Becoming a Grown Up
Pretty much anyone who has ever read a number of folk, and/or fairytales can tell you the same thing – two parent homes are in short supply in storyland. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and many far less known heroes and heroines were missing at least one parent. Scholars write that this loss of a mother or a father in stories represents the coming of age of a child, a new beginning and era for them. A time when the people who had guided them were now gone, leaving them as the leaders, the decision makers, in short, the grown-ups. Once again, the ancients who told, than wrote these timeless tales, had figured out, and expressed, something modern man thinks he (or she) is only now discovering. Namely, to quote I don’t remember who, but somebody who said, “No matter how old a person is, they are not a grown up, until they have lost a parent.”
I began thinking of my parent’s mortality about 12 years ago, when my father had the first of several strokes. Over night, or so it seemed to me, my dad went from hale and healthy, and permanently middle-aged, to sickly, frail, and a senior citizen. My mother, strong, and as full of life force as her mother (who lived into her 90’s) had been, took on an “elderly” look to me as well. But, in my life, since the time I was fourteen, there was another “parent” around, Mr. Gus Dick Andros – ballet teacher extraordinaire. Six weeks younger than my real dad, Mr. A (or Sir to his face, and the Old Man, behind his back)was “that” teacher to me. You know, the one who sees in you, what nobody else guessed was there, the one who believes in you, even before you believe in yourself, the one who’s approval comes to mean so very much to you, that you break your back to do them proud – Mr. A was that to me. In story-speak he was the wise man that the heroine meets at the side of the road while she is wandering lost. It’s he, who puts her on the right path, and gives her a gift that will take her far.
As my ballet teacher at the High School of Performing Arts I saw him five days a week, and hung on his every word and correction. His tricky combinations of steps fired up my brain, and taught me that I could pick up steps faster than most anyone else around me. I knew I wasn’t the best dancer in the room, not even close, but Mr. A rewarded my love of dance and performing, as well as my hard work, and discipline, and told stories of a dance world that was broader than just the classical ballet island I was obsessed by. He opened my eyes to what being a professional performer was really all about, and encouraged me to take the leap, and go for it.
All through my high school years, I studied with him during school hours, and weekends and evenings, too. And, after graduation, that pattern continued, if I wasn’t off performing, or in a rehearsal, I was in his class, day after day, week after week, year after year, literally growing up there. He would jokily refer to me as his daughter, and he even once told a HUGE lie to an old high school girlfriend, saying that I was his illegitimate child – a product of an affair he had with another dancer while he was doing a production of the musical “Showboat”!
But, unlike my birth parents, Mr. A, didn’t seem to grow old to me. My dad would shake his head in wonder as I would proudly tell him that Mr. A, at 60, 70, and 80 was still doing what he loved more than anything – teaching ballet. Sure, he used a cane, now, and he said during the weekends all he did was sleep, but, like a child – like his child, I didn’t see that the end of his story was looming. When his diagnosis of acute leukemia came in mid-October, I remember feeling like my stomach dropped into my feet, followed by a big old blanket of denial and disbelief. It was only in the last two weeks of his life last month that I really and truly felt that he was actually dying.
And so I find myself, like all those characters who tales I recount time and time again, starting off on a path without my guiding force at my side, without that sense of home, devoid of that someone who would ALWAYS welcome me, and love me when I walked in their door. I find myself, my own leader, my own wise woman, I find myself, at long last, a grown-up.