Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Greatest Show on Earth

My great-aunt Dot, who died before I was born, ran away with the circus in the mid-1930s. She was 15 years old and, orphaned as a very young child, had lived most of her life with my grandmother and great-uncle at Harris and Chilhowee Children’s Home in Tennessee. She would be hunted down and made to return a few months later, having changed her given name from Dorothy Beulah to Dorothy Grey, and bearing a tattoo of a Thunderbird on her left upper arm – very bold for moves for a young woman of that time period.

She resumed her life there at Harris and Chilhowee, finished school, and would later marry and have 4 children. She lived out the remainder of her days in Upstate South Carolina, and what stories of adventure she had during her time with the circus would remain hers and hers alone. What I consider fascinating others considered a rash youthful folly, and she didn’t discuss running away with the circus among anyone in her immediate or extended family.

I wish she had.

The story of Aunt Dot was the basis for the history of the character Nan in my book, The Absence of Anyone Else. I tried to imagine a young teenage girl, relatively happy in her day-to-day life, being swept up by the charisma and charm of a visiting circus, (or, as happens in my story, a handsome blonde boy who travels with a visiting circus), and walking away from her world to be a part of someone else’s. Talk about boldness. This was a time period, remember, where women who cut their hair and wore pants were still considered radicals in the South.

In faded family photos, Dot is dark-eyed and intense, her black hair casually arranged in the style of the day, her tattoo covered by the modest clothing of a rural Southern wife. She could be any typical woman of the era…But she wasn’t. She had a fantastic story, even if she kept it to herself.

I, too, have walked away from my world to be part of someone else’s. I’ve changed my name, then changed it back. I’ve done many things that others might consider to be follies. Some stories I’ve shared. Some I’ve kept sacred to me, as Dot did hers. She is one relative I’ve always felt a kinship to, even though I never knew her. There was something about the story of her ‘youthful folly’ that always spoke to me, that even as a child, I understood. When it became too much to merely wonder about, I bought a book of old circus photos from the early 20th century, and I’d often look at it and wonder about her. Who did she become, at the tender age of 15, when she left Dorothy Beulah behind and became Dorothy Grey? And what part of Dorothy Grey was still present in those blazing dark eyes that stared off somewhere just beyond the photographer’s lens?

And then, this weekend…I actually went to a circus. I took my son to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. It was the first circus for both of us, and I was, for all practical purposes, blown away. Of course, a circus of the 1930s would have been an entirely different show than what we saw, but I’m sure it would have been just as amazing for that period of time, for a young girl bored in a group home, wanting something more than just an average, typical life. Even if that something more came with risks. Caught up in the show on Friday, I’d have grabbed up my son and joined them too, in that moment, just to be a part of the magic. Of course it isn’t so easy these days. One cannot simply take the outstretched hand of another, leap up onto the train, and be a part of circus, which explains why I’m still here…that and the fact that, for all my many talents, I’m just not a performer.

However, there is one important thing from Dot’s story that I know to be true, and that is that we can watch the greatest shows on earth from our seats, but we experience nothing if we simply remain spectators, watching trains pass by on their way to somewhere else when the show is over. Without taking risks, without being bold, we’re only spectators, standing on the sidelines, watching others take risks and applauding on cue.

For some people, this is enough, as the proliferation of television watching, cable companies, satellite varieties and reality shows prove.

For Dot, it wasn't. And for me, it will never be.

It’s a sunny day, and I’ll head to the park soon…but expect an artistic interpretation of the circus from Pan Pan Studios. What can I say? It’s in my blood…

Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey’s The Greatest Show on Earth is worth every penny. Follow the link below for show information in your area: