Holiday memories: a Nutcracker Christmas
The year was 1945. I was a first grader at Zimmerman school in Flint, Mich. I remember as though it were yesterday.
My teacher, Miss Patterson, asked the girls to come up in front of the class, to use our imaginations and walk like live dolls. We were not to copy each other. Looking at each other quizzically, we proceeded to do as she had asked. I stood there for a moment, my mind a blank, and watched the other girls trying their ideas. One of the girls put her legs and arms straight out and marched the goose-step. I thought she was the best. I came up with two hops on one foot and two hops on the other, concentrating with the utmost sincerity, wanting so much to please my teacher.
She watched for a few moments, then asked if we would like to be in a play. We looked at each other, surprised, and answered in unison, YES! The play was to be “The Nutcracker Suite.”
That afternoon after school, I ran all the way home, dashed into the house breathless, startling my mother, and announced the news. I was to be in a play and I was to play a doll who comes to life. The play was something about cracking some nuts or something like that. Mother smiled and turned her head for a moment. I hopped for her more times than necessary. She appeared pleased but didn’t say much. She was not demonstrative. I made up for her.
The next day, my bubble was burst. Miss Patterson announced that we would need to furnish our own costumes. I had nine brothers and sisters, an ill father who hadn’t worked for some time, and we were on welfare. There was never money for new clothes, much less a costume which would perhaps be worn only once.
I walked home slowly that day, knowing full well what my mother’s response would be, and I was right. There was no money for a costume or for fabric to make one. Mother announced the facts and then disappeared into the kitchen, discussion over, case closed. I know now that she was more hurt than I.
I went to my room and cried my eyes out. As hard as it was to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be in the play, it was even harder to tell Miss Patterson. I was painfully shy, but I mustered up the strength after class to tell her. She was silent for a moment and then kneeled down, looked me in the eyes and told me that she would like me to rehearse with the others just the same.
I rehearsed for the next week. I know I was not the most creative doll, the goose-stepper was. I looked like I had two broken ankles, but I was the most enthusiastic.
One day during the week, Miss Patterson asked me to accompany her to the gymnasium dressing room, where she pulled out of a brown paper bag something with red and white checks. My breath caught in my throat. The costume had a midriff top and a very short, full skirt, with layers of nylon netting underneath. As if that were not enough, it also had a matching hat with ruffles and a huge red bow that tied under the chin. She put it on me. It fit perfectly. My long braids hung down the front, adding a special touch.
She explained to me that a tap dance student had used it for her recital and offered to loan it to me. The girl remained anonymous. This was not the first time that Miss Patterson had done something special for me. She was always kind, and I adored her.
I informed mother that afternoon. She appeared happy and relieved, but didn’t jump up and down as I had thought she might. I told her she would love the play, and that I was doing good in the rehearsals. She then replied that she would not be able to attend. I stood there for a moment and stared at her, unable to speak (a first for me). She continued with words barely audible to me, explaining that she couldn’t leave my father and there would be none of the older children to help out that particular evening. She reminded me that we had no car, and it was too far to walk in the snow at night. I understood, even with my limited childlike ability to reason, why she couldn’t go. I just couldn’t explain it to my heart. I was too hurt to react. I was quiet the rest of the evening.
The next evening was the play. Miss Paterson picked me up. Mother had curled my long hair in rags, a tedious job she reserved only for special occasions. When we arrived at the school, my freshly pressed costume was brought out and my face was adorned with rouge and lipstick. I felt very beautiful.
I was quivering with excitement. The curtain went up, the music started and the dolls responded with the animation. I hop-hopped across the stage, smiling from ear to ear, exposing my gapped teeth and bony knees.
The play went perfect, and at the end, we came stage front to greet the enthusiastic applause. I was so busy gazing at the audience, I came dangerously close to the edge and almost fell off. Thank goodness, I didn’t, but if I had, there would have been someone there to catch me. Standing there in the front, just to the left of the stage, smiling proudly was my mother. I smiled, wrinkling my entire face. I was overwhelmed with love for her.
The girl who loaned me the costume most likely wouldn’t remember, but I will never forget. Her generosity, Miss Patterson’s kindness and my mother’s loving effort made the evening one of my fondest Christmas memories.
Merry Christmas to everyone.
Judi Hartwick is a part-time student at Western Nevada Community College with an emphasis in art and English. She has lived in Carson City for 10 years. She is married with two children and three grandchildren.