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Becoming a Flower
By Alicia Anka

The lights in the Caesar's Palace showroom went out, the audience hushed, the rhythm section started to play, and a man began singing from somewhere in the back of the room. "I'm so young and you're so old, this Diana I've been told." Everyone turned to look as a spotlight cast a smoke-filled beam through the darkness. I turned too, but I couldn't see him yet. I knew that he'd appeared though because people around us began to clap, even to stand up. Then finally, I recognized his silhouette. As he walked closer, I could make out his familiar smile; those bright white teeth against his tan face. My stomach tightened and fluttered as he moved through the audience, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, stopping along the way for a picture. Suddenly he was standing right next to us. The spotlight illuminated our table like a movie set, featuring four unabashedly smiling little girls and their stoic mother. I wanted him to reach out and grab my hand so badly, and at the same time I wished that he would move on and take the spotlight with him so everyone would stop staring at us. That man was Paul Anka, my father.

In those days, we lived in Las Vegas. Spending my weekends at Circus Circus Hotel playing carnival games, eating in hotel coffee shops and making weekly visits to Leo the lion at the MGM Grand felt as normal as having an entertainer for a father. I simply knew nothing else. But most of the time my sisters and I swam, played in our backyard, went to friends' houses, and busied ourselves with activities just like other kids. And just like many other mothers, my mother carted us around from one activity to another encouraging us to discover our interests and talents.

Although he never said it, I think my father secretly wondered if there was a potential entertainer among us. I also think he knew it wasn't going to be me. Although I may have secretly fantasized about becoming the next Marie Osmond or Karen Carpenter as I sat watching them in some Vegas showroom, I was painfully shy, awkward looking -- glasses, chubby, bowed legs and an unfortunate Dorothy Hamill haircut -- and found the spotlight to be terrifying. The only time I really came out of my shell was when my sister Anthea and I were alone in our playroom, singing and dancing to our collection of 45's. If anyone else walked into the room, however, I beelined it to the couch as if we were playing musical chairs and the music had come to a sudden stop. On occasion, my eldest sister, Alex, decided to play director or choreographer and enlist my sisters and me as stars for her mini productions of Helen Keller, Grease or her personal favorite -- an expanded version of the "Heatmiser, Coldmiser" song from The Year Without A Santa Claus, an animated puppet special that played every Christmas. I could pull it off if the audience consisted of only my parents, but being the center of attention was another story. Just the thought of it made me sweat.

So when my ballet teacher announced one day that we were going to have a class recital and all the parents were invited, I felt the rumblings of fear growing inside my four-year-old body. I'd just warmed up to the idea of being in a leotard, and now I actually had to perform in one -- in front of strangers! Even worse, shortly after, I found out that my father was miraculously available that evening. Most of the time he let my mother attend these sorts of events and on this occasion, I would have been happy just to have her in the audience. I was smart, I knew she was no professional, she too would be nervous. But Dad? How could I match him? Like Las Vegas itself, he seemed larger than life to me at that age. His energy amazed me, and his fearlessness made me envious. He could get a shot at the doctor's office without crying, sleep without a nightlight, recite joke after joke to tables of people, not to mention sing in front of thousands! But somehow, a kernel of excitement wormed its way into me as well. If I can pull this off, there might be hope for me yet! Mom and Dad will be so proud, and I won't have to share the attention with any of my sisters.

The night of the big recital arrived. My parents and I said goodbye to my sisters -- who were thankfully staying at home with a babysitter -- and left for the dance studio. I sat buckled up in the backseat, sweating bullets in my wool coat, pink leotard and tutu, contemplating jumping out of the car at each red light. Knowing that a four-year-old in ballet slippers wouldn't get far, I stayed quiet and tried to will my nausea away by staring intently at the back of my mother's seat. Don't think about it, I told myself. Think about what Anthea is doing right now. She's probably watching The Price is Right. I wish I were watching The Price is Right.

"What's wrong with her? She's so quiet," my father whispered.

"Nothing, Paul," my mother whispered back." Leave her be. She's probably just a little nervous."

"A little? She looks green," he said. He looked at me in the rearview mirror. "You a little nervous, Lish?" He asked.

"Yeah, a little," I managed to squeak out.

"Just do what Daddy does, forget about the audience," he said. "Just do your thing and have fun."

Like he does? My thing? My thing as the introverted middle child with four (at the time three) extroverted sisters was to either share the spotlight or let everyone else revel in it while I enjoyed life in the shadows as the silent observer.

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