Trigger Warning: Emotional Abuse, Substance Abuse, Mention of Death (nothing graphic), and Mental Health
My mother had wanted to be a star.
Her father was Polish, her mother Ukrainian, and together they immigrated with their children to America in the twenties, just before the dust bowl hit and left the nation in one of its poorest states since its conception. Her family survived on a diet of canned vegetables and hodgepodge soups that they threw together from their pitiful excuse of a garden during that time. Mother insisted this was great, though, as it helped her maintain a slim figure.
Her father had been a factory worker before the layoffs. As he knew little English, finding a job became near impossible during the recession. After that, his worn hands were used exclusively for holding bottles of liquor, only occasionally setting the drink down long enough to berate her mother for being a whore, which had turned from insult to occupation to support her children and her husband’s drinking habits.
This had been fine, mother assured me because once the war started, her father was given purpose again. Sure, this purpose had cost him his life, but that meant her mother could remarry a handsome broker.
My mother was always able to see silver linings in everything.
Supposedly, that’s why she suggested the name Silver Foster when I was told that my name, Danica Janowitz, was too ethnic for the likes of Hollywood. I was ushered out of the room after I complained that I did not like the last name Foster, I liked Janowitz because I was the only one in the world with that last name to my knowledge, so it was special. And I liked it when my father and sisters called me Dani, it was sweet and cute and not a silly color.
After I was thrown from the room, my mother came to me in the hallway like a fury released from hell. She crouched down beside me and encircled my small arm in a sharp grip that dug deep like a hawk’s talons into stunned prey.
“Don’t you ever do that again, do you hear me?” She spoke in our mother tongue. A sinister smile was plastered on her face to deceive those around us. “You were being trouble, and trouble will put us on the streets. So if they say bark, you bark. If they beckon, you oblige. And if they call you Silver, you answer.”
She leaned in, teeth clacking against my ear, “Do you understand?’
I nodded vigorously. I would not be trouble. I would be a star, just like mother wanted.
Dressed in pink frills and equally frivolous makeup, I landed my first real job just two months shy of being five years old. A thirty-second part in a film called Bloomin’ Sunday!
Mother was ecstatic. She ranted and raved to father about my exceptional acting as we ate sundaes after dinner, a treat for my performance skills.
“Eat up, buttercup, because now that you’re on the road to becoming a star we’ll have to strictly watch your diet!” She squealed.
My father, as usual, remained oblivious, happy that his daughter and wife were happy. Still, I wonder years later if even then he felt he was going mad, watching her mold me, shaping me into whatever a role called for until I became unrecognizable to those around me. I wonder when he noticed that the house stopped calling me Danica, or how he felt when his six-year-old daughter sobbed as her mother bleached her chestnut curls platinum.
Perhaps he was caught up in the same train of thought that my mother instilled in me: It was all worth it because I was going to be a star.
A year later I was on a new movie set. This time as the main character, portraying the youngest child of a flock of misfit orphans who were getting adopted by a rich and eccentric old man with no one to leave his millions of dollars to.
There came a scene where I was supposed to cry on cue during a tearful monologue where I recalled my dearly departed mama and papa which would sway the old man into adopting the children for good. Despite being a pivotal point in the plot, I found myself unable to shed tears for a pair of people who weren’t even real. Take after take, I attempted to muster any kind of heartfelt emotion but failed each time.
“Let's take a break,” The director sighed, waving off the exhausted crew members. I frowned but was ready to exit stage when my mother piped up, storming across the set towards me.
“Excuse me!” She shouted, looking somewhat sheepish as she stepped in front of the crowd, “Sorry, I know Silver is being a bit difficult today. Give me just five minutes with her and I’ll bring her back ready for business!” An unassuming grin graced my mother’s face and I smiled reflexively with her as she carted me to the back lot.
Once the door closed, she was on me like a viper on a mouse. Her smile was wiped clean and a look of dark aggression I had never seen before replaced it. I shuttered, my bottom lip trembling before she even spoke.
“Do not ruin this for us, for me, god damn it!” She had whispered but her words felt amplified by her unforgiving tone. “What have I told you about trouble, Silver? We did not come all the way here for you to embarrass me like this.”
“Mama, I’m not trying to embarrass you!” I winced as she pointed her sharp claw of a manicured nail at me.
“Then you better get back in there and act your little ass off.” She turned on her heel, ready to reenter the building, but stopped when I called out to her.
“I just don’t feel sad, Mama. You and Papa are alive so I can’t cry about something I don’t know.” I tried to reason with her.
The shadows played with my adolescent mind, making my mother appear leagues taller than she was as she towered menacingly over me. Her blackened eyes darted to a small frog that hopped aimlessly around the alley. I stumbled back as she snatched the creature and pushed it towards my face.
“Perhaps, darling,” that word burned my skin as she spat it at me, “Then this can serve as some motivation.”
“Mama, what–” And like that, she began to rip the legs off the small thing one by one. I watched in abject horror as she plucked the frog apart, its beady eyes pleading with me in a terribly human way as she mutilated it.
Once each limb had been removed, she squished its head between her index finger and thumb and wiped the blood on the cement wall.
Wordless, she and I walked inside. The scene rolled and I had no issue crying this time. Not because I was sad, but because I was horrified to think what worse could happen if I didn’t please my mother.
My mother and I’s relationship was never the same after that. She became less maternal and more managerial as the years went by. I felt less like a child in her eyes and more like a reminder of what she could have had. I was not a creation of her and my father’s love, but a reincarnation of herself, a new and improved version for her to live vicariously through.
I knew she had given up on her dreams of stardom long ago as it was a story she regularly told my sisters and I growing up, usually when she was drunk and angry with our father, which was often.
“I was a young girl and I was so very beautiful,” she would lament, eyeing us children vehemently, “Before I lost my figure to you three darlings. But, oh, back then I was a sight to behold. And America was a promised land. Anyone could be anything there.”
She would sway around the room with her eyes closed like she was dancing to a song none of us could hear.
“One night I am dancing with your father. He leaves to get us some drinks and I wander around to this old woman. She is from the old world, knows the old world magic, and she tells me she has a gift.”
Mother would usually finish her drink after that and then open a new bottle before she began. During this time, we never interrupted her no matter what. To do so would result in a punishment unimaginable.
“She says she can see my future. I do not believe her because I am young and stupid, but then she says she knows I dream of being famous, a dream I had not told her of. So I indulge her. Then the old woman tells me she sees no future for me, that I am not destined to be a star but to raise one.”
Always, she would point to me, and in a scratchy, poor imitation of the old woman’s voice, she would say, “You will bear a daughter with eyes like emeralds. She will be your star.”
And mother would laugh bitterly.
“I am so disappointed at this news, but worse more she must tell me. I listen because I cannot imagine what is worse than hearing I am to never live my dreams.”
Mother would look out the window. Her eyes would drift, like she was in a different place, her feet on the ground barely tethering her to the room with us.
“Stay away from the peaks, child, she told me, they will be the death of everything.”
It was this story that always stuck with me well into adulthood. My mother was terrified of heights from this warning so the only roles we ever turned down were ones involving any scenes on mountains or in the air, everything else was for the taking.
By thirteen I was a household name. “Silver Foster, fostered by the silver screen,” they would cleverly introduce me. I was America’s newest sweetheart.
As I grew older and more widespread, my mother’s greed grew in turn. Soon her envious nature infected even my most private affairs.
At fifteen I starred opposite a beautiful boy three years my senior. Our romance both on and off the screen was pure like a child’s first love should be. He was never untoward to me like some of the grown men I worked with. He never did more than hold my hand, kiss my cheek, even when I began to feel hotly toward him in a way that puberty compels young people to feel. He was a gentleman.
My mother hated it.
She hated that her daughter had become more alluring than her. That she was no longer viewed as young for a mother. She did not care that grown men had begun to let their eyes and hands wander on me because she was protective of me, no, she cared because it meant that they were ignoring her.
So, in a sick attempt to feel superior, to reinforce the idea that she was still desirable, my mother took up with the boy I loved.
She was a mature, sensual woman, how could he have said no? Or, at least, this is what he tried to rationalize to me when he came, guilt pouring from his eyes, to my doorstep the morning after. Childishly, I held him, petted his hair, kissed him tenderly as I forgave him. I loved him. I had never known love before him. And I knew best the wicked hold my mother could have.
We did not last long after the film was finished. I never brought this betrayal up to my mother. I did not need to because she knew I was too perceptive to not figure it out, regardless of if he had confessed it to me or not.
I rebelled in any way I could after that. Not acting was impossible, it was all I knew, and worse yet, it was what supported my family. My father had left after my mother’s affairs became one too many and my mother refused to burden herself with a job when she still had control of my earnings as I was a minor.
I took to acts of juvenile delinquency. During weekend nights, I would hang out with older co-stars at local bars, engaging in underage drinking and drag racing. I threw myself at much older men, allowing the paparazzi to occasionally photograph me in a scandalous embrace or two just to mess with my mother. Never anything too risque to stain my reputation permanently, just licentious enough to be grating on my mother’s nerves.
After a particularly heated argument over my acceptance of an off-color film, my mother had called me “a sad, whorish excuse for a star,” who relied solely on my looks. In retaliation, I chopped my hair off before my next premiere.
Our interactions became sporadic until they stopped entirely. We went nearly a year without a word passed between us when my eighteenth birthday forced us together once more.
I cornered my mother after my party. It was late, past midnight, my younger sister was in bed and it was just me and my mother in the living room as my current boyfriend had gone to fetch our car.
It was amazing how I could finally be considered an adult but standing there with my mother I felt as small as I had been during our bout in the hallway all those years ago. The day I stopped being her child and became her mirror.
I grit my teeth and balled my fists as I prepared myself to be the thing she had always ingrained in me never to be–trouble.
“Mother,” I addressed her sternly, “I need to speak with you.”
Her eyes looked like a snake’s. Cold and dark, with violence that lay dormant behind them. A predator’s eyes.
“Follow me to the balcony, Silver. I want to smoke.” It wasn’t a request.
I knew I should have stood my ground. I should have simply told her what I wanted to say and either she could have listened or been left with nothing. But inside me lived the little girl who wanted nothing more than to please her mother, even now. So I trailed behind, head hung low.
The night air was brisk but not yet cold enough to warrant a jacket. Goosebumps formed along my body from the chill and the adrenaline.
I watched her light the cigarette. She flicked the match off the balcony and down into the water below, her eyes focused on the embers as they swayed in the wind.
“So? What is it?” My mother’s tone was laden with indifference. She was not talking with her pride and joy on what should be one of the happiest days of both of our lives–no, this was business. This was coworkers discussing profits.
I steeled my nerves, and tried to will that same disingenuity to spread in my heart. Though I had not been blessed with her proclivity for detachment, I was born to act, so I imagined myself playing the role of despondent daughter and this was our final scene together.
“Mother, I’ve set up my own bank account. From now on, all my funds will be transferred there.”
A crack in the mirror. Like good prey, I did not look her in the eye but I saw her muscles tense, flexing in preparation for the strike. The pinch on her cigarette tightened, crushing it into two.
“I will leave you and baby Ana what is left in the account but once that is gone, you will need to fend for yourself. I have a trust set up for Ana, one that only she will have access to.”
It all began to shatter around my mother. Fractured pieces fell around her, each displaying a reflection of her true self. Green and ugly and oozing contempt.
“After tonight, I ask that you no longer contact me unless it involves the family. I…” The palpitations of my heart were beating so loud that I had trouble hearing my thoughts. “I do not want to speak to you ever. Ever, do you understand?”
The last sentence I spoke in our mother tongue. I winced as I did so because, in that tilt of voice, I heard her.
While my whole body fought against it, I forced my eyes to meet hers. In them, I saw my reflection and was surprised to find it whole. Her face was burnt red with humiliation, eyes welling with resentment, her lips trembled with bridled fury.
I had caused her trouble.
With nothing left to say, I turned heel, hoping that my boyfriend had arrived already.
“Silver!” My mother cried. It was an unhinged sort of sound. Like a wounded animal crying out for help with no one around to hear it.
I marched forward, not looking back. If I saw, I might be compelled to listen to whatever story she would spin to guilt me, to knock me down to her level. So I soldiered on.
“Danica! Don’t you dare turn your back on your mother,” she grabbed for my arm.
With righteousness I had never known before, I whipped her off of me, pushing her away.
“Do not touch–” I would never get to finish my warning because as I looked up, I saw an empty balcony before me.
I walked to the edge and peered below at the icy green waves washing over the pitch black rocks. I attempted to force a panic, a scream, a tear to shed, but all I felt was what I saw: nothing.