It’s an iconic photo in our family album: Henry, age seven, and I are standing face to face in a deserted Times Square. It is about 8 a.m. on a summer Sunday morning. Bits of trash, empty soda cups, and old newspapers lie at our feet. His face wears a rare, uncharacteristic pout. I am bending over, leaning in toward my small son and, in a rare, uncharacteristic gesture, I’m waggling my finger at him, trying without much success to make a point: Broadway shows are not like videos. The fact that seeing “Beauty and the Beast” yesterday had been the high point of his entire life on earth to date did not mean that we could wake up the next day and go see it again.
What neither my amused husband, snapping the picture for posterity, nor I, deeply engaged in an effort to put Broadway ticket prices into some sort of perspective for a second grader, knew at the time was that in fact seeing that lavish Disney production featuring dancing teapots and singing candlesticks had indeed changed our son’s life.
One Broadway musical matinee and a shy, quiet seven-year-old was not only hooked, he suddenly had a vision, a sense of a road opening at his feet, even if the destination wasn’t yet something he could quite articulate: someday he would be part of such a show. He would get to go back again and again, night after night, until this music that made his heart crack open had become a part of who he was and of what he knew, a passion to be carried in his bones and in his blood. In other words, a vocation, a calling whose faint summons he was just beginning to hear for the very first time. There was a big, musical life out there, and it was just waiting for him to grow up and into it: a life to be had playing piano for the stage.
The thing about turning points is that we don’t always recognize them until we’re much further down the road. Then, one day we turn around to look back at where we’ve been and it seems that the future was in fact written long ago – if only we had known how to read the writing on the wall. That fifteen-year-old photograph and the cascade of memories it releases seem particularly significant – and poignant – now, as Henry begins his new life as a college graduate.
A week ago, my husband and my parents and I sat in the bleachers under a hot Minnesota sun, waiting to hear one name among the 763 being read into the microphone. “A graduation ceremony should not be rushed,” the president of St. Olaf had said in his remarks to the sweltering crowd. And, hot and sweaty as we were, I found myself in agreement.
There was a kind of beauty in just being there, allowing time to slow, taking this opportunity to consider that behind each and every name called from the podium that afternoon, there was a unique life story to be told, a path that had led to this particular moment and to an unknown destiny still waiting to unfurl. For every graduating student, there was also a community of connection and caring, a whole group of relations who had worried and cheered and laughed and cried all along the road to young adulthood, friends who had shared the ups and downs of growing up, teachers who had given of themselves in order to make a difference in a young person’s life. And for each of those graduates there was, too, a complicated, private history of turning points and obstacles no more or less challenging and meaningful than our own. There were memories of triumphs and heartbreaks, and just as much infinite potential in each of these young lives as we discerned in our son – all of it intertwined with the unfathomable mysteries of determination and destiny, fate and luck, choices and the consequences of those choices.
How amazing it was, simply to pause and contemplate the fact that 763 different life paths — paths that had had their various beginnings just over twenty years ago in countries that spanned the globe — China and Vietnam and England and South America, as well as in each of the fifty United States — had somehow, finally, briefly, converged right here, at this Midwestern college, on this football field under a cloudless blue sky in May, in an age-old ritual marking the culmination of one journey and the beginning of another.
Soon enough, the solemn procession of students to the stage would come to an end. The caps would fly into the air, the cameras would be tucked away, last loads of laundry carried out of empty dorm rooms, final hugs tendered and tears shed, car doors slammed shut. The class of 2012 would scatter into the world, never again to gather together in one place nor to turn their collective eyes to the future even as they bid their shared past farewell. No, commencement exercises should not be rushed.
Last week, two days after his graduation, Henry and I returned to Times Square. I had a day of work to do in the city and we had tickets to three Broadway shows – his graduation gift. For a kid who grew up far from Manhattan, he has racked up quite an impressive Broadway attendance record over the years – testament, in part, to the passion born on that very first visit, and to the singular nature of his desires. So it seemed only fitting that we return together to the place where it all began. This time it was the “The Book of Mormon” that had us laughing along and still singing in the morning, and the next night, at “Once,” it was my son who pointed out to me the subtle complexities of the lovely orchestration and staging.
He is a knowledgeable theatre date, this young Bachelor of Music who has clearly put in his time at the keyboard and in the classroom, doing the hard, necessary work that dream fulfillment demands. I still remember his very first recital at age six, in which he plunked out the notes to “Blue Jello” on a tiny guitar. Last month, for his senior project, he created, produced, directed, and played piano for an original Broadway revue with a cast of ten and a combo. I wonder if someday I will look back and remember sitting in that audience, and think to myself that it, too, proffered a glimpse of what was to come.
Meanwhile, the road at his feet twists yet again: on Friday, after a few days at home spent unpacking and repacking, our son will leave for his first post-college job, as accompanist at the College Light Opera Company on Cape Cod. It’s a career move that the seven-year-old Henry surely would have approved of, if he’d known back then that such opportunities existed – nine musicals produced in eleven weeks, a summer comprised of rehearsals all day and tuxedoed evenings in the orchestra pit.
As I type these words, Henry’s putting winter clothes away in his closet, packing summer clothes into a trunk. The soundtrack to “Smash” is playing through his iPod speakers. He is singing along. In a few days, his room will be empty again; he’ll be setting up housekeeping with a bunch of young actors and musicians in an old Victorian house near the beach. The partings are always hard, but after four years of college and summer jobs away from home, I’ve grown used to them. His life is meant to be elsewhere now.
And I’ve also realized this: when our children were small, our job as parents was to introduce the world to them, to expose them to a wide range of experiences that might begin to give shape to their aspirations. Now, the tables are turned. Growing up, finding his way into adulthood, independence, and the first steps of a career doing what he loves, our son is providing us with some new experiences in return.
Steve and I have already made reservations at a B&B on the Cape, and we’re looking forward to heading down there later this month to see the first musical of the summer season at the College Light Opera. I suspect I’ll be tempted, when I wake up the next morning, by the same impulse that moved Henry all those years ago. Maybe I’ll even put in a call to him, just to see if he can possibly score us a couple more tickets, so we can go back and see the show one more time.