When my daughter displayed dramatic tendencies, an actress I'd befriended at the Woodstock Film Festival invited us to visit her on the set of Racing Daylight. The movie's title came to reflect my feelings on mothering: my daughter glows; I chase. And on that rare July afternoon, on a Catskills film set, I realized the limits of our time together. Elizabeth won't be this golden-haired girl riding shotgun in my life for long; this child will break out into the world and burn, baby, burn. And so I race....
At lunchtime, we approached the Big Blue Barn in Accord, our mom-mobile joining the aging sedans and trucks that packed the steep gravel drive. The movie was a Hudson Valley ghost-and-love story that spanned two eras: the Civil War and the present. On the lawn, a folksy four-man band practiced antebellum popular songs amid black snaky cables On the patio, actors in 19th century American dress ate pasta salads, their laughter loud and thespian, unequal to their mild jokes and idle gossip.
Melissa Leo, the slender redhead best-known as Benicio Del Toro's blowsy wife in 21 Grams , skipped out to greet us in earth shoes and a cotton print skirt, welcoming my seven-year-old like a VIP. When she introduced her to the producer, Elizabeth asked, with great seriousness: "Who's the second producer?" She's in the know.
"And who's the star?" Elizabeth asked. Melissa laughed and said slyly, "me!" as if it was a joke she and Elizabeth sprung on the adults.
Melissa led us to Nicole Quinn, a fiftyish African American directing her first film - in her own home. Her tired but happy eyes brightened when Elizabeth approached, all golden-haired enthusiasm. Lizzy plunged in, discussing her own movie project to a receptive audience. She will direct, produce and star. (I, apparently, will write.) Elizabeth earnestly discussed whether her production should use real cats, which are hard to wrangle, or stuffed cats, or children dressed as cats. Apparently cats figured large in the movie.
After lunch, we joined cast and crew outside in the sticky heat. Elizabeth, doused with bug spray, sat on a stump near the action and watched as, time after time, handsome Jason Downs solemnly approached flirtatious Sabrina Lloyd. Next set-up, the Camptown Shakers played for the garden party scene. Banjo music and magic filled in the air. Nicole set the mood with the mellow attentiveness to detail of someone who's wrangled two children through infancy, adolescence, and beyond, no devil in Prada.
"Coffee, any one?" Melissa asked between takes, channeling her inner production assistant. She had a belly ring, and little five-pointed stars tattooed at various points on her body - her ankle, hip, shoulder - a constellation, she said. Then she laughed embarrassedly: she didn't want to be a bad influence on Elizabeth, who yearned to be Melissa right then.
As the heat rose, along with the mosquitoes, Elizabeth began to sag. We began to say our goodbyes then, until Nicole dispatched the Assistant Director our way. The stocky twentysomething with a Home Depot solidity asked Elizabeth if she wanted to be an extra. Suddenly, she had energy to burn!
The wardrobe lady whisked my daughter to the spare bedroom. She returned transformed to 19th century girliness in a calico pinafore and straw boater. Wild ringlets tumbled across the shoulders of her long-sleeved blouse. She was barefoot - her feet too small for any stock shoes - but it went with the summery feel of the lemonade day. She was ecstatic in that great game of dress-up: acting.
Elizabeth went to the front lawn where Nicole and her cameraman were setting the shot for a card game beneath a shady oak, where character actress Le Clanche Du Rand gossiped with the preacher and two others while playing bridge The sound man grumbled: the trees whispered.
After the extras and crew kvelled, and the actors ignored her, the assistant director led Elizabeth to her mark beyond the action. It was a lonely spot in the high grass where she waited until he lowered his hand. The plan was that after the actors began their dialog, she would run behind them, up the hill out of the frame, then circle around to the steps leading down to the camera placement. She would wait there silently for the A.D.'s signal to return to her mark.
Melissa and I positioned ourselves on a stone bench where we couldn't see the card players but had a perfect view of our star. Elizabeth, focused, paying strict attention to the A.D., ignored us. On her first try, her straw boater flew from her head, and she stumbled over the long skirt's ruffle. But she didn't stop or fuss, just gathered the skirt with one hand, picked up the hat with the other, placed it on her head where she held it securely and continued her uphill frolic.
Having gasped together when the hat flew, Melissa and I laughed to see how Elizabeth completely recovered, without a murmured darn, or a wasted motion. We covered our mouths to keep silent, wiped away tears, in awe of our girl and the day's assymetrical, unexpected enchantment. When Elizabeth cames around to the stone steps, Melissa and I give her the thumbs-up. She smiled proudly, but swiftly, looking toward her A.D. to escort her back to her mark for the next take.
Elizabeth was an instant pro - and Melissa confessed she saw herself in my daughter: the glow, the total concentration, the giddy feeling that when she was acting for a camera at the center of all that activity she was truly alive. And when Melissa returned at day's end to her quiet house, and the bills, and the what-next of it all, the magic evaporated. Maybe that was why she lingered, dispensing coffee and joy, twirling in her cotton skirt, with her tattoo constellation.
And watched as Elizabeth prepared for each shot by grabbing her skirt, and steadying her hat. Each time she focused on the young man with the soul patch with unflagging concentration, ignoring Melissa and me. And then, the A.D. lowered his hand again, six times more. Each time, Elizabeth ran, all golden ringlets like summer sun, pinafore and pink legs and bare feet beneath the indigo ruffle, the straw hat like a kite caught in a sapling.
Maybe, for Elizabeth this was the beginning of a glorious career. Or maybe it was just the July day Mommy made the magic happen. It doesn't matter what she wants to be when she grows up: vet, teacher, film critic, superstar. It's important to just be in the moment. She is the diva; I am her entourage. Let her lick the insides out of life's Oreo for the moment; it's one gift I can give her while I'm still picking up the check.