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The Little Suitcase

by Melina of Daughters of Rhea / Melinda Marsh Heywood Pavlata
(I've got an assortment of first and last names in my circus trunk....take your pick....)


A version of this article was first published in Brain, Child Magazine.  Please do not reprint or publish without permission of the author.


It is the summer of 1978.  A Thursday night in Athens, Greece.  I am eight years old, going on nine.  Just as she does every night of the week, Mom passes a brush through her long, black hair, applies her make-up while standing in front of the small bathroom mirror, then dons her green belly dance costume with the silver coin bra and belt.  I run around the apartment gathering up loose ends, locating her purse, finger cymbals, and sword, making sure she has a good supply of safety pins just in case the costume needs a quick fix.  Finally ready, we set off in a cloud of Opium perfume for the “Athens by Night,” the taverna where Mom performs.  When we emerge from our building, the Acropolis is lit up and blazing against the purple Attic sky.  Faces upturned, we breathe it in, then press on together through the tiny streets of Plaka.

We sweep along Byronos street, then turn onto Adrianou towards Mnisikleos.  Mom is a striking vision with her billowing hair and long velvet cape to cover her costume.  She grasps her sword in one hand and skinny squid of a daughter in the other.  Side by side we stride by crowds of tourists sitting outdoors taking in their frosty Amstels and munching on pungeant souvlakis.  I can hear the swivel of necks as we pass by.  While I loved having a Mom who needed a sword to go to work, I suspected that the moms who wore nylons and worked in office buildings by day didn’t attract quite so much attention.

All right, I admit it.  Sometimes there were times I wished Mom didn’t carry a sword to work, and I always worried she was going to wear some rhinestone-studded nightclub number to parent-teacher conferences.  I used to choose and lay out her clothes for such school meetings:  beige slacks, collar shirt, flats.  And she went along with it, dutifully playing the part, in outward appearances anyway, of the “normal” mother.  But there was no hiding it for long; Mom’s profession was eccentric and she herself was never held hostage by the dictates of convention.  And while I occasionally costumed her in the role of the bland mother, I was very proud of Mom’s unusual life and uncommon choices.  After all, only a handful of girls I knew had mothers who could balance swords on their heads while expertly playing finger cymbals and dipping into a deep back bend.

Besides being proud of Mom, as a kid I was also keenly aware of and felt privileged to be a Berkeley child of the 60s.  I could have been the poster child for the whole artsy/hippie/bohemian/performance “scene” of that time and place:  My dad was a rock’n roll musician who formed the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band and played with Country Joe; my mom was a gypsy-artist belly dancer.  I was accidentally conceived on a beach while my parents were tripping on acid (“not true,” says my dad, “the acid part anyway”), and I came into the world in the heady summer of ’69.  My parents never got babysitters and I went with them everywhere:  I slept behind speakers on huge piles of coats at my dad’s rock concerts; turned cartwheels in the circus ring when Dad was bandleader of the Pickle Family Circus, and danced onstage with Mom in Greek tavernas before hundreds of tourists.  I was totally incorporated into all aspects of their lives and I loved being so involved, even though there were downsides such as when I had to fall asleep on nightclub side tables waiting for Mom to cart me home at the end of the night, or when I’d pee on the piles of coats at Dad’s gigs.

My parents separated before I was two years old, amicably sharing me in an out-of-court agreement.  Depending on where they were living at any one point in time, I shuttled back and forth in six-week increments between a commune in Berkeley, apartments in Oakland and San Francisco, and circus tents up and down the west coast.  By the time I went to High School I had gone to sixteen different schools spanning Northern California, New York City, and Athens, Greece.  My nickname in the early days was “The Little Suitcase” – Just put a little handle on my back and I was ready to go!  My Mom moved to Greece when I was seven, and I began to divide my life into six-month increments with a transatlantic flight in between parents.  On my solo plane voyages I would recite the details of my life to my adult seat-mates, then judge their characters based on their reactions to the tale:  could they handle my story, take it all in stride, appreciate its bohemian glory?  Or would they nod gently and pity me, the lone little suitcase bumping around between weird parents.

In my early twenties, I was a tad rebellious.  I met a dashing young man, an MIT engineer, whose parents were still married after thirty years of being together.  If this was not shocking enough, I married him in a white wedding gown at a formal church service (admittedly, there was belly dancing and folk guitar playing in evidence).  My husband and I settled down in a house, and while I never completely cast aside my finger cymbals, I locked myself up in the Ivory Tower for a few years before emerging, blinking and blinded by the sun, with a doctorate.  (Mom’s impression of a stereotypical academic:  “Look!  Its alive! Let’s kill it!”) 

My parents were, as usual, completely supportive of all my choices. It was all going swimmingly, my flirtation with conventional domesticity, until, all of a sudden, I became a mother, and I panicked.  Out of nowhere, the question reared:  How could I possibly bring up my daughter in one single town under the same roof as parents who were living together?  It felt odd, it felt alien, it felt wrong to the core of my being.  But there it was:  I completely mistrusted our suburban set-up as the best environment to raise a child.  How could my daughter learn to know and respect many ways of life, to become self-reliant and resilient, to speak different languages and balance within herself a variety of world views if she has not experienced the sometimes destabilizing influence of frequent travel between countries, between parents, between the world of public school and that of a circus tent?  How can she truly flourish, I thought, if she wasn't able to walk with me through the streets of Plaka in a belly dance costume?

These feelings were completely unexpected, and they ran deep:  I felt that I was not doing right by her by staying in one place and living in one house for her entire childhood with her father.  All I could visualize was a narrow road stretching on for an eternity marked by the continuous curriculum and uniform pedagogical approach of one school, and I was thinking, won’t going to the same school surrounded by the same kids from the same neighborhood for years and years ultimately impede her growth as an open-minded citizen of the world?  At the time, her father pointed out the irony of my position:  here we were living in one of the most privileged, affluent suburbs of the world with one of the most prized school systems and I was concerned about our daughter’s education!  But there is so much more to education than the right school. 

It took me a couple of years after first becoming a mother that I realized that most of the questions and concerns I had about my daughter were really about me.  Never mind her being in one place for the next decade, how could I bring myself to live in one place for the next 10 years?  As an adult living with my first husband,  there was always this tension:  there was a part of me that relished stability and routine along with a fixed personal private home space, and then, all of a sudden, the part of me springs up that needs to leave – to go to Greece and visit Mom to share in her ongoing adventures, to do a stint with the circus for a few weeks and live in a trailer, to hang out in NYC with my dad and his guitars. I didn't realize that what was really going on was that my old hippie soul was looking for solace in its roots.

The Little Suitcase finally grew up, and even though I didn't relish big changes like moving, I was always mentally preparing for them, always thinking about what I would need to take with me if I had to live out of just one bag.  Many women have shoe fetishes and buy hundreds of pairs; I collect carry-on gear and suitcases and store them in my closet.  I am always careful never to get too attached to a certain home or life mode.  For a very very long time this way of thinking did not apply to my first husband.

In the first writing of this essay, I uncovered a partial answer to my parenting dilemma, and I had my parents to thank for it.  My mom and dad didn’t spend my entire childhood worrying about the best way to raise me.  Quite the contrary:  they didn’t strategize about parenting at all, and one could even venture to say that sometimes they were sometimes selfish and irresponsible parents!  It was the 60s, man, it was groovy! Everyone smoked dope around me, I stayed up late, and I was regularly uprooting me from schools, neighborhoods, and friends as a result of their itinerant showbiz lifestyles.  But what was crystal clear to me even at the time was that they were concerned with living to the fullest their best, most authentic lives and that, because they loved me so much, they wanted to bring me along for the ride.  I learned early on that the world didn’t revolve around me, but I got to see so many worlds as a result. 

I have slowly figured out what to do with my life:  With my daughter at my side I seek to live the most authentic life I can; I try to be true to myself, my passions and my convictions; she can only benefit in the end.  If I live my life only thinking of how to program and design hers such that she is instilled with the hippie values I cherish, I fail as a mother.  Instead, I want to be an example to her by actively pursuing my own artistic and intellectual quests, incorporating her into my adventures along the way.  My kid has already twirled with me in circus rings and stadiums all over the world, she has danced flamenco in the arms of her grandma in Greece, she has strummed her grandpa’s guitars. 



Holding my daughter backstage at the circus.


Here I am, age eight, dancing with a tray of candles on my head in the Plaka.