Southern California light is different. My father tells me that’s why the movie industry migrated there. It wasn’t just the year-round pleasant weather; it was the quality of the light. Something to do with particles and how they cause a diffusion that makes everything glow.
I was a child actor, which meant I spent a lot of time being shuttled to after-school auditions in all that diffuse, glowing light.
The night before an audition, I would walk over to my agent Arletta’s cramped office on Sunset Boulevard, pat her dogs on the head, and pick up my script. Either that or she would fax them to our apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. My mother and I would go over the material and try to find something interesting to do with it.
The next day, she’d pick me up from school a little early, and I’d run to her car, full-throttle, landing in the front seat, my school uniform covered in the dust of a junior high day. I’d read her the scene again. We’d try to work out how to salvage a line so badly written I couldn’t utter it without laughing. We’d talk about how to push a tender spot for a painful scene.
When I started ballet, she’d wait for me through class. She sat in the balcony that overlooked the wide, sunny studio, chatting with other parents or reading her book. For a time she taught jazz at the same studio, but even when she was working she was usually the one to pick me up from school, from class, from rehearsals. I now see this ritual of pick-up through that diffusion of light, that place that existed in neither time nor space but in some dimension between my mother and me.
I was fairly shocked the other day when I found myself waiting for a child. She was jumping and running at a gymnastics class. She expected her mother to be there with snacks and hugs after all the jumping and running. And that mother? I was that mother. I was the mother.
I got dizzy. I had a baby a few years ago, but when did I become a parent? When did I become the one who drops off, the one who waits out the hour? I hear the familiar sounds –the coaches shouting to the kids to get back in line, the echoing of children’s yelling and laughter in a cavernous space. I see the baby faces of toddlers glancing toward their mothers, who sneak reassuring glances back.
Our children seem so big as they go through their routines. The teachers have names for things that the kids know. “Popcorn” means they are to lie down on the trampoline while other kids jump all around them. “Earthquake” is when they stand on the balance beam and the coach shakes it to see if the children can remain upright. My daughter knows the rules and the terms and the other kids; they all exist in her private world away from me. Three years ago she lived in a carrier in my arms; now she explains what “popcorn” is and she introduces me to her friends.
I watch my lanky kid swing and climb and I think about Shirley Maclaine telling Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge that “it’s real important to enjoy your turn.”
When the class ends, my child runs at me full-throttle. She bangs into me and throws her arms around me and knocks me to the ground. She is hungry and thirsty and tired and she wants to know when dinner is and is Daddy at home and did I see her do a cartwheel?
I think of Southern California. I dream of dusty casting office carpets and the resin-residue of dance studios and the swaying in my mother’s car after class, my leotard sticky with sweat, my eyelids drooping as my mother turns up the opening chords of All Things Considered.
It wasn’t a dream after all.
Now I live in Manhattan. Here, there aren’t any strange particles in the air that make the light glow. We have humid, soot-soiled summers and icy blue winters and sharp red and gold fall days. The light is dirty or crisp, but never gauzy, never dreamy.
But this place—this place between a parent and child that I’ve been absent from for so many years—I’ve come back to it. I recognize everyone here; it is only I who has changed.
Here is what you see at pick up: bands of bedraggled kids running at dusk to enveloping arms and clasped hands. You see dented art projects and half-eaten lunches and stained sweaters and homework assignments, piles of them. It’s the place where children cast off their private lives and return to the tangle of home life, to familial love, to the simplest and most complex relationships they will ever have.
Pick-up was the hard-earned place of escape. And it was real. I know that now because I have returned.
It was such a relief to come home to my mother. I wanted to get away from so many things: the perfect blondes who won the roles, the kids who sat in lunch circles that were somehow not big enough to include me, the ballet barres where I flubbed combinations and earned the frustration of my teachers, the casting offices where I met with silence when a joke didn’t land.
I don’t want my child to be as fragile as I was. Still, I do hope someday she sees this place through that diffuse light, even though we live in stark New York City. I hope she sifts the sense memories of a world that exists between a parent and child, even when she grows older and no longer gets “picked up.”
My mother was—can it be?—the age I am now when she started picking me up. I see her there still, in her Liberty scarf, filling the car with the scent of Bal À Versailles, turning the radio down as I hop into the front seat. I see her in a pool of Southern California light and I realize she will always be there, in another time and space. We call it “memory” but “memory” is past. It no longer feels past, because it is happening again, this time between my daughter and me.
My mother no longer remembers these times. A hemorrhagic stroke damaged her beautiful brain six years ago, and it is left to me to peer through the diffuse light and see her at pick-up. All those pick-ups are fused into one, in my heart.
I don’t feel the need to escape anymore. I am now the enveloping arms. I am the lighthouse. I am the parent. At pick-up now, I walk the balance beam between past and future, seeing it merge in the present.
Carrie Fisher once wrote: “It’s real important to enjoy your turn.” I’m trying to follow and to impart that advice.