I remember the first time I ever made people laugh.
I mean… let me say… the first time I ever caught on that people were laughing and then continue that thing!
Because most of my childhood, people were already cocking their heads to one side with a secret smile when I would open my mouth to speak. Most of my childhood, people were already nodding with curiosity, saying “Uh huh,” and then laughing just a little. In fact, whether it arose from my bad behavior (I could be a bit of a diva) or my good behavior (but I was very loving! I never meant bad!) I already had a catch phrase: “Call Me Baby.”
(This was long before Carly Rae Jepson co-opted something similar for a pop tune! When I was three, I was playing with my spaghetti and meatballs in my special big girl place at the table. Meaning, I was playing with my food with my HANDS, something my rather behavior-appropriate father HATED. “Honey,” he said, appealing to my desires as a little-girl-wanna-be-big-girl, “if you play with your food, people are going to call you ‘baby.’” I looked right at him, took a big scoop of noodles and sauce in my hand, and as I smeared that dinner all along the wallpaper, I said, “Caaaaall me baaaaby.” …
…even now as an adult, I will still get comments at family functions and e-mails saying, “Call me baby.” …)
But I wasn’t trying to be funny then…
I was just expressing my desire to be myself!
No, it wasn’t until a few years later, with a group of girlfriends, that I realized I was funny, and then discovered the way to encourage the laughter.
I don’t remember how old we were. I’d say it was around 4th or 5th grade. There was a group of us, and to be honest, I don’t even remember which if my childhood girlfriends were a part of the scheme. I am pretty sure it was Gina and Sarah but beyond that, sadly, I do not recall. I just know there was a TALENT SHOW at our school and I was SO EXCITED because I had already done a few plays and already been on the news for different artistic endeavors and just KNEW I was going to be a famous movie star, singer and novelist when I grew up.
(Hey, little Erin, all chubby with coke-bottle-lensed glasses and funky hair that would sit properly on your head, shy with your little hands in fists in your pockets…. Guess what? You did grow up to be a singer, and an actress, and a writer! Maybe not famous, but guess what? It all turns out okay in the end. So… I’d like to tell you to relax and enjoy the journey more, but I guess maybe all that passion is what got you here in the first place, so on second thought, just keep going and know that you end up living in Hollywood and yes, you get the guy!)
Okay. Sorry, had to give a side commercial to my childhood self.
Anyway. Back to the TALENT SHOW.
My friends and I were so excited to be in it! We were thinking of all the millions of options. I think I wanted to do something like a full-blown production of Phantom of the Opera, [sic] but my far more practical chums would have nixed that pretty immediately. I was old enough to know I wanted it to be beautiful and grown up and sexy. And naïve enough not to realize I was absolutely NONE of those things. Remember my aside, from a few seconds ago, when I talked to my childhood self? Yes? No? Let me remind you by painting a picture with words.
As a kid, I had several stand out features. I was a dreamer. I was a performer. I sang and danced and played piano. I wrote stories and illustrated them myself. I spent hours wandering around the forest singing to myself and imagining adventures in great and glorious detail.
I would wake up at the crack of dawn on a June morning like this one and run out to catch the sun rise over the pond, feel the dew on my bare feet as I would wade in the tall, wet, grass, and feel this special thrill of “something’s gonna happen… I just know it.”
And were I to go home and pour a huge bowl of cereal and then look in the mirror, I would see:
Huge blue eyes, made huger and bluer, almost owl-like, by very thick horn-rimmed glasses. Hair that was unruly and unbehaving, kept short because I would never comb it enough to keep it from getting gnarled, but with a special cowlick veering off to the right. Most likely there was some kind of juice or food smeared on my shirt. I would be very tan and quite chubby, bursting from my shorts, because even then I would be on a diet (my first diet was age 8) but not realizing I didn’t look like a slim, beautiful 18 year old grown up. (!)
Okay. Again, back to the TALENT SHOW.
My friends and I, after much debate, settled on a dance routine. Although I desperately wanted “Swans,” from “Carnival of the Animals,” by Saint-Saens, which my mother would play on piano while I would dance around the living room… my friends decided on a Totally 80s song: “Walk like an Egyptian,” by the girl group “The Bangles.”
We came up with a dance routine but I never quite blended in to the actual routine. Then, my attention-needy…. Er, um… star-focused…. Uh, oh… um…. My very CREATIVE brain came up with the idea that ONE of us had to be an Egyptian, and furthermore, like the song said, WALK LIKE ONE. Also, we should wear outfits exactly like the ancients.
My girlfriends, normal-esque, cute, and sweet, said “no.” THEY wanted to wear rocker chick outfits and be the BANGLES. Duh.
Well, I had different ideas.
Performance night. The boy before us lip-synched to some rock tune. Most of the talent in my town was focused on lip-synching, apparently. The girls in my group were all done up, complete with neon colored 80s bangles and bracelets. I ran up at the end with a big surprise. I was NOT wearing an awesome lace skirt with sprayed up 80s bangs. No.
I had gone into my mother’s makeup kit and borrowed black eyeliner. I had thickly lined my eyes and drawn the little lines pointing out, like the people in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. At the last minute, I got creative, and drew on a thick black beard.
But the biggest surprise, for most people, was to be my costume.
That damned 80s song commences with the tell-tale jungle stick, followed by, if memory serves, some sort of timpani or tuned bass drum on the down beat after the first measure. Well, my cohorts rushed on stage as the lights were down and I hid in the wings, staring at the cord that pulled the curtains open on the front of the stage. The lights came up and I heard the audience cough and settle in their seats again. The, that jingle stick, and the girls, stunned in the lights, barely moved. Then, that drum. Sarah or Gina, I don’t remember who was the leader, one of them, though, as they always were, nudged the other girl and they began to move. From back stage, I could see that the audience stunned them into a lesser version of themselves, a timid version in which they were no longer rockstars but little girls; no longer famous performers at a huge venue but pre-pubescent small town darlings in a talent show at the old junior high school which was dilapidated enough it was no longer safe for kids and had therefore been converted into office space only but which still had the best thrust stage in town for things like the local talent show…
I was not standing for this! I re-wrapped my surprised: a bed sheet (We didn’t have any straight white sheets so I used my mother’s peach and light green Santa Fe style sheets) wrapped around my body like a toga, and a gold hand band pinned onto my head to look kind of like the tall golden hats I had seen in the photos of the hieroglyphs. I was too late to add more black eyeliner as a beard, but in the heat and humidity of a Minnesota summer, and already sweating from stress, I could see it running in streaks as I wiped my sheet across my face to remove the sweat.
And then it was time for my entrance….
I moved onto the stage quickly, thrusting my arms into the zig zag pattern of the Egyptians on the wall, and indeed, in my mind, began to “Walk like an Egyptian.” From the moment I moved onto stage, arms thrusting, makeup smearing underneath my crazy huge glasses, sheets slipping…
The audience ROARED.
I stole one brief look at my friends. One of them had eyes wider than saucers. I imagined somehow she thought this was a good thing, me dancing in a bed sheet. The audience laughed as I rounded the girls and doubled down on my commitment.
I moved even jerkier, faster. I got my head into the game and I am sure I began to look more like a chicken jerking her head forward and back than an Egyptian, but what did I care? The audience was responding and something in me knew: “Do it more. Get more serious. YOU ARE AN EGYPTIAN!”
I was a nerdy kid who had done her homework. So I said, “I am Nefertiti!” and moved front and center stage. The audience howled as I moved to point my arms at THEM! To my horror, the sheet slipped half off, revealing my black and white diagonally striped bathing suit underneath. They laughed even harder. I moved faster.
And then, as quickly as it had begun, after all those weeks of preparation, it was over.
After the show, my mother came to find me with my sister Laura in tow. The look on her face was one of surprise. I think none of us knew quite what to think of what I had just done, what we had just done. My part in the performance had been… unusual. I was not like anyone else, in that I hadn’t been pretty. Nor appropriate. But I also had not been timid, nor shy. In real life I was VERY shy. But something about that stage had created this other Erin, this other me who just KNEW the audience didn’t want to watch little girls be little girls. They wanted to watch little girls transform into EGYPTIANS.
A lady walked up to me with her kids in tow, one two three four. She had a huge grin on her face. She put her hand on my shoulder.
“You’ve got guts, kid,” she said, laughing. “You’ve got guts.”
Shy again, I looked down at the floor and felt my cheeks flushing red. I wasn’t sure what she meant. I knew I was chubby. But I knew I had made her laugh…
I don’t remember if my friends were happy with the evening or not, but I am sure it was quickly forgotten as we gathered at the Dairy Queen for dilly bars. Later that night, standing in the front yard, staring at the stars as they twinkled in the sky, I smiled at God. We had a secret together, God and I. I could make people laugh. And I was gonna find a way to make use of that. And I knew in my heart, God was laughing, too.