Aunt Adele’s Easter Pageant
Well, anyway, that’s how I remembered her words. And she also said something about me being a good dancer. How in the world could she know that? I never danced in my life; after all I was only a few months away from my life on the farm with grandma and grandpa. They were very strict Lutherans and they said dancing was the act of the devil.
Mom had died in an awful accident the previous year of 1941, having been hit by a skidding milk truck on an icy stretch of highway in front of our farm home, leaving me to be raised briefly by grandma and grandpa, and I don’t think they ever liked me. Grandpa called me a sissy and other nasty names, and I guess I must have been since I really seemed not strong enough to do many of the farm chores to his liking. Grandma tried to defend me, but in that strict household, what grandpa said went.
So just about Thanksgiving time, I went to live with my Aunt Adele, and she was really a different lady. Some people called her eccentric, since she ran about the neighborhood dressed in all sorts of exotic clothes, like the clothes I saw some women wear in Paris on the pages of Life Magazine. Aunt Adele also ran a dance studio, and that’s how I met Wanda, who was 12 years old — the same as me. Wanda, you see, was one of the dancers in Aunt Adele’s dance group, and I went along to help her set up the program and assist her with the little girls who made up the group. Besides, I also set up the music by running the phonograph and I didn’t miss a cue, either, for that performance.
Since then, I couldn’t get Wanda out of my mind. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t feel anything like romance; I was only 12, and really very innocent about all those types of things.
But you see, Wanda was skinny with flowing blonde hair, and I was also skinny with blonde hair, too, though not as long as Wanda’s. Still I probably should have had a haircut since some people mistook me a girl sometimes.
And, Wanda and I were about the same height. I remember helping her button up her ballet costume at the Christmas pageant; I had helped out with many of the girls in that way, since Aunt Adele really needed the help.
“You look like an angel in that dress,” I told Wanda after I buttoned her up for the performance.
“I love the dress, too,” she told me. She even did a little pirouette for my benefit. The dress of white gauzy material with a petticoat undergarment flowed out in pleats from the hips. It featured puffy over-the-shoulder wide straps and a square bodice. As she spun while dancing, the dress flared out showing her white slender legs.
Well, then strange thoughts kept flowing into my head almost every night while I tried to go to sleep. I’d toss and turn in bed and wonder: “Could I look as pretty as Wanda if I had such a dress?” That’s what I wondered about almost every night since then.
Often, I’d look in the mirror in my nice bedroom — and it really was very nice and very, very feminine room having been decorated for guests — and imagine myself in that dress. “I’d be so pretty,” I told myself often. And just as strangely, I’d tell myself I’d be prettier than Wanda, which really wouldn’t be too hard, since Wanda was kind of a plain looking girl, and she was always so pale, too. “Yes,” I’d agree with myself in my musings, “I’d be lots prettier.”
Just then I’d realize how ridiculous that was. After all, I was a boy, wasn’t I?
I don’t know what happened exactly, but Wanda and I sort of became like brother and sister, except we never fought, as I’ve seen other brothers and sisters fight in the family. We were always together, she either came over to Aunt Adele’s after school or on Saturdays, or I’d go to her house.
Actually, more often, we were playing at her house, just a block away, and her mom seemed to want it that way.
“This neighborhood’s kind of rough,” Mrs. Linkfuss said one day when I suggested Wanda could come over the next afternoon so we could play around in the ballroom.
“I don’t like Wanda coming home in the dark. After all she’s a girl.”
I had to kind of laugh at that, although I didn’t really laugh; that would have been rude. But Mrs. Linkfuss was right — it was dark by 4:30 during the winter months, and the toughs from St. Rose’s always like to chase kids, particularly girls. I don’t know what it was about those Catholic school boys; they always seemed rough, lots rougher than us public school boys. Well, that’s what it seemed like to me, anyway.
But what seemed funny to me then was that I, too, was scared of those boys; they seemed so nasty and big, too. Ours was largely an Irish neighborhood, and the Catholic kids had a sort of scruffy look, like they never took a bath or washed their faces. That left the Lutheran kids (and whatever kids were in the neighborhood) to go to the public school. The one thing I learned from mom and my grandma, too, was to be clean, not like the St. Rose kids.
In truth, I’d seen Wanda get into a scrape with a couple of older boys at school one day, and she sent them packing. She was a feisty one, she was, and far tougher than I could ever hope to be.
“I’m sorry we don’t have many boy toys and things for you to play with, Terrence,” Mrs. Linkfuss said, adding, “But, if you’d like you can bring over some stuff of your own.”
“Oh that’s OK Mrs. Linkfuss, this is fun, too.”
“Well, honey, I know boys don’t often like to play with girl stuff, but remember, you can bring some of your own toys around if you wish.”
I blushed. Little did Wanda’s mother realize that one of the joys of playing with Wanda was that we could play with her dolls, look at some of the books she had (like the Nancy Drew series) or sometimes play “house.” Usually, we’d do our homework together, and when we’d get bored we’d get into a mock fight and maybe roll around on the floor together, wrestling.
“See I pinned you again, Terry,” Wanda would say, after she’d nail me to the ground.
“Oh I can’t fight all out against a girl,” I’d say in defense of myself, but that was a lie I knew. Wanda knew I was lying, but she was too good a friend to argue with that, not wanting to humiliate me.
My real name was Olaf Terrence Michaelson, but no one ever used Olaf to address me, except in school, at the beginning of each school year when I’d had to correct the teacher and say firmly, “My name is Terrence.” Olaf was my great grandfather’s name, and he had established the family farmstead in Wisconsin after he emigrated from Norway just before the Civil War. Olaf Michelsson had become kind of a family icon for his pioneering spirit, and I guess since I was the first born of a new generation of the family and the family felt they needed to carry on his name.
How would you like to be Olaf? So Terrence it was, named after my mother’s Irish father.
I was always called Terrence up on the farm, but it seemed my Aunt Adele and Wanda, along with the few friends I was slowly developing since in Milwaukee, began calling me “Terry.” And that was sort of nice, I thought. “Terry.” It soon dawned on me that “Terry” could be either a boy’s name or a girl’s name.
My favorite gift at Christmas had been a Shirley Temple doll. My Aunt Adele knew I cherished the gift before Santa was to come. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still didn’t believe in “Santa;” my gosh, I was 12, after all!
In a way, Aunt Adele was my “Santa.” She rescued me from my unhappy existence with my strict and unforgiving grandparents and offered me a warm and friendly home after my mother’s sudden death. Most of all, however, she offered me her unquestioning love, shown often through her warm hugs and attention to my needs. She would never replace my mom, but no one ever would.
Aunt Adele understood me. That was so marvelous. She seemed to know that I was not like other boys. Not at all. She treated me as if I was a girl. I liked that.
There were a couple of reasons for that, I guess. First of all, I didn’t object when she gave me her “guest room” as my bedroom when I moved in, even though it was decorated for a woman, all light pinks and blues and with lacy curtains and bedclothes. Then, she caught me in a pink ballet dress that I was trying on from among the supply of dance clothes she had stored in a huge closet in my bedroom.
I guess that’s when she started calling me “Terry.” And, she said I could wear dresses whenever I was home, but that I had to ask her permission first.
“I don’t want you ever to sneak about, Terry,” she warned me. “It’s fine with me if you want to look like a pretty little girl ‘cause you really do look pretty in those dresses.”
“Yes, Aunt Adele.”
“If you’re going to do something, do it proudly,” she said. “Proclaim it to the world. Let them see how pretty you can be.”
I remember blushing when she told me this. But that was Aunt Adele. She was really a great woman.
Of course, this being 1942 — a time when our nation was at the beginning of a War that we weren’t sure would end very good — there was little chance that I’d be proclaiming to the world that I loved being a pretty girl. It was still a time when anyone with such desires was thought to be a weirdo or a “pervert” or a “homo.” There were always stories of a neighborhood weirdo who liked to steal women’s underthings from clothes lines. I certainly didn’t want to be anyone of the “those people.”
I never wanted to lie to Aunt Adele. She deserved my honesty since she loved me so. I was so happy to have her protecting me. So I stifled my desires to put on the dresses that hung in my closet. But I’d think about them almost every night as I climbed into my perfume-scented bed. I dreamed I was a princess awaiting my Prince Charming.
I couldn’t believe how big Wisconsin Avenue School was when I entered. The halls seemed so long and went on forever, and there were so many kids around. This was so different than my old school, Tippecanoe School District #4. There were only two rooms in the school, one for kids in the first through fourth grades and the others for grades five through eight. And there were never anymore than six kids at my grade level in the school. There I had become known as “Miss Terry,” for my girlish mannerisms and total ineptitude in sports. In that rural area, sports were very important and since there weren’t many boys around, I had to play on the school’s baseball team. Naturally I was placed in right field, where I performed abysmally, shying away from fly balls and letting them drop, in fear I’d drop them. Then, when I threw them back to the infield, the throws were short and woefully off target.
“You throw like a girl,” my tormentor in that school, Billy Gustafson, yelled one day. So from then on I was “Miss Terry.”
So it was with a mixture of relief and fear that I entered the 7th Grade at Wisconsin Avenue School in the dark winter of 1942. I could start fresh, without the name of “Miss Terry” hanging about my neck. I was scared, too, about the mean and nasty “city kids” that I had been told existed in the big cities. How would I fit in?
Actually, as I soon found out, the city kids weren’t so bad; best of all, there was no boy like Billy Gustafson, my tormentor at old Tippecanoe School, around to beat me up. For the most part, the boys ignored me, sticking in their own groups and seemingly always pushing each other around in playful shoves and trips. I don’t think I wanted to do that stuff.
Since I walked too and from school with Wanda, the only student I knew in school, it seemed only natural to start hanging around with her friends, who were all girls. Her friends were always so nice to me, but I soon realized they weren’t among the prettiest girls in school. Nancy and Carol were both still carrying the chubby fat of adolescence and Marjorie was tall and gawky (several inches taller than me) and she had lots of pimples and a swarthy complexion.
They were all in my English class, and I could tell right on that they were among the smartest kids in the class. It happened in the second week of school that Miss Elliott, the English teacher, gave us an assignment to write a book report on any book we had read (or could read in the next week).
“Now, young people,” she said. “I wanted it to be a book you particularly liked, maybe even one you consider to be your favorite. Then write and tell ‘why’ you liked it. Don’t just say it was ‘good,’ but write about what you found that made it so good.”
I remember doing a stupid thing then, raising my hand with a question. “Yes, Terrence,” she said, taking my question.
“Can I write about a play I read and liked?”
“A play? I guess, if it’s something you read. Yes, you may. What play?”
“Hamlet,” I answered without thinking.
I could all of a sudden hear the room snicker. What was so funny about a boy interested in Shakespeare? That bothered me; the snicker seemed to indicate the rest of the class thought I must be kind of weird.
“Quiet class,” Miss Elliott warned. She was a stern teacher, but she had a ready sense of humor, often seeming to get the most reluctant of students to find interest in English.
“Hamlet’s a story full of action, even killing,” she said, giving it a masculine interpretation, and obviously using the incident as a learning experience, hoping to entice boys into literature.
The class quieted, but I felt strange about the whole affair.
Marjorie, the tall girl, walked with me from class to our Social Studies class, and said, “I think it’s nice you read Hamlet.”
I explained we only had a few books in our house on the farm and one of them was a leather bound version of Shakespeare’s Plays. I told her I read Hamlet several times over, always crying when the distraught Ophelia drowned herself in the river. What I didn’t tell Marjorie was that in my mind I pictured Ophelia in a white chiffon dress floating dead in the water while I stood on the shore crying; always I too in my day-dreaming was wearing a similar dress and looking as fragile and pretty as the Ophelia of my imagination.
“I think I’ll write about ‘Pride and Prejudice,’” Marjorie said. “I liked the book.”
“Oh I read that, too,” I admitted to her. My mom had that book, too, and it came with me to Aunt Adele’s when I moved to Milwaukee.
“You did? And you liked it?”
“Oh yes, and I particularly liked Elizabeth,” I volunteered, referring to the lead character in the book.
“Me too,” Marjorie said. “Gosh, I never knew a boy who read that book.”
I didn’t reply, glad for the warning bell to ring, giving us ten seconds to be in our seats for the next class.
“My girl friends like you,” Wanda said, as we walked home from school a few days later.
I don’t know, but that made me blush for some reason. Maybe it was because I had come to like them too. They had welcomed me without question into their circle, and let me talk and they listened. I found myself giggling with them a lot. Like most smart people, they found lots to laugh at in life, especially those girls who were trying to be all fancy. They called them “princess girls,” and said Serena Stinson was their “queen,” since she was reputed to be the richest kid in the school.
I guess it was kind of snotty talk, but it was all harmless and seemingly good for a laugh. I had my comments, too, and I realized they were just as snarky. Did I like this gossiping, too?
My comments always seemed to deal with the dresses the “princess girls” wore; I always looked at the clothes girls wore. I don’t know why I did that. I just liked looking at their clothes.
“You seem to know lots about dresses, Terry?” Marjorie said one day at lunch after I made a comment that Serena’s dress was the “wrong color” for her light complexion.
“I guess I notice things,” was all I could reply.
Yes, it was obvious, I loved being with the girls.
As the new school year went on, I still didn’t seem to make any friends, beyond Wanda and her coterie. It seemed only natural, then, that I’d get involved in Aunt Adele’s dance classes. She had classes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after school and all day on Saturday.
The Tuesday classes were for kids in grade school and beginners from the higher grades; Wednesday was for junior high school kids and Thursday for high school. All three groups came again on Saturdays, for separate sessions.
Needless to say, there were no boys taking ballet classes , in spite of Aunt Adele’s pleading with the girls to help recruit their brothers or friends to join. Well, one did join for a while, Bruce Wells, a skinny kid (kinda like me) who as a year older than me. He only came twice, but when some of his friends found out, they teased, calling him “Brucey” with a sort of lisp. He was reduced to tears in one encounter that Wanda told me about, and he started crying before running home after school one day.
I did hear some of the boys talking about Brucey in the boy’s room a few days later, saying “he cried like a girl.” I didn’t think that was very nice, but I didn’t say anything.
I started helping Aunt Adele out during her dance classes, making sure I had the record player ready when she wanted music and assisting in adjusting the girls with their dresses and ballet shoes. Aunt Adele kept some spare shoes available, just in case some of the girls tore one open — or, forgot to bring them to class, which happened far more often. Girls were always forgetting something. They seemed rscatter-brained, I thought.
Wanda came for classes on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to noon, and I liked watching her dance. “You dance like a fairy,” I told her one day as class ended.
“Like a fairy?” she replied, a puzzled look on her face, like she didn’t like the comment.
“Well, ah, yes . . . so light and pretty … so like a fairy leaping in the air,” I said, rather sheepishly.
“Oh. You liked it?”
With that she pulled me into her sweaty body, engulfed me with her arms, quickly releasing me. I felt kind of strange, weird, maybe a bit spacey, too. I couldn’t figure out why.
“And Terry,” she said then, “I think you’d dance like a fairy, too.”
“A fairy?” What was she saying? I didn’t know much about all this sex stuff, but I did know about being a “fairy;” that’s what they were calling Bruce, and I didn’t want that.
“Well,” she blushed. “I didn’t mean ‘fairy’ with that meaning.” She emphasized the word “that,” obviously upset that she might have hurt my feelings.
I nodded. She continued:
“I just meant that I’ve seen you helping your Aunt and you seem to have nice light moves, too. I wish you’d start dancing with us. Maybe some other boys will join, too.”
“Oh I couldn’t,” I protested. “Look what happened to Bruce.”
“Think about it,” she pleaded, and left to change her shoes and go home.
In truth, I had been thinking about it a lot, but I guess I was scared, and Bruce’s experience didn’t help any. I really wanted to and auntie had given me a few rudimentary lessons on the proper way to stand and use my feet. Sometimes, I’d prance about the ballroom floor on my own, always wearing ballet slippers because auntie warned me to stay off the polished floor with street shoes on.
Of course, the ballet shoes were white, pink or light blue. Well, girls’ shoes, naturally.
Aunt Adele encouraged me to continue working on my dance steps, and she hugged me after each quick lesson, saying, “You dance beautifully my dear. So natural.”
It was wonderful, truly dreamy to think about soaring in the air between steps, floating my arms as if they were wings and flying high into the blue sky between fluffy wisps of white clouds. Could I fly, like Peter Pan?
“Here, I think you should put these tights on,” Aunt Adele said one day early in February as I was about to do some solo dancing. She handed me the black tights, and I could tell they were brand new. She must have bought them for me.
“Aren’t they for girls?” I asked.
“No, boy dancers wear tights as well, honey.”
She also handed me a pair of white shorts to wear.
Over the winter, Aunt Adele had installed a floor-to-ceiling mirror that ran for perhaps six feet along one wall of the ballroom. She kept it covered with a drape, except during training sessions, when the girls were being taught techniques.
On that February day, a Friday afternoon after school when there were no lessons, I ventured into the ballroom, a frigid place, since auntie kept the heat down, knowing the dancers would quickly warm up once the exercising started. Besides, it was wartime, the President had told everyone to keep the heat down at home to save precious coal, needed for war production in the factories. After putting on the tights, the shorts and the ballet shoes, along with an old practice blouse I found among some discarded clothes in my closet, I proceeded to the ballroom to practice my twists and turns and leaps and leg curls. The drapes were open, exposing the mirror.
As I stood erect, ready to begin dancing, I looked into the mirror. I couldn’t believe it. I looked like one of the girls. Really, I did. Soon I began to twirl and swing my arms about, my longish hair flowing in the wind I created by my twirls. I felt so dainty, so light, so free. It was a lovely feeling.
It wasn’t to last for long, since I soon tired and my legs grew heavy. I was quickly learning how exhausting dancing can be. Could I even keep up with the girls who were in Aunt Adele’s classes?
I stopped, almost collapsing in fatigue, already in a full sweat. As I did, attempting to lower myself onto the floor gracefully, as Aunt Adele had instructed her students, I fell, my legs not strong enough to control the descent. I tumbled in a heap on the floor, certainly not with any grace.
“Oh, Terry, are you hurt?” I heard a high-pitched voice, and look up from my undignified position to see Wanda standing there.
She had rushed to my side, holding a hand so that I could rise. I refused it. I could get up by myself. Then, she stood there and clapped, yelling “bravo, bravo, bravo.”
“What’s going on here?” It was Aunt Adele. She rushed into the room.
“Nothing,” I said. Of course, I knew that was a stupid answer.
“He’s so graceful, Miss Adele,” Wanda said hurriedly. “I saw him finish dancing. He’s so pretty when he dances, ma’am.”
“What?” I was shocked, suddenly realizing my secret was out.
“Yes, honey,” my aunt said. “She just said you dance very gracefully and you do, dear. You’ve got the good qualities of a dancer.”
I stood and starred, my sweat cooling in the cold room. I began to shiver, and Aunt Adele led both of us to a small closet where she produced a pink robe, handing it to me.
“Here put this on, you’ll catch cold otherwise,” she said.
“That?” It was a girl’s robe, obviously.
“Yes, this, put it on. You need to stay warm.”
I was glad I did, the robe was nice a snuggly and warm. Besides it smelled girly, or at least I guess some of the girls who wore it in past left the scent of their sweet soaps lingering on the cloth. I liked the scent.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Wanda.
“She told me when I answered the door, honey, that she and you were going to work on a school project today,” my auntie told me.
I stood there dumbfounded, finally remembering we had discussed doing that. I just forgot. Possibly I was so busy day-dreaming about dancing when we talked about it that it didn’t register. Who knows? I do that sometimes.
Wanda nodded, smiling. Finally she said, “I’m glad I watched you dance, Terry. Don’t you think she . . . ah . . . I mean . . . he should join the dance group, Miss Adele?”
I looked at Wanda. Did she say “she?”
“I’d like him to do just that, Wanda, but it’s up to our Terry here.”
Aunt Adele nodded at me, smiling. Oh, I think I’ve told you before I love my auntie so much; I knew she would not push me to dance. She really meant for me to make up my own mind.
“Come on, Terry,” Wanda pleaded later. “You’re good enough you could be in the corps for the Easter show.”
“There’s no spot for a boy in Aunt Adele’s pageant.” It was a logical response, I thought, and would end Wanda’s continual whining about me joining the dance class.
“I bet Miss Adele could figure out something for you, Terry. You’re good enough.”
“No.” I said that quickly, but maybe not with much conviction in my voice.
“I bet you want to, don’t you, really. Terry.”
“No,” I said, hoping my voice was more convincing.
“Yes, you do,” she said, now beginning to giggle. “I know you want to. Tell me, don’t you want to. Tell me the truth. Criss cross your heart hope to die!”
“No,” I said, again. But then I couldn’t help it. I, too, began giggling with her.
“See you do,” she said loudly in a high girlish squeal.
Of course, I blushed. Oh how I blushed. I blush so easily.
The Easter pageant had become a tradition for the community’s west side area, being held in the huge Eagles Club ballroom on Easter Sunday afternoons, long after the morning festivities of church services and Easter egg hunts. Sponsored by the Eagles, it attracted dance groups, chorales and the civic orchestra. Major politicians, including the mayor, always made it a point to stop by.
Though it wasn’t a competition, there was pressure on the groups to out-shine others, usually in hopes of winning the more honored positions in next year’s program, those being near the end.
“Girls,” Aunt Adele yelled, “Now quiet down and come over here.”
What was my auntie saying, linking me into the girls? I was standing there, too, in my black tights, shorts and lace blouse. Was I being lumped together with all the girls now that I had joined the corps de ballet as we began rehearsing for the pageant? After all, I wore black tights and the girls were in an assortment of pink, peach and white tights.
But I dutifully gathered about her at one end of the ballroom, mixing in with the dozen or so girls, all about my age. I stood with my hands demurely in front of my, one foot forward, in the relaxed ballet position Aunt Adele had taught me. I noticed the others also stood about the same way, except for Judy McQuistion, who chose to sit on the floor in front of the group. Judy always was a bit different.
“Now girls,” Aunt Adele began and I began to wonder why she kept saying “girls,” leaving me out.
“Last year the Metro Dance Club did better than my girls,” she said. “So they will be dancing last and we’ll be on the program just before them. I think we’ve got such a good group this year we can do better.”
“Yes, Miss Adele,” several of the girls said almost in unison.
“This year we’ll be celebrating the arrival of spring, the eruption of flowers from the ground, the budding of tulips and the lilies, and sprouting of buds on the bushes and trees,” she said.
“And the rain falling, too, Miss Adele?” It was Judy interrupting. She was always quick with a wisecrack.
“That too, Miss McQuistion,” and the group giggled. Spring in our town seems always to be slow in coming, usually staying cold and wet well into May, so Judy’s comment was very much on the mark.
“Now we have three weeks to practice, and shortly I’ll separate you all into the parts you will be playing,” Aunt Adele continued. “I’ll show you what to do, each person, and then we’ll begin practicing together and putting it all together in one neat package.”
“What if I don’t like the part you’ve given me, Miss Adele?” It was Judy again.
“I want you to try it out, Miss McQuistion, and if it doesn’t fit you, we’ll arrange a part that does. And that goes for all of you. I want you all to be happy about this. This is about the reawakening of the flowers and plants in spring. We must all show joy!”
As we about to break up, one of the other girls, a girl named Bertha who went to the Catholic school, raised her hand.
“Yes, Miss Schmitter,” auntie addressed her. “You have a question?”
“Yes, Miss Adele,” the girl who was a bit cherubic and perhaps the heaviest girl among the dancers, most of whom were slim. She stuttered a bit, too.
“Ah . . . Miss Adele . . . ah . . . is T — T — T — T — erry d — d — d — d - ancing with us too? What will he do?”
“Yes, Miss Schmitter, he is in the corps now, and I think he’ll be a good member. He’s a good dancer.”
“B — b — b — b — ut he’s a b — b — b — oy.”
There were giggles from the others. This was so embarrassing now. Why had I agreed to this? All I could do was blush again.
I guess all the girls in Aunt Adele’s class liked me. After all, I had been hanging around the studio for a while, helping out with various chores, including caring for the dresses, and even helping the girls fasten their outfits and tying their ballet shoes on. So, when I decided to join the corps, they seemed to accept me.
Oh, a couple of them looked at me with those amused faces, as if to say: “What a strange boy he is!” They probably laughed at me when I wasn’t looking. Oh well, the cat was out of the bag now: I was going to be a ballet corps member, probably the only boy at Wisconsin Avenue School ever to dance in such a group.
For the pageant, Aunt Adele combined her beginning students, all girls still in grade school, with our group, mainly of girls in junior high school and of me, of course.
“We’re entitling our pageant this Easter as ‘Arising Spring,’” Aunt Adele told the combined group as we gathered for our first rehearsal. She outlined the dance:
“Like the Lord Jesus who arose on Easter Sunday, we’re symbolizing the arising of the flowers and the grasses in spring after a harsh winter. Those of you in the beginner’s group will be the budding flowers and bushes, and the older girls will all be the wind and the rain and the sunshine which nourishes the flowers into blooming.
“And, girls, this will be a very pretty event, since many of you will be wearing lovely and bright and fresh colors, signifying the freshness of spring. What do you all think about this?”
Cries of “we love it,” or “we like it,” or ‘it’ll be so nice” came out from the assembled group.
I was seated on the floor, wearing the black tights and ruffled blouse, my legs folded to one side, joining in a posture very much duplicating the other girls. I could tell they were all excited about the performance. I was, too; it would be beautiful, I’m sure, but I was also full of fear, still wondering where this was all going.
As it turned out, the younger girls would be wearing cute baby doll dresses of varying bright colors, yellows, pinks, light blue and greens. Over the dresses they’d be wearing shrouds of gray or brown, which they would slowly shed as we in the older group would dance around them, sprinkling either rain in the form of shredded bits of tin foil or sun rays in the form of tiny pieces of bright yellow paper upon the girls.
It sounded easy enough to do, but then Aunt Adele and her assistant, a slender teenager named Donna Mae who had been one of her students in previous years, decided to add some drama. They decided that every so often the wind would blow.
“Then all of you older girls,” Donna Mae explained, “will have to have the capes you’re wearing flow out in unison with the direction of the win.”
I don’t know why, but both Aunt Adele and Donna Mae kept addressing all of us, me included, as “girls.” I didn’t say anything, since I seemed to understand that to say something else like “girls and Terry” or “students” might be hard to remember. But still to be linked as a “girl” was a little embarrassing, but still kind of nice to hear.
Half us junior high school age students would be dressed in soft yellow dresses over white tights and flowing veils of white gauzy materials, signifying sunshine; the other half would be in a dark grey, signifying clouds and rain.
“Do any of you volunteer to be clouds and rain?” Donna Mae asked the group.
No one raised their hand.
“So I thought,” she said. “OK, we’ll count of by twos. That’s ‘one’ then ‘two’ then ‘one’ and ‘two’ and so on.”
“Which is going to be the sun, Miss Donna?” piped up Judy.
“We’ll draw for it when we’re all done. Just start counting, girls, beginning with you, Judy.”
It turned out I was a “one” and Wanda, who had been sitting next to me was a “two.”
When it was done, Donna Mae called Judy and Wanda to rise and draw from a hat to determine the roles. It happened that Wanda drew the slip saying “rain and clouds” and Judy got “sun.” So I was to be with the sunshine group.
“You’re so lucky Terry,” Wanda said afterward. “You’ll be in the pretty dresses.”
“I know. Maybe I should drop out. Being the only boy, you know.”
“No. No. Don’t. You’ll be so pretty. I know you will.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be “so pretty.” But the idea still excited me, to be twirling about in a pretty dress, daintily sprinkling bits of sunshine colored paper upon the grade school girls who would soon rise from their crouches and turn into budding flowers, swaying in the wind.
Wanda and I were sitting down on a bench in Aunt Adele’s ballroom after all the others had left; we were next to each other, both beginning to shiver in the coolness of the ballroom, as we cooled down from the rehearsal.
“I love the dancing, Wanda. I just feel so free when I dance, and I like the idea of the veil which will stream out as I move.”
“It’ll be so pretty, and you’ll be the best of the bunch, Terry. You’re so graceful.”
“You think so?”
“You are, Terry.”
I blushed. I didn’t say anything, but then I felt I really was a girl, sharing time with Wanda as two girl friends. I think she must have felt I was her girl friend, too. I liked the idea.
“You can still back out, Terry,” Aunt Adele said to me that night as I was preparing for bed.
“It’s OK, auntie.” I was sitting on the bed, just in my briefs. Aunt Adele entered the room before I could get my pajamas on for the night. I could tell my legs had become more firm as a result of the dancing, but my upper body was still slender and without much tone.
“I could switch you to being a cloud, honey, where the costumes are more neutral,” she suggested.
“No, auntie, this is fine. Either way, I guess I’m considered one of the girls.”
“Oh honey,” she said, taking me in her arms, drawing me to her. I loved her smell; it wasn’t the smell of my mom who always smelled of soap. Auntie’s smell was sweet.
I began to cry. I missed my mom, but Aunt Adele was so comforting. I loved being with her and would do anything I could to please her.
“Aunt Adele,” I said, breaking away from her.”
“I love you, Aunt Adele. I want to make you happy. Am I making you happy, auntie? I’m not much of a boy.”
“Oh my darling,” she said, pulling me even more tightly against her. “You’re making me very happy just the way you are.”
We both began to cry.
I’m not sure whether it was the innocence of childhood, or the general naíveté of the times, but as rehearsals went on for the pageant, I found myself being accepted by the girls as just one of them, that is, another girl in the corps de ballet.
All of us seemed to be concentrating on the show, trying to make it the best ever. The girls seemed clearly to adore “Miss Adele,” as they called her. Since the dance routines and the general flow of the program was complex, Aunt Adele was stressing the need for being unified and dancing together, as if we were one body, as she described it.
“Now, girls,” Aunt Adele addressed us on the day of our dress rehearsal, “You’re going to have to try very hard today to stay alert and sharp. Remember your sequences and don’t worry about your individual steps. We must show unity and be together, as one.”
“You all look so lovely in your outfits,” Donna Mae, her assistant, said. “So just make it all flow together, in rhythm. Now let’s go to it girls.”
Several weeks before, I quit wishing I was not included in the phrase “girls,” since both Aunt Adele and Donna Mae used it unconsciously. Did everyone just assume I was a girl, too? The idea made me smile. I liked it.
Certainly, as I stood there in my dress before the dress rehearsal started, I felt very much a girl. I know I looked it and it would be hard to realize that somewhere under all the gauzy material there was a boy lingering.
As one of the “sun girls,” that’s what auntie called us chosen to be the “sun,” we all wore a short yellow skirt, sky blue-colored tights and sleeveless matching yellow blouses, with sky blue veils that fanned out as we danced and twirled. We all had white ballet shoes. After I had dressed for the event, I proceeded to the stage of the Eagles’ Club ballroom, but stopped short at a full length mirror in the hallway to examine my costume.
I loved what I saw. So I took time to pose, to twirl about and prance about daintily.
“Aren’t you cute?” said a voice.
I stopped short, looking up to see Officer Joseph Clancy, the local beat cop, an older, ruddy-faced man with an almost constant smile on his face.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, hurrying away, heading for the stage. I wondered whether he recognized me; he knew me as Terrence, the young boy who had moved in with Adele Michaelsson who ran the dance studio.
Once he had even stopped some older boys who were tormenting me as Wanda and I walked home from school. And, Officer Clancy always made it his business to see what was going on in the neighborhood, obviously stopping into the Eagles Club to see what kind of program was on, and perhaps, too, to wangle a cup of coffee from the club’s manager.
If he recognized me, he didn’t say. I don’t think he did. He probably just thought I was one of the girls.
Well, let me tell you this. The program on Easter Sunday went over perfect; not one of us girls (there I go, making me one of the girls again) seemed to miss a step, and we all made it beautiful to behold.
Our program, “Rising Spring,” was one of the hits of the afternoon. We received a standing ovation, but then did most of the groups, I have to be honest, since the audience was filled with parents, grandparents and other relatives of all the performers.
I still think our program was special. When the curtain opened for “Rising Spring,” the little girls performing the role of plants crunched themselves down as tightly as they could to the floor, and each one covered by a white sheet. The floor was covered in white, too. Of course, that all signified snow.
At first, the “cloud girls” came in wearing grey dresses and darker veils. They sprinkled tiny pieces of cut white paper (snow flakes) over the huddled smaller girls. They finished their snow storm routine to great applause.
Then it was time for us “sun girls.” We burst onto the stage, scattering the “cloud girls” who retreated off stage. We danced around the huddled grade school girls, still curled up on the floor, waving our hands, making sure our veils flowed over each of them until they slowly shed their white cloth covering; in unison then the young girls began to rise up as us “sun girls” danced between them, casting our warmth upon them.
Next, of course, came the “cloud girls,” chasing us off the stage, while they scattered bits of paper, signifying rain, of course, upon the budding plants. Slowly the littler girls dropped their brown shawls to reveal bright green skirts and multicolored blouses and the girls turned into beautiful flowers.
As the finale, we “sun girls” came on to the scene, scattering the “cloud girls,” but not running them off stage as both the clouds and sun intermingled while the plants burst into bright spring colors.
We all curtsied to the applause, and danced off the stage. I never felt more alive in my life. It was so nice to be a part of something so beautiful. I wished mom could have been there. From that special place in heaven, my mom must be so proud of her little girl.
(Watch for future stories about Aunt Adele and pretty Terry. If you wish to suggest a theme, please do so in comments)
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