“Remember that time I peed my pants on stage?” I asked from my mom’s Barcalounger during a recent holiday visit back home. I looked from my dad to my sister, expecting a smile, a chuckle, a quick reminiscence about my precocious childhood and chickpea-sized bladder.
Instead, I got blank stares.
My dad did not remember; my sister did not believe me. It was not the fuzzy family moment I was expecting.
The incident in question had happened roughly 30 years earlier, or, at least, I think it did. I was four years old and making my stage debut. My “acting career” was short-lived; after age four, my singing voice started to resemble that of a birthing cat. My dreams of winning Star Search were soon shattered. My Grammy Award-winning album Cool Jule would never be released. In some ways, I peaked at four.
It began on a June day in 1982 when my mom piled my big sister Katie and me into our sky blue Buick. We drove just one mile to the Main Street arcade, where Katie would audition for the part of Marta von Trapp in the local production of The Sound of Music. I was there playing the role of “perpetual tagalong,” probably wearing a strategically chosen identical outfit.
I didn’t plan to audition, too; nor did I mean to steal the attention. But suddenly I was reciting lines with the directors. “I have a sore finger” I repeated, in my best stage voice, as my big brown eyes peaked out from behind a curtain of chestnut bangs. I won them over and was cast as Gretl, Marta’s little sister. My real life sister would not share my stage; she was passed over for Marta, and instead joined the props crew while I stole her coveted fame.
After eight rigorous weeks, show time finally arrived. And I was ready. I had a perfect French braid. I had countless costume changes. I had a few big lines and singing solos memorized.
I also had to go to the bathroom. Bad.
In the show, the von Trapp children stand in a line-up, arms at their sides, eyes straight ahead, when the Captain blows his whistle. It was during one of those line-ups that I realized I had to go.
But I didn’t run off the stage, as someone later suggested I should have—that thought never occurred to me. I had a part to play and I was going to stand there with my faux-siblings no matter what my insides were telling me. I would suffer for my art.
So I did what any serious four-year-old actress would have done: I tried to hold it. Literally. With my hands, which were close by the problem, since they were already at my sides. Unfortunately, neither my bladder nor my little girl hands were strong enough to hold in the pee. Out it came, all down my perfect white tights, for the whole town to see.
A few visions of what followed remain undeniably clear. The first is a janitor, mopping up the stage.
The next is my mother, shamelessly yelling through the dressing room (as only a mom would do), “HAS ANYONE SEEN JULIE’S UNDERPANTS?” I can’t imagine who would have wanted them, but apparently, they were missing. So should have been my dignity.
Lucky for me, the trauma that could have resulted did not. At four years old I was an unstoppable force with unshakable confidence—a bit too much, in fact. As the little old ladies stopped to congratulate me after each show, I did not smile sweetly or curtsey in my big von Trapp dress; instead I flexed my noodley biceps and yelled, “I’VE GOT POWER!” As my childhood progressed I eventually lost the enormous confidence I was born with. But that summer, when I was the four-year-old star in the local play, I could not be deterred—not even with a yellow puddle pooling beneath my patent leather Mary Janes.
As I sat in my dad’s family room three decades later, debating these facts with my older and wiser sister, I pulled out the old blue playbill from 1982 and leafed through the headshots. How could they forget such a memorable event from my childhood? I wondered. I did, after all, pee myself, under the unforgiving spotlights, in front of the whole damn town. Didn’t I?
Or could my sister be right—is it possible that it didn’t happen?
She was there each night, the hard working crewmember, handing out props and costumes just off stage right. My infamous “I’ve got power!” declaration was so well remembered that it was part of her maid-of-honor speech at my wedding. If her spotlight-stealing sister had peed her pants on stage, Katie would have remembered.
Suddenly I began questioning everything I thought I knew about that day, not to mention the entirety of my childhood. Did it happen at an ordinary rehearsal and not in front of the audience? Did I imagine it or, worse yet, make the whole thing up and convince myself it was real? Were my visions of the day actually distorted memories, altered slightly from year to year, like a bad game of telephone that I played with myself?
Or, did my 70-something father just not remember, and my formerly upstaged sister still begrudge me my fame?
As I pondered these issues, I felt my chest tighten. It was a familiar feeling, the literal pain that sometimes accompanies my metaphorical broken heart. I was not hurting because my dad and sister did not remember the incident; nor was I upset by the prospect that I invented my most vivid childhood memory. My heart ached when I realized that I would never know what really happened on that stage. The only person who could corroborate my story—my loyal stage mother, who braided my hair and watched me perform each night—had already died.
The hardest part of losing someone is often not the obvious: the empty place at my dad’s dinner table on Thanksgiving, the anniversary of the day she died in August, her birthdays that pass without a new candle. It was those unexpected moments that steal my breath; each time I realized that a piece of history had been lost with her, a buried treasure for which there no longer exists a key.
It’s never knowing whether I actually stood up on stage and peed my pants because I was committed to my art.
It’s never knowing whether anyone else heard my loving mother call out for the safe return of her small child’s wet underpants.
It’s knowing life will be full of questions that will never be answered, because she’s gone.