Don’t we all need a hand to hold on to and a heart to beat with our own?
Nine-year old “Grace Ferguson,” in tattered jeans and jacket with a gold key dangling from her neck, played with a cheap electronic game while sitting on steps outside the home of Sandy Molander greeting twenty-four Bookers as they arrived for the regular meeting. I stood, dressed in a Rockette jacket and leggings, alongside a plywood dance floor leaning by the front door, which was adorned with a pizza box covered in gold shining stars. Many thanks to our “little Grace” played by Kaitlyn and to her mother, Jennifer, for helping us set the stage for the review of this month’s selection, Don’t Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde.
Once inside MN and I took seats opposite each other, she playing the role of an interviewer, and I, the grown-up version of Grace as this dialogue followed:
My name is Nell Reader, the host of PWC Public Radio and we’re here today to talk with Grace Eileen Ferguson, author of her memoir, Growing Up Gracefully. From the time she was nine years old she knew she wanted to be a dancer. Her story takes us through the rigors of life on the Broadway stage in the productions of both West Side Story and A Chorus Line. In her words, “You have a contract with the audience to shine every night.” Unfortunately, a ruptured Achilles tendon ended the performance stage of her career, but she landed on her feet as a choreographer for the one and only Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
Grace, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
Grace, lots of little girls dream of being a Rockette. Did you ever picture yourself high kicking your way through life?
Absolutely, but unfortunately the height fairy left me about 5 inches below the minimum.
Before we open the telephone lines for questions, I’m intrigued by the dedication of your book and I quote: “To my family, Billy, Rayleen, Felipe, Mrs. Hinman, Mr. Lafferty, Mr. Lafferty The Girl Cat, and Jesse for never letting me go.” Can you enlighten us?
Have you ever had a single moment that changed your life forever? I did. My life completely changed with a tap dancing sequence beginning with a time step and Buffalo turns, and ending with a series of treble hops on an auditorium stage in front of my entire school, my best friend, and family.
The plywood dance floor was brought in from the porch and emerging from another room was young Grace with flowers in her hair, wearing a blue tunic over black tights and tap shoes. Holding her hand and dressed the same was the “elder” Grace who said: “Straight from the Billy Shine School of Dance, I’d like to introduce to you our tiny tapper who is going to treat you to a recreation of the shining moment that changed my life and made me whole. Please welcome, nine-year old Grace, tapping on that stage with the entire school, my best friend, and family watching. The music, Rockin’ Robin, was cued and our little Grace performed a tap dance for all of Bookers, even finishing as in the book, with her hands held high, and receiving thunderous applause and a long stemmed red rose for her efforts.
The floor was then turned over to grown-up Grace (JoDee) telling the audience just how she managed to be on that stage in the first place with the review of Don’t Let Me Go, by Catherine Ryan Hyde.
It all started in a run-down building, which could have been called Desperation Terrace located in a high-risk neighborhood in Los Angeles where drive-by shootings were common. Within the six small rented apartments resided a mix of broken souls, all dead-bolted and safety-chained in self-inflicted lockdown driven by fear and loneliness. My world was so minute; stars peeking through the hazy sky were rare. I never met my father. My Mother and I lived in the basement apartment. I was nine years old and in the 4th grade; she was addicted to prescription painkillers – called hillbilly heroin on the street. When she spent her days and nights in a drug-induced sleep, I missed school because I was forbidden to walk those ten blocks alone and someone notified the County of my situation. I spent those days sitting outside on the apartment steps in hopes that someone would notice in case I needed some help. Well someone did.
His name was Billy and he became my best friend. He worried about me sitting outside from behind his drapes, but finally found the courage to remove the dust-layered broomstick lodged in the glass sliding door. It was at this moment he vowed to himself to “clean everything,” opening not only the patio door, but also a dialogue that swept loneliness and suffering under the rug, changing both our lives and engaging the other residents of the complex to do so as well. What emerged was an intricate plan to help a desperate little girl to stay in school and out of the foster care system. Fears, prejudices, and pride stepped aside when my apartment family made a pact to make my life better than their own. My needs gave them a purpose to care again – about me and about each other. Once the deadbolts that kept us isolated unlatched, we all realized a richer world awaited on the other side of the door. Let me introduce my family to you…and Oh, by the way, if you are missing my soprano foghorn voice that Billy said could double as a glass-cutting device, I don’t have to be loud anymore. Because of them, you should be able to hear me just fine.
Donald Feldman changed his name to Billy Shine because it sounded more like a dancer’s name. He was a thirty-seven year old agoraphobic, a former dancer on the Broadway stage, a gay man who had locked himself away for the past twelve years with virtually no human contact. He was stick-thin with a long narrow ponytail down the middle of his back. He was a “natural” dancer, which meant it came as easy as breathing, as if his body was meant to dance. He told me he grew up in a scary house with a mother who “was the most dreadful person who ever walked the planet Earth.” I’m pretty sure she ruled with an iron fist and was either driven by perfection or tried to beat the creativity out of him. His first panic attack came in the second grade and dancing was the only way to keep them away. But, when they got worse, the only way he was OK was to be alone and inside and that became his safe haven. He and I had similar grooming deficiencies. I resembled a stray cat who hadn’t seen the likes of a hairbrush in a long time. My favorite foods, chocolate, red licorice, Mac & Cheese, hot dogs and pizza, seemed to contribute to my tubbiness. His outfit du jour consisted of a flannel bathrobe over pajamas tied with a rope. Meeting me upset the apple cart, as he wasn’t good at doing anything new; conflict was his least favorite thing and now he had a kid hitting him with projectile hugs and spontaneous giggle fits…and after much begging agreed to teach me to dance. We were quite the odd couple. He talked funny too, like instead of Hi he would spout, a gracious good evening to you; he chewed his fingernails down to the bloody quick, conversed with his alter ego, and endured nightmares filled with the loud beating of long white wings baiting him into a state of anxiety. My voice thundered through the shoddy walls. Even my feet were loud and in his borrowed tap shoes when I stamped or stomped, the Hollywood Hills weren’t far enough away to be safe from the clamor. He said I was more of a plugger than a natural and that I would have to work very hard to be a success. I couldn’t let boys, or ego, or the world get in the way of my dreams. Billy taught me more than just dance steps, he showed me how to shine, and when I panicked before my big school event, he wrapped his protective wings around me. Billy stepped into the role of after-school daycare and dance instructor in the “Save Grace From Foster Care” task force, and on occasion had to walk me, or rather Latin Salsa, tango, or waltz me to school.
Rayleen Johnson, a strikingly beautiful black woman scarred by the events of her childhood while in the system, became my surrogate mother and primary babysitter, and my fiercest protector. Felipe Alvarez joined the troupe as my escort from school and beginning Spanish teacher. The plan not to let me go was hatched, until another neighbor, grumpy Mr. Lafferty weighed in with his two cents. He said we were enabling my mother. She could continue to use drugs and not have to worry about my welfare and sometimes it takes the threat of losing someone to get them on the right track. I called a meeting of my caregivers and decided we had to force my Mom to take stock in her life and place an importance on my welfare. As in Ringo Starr’s lyrics, I needed a “lot of help from my friends” to do this. My Mother, Eileen Ferguson the druggie had three choices…she could lose me to the County…lose me to my “new” apartment family, or get her act together within thirty days.
Not taking on the responsibility of my daily care but contributing to my wellness was eighty-nine year old Mrs. Hinman, a widower who had outlived her husband and friends, offered to make me some new clothes including the blue tunic I wore for my performance. Before Mr. Lafferty, a father of six who hadn’t spoken to his children in years, ended his depression at the hands of a shotgun, he bought and delivered a dance floor to Billy’s apartment and anonymously gave me a gift certificate to buy my own tap shoes. Jesse, the hunk, moved into Mr. Lafferty’s old apartment with his deep soothing voice and calm demeanor causing quite a flutter with both Rayleen and Billy. So that was my “apartment family…we were kinda like a spicy pot of goulash…all except Mr. Lafferty The Girl Cat, who I adopted as my own after Mr. Lafferty The Man… well….left. A loving calico with a very long name whose “motor” comforted me when I needed it the most. Now you’ve met all of my “apartment” family.
I don’t want you to think I didn’t love my Mom; It’s just that she wasn’t very good at her Mom job when she was using. What I wanted more than anything was for her to get better. What scared me is that most people never do – three out of one hundred get clean and stay that way. Addicts trade away their future so they can feel OK right now. That’s what Billy did when he let panic overtake his life and what my Mom did. I tried not to push the guilt button each time she failed me although my life was filled with broken promises. I couldn’t understand why she loved drugs more than me, but I still missed her. Jesse had a volatile relationship with his mother but what he said about how no matter what, she’s still your mother and it’s a very tough bond to break touched my soul. One day I used my key and snuck into our apartment while she was sleeping…stroked her hair… leaned in…..and whispered, “Love you.” She swatted me like a fly, as though I was just a pest.
Time ticked toward my big moment on stage and on that day, everyone I loved was in the audience including my Mother alongside her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Yolanda. Billy wasn’t sure he was going to be able to come, but with the help of the rest of the family, he stiffly sat in the auditorium. I shined, and he beamed and the audience clapped. I had morphed from a plugger into a natural in just one performance. The happiest day of my life turned into the most miserable when my mother shoved an orange plastic thirty-day-sober chip in Billy’s face threatening to report him for kidnapping if he came within one hundred yards of me. I hated her at that moment and tried my best to make her life as miserable as mine. She tried…she cleaned… and cooked… and did what normal Mom’s do, but she’d isolated me from my friends and I shouldn’t say this but I secretly wanted her to start using again so I could resume my other life of dancing… learning Spanish…ordering pizza…getting my hair cut and my fingernails polished…spending time with my cat…and pretending my life was as normal as any other 4th grader.
The arrival of springtime ushered in a time to say goodbye. Mrs. Hinman died, Rayleen and Jesse moved boarding the “last chance for happiness” train only to assume the role they were meant to play, foster parents for a four-year old boy. Felipe moved in with his new girlfriend, leaving Billy alone again although he was taking little steps in the outside world…he went to the mailbox and made weekly trips to the grocery store chauffeured by Felipe in the car Jesse left to them when he moved… but my Mom still viewed Billy as the enemy. She celebrated a year anniversary of being clean and part of the twelve-step program was to make amends so in June she knocked on the door of the one person she feared the most, Billy. She was stunned to learn they all hoped that the pain of losing her daughter would be the inspiration for her to return to being Grace’s mom again. They were not trying to take me away from her, only to force her to decide what was more important,…. the drugs or her daughter.
On the hood of a car in the middle of the desert, Billy’s world became big again. He’d made it small by locking himself away from society… but it was always there waiting for him to come back. Millions of stars twinkled in the darkness. He told me… “Remember the stars we saw on my patio one night long ago…these are the same ones. As long as you can see them, you know you’re not far from home. And, Baby Girl, keep in mind, life is not always a garden of tranquility.
And, I said, “English please.”
“Think about the plight of a caterpillar and what it takes for it to become a butterfly. At every turn, things can go wrong…wasps and birds love to feast on them for dinner; gnat-like insects can attack them; and some butterflies emerge with misshapen wings that keep them from flying. You have to be driven and put in the hours, and when you take off into the big world, never forget why you were able to soar.”
Billy was running out of brave so I said goodnight to the stars knowing they would always shine and so would I… with a little help from my friends.
Many thanks to my stage production manager, set designer, costume and makeup artist extraordinaire, MN Stanky, for just letting me write; and Bonnie Magee for loaning us her adult tap shoes (ask her about her tapping debut); Cheryl Renee McLaughlin, proprietor of The Dance Zone in Athens, under whose tutelage Kaitlyn was able to tap for us; and to our host, Sandy, who graciously rearranged her home and life to accommodate our “production” needs; and to Bookers who gives us a platform in which to share our love of books and pumps me with shots of confidence!
Our discussion centered on the book’s characters, all flawed and adeptly drawn by the author. Grace didn’t know how to be a victim. She was a survivor because that’s the only thing she knew how to do. She was smart and perceptive, but naïve and impatient in her thinking that things could change, just because. We talked about alcohol and drug addiction and the differences between the two; the relationship between addictive personalities and high intelligence; genetics and heredity. Some felt it odd that Grace didn’t seem to have homework; and wondered how the Mother paid the rent and grocery shopped if she slept all day. Most felt the odds against Grace’s mother staying sober were slim, but felt the bond between Billy and Grace strong and lasting and they both would land on their feet, with help from the other. And, although the characters shared many a sad story, the author blended humor into the mix to ease the despair; some felt Grace’s character was too loud and too bossy, but, most likely it was because of circumstance, rather than choice.
On the business side:
Twelve Bookers supported the second annual Henderson County Library fundraiser, Books in Bloom, at the Cain Center featuring author, Taylor Stevens. Many thanks to Linsey Garwacki for sewing the table topper and fish for our centerpiece and Jean Alexander for donating the colorful netting and to all who supplied our table settings. Next year we hope Bookers will once again rise to the occasion and support this worthwhile cause.
As a recap, the following is the rating system MN and I have assigned to OUR opinions of books we’ve read. Again, this is meant to be a guideline only.
5 Stars: Order Now. Expedited shipping worthy. Include in your will.
4 Stars: Borders on Little Bee
3 Stars: Beach Read
2 Stars: Borrow don’t buy
1 Star: Put your money back in the piggy bank
Donna Walter suggested Sue Monk Kidd’s latest, The Invention of Wings, as a Bookers’ book and MN, Janet Noblitt and Sandy Molander agreed. It’s inspired by a true story set in the early 19th century in South Carolina about two women linked by the horrors of slavery. We’ve chosen it as our summer read to be discussed when Bookers resumes in September.
Beverly Dossett suggested, Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, which MN and I have both read and agree it is probably a (4) MN has read The Korean Word For Butterfly by James Zerndt about two Americans who travel to Korea to teach English (3) and Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo, a true story of a child’s trip to heaven, and Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander III, MD, a neurosurgeon’s near-death experience and trip to the afterlife. I’ve read Don’t Let Me Go 3 times…HA!
COLOR CODING SYSTEM
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
May 13th: Wonder by R.J. Palacio regular meeting 10:00 AM
Home of Bonnie Magee
Reviewer: Jean Alexander
Summer Break: June, July & August
Summer Read, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
September 9th: Beginning of Bookers 11th year
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
“What I noticed about grownups they were afraid of each other, hard to wring information out of themselves, but were free with advice about what kids ought to do – then were full of words.” Sage wisdom through the eyes of a nine-year old.