I am exactly like my father. I have his blue eyes and his high forehead. I have his passion, his strong will, and his love of Russian composers and fantasy books. I look like him, I think like him, and I act like him. In the midst of large crowds, we are quite content to remain unnoticed, left alone to our observations and reflections. My mother’s large and loud Irish family claims that my brothers absorbed all of the Irish genes, while I was left with my father’s Polish roots.
My hands are my representation of my mother. Just like her, I paint my nails red, and I wear her Irish ring. Her influence on my life sounds simple and superficial, and, most days, I think that is a fair representation. My hands are, in a literal sense, a very small piece of me.
This past holiday season I went home to Maine for Thanksgiving, and my mother bought us tickets to see my old ballet company’s opening weekend of The Nutcracker. I was surprised when she asked if I was interested in seeing the show with her – my father loved the ballet, but my mother was never really interested. This is not to say that she was not supportive – I performed for fifteen years, and she never missed a show, but she came for me, not for an appreciation of ballet itself.
My mother rejected all forms of stage-mother activity – she never learned to sew a costume, we did not shower the director with gifts, and she never monitored my diet. She didn’t know when cast lists were scheduled to post, nor did she care. She was proud of my accomplishments, for sure, but I truly believe that her interest in watching me dance was borne solely out of her desire to see me happy. I was happiest when I was dancing, and, so, she was happy when I danced. There were so many stage mothers vicariously living past dreams through their daughters, pushing them into a passion they did not discover on their own. To them, dancing was an obligation, not an artistry; it was an exercise, not an all-consuming part of their soul.
I knew this all along, so while my friends suffered from eating disorders, anxiety, and bouts of depression, I happily left the studio after exhausting rehearsals knowing that instead of bestowing additional criticism, my mother would buy me an ice cream sundae at the Dairy Queen around the corner. I was the lucky one, and I knew that. I hope she knows that I knew that.
My mother visited me while I was in college, but she resisted all of my plans to leave her. The summer I spent in New York, the semester I spent abroad, and, finally, my plans to move away post-graduation were all turning points for us. I don’t know what or who is to blame; it is probably a combination of things. The self-centered piece of me thinks she resents the fact that I didn’t choose a life like hers, but I know it is more than that. I think that she takes my adventurous spirit as a sign that I don’t appreciate how she has decided to spend her life, and all that she did for me. Instead of assuring her that these things are not at all true, I simply shut her out and fiercely wave my flag of independence.
At the close of the first act of The Nutcracker, the snowflakes bowed to the booming Tchaikovsky score, the curtain fell, and the lights came on in the theater – illuminating my mother’s tear stained face. Escaping into the hallway of the second tier, amidst the mass of little girls in velvet dresses and awkward dates buying cookies and glasses of wine, I nervously avoided my mother’s rare display of emotion. So while I pretended to read my program, I thought about my last Nutcracker performance. After the final bow at this very theater, the house emptied, the stage crew swept the floor, they raised the curtain, and I stayed. I knew my family and friends were downstairs waiting for me, but I couldn’t move. And just like clockwork she appeared, in the wings, because she knew exactly where I was, and she knew I needed her. She let me stand there for as long as I needed before taking my hand and helping me walk away from a passion that had so significantly defined my life.
In that moment of reflection, I closed the program I wasn’t actually reading and stared at my tiny hands. My nails were painted a holiday red, my Irish ring was in it’s place, and I knew that my mother’s tears were not a result of the pure beauty of the music and the dancing. She was remembering a time when I needed her, when I leaned on her, when our conversations were constant and easy, a time when we were the example of a desirable mother-daughter relationship. Why is it so hard to say the good things – the things that uplift us and others around us? Why can’t I just tell her I miss her as much as she misses me?
In college, my choreography professor used to say that everything I create pays a “particular attention” to my hands. We use our hands every day to create and to build, to touch, to make music, to feel, and to explore the world around us. Wherever I go, I will keep my nails a fiery red, I will wear my Irish ring and as I lead my way with my tiny hands, I will be reminded that her influence on me is in no way simple or superficial. I hope she knows that I know that.