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Thursday, December 10, 2009

All over

Mothers are tearing out their hair trying to perfect their daughters' hair. Dads are saying, "let's just get on with it." Chubby legs no longer than my forearem are being stuffed into lacy tights and crisp taffeta and silky velvet dresses with itchy collars are being pulled over tiny heads overflowing with copper curls. Legions of tiny Tim's are clipping on ties and pulling at their long sleeved dress shirts. Their new shoes are too tight. Older children are fidgeting with hairbows and goofing around with the dog as they wait for the signal that "it's time to go!" Young 'tween girls have argued with their mothers about getting to wear nylon tights for the first time and have secretly put on a smudge of mascara. Boys are pulling lint out of their pockets and wondering what is something interesting they can put in them to ward off the inevitable boredom. Tomboy daughters are being bundled into the least frilly dress their mothers could find. A younger brother is about to bust out the seams of his too-small borrowed-from-cousin sport coat. And all across America tonight families are smushing into cars and driving over to school for the Christmas concert. Mr. Nelson in rural Minnesota got the car started ten minutes early, to warm it up and has brought it over to the front walk. Four kids and two frazzled parents listen to the tires spin on the icy farmyard before catching traction and moving out. The yard light, high on a pole, always their beacon that home is near, shines a halo of sparkly white light across the garden and out toward the feed pens. A single star is visible in the sky. Mrs. Johnson in Cleveland recovers two stray barrettes from the table at the doorway as she hustles her children out into the cold night. The girls walk gingerly in their new patent leather t-strap shoes, while their brother tries to pretend he's not cold by offering his scarf to Mama. They meet up with the Silvio's and the Mahoney's at the corner and slip-slide their way across, numb knees and stinging cheeks red from exposure. The yellow light in the school yard beckons them and they scuffle along, trying above all not to fall. In upstate New York and southern New Mexico, Delta Mississippi, spongy Seattle, and wooded Arkansas, in tiny hamlets and the nation's biggest cities, in rural Iowa and hilly Pennsylvania, from Anchorage to Miami, families of all kinds and all sizes and all ages and degrees of dysfunction are going to school music programs tonight. As I sit here in the crowded auditorium of Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver, where anyone arriving less than forty minutes before start time is not going to get a seat, it dawns on me that we here are participating in a ritual that is shared across this land and, no doubt, many others. Parents are rifling through the programs, making sure their child's name is spelled correctly, noting that Laura must have dropped orchestra this year. Dad's are fidgeting with the buttons on video-cameras and moms are chatting about the latest ordeal, or delight. As we slid over slick roads to get here tonight, I thought of all the cars in other towns and along rural highways and the subways and buses and sidewalks that were carrying other families to similar scenes. The old Chevvy pickup packed with a family of four up front, crunching over the frozen snows of Wyoming, the Volvo in Naperville, the Taurus in Chattanooga. All of us engaged in this ageless ritual that I hope will go on and on and on. Somewhere tonight someone else's two-year-old will rock back and forth on her heels as she sings "Mary had a baby boy," thankfully leaving out the virgin aspect for the moment. And somebody else's second-grader will be dressed up in a black and white checked outfit with matching tights and cool boots, leading the long line of students into the auditorium singing about Christmas around the world. And another family will be grimacing, but still pleased, by the sound of a grade school orchestra playing White Christmas. A clarinet will screech. A drum will beat one beat too many. Somebody will stand in the wrong place and somebody else will fall off the risers. Out there in America tonight is a child whose parents fought all the way over to the school in the car and who wants to just disappear. And a child whose dad didn't show up, or mom didn't. And a child who looks out into the asssembled crowd, freaks with fright and starts to wail. And another child who looks out into the audience and sees her mom and dad and can't help but say, "Hi mom!" and wave. A toddler will pull her dress up over her head and her parents will be mortified. Another tyke will play with his pants zipper all through the performance and, of course, both of these children will be -- no matter what city or town -- in the front row. A high school senior with curly black hair and an Irish lass charm of smile will hit every note of her solo with bell clarity and the audience afterward will gasp with satisfaction. Beauty, perfection. A choir will sing its hardest song so well -- and so surprisingly perfect -- that the conductor will have tears running down her face. Parents of the youngest and the oldest of these children have something precious and poignant in common. That first pre-school pagaent, the first wiggles, pushing the child standing next to him into the right place, even if it knocks said kid over. The sheer unpredictability of it all, the wonder, this tiny creation, up in front, standing on carpeted steps singing about frost and stars and the magic of a baby. This wisp of a person, so recently so small, small enough to be inside you, is now standing up in front of a crowd and belting out the words, wishing us a Merry Christmas. And the parents of the high school (or college) seniors are remembering every single concert -- or feeling a smack of guilt because they can't -- and tearing up at the thought of this being the last Christmas concert and then the last Winter Dance and the last Prom and, whoooosh, it's over, this school time, this very precious and, as it turned out, fleeting schooldays time of life. The girl who stands with poise and presence in the center of the choir, who sings with honest emotion and expression, who has learned the value of discipline and rehearsal, this girl with a gorgeous face and flowing hair, this girl who is going away to college in too few more months, shines like the sun and her mother and father wonder what on earth they are going to do when she moves away. When there are no more school concerts to go to. Savor. Savor, savor every moment.