"Breathe in!" my mother commanded in her low, smokier-than-Bacall timbre, as she took a puff on her cigarette and cinched my lean, as yet unblooming fourteen-year-old physique into the pearl-gray peau de soie ball gown. "I bought this dress years ago, in Paris, from my friend Jacques Fath, one of the great designers." Each of my mother's gowns told a story of her life, her performances, and her travels. As she drew the zipper up, the dress's whalebones rose and folded over my pitifully underdeveloped bust, encasing me in femininity. Though just a few years earlier, white women had declared their emancipation in a bonfire of brassieres, in our home such garments represented neither bondage nor second-class citizenship, but rather glamour and its almost infinite transformative power. To my mother and her bevy of beautiful black diva friends and fellow performers Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Carmen De Lavallade, and Cicely Tyson, women who had survived segregation, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, and many a bad romance, it was creativity, illusion, and high style, not gunnysacks, earth shoes, and the dreary truth, that set you free.
"Your waist was tiny!" I exclaimed in admiration. My mother flashed her cat-that-swallowed-the-Hope-diamond grin.
"When I married your father, I could wrap my arms around it and shake hands with myself." She laughed her caressing, husky laugh. "You're going to be much taller than I am. That's why it fits you already. I'll have to take it in here!" she said nipping the strapless top of the bodice tight around my mosquito bite-sized breasts. I ran my hands over the forlorn, unfilled cups. "I was always flat-chested," she reassured me. "It's far more elegant! Big breasts are vulgar," she declared, casually demolishing in two sentences a hallowed canon of American beauty. She pulled a pink rayon overdress with three-quarter sleeves and dusty rose velvet piping off the Singer sewing machine perched on the dining room table and helped me into it. "There, go look at yourself." She prodded me toward the mirrors on the folding double doors. "Beauty lele," she cheered.
I straightened my back as though a string had tugged my head, standing taller and prouder. I could see my mother's reflection beaming at her creation. She had done it again -- transformed an old frock and pennies' worth of fabric into an exquisite costume and an indelible memory. I smoothed the skirt.
"You musn't lift the skirt when you walk," she warned.
"Women didn't do that in those days." My mother seemed to know the dress protocol of every age, as though she had lived a thousand years rather than a mere fifty. She made the suggestion less for my performance in the school play than as a stage direction for life.
"It's beautiful," I gushed, kissing her on the cheek.
She hugged me. "It will be when I'm done, my angel. You'll be the most incredible creature on that stage." She didn't want me to follow in her footsteps and become an actress, but she was determined to prepare me for a "lead role" in the world.
"The lace!" she screamed, suddenly remembering. "We don't want it too dark." She grabbed her cigarette and dashed into the kitchen. On the stove, next to the simmering pot of aromatic curried chicken, steam rose from a saucepan filled with tea. Using a pair of pasta tongs, she removed a half-yard of lace soaking in the amber-colored liquid. "See, you leave it in the tea, and it turns a brand new piece of lace from the five-and-ten into an antique. When it dries, I'll sew it on the sleeves of the pink overdress. Then you'll really look like an eighteenth-century lady."
"Enrico," she then bellowed toward the firmly shut door to his bedroom, through which we heard the strains of Jimi Hendrix singing, "Manic de-pression's captured my soul." My then seventeen-year-old brother failed to answer. "Enrico!" my mother yelled louder, the veins on her neck bulging.
"What?" he answered with teen exasperation.
"Dinner in fifteen minutes. Call your father at the pub!" My mother rolled her eyes. "He looks just like your father and has the same brooding personality."
I nodded in sympathy. Even at age fourteen I wondered what we were to do with them. When would these Fales men start participating in life's banquet? Usually, my mother and I left them to skulk in their private chambers, reading their innumerable books -- Enrico of science fiction and occultism, Papa of naval architecture, mathematics, or history -- while we performed the "rites of glamour and joy" in the prewar apartment's front rooms. But this was a Monday, one of only two "dark" nights for the Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar in which my mother was starring. She insisted we dine together as a family.
Enrico, six feet two inches tall, slender as an asparagus stalk, his medium-sized Afro flattened at the back from lying down, entered scowling and crossed toward the wall phone to dial Mikell's, the Columbus Avenue watering hole of New York's black intelligentsia in the sixties and seventies.
I knew it would take at least forty-five minutes for my father to tear himself away from the bar and the group of lawyers, musicians, doctors, and worldly women with ripe bodies who affectionately called this lone Wasp in their midst "Big Tim." While waiting for my father to wend his way home, I ran off to the quiet of my own bedroom. Once there, I memorized my lines from the play by repeating them over and over as I walked back and forth from the window overlooking the dilapidated welfare hotel across the street to the tall Chippendale cabinet filled with my collection of antique porcelain dolls on the other side of the room.