Greta Garbo, that’s who I wanted to be. Or Ava Gardner. I grew up watching black and white movies, and musicals. I was certain that I would become an actress. I would start my career in Broadway doing Shakespeare or experimental theater and then, inevitably go to Hollywood and make serious movies.
I wasn’t shy, not back then. Singing, dancing and putting on shows came naturally to me. In my imagination, my sisters, my friends and all of my dolls were either part of the show or a captive audience. It was clear to me then, that I wasn’t going to be a doctor, or a teacher or anything boring. I held that dream for the longest time. When things weren’t going my way, and even through my parent’s divorce, the thought that I would one day make movies for a living kept me going. Whenever I felt less than adequate about our living arrangements, or the condition of our worldly possessions, I would console myself knowing I would have the last laugh, living a life of luxury paid for by my acting chops.
And then, catastrophe struck.
It was a week before Christmas, and I must have been about twelve. An old family acquaintance showed up unexpectedly one evening. This was not uncommon, as my grandmother’s house was like an airport, with people coming and going all day long. He was incredibly handsome, and from what I could gather, a recovering drug addict. He was charming and sweet and talked to all of us kids.
Then he asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. My cousin said she wanted to be a model, and he told her she would be as pretty as a one, but that she would marry rich and therefore would not have to work. We asked him how he knew that, and he said that he had been blessed with the gift of clairvoyance. Once he said that, all the kids took turns asking him what he saw in their futures, and all of their prognostications were wonderful.
I had always believed in fortune-telling, and in a moment of abject faith, I threw all caution to the wind and told him that I wanted to be a famous actress. He carefully studied me, and simply said -“You will never be an actress”. And then silence. No consolation prize for me, no marriage to a rich man, or winning the lottery. I had been eating a dried apricot and had to be extra careful not to choke when I heard his words. So I mustered what little courage I had left and asked him what did he think I would be. It took him a minute or two, and he said he wasn’t sure, maybe a writer. And then he left us kids and joined the adults in the living room.
I was crushed. I don’t know exactly how, but hearing my dream out loud, made me sound delusional, and ridiculous. Once the words had come out of my mouth, all the magic and power of my hopes vanished. What did he see in me that was so definitive, this I needed to know. Clearly others didn’t see me as I saw myself
I became ruthless in my self deprecation. I wasn’t long and lean, or elegant. I wasn’t even symmetrical. I was clumsy, self conscious and clearly, not up to par. Eventually, when I caught my reflection in the mirror I no longer recognized myself. And slowly the dream died. It never occurred to me that I could become a character actress, but then again, who dreams of becoming Thelma Ritter.