Between the ages of 6 and 10, I was terrified of the sea. I couldn’t go in the water at Malibu beach without someone holding each of my hands. I was sure the giant waves would swallow me, pull me into the water and I wouldn’t be able to breath. I didn’t like being scared of the unknown. Living in worry of what might happen wasn’t living. I decided when I was young, I didn’t want to be controlled by, and wouldn’t live in fear. I made up my mind I would be a stunt woman. I was 10 years old.
Why a stunt woman? I knew I would have to come face to face not with just the big waves in the ocean but any other fear that would come my way, every day I went to work. Never mind that I didn’t know anyone in the film business. As an adult, when I decide to do something, nothing can get in my way. But it wasn’t always this way. When I was 14 and my mother went into intensive care because of abuse from her second husband, my breath got in the way.
I couldn’t breathe from the anxiety I felt especially at night. The depths of the wounding that I experienced as a child who watched my mother being brutalized caused me so much anxiety, I started to hold my breath. When laying in bed, I sometimes felt as if I was going to choke because my anxiety kept me from even getting my breath past my chest. Our family doctor came up with the brilliant idea of giving me, a 14-year-old-girl, Valium. Instead of calming me down, it only intensified my anxiety.
Books took me out of my anxiety and calmed me down. I liked biographies so I could learn what made interesting people tick. Life kept me in reality, books kept me dreaming.
I read Sophia Loren’s autobiography; Living and Loving, for the first time when I was 20 years old. Sophia Scicolone beautifully described growing up in the seaport town of Pozzuoli, close to Naples. She was skinny, ugly and pale and the kids used to call her toothpick or steccheta. They would scrawl “Sofia Stuzzicadente” (toothpick) on the wall of their apartment building. It would have been easier for Sophia’s mother to give Sophia to an orphanage nearby. Her landlady knew Sophia’s mother had no husband, and the hostility she faced was unrelenting. That landlady told Sophia’s mother “why don’t you let this ugly thing die. You’re not married, you don’t have a job, your breasts are dry and the baby sucks on you without getting anything to eat…she’s all skin and bones. Just let her die.” Sophia’s mother had to keep her maiden name because the man responsible for this baby said he had absolutely no intention in marrying her mother. Pozzuoli girls were not to have babies out of wedlock. They were to remain virgins until they married. But Sophia’s mother stood up for herself and her baby. She was a fighter. Her mother was fiercely determined to keep Sophia.
Sophia described not having a crust of bread or a swallow of milk. She also described a loneliness that would cause her to climb a small fig tree in her front yard, hide in the thick foliage and stay there for hours at a time. I, too, knew that same loneliness as a child. I found my comfort of hiding in books. I also fantasized that Sophia Loren was my mother. My mother, before the “accident” was to me a Guatemalan version of Sophia. A passionate, beautiful woman who danced the Flamenco, sang music out loud like Alone Again, Naturally over and over on her record player, and wore hip, orange dresses. She loved to sail on boats, fish for shark, ride on the back of a motorcycle, eat hot sauce with every meal and was a head turner whose dancing caused men to throw their wallets at her. Because I saw my mother as such a passionate woman, I decided to live my life in a passionate way as well. Or maybe I’m just like my mother in more ways than one.
My mother’s heart was a caring, big, and compassionate heart. My mother and her sister were walking back from school when they were little girls in Guatemala. My mother saw a little white butterfly that had been injured lying in the middle of the street. She stopped, bent over and carefully picked up the butterfly with both hands and put it on the step of a house in the corner so no one could do anymore damage. A man standing watching her movements clapped when she turned to walk down the street. That’s my mother.
The poverty Loren described made her a dreamer and a fighter; an unstoppable pair. Being born into poverty created a hunger and a model for how to live life no matter what the circumstances. Sophia, determined to pursue her dream of being an actress, left Pozzuoli for Rome and never turned back. At a beauty contest in 1950, when Sophia was 16 years old, she placed 2nd. Carlo Ponti, who would become her husband, was one of the judges.
Sophia Loren married Carlo Ponti and had two children. She was a goddess. A woman who pursued and created a career and loved her children so passionately I could feel her love for them as I turned the pages of her book. A woman who was old Hollywood glamour, and an Italian enchantress who cooked, truly the entire package. I must have read Sophia’s story a dozen times in my twenties. The cover is ripped and torn, something I rarely allow to happen to my cherished books. The spine is broken.
The inspiration I received from Sophia Loren’s words was life altering. If that poor, skinny girl from Pozzuoli could achieve her dream, I thought why couldn’t this skinny ball of anxiety from Reseda who worked at swap meets on weekends achieve hers?
While working in a camera store, I met a stunt coordinator. I nicely and half begged him to bring me to work with him. On the set of Knight Rider, he introduced me to one of Hollywood’s top 3 stunt women, a woman who would change my life, when I was twenty-two years old. “I want to be a stunt woman” I told her. “Will you help me?” “Yes of course” she said. She actually meant it. She didn’t know me, I didn’t know her but it was destiny we met. She encouraged and believed in me. And, I needed someone to believe in me. My father thought the idea of being a stuntwoman as a career was simply crazy. What was so crazy about it? I liked the challenge of having to overcome and become intimate with my fears. I loved the diversity of traveling around like a circus in the film business. We roll in, we roll out. It’s like a family, a big family for a finite amount of time. I like that a lot.
My mentor, whose career spanned 30 years, gave me a start in a career that lasted over 25 years. She also taught me to breathe with Kundalini Yoga. I had to learn to be calm before I jumped off a building. Instead of reaching for a valium when I can’t breathe, I reach for G-d with my breath.
I still lose my breath when I’m too excited these days and I was trying to find mine when I heard last month that Sophia Loren was coming to Los Angeles to accept a tribute award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
I emailed a dear friend to see if he could get me two tickets. When he emailed back, “I got you 2 tickets, YEAAA” I felt joy, happiness, elation and OMG.
Via email, I invited my friend Brauna, an intuitive, compassionate, caring, thin, elegant, poised brunette whose humor never fails and who happens to be quite possibly a bigger classic movie lover than me. When we met in graduate school, there was an instant recognition of “I know you.” It was as if we had been friends our entire life plus a few lifetimes in between. People at school used to ask if we knew each other before school. “Are you sisters?” strangers would ask us in airports. You could describe us both as feisty. “I have tickets to see Sophia Loren in person” I wrote her. I knew we had a once in a lifetime night in store for us. I knew I was going to get emotional. Plus, Sophia and Brauna are women who had difficulties getting pregnant, both passionate lovers of food, life, children, people. In the midst of a bad day meltdown Brauna emails “What am I wearing to Sophia’s gala event on Wednesday? Forget about mothers, fathers, death, pain, abandonment, rejection, self loathing, rigidity, perfectionism, menopausal mayhem, the world going to hell in a hand basket — WHAT THE F AM I WEARING TO SEE SOPHIA???” She made me laugh, as she always does, just when I need it.
I found my tattered copy of Living and Loving, hoping to get an autograph. Brauna went to get her make-up done, a mani, pedi as I was doing the same, over on my side of town. I have always loved having my make up done ever since I first sat in the make up trailer on my first movie. It was a time to breathe before I went to set and had to perform a stunt that terrified me. I liked the calming touch of the make-up artist’s hand so skillfully applying base, blush, eye shadow and lipstick. The soft touch of their hand against my cheeks was soothing. I loved how my hazel eyes looked when they knew exactly what shades of eye shadow to apply to my eyelids and below my brow. They always had fun music in the make-up trailer to lighten the feeling I was carrying. Music always takes me out of my head. When Brauna pulled up in her little grey car, I’m immediately in my heart.
When Brauna arrived at my house, she didn’t know if she should wear a dress or pants so she had brought both to choose from. We were like two giddy school girls, trying to find the right outfit. I wore the cream pants that I bought in Rome that were perfect along with a new cream silk top and a favorite pair of Manolos. Brauna wore a classic black dress and strappy heels. My breath was a bit choppy as I drove from the excitement of seeing Sophia Loren, in person. I was also happy to be at the side of my friend. I cherish each and every moment we spend together. That woman, sitting next to me at the Samuel Goldwyn theatre, has been the source of healing, loving and growing ever since our paths first crossed. Meeting her was like a 2 for 1. The love I feel for her is a deep love that knows no bounds. Like the love I imagine a mother would feel for their daughter. It felt like in meeting Brauna, I got my mother back and I found a Jewish soul sister, a friend for life.
Billy Crystal, the emcee, introduced the audience to her Sophia’s younger son, Edoardo. As he walked on the stage, I was reminded of how Sophia stayed on bed rest for the entire nine-month gestation period for not just one, but both of her sons. Her strength and determination to have her children knew no bounds. I begin to feel my emotions stir. A woman who would stay in bed for nine months without moving in order to make sure her child would be born okay brought up my feelings of my own mother leaving when I was nine. When Edoardo said “Mammina, I know you still feel like the insecure little girl in Pozzouli and wonder why all these people are here for you. We are here because we love you and you deserve every single thing” and started to cry, I cried too.
After showing the audience highlights of Sophia’s finest film moments where it was apparent she was fluent in comedy and drama, Ms. Loren was introduced. The entire audience was up on their feet, clapping. Tears were rolling down my face before she made it up the stairs. I was seeing Sophia Loren in person. I felt like that little girl who couldn’t go into the ocean had made it out alive. I felt like because Sophia had pursued her dreams and made them happen, she gave me the strength to pursue mine. I felt like even though my mother had left when I was young, G-d had given me a mother in a different way, with my relationship with Brauna. Sophia wore a black dress sparkling with sequins that definitely wasn’t prêt-å-porter. Diamond earrings, a chocker, black 5-inch strappy shoes. It had been 29 years since I had read Sophia’s book, the book that gave me the encouragement to pursue the not so crazy dream of becoming a stunt woman. “The Academy Award changed my life completely,” she said with an Italian accent. Her accent reminded me of how my mother spoke English with her Spanish accent. “It helped me to believe in myself and encouraged me to push my own artistic boundaries.” She had tears in her eyes when Billy Crystal asked her whether she was happy with her career. “You always want to do more and find the right thing at the right time. I like my career, my life, so much. I was born for this. I am sick when I don’t work for a year or two.” I am reminded that Brassai said every creative person has a second date of birth, one which is more important than the first: that which he discovers what his true vocation is. I didn’t get close enough for her autograph but she is forever imprinted on my heart.
Sophia Loren is seven wonders rolled in one. She’s the personification of beauty, class, elegance, grace, humility, wit. After more than 80 films, she’s humble. Her strength and perseverance make her more beautiful than she is. When Billy Crystal asked if she liked looking at herself up on the screen she quipped “You showed the good stuff so I don’t mind.” When she spoke of her husband who died January 2007, she had to push down her emotions. Something I recognized all too well. Something I used to do until I met Brauna; who encouraged me to be vulnerable and cry.
I cried for Sophia; she never had her father but found one instead in Carlo Ponti, her husband. I don’t say “despite a 20-year age gap” as many critics do. Sophia was looking for what she was missing. In Living & Loving she said “Carlo had been my father and my husband.” She felt he was someone she had known all her life. Who cares what the age gap was or where she found love.
I also cried for my friend beside me, who was 51 years old the first time her mother truly said “ You are so beautiful & I’m so proud of you” when she graduated with her masters in psychology. I clapped loudly and wildly for her as she received her diploma for I know how hard she worked on herself for that degree. And I cried for myself, a little girl who has been looking for her mother her entire life. A girl who was given her mother back to her by the grace of G-d, when he brought a woman into her life who would help her release and heal her judgments. I’ve experienced so many gifts, including laughter, from being in one another’s lives. It’s not always pure bliss as part of having a close relationship is growth. We always come back to love and forgiveness. In mirroring vulnerability to one another, I don’t have to keep my feelings inside anymore. Brauna has been like the mother I never had, a long lost sister and friend all rolled up in one compassionate, caring, loving, beautiful, supporting package. When I met Brauna, I thought she was a 2 for 1, but ultimately she was a 3 for 1. I fell in love with her, my mother and myself.
When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice: once for herself, and once for her child.