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In Pieces
Author:Sally Field

In Pieces by Sally Field

For Peter, Eli, and Sam

And all of theirs

My mother and me.


THERE WAS NO proscenium arch, no curtains or lights to create an illusion, no proper stage at all. It was just a classroom with all the chairs and their seventh-grade occupants pushed aside in disorganized clumps.

It wasn’t even a real classroom. The entire school had originally been part of an army hospital built at the end of World War II, specializing in central nervous system injuries, syphilis, and psychiatry. It had once even included a small compound for prisoners of war—a building now stuffed with classrooms and students held captive until the sound of the bell. This particular room was long and narrow, each side lined with windows, which made it look exactly like a hospital ward and nothing like a junior high school drama class. But on that day, through my twelve-year-old eyes, I saw only the faint interior of a swank apartment.

I remember watching my feet as they stomped across the worn wooden floor, and for one instant the feet weren’t mine anymore. Then I was back in the classroom again, wondering what to do with my hands, my armpits sweating so much I dripped. I stopped at the door (a wobbly contraption hinged to a freestanding frame made by the boys in wood shop), took hold of the handle, then turned back toward the thirteen-year-old playing my uncouth gangster boyfriend. With one clammy hand gripping the knob, and my whole body twisted around to face the actor—my arm awkwardly wrapped in front of me—I stood listening to the boy deliver his dialogue. When he had finished spraying words through his braces, I paused a beat, then yelled, “Drop dead, Harry,” and exited in an indignant huff, slamming the door behind me. That was it, my first moments as an actor, a scene from Born Yesterday and my pubescent version of the brassy Brooklyn bombshell Billie Dawn.

I wasn’t good. I knew I wasn’t. It was like Heidi, the little goat girl, had taken a stab at Hedda Gabler. But it didn’t matter. A new sensation had brushed past me and for one moment, I felt free. My body moved—maybe not gracefully but all on its own—without me telling it where to go, tiny flashes when it didn’t belong to me at all, and I was watching from far away with no anxious sense of time. In those cracks of light, the pressure of what people thought of me or didn’t think of me, who they wanted me to be or didn’t want me to be, completely stopped. A bell had rung, everything focused and sharpened. I could hear myself. Then it was gone again.

In the eighth grade—a year later—I had my first performance night in the school auditorium. For the first time I walked on a stage in front of an audience of parents and friends, there to watch, among other things, my Juliet—not the whole play, just two scenes: the potion scene and the death scene. My mother drove me home afterward, and I clearly remember sitting in that dark car beside her. I desperately wanted to know what she thought but was afraid to ask, so I just watched her drive. Sometimes the headlights of an oncoming car would light up the whole interior, making it seem even darker after it passed. But when her face was bright with light she looked at me, and as if we were hiding from someone, she whispered, “You were magical.”

I whispered back, “I was?” Then everything was dark again and I could barely see her at all.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Just that.” Another flash of headlights lit up the front seat and I could see her mouth edging toward a smile, the light bleaching her beautiful face white, then slowly fading to black.


There is a pain—so utter—

It swallows substance up—

Then covers the Abyss with Trance—

So Memory can step

Around—across—upon it—

As one within a Swoon—

Goes safely—where an open eye—

Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.

—Emily Dickinson

Little Ricky and Sally in 1948.

My beautiful mother with all three of her children.


My Grandmother’s Daughter

I WAIT FOR my mother to haunt me as she promised she would; long to wake in the night with the familiar sight of her sitting at the end of my bed, to talk to her one more time, to feel that all the pieces have been put into place, the puzzle is solved, and I can rest.

Sometimes I think I’ve seen something out of the corner of my eye and I stop still in the middle of my Pacific Palisades kitchen, looking for the flutter of a sign; or I’m walking in the West Village, headed to my New York apartment, loaded down with groceries, when I hear her laugh ring out. I turn in circles, looking for her. Where are you, Mom? Why won’t you come?

This isn’t new, this longing I have for her. It’s the same ache I had when I was five, sitting on the bench outside the nurse’s office at school, feeling embarrassed and ashamed because I had once again panicked for no apparent reason. I waited and waited, counted to ten hundreds of times, knowing that if I could see her eyes I’d be safe. Then suddenly, as if I’d conjured her out of wanting, there she was. My throat would lock as I watched her coming toward me, hugging her purse to her stomach like a hot-water bottle, and when she got close enough, I’d jump to my feet, hiding my face in her legs.

I still don’t know why grammar school was so agonizing for me. Still can’t figure out whether the agony was waiting for me in the school or I brought it in with me. Either way, it didn’t matter because nothing and no one could distract or engage me enough to lessen the dread I felt. I don’t remember having any friends or playdates—basically, in those days no one had playdates, or they weren’t called playdates. But whatever they were called, I didn’t have any. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I hated all the games at recess. “Red Rover, Red Rover,” for instance, which was not only terrifying but, let’s face it, a truly mean, totally stupid game. A group of kids would lock their arms together, then call the other students, one at a time, to run full blast into their wall of arms. If the runner was successful, the wall opened, and that runner was allowed to join the barricade. I hated this no-win situation of a game. I was the smallest one, and even if they did call my name, I couldn’t break through, only bounced off and had to return to the land of the losers. But there was always the chance that they wouldn’t call my name, and I’d have to stand there as everyone else broke through, joining the line one at a time, until they were all holding hands and looking at me, alone.

I guess you’d have to say that in my early school days—at five and six—I was a problem. A little stress case with a brand-new family and a constant stomachache that no one could explain. I remember my mother’s concern, but I certainly couldn’t tell her how to help me because I didn’t have a clue why I felt so anxious, why I wanted to hide from everyone and couldn’t act like the rest of the kids. Maybe I needed a good hard push toward socialization, and maybe my loving mother was too consumed with her own evolving life to realize that. But I’ll tell you right now, if she had tried to organize a little “get-together” for me with one of those five-year-old strangers, I would have had a conniption fit, and my mother was not a battler. So as I watched everyone picking their friends, forming clusters of companions, I felt the hill to friendship getting steeper.