Theodora

by Judith Meyerowitz

It is 1926 and in a week Theodora, or Dora as she was known to her friends, would be 25, nearly as old as the century.

Every night, her circus act could be seen under the tent in Coney Island. She had been doing the show now for seven years! The crowds began to grow when the subway station was completed in 1920.

Dora took pride in being a modern young woman, living in the most exciting times in New York. She had just had her hair bobbed, as was all the rage. It was important for her to be in style. She had a plan for making this birthday trend setting. She led a life of risk-taking, making a living engaging in daredevil stunts such as being shot out of a cannon She drew inspiration from the daring of the presidential namesake her parents had greatly admired. She wanted to live up to their dreams for her. Like TR, Dora was short in stature, a plus in her line of work, but full of spirit and heart. Standing within a few feet of her you could feel the electricity. Dora’s eyes burnt with an intensity which mesmerized people.

She lived as large as the roaring decade. Nights were spent in Harlem at the jazz clubs and the New York Theater on W.125th or in the speakeasies downtown. She could be seen in her sleeveless, sleek fitting, silver lame tasseled gown, with requisite matching neckband and headband with feathers. Dora enjoyed being out in the cabaret world, especially when she was recognized. She was not averse to sipping bootleg green absinthe in smoke filled private booths with heavy red velvet drapery.

She loved to go out dancing and even entered some of the dance marathons. She caught Houdini’s act as often as she could. Dora didn’t know what to make of the irony of his recent death from appendicitis after all the high risk moments that he had survived.  She thought of herself, too, as an escape artist, for those seconds of flight, freed from the ties to earth. However, when she came hurtling down physically, she crashed emotionally as well. Dora shook it off and thought of her next performance. She also had her gang, a group of friends with whom she partied all night after the show.

Dora lived in a time of outrageous activities. She watched newsreels of New Yorker Alvin Kelly sitting on a pole in Hollywood for 13 hours and 13 minutes. She chuckled to herself, “An act like that would be hard to top.” During her death-defying feat, the audience watched and gasped to see fuchsia silk shorts whizz by as she arced over their heads, shot from a cannon.

What did Dora see? As she flew through the air, she saw a blurred snapshot of the Speigeltent that was crafted in Belgium and brought to the Brooklyn amusement park. Then she saw nothingness. The beige of the canvas was softly out of focus and her dream state began. She knew what was to come—colors a kaleidoscope of stained glass, with hard edges, frighteningly distorted by speed. Lastly, those mirrors, everywhere, surrounding her, upturned faces watching, reflected tens of thousands of times. She thought, “In the unspoken silence did they wait for failure or triumph?” Dora awoke from the recurring dreamlike state when she hit the safety net. But seeing the sawdust covered, hard ground rise up, did not erase those thoughts.

Over the roar of the crowd, she thought back to the beginning. Dora was born into the life of a circus performer. Her parents were renowned aerialists. The crowds came to see them defy the limits, to balance on each other and on the bicycle, which trembled on the wire. Without a safety net! Two years ago, she looked up and watched them fall off the wire out of the night sky.

She could hear her heart pounding, keeping rhythm with the drumming below. Although she had done this act countless times, she never stopped seeking the attention, lights, rhythmic clapping from the audience below. She could feel their eyes upon her. She also imagined her parents’ eyes upon her. On that energy she flew, that sensation lasting mere seconds, thrilled her and carried her to a wished for reunion with her parents and living up to her daring name.

Now she needed another attention grabbing feat which would set apart her twenty-fifth birthday. She had just the place in mind. It is one which will take her from the inside familiarity of the cannon to an entirely different, more open setting and will push her death defying behavior to the limit.  In ways she didn’t understand, each night Dora revisited and overcame her parents’ early deaths. She carried the burden of keeping the family name in lights. These needs underlined Dora’s intensity. She was driven to raise the ante.

The day of her birthday, Dora travels early in the morning north from New York City by train and then transfers to a boat. It is summer, but she is surprised by the strength of the wind and coldness of the mist that hits her in the face, as she approaches the drop-off point. She is soaked even before the stunt begins. Her assistants help her to enter the enclosure. It is reminiscent of the inside of the cannon but her thoughts race ahead to the wild fury of the pouring water. This will be the last image that she sees as the barrel lid is closed and the ropes holding it are freed. More rapidly than anything could have prepared her for, but more slowly than her screaming mind can stand, she is crashing to the bottom of Niagara Falls. On her twenty-fifth birthday, Dora has become the youngest person to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive!

Judith Meyerowitz is a licensed psychologist. She currently volunteers as a disaster mental health counselor for the American Red Cross and as a docent for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This piece was developed in the Spring 2018 writing workshop and is in memory of our classmate Joanna Anderson.