“I don’t buy cartoons for Valentine’s, you know that,” I said, standing in the kitchen. Hugo snatched up my hands in his and lifted them up as though he were going to kiss my fingers. Instead, he began running in place, giving my hands little squeezes to punctuate his points.
“No, but wait, wait, The Book of Life is both a love story and a musical. And…it’s really, really good, and you loved it too!” he said in the little-kid voice he uses when he wants something from me. “Please, please, please? Oh, and, uh, guess who’s never seen it? Go ahead, guess!”
“Oh, that poor girl,” I said knowing exactly whom he meant, “What has she seen? Anything?”
“Nope, nothing important. Not until me.”
Hugo, who might categorize such things with different criteria, is in his first serious relationship. Soon after he and his young lady became an item last fall, Hugo started steadily showing her all his favorite movies, many of them past Valentine’s gifts, including Across the Universe, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and last year’s mold-breaker (because it’s not a musical but, oh, so wonderful), About Time.
I took Hugo’s argument under serious consideration, as I have in the past, but perhaps more so this year. For next year, with any luck, Hugo will not be here; he will be off at college training his already lovely baritone to perform on professional stages. Yes, our Valentine’s tradition of giving the kids a DVD of a (usually classic Hollywood) musical will continue and, as has been the case with his older brother, Claude, I am sure Hugo will return home each year and view the latest love story. But it’s different when they are living mostly away at school and this one, Hugo, particularly needs to go to a college somewhere far enough away that he can’t pop over and do his laundry on the weekends. Or beg me to do it for him.
But it is not only Hugo who will transition this year. Max and I try to find ways to bind our two little children’s experiences with those of the big boys, which isn’t always easy given the nine-year gap between Jules, the third child and Leif, the fourth. That is why we decided, among other reasons, to send Leif to the Waldorf school when he was three (and had finally potty trained), the earliest the school accepts preschoolers. For two years, Leif and Jules have been schoolmates, sharing the same rituals and traditions, including making Valentines for all their classmates and teachers.
Jules was six months old when I first enrolled Claude and Hugo at the Waldorf school in January of 2001 and we began making the 70-mile round trip drive from our home in downtown Cleveland to the school, doing so for three school years before moving to Akron. Rather than drive 140 miles each day by going home and returning, I stayed in Akron most days, often volunteering at the school. With Jules in a baby backpack, I helped prepare and serve the once-a-week hot lunch. When he was older and could walk and follow instructions, toddler Jules was my assistant, passing out napkins and silverware to the “big kids” in the preschool/kindergarten class.
At our Waldorf school the students stay with the same teacher from grades one through eight. Now in the eighth grade, Jules and all his classmates have been together since kindergarten, the only exception being a child who joined them at the beginning of first grade. Next year, as we do not have a Waldorf high school, these kids will enroll in at least five different schools with only one child possibly joining Jules at Firestone High School. Rather than making his Valentines as he has always done, this year Jules bought a box of notecards. He wanted to write something to each of his classmates because Jules has recognized, somewhat suddenly with this sweet holiday, that a large part of his childhood, really his entire life thus far, is formally ending.
Knowing When Love Is Real
There I was, all last fall I telling Hugo, Research schools and apply now. I cajoled him, Just think of all the cool places you could go next year! I explained ad infinitum the benefits, If you start applying now we can have this all done by winter break! And I threatened punishment if he did not apply to some freaking colleges already, with absolutely no results. Then, in late November, his vocal coach told him to apply to the Eastman School of Music. For those of you who don’t know, like me until a few months ago, the Eastman School of Music is on the same level as music schools such as Oberlin, Indiana University, and Juilliard; it’s a “reach” school. Yet once some other, non-related, adult told Hugo to apply to this vaunted college, he was like, “Oh, sure, no problem, I’ll get right on that.” Thanksgiving weekend, while the rest of us were with Grandma and Grandpa in northern Michigan, Hugo stayed home and recorded a DVD with the help of his vocal instructor, filled out the application, wrote the essays and sent it all off to Eastman. A month later, we learned he had passed the pre-screening and was invited to audition. And somehow this also inspired Hugo to go ahead and apply to five more schools over the holiday break. Note to self: This boy always pulls important stuff out of his butt last minute. Your adrenal glands will thank you for not worrying next time he procrastinates.
I drove Hugo to Rochester the night before the audition in the midst of a severe snowstorm. With much of Interstate-90 down to one lane, I stayed behind semi-trucks when I could because, in the rapidly accumulating snow, they laid down a set of tire tracks I could follow. What should have been a four-hour drive took more than six even though we did not stop once until we arrived at our hotel. In the quiet disorder of the unplowed parking lot, the cars looked tumbled about as though tossed like fistfuls of dice. I stepped out of the driver’s seat of our car and when I pushed on my spine and twisted, it sounded like someone opening a tent’s heavy-gauge zipper.
“Look,” I told Hugo while we were still driving through Pennsylvania, “It’s a long shot, both getting into Eastman and getting the money we’d need. But here’s the thing, it’s your first audition, so you can tell the rest of the schools that you auditioned at Eastman and they’ll know that meant you made it through the pre-screening. And besides, it’s good practice auditioning at a place like that.”
The next morning, the drive to the audition was as dismal as the night before. Snow still fell heavily and we were running late. Two minutes after I pulled onto the freeway outer belt surrounding Rochester, a cop pulled me over. And gave me a ticket. The Eastman School of Music fully occupies one city block in downtown Rochester. I pulled up to the main entrance and Hugo jumped out of the car. The moment he walked into the auditorium, he told me later, the dean of the school began speaking. By the time I had parked the car, walked over and found Hugo, the dean was gone, replaced on stage by a jazz quartet. When they stopped playing, the applicants were separated from their parents.
When did we each first feel it? I can’t say. Maybe immediately. Certainly when we met for coffee an hour after he had left the auditorium with the other students. Eastman is the place for Hugo. Nowhere else have I ever seen this boy—the one who daily pounded on the window of his daycare while sobbing when I dropped him off, who was horribly misfit in his Waldorf class only to feel abandoned when he transferred to our city’s public middle school for the arts and who eagerly wants to be done with high school—completely in his element. And although he was giddy, he remained centered, if not surprisingly relaxed, when his ability to read music was tested and faculty members interviewed him. More excited than nervous, Hugo took me with him to warm up in a small soundproof room with a piano. I rubbed his neck and shoulders and listened to him go through the three pieces he’d prepared. Then we waited in the green room.
“Can I see him perform?” I asked a graduate student after Hugo had been led onstage.
“No, but you can hear him through the crack between those doors,” he told me, pointing to a set of doors that were an exit from the first row of the auditorium. I pressed my ear to the crack only to jump back when the woman who had introduced Hugo pushed the door open on her way back to the green room. And for a brief moment, seconds only, I saw Hugo onstage, smiling and singing as if there was nothing he would rather be doing, which, on any day, there isn’t. How did he do? If he does not get into Eastman, then it was not meant to be for there is nothing he could have done better at any moment that day.
And This Year’s Movie Is…
Each year before purchasing my Valentine movie for the boys, I check for a film I love so much I have (without their knowledge) never let them see the more famous remake. And while I have a few, this film stars one of my all-time favorite actresses, Irene Dunne. She of crackling wit with Cary Grant in the films The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, both of which are said to have been largely improvised. Not a comedy, however, the movie I have sought for years, with no luck, as it remained unavailable on video or DVD, is the epic musical, Show Boat.
A success on Broadway, the Kern and Hammerstein musical boldly deals with issues of race, who can legally marry, and single-motherhood and is as timely today as when it was released in 1936. Reviving the role she played on Broadway, Helen Morgan, with her dusky voice, plays the “passing as white,” mixed-race star of the show boat. Morgan’s own life was no less tragic than that of her most memorable role and she died of cirrhosis five years after the film was released. But if that is not enough to invite anyone to watch this early film version of Show Boat, the chance to listen to actor Paul Robeson sing “Ol’ Man River” should be enough. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, including Paul Robeson being blacklisted for his affiliation with communism, the original Show Boat was entirely unavailable from 1940 until 1983. I have only seen it twice myself at special showings in repertory theaters, the last time being many years ago. But with love comes faith and as I again looked up this film last week on Amazon, I hooted with delight to find it is now available on DVD. I ordered it immediately.
Not only to please Hugo, my next fledgling, I also ordered The Book of Life for even though this Guillermo del Toro production is a cartoon, like last year’s film, it is as much a movie about the love of family, friends, and place as it is about lovers.
Now, please, go find someone to hug. Or watch movies. Or both. Happy Valentine’s Day!