We were halfway through the month of December, at a point where everyone has already been Christmased to death, when Amanda announced that she had never seen The Nutcracker Suite.
“Of course, you’ve seen The Nutcracker,” I told her. “Your father and I took you to a matinee when you were in, maybe, second or third grade. Don’t you remember? You were bored and wanted to leave during intermission.”
The ballerinas had all been students at the local dance school. The Christmas tree, which was just a one-dimensional cutout hanging from a curtain, was so lopsided that one of the male dancers whirled across the stage and tried, unsuccessfully, to shove it upright as he flew by.
You’d think that would have left an impression, but Amanda said no. Not on her.
I don’t like ballet myself. But I thought its contrived, unnatural movement would be a good experience for her. Ballet is culture, right? Whatever that is. The Nutcracker is supposed to be culture and Christmas all rolled into one. I remembered being so excited about the prospect of taking her to see it that I looked up the meaning of “suite.” While we were waiting for the ballet to start, I tried to draw Amanda’s attention away from some children she was watching across the aisle so I could explain it to her. I just knew that I was building a foundation for her, a foundation of art and beauty that might enhance other moments of her life.
“I’ve never been to any ballet,” 16-year-old Amanda said, the way a kid might say, “I’ve never had a puppy.”
Initially, that was a blow. But it didn’t matter. I knew there were so many other things that we’d done together, one event after another, all in the same key, all arranged around the theme of providing wonderful experiences, of preparing Amanda for her future self.
Amanda attended college four hours from home. It was her top choice school and during her first year, Amanda sailed through the business management and economics classes she was taking. Dorm life left her unfazed. She told us, over and over, that she had nothing to do on the weekends.
“Go to a gallery or a museum,” I suggested one Saturday when we were visiting and had taken her to lunch.
Amanda insisted, “No one goes to those places.”
“You do! You’ve gone to lots of them. Remember the Van Gogh exhibit? Remember the enormous painting of the irises?”
We’d stood together, holding hands, in front of flowers that Van Gogh painted. It wasn’t a picture in a book. It wasn’t a poster printed on a machine with tens of thousands of other copies. It was the actual canvas that Van Gogh touched. It was incredible.
“Eh, it was just a painting.”
We’d been connected as we stood in front of his work. At that moment, Amanda and I were connected to everyone who had ever stood in front of that canvas. During those college weekends when she thought she had nothing to do and, perhaps, no one to do it with, I’d hoped she could have that same feeling of connection.
“It was just a painting, Mom,” Amanda said.
At least she didn’t claim she’d never been in a museum.
The summer after she graduated, her father and I invited her to join us at the beach.
“The beach?” she repeated, as if she were considering it, but not really. “I am not a water person.”
“Not a water person? You swam every summer when you were a kid. For a good seven or eight years.”
Spending hours at the water each year was part of our summers. It was one of the season’s unique joys. It was hers.
“I took swimming lessons every year for a good seven or eight years. Learning to swim is something people who don’t like water do to stay alive,” Amanda explained.
“But you loved water. After your lesson, we’d stay at the edge of the water for the rest of the day. You built and buried things in the sand. We ate little seedless raspberry jam sandwiches and blueberries or peaches or whatever was fresh at the fruit stands.”
I thought of those weeks at the lake as our vacation, just the two of us. I’d sit on my beach chair and Amanda would climb up on my lap and wrap her arms around me. We would read aloud the books I’d brought for us, stories about children living in different times or friends having adventures. She fell asleep on me once, something that hadn’t happened for a couple of years, so I knew this was it. This was the last time. I’d covered her with a beach towel to protect her from the sun. But as soon as I had made everything perfect, her lashes fluttered on her cheeks, and then her eyes opened. She stared ahead for a moment, gathering herself, and then she was on her feet.
“It doesn’t sound as if I spent that much time in the water,” Amanda pointed out.
Well, no, maybe she didn’t.
Amanda found her first job after college a little disappointing. Her last boyfriend was disappointing too. She thought that perhaps she should have majored in something else, and lately she wishes she hadn’t broken up with that college boy who used to meet her at the cafeteria for breakfast and dinner each day. She’s unsure what to do next, where the growing up and getting ready prelude to her life will lead.
“Try praying for strength and guidance,” I suggested one day when she was home. She’d been considering whether she should change jobs or go to graduate school, but what job and what graduate school? Maybe she should do something more personal, like taking a trip. But where? Should she get a cat? “That is what prayer is for.”
“Where did that come from?”
“Well, I did take you to Sunday school every week from the time you were three right through eighth grade. I took you to church so you’d have help when you needed it.”
One year Amanda and I had made cards to send to people on the church’s list of shut-ins. Together we took shifts running the Easter bake sales. I helped her learn hymns and prayers. I chaperoned for a church youth retreat. I still remember her confirmation, how her grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all stood around her as we cut into a cake shaped like a cross.
“What help?” Amanda asked.
A good question.
On my most recent visit, Amanda had just moved into a new apartment. It was either larger or cheaper or in a better location or nearer to her friends than her last one. She didn’t know how long she’d stay. There was a crisis at work that could eliminate her department, which might be a good thing since she didn’t like her job anyway. But did she have enough experience to move on to something better, or would she move on to more of the same?
At one point, I sat on the old couch her father and I had given her and watched Amanda go through the boxes of things I’d brought her from home. I searched my mind for what I had done to prepare her for this moment. I found a little girl dressed as an angel, eating cookies with the other children after the church Christmas pageant . . . digging holes in the sand alongside the lake before spreading out in her mother’s lap . . . turning up her nose in front of Van Gogh’s field of irises . . . falling asleep against her father while a Snow Queen pirouetted on stage. Each mental vision was like a piece of music, all the notes connected, through Amanda.
“I brought you up to be happy,” I told her. “I taught you how to be happy.”
She looked up at me, paused for a moment, as though thinking, and then said, “No. No, you never did that.”
It’s early November, and I am already seeing advertisements for The Nutcracker Suite. I might buy us tickets. If she wants to go. Amanda is no more interested in enhancing her life with art and beauty now than she was the first time she saw it, but watching The Nutcracker without that burden hanging over us should surely make for a different experience. Her mind has become analytical, and these days she might enjoy hearing about how musical suites are composed. The two of us could laugh about the dancers’ contrived, unnatural movements.
In that moment, at least, Amanda could be happy. We both could.