Debbie Reynolds sang in the rain. She sang with her broken foot soaking in a bucket of ice. She sang after her husband left her for the most famous woman on Earth, and she danced, too.
She sang when she surely would rather have been home with her children.
In the 1950s, when American society would have had you believe that no woman could ask for any more satisfying life than to be a homemaker, Debbie Reynolds worked like a longshoreman. And she did it with grace and style, never letting us see her sweat. (Surely, dancers sweat. You know they do.)
She sang, danced and acted on Broadway, in Hollywood, in Vegas. She owned a dance studio. She made an exercise video, “Do It Debbie’s Way.” She was actively involved in charitable work for people with mental health issues for more than a half-century.
She was a businesswoman who owned and ran a Las Vegas hotel and a museum of Hollywood memorabilia. She lost them to bankruptcy and she lost a fortune to a deceitful husband, but that just goes to show that Hollywood royalty can suffer through the same problems as the rest of us. When life knocked her down, she got back up and danced. She was unsinkable.
How many generations have loved Debbie Reynolds for her fresh-faced blond beauty, her smile and her soaring voice? She loved us all back, because that’s what performers do. Love is the engine that powers million-watt smiles and blinding star power. The question that can’t be answered is whether much of the love we feel makes it back to our stars. For this, they have families and friends, just like the rest of us do.
This week, the death of Reynolds so close on the heels of her daughter Carrie Fisher’s passing has put their relationship on full display — not that it hasn’t been on display for years. Fisher famously chronicled the difficulties of life in a celebrity family in a series of memoirs, and both women discussed each other in interviews that were always touching and often heartbreaking.
When sharing the pain of a 10-year estrangement from her daughter in an interview with People, Reynolds said: “I’ve always been a good mother, but I’ve always been in show business, and I’ve been on stage and I don’t bake cookies and I don’t stay home.”
In a recent interview with NPR, Fisher’s words mirror her mother’s, only from the child’s point-of-view: “She’s an extraordinary woman. Extraordinary. There’s very few women from her generation who worked like that, who just kept a career going all her life, and raised children, and had horrible relationships, and lost all her money, and got it back again.”
Perhaps no parent-child relationship ever achieves equilibrium until the child is old enough to understand a parent’s choices and perhaps forgive them. In any case, Reynolds and Fisher mended their relationship, even to the point of buying side-by-side homes and settling in as next-door neighbors.
Fisher’s earliest memories were of a face she called as beautiful as a Christmas morning and a voice that could lilt melodies as sweet as “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love.” Reynolds’ last words were, “I want to be with Carrie.” As sad as this image is, it is also a beautiful one, as beautiful as only a mother’s love can be.
Reynolds would want us to remember her singing and her dancing and her million megawatt smile, but perhaps she will pardon us if we also remember her as a woman whose last thought was for her daughter.
She wanted to be with Carrie. And now she is.