"An American Tail" Always Reminds Me Of That Time I Was Kidnapped

To this day I can't listen to Peabo Bryson's baritone without thinking about love and loss and little mice. Oh, and also my own twisted chilhood.

Jan 10, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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I'm pretty sure I'm not the only human in possession of these pesky things called feelings which in turn get totally overwhelmed when confronted with Steven Spielberg's tour de mouse "Fievel."

The movie's got everything from the family friendly personification of some of the horrors of oppression to the stunted realization of the American dream for really poor people.

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How can you NOT cry when Fievel and his sister Tanya belt out "Somewhere Out There"? Two poor kids hoping against hope that the future is better than the present. That in "America there are bread crumbs on every floor" and "mouse holes in every wall." 

To this day I can't listen to Peabo Bryson's baritone without thinking about love and loss and little mice. Oh, and also my own twisted chilhood. 

What I know for sure is that everyone should be salting their popcorn with tears by the last scene of "American Tail" but what I doubt, however, is that everyone cries for the same reason I do. Because when I was 6 going on 7 I was "kidnapped."

I put the verb/adjective "kidnapped" in quotes because, much like with Fievel, what happened was such a clusterfuck of family, miscommunication and xenophobia that it's hard to come up with a word or a state of being to describe the event that lasted for five days.

The short of it: My mother (a lesbian) decided to move the two of us to Spain (she'd learned Spanish in the Peace Corps and was going to work as a nanny) to live. Nefarious forces posing as my mother's friends convinced my grandmother that my mom was A) unfit as a parent and B) was possibly planning to sell me on the black market (not kidding). So they concocted a plan. 

On the day we were to become expats, my grandmother drove the two of us to the airport. Right before it was my turn to get out of the car and on with the rest of my life, my mother's mother sped off into the sunny Los Angeles afternoon with a stolen granddaughter (me) in the backseat. She dropped me off at a strange woman's house and left me there. This is what I wrote about that week in my book:

The five days I spent without a mother were and will always be the worst of my memories. Frances was my dirt, and when she left, she took my feet with her. A six-year-old girl without gravity. Weightless but not flying because that would have been a relief. Instead, I was in a constant state of losing—spending one minute remembering the plump of the small bump on both her pinkies where her sixth finger used to be, and the next minute trying to picture the curl of the three hairs near her chin. There were moments when I could call up her face on speed dial, and others when I couldn’t remember the number to save my life. I needed saving.  

Needless to say my childhood was sort of splintered following my kidnapping. Once she finally got me back, my mother, weary of not just her family but also her friends, moved us to Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. We were safe there. 

Catalina would become our own private castle. Only 26 miles away, but separated by a moat of ocean from the mother who'd betrayed her. It's weird that we were able to blend in a place where we (black, poor and one of us gay) stood out the most.

Like Tiger and Fievel, Frances and I were a "duo." Remember that song? Tiger, the fat cat played by Dom DeLuise who likes mice (but not like that) sings, "Let's you and me be who we are. We're a duo! It's True-O. Wherever we go, we're going me and you." If that line doesn't describe my mother and I, I don't know what does.

So the other day while channel flipping, I burst into tears when I watched this scene from "American Tail" on HBO Family. 

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"Why are you looking for them?" a mouse orphan asks Fievel in one of the last scenes of the film. "They should be looking for you." Ugh. I heard that from my couch and immediately broke down to the knobby-kneed kid who thought her mom might have left without her.

"Yeah," says another orphan, "forget ‘em, you’re one of us now! Ahahahaha!!!" 

Like me, Fillie (Fievel's new American name) almost gives up. "I’ll never find them again anyway, never, never, never, this is my home now," he cries into the rain. Doublly sad. Doublly pathetic. The music swells and you just know something's coming. Then BOOM!!! Here comes Papa Mousekewitz to the rescue. 

This is when I pretty much lost it. Remembering the moment when my grandmother finally relented and brought me out of my hiding place, my prison really, and to my mother. I ran out of the car and smack into my mother's stomach. Almost like I was trying to crawl back inside. We left for Catalina immediately. Hand in hand and not looking back. 

I define the four-and-a-half years we spent on the island as my childhood, because I define childhood as safety. So whenever I watch the movie I cry -- not just for the sadness surrounding this tiny kid's loss and then the joy of him being found -- but for memories of the time when I felt so very safe, wrapped up as I was in a blanket of blue and the big brown muscle of the island's mountains and my mother's arms. 

As grown-ups sometimes we take safety for granted. We take the ground that we own or rent or sublet for granted. Forgetting the fact that for some stability, that dirt, is what makes it possible to fly off into the "somewhere" Fievel sang about.