Memory Six: Palm Springs: Our New Life

We settled into our new life in Palm Springs, the Morongo Indian Reservation was quickly fading into its proper place, oblivion. I was halfway past my 13th birthday, we had nice friends, Mom got a job cutting hair downtown, and I loved our new school Raymond Cree. I even had my very first crush: his name was Jimmy Lindel, and I thought he was the most handsome boy I had ever seen, but Anna said, “He was homely and a geek.”

Mom came home from work one day and told me she had passed a photography studio named Richard Anderson. She said that she stopped in and met the photographer Richard and his wife Sheila and had set up an appointment for me to see him, and that I had an hour to get ready. Panicking, I said, “It would’ve been nice if you told me before you made the appointment.” She said, “I know” in total agreement, but went on to say “I was driving and something said to me in my head, this is going to be Elena’s big break! So, I just went for it, he really wants to meet you.”

I said “How can I get ready? I don’t know what to do!” Mom just laughed at my panic. However, an hour later to the second, we were at Richard Anderson’s studio.

Mom and I let ourselves in. I could see from the photographs that lined the walls of the reception area that he was very talented. He did desert landscapes, models, actors, and advertisements. I felt really good being there, but was also very nervous. I didn’t think I was pretty or model material but Mom had a differing opinion.

We sat in the reception area for about 10 minutes when a petite blonde came out wearing tight size zero jeans, high heeled sling-backs, and looked to be about thirty-five years old. Her name was Sheila and her voice was as tiny and high pitched as she was. She warmly greeted me saying, “Hi honey! Your mom has told us so much about you!” I said, “Thank you,” and followed her lead. Through the darkened studio, I saw a backdrop and lights set up. I also saw someone who turned out to be Richard Anderson; his back was to us as we approached him, he was hovering over a light box editing photos.

Sheila said, “Rick, Elena is here to meet you.” He didn’t move right away. He finished viewing the last slide that was under his loop, then, in his own time, shut the light box off and turned the overhead lights on, which was a piercing adjustment to everyone’s eyes. He was in his mid-thirties, tan, sporting a big friendly smile and a calm demeanor. He strode a couple of paces in our direction in an effort to meet us partway.

My mom and Sheila did all of the introductions and were speaking over each other, Sheila telling Richard about me, and Mom telling me about Richard. As Mom and Sheila were talking, Richard was studying my face, my height, my hair, and my body, as though assessing whether I was worth taking time out of editing film. When he finished scanning me, he reached his hand out and said, “Hello, Elena, I’m pleased to meet you.” All I could manage was a whisper of “Thank you.”

Sheila and Mom did not stop talking, but Sheila was no match for Mom in the talking department. Mom spoke ten words for every two of hers, and was filled with a lifetime of desperation and drive that was a match for no one. Slowly, Sheila’s voice started fading and just disappeared as Mom took control of pitching her vision and dream for me right there. Not only was I hearing this for the first time, but I was hearing it for the first time in front of two people whom I had never met. I was so embarrassed. Richard sensed this and said to Sheila, “Why don’t you show Elaine photos of the younger models that I’ve shot while I visit with Elena for a few moments.”

The good thing about being able to hear Mom rambling was that I could gage how far away she was. I didn’t know Richard at all, and the environment I was raised in gave me a good, healthy fear of men, so I kept my distance from him which was just out of arms reach. I had already scoped out the closest exits: it was something I did automatically whenever I entered a place I had not been before and was with people I didn’t know.
Richard started off trying to make me comfortable by telling me to call him “Rick” and then went on to ask me if I wanted to be a model. I said, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a model, didn’t know what being a model meant besides getting pictures taken, and I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to take my picture.’

Rick was a smart man, good with people, and could see that I didn’t think much of myself. He said, “Let me tell you what I think. I think you have a good commercial look and I think if you decided to, you could be a very successful model.” Looking down, I said “Thank you”. He continued by saying “I would love to take a couple of shots of you now, I have lights set up for a shoot that I’m doing tomorrow and you’d actually be helping me out because I need to test the lighting.”

He called for Sheila and directed me to the make-up-dressing room, told Sheila what to do, and then left.
Sheila applied some light make-up and gave me a Danskin bodysuit. I put it on, went out to the backdrop, and waited for Rick to place me. He turned on music and a fan to blow my waist-length hair and that was it. I knew from the first frame that I wanted to be a model.

I could hear my mom whispering incessantly through the dark studio trying to make sure that Rick and Sheila didn’t miss one shot. Every time I moved my head or shifted my weight, I could hear my mom’s voice rise above the whisper and say, “Oh, oh look, get that, that’s a shot!” As much as my mom annoyed me at times and as crazy as I thought she was, I felt grateful that she saw something in me that I would never have seen in myself…