Looking back on my life as if it were a road, I can see that I’ve built little memory temples all along the way; I’ve fetishized moments that might have seemed insignificant to an observer, but that somehow signified everything to me. I was reminded of one of those moments when I watched My Fair Lady on TV as I recuperated from the flu last month.
My happiest childhood memories are of going to community theatre productions of musicals. The Finley Playhouse in Sherman, Texas was every bit as glamorous to me as Broadway would have been, the actors as bright as any Hollywood stars. I remember pouring over the programs, reading the actors’ bios with fascination. At the King and I, say, I might learn that Anna is also a secretary at a law firm and that the King, when not ruling Siam, is a high school history teacher who enjoys woodworking. Somehow, the fact that these “stars” had pedestrian day jobs didn’t really bother me. Until the Eliza Doolittle debacle.
I was 8 or 9 years old when the Sherman Community Players staged My Fair Lady. For a little hick girl with aspirations of being a princess (that was the year Lady Di became one, after all) the play had obvious appeal. The costumes, the music, and most of all the very idea that a rough-hewn girl like Eliza could become the epitome of elegance reassured me that I could escape my dreary little reality someday. So, of course, the actress who played Eliza seemed to me the most enchant ing and gifted creature in the world. Someone truly worthy of idolizing, like Olivia Newton-John.
Having deified the actress, it came as a bit of a shock when I saw her the very next day – working at the concession stand at the movies. I got in line behind my mom, with my little star struck heart thrashing about, rehearsing what I’d say to this goddess of the stage, trying to think what snack would be most likely to catch her attention. Which confection might make her say, “now, this little girl, she’s got star quality!”? I think I decided on Rolos because they seemed very sophisticated to me, not like something the typical child would choose.
In retrospect, I think I must have expected her to have a posh English accent. To this day I remember clearly what she said, and her exact intonation. Perhaps because a little bit of my childhood died with her words.
“Kin ai halp yew?” Daggers to my ears, an ax to my dreams!
“I…I saw you in My Fair Lady last night. You were very good.”
“Thahnk yew! Yer so kyoot! Kin ai gitchoo sumthin, hunny?”
There’s no single moment when a child attains sudden clarity on the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s a process that occurs in fits and starts throughout one’s life. Little epiphanies come in flashes and then sink like stones between the veils of imagination that protect our psyches and our egos, because those moments of clarity are often quite uncomfortable (remember finding out Santa wasn’t real?). Buying Rolos from Eliza Doolittle was one of those moments for me. How could she have been through all that with Henry Higgins, even if it was just in a play, and still just be a country girl behind a counter? And more importantly, what would that mean for my reality? Could it be possible that I wasn’t destined for greatness after all? It was, perhaps, my first existential crises.
It would be a few years before I came to appreciate the layers of irony in that encounter. The fact that the actress seemed like the modern Texas version of the Cockney flower girl-Eliza was lost on me. And of course I didn’t get that I was judging her, a complete stranger, for being who I was afraid of becoming rather than who I wanted to be. But I did somehow grasp, even then, that it was a significant emotional event. I held on to it, and without even meaning to I built around it a little shrine in my memory. And now, like Proust and his Madeleine, I’m transported back to that moment at the mere mention of My Fair Lady. Or even when the wea ther forecast calls for rain on the plains.