From Stove to Studio

“That’s so interesting.  How did you get into acting?” is the usual comment and question I’m asked when people find out that I do voice over, tv commercials and the occasional film.  There is a long answer and a short answer.  Most people receive the short answer — I fell into it.

The long answer is the reason I write Anne on Fire.  It answers the question:  How does burning your leg on a stove at 2 years old lead one to the acting world?

From the research and interviews I’ve conducted, I learned that when my mother found me on the stove, sealed to it by the sole of my shoe and burning, I was in shock, unable to say a word or call out for help.  As time went on, my wounds healed and I was a normal kid in every respect.  Except that no one ever talked about the accident.  Without that context, I was left alone to create my own meaning for the event.

Everything might have gone on just fine, had my mother not asked me to make her two promises on her deathbed.  “Don’t fight with your sisters,” she implored, a request that seemed incredibly difficult to me as the youngest of three girls.  I reluctantly agreed.  “Use your talents.  Promise me,” she asked, as we pressed on the morphine drip that eased her pain in those final days.  That request seemed the easier of the two, especially since I’d always fancied myself as the creative one of her five children.

She passed.  Time passed.

Now and then, I would have the distinct impression that she was whispering to me from beyond.  Mostly I shrugged these moments off.  Raised as a traditional Catholic, I certainly believed in the after-life.  But the teachings were that we humans got just one shot at life, then pass on to our eternal future, where by all accounts, we  wait in joyful hope of the coming of the rest of our loved ones to the pearly gates.  There was no talk of secret messages passed along to those of us left behind.  Eternal life meant we each went along in our separate domains.  But what if she was trying to tell me something?

It was Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, old as the country itself where my cousin got married.  He asked me to do a reading at the wedding and I’d read it over many times in preparation.  Since elementary school, I had a long history of being asked to read in church and it always exhilarated me.

I climbed up to the church’s pulpit and pressed the reading flat with my hand.  And then it happened.  I looked up and somehow, some way, time was frozen.  The people in the pews were frozen.  Everything was silent and un-moving.  I didn’t talk.  I couldn’t talk.  I felt as if I’d been in this place before.   A soft whisper in my ear and I heard her, “Use your talents.  You are not doing what I asked.”

Fumbling now and with shaky hands, I looked up to see the people moving, waiting for me to begin.  I did.  I read each word slowly and carefully, feeling a powerful surge as I ended the piece.

As I stepped back down to my seat, my legs wobbled and I noticed I was sweating.  I looked around for acknowledgement but the ceremony just continued on.  Something had happened and I needed to find out what it was.

I didn’t know it then but the acting career I never thought about before was about to begin.

NEXT:  Part 2

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What are the Chances?

In my main ‘day job’ I work with lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  Today as I was yukking it up with Craig-The-Lawyer, he mentioned a key meeting tomorrow and asked me to ‘light a candle’.  Without skipping a beat, I quickly retorted, “Well, I’ll do my best but I have a little problem with fire.”

“What is that,” he asked innocently?

Muttering an internal “dang it” for blathering on so quickly with that comment, I pulled out some of my stock burned-leg phraseology, “Oh, when I was a kid I climbed up a stove and burned the crap out of my leg.”

“Did you?” he said and again I added too much more content.

“I did.  I was trying to get a cookie or a cracker from the cabinet above the stove and well, it didn’t go so well.  My shoe got stuck on the burner and it wasn’t pretty.”

“You’re kidding?” he half-queried.  I realized I might now be stuck in one of those lawyer-socratic-phrase interchanges where I would soon head down the proverbial “slippery slope” of this repartee.  I’d offered too much.  I was conversational toast.

“You know, the same thing happened to me,” he said.

“You’re kidding!” I countered, bemused and intrigued at the same time.”

“Yeah, I must have been four or five and I wanted to get some of the cookies we kept in the cabinet above the stove.  But keep in mind that I was kind of short fellow then so I took the phone book with me, climbed up the stove and put the book over the burner.  Wouldn’t you know it but I accidentally turned the burner on high.  I got the cookie, but the book got torched and I’ll tell you, the whole thing scarred me for life.”

“It was a gas stove, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, now taking over the role of questioner.

“Matter of fact, it wasn’t.  It was an electric stove.  My wife was talking about getting a gas stove the other day and I told her that based on my experience with the electric stove, we could not get a gas one.  That would be certain death for me,” he laughed.

“Wait.  Are you telling me you had the exact same experience I did but you didn’t get burned?”  I couldn’t believe anyone would have a similar story, an almost verbatim same experience.

“What I’m telling you is that I seem to be a whole lot smarter than you,” he teased.  “I brought along that phone book and it worked a whole lot better than your strategy did.”

And so it was true.  My mind raced.  How many families kept cookies in the cabinet above their electric stove?  How many little kids had exactly the same precocious crazy idea as Craig-The-Lawyer and I did?  How many more people did I know who would share some sort of similar death-defying childhood feat?

In my earlier blog post, Cabinets Above Stoves (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/cabinets-above-stoves/), I wrote about my strange sensitivity for placing goodies above the cooker.  It doesn’t seem so strange anymore.  In fact, I can attest to countless conversations with my relatives and childhood friends who, as adults, will tell me, “You know, I have to tell you.  I’ve told my kids about your accident and it’s how we talk about being careful in the kitchen.”  At first, it used to take me aback to hear these things, as if burning-my-leg-by-climbing-up-a-stove was my lasting legacy.  Over time however I found it almost reassuring — that if I was to be the poster child for stove-related accident prevention, I could live with being a something of an off-beat hero.

By the way, the wry title of this post “What are the Chances?” is obviously a rhetorical question.  Years ago, I might have thought that running into people like Craig-the-Lawyer who have similar stories to share was an anomaly.  Now, I know that it is just the path I’m on these days.  Lots of serendipity.  No coincidences.

Please. A Pleaser?

It wasn’t until I talked to my Aunt Mary that I fully understood how I’d become a pleaser, and I wasn’t really pleased about it.  Not that having a pleasing behavior is always a bad thing; it’s just that I’d never pieced together this aspect of myself in quite this way until I spoke with Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary is my mom‘s only sister and since my mother’s death, seemed a ripe source of information about my accident.  Yet, the conversation was uncomfortable.  As we talked, it seemed to me that Aunt Mary was going out of her way to not blame my mother, since the accident did indeed occur on her watch.  As my mom ironed in the basement and my sister Susie played nearby, I snuck up to the kitchen to get some crackers, secreted away above the stove.  “Aunt Mary, the accident was my fault,” I told her.  “I knew what I was doing and remember doing it.  I have no one to blame but myself.”  Aunt Mary seemed taken aback and heartily disagreed.  “Annie,” she said with exasperation, “It was not your fault.  You were two years old.  How could it ever have been your fault.”  Her words hung in the air.   I thought about them for a long time. 

For the first time in my life, my perspective changed.  For the better part of my life, I felt guilty about the accident, believing that I had caused my own fate and was forever doomed to be responsible for it, which I must add, I always have been.  I rarely felt sorry for myself, fully rehabilitated myself and developed a persona of never letting other people down.  In my young mind, I reasoned that because no one talked about the accident, particularly my family, they knew what I had done and how stupid it had been.  I pledged to myself never to let my family down again…..and became a pleaser.  Straight A’s.  Editor of the school newspaper.  Athlete.  Generally good person.

Aunt Mary’s words had such power and made so much sense.  When I thought of my own children as two-year-olds, I’d marvel how the train was in motion, but the conductor was rarely home, which is to say, they didn’t know enough to be responsible for much.  Yet I didn’t give my small self the benefit of that doubt.  In fact, I’d never thought of it any other way than that it had been my fault.  In my mind’s eye, whether I’d created the memory from strands of conversation or whether I actually remembered it, I saw myself going up those basement stairs and heading for the stove.

The power of not talking about it meant that I had to give myself an answer however far-fetched it might be when I examined it as an adult.

How might my answer have changed if the event would have been processed this way as a child?  How might my behavior have changed?  These days my pleaser tendencies are not so noticeable and I like to think of myself squarely as a “B+”, hardly a type A anymore.  Age mellows me.  Exploration like this frees me.

Getting My Voice On

Some people might find getting burned in a fire difficult to connect with how, when and why I became an actor but that is essentially part of my story line and are inextricably linked.  As the burn story goes, my sister Susie always told me how she “smelled” me from her perch in the basement that morning and told my mom who was ironing away down there with her to check on me. There she found me, stuck to and burning on the stove. As Susie tells the story, I was silent. Not crying out or calling for help. It seems I had lost my voice.

 So today when I voiced tags* for 29 tv commercials across the country, I silently counted my blessings. A number of years ago, I found my voice and I don’t think I would have realized it had I not gone through the fire. The story is too long for a single post but this blog helps me tell it in my stylish, compartmentalized way.  Even this snippet focuses me on two things:  1) I need to have another conversation with sister Susie to see if the wives tale I’d heard is still her story today; and 2) Soren Kierkegaard‘s quote mirrors my own thoughts these days, “Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward.”

Cabinets Above Stoves

The old kitchen stove

Image by Andrew_N via Flickr

In my day I’ve remodeled two kitchens, which is an undertaking in itself if you’ve ever been through a gut rehab. There are myriad details involved and more than a fair share of stress. Through them both, my primary concern was the stove. Not the brand nor where to put it but more importantly, how to position it. Since I burned myself by climbing up a stove to get some crackers in the cabinet above it, I’m uber-sensitive on stove-cabinet placement. That is, no cabinets above stoves. In one kitchen, I went with a cooktop on the island. In the other, a range with a hood above it. I’m not sure anyone noticed then or now since it was one of those odd-yet-still-mildly-compulsive-but-hardly-obsessive things. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone but me thought of what can happen when you put cabinets above stoves (and why would they!) but it was something always in the back of my mind. This may sound batty, but sometimes I find myself looking at my stove and cooktop, nodding approvingly that there are not cabinets above them.