Monday, November 1, 2010

Peter Pan: once upon a time

Once upon a time, and long ago

Every year, around the time of my birthday, the anticipation began to build. For some magical reason, the Mary Martin stage version of Peter Pan would always be broadcast on TV, either on my birthday or the day before or after.

My next-door neighbor/on-again-off-again friend Ann Peet had her birthday the day before mine. In those days, kids didn't go to those big video-parlor/jungle-gym/Build-a-Bear-emporium type of places for a birthday. In fact, my own kids, raised in the '80s, usually celebrated with a few friends (and ancient home movies reveal that they were the same friends, year to year) and a bucket of chicken.

My celebration back in the early '60s was even more basic, but no less magical. Ann and I would always exchange presents which (our mothers decreed) had to cost no more than $2. One year, all unawares, we gave each other Cinderella shoes with high heels made out of clear pink plastic embedded with gold glitter. These were held on with torturous pink elastic bands that left deep welts on your feet. Mine broke on the first day, and Ann had a near-concussion from a bad fall.

My mother made spare ribs. That's what we called them then, not ribs, and decades before all those so-called falling-off-the-bone southern recipes. Through hours of slow baking, she turned out ribs that melted in your mouth. You didn't even have to pick them up. Then a cake, made from scratch, on a glass pedestal. Toffee Swirl, or Spice Cake with buttercream icing.

She baked as a sort of grim religion, and though most of her cooking was good, she was too tight-lipped to really enjoy it. She was dutiful. She didn't like me, wished she had never had me, and I knew it. Had always known it, without being told.

But every year, there was Peter Pan. I can't tell you how completely enchanted I was - how captured Ann Peet and I both were, leaning closer and closer to the set until we nearly fell out of our chairs. It's essentially a filmed stage play, with the staginess left intact, so you have to mentally translate it into the much more intimate medium of TV. But it works anyway, especially because of Mary Martin's magnificent, heartbreaking performance. She's over 40 in this version, her body still girlish - or boyish - and her face androgynous before the term was even known about. And her voice. Oh.

I defy you to listen to the melancholy little lullabye at the end of this clip without crying. A few minutes ago I was sobbing, tears splashing down my face. I was not a happy child. Ours was not a happy home, though we pretended it was. I pretended Dad didn't get drunk every night and abuse me and tell me he wished I had never been born. I had to. No one can let wounds like that show.

We pretended a lot of things: that Mary Martin was a boy, or else we just didn't care if she wasn't. The loudly-proclaimed theatrical lines didn't matter. And when Tinkerbell began to wink out and die, Peter turned to the audience and said in a voice full of urgency, "Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!"

Then we heard something. A faint spectral clapping behind us, slowly growing faster, and louder.

I turned. There was my mother in the doorway, my mother the grim un-nurturing one who looked after me as a mother cat might look after a kitten, except less warmly. And, incredibly, she was exclaiming,

"Yes, yes, I do believe in fairies. I do, I do!"