Tantejoan here! Recently Meg, in her incredible generosity, gave many of us the opportunity to share our still-haunting recollections of painful or downright dysfunctional childhoods. My own is so far behind me, me being ancient and all, that it was surprising to discover, looking into the rear-view mirror, that the view can still be blurred by tears. But children, being incredibly resilient creatures, often find unusual and creative ways to make the unbearable bearable. I had a wardrobe of coping mechanisms, including the support of much-older siblings and some loving, if understandably distracted, aunts and uncles, but my chief avenues of escape from pain were always reliable and, in many ways, shaped me into the person I am today. I found refuge in the Philadelphia Public Library, my neighborhood’s wonderful movie theaters and in my best babysitter, “Million Dollar Movie.”
This morning, while showering and crying over the still-fresh deaths of FF and MJ (I do my best crying in the shower) I started thinking of Michael’s abusive childhood, and then I thought of how he, as had so many performers, turned to his talent as a way out. When I posted a response to Angie’s wonderful tribute thread I mentioned Fred Astaire, and then this morning, dripping wet and unable to distinguish between the shower stream and my tears, I suddenly remembered that I had had a wonderful set of parents in my childhood. I had my Fantasy Parents, Fred and Esther.
When my parents disappointed me, neglected me, burdened me with unrealistic expectations or conflicting requirements, I could retire to my room and remember that I had parents who loved me, cherished me and always taught me Wonderful Things. My Fantasy Father, Fred Astaire, being the most elegant, tasteful, charming and talented of men, taught me my first lessons in making hard work look effortless. He always was well dressed, so much so that he, rather than any woman of the screen, gave me my first lessons in Style. He wore a tie for a belt, for goodness sake, and instantly made regular belts seem, well, vulgar. And with Ginger (my Fantasy Aunt, but interesting not my Fantasy Mother — more of that later) or a series of other wonderful ladies, Father Fred showed me that dance was the ultimate expression of romance. Plus he could dance with things, an amazing talent I could be proud of. He danced with coat racks, and steam pipes, and shoes! And he was funny, and sang so beautifully that Irving Berlin said, given a choice of any singer on earth to introduce one of his songs, he would choose My Dad. I loved Fred Astaire to death, and I love him now.
So if Ginger wasn’t my Mom, Who was? Esther Williams, that’s who! For those who have never seen an Esther Williams movie it is hard to describe her incredible appeal, or how probably thousands of little girls the world over shared my fantasy. She wasn’t much of an actress. In fact, MGM Studio Head Louis B. Mayer, whom she always pestered for dramatic roles, said it best: “Wet, she’s a star.” Well, wet? She was my beautiful, shimmering goddess-mommy. In those dim days of the 50s, you could sit in a movie theater and watch showing after showing as long as your butt and your money for Raisinettes allowed. I would sit all day long and watch Esther dive and do water ballet and dive and glisten. She was amazing, and while she was beloved by millions, in my secret heart I knew she was Mine. In my fantasies she would teach me to swim, to dive, to do that amazing and graceful backstroke. At the beach every summer, or in the pool, I would practice Fantasy Mommy’s spectacular signature move, supporting one straight leg with the bent opposite leg while revolving slowly under water. I always sank like a stone, but I always tried. (I still try, to this day.) I would beg that Other Mommy to buy me beautiful, ornate bathing caps like Esther’s, not stupid plain white ones. I turned up my nose at two-piece suits because My Mom always wore draped one-piece creations that showcased her impressively athletic but curvaceous silhouette.
Mommy Esther was married to Fernando Lamas, possibly the most gorgeous Latin lover of the 50s. For those who remember Billy Crystal’s great character Fernando (“You. Look. Mahvelous.”), that was his tribute to Esther’s guy. Fernando’s son with his first wife, the stunningly beautiful Arlene Dahl, is Lorenzo Lamas. Although Lorenzo has become a bit of a joke as an actor these days, back when “Falcon Crest” was a big, big hit on TV, he once gave an interview to TV Guide that broke my heart in two. In it, he explained that his father had custody of him as a child, so he spent all his time in Malibu with Fernando and Esther. He recalled tenderly that Esther taught him to swim, placing his little chubby baby arms around her strong, brown neck and taking him on her back into the surf. Esther taught him to dive. Esther taught him — oh, I’m sorry. I cannot go on. I have to go back to the shower to cry.
Who were your Fantasy Parents?