I went with my daughter and husband to the ballet last night. The Moscow Ballet was in town to perform none other than the great Russian Nutcracker, and it was fabulous.
I’ve only been to one other classical ballet, a few years ago — that time to see the St. Louis Ballet perform the same program. I don’t know whether this says I’m not much of a ballet aficionado, or whether it says I love the Nutcracker. Probably the latter, because Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was the very first piece of classical music I cataloged in my memory bank, at about age four or five.
My dad was sitting in a chair next to the hi-fi when I approached. The sounds emanating from the living room had captured my interest and I stood there listening with him for a bit.
“This is some of the most beautiful music in the world,” he murmured, informing the new audience of one. His eyes closed and his head tilted back as the rapturous music played. Meanwhile, I became intrigued by the cover art on the record jacket propped against the hi-fi cabinet.
“This is The Nutcracker Suite. Composed by Tchaikovsky,” noticing my interest in the picture. (Dad was known to talk above my head, but I think that trait always encouraged me to get up to speed on things.) To my young eyes, that nutcracker dude on the record jacket looked mildly sinister, but I couldn’t deny the captivating beauty of the melodies I was hearing.
“This part is called the Waltz of the Flowers,” he said, waving a hand in time with the 3-4 beat. I especially loved that tune with its gorgeous french horns. A couple of other favorite parts were the Dance of the Reed Flutes, and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I would hear these strains again and again, as Dad played them frequently on the hi-fi, and their appeal never faded.
Something dawned on me as I listened to the Nutcracker yet again last night. The suite’s various segments highlight many different orchestra instruments, but the selections that have always captured my fancy all featured very treble instruments, most notably, the flute. Which presents a which came first, the chicken or the egg sort of question: did my attraction to these melodies in this, my very first classical piece, influence my affinity for the flute? Or did I previously have a sweet spot for the the flute’s sound, which is what drew me to these selections? Who knows.
My dad was too engrossed in the music to relate the story line of Nutcracker the Ballet that day. I would later learn about a Christmas Eve celebration, a little girls’s dream, and toys coming to life, which all seemed pretty far-fetched to me. I mean, really? That scary nutcracker dude becomes a prince? I don’t think so.
Confession: there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the make-believe stories I rejected as a kid, and those I embraced. I just know that I didn’t much care for many of the classic children’s stories (one big exception being The Wizard of Oz — which I read and reread). But then I might go ga-ga over some obscure fairy tale in a library book I dragged home from school.
Like one I discovered in fourth grade: The Tale of Mrs. Nutter. (Never heard of it? Why am I not surprised…) Oh, how I loved the title character in this little story! She was a Thumbelina-sized woman who lived in the woods, was friends with the woodland creatures, and used a walnut shell for a boat to float down the stream. That’s about all I can remember, although I do recall that she met with and overcame some dangerous obstacles. I renewed the book as many times as the teacher would let me, I enjoyed it so much. One day, my mom asked what I was reading.
“It’s a story about this little woman who’s so small she would fit in the palm of your hand. Her name is Mrs. Nutter, and she lives in the woods.”
“Wow, that’s a pretty fanciful story, isn’t it? Why do you think you like to read books about imaginary things that could never really happen?”
Well, now, why did I? I didn’t really have an answer. I just knew that I did. But only sometimes. If the story struck my fancy. But Mom’s question got me wondering, so when it was time to check out another library book, I decided to get one a more sensible one. Maybe all that make-believe stuff was for little girls. So I brought home a book all about horses. And for what seemed like weeks and weeks, I’d come home from school every day and draw pictures of horses. For-real horses. Scads of them. (Go ahead, ask me about withers and “hands”…)
All the while, the image of a little person as big as your thumb never completely left my imagination. I day-dreamed about how wonderful it would be to have a secret companion like tiny Mrs. Nutter. I mean, wouldn’t it be neat to take her to school with you and she could stay in your pocket and no one would know. You could even break off tiny bits of your peanut butter sandwich and sneak them to her — I mean, a raisin would be a veritable feast! And in the privacy of your bedroom you’d have this confidante to discuss all the stuff that a girl needs to talk about.
Well, time wore on, and gradually the idea of a Mrs. Nutter friend sort of fell off my radar. I didn’t think of having a tiny little buddy for years. But apparently, she never completely disappeared, because one day, not all that long ago, she sprang to life again in the chapters of a children’s book I wrote. A tiny little friend comes to live with a young girl who, as it just so happens, has things she needs to talk through.
As soon as I finish the rest of the illustrations (one day soon, I hope), I’ll be able to give the book to my granddaughter.