TAKE YOUR MOTHER TO WORK DAY
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Hey, Mom just got a job.
I think it's a big deal, and not just because she's over 85. It's a big deal because she belongs to a generation of women who were, for the most part, denied the opportunity to have artistic careers.
In my mother's case, she always wanted to be a Broadway dancer.
She had the talent. Even today, in the amateur musicals she's been writing, directing, choreographing and dancing in for her Ft. Lauderdale condo, she can kick her leg over her head at least once in every number.
When she's dancing she seems to glow from within; it's impossible to take your eyes off her. And I'm not just being a loving daughter here. Whispers run through the audience when Mom comes on stage. "There she is." "That's Rose Kagan." In her own world, Mom's a star.
When Mom was growing up during the Great Depression, probably a few young Jewish women danced on Broadway, but performing in public was considered to be one step away from prostitution. And not necessarily a step up, either because hookers made more money than hoofers.
The sole mission of every good Jewish girl in my mother's day - and in mine, until Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" - was to love, honor and obey.
Pressure to conform to this marriage-and-children model was as strong as it was vicious. Even when my mother's generation retired, when they were well over 65, most women were dropped by their social circles as soon as their husbands died.
It never made any sense to me. Surely not every widow wanted to steal the husbands of her best friends? How can it possibly matter if one guest at the table isn't accompanied by another guest? What's wrong with being alone?
My mother would patiently explain, "That's just the way it is." If you weren't part of a couple you were ostracized. She told me stories about widows chasing after the few remaining widowers, showing up at their doorsteps with chicken soup and casseroles, wanting to be married just to be socially acceptable again. Other widows defiantly formed female groups in order to have a social life.
For this generation, there was something shameful and/or frightening about a woman alone. We still see vestiges of this stigma today in women who are afraid to eat in a restaurant or go to a movie by themselves.
In fairness to my mother, she never ostracized her widowed friends. But once my father died, I don't think she felt comfortable until she was married again.
It takes a strong will to stand up to this kind of cultural pressure in 2003, so I'm not surprised that back in the 1930s, my mother gave up her dream of dancing on Broadway, married my father and became a mother.
But even when people sacrifice precious parts of themselves in order to conform, they still bubble up. Creativity is as irrepressible as sexuality or intelligence. So Mom never gave up performing; she just shifted to amateur theatricals.
The gap between amateurs and professionals in our culture is a vast one. Money is the only way our society has of placing a value on things. Money confers power and stature. In the vernacular of the culture, if you "give yourself away," you're "worthless." You can be "discounted." You're "cheap." If you get paid a lot of money, you have value, you're important, and you're probably the CEO of a large corporation that just fired half of its employees. The fact that the word "amateur" is founded on the root of the word "love" has no meaning in 21st Century America.
At the start of this year, my mother announced that she was retiring. In March, her theater club put on the last show written, directed, choreographed and danced in by Rose Kagan. In the future she might dance in a number, or help out with the choreography, but she would never again be the creative force behind a show. It was the end of fighting with oversized egos, neuroses, backstabbing and exhaustion. But it was also the end of the work.
Until the phone started ringing. Suddenly other condos were calling my mother and begging her to put on shows for them. Bewildered, she started having meetings and going out on interviews. She set restrictions on her time that she could have never enforced in her own condo, and found that people were willing to respect them. Moreover, she found that there was widespread respect for her and her work.
Now she's choreographing a show for a nearby condo, and she'll have all the egos, neuroses and backstabbing she can handle. But at the end, she'll also have a sizable check.
Mom may never dance on Broadway, but she's become a professional choreographer. She has the career in dance she's always wanted, no matter how long it might last. She gives hope to all the underpaid and under-appreciated artists who never give up on their dreams. She's inspiring.
Mom may not realize it yet, but it's a very big deal.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Dummerston and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.