussion of that Roadshow had been one of her favorite subjects for a few weeks now so I knew all about it. Every time she sat down at our kitchen table I listened for any tidbit she might reveal. I knew it had an “under the sea” theme and that the costumes were going to be luminous and glitzy with an ethereal quality. I wasn’t sure any of those words meant, but by the way Geneal said them, I knew they were amazingly wonderful.
As the days passed by a great desire stirred in me. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be in that roadshow. I wanted to act on the stage and have people applaud and make them laugh or cry. I was convinced that if I just had a chance to show her what a wonderful actress I was, she would let me be in the Roadshow even though I wasn’t in mutual yet. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to sing and dance and write plays and I feared that if I didn’t start now, people would think I was a scrubber and washer like Mom and I’d be doomed to a life of toilets and ovens and waxing floors while exciting life went on all around me but without me.
Well, this particular morning Geneal breezed into our house in an unusual state of concern. She was still sure they were going to win the Stake competition for best roadshow. After all, they had the best talent, the best costumes, the best music. But there was one problem. She needed someone small and “wiggly” who could play the part of the fish. The girl, the one who was perfect for the part, had broken her ankle and needed to be replaced. What was she going to do? Everything depended upon having a fish who could move with just the right fishy wiggle.
Her words pierced me with the same jolt I’m sure a fish feels when it bites down on a hook. This was my chance. I could wiggle. I could be the best fish ever. I’d been listening from the corner while playing Jacks. I scooped up my ball and Jacks, put them in their bag and stretched out on the floor as if to take a nap. I waited a moment, listening to my mother suggest names for a perfect fish actress. None of them were me. But there was hope. At each suggestion, Geneal sighed and said, “She’s too tall,” or “She’s not agile enough” or “Are you kidding? She couldn’t wiggle if I put ashes in her pants.”
Now was my chance. I imagined in my head a fish swimming in the water. Dad had taken us fishing often and I knew exactly how fish moved. That stroke of knowledge gave me courage. Certainly it was a sign that this was meant to be. From my place on the floor, near Mom and Geneal’s feet, I began to squirm and wiggle, propelling myself across the floor to the oven. Neither of them noticed. Using my feet like oars, I turned myself around then wiggled past them to the back door. In my mind, I looked exactly like the fish I’d seen in the small stream the summer before. My shoulders propelled me, my hips always curved in the opposite direction to make just the right S shape. My arms hugged my body, but I let my hands flail out just below my waist like fins. I wiggled my fingers to simulate the way I remembered the fish fins shivering in the water. But still neither Mom nor Geneal looked in my direction. I stared up at the ceiling and let out a loud sigh. Still they went on talking as if I weren’t there.
I made two more passes across the room and then grew desperate. How could they not recognize the fine acting? I couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better imitation of a fish. If they would just look at me! Again I “swam” past the table, this time with more force, more “S” curve to propel me. And they talked on. Now, in desperation I could think of only one thing to do. I “swam” right into their feet, under the table, where my wiggling couldn’t be ignored.
“What in the world are you doing, Sherrie?” Mom asked. “I haven’t mopped that floor yet today and you are going to be filthy dirty. Why don’t you go into your room and play.”
I wiggled out from under the table in one last burst of energized hope, and gazed up at Geneal. She was looking! Flailing my body like I’d seen fish do when Dad pulled them from the water, I gave it every fish-wiggle I had left in me and ran right into the oven. It hurt, but it was good. I could envision it in my head and I knew I looked just like a real fish! Geneal raised her eyebrows and stared quizzically, but didn’t say a word.
“Sher-rie!” My mother warned, the two long syllables of my name hanging in the air like volcanic ash making it difficult to breathe.
Where had I gone wrong? Dejectedly I rolled over, climbed onto my knees and slowly stood up. I glanced one last time at Geneal, but it was clear she hadn’t recognized me as a great fish-actress. Hurriedly, I fled to my room, buried my head in my pillow and wished I were far away in another world.
A few weeks later, Mom and Dad took my brother and me to the Roadshows. Since I’d avoided Geneal’s visits after the day of my unofficial tryout, I hadn’t heard any of the news. I didn’t know who had the fish part, or if Geneal thought they were good or not. I wondered if I would recognize which part it was and thought about closing my eyes through the whole show so as not to feel the disappointment.
But when the lights went down and the music started, I couldn’t close my eyes. I watched and in the first minute the fish-actress appeared. There was no mistaking. The costume was iridescent and shiny—beautiful. But unlike me, this fish stood on her tail and did a hula across stage. The depths of my misunderstanding jolted through me. Geneal wanted a walking fish not an on-the-floor-slithering fish! If only I’d known. When she said she wanted a fish, the only thought I had was of a fish propelling across the stage head first, tail following. How could I have been so wrong? But in the awareness was a great hope. I could still be an actress. It wasn’t my acting that had lost me the part. It was my misunderstanding. Next time, I’d find out what kind of fish was wanted.
At least that’s what I told myself. But ever since, it seems I’ve been busy trying to fill a niche while everyone around me wanted quite a different niche filled. When I squirm, they want a walker. And when I walk, they want a squirmier. Still one of my most cherished hopes in life is to squirm at the right time. I haven’t given up.