In 1974 my family loved watching Marlo Thomas on her TV show, That Girl. My mother would always refer to her as 'that darling Marlo Thomas' or by her longer name, 'that darling Marlo Thomas I just love her'.
We also loved I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched. Jeannie had a master who stoppered her into her bottle when she was bad and Samantha wasn't allowed to be her true witch self unless her husband couldn't fix his ad campaign and then she was allowed to do magic, so he could take the credit. These things we accepted without question. For awhile, when I'd daydream about what kind of a grownup I'd be, I thought of only these two choices: a Jeannie or a Samantha.
That Girl threw us for a loop because the star of the show (Marlo) was a career girl who had a handsome man who wanted to marry her (which is usually where the story would end, with happily ever after) but That Girl loved her boyfriend AND her career, and she wasn't ready to get married. She had stuff to do and so handsome man would have to wait. It was the strangest thing I'd ever heard. I was five.
And when Marlo Thomas (not as That Girl, just as herself) went on TV and told everyone to watch her special, Free To Be You And Me, we made sure to watch. Marlo and her famous friends sang and did skits about new ways of thinking about men and women. My favorite part was when Marlo sang a song called Parents Are People. It featured Marlo doing all sorts of things I had thought of as being Man Jobs: Marlo as a cab driver, Marlo as a police officer, Marlo as a baseball umpire. Marlo sang "Mommies can do almost anything" and the world felt bigger when I heard her sing those words.
A few months later, I used that show to almost win an argument with my mother and that was when she started referring to Marlo as 'that damned Marlo Thomas'.
When I wasn't at kindergarten, I did what a lot of kids did back then: I got shooed out of the house and told to Go Play. This was partly due to the fact that times were safer then but it was also because my mother had no interest in spending time with me. "Amie entertains herself very well," my mom would tell other grownups and I'd know this was supposed to be a compliment. It never felt like one.
One of my mother's favorite phrases was "find something to do" and that was how, one day, I decided what I'd do would be to go see how my rabbit was doing. We had buried her four days earlier.
Actually she'd only been my rabbit a few days when my mother decided living in a cage was making my rabbit sad and that being set free to live in the woods behind our house would make my rabbit happy. When I disagreed, my mother sang the Born Free song and said it would be SELFISH to make my rabbit live in a cage and GOOD to let her go free and asked me which I wanted to be: selfish or good. So I was stuck. I had to say Good.
So we set her free (as free as the wind blows) and the next day my rabbit was dead in our vegetable garden and my dad said "Oh look at that, the slug bait pellets look just like the rabbit food we were giving her" and that was the end of my rabbit. We had a pet funeral and my dad said serious words and I played my kazoo. Solemnly. Kind of.
I can only guess the death process had not been clearly explained to me. I wasn't sure what I'd find when I used my mother's garden shovel to dig up the shoebox. I thought either it would be empty because my rabbit would be in Heaven or she'd look like she was sleeping.
What I found was a LOT more interesting. I had no idea any of it was supposed to be icky and so none of it was. I looked and looked and felt like a scientist (I thought maybe I already was one). My rabbit was all bones but she still looked kind of rabbit shaped, just like dinosaur bones were dinosaur shaped and Halloween skeletons were people shaped. A thing's bones on the inside looked like the thing's outside. I felt smarter just thinking about it. After a while I reburied the box and ran in the house to tell my mom all about what I'd learned.
She was washing dishes, a cloud of suds under her hands. When I told her I'd seen my rabbit, she asked me if I was pretending. Once I started describing the worms (great big fat ones that wiggled but didn't seem to be going anywhere, and how did they get in there?) she turned and vomited into the sink. Right on top of the soapy dishes.
Have to wash those again, I thought, but did not say.
Once she recovered, she was all voice. It was disgusting. I was disgusting. "Everyone knows you don't dig up dead things and LOOK at them!"
"What about dinosaurs?" I asked. "People dig them up and look at them and then put the bones in museums and people go and spend money to look at them."
"That's different," my mom tennis whacked the argument right back to me. "Those are scientists that do that."
"Then I'll be a scientist!" I announced. This was becoming a great day.
"You can't," my mom said, and she was wearing her mean smile. "Only men can be scientists. Ladies can't, they don't let them. It's a rule."
I paused, hearing this wrong thing. And then I said the thing that would forever cast a pall over Marlo in our house. I said "What about that Marlo Thomas song, Parents Are People? She sang Mommies can do anything."
And then my mom's smile went a little bigger as she went in for the winning point: "She said ALMOST anything. And don't forget, Marlo Thomas is an actress. Actresses say made up things all the time."
I hadn't figured that one in. I had forgotten about that word: almost. ANYTHING, that word was as big as the whole world but that word ALMOST was a tricky one. It could erase stuff at the last minute. I dropped my mother's gaze and studied the pattern of the green tile floor and felt small again.
My mom reminded me we were going to my grandma's later and told me to get cleaned up. Grandma was my mother's mom. "And use a lot of soap!" she reminded.
I liked going to see Grandma. She wore her hair in a beehive (some of it real and some of it bought at the store and clipped in) and bright lipstick and sparkly earrings. I'd always draw her a picture and she'd always make a big deal over it. It was our thing. This time I spent a lot of time on the picture. I wanted it to be really special: a grownup picture, a scientist picture. I took a big piece of white paper and began by drawing a line down the middle. I would draw two pictures and I would call it: My Rabbit Before And After. It was going to be great.
My parents were used to me bringng a picture along so neither of them thought to look it over. They would later regret this decision.
At my grandma's, a lot of relatives were there: aunts, uncles, and they all fussed over me. I was everyone's darling, even more so when I told them I had a picture to show them. I remember my grandma clapped her hands together and said "Oh! A picture! Oh Amie I can't WAIT to see what you've drawn for me!"
I stood in front of the group and began my presentation. The left side of the picture was my rabbit Charlotte, the way she'd looked when she was alive. The right side was labelled with words (in careful capitals) and arrows pointing to what I was describing. I had labelled WORMS and EYE HOLES and MORE WORMS. You get the idea. For some reason, my audience looked strange. I took this to mean my presentation needed more pizzazz.
"You may be wondering about the worms. I did too. My dad explained it to me, these worms are called Maggots and a maggot is a worm with a really important job" (cut to my mother shooting a lethal look at my father). I explained my father's theory to them: how maggots are like garbagemen who do an important job and we're glad they do (I had pounced on my dad the instant he stepped in the door and asked him about the worms. He'd be in trouble later, for 'helping').
Still silent, my audience. I pulled out the poem. "I've written a poem too and this poem is called The Maggots and My Rabbit." I began the first few lines and suddenly my mother was yanking me by the arm, hustling my butt into the kitchen. This made me very upset, not the arm yanking but having my poem interrupted when I wasn't even done.
"NO MORE," she ordered. "No more talking about the rabbit. No pictures. No poems."
I got a thought in my head and my mother read my mind and squashed the thought: "And before you say it, no SONGS, either."
She meant business. And there was more. I wasn't allowed to say the WORD rabbit for a whole month. I tried for a loophole (the Easter Bunny) and another loophole (Bugs Bunny) and my mother said if I said Bunny or Rabbit even one time in the next month, the Easter Bunny would be told not to come to our house ever again.
I was ordered to sit at the kitchen table and think about what I had done and then to apologize. I sat there awhile, thinking about how unfair it was I should have to apologize for making my grandma a really good picture. I sat there a lot longer than my mother expected so when she came back in she had a piece of cake on a plate, a bribe she set down in front of me. When I apologized, I could get cake. Also I should draw my grandma another picture, "a nice picture" my mother specified.
She had more: I shouldn't even know the word Maggot, it was a yucky word and no one should know it. I told her it was the right word, that it was in the dictionary so somebody had thought that worm was important enough to have its own name and to put it in the dictionary so people could know it.
My mother glared at me and I stopped talking then.
I drew another picture. I drew it really badly, on purpose. The lines were all over the place and I colored outside the lines and it was a yucky mess and I was glad. It was a brown scribble with a dash of gray scribble. It could have been anything. I took the picture into the living room for my grandma and told her "Here, it's a picture of a cat. It's just a cat. It doesn't do anything."
My grandma had gotten lots of my pictures and knew how well I could draw. Even though this picture was an on purpose mess, she said "Oh I love it, oh Amie I like this picture" which proved that either my grandma had no taste and didn't know a good picture from a bad one or that she was just a big liar.
"And what else?" my mother reminded.
"I'm sorry you didn't like the special one I made for you," I told her. I thought maybe if I reminded her it was special, she might act nice. I was wrong.
My grandma continued to ham it up. "Oh Amie, that other picture! OOH it scared me!" She made an elaborate scared face to demonstrate. I wondered if she was lying some more or if my grandma could really get ooh scared from a kid's crayon picture.
And so I was forgiven. And offered cake. I said "No thank you" to the cake.
When it was time to go my mom helped me into my coat and handed me my rabbit drawing. "Oh you forgot my drawing!" I said to my grandma, and tried to hand it to her.
"Oh no Amie, I like the other drawing you did. I'm scared of THIS one."
I responded as my mother's daughter: I gave her a guilt trip. "You don't have to keep it. If you really hate it, you can throw it in the garbage can." I looked so pitiful, I thought I had her for sure. No way would a grandma ever throw a kid's drawing in the garbage can in a million years.
But my grandma was a master. She bent down so she was at my eye level and said "Amie, I wouldn't want THAT picture even in our garbage can!"
My mouth fell open. And before I could recover and say anything else, my parents got me out of there.
This story originally appeared on the website SMITH: The Moment, and can be found in my first collection, GREEN SHOES MEAN I LOVE YOU, available at www.amieryan.com
PS: I happened to send this story to Marlo Thomas herself and was delighted to get this response: