Where is the love?
“This time of year makes me feel sentimental.” Dad said.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“Remember, in Chicago, when you kids were small? Those are my favorite memories of Christmas.”
“Yes, mine too. You got to be Santa Claus.”
“Yep, yep,” he says.
“Remember that year when Santa brought the pink kitchen set?”
“Your mom and I stayed up all night putting that together. We never got much sleep on Christmas Eve.”
“I woke you up as early as I could. I grabbed Erika and we ran downstairs. Look, look!! See what Santa brought! That was the best. The living room was a Christmas wonderland. You never forgot to take a bite of the sugar cookies and drink the milk we left for Santa. Nice touch. Remember that year we left carrots for the reindeer?”
“Oh yeah, I sure do,” he said.
I held my cell phone up to my ear and closed my eyes. I was in my apartment in New York and Dad was in Iowa. We were still in lock down. We said good bye and I transported myself back to my childhood.
I went back to all the weeks leading up to Christmas day. The four weeks of Advent. The stories told every week in the Sunday service; the Angel and the Virgin Mary; she married Joseph, the decree from the king to kill the firstborn sons and Mary and Joseph fleeing to Bethlehem, the shepherds who followed the star, and the three wise men who showed up. The Three Wise Kings brought gifts; Frankincense and myrrh, herbs and oils. Mary and Joseph had to find shelter in a stable and Christ was born among the sheep in the hay.
I remembered the records that played on the stereo; Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Dad said, “The Morman religion is a little cockamamie but they sure can sing.”
It all started on March 12th, 2020. We were told to stock up on food for two weeks then they said a month. Our home office space became a storage area. My last day of work was March 17th. The plan was we’ll be back in two weeks. I went on Unemployment for the first time in my life. The fear and anxiety of not knowing what was really going on and all the changing information; mask or no mask; the virus is spread on surfaces; no the air. Sometimes I felt like I would never
feel lightness or joy again, or that feeling of excitement and pure love of life. I felt the weight of fatigue and sadness with the reports of deaths, my friends among them. Grief and fear hung in the air.
Mom started planning for Christmas early. She made German Stolen, frosted, sweet bread with nuts and raisins. She made at least 4 or 5 loaves. She also made fruit cake. A lot of fruit cake. This dense, molasses cake-bread-like loaf, jam packed with nuts and candied fruit. The fruits were bright orange, green and red. I think they were originally cherries but they were infused with so much sugar and food coloring that I was never sure what they were supposed to be. There was also a rectangular yellow fruit that I think was pineapple but the only thing that gave it any distinction was that it had more of a crunch. I was not a fan of the fruitcake but Dad loved it. They reminded him of the farm. Mom made at least 10 loaves and gave them to people in the congregation and to our neighbors as gifts. The Stolen was also used for gifts but we always kept one and ate it on Christmas morning. The Stolen was my favorite.
I missed my job as an office manager of a busy chiropractic office. I was around people all the time and I loved it. For the first time in my adult life I had nowhere to go and no one to report to. I was one of the lucky ones able to apply early for unemployment benefits and to my surprise and delight started getting a weekly deposit in my bank account. Even with that weekly payment there seemed to be no end to what the world would provide for anxiety producing situations. We were in the epicenter of a pandemic. We had to wear a mask when we walked out of our apartment door and everywhere we went. We live across the street from Central Park, which provided a place of refuge and sanctuary, but when the virus was at its peak; the sight of a field hospital that was erected near the eastside of the park sent chills down my spine. How I was going to stay sane being at home all the time and do we really need to worry about our toilet paper supply?
The Christmas season was always a big time for Dad. I suppose it is for any Minister. He brought out the fancy surpluses, the colored sashes that went around his neck over his puffy white robe. He had a new one every week to wear during Advent. They were rich emerald green, deep purple or fiery red. He saved the most opulent one of all; a golden white sash with an embroidered gold crown for a King and a brown crown of thorns woven through it, for Christmas morning. Not only did he look good but he made sure his sermons dealt with any current events that could relate to the stories in the Bible. My favorite service was always Christmas Eve. The altar filled with poinsettias, singing all the carols, and at the end singing Silent Night. The whole congregation held small lit candles with a round piece of paper in the middle to catch the wax drippings. I loved looking at the flame as we all sang in hushed tones and I dreamed about Jesus being born in my heart and how would Santa make it down the chimney?
I was on the phone with Andrew from the IT department and opened my computer. Together we set up my remote desktop to enable me to make phone calls and work with the systems for the New York City Ballet. It was October 2020 and I was asked to work part-time for the Membership Department. A fancy way of saying, I was asking for donations. I was given lists of several hundred people and asked to call throughout the day no later than 6 pm. I was excited about having something to do. I was grateful to be on a team. We met on zoom and commiserated about how hard this time was and how we missed ‘normal’ life. We cheered each other on when someone ‘renewed a membership’; that could range anywhere from $100 – $1000 or more, and we gave comfort to those who had that nasty exchange of, ‘Don’t call me again’. I was amazed at how open some people were to getting my call. I heard stories about how people were coping in their apartments. “Are you still wiping down your groceries?” “I lost my husband to COVID so now is not the best time.” “I am on my way to chemo but call me later.” “I’m in the park with my children but I would love to support the ballet. My mother took me as a child and I want to continue the tradition.” “Are they doing the Nutcracker this year? Will it be broadcast?” “What will you do when we are back in the theater again? I think I will weep with joy.”
I was given a Santa doll when I was a toddler. There is a photo of me with this doll that is almost as big as I am. I treasured that doll. He was stored somewhere with the Christmas ornaments and he would be brought out of hiding a week after Thanksgiving. When he was returned to my waiting arms he never left my side. I slept with him, talked to him, sang to him. He helped me write my letter that would be mailed to the real Santa. We would sit and listen to Dad read the Night before Christmas together. He looked just like the Santa in the story. Then on Christmas night, when I could not sleep from pure excitement, we would go to the window and look up at the sky hoping to see the glow of Rudolf’s nose and maybe hear Santa on the roof. My heart would be bursting with love. Love for the baby Jesus, love for Santa, this all loving, giving, jolly man who cared for all people, especially children. I loved all my dolls, and my sister and baby brother, and Mom and Dad. Loved filled me. Love carried me. I drifted off to sleep with my Santa doll. I thought life could not be any better than that.
The discipline required to work from home is strange to manage at first. The commute is going from the shower, getting dressed, having my coffee and signing in to a remote desktop and my computer became my office and phone. Turns out I am pretty good at leaving messages and asking people for money for something I believe in. I found most people were open to speaking to me. Many were lonely and craved a friendly voice and connection to someone outside their own isolation. One evening as I was calling, a young woman answered who I had left several messages for. When she heard my voice she responded like we were old friends.
“Hi Renata. I am so happy to hear your voice.”
“Hi Ms. Sousa, is this a good time to speak?”
“Yes, yes. I am so happy to speak to someone from the ballet. I miss it so much.”
She proceeded to tell me about how she works for the United Nations. I couldn’t place her accent but she sounded like she might be Italian.
“Look at my ticket history you will see how crazy I am about the Ballet. When the season is up and running, I leave work at the UN, grab a bite to eat, and go every night.”
I checked her record and sure enough, she was at the ballet every day of the week. She had a $36 ticket; which was either way off to the side or very high up in the fourth ring, but she was there. I wrote ‘Super Fan’, in my notes. She lives in Queens.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the cookies. Mom made six, sometimes seven different kinds of cookies. The Russian tea cakes, that looked like snowballs, dipped in powdered sugar, the Lebkuchen, ginger-spicy, squares of hard chewy goodness, the Neubergers, round ginger cookies with a candied fruit in the center with three almond slivers pressed in the dough like flower petals, then glazed with a sugar coating that made them shine. There were the peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kisses pressed in the middle, and the dark chocolate cookies dusted with powdered sugar. One year she discovered a cookie recipe that used salted, mixed, roasted nuts. They quickly became a family favorite. The base was a thicker version of a pie crust with a hint of salt. Then she spread the mixed nuts over that and covered it all with a caramel, sugar concoction that reminded me of pecan pie. That salty-sweet combination was totally addictive.
“Do you know Clem, the guard?” Maria asked.
“Yes.” I say. “He’s been at the ballet a longtime.”
“I was there so much we became friends. He is such a wonderful man. Once when I was waiting to get my ticket, Wendy Whelan, passed through the lobby. She is my all-time favorite dancer. I love her so much. Anyway, he sees that I see her, and he waves his arms like, go and say “Hi”. I wave back, “No.” I mean, I can’t do that. But he knows Wendy and gestures to her. Then he whispers something to her and suddenly Wendy Whalen is walking towards me. She says, “Hi, I’m Wendy. What’s your name?” and I say, “I don’t know.”
“Can you believe it? I forgot my own name! My brain was total mush. I couldn’t think. I was face to face with a goddess. Then Wendy burst into laughter and reached over and patted my shoulder. She said, ‘I am happy to meet you, Maria.’ Clem must have told her my name. I was speechless.”
“Wendy is such a lovely and down to earth person.” I said. “What a great story.”
The best part of the cookie baking production was when everyone helped make the sugar cookies. We gathered in the kitchen on Saturday morning and Mom rolled out the dough and we kids went to work pressing the cookie cutters in the dough. There were snowmen, Christmas trees, reindeer, Santa heads, snowflakes and Santa’s sleigh. Once they were carefully lifted out of the flat, perfectly even circles of dough we laid them on the cookie sheets to be baked. The smell alone gave us a sugar high. Christmas music played as we tried not to break the delicate cut outs as we placed them on the sheet pans waiting to go in the oven. While one batch was baking we waited for them to cool and then the real fun started. Mom made three icings; pink, green and white. The white always had some lemon flavoring. I loved making my snowflakes and snowmen with that white, lemony frosting. We could add colored sprinkles, colored candy glitter, and silver sugar balls for eyes and noses. Once they were done, everything was packed away in plastic Tupperware and left on the breezeway. We were lucky to have a screened in porch that served as an extra refrigerator during the winter months. The cookies were arranged on Christmas cookie platters and were our dessert after every meal during Christmas and New Year’s, ending on Mom’s birthday, January 6, when we celebrated the end of Christmas season, the day the Wise Men came to see baby Jesus, the Epiphany.
“Oh, oh.. I have another one for you.” Maria said.
“A few weeks later I was with my friend. I try to bring as many people to the ballet as I can. So, we were in the lobby and now I knew to look for Wendy. I might see her pass through and there she was; but this time I was ready. I pulled my friend over with me and we walked up to Wendy and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Maria, the woman you met a few weeks ago who didn’t know her own name.’ And Wendy burst out laughing. I love her even more now.”
We both take a moment to laugh.
“Renata, you don’t understand, I came to New York alone and New York City Ballet made it possible for me to survive. The dancers became my family. My friends say I should write about how I feel. I should write love letters to the dancers. I am so worried about them. I wonder about how they’re doing and when I can see them again. I am sorry,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind my talking so much.
” No,” I said, “I feel your love and I think it’s beautiful.”
My hand went to my heart as she spoke. My eyes started to well up. I realized that I have not allowed myself to feel how much I miss being in a theatre with live music and seeing dancers on a stage instead of on my computer screen or cell phone. I have not felt that passion and devotion since my childhood and I miss that. I miss that sense of delight and wonder at beauty and awe while watching human beings become gods and goddesses before my eyes. I ask if she plans to watch the Nutcracker that will be streamed digitally until Jan 3. She says she is and tells me that the first time she saw the Nutcracker she wept through the entire piece because she had never seen something so beautiful.
What do you wear when you are about to see your favorite dancer on stage for the first time? I had seen her on television with Mikhail Baryshnikov and she was everything I ever wanted to be. She danced the role of Clara in the Nutcracker with the choreography that he had brought from Russia. She embodied perfection. When I saw she was coming to Minneapolis I knew I had to be in the audience. I begged Mom and Dad to let me go.
‘No, you don’t understand, I have to go. I have to see her.”
The ticket price was more than I could afford on babysitting money and selling Avon products to the neighborhood ladies and the few times I covered my friend, David’s paper route while he was on vacation. This would be my birthday and Christmas present that year. I was allowed to go alone. I was fifteen.
I decided to wear my pale pink faux angora sweater I found in a thrift shop downtown with my girlfriends on one of our adventures to the Rag Shop. I felt elegant in it. I loved the softness against my skin and it fell just right around my shoulders. I wanted to feel like a dancer so I wore my hair in the best bun I could manage with my curly hair. But as much as I tried, a few curls seemed to escape. I wore a mid-length, black skirt that flared slightly at my hips and black ballet flats. Dad dropped me off in front of the theater and told me he would be there when the ballet was over. I handed my ticket to the usher and went to my seat in the balcony area. When the usher handed me the program I felt like I would begin to float up to the ceiling of the theater like the scene in Mary Poppins when they visit the man who makes them giggle with joy. I was about to see Giselle danced by Gelsey Kirkland and Ivan Nagy, two of the greatest dancers in the world.
My giddiness must have bubbled over because the gentleman sitting next to me looked at me and smiled.
The house lights started to dim and the orchestra played the overture. The curtains opened to reveal the village scene and there she was, upstage right in her blue peasant dress. She didn’t seem to touch the ground. She seemed to float, hover just off the stage. Her arms appeared to have no bones but were made of light. There was never a sound when she landed. The way she moved through space, the way she let us see the music through her body was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Then Ivan entered, the Prince in peasant disguise. He is already engaged to be married to the Princess but he’s out to have fun and sees Giselle. She is so beautiful and full of pure love and innocence that he has to meet her. I had never seen Ivan Nagy before but once he came on stage I fell in love with him. He had a quiet humility and grace. Not only was he physically gorgeous but he radiated love and something far deeper than perfectly executing dance steps. During the first act the Prince and Giselle fall in love and by the end of the act she dies of a broken heart because she finds out he has promised to marry someone else.
I was totally immersed in the story and I’m sure I made some audible gasps and sighs because as soon as the lights went up for intermission the man sitting next to me asked, if I was alone. Was anyone joining me?
I said, ‘No.’
“Are you enjoying it?”
I smiled. I could barely find the words. “Yes, yes, very much.” I said.
As I sat there, I hadn’t thought about the other people I might meet. I assumed everyone would be with their husbands or wives and I would be the only one alone. I never thought there would be a man alone beside me. He was nice, funny. He told me he loved ballet and had seen Gelsey many times before. I told him it was my first time and that the dance company I belonged to was planning to do the second act over the summer for our yearly performance. I could tell you were a dancer, he said. I could feel my face blush, cheeks burn. That’s what I wanted to hear but I was pleased and embarrassed at the same time. Was I too obvious? I got up to use the bathroom. When I came back we talked some more. I didn’t pay too much attention to what he said honestly. At fifteen, if a man who could be my father’s age talked to me I was polite but not too invested. I knew how to be nice, respect my elders.
Then the second act began. Giselle is dead and the Prince visits her grave. He feels guilty and all the spirits of the young ladies who have died of broken hearts, The Willis, come back from the dead and make men who have wronged them dance to death. But when Giselle comes back she takes pity on the Prince and helps him dance through the night. Giselle’s spirit is set free because she chooses forgiveness over vengeance. It is a gesture of pure love. Gelsey was born to play this role. Her ethereal and earthy qualities mix perfectly. The passion and love between her and Ivan brought the house down. I sometimes like to imagine, when I’m in the theater, that there are angels hovering in the rafters. Or the spirits of all the artists who have performed on that stage are in the corners soaking up and reflecting back all the magic and love coursing between the artists and the audience. Something happens to everyone in that space; transformation, elevation, something that can only be explained in the heart.
We finished clapping. The lights came up and as we put our coats on, waiting to file out; the magic of the evening still vibrated through me. I found my Dad waiting outside.
That memory comes back to be now and I am grateful for the passion that Ms. Sousa shared with me. I felt some of the ashes that had gathered around my heart over the past months begin to loosen. I felt an ember of something begin to burn. Is it inspiration; a glimmer of hope; a light that will not go dim? Whatever it was, it was my Christmas spark. It was my light in the midst of the darkness.
Renata Hinrichs is a playwright, actress, producer and dancer. She grew up in the Midwest and moved to New York to become a dancer. Her solo plays, A WITNESS IN MY HOUSE and RANDOM ACTS, have been produced Off Broadway. She currently lives with her husband near Central Park. www.renatahinrichs.com