Two women step into the men’s ward of a prestigious Catholic hospital wearing long trench coats in the heat of summer. Suddenly, they hit the tape player on their boom box, drop their coats and start to belly dance. Each one had a word written across her undulating belly – one wears purple, the other gold. Nurses and doctors crowd around to check out the commotion. A man in the ICU practically rips out his tubing to try to get a glimpse. (Later, this man on death’s door is granted a private showing per the nurses’ request.) When the song winds down, they wish the man they have serenaded with swaying hips a speedy recovery, don their coats, and head for the door. Upon exiting, they are confronted with a large statue of Jesus Christ. The purple dancer, a devout Jew, recoils in horror and worries that God will strike them dead for the sacrilege they have just committed. The one in gold, a so-called Cafeteria Catholic (because she picks and chooses which articles of faith to follow), doesn’t even glance at the pleading Christ. “Jesus? I don’t think he minds, they had dancing back in his day.”
And so ends my mother’s first paid gig as a belly dancer.
I recently heard this story for the first time. I knew she had been a belly dancer. What child could block out her mother insisting on practicing the castanets during play dates? Or being at a friend’s backyard barbeque and overhearing a fellow 10 year-old wonder loudly why someone hired a stripper and having to correct them with a sad, “That’s not a stripper, that’s my mom.” Every Halloween my sister would beg to wear the costume and every year my mother refused. It’s hard to block the sound of Middle Eastern music wafting through the house. Trust me, I knew she did it. But I didn’t actually know why.
As it turns out, the answer wasn’t why, it was more of a why not? My mom took classes, discovered a hidden talent, was encouraged to take her skills outside the classroom, found a partner and did it. While my father does not believe in the Happy Wife/Happy Life motto (as anyone who has listened to him goad her into an argument for fun can attest), he has an innate ability to ignore anything that does not affect him directly and her, ahem, unusual hobby of dancing for strangers for money was just one of the many things on that list. What I found most intriguing was that this actually lasted many years. Years! What in my memory was just a one-shot deal was apparently a happy little side business.
Other things that seemed to be a one-time only happenstance (in my memory) but that also lasted for almost two full years was my mom’s stalker. Oh yes, my mother had a stalker. Why anyone was so interested in a fussy little Italian woman who hasn’t seen her real hair color since her 20s, believed that turning burnt umber was the ultimate achievement in summertime and wore a bathrobe over her pajamas all wintertime was an object of desire, I will never know. But one night, she saw a face in the bedroom window and screamed. It took two full years, lots of peeping by our erstwhile Tom, and a full police investigation to catch the local hoodlum who had an unhealthy obsession with her. Turns out, the guy would walk his dog past the house every day so that our dog wouldn’t bark when he came by at night. He even went so far as to move a cinderblock under the window so he could stand on it for a better view. Short and pervy, what a way to go through life.
These are the stories of my mother’s life. She is not embarrassed by them. The time a UFO followed them on an isolated stretch of road after a night out celebrating my dad’s birthday? She tells it with pride. The many times people have assumed that I am adopted or expressed shocked surprise when discovering my likeness to my maternal grandmother – my mother delights in those stories. It doesn’t bother her that they previously thought I was the product of a liaison with the mailman, she just thinks it makes for a better punch line. So, while my life’s goal is to be as opposite of my mother as humanly possible in word, action, and deed, I do have to admit that we do share one thing in common – we can tell a hellava good story.