Contrary to what you might think, a musical performance is never about what plays out on the stage. It’s what goes on behind the scenes. Think of your child’s violin recital as a canvas upon which to puke up your simmering resentments toward your mother. Or your father. Your sister or an aunt.
(And I’d like to pause here to remind that I am of course only speaking in the abstract.)
Why would anyone think that Ray’s third violin recital should have anything to do with how well he has mastered the Twinkle variations? Or his notable presentation of the popular fiddle tune: Boil ‘em Cabbage?
Please. I don’t know how this happens, but when my mother and father step into the room I immediately pass through some kind of space time continuum that results in my devolving into a sixteen-year-old. Blonde streaks sprout from hair follicles. Fifty pounds fall away and I am suddenly thrown into my most argumentative, combative stance. I view the world with a great hostility. From somewhere in the room, The Psychedelic Furs begin to play.
My mother is sixty-eight and my father is seventy-one. I can’t remember who coined the term the sandwich generation, that is to say the older parents (us) who are sandwiched between senior parents and little children, but it’s an apt description for sure.
My father is not what you would call robust. He has a heart condition and diabetes. My mother has about thirty-two things wrong with her feet. When the twins were about three months old, and my hair and teeth were falling out from exhaustion, I forgot about their age and their various impediments and asked them why they didn’t come more often to help cook or clean or perhaps listen to the occasional complaint about the unrelenting monotony of raising baby twins. Or about the fact that I hadn’t had a shower in a little over a decade.
“Frankly, Amy,” my mother said. “I find it overwhelming.”
They adore their grandchildren, they truly do, but they’re older, and they have small, concentrated panic attacks when they come to my house and have to wend their way through bits of fecal matter and bagel crumbs to get to a bathroom that only a few weeks ago actually had a toilet in it.
Both my mother and my father have significant hearing loss, but my mother is the only one who wears hearing aids and admits to the problem. If she takes them out she can only hear you if you put your face up to hers and either scream like you’re being eviscerated or, interestingly enough, speak in an extremely high falsetto. This is no exaggeration. I noticed that if I talked exactly like Micky Mouse on helium when my mother didn’t have her ears in she could hear me perfectly, even from the next room. I carried on with that for quite some time until she got mad and said knock it off Amy that’s insulting.
I’m not bitter that my parents can’t be more helpful with the eighteen month old twins that have ransacked my life, sucked dry our bank account, and burned out my adrenal glands. They take Ray to Manhattan whenever I ask them to and they lavish him with high praises and show him Broadway and the Metropolitan and the Natural History Museum. My father is the only man who will ever love Ray so passionately and particularly and unconditionally, and I am terribly grateful for it, though apparently not quite grateful enough to stop myself from making fun of him on a public forum.
The Rokeby Mansion, where this last recital was held, is a lovely historical site with space for about forty adults and children more or less, all of whom were instantly blinded when my father walked into the room with his dark shoes and gleaming white tube socks. You could almost hear everyone fishing around in their bags for a piece of frosted glass through which to look at his lower extremities.
The thing I love about my Dad, who is a retired elementary school principal and former classroom teacher, is that he is just as interested in watching other children sweat through the twinkles as he is in watching his own flesh and blood.
The thing I love less about my Dad is his inability to admit to his hearing difficulties, which lead to a nifty little phrase Lynn coined whenever he has something to say during a recital. She calls it the Whisper Shout.
THAT WAS A GREAT PERFORMANCE he whisper shouts to Ray, who is sitting on his lap, waiting his turn to play.
YOU CAN TELL SHE REALLY LOVES THE INSTRUMENT, he’ll say, right after someone finishes Go Tell Aunt Rhody.
THAT WOMAN’S DRESS IS TOO TIGHT was his next observation as a mother got up to take a child to the bathroom.
Incredibly, because he is deaf, he thinks that everyone else around him must also be deaf and is therefore unable to hear his whisper shout. Or maybe he just thinks he is speaking extremely quietly. I don’t know.
The piece de resistance occurred about halfway through the show, when Ray was finished with his portion and was watching his fellow violinists from my father’s lap. Sitting next to my father was another child, Henry, who has very long, very blond hair. Ray and Henry adore each other and never take notice of things like hair or recital etiquette or the proper bow hold. They like to spit water at each other and flash their butts at the town pool.
WHO’S THAT GIRL SITTING NEXT TO US my father whisper shouted to Ray. IS SHE A FRIEND OF YOURS?
Ray explained that Henry was a boy in a matter-of-fact sort of way.
WELL HE HAS VERY LONG HAIR, my father said. HE LOOKS LIKE A GIRL.
My father had no idea that Henry was sitting on his mother’s lap, or that she was listening to the whole exchange. Or that she was Not Amused.
My father is no liberal. He can be deeply sensitive and emotional and intuitive, but I don’t think he truly believes Fox news is propaganda. He thinks Obama wants to push Israel into the Mediterranean, and he’ll vote for the candidate that opposes gay marriage if the candidate stands firm on taxes. I have always found his politics infuriating, but he is also my father, the man who held my hand in front of the Rosetta Stone when I was nine and shared a bag of M&Ms with me on drives home from school.
Gosia, Henry’s mother, did not hold my father’s hand in front of the Rosetta Stone. She has no tolerance for someone that would vote for Barry Goldwater, and if any person told her that they thought Anita Hill was probably guilty of flirtation and was a woman of questionable moral character then she would more than certainly give them a piece of her mind.
So naturally, Gosia squinted hatefully at Dad from a disrespectful distance while the children enjoyed their post-recital refreshments. By the time she overheard Dad tell Ray that two cookies and a cupcake were quite enough for one little boy, and that no, he could not even have one more grape, she seized her opportunity.
“Ray, you can have as many grapes as you want,” she said, cutting in front of my Dad and handing them over.
“It wasn’t like I was handing him four HoHos and a Ding Dong,” she said, later. “It was grapes, for god’s sakes.”
I told her I didn’t give a damn about the grapes. I just wondered if it was all right to undermine his decision at that particular moment in time.
Which gets to the heart of why I just love Gosia.
“Oh, it was completely wrong of me to do that,” she said. “But I was just so mad at him for calling Henry a girl that I couldn’t control myself.”
Later that weekend, at his fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, I asked him why on earth he would say such a thing.
What did I say, he asked. I explained.
“I didn’t say he shouldn’t look that way,” Dad said, shrugging. “I just said he looked like a girl.”
“You have to know, Amy,” my mother cut in, ever the buffer. “This child has the sweetest face. The most delicate features. Anyone would think he was a girl.”
“Your friend is a nitwit, Dad said. He opened the refrigerator and took out a turkey carcass. “If she wants to let her son’s hair look like Rapunzel she’s going to have to pay the consequences.”
I agree with him, sort of. I might have even believed him when he claimed there was no judgement in his remark. No judgement at all.
If it weren’t for what happened a few Halloweens ago, in the year of our Lord, 2010.
This was the year that Ray, then two-and-a-half, announced that he wanted to dress up like Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I will be beautiful, he sighed, longingly, after his thirty-third viewing of the scene in which Truly dresses like a German wind-up toy and dances stiffly on a box.
Are you aware, my father said, that your son is telling me how pretty he is going to look on Halloween when he wears a dress with an apron and patent leather Mary Janes?
Of course I know, I replied. Cindy is making the dress.
My dear friend Cindy loves musical theatre and is an amazing seamstress besides. When I tell you she created a facsimile of this dress, wig and all, I assure you there is not an iota of exaggeration.
I will concede here that if we lived in the bible belt, Lynn and I probably would not have allowed him to dress up like a doll on a music box for Halloween. Unless he insisted upon doing so and we felt there would be disastrous psychological consequences if we were to say no.
But this is not the case with our son. He was nearly three. He liked the movie. At this time in his life he had no real awareness of gender difference. And we lived in a liberal town. All told, we thought it was an awesome idea.
What homosexual (HOMOsexual) parent wouldn’t love dressing their son in drag on Halloween night? Pardon and excuse, but have you met me? And he asked for it in the first place? My cup runneth over. It runneth and runneth.
I can’t stand it, my father said. I just can’t stand it.
We didn’t speak for about a month.
His still holds today that his concern was that people would make fun of him, but I don’t really believe this to be true. I think there is a lot tied up in fathers or grandfathers watching their sons or grandsons dress up like girls, if only for a day.
For my father, a social conservative, dressing your kid this way is unconscionable. And I would even go so far as to suggest that even the most liberal-minded of my most progressive friends would balk if their son wanted to dress up like Truly Scrumptious.
Let us return to the matter at hand. Is my friend really a nitwit for expecting everyone to believe her angelic long-haired child is a boy? Was there in fact judgement in my father’s observation?
How many of us have accidentally mistaken a boy for a girl and felt sheepish afterward?
Once I said to a mother of twins, “What beautiful girls you have.” Her son blushed. I apologized.
Even though I recognize that we live in a world where heteronormativity demands adherence to gender dress codes, I still realize that I have made an inappropriate overgeneralization about the child’s sex. I get it. I admit it. I’m also embarrassed because I, of all people, know better.
The error is understandable given our unconscious assimilation of cultural norms that dictate to us the way boys should look. But I do think it’s good to have a little humility about it. To say that you are sorry, and to understand that preconceived notions of gender got in the way and that these rigid notions are a problem.
Of course the other side of the argument is to wonder if Gosia had the right to be angry at my father for making this mistake. Did she? I don’t know. Do you?
Let’s direct the question to her in the comment section: Gosia, do you have the right to be mad at my father and therefore add grapes to my son’s recital plate after he has already been told he could not have any more carbohydrates?
So you see, dear readers, how a violin recital has less to do with an arpeggio or a twinkle variation than it does about the psychotherapy you received twice a week for five years during which you taped every session, transcribed forty-five minutes worth of generalized anxiety with depressed mood, and distributed copies to all your friends for explication and analysis.
Or, not. He did look pretty cute up there sawing away on that fiddle.
If you liked this story or think you might know someone else who would enjoy it, I would greatly appreciate your passing it along. And by all means tell me about your parents in the comment box. If they are anything like mine they won’t see what you write here. So write it. I appreciate your comments so much!