How You Found Your First Stage

Dear Caroline,

I guess that moment in late August of 1995 is by now chiseled into family legend. You know the moment I mean.

We’re with the Heymanns in Martha’s Vineyard, at the beach, pretty close to the shoreline, and it’s a gorgeous day of vacation for us all. You’re all of six years old, about three months from turning seven, and the cutest water sprite ever born.

In my memory, you tell Don how much you like to sing.

Oh, really? he says.

Yes, you say.

I’ll sing something for you right now.

Well, then, Don says, by all means please do.

And with that, you in your one-piece bathing suit turn to look for a fitting venue. And right near you, as it happens, is a boulder. How perfect! You clamber onto the boulder as if onto an outdoor stage, the dunes behind you, the reeds rustling in the summer breeze, the sky a sublime blue. Don watches you with no small admiration.

You clear your throat, establish your footing and settle in for your performance. And then the big moment: you start to sing. Your selection is “Colors Of The Wind” from the new Disney movie “Pocahontas.”

I’ve heard you sing it all summer, ever since seeing the movie and buying the CD. You’ve sung this song in your room at home and wherever we go. It’s your favorite song. But I’ve never seen you sing it like this, with a boulder as your stage, taking command of your audience. Your rendition is lovely – your pitch perfect, the emotion heartfelt.

And I can see – the best treat of all – the effect you’re having on Don. He’s listening raptly, mesmerized. No doubt he’s thinking, How well she sings, this little six-year-old girl. But no doubt he’s also thinking – as I most certainly thought – how confidently she assumes her makeshift stage. Such stage presence! Such bravura!

I felt so proud. Now, of course, it’s all well and good for me to appreciate your singing. But for me to see someone else appreciate it, someone of taste, is something else again, something special.

Of course I had no inkling back then, 15 years ago this month, what would come next. I had no idea that you would decide to be a singer.

No idea that you would beg Mom to get you singing lessons until she finally gave in.

No idea that you would learn every song from “Phantom of the Opera” backwards and forwards.

No idea that you would learn to sing so well, so purely and powerfully and truly.

No, I really operated without a clue about what lay ahead for you. Little would I ever have suspected that before you turned 20, you would already have performed the lead in “Kismet,” and in “The Mikado,” and with opera companies in Manhattan, in Brooklyn and in the Hamptons. No idea at all.

But you probably knew even then. I’ll bet you saw that boulder as a steppingstone. I’ll bet by the time you finished singing for Don that day, you were already looking for the next boulder to climb.

P.S. – Profile of Caroline in The New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/queens/2010/06/18/2010-06-18_dream_gig_sang_out_loud_overcoming_odds_to_make_her_way_in_the_opera_world.html

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You, Looking Out for Her

Dear Michael,

You originally wanted to take your sister back to the hospital. That’s what you told us after we brought Caroline home.

Mom said OK and started to wheel Caroline out the door.

“Where are you going?” you asked.

“I’m taking your sister back, just as you said you wanted,” Mom said. “But I’ll have to stay with her there.”

You looked at Mom, puzzled. “You’ll have to stay with her?” you asked.

“Oh, yes,” Mom said. “Of course. She’s too little to take care of herself.”

You gave this concept – of your mother leaving you, a five-year-old, to care for your sibling rival – some deep thought.

“Oh, OK,” you said. “She can stay.”

And that was that. Mom was just pretending there, of course. But you were serious.

Other than that incident, though, you’ve always looked out for Caroline. One time you three went to the McDonald’s on Metropolitan Avenue. Caroline went on the ride in the playground that had a long, steep tube to slide down. She climbed into the tube and we awaited her emergence, and then Mom waited some more, wondering whether she was trapped. Finally, you went into the tube to rescue her. Turns out she had just decided to hang out in there without informing anyone. But you coaxed her down, the heroic big brother.

Another time (at band camp), Caroline was little and kicking you in the legs for no apparent reason other than random sisterly malice. You could easily have kicked her back, but you refused. She kicked and kicked, but you kept the peace, declining to retaliate.

Pretty cool.

And so it is with you. You’re always ready to step in for Caroline. No matter what happens, it’s good to know you’ll always be her big brother, watching over her, keeping her safe.

See Me Here, Your Face Says

Dear Caroline,

That’s you in the photo right there. You’re maybe two years old and wearing kind of a court jester outfit, a red jumper with a frilly polka-dot blouse, plus a polka-dot cap. But the outfit, adorable as it is, takes a backseat to the expression on your face.

You’re giving off a little smile, showing just a hint of little teeth, and your eyes are bright and alive. You know the camera is on you. You know it’s a performance. And you’re ready to do your stuff.

Here’s another shot now, this time the camera in close, maybe a foot away from your face. You’re older here, possibly three. You’re smiling again, your eyes wide, your eyebrows raised. You’re connecting with the camera, delivering yourself through the lens. Your face takes up almost the whole photo.

I’m here, your face says, and I’m happy, and you should be happy, too, and – guess what? – I can probably make you happy. All you have to do to be happy, your face says, is to look at my face.

Oh, you know how to play to the camera all right, how to give a performance.

Now we move on to a photo of you with with Grandma in a restaurant, maybe Frost in Williamsburg. She’s seated against a banquette, red linen in the background, with you squarely in her lap, her arms around your waist, her fingers interlocked. She’s holding you as securely as anyone has ever held you.

And you’re smiling so hard, all your teeth showing, you’re almost laughing. Maybe Grandma had said something funny to you, or tickled you, or you simply delighted in occupying her lap, or all three.

Will we ever know?

Does it even really matter?

As always, the photo says it all.

Let’s look at one more shot today (we could go on and on – we have so many photos – but we have to draw the line somewhere). It’s you and me and we’re lying in bed. You might be four or five years old, your face narrower now, more defined. Our heads are propped against some pillows, our faces right next to each other. We’re both looking over to the side at the camera, smiling modest little smiles.

It’s a quiet moment, no teeth showing, a glimpse of contentment. My left arm is wrapped around your back, my left hand on your shoulder, pulling you close. We’re probably just hanging out on a rainy morning in December, in need of nothing else but each other. You’ve got nowhere to go just yet – though of course soon enough you will – and so we’re just savoring our time together.

See me here, your face says. See me here with my Daddy. My Daddy loves me. My Daddy loves me with all his heart forever and ever.

Little Boy Playing Roles: Part 2

On through the photos we go, each sharing a clue or two. The photos show you trying on different identities.

Here you’re on your tricycle with red handlebar grips. You look somehow adventurous, as if you’re ready to pedal really fast and take turns tight and maybe pop a wheelie. You’re ready to be the next Evel Knievel, ready to go all Vin Diesel.

There you’re dressed as – holy crap! – Batman himself. Maybe it was Halloween. You’re all in black – black pants, black shirt, black cape, black mask with eyeholes. Your shirt bears the Batman ensignia, the bat silhouetted against a yellow backdrop.

But look now: you appear to be signaling toward us. You’re crouched forward, your head turned to the side, one eye visible and looking right at us, your left hand raised with palm out traffic-cop style. Maybe you’re ready to spring into action and save Gotham. Maybe you’ve already arrived on the scene for your big rooftop showdown with the Joker.

Whatever the case, you’re playing the hero here. And looking fully up to the job.

In that same vein, another photo shows you, all of maybe four years old, flexing your torso. You arms are out at your sides, bent at the elbow, your chest bare. Your face is a game face, all business.

I am the mightiest of the mighty, you seem to be saying here. Mess with me at your peril!

You look pretty fit here, your chest solid and your belly tight, but you’re still a few years away from being Hercules. Still, a child must dream, must fantasize, must flex the imagination along with the biceps, and here you’re doing just that. You’re all set to be larger than life.

In another photo, maybe a year or so later – you’re taller, more angular now – you’re again captured in a solo posedown. You stand before the camera, right arm upraised, left arm across your chest, your hands clenched into fists. I’m seated at the dining room table just behind you, acting agog at this display of raw testosterone.

I’ll close now with just one more photo. It shows you in a yet another role you loved to play: grandson. Grandma stands behind you, bending forward, almost cheek to cheek with you. Your head is tilted to the left to accommodate hers, her hand over your shoulder. Your eyes appear half-closed, as if you’re in a state of joy – the joy of safety and security and affection. Grandson was an identity you wore well, and wear to this day.

But wait! What’s this? The photo has another person in it. You’re gripping a shopping cart bearing a small child. It’s your sister Caroline. She’s there, too, maybe a year old. The photo says so much. Here’s Grandma behind you, just as she always would be. But here, too, as a bonus, is you behind Caroline, and you’re all ready to try on yet another identity. Big brother.

A Little Boy, On Camera, Playing Roles

Dear Michael,

There you are again in a photo. You’re at my typewriter, my Smith-Corona Selectric, unsheathed from its plastic cover. It’s the typewriter my parents gave me as a present for high school graduation.

You’re seated at my white Formica desk, in Apartment 6U in Building One, with your left hand on the keyboard and your right hand pointed toward the camera, palm down, fingers straight out, as if to mime the act of typing.

Look at me, you might be saying here. I’m a writer, too, just like Daddy.

The photo is a foretelling. You’re smiling here, pretty proud of yourself there at the desk. Had you already known yourself to be a writer, even then, or maybe suspected as much?

It’s one of those it-was-meant-to-be kind of photos. Your first moments at the keyboard. You’re all of two-and-a-half years old, your cheeks still round, your biceps soft.

In retrospect, it seems, an early indication of intent. But who knows? Maybe you were just a kid playing grownup.

Now we see you in a photo on the phone – or, rather, holding a phone to your face, probably no one on the line. Again, you’re playing grownup, making like you’re carrying on a big-person conversation. You’re wearing a white shirt — it’s riding up high enough on your shoulders to expose your belly – and sneakers with white socks.

But look now at how you’re sitting. You’re reclining, almost lying down, a grin on your face, the phone in your right hand held just under your chin, but for some reason that defies logic, your bare legs are thrust in the air, bent at the knee, your left hand tucked under your sneaker.

Again, maybe this position represented your early concept of how people talked on the phone: legs up in the air. It flouts propriety bigtime. Ah, well, you’re only about three here, and obviously tickled to be on camera pulling this little stunt.

Look at me! I’m on the phone! With my legs up in the air!

P.S. — Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

“Read to Me,” She Said

Dear Caroline,

You’re still only a few years old, your face still round and soft, and I’m reading a book to you. It’s probably the Berenstain Bears I’m reading because Mom bought so many of those.

We’re lying on your bed, you snuggled on my chest, and I’m reading you the story, maybe the one about too much birthday. I’m turning the pages and you’re looking at the pictures and hearing me say the words.

I can feel your breath on my neck, whiff your scent, see your eyes blink as you listen, utterly absorbed in the Berenstains.

We went like that for years, sometimes sitting on the sofa in the living room, other days elsewhere. We sailed through the whole Berenstains oeuvre, and who knows which other books.

“Shall I read you something?” I would ask, usually at night, right after dinner.

Usually you said, “Yes, read to me.”

The readings gave you a sense of story, of language, and took us beyond the apartment, into another dimension. You might ask me about an unfamiliar word or about why something happened in a story.

You loved the Berenstain Bears; the books always seemed to be about too much this or too much that. I read to you regularly for years, and it all went into your eyes and ears, all those words and pictures, unleashing your imagination.

Later, we graduated to the great E.B. White, to “Stuart Little” and “Trumpet of the Swan” and, of course, “Charlotte’s Web.” You were older then, maybe seven or eight, and bigger, too, taking up more space in my arms.

But it made no difference. I read to you all the same, read to you about the pig and the spider, chapter after chapter, night after night, until we finished three weeks later.

Mostly I remember how close the readings brought me to you, the intimacy of it, sharing a book with my daughter, reading it together. By then you could read on your own, but you seemed no less glad for me to read to you, and I was pleased to do it.

No doubt it served us both well. It gave me the chance to give you something of value, a love of reading. And you took it all in, all the words and pictures, making a world of your own.

The books came alive to you, and today you read still, widely and with hunger, novels, biographies, histories. And you tell stories so well, too, with a real sense of the beginning, middle and end, the logic of drama, the joys of narrative.

You can really see the connection between then and now, how it made a difference. It’s hard to say which of us came away from those readings, those special moments, the most rewarded.

Why Barfing is No Fun for Anyone

Dear Michael,

You often protested being put in your crib as a baby to go to sleep at night. No sooner would Mom lay you down, in your eggshell-blue pajamas, than you might start to cry. We would retreat to our bedroom and cross our fingers that you might soon cry yourself to sleep.

But instead you would cry and cry, louder and louder, expressing your deep dissatisfaction with your parents and the general injustices of the universe. We would lay in bed with our eyes wide, wincing at every wail.

Then you might start coughing, a hacking cough, that would turn into gagging, and we would hear you retch, once, twice, three times. Oh, you had done it again. You had pulled that cute stunt you liked to pull.

You had vomited.

Many a night you carried out this little trick, crying so hard, upsetting yourself so much, that finally you would throw up. We would know as soon as we heard the gagging that you might do it again, and the retching usually told us that you already had. We would come in as the clean-up crew.

It would really stink. Often Mom had to give you a bath and change the sheets.

Now, nobody is saying you vomited on purpose just to stay up and get our attention. Clearly something was bothering you a lot. But what? Was it having two parents and a grandmother who adored your very being? Was it our spacious apartment? Was it our financial security? Give me a clue here. We never even came close to figuring it out.

And I have to level with you. All that puking was a drag. But let me tell you this: if Mom ever complained – about changing the sheets, about the extra laundry, about your protesting and your seemingly willful vomiting – I missed it.

But then, that’s your mother for you. In all the years I’ve known her – it’s 33 now – she’s never done anything less than exactly what she’s needed to do. As for your nocturnal upchucking, eventually you stopped, and it came as no small relief to us both. You had learned to go to sleep without making a fight out of it. You had discovered that maybe going to sleep surrounded by love and security was really none too hard after all.