The beloved children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit was made into an equally beloved holiday dance piece twenty-two years ago by ODC/Dance, one of our finest local dance companies. A week or so ago, I went to see it with the girlie, and the trips there and back were nearly as eventful as the show.
For all the time I spend caring for the little munchkins, it’s been rare that she and I have gone on a special Baba-daughter outing. Her craving for Mama is great, and perhaps would be so regardless of the fact that Mama works outside the house more hours than Baba does. So the arrangements we usually make for solo time with the kids tend to accommodate the lil’ monkey’s ever-unslaked Mama-thirst. This time around, though, the LGBT family-friendly performance was smack dab in the middle of Mama’s prime-time work hours. Grampy gladly watched the boy, and my girlie and I skipped footloose into the city to see what kind of fun we might have together.
Before we even make it the few blocks to the subway, I can tell by her mood that she is loving this every bit as much as I was. Singing, prancing, the outsize imagination vibrating and sizzling and shooting off in all directions. Since the beloved’s production of Fiddler is fading slowly into memory, I am less frequently conscripted into the role of Tevye (to her Tzeitel). The next theater production, Les Miserables, is months away, and the seasonal fave Amahl and the Night Visitors hasn’t yet encroached, so what’s filling the lil’ monkey’s mind has been the characters in our current reading: L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. We plowed through The Wonderful Wizard of, just polished off The Land of and are launching into the third, Ozma of, with reckless abandon (bringing her chapter book total — Alice and Pipi and Mary Poppins are also in her wake — way above that of the number of books Baba has read this year). Today, I am the Tin Woodman.
The farther from home we get, the more I feel us assuming the mantle of exemplar: for better or worse, a public slice of queer family. The folks who just lost big in the recent election. I wonder, over the course of our commute, whether the love we casually radiate to one another does anything thematically specific for those around us. I wonder whether it makes those who voted for us feel a pride in their role in our state’s checkered social history, even if bittersweet. Those who voted against us are, at base, an enigma to me. I don’t really recognize them, when I see them. But I assume they recognize us. What with me being all butchly and all.
I wonder, when they get a chance to see, in person, part of a family whose rights were just rescinded: do they feel a catch of regret? I simply don’t know how to understand those who don’t – though I know many don’t: many look at me with my child and feel disgust, or concern, or pity; if they were to know she was born to my partner and not to me, I know many would think me an interloper. Nearly four people out of any given ten that I might see in my county thought some variation on this theme, and voted so.
In the train station, I wonder if they see how effortlessly I hoist my daughter into my arms for the escalator ride. How, as we perch ourselves at the base of the escalator to watch the people descend, or as we settle into our seat on the train ride into the city, how comfortably she drapes herself in my lap. How she picks up my hand and plays with the fingers, or pulls my baseball hat off and rubs her hand on my hair.
Before the vote, such moments felt more freighted. They felt – to me, at least – as if they were all impromptu lobbying moments. Actual people whose legal recognitions and protections were on the line. A pair of faces to help the undecided people make the abstractions real. That woman, there; that child. It is their bond I’m respecting, and protecting. Or not.
Once we’ve ascended the escalator at our downtown station, we break into a trot for the theater. And since it is an egghead four-year old I’m trotting with, until the final block, “we” is actually me holding the girlie up in my arms.
We made it in time for the curtain, and the show was a delight. Bunnies and animated toys and fairies and the like. George Ballanchine meets Twyla Tharp. No scary villains. No commercial tie-ins.
On the way back from the show, I tuck us into the Palace Hotel for a peek at its spectacular glass-domed atrium and the umpteen-foot-tall Christmas tree soaring up in it. The lil’ monkey is goggle-eyed at it all, the ornate marble pillars, the gold gilt detailing.
“I could make myself a hundred keys with all this gold,” she says, “and open doors all over the world.”
The BART ride home is a little more crowded than I’d expect it to be for a Saturday afternoon. Holiday shoppers, I suspect. A woman takes the seat next to us, the girlie having elected to sit on my lap, as she had before. It’s impossible not to notice the sweet smile on the woman as she watches my daughter.
I look up and smile at her, and she says, “She looks exactly like my own daughter. Thirty years ago.”
We drop down and enter the tunnel under the Bay, and the girlie’s ears begin to hurt from the slight increse in air pressure. I suggest to her that we pretend to chew and swallow something, to help.
“Gingerbread!” she says, and commences to hold up an imaginary gingerbread person, offering me a bite. We sit and chew and swallow a bit, and at the next juncture when the woman is looking and smiling again, I offer her some of the imaginary gingerbread. She immediately takes it, breaks off little bits, and stuffs them into her ears. The lil’ monkey is delighted.
We begin to talk. She’s in the Bay Area visiting her daughter, who lives in Berkeley and works at an environmental organization. She has lived in a small town in Tuolomne County in the Sierras for the past thirty years, and comes down on the train to visit her daughter. I think about the No on 8 button that’s still on my jacket on the lapel facing her. Her county and mine were mirror opposites of one another on this vote: mine went 38% Yes, 62% No. Hers: 62% Yes, 38% No.
Being in the city is a little unsettling, she says, and especially on such a crowded train. She’s a little worried she won’t know what stop to get off at, and I notice the subway map is obscured by now. Standing room only passengers hang onto the handrail along the roof of the car, swaying from side to side. I describe for her the remainder of her route, that it will end above ground, and the Amtrak transfer is just at the end of the line. By then the car will be vastly thinned. She visibly relaxes.
The lil’ monkey frequently threads herself in and out of my conversation with the woman, who seems to be becoming more charmed by the mile. I tell her my name, and the girlie’s.
“It’s my mother’s maiden name,” I say. “She was the only grandparent in heaven when our daughter was born, so now I get to call my mother’s name whenever I call out for her.”
The woman says the same of her neice. “She has my mother’s name as her middle name.” She says the whole name out, first, middle, last. “My mother died four months ago and I still can’t talk about it.”
I tell her that family members who are no longer here are a big part of my daughter’s life. I withhold reference to my nephew. A half hour’s train ride with a stranger is long enough to talk about my mother, but not nearly long enough even for a reference to a ten year old child lost to brain cancer. There is no passing reference to such a thing, no conversation it does not weight down and absorb.
“I tell my daughter, every time she’s awake late enough to see the stars come out, that the first star we see every night is my mother’s spirit. I tell her how all the stars in the heavens represent all the people no longer on earth, but looking out for ones they love still here. Like the stars, they’re there all the time. But only when we pay careful attention, when enough of everything else is quiet around us, do we see them.”
Again I’m interrupted by the lil’ monkey, and as I attend to her, the woman discreetly wipes at the corner of her eyes. I realize that I didn’t tell her I was sorry for her loss; I realized that I assumed, by her age, that the loss of her mother would take on a more muted kind of sadness. I don’t know it yet – the death of a parent due to old age – but I’m guessing it is different than accidental death, or death from illness or (heaven forbid) violence. I was younger than this woman’s daughter is now when my own mother died. Still, I now wish I had acknowledged it.
The girlie has slithered down to the spot at my feet, impossibly cramped, yet totally engaged in play with the little rabbit we got at the show. I make some disparaging remark about the schmutz on the floor in front of us, and feebly hope no one has affixed gum where her cheek is grazing. Or worse. Not that I can plausibly imagine worse stuff, but I do. Oh, you know, stray razor blades, porn. What have you.
I say, “Someone once told me, and I wholeheartedly believe it now, that you never really have to trust the world around you the way you do when you have children. There’s just so much you can’t control, you know? I can only hope there’s more goodness out there than badness.”
Without missing a beat, and without a trace of doubt, she says, “I think there’s more goodness.”
The train pulls into our station, and I begin to gather up the lil’ monkey and our stuff.
“Have a nice rest of your trip,” I say. I invite the girlie to say goodbye to the nice lady, which, predictably, she does not (by this point her brother would have a fully extended arm, with the scrunchy hand at the end of it, floating out “Goodbye” in his impossibly sweet falsetto). The girlie does wave, though, which is something. I smile at the woman and shrug the shrug of the parent-of-this-kind-of-a-four-year-old. The woman returns the smile, with sympathy. Maybe the resemblance to her daughter goes beyond appearance.
“Happy holidays!” I add, as we make our way to the door. “You, too,” she says. And regardless of how she voted and why, I know she means it.
[next in this marraige equality series: Some/thing old]