From my earliest memories until the age of seven, my mom traveled the U.S. as a nightclub singer, the only female in a band that had reached its pinnacle a decade earlier. She belted out tunes in the smoke-filled lounges of Hiltons and Sheratons from San Francisco to Scranton, Colorado Springs to Cherry Hill and everywhere in between. I often accompanied her on these cross-country gigs, where she sang in low-cut dresses to businessmen who appreciated her décolletage as much as her vocal stylings.
In the daytime we were free to check out the local sights. We visited Paul Bunyan’s birth site in Bemidji, Minnesota, the famous chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and a whole town dedicated to Christmas — Frankenmuth, Michigan. I learned to swim in the hotel pool in Orlando, became a decent skater at the hotel rink in Lancaster, and went on scavenger hunts devised by my mother when there was nothing else to entertain a precocious five-year-old girl.
At night, I assisted my mom as she prepared to go on stage. Like a boxing coach I complimented her, pumped her up, told her what she needed to hear because no matter what, the show must go on. I watched as she applied makeup and false eyelashes with surgical adhesive, teased her hair, wiggled into nude colored pantyhose and a girdle, then slid her tiny feet into Bruno Magli open-toe sling backs. The final step before the dress was the Scotch tape. Having been around the world with the USO, my mom knew lots of showgirl tricks and this was one of them.
“Hold this,” my mother would say, as she pulled three feet of tape from a plastic roll most people used for wrapping presents. She was wrapping presents, too – her big boobs – so they would stay in place beneath the pale yellow sequined Halston cut with a deep V from her neck to her navel.
I obediently held the tape, marveling at her ability to transform into this glamorous goddess. Whatever stereotypes the media had of womanhood in the early 1970s, from aproned Betty Crockers to bespectacled, bell-bottomed Gloria Steinems, my own mother didn’t fit any of them. She was Cher without Sonny, neither defined by any movement nor limited by a lack of one.
On those rare occasions when my mom wasn’t on the road and we were home in Chicago, I was still her one-person entourage. At Saks Fifth Avenue, I would sit on a chair in the dressing room while the buyer, a trim man with a thin, black moustache that looked painted on, brought my mother dress after designer dress to try on. Nina Riccis, Oscar de la Rentas, and Bill Blass originals. I developed a real sense for what looked good on my mom and what would work on stage. Everyone at Saks seemed to value my opinion.
The fall that I turned six I started kindergarten and so began my career as a weekend talent manager. While other kids in my class were at Brownies and Cub Scout meetings, I was flying solo to wherever my mother was singing. Had there been frequent flier miles back then, I would have earned Executive Premier status as an “unaccompanied minor.” I became accustomed to conversing with adults, eating in fancy restaurants and staying up late. The day after a show I watched re-runs of Star Trek until my mom got out of bed, crossing my fingers that the coffee shop was still serving breakfast at noon.
During those years, it wasn’t only my mother’s boobs that were held in place with Scotch tape. Our whole life was in a fragile state, even though nobody had the guts to say it out loud. As my mother and I crisscrossed the country on tour, my dad stayed home in Chicago, pursuing a career as a personal injury lawyer. She played dates at the MGM in Las Vegas while he performed in front of juries, winning big verdicts for people injured in car accidents. It was an odd arrangement between two ambitious, singularly focused individuals who were as out of touch with each other’s needs as they were with the only lasting product of their union – me. When their marriage inevitably crumbled, my mom was granted custody with the caveat that she quit singing. I couldn’t help but feel that I was somehow responsible for crushing her dreams, that if only she didn’t have me, she could have everything else that she desired. My career as a junior stylist/personal assistant/traveling shrink promptly ended. It was time to learn now to be an actual kid.
My mother played the occasional weekend gig as long as it was driving distance from our condo, but mostly she bartended to make up for the gap in my dad’s alimony payments. I remember one of her last performances as the opening act for Bob Hope in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. By then she was dating the man who would eventually become my stepfather and her singing was more of a fun, part-time thing than a desperate last grab at fame. She had found her soul mate, a charming European hotelier who loved travel and adventure as much as she did. She used her experience in entertainment to become a promoter, agent and ultimately, corporate events planner.
The years from eight to eleven were downright boring compared to the first seven. During the week I went to school. On the weekends, I stayed with my dad and his wife in the suburbs. Vacations were mostly spent with my grandparents in Ohio. My mom trudged through her days as a single parent in her sparse civilian wardrobe while the sequined Halston gowns hung in the closet. My mother’s sparkle returned when she met my stepfather. As a chef and hotel manager, he brought his own sense of fun and creativity into our lives. We had cooking contests, birthday parties and holidays without traveling any farther than our apartment. Whatever my mother had been searching for, she seemed to have found with him. Success in her new career followed. We were no longer held together with Scotch tape.