“Which do you like, Dad, the boots or the shoes?” My six year-old posed a fashion query to me. A cute black dress with leggings and a purple cardigan sweater begged for the right footwear. I was the closest (in distance) authority on the issue. I looked at my scuffed slip-on dress shoes, thought strategically and asked, “Which do you like? They’re both beautiful.” Kindly, and with a wearying indulgence, she asked me again as it made “no difference” to her. I gambled on shoes. She wore the boots.
No matter. We were going to the Nutcracker Suite. This was our second year running going to the local performing arts center to see the Academy of Russian Ballet’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s timeless masterpiece. And since it was our second year, I would be moved to pronounce it Worner Tradition (insert Gothic script and grave feeling). Every three months, my wife, two daughters and I will scribble on any available paper our plans for the the coming season: Spring brings bike riding, baseball games and tours of the State Capitol. Summer involves trips to the lake and the art museum. Fall is filled with pumpkin patches and the Arboretum. And winter will bring sledding, trips to Grandma’s and the Nutcracker Suite.
Today was the day. All day, the buzz had been about when we should leave, what we should wear and where we would eat afterward. Being quite anal-retentive about arriving early, I have been tempered by a wife who knows how to arrive nerve-wrackingly “just in time”. The day was grey, the flurries were pervasive and the roads were laden with the slippery dirt-snow mix that the plows seemed to dismiss too easily. My “Let’s get going.” was answered with “I’ll be down in a minute.”
The drive involved “MapQuesting” to ensure we knew exactly where we were going and discussion about whether we could use the tickets on our email or get hard copies at Will Call. And then my wife started the music. The Nutcracker Suite. My two daughters, aged four and six, have an uncanny memory not only for this music, but also the scene that corresponds to it in George Balanchine’s classic movie version. Throughout our trip, my wife and I glance at each other with smiling eyes as our daughters meticulously hum along while narrating the story. Herr Drosselmeyer, Clara, the troublesome Fritz, the Nutcracker, the Mouse King, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the dancers from various nations, and of course, the hilarious Mother Ginger. Questions would emerge and analysis would ensue. Why would Fritz break the Nutcracker? Would it be a Mouse King or Queen this year? Who is your favorite dancer?
Arriving, with ten minutes to spare, we slipped our way through a poorly shoveled parking lot. I’m glad my daughter is smarter than me. Boots were the right choice. Crowds of families dressed up or dressed down stomped their feet as they entered the arts center. Up the stairs, past tables laden with flowers for dancers, tempting milk chocolate on a stick and mini-Nutcracker ornaments for sale, we hurried to our seats. My wife wondered if we shouldn’t browse for a few minutes in the foyer, but I was intent on sitting and relaxing. As we came to the full embrace of the auditorium, my wife was right yet again – barely anyone was there. Oh well.
Sitting five rows from the front, center stage – literally off by one seat from last year (now that’s Tradition)- we had four seats, and only used two. My six year-old crawled into my wife’s lap while my four year-old lovingly snuggled into mine. The lights would dim and the announcement would come reminding us not to record the show or take photographs. We would all look at each other and laugh at our inside joke. We knew they would say that.
The music would begin, the curtain would draw and we would become lost in another world. A world from long ago and yet so familiar. A family gathering. An eccentric and intriguing relative. Relief at relaxed curfews. Wonder at gifts unopened. And then the exquisite journey of a beautiful girl and a toy-made-man.
Yet while the ornate staging, the sweet music and the lilting dance were mesmerizing, I happened to look at my wife and my daughters. My beautiful wife dressed smartly in black, a gold and black large chain necklace around her neck, rich reddish-auburn hair cascading on her shoulders, wide blue eyes and a smile that held a warm laugh instantly recognizable from a room away. My six year-old with dancing eyes, sitting bolt upright on the very edge of my wife’s lap, smiling without restraint and clapping vigorously at the end of each familiar song. My four year old sunk deep, warm and comfortable in my lap. Initially, worried that the Mouse King would be scary, she now smiled puckishly and gave that sweet look on the edge of sleep yet not quite willing to go there. The three greatest blessings in my life were here with me. And they were the most beautiful thing I saw at The Nutcracker.
In a flash, it was over. The finale, the applause, a picture of my four year-old with Clara, two milk chocolates on a stick and two ornaments later, we slipped and slid with other ballet-goers through the dirty snow of the parking lot. Off to dinner and sweet recollections, laughter and a few yawns. At home, bedtime came quickly. And as our two little girls drifted off to sleep in their respective beds, my wife and I, once again, smiled wearily with our eyes. Yes. How beautiful. How very beautiful.