The title of our sixth grade play was The Thanksgiving Miracle, and it was written by our teacher, Mrs. Webster, so that every kid in class could land a part. There were lots of Pilgrims and Native-Americans without speaking roles, but being little more than a piece of the scenery held no interest to me. Two of the female characters had substance: Felicity Dermer, wife of the sea captain, and Charity, a Pilgrim girl who learns how to plant corn. I rehearsed at home with my mom for two weeks, and the day of the audition I read for both parts and thought I was a sure bet to nail at least one of them.
My mother wasn't exactly the most popular woman in our small suburban town, although she was likely the most talked about. She was single, supported us comfortably from home as a copy editor, had an adopted Chinese daughter (me), and was dating Ronnie Knox—a black man—eleven years her junior. She was also Jewish, although she often referred to her own religion as "silly sexist superstition." At school board meetings, which she attended sporadically, she was despised by both parents and teachers as "a big mouth," "a know-it-all," "a nut." But she never left without saying her piece, and her piece was seldom what people wanted to hear.
The Friday that the cast list for The Thanksgiving Miracle was posted, I found out that I got neither role I had tried out for. I was cast instead as "Indian Maiden," a Native-American girl who is the first to come on stage, narrate the scene, then wait backstage until the curtain call.
"I didn't even read for this character," I explained to Mrs. Webster.
"I know," she told me. "But you'll be perfect."
"How can you tell?" I asked.
"I can tell," she explained with a straight face, "because show business is in my blood."
At home that afternoon, my mom looked over the cast list.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," she said, "but it looks like all the white kids are Pilgrims and all the other kids are Native-Americans."
She was right. Nigel Corson, a boy who had come from Jamaica, was playing Squanto. Jorge Diaz and Hector Rosales were "Indian Braves," while Nirupama Sidwa—whose parents were from Pakistan—was cast as "Squanto's Squaw." In fact, the only white kid cast as a Native-American was Angelica Gallo, cursed with a purple birthmark that covered the right side of her face, and whom we unfeelingly referred to as "Blot."
"Read me your lines," my mother said.
"Line," I corrected. I took the copy of my script from my backpack and read.
"Our story begins in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where savage Indians and Pilgrims fleeing from English oppression joined together in a peaceful three-day feast we today call Thanksgiving."
I looked up from the page.
"That's it?" my mother asked.
"I'm not even sure I want to do this," I told her.
"Well, that's one option," my mother said as she took the script from my hand. But there are a couple more."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "you can read this the way it's written . . . "
"Or?" I asked.
"Or," my mother smiled, "we can make a few changes."
The play was scheduled the weekend before Thanksgiving, and slated for three performances: Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. Days before, scenery had been painted, costumes stitched together in kitchens and sewing rooms, props bought and borrowed. Rehearsals seemed endless to me, especially considering the fact that the lines I actually planned to read weren't the ones I repeated every afternoon on the stage of our school auditorium.
"Okay," my mom would say at dinner every night the week before the show was set to open, "let's hear what you've got."
She'd worked on the script—I was little more than a bystander in the process—and I pictured myself standing in front of at least a couple of hundred people—beaded moccasins, buckskin robe, and feather in my long black braided hair—and rattling off my revised narration:
Our story actually begins in 1637, not in Plymouth Colony, but in Groton, Connecticut very near where we gather tonight. On a mild fall night, while people of the Peqout tribe slept, their peaceful camp was invaded by settlers who shot, clubbed, and burned them alive. And the following day, by decree of the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a day of Thanksgiving was declared in order to celebrate the deaths of 700 innocent men, women, and children.
"Perfect," my mother would say, just before she passed the bread, or the potatoes, or the baby lima beans.
The day of the first performance I was too nervous to eat, and by the time I arrived at the school auditorium for "places," I'd consumed only a slice of toast and a handful of sunflower seeds. I peeked out from behind the curtain, noticed that every seat in the house was filled, and easily picked out my mother and Ronnie Knox—mismatched salt and pepper shakers—sitting third row center.
"Places!" Mrs. Webster called, as she clapped her hands together and costumed kids scurried. I stayed put, on my mark, center stage. The signal was given, the curtains were slowly drawn apart, and I stared out at more people than I'd ever seen gathered in one place. They applauded immediately, some even whistled, and during that short respite I looked out at my mother who smiled reassuringly. I loved her. She was a good woman. But she seldom thought things out thoroughly. She would wake up tomorrow morning, sit at her computer, and resume her somewhat unconventional life. But I had two-an-a-half more years here, followed by four years of high school. These kids—backstage, out in the audience, home watching TV, my friends and my enemies—were the people who populated my world. These teachers, even wacky Mrs. Webster, controlled our existences and laid out the obstacles we were, liked trained dogs, forced to negotiate. Our parents meant little in this equation, glorified cheerleaders who always wanted us to win but never quite understood the game.
The applause died down, people settled, throats were cleared.
"Our story begins," I said in a strong, hardly shaking voice, "in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where savage Indians and Pilgrims fleeing from English oppression joined together in a peaceful three-day feast we today call Thanksgiving."
"What happened?" my mother asked as she drove our van out of the school parking lot. "Did you forget the stuff we wrote?"
"You wrote," I corrected.
"So why couldn't you do it?"
Ronnie Knox was in the passenger seat in front of me. "I thought she did pretty well," he said without turning back.
"I'm asking her," my mom said, a bit coldly I thought.
"I couldn't do it because I'm not you."
There was an endless silence. I'd never said anything like this to her before, even though I'd thought it practically every day of my life. I had no idea what was coming next—a lecture, maybe—some screed about how hard she'd worked—but there was nothing. Just silence. Finally it was Ronnie who broke through.
"I thought you were the best one up there," he said.
"You were good," my mother finally said.
"I was on stage for like a minute," I reminded her.
"Yeah," she said, "but you made the most of it."
We rode on. Finally, I said, "I'm starving."
The only place opened after 9 PM was Burger King, and that's where we went. Apparently everybody else had the same idea; the lot was packed. Inside, Pilgrims and Native-Americans, along with their families, sat at plastic tables and shared Whoppers, fries, Chicken Tenders, soft drinks, and Cheesy Tots. The three of us sat among them, the camaraderie of a common task making us all friends, no one worried about what would happen later, after the costumes came off.