Here is my latest over at Suscipio for Women: “The Treasure and Value of Family Storytelling”
Like many parents do, when our children were very young, David and I would read the story of the Nutcracker to our children every year as Christmas drew near. The children loved hearing about the mysterious and magical Uncle Drosselmeyer bestowing a special gift on his goddaughter, Clara, and listening to an account of the magical land and dancing that occurred thereafter. When our children grew old enough, we took them to see a Nutcracker performance. The little girls loved it, dreaming of being big ballerinas on stage, dancing in the Land of Sweets.
The next step of course was to actually sign the girls up for dance class. This we did with much excitement and anticipation. We bought little leotards. Ballet slippers. Tutus just for fun, even though we didn’t need them. They practiced first position. Second, third, fourth, and fifth. They wondered when they would actually start ‘real’ dance combinations. Not soon enough, but soon enough, they did. And then they were off….
The girls, like many young dancers, worked their way through the ranks of class levels- creative movement , pre-ballet, then ballet I, II, III, IV. A highlight, of course, and every little ballerina’s dream, was obtaining pointe shoes and being asked to join the pre-professional company. As soon as the instructor said a girl was ready for pointe, the excited child would beg her mama to go to the Ballet Shop, a good half an hour from the house, right then to get them immediately. Pointe shoe fitting is not a quick task. Often it takes an hour or more to find just the right fit and just the right shoe. But this mama went. Happily. Such joy in watching the joy of her children!
The older girls completed Ballet V, VI and now find themselves in level VII. I daresay it’s been a whirlwind experience…over time. It happened so quickly and yet so slowly for them in their minds. One moment they were little mice, scampering about in the hot bright stage lights. Now, engulfed in pink tulle, they dance expertly, improving year by year. What stays the same is that their mother continues to shed little tears of joy, pride and happiness at watching their grace and beauty…and feeling very grateful that they can be a part of this universal every-girl’s dream experience.
Several years ago, the artistic director, in short supply of men willing to participate and round off the party scene, coaxed my husband (smart woman- she asked in front of his daughters) to dance and play the role of a party parent. She assured him it was mostly acting and little dancing, but in reality there were two dances for him to learn, and they were harder than they looked.
Ballet was so opposite of what David was used to- He was the football, basketball and golf-playing high school turned college scholarship athlete. An accomplished amateur golfer in the state Hall of Fame. He’s competitive. Macho. Not a fine arts guy. Not a- a- a dancer. Or was he?
Four begging daughters can be convincing and David figured he spent time at the studio waiting for them anyway so he, amidst please Daddys of his daughters and the steady requests from the director, he finally acquiesced to join the ranks of dancing dads and was soon going to rehearsals. And then, he danced on stage. David graduated to ‘lead dad’ as ‘Clara’s father’ the following year for his stunning performance as supporting role dad. Just kidding. The other guy dropped out.
David’s coworkers teased him mercilessly, but he took it in good stride. He was a great sport, even when someone bought him a little pink Christmas ornament to hang: “Dance with your heart and a ballerina you will be”. David, my dancing lawyer, jokingly retorted to the fellow that dancing was surely a lot more fun than working in accounting. Touche.
When the girls were asked to perform in local venues the summer before the Nutcrackers, David would playfully ask, “Don’t they want the party dad to do his dance too?” and he’d break into his steps, jokingly. He grew a beard one year to look more convincing and Victorian age. He was having fun.
I loved it.
His daughters loved it too. They swirled around him as he learned his Dad part- something that changed slightly each year, and something that came surprisingly natural to him as a coordinated athlete. The girls teased their daddy with a quote they had seen: “If football were any harder it would be called….ballet.” High school football playing sons argued the counterpoint. The surprise twist is that Daddy divulged he had taken ballet in high school with members of the football team. It seems the coach required it, believing it improved timing, coordination and team cohesion. …don’t you just love life’s funny little twists and coincidences?
I loved seeing our daughters on stage with their father. I bought a ticket to every performance. I wiped tears from eyes as a real life father danced with “Clara’ one year who was his real life daughter. I laughed as he enlivened the performance by bringing his silly original antics to the stage and felt grateful when he combed the crowd with his eyes to try to find me and slyly gesture and wink.
After last year’s Nutcracker, there was a surprise twist to this dancing plot.
David asked me to join him.
That’s right. After years of chaperoning, dropping girls off to and picking them up from rehearsal, after behind-the-scenes bun-making and makeup applying and leotard mending and clapping and cheering, my husband suggested I relax, audition, and dance with him.
The thought had never occurred to me.
I said ‘yes’.
The director approved. I sighed relief. I secretly hoped I would be good enough. I feared I wouldn’t. I went to the Ballet Shop and bought ballet shoes, for me. I got a ballet bag. I got my own leotard. I got my own makeup. I got excited.
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul”
Dance rehearsals were like weekly then twice a week, then finally nightly date nights. We practiced in our family room sometimes, with the furniture pulled back. Our college kids came home and found us doing this one evening, shook their heads, smiling and left the room. What has gotten into our parents? I’m sure they were thinking.
At rehearsal, David held my hand. He coached me. He whispered funny things into my ears when he twirled me. I laughed. I think our performance as husband and wife was believable because, well, we are husband and wife. Dancing with my husband on stage was a blessing. We grew closer to each other. We grew closer to our daughters. I met some wonderful ‘party parents’ whom I otherwise would not have known. I learned makeup tips in the dressing room. I expanded my horizons and got out of my comfort zone. I had a blast.
Party scene ladies
Sadly, and tragically in yet another twist, my father-in-law died an hour before the first out of town Nutcracker performance. That day was so difficult. We loved him so much. It was confusing trying to figure out how to proceed in grief as my husband went from his father’s deathbed to the performance. Should we quit? Continue? No one but my husband at this late date knew his lead father part. Pulling four girls from the performance would mess up the dances for the other girls. And would pulling the girls from the performance really benefit them? No, we would proceed on stage.
And we did.
Nutcracker helped us get through this difficult time. The men in the performance literally surrounded my husband back stage upon hearing the news of his father’s death They spontaneously encircled him and prayed with and for him in the dressing room. Dancers as young as teens and as old as well into mid-life, hugged him and gave words of encouragement, proving that friendships with others of all ages can be built in short amounts of time, and there is no limit to human kindness and encouragement and strength during times of sorrow and suffering.
David had spent that morning with his dying father, and the afternoon planning his funeral in between two performances. I am amazed at how this all unfolded. Today, I look at my husband with new eyes of admiration and respect, as he fulfilled two obligations- one of grief and one of joy, simultaneously.
Yes, joy was mixed with sadness these Nutcracker performances of 2012. A beloved patriarch passed from this world. He was 88 and there was satisfaction in knowing he had a full and happy life and was surrounded by all five of his children as he went to the next world. Yet naturally we were grieved that his time on earth was finished. Our children also felt this conflicting stress. At a dress rehearsal before the final weekend of performances, just several days after my father-in-law’s death our 15 year old daughter, exhausted and grieved by the news of her grandfather, fell in the last number and injured her foot. She could not dance on pointe and did not dance in the last four performances. It was another huge disappointment. However, the blessing in that (we are always looking for blessings) is that she was able to take photographs of her sisters and encourage her fellow dancers. She commiserated with another injured dancer backstage and their friendship bond grew because of this. Through this experience, our girls were surrounded with their ballet friends, and while there were many tears shed, there was also a new determination to perform for ‘Gido’ (Grandpa) in honor of him.
Angela, our Angel
Our graceful Grace, rehearsing
Our daughters (Rachel far left and Grace fourth from left) with their very special ballet friends, who supported them during this difficult Nutcracker season. Cousin Bonita on the far right.
Nutcracker has brought us together as a family in many ways, from the very first Nutcracker the girls performed in to the Nutcracker their father joined them in, to this year as both David and I performed together with our girls while tragedy struck. Being together that difficult day and the days following kept us close and helped us cope. It reminded us that no matter what, we are family. And whether it is a dance on stage or the dance of life, we are there and will be there for one another, always. There is strength in our togetherness, in good and bad. In joy and in sorrow, shall we dance? Yes! Because this is life. And we are family.
After one of the performances, with three of our daughters
Visiting ‘Gido’ (‘Grandpa’ in Lebanese) just a short time before he fell ill.
Family is what matters
Our family spent a difficult week last week as my husband lost his father and friend.
George Thomas was a man bigger than life. Born in Lebanon in 1924, he moved here as an infant and was naturalized many years later. He briefly spent time in an orphanage, came home when his widowed mother remarried, was a standout athlete in high school, and left high school early his senior year to serve in World War II. He parachuted out of a shot down plane, landed safely in Belgium, gave chocolate from his flight suit to the children who surrounded him, and the parachute made of nylon went to the ladies who wanted it to make pantyhose.
George returned home safely from the War honorably as a second lieutenant, attended Purdue University on a G.I. Bill and with an athletic scholarship. He earned a degree in pharmacy and while working as a pharmacist, also worked as a PGA golf professional. He was a loving and devoted father to four wonderful sons and a daughter. He went on to have an illustrious career, playing golf, teaching golf, and coaching golf, most notably for 13 years as head coach at the University of Notre Dame. A complete biography is here.
My husband spent a lot of time with his father his entire life, particularly the last few years. He was his father’s legal guardian, but more than that, they had a very close and special relationship. When his father was diagnosed with kidney cancer, then Parkinson’s disease, David was a loyal and loving son. No one but David could possibly know all the small, kind things David did to try to make his father comfortable, during his final years, months and days, from talking to him several times during the middle of the same night when he had something worrisome on his mind, to, in the end, feeding him applesauce with a spoon, and sitting with him at the hospital, gently adjusting his position regularly so he would not get bed sores. Other things are too personal and private to post, but will be treasured memories forever, providing comfort during this difficult time.
It’s always difficult to lose someone we love, but Gido (‘grandfather’ in Lebanese) was especially hard to lose. He was my second father, my buddy in pondering life, a source of motivation and inspiration, and someone with whom I could talk in depth with about anything. George died just as our family was traveling to another state for an opening ballet performance- with four daughter dancers in the production, as well as my husband and me. It was horrible timing, but death is never convenient, and the grief that is intermixed with joy for separate things makes up the fabric of life itself.
In reflecting over the difficult week I realized several things that my relationship with my father in law has taught me. These are in no particular order but I would like to share them with you:
- Life is short. The most important thing is to love people.
- Always strive for the best. It is not enough to be satisfied with the status quo. Continue to look for better ways to do things.
- Listen to other people’s ideas. Nobody knows everything. Plus, listening respects others and makes them feel important. Ask questions.
- Keep fit in mind, body and soul.
- Achievement and awards are not worthy goals. Achievement follows when one pursues excellence. Excellence is a worthy goal.
- Life is short. The most important thing is to love people.
- Be interested in people. People will like you if you are interested in them.
- Preserve the culture and heritage of your ancestry. Tell stories. Cook ethnic foods. Be yourself. Work hard. Be real.
- Never stop learning.
- Life is short. The most important thing is to love people.
- Dance. Enjoy life. It, like the people in it, is a gift.