Illustration by Popularium. Source images MGM
The first time I see her, she’s fishing in the warm mountain sun.
A whistle pierces the air, and she leaps up to follow her father home down the dusty road. Her bright blue eyes shine out of a face that shows more dirt than skin, framed by a ragged mop of hair. Her shirt is tucked haphazardly into pants three sizes too big, held up by rope.
I sit cross-legged on the sage green armchair in Grammy’s living room, a bowl of mac-’n-cheese lying forgotten in my lap. Strings of cheddar hang from my lips, but I don’t notice. I’m mesmerized. I recognize Debbie Reynolds from Singin’ in the Rain, but this time she isn’t well put together. She’s playing a real-life hero, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and this time, she looks like me.
Molly is singing “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys”. She’s dancing up a storm, all boundless energy and enthusiasm in her ill-fitting, emerald-green dress. Her dusty boots peek out underneath.
A miner smacks her on the ass. She swings around, fists up, but he grabs her in a glide across the floor. The song ends and she flips onto the ground to raucous cheers.
Suddenly, girls from the nearby saloon stroll in, jeering at Molly. It looks like they’ll outclass, out-sass, and out-dance her.
Determined, she attempts to copy their moves and… falls right on her ass. But she’s not done. She watches until the moment is right, then hip-checks the competition, whisking the miners away in a rowdy dance, complete with a big finish atop the bar.
I stomp around the living room, belting out the words along with Molly. We are a perfect match, my ill-fitting dress a baby-blue chiffon pilfered from Grammy’s closet. When I spread my arms, the long, gauzy sleeves hang like fairy wings. Grammy smiles and applauds. If anyone else had caught me singing or dancing, I’d freeze, but Grammy understands. I feel powerful, beautiful, and free under her gaze.
As Molly hauls her catch towards her cabin, one of the nearby boys takes aim with his slingshot and strikes her right on the ass. His friends wrestle her to the ground. “Say ‘uncle’, Molly!” they demand. She writhes, spits, and hollers at them. She finally breaks free, never saying ‘uncle’.
At school one day, a group of girls sprawl on a bench, chatting and eyeing the boys’ basketball game. I approach and timidly say hello. They glance up, but quickly return to their conversation. I am discouraged, but I slide in next to them anyway.
Miranda, the ring leader, looks me up and down. “Nice shirt,” she says.
She noticed! It’s the first new shirt I’ve gotten in years. “Thanks!” I say, beaming. “My Grammy got it for me for my birthday!”
“Aw, that’s so sweet!” she says. “Did she pick it out for you, too?” I frown, and the girls giggle. “I bet she got it at Kmart, didn’t she?” I nod, tears forming in my eyes. “Too bad she couldn’t buy you a clue instead.”
As I turn to go, she adds: “And lose the shorts. No one wants to see your Jell-O legs.”
That weekend, I’m with Grammy watching Molly Brown again when it occurs to me: I don’t need to be accepted by the popular kids.
So I decide to assemble my own crew of misfits and carve out a place in the 4th grade hierarchy. My first recruit is a new kid, Jenny, who’s sitting alone at recess. I introduce myself and we discover that we’re both fans of Carmen Sandiego. Within minutes the situation is clear: Carmen is at large and we must join forces to capture her.
“Can I play?” asks a voice from behind us. We have another cohort. And then another. The popular kids sneer at us as they sit around acting cool. But we don’t care. We are having more fun anyway.
I carry Molly with me as I grow up. When I feel lost and alone, she lends me her strength.
She is there with me as my wife Rachel and I struggle to find housing for us and our newborn. We end up living in a hotel and a situation that was supposed to be temporary starts to look permanent. My milk dries up, and I sit on a borrowed couch sobbing on my baby’s head, wondering if I was even meant to be a parent.
It’s Molly’s ‘go to hell’ attitude flowing through me when I tell off Rachel’s grandfather for repeatedly misgendering her in public and refusing to accept her — for putting conditions on his love.
When my son’s teacher tells me after the first day of school that he is “too much trouble” and hands me a recommendation for medication, Molly is right there spurring me to the principal’s office to demand my son not get written off as a problem child. She lends me her strength when mine is running out. “You ain’t down yet,” she tells me. “You’re still blinking!”
I am devastated when Debbie Reynolds passes away. I sit down to write a tribute to her, but nothing I write seems like enough. I push it to the side, a project best left to someone more eloquent, but it remains in the back of my mind, nagging away at me.
The Women’s March is the catalyst I need. As I walk alongside a quarter million marchers, it strikes me that the best tribute isn’t what I say, but what I do. Debbie brought to life a hero, and in doing so taught me strength and confidence. Every moment I channeled Molly was a tribute to the values they both stood for: tenacity, justice, and love. The Unsinkable Molly Brown was a woman who knew the value of writing her own story, in her very own style. She taught me that a life lived fearlessly is a life worth living.
In memory of Dawn Mace, a.k.a. Grammy (April 6, 1926 - March 5, 2017)