Cracked by The Nutcracker

“One must never be late to the theatre.” I said as we were leaving the house.

Let me back up just a bit. My in-laws were making a trip to come visit us. It’s a big deal when they visit, as we don’t get to see them all that often and my daughters are incredibly close to them. Each year, they are kind enough to come visit around Christmas, so we can do a little Christmas celebration and also a pre-birthday party for Hadley. They live in Canada, so you can understand how special it is for all of us—especially the girls—when they get to see them.

They had planned to do the fifteen hour drive down to us. They would stay for a few days and then leave on a Sunday, as my mother-in-law (Shirley) had an event she needed to attend the following Tuesday. That was a pretty short turnaround to begin with—two days on the road and then a business event an hour and a half away the day after she returned home. 

About a week before they arrived, I heard on the radio (yes, I still listen to the radio) that The Nutcracker ballet was being preformed in town. The Nutcracker. It’s a tradition in my life since as long as I can remember. I would dress up and attend with either my parents or my aunties. I loved going and I affiliate it with Christmas and happy memories. Once I had my girls, I vowed when they were old enough I would carry that tradition on with them. We started it in Texas. It was the first year Tia and Hadley were really old enough to attend and I can’t tell you how much joy it brought me to take them. This was our first season with it back in Iowa and I knew I wanted to take the girls—Carolyn was still too little. I actually thought about taking her for a second before my mom reality check mechanism quickly kicked in. Check yourself before you wreck yourself Lauren. I looked at the dates and realized we had missed the first weekend and the only weekend left was when Shirley was in town. This was perfect. She loved theatre and arts and traditions like these and I quickly called her to see if she wanted to attend. It took a little pleading on my end and it certainly wasn’t the perfect option because that meant they had to stay an extra day. It also meant that they had to do the 1,000 mile road trip back to Canada in one day. Yes, in one day. Then she would have to turn around and drive an hour and a half the next day for her event. I told her I understood if they couldn’t—and trust me, I did understand. But she said they would talk it over. She called back the next day and said it was a lovely idea and to snag the tickets. 

So there we were the day of the ballet, ready for the Sunday matinee. I couldn’t wait to take everyone. My tickets were purchased (we were a little late to the game but I still had grabbed great seats). We were all dressed in our Sunday best and ready to go. I was a little anxious because getting my girls ready and out the door to attend an event on time takes some effort. I double checked the time and date about a million times to make sure I had it right. I was so happy. These were the types of moments I lived for—taking my girls to experience a time-honored classic while also hosting my mother-in-law. I was feeling quite grown up. 

As a child, my theatre major mother and my theatre loving aunties had always, always instilled in me that one must NEVER be late to the theatre—ballet, opera, orchestra, you name it. They emphasized it was rude, tacky and totally unacceptable. I’m telling you, they might as well have beaten it into me (they didn’t, but still). So as we were loading up into the Yukon, I said the same thing to Tia and Hadley, so that they understood why I was acting slightly psychotic about getting to the show in a timely manner and not dilly-dallying. “One must never be late to the theatre!” I said as we loaded into the vehicle.

We pulled up to the downtown theatre– the old Orpheum in Dubuque now better known as the Five Flags. Memories of attending the ballet as a child came flooding back. We arrived about a half hour early—but doors were to open promptly fifteen minutes before the show. It also clearly stated in an email I received that if you were late, you were locked out until intermission. I couldn’t believe our luck as we parked nearly right at the front of the theatre. Usually it was crowded and hard to find spots on the one-way streets downtown. We walked in and I was shocked to see only a handful of people there. We checked our coats and I asked a lady at the ticket booth, “This is where the show’s at correct?” She smiled and said, “It sure is.” I showed her my tickets and she told me to hang on to them for now and show them to the usher when the doors opened. The girls picked out a few snacks from the concession and we got in line by the doors. Shirley and I were catching up on things and chatting while people began filing in. When you’re a writer, you learn to observe things—all things. As people were walking in, I couldn’t help but notice that most of them were over the age of sixty. My heart sank. This is what was happening to our youth I thought to myself. Gone are the days of taking your children to the ballet on a Sunday. They’ve instead been replaced with sitting at home on video games with a complete disregard or care for the arts. I mentioned this to Shirley. She too, said she was surprised there weren’t more children. 

In front of us, a mom (let’s call her Kelly) with her friend had about five kids and they were as dressed up and ready for the ballet as we were. We chatted a bit and talked about how excited we were to be sharing this experience with our kids and how much we loved The Nutcracker and how important it was for them to know about theatre and composers and operas and all the things. As we were chatting, I kept glancing back at the people as they arrived and now, aside from the fact there were no children, I was surprised at the number of work jeans, fleeces, John Deer hats and tennis shoes. Back up on my soapbox I went —well not only were gone the days people took their kids to theatre, but apparently gone were the days where you dressed up for the theatre as well. These people looked like they were ready to attend a ball game. They were casual as all get out. Again, I mentioned this to Shirley who also was a little shocked by the ball caps. 

It felt like we had been waiting quite a while and when I checked my phone I saw it was ten minutes to two. Two o’clock was showtime and they were supposed to have opened the doors five minutes ago. Now I was really getting antsy. We needed to get seated and settled. Kelly in front of us with her children and friend was getting a bit nervous as well. She kept looking at her ticket and checking her watch. The kids had even started trying to peek in to see if anyone was there by the door. Ten to two turned into two o’clock, which turned into ten after two. Now I was getting cranky. If you haven’t realized it yet in my posts or by following me on any of my social media, I’m a bit (ha, that’s an understatement) of a Type A personality. I am slightly rigid and a stickler for following rules and being on time. Tardiness is one of my pet peeves. The ballet was supposed to start at two o’clock and it was now ten after. The crowd in the building was getting congested and I was over-peopled. I have a small personal bubble and Rhonda behind me kept bumping into my back and bumping into my back and bumping into my back. The girls were bored and I was losing them before we were even seated. “What is going on?” I kept asking to no one in particular. “This is ridiculous. Did something happen to a dancer?” Exasperation.

Just when I was about to blow, the door opened. A woman in uniform appeared with her scanner and Kelly in front of me handed over her tickets. The usher scanned the ticket. “This isn’t the show.” She said. Oh man did I feel for Kelly. Could you imagine waiting all that time with your kiddos in tow and accidentally showing up to the wrong showing. I felt for her. I was embarrassed for her—you could tell she was near tears. She literally almost fell into her ticket trying to read it as if to will the numbers to correct themselves. “The ballet is at the Grand.” My head jerked and the pity party for Mama Kelly in front of me came to an abrupt halt. “I’m sorry, what?” Chirped the soapbox woman from behind (that’s me). “This showing is Jim McDonough’s Holiday Grande.” Who in the actual F is Jim McDonough was on the tip of my tongue, but I was too choked up to even get it out. We were at the wrong place too. We were those people. I wondered if Rhonda behind me was having a pity party for me as I had been for Kelly in front of me. Shirley and I looked at each other in shock. I didn’t even know where the Grand was to be honest. I’d just moved back. I hadn’t lived permanently in Dubuque for over fifteen years. 

All we could do was leave. I started pushing my way through the shoulder to shoulder crowd like a salmon trying to swim upstream. Halfway to the door Shirley, who hadn’t followed me and was over by the coat rack yelled about our coats—which I one hundred percent would’ve left without. I was flustered and in shock. We got our coats and made it outside—I may have thrown an elbow or two but it was a desperate situation. We hit the street to biting cold air and I stood there, traumatized. Kelly was there too. It was one of those moments. I wonder if you’ve ever had them? You go through something—anticipate something—put the work in to go to something and be ready for it and be excited about it, stress over it and then it blows up in your face. In that moment, I wanted to calmly walk to my car, buckle up and drive across the Illinois bridge and just keep going. I quit. I was actually standing there in my head with these thoughts while people were talking (to me I think) when I caught Kelly’s friend saying the Grand was just up the street a block or so. “Let’s go”. I said. “We might make it if we run.” Shirley almost fell over—she had actually started heading toward the car thinking we would drive over. Not happening Shirls. We would be late for sure by the time we did that—I was already pretty sure it was over but we were going to try dammit. I might’ve failed but I’m not a quitter. I was in four-inch stiletto boots, she was in heeled boots and I had two little girls in dresses and inappropriate coats for the weather. “LET’S MOVE.” I said, and into a dead sprint I went with my family, surely concerned about my mental well being, trailing behind me. The other family followed suit for some reason (the blind leading the blind, clearly) and we all ran the four blocks up the street in heels, with kids, in ten degree weather, cheeks rosy, lungs bleeding and praying to baby Jesus that they were still doing announcements and we weren’t too late. As we neared, I saw a family trotting in and was immediately thankful we weren’t alone.

We arrived right before they closed the doors. Fifteen minutes late. “I’m so sorry” I wheezed. “You have no idea what we did” (hacking up a bloody lung as I started to explain). The usher looked at me with glassed, annoyed, judgmental eyes. “Of course.” She said and smiled a plastic, you were late, you have no class, you are tacky and your mom would be so disappointed in you kind of smile. Ok, I made that up but that’s sure as heck what I swore she was thinking. We went barreling onto the floor, found our seats— which were thankfully on the end of a row—sat down and literally had gotten our coats off just as the overture began. 

The show was fantastic and we didn’t miss any of it. I wasn’t present for a single moment of it though. Thoughts were going a mile a minute in my mind—I almost killed Shirley, they stayed late purposefully to see this ballet and we almost missed it, why didn’t the lady at the ticket booth tell me the tickets weren’t for this show, no wonder people were casually dressed and the crowd was older, I’m such a snob, I can’t believe we were late after I talked about not being late the entire week, what were the chances the people in front of us did the same thing, I need a drink, the girls think their mama is losing her mind, how did I run that far in heels? I mean on and on. Needless to say, when we made it back to our car—remember we had to walk back to it in even colder temps after the show—we both burst into hysterical laughter. How that happened I will never know. I am seriously thankful for laughter because it was either that or succumbing to a complete and total mental breakdown. The laughter continued well into the evening over wine.

In the end, we enjoyed the performance. The girls had fun. The tradition carried on and we were able to share it with Shirley. We also have a pretty decent memory out of it. The moral? Well, don’t be late to the theatre, yes. Also, when double-checking your ticket, best to also look at the location. 

Good Effort, Kendra!

I watched her dump the volleyball into the net for about the fifth time that game. I put on my frozen smile—which by now likely looked similar to the Joker’s—and clapped encouragingly. I waited for it. I knew it was coming. There, from the top row of the bleachers it came raining down, “Good effort, Kendra!”

I played on a traveling volleyball team for the better part of my youth. Truth be told, I had some talent. Unfortunately, talent only got you so far in my volleyball world. What I had for talent I was lacking in last name, relation and financials. I was also a little chubby. Maybe that was it? We played on a team called Lightening. There were three teams in this particular age group in this particular club. Lightening was the middle talent team after Thunder. I maintain to this day that a few of us should’ve been on Thunder but whatever. Politics of youth sports—what can ya do? There was a girl on my team named Kendra*. She was not one of the people that probably should’ve been on Thunder. 

Looking back at how the teams were stacked, I’m wondering if it was just an age thing for us girls at the time. You were either good or you weren’t. In-between didn’t really exist. Thunder was good. I can’t even remember the other team name—Cloud? Rain? Hail? I don’t know, but they, well, weren’t. Lightening was a mix of people who should’ve been on Thunder and people who should’ve been on third team I can’t remember. That made for a mess of a team. So there I was with my frozen smile, internally screaming at Kendra because I had no clue why the heck she was even thinking she could’ve hit the ball that she took away from Emily. And all the time that voice, “Good effort, Kendra!” 

Why do some people have such a lasting impact on us? I have boyfriends who left less of an impression on me than she did. It wasn’t because we were bosom buddies. We were two very strong personalities. I may have also accidentally chuckled when she sprained her ankle. That was actually rotten of me but I remember it clear as day. She went up to hit a ball—pass, set, Kendra jumped (maybe an inch off the ground) spiked it directly into the net (which was to be expected) and came down. Next thing I know, she’s on the ground screaming. Kendra had a loud voice. I didn’t mention that. You know people who have loud voices and then people who have loud voices. Hers was the latter. Anyway, we learned that her loud voice also translated into a loud crier. Screaming. Screeching. Some kind of dying animal cry. When I looked over at her, I was expecting to see bone coming out of her skin it sounded so bad (it was a minor sprain). Her dad, taking two stairs at a time, came leaping down to carry her off the court because she couldn’t even get up to hop off with our help. It was just too much. I chuckled. It’s terrible. I don’t wish pain upon anyone. But I chuckled, so there’s my confession. I’m sorry Kendra. 

It got to the point that Kendra was super reliable for being unreliable during games. At thirteen I wasn’t ok with losing games. You know how you get put on a group project with a C student when you are a straight A student? Suddenly, your entire grade depends on this person magically bringing his or her “A” game? So naturally you just take over everything and tell them you got it? Or was that just me? Maybe that’s why the checkbox for “works well in groups” was always a zero on my report cards? The point was, that was the unreliable feeling driving me crazy during games.

I wanted to play the sport moving into high school and I was highly competitive. I’m also the type of person that when I make a mistake, I want to acknowledge it and try to find out what I did wrong so I can improve on it. Kendra was not that person. She was a it’s-all-just-for-fun-this-doesn’t-matter-participation-trophy-kind of person. So were her parents. After every single error her dad would shout from the rafters between cupped hands, “Good effort, Kendra!” I kid you not, after every single mistake. Missed serve. Good effort. Whiffs the pass. Good effort. Dives for a ball that’s five feet away. Good effort. Good effort, good effort, good effing effort. If hashtags were a thing back then, his would’ve been #goodeffortkendra…on a t-shirt. To make it even worse, he started thinking he could good effort me anytime I made a mistake. No, no Mr. Hawkins* it was not a good effort. It was a terrible serve that I missed and should’ve made. Don’t you start good efforting me! I never said that to him—but I thought it. My parents understood. They weren’t good effort type people either. The first time he said it, I think my mom said something like, “Well it wasn’t really. She should’ve made that serve.” God bless moms for knowing you to your core. For two seasons I lived through the good efforts. Two trying, painful seasons I was haunted by them.  

All sarcasm and joking aside—these were good people. I have nothing against them and I appreciate they were so supportive of their daughter. We were just very, very different. I mean, I just watched Tia play basketball the other day and there are the really nice, good effort moms and then lunatics like myself yelling for her to focus on the ball and stop waving at Payton. So neither is right nor wrong and we are all, quite frankly, just doing the best we can. I get that now Mr. Hawkins. Totally. Little did you know that after all these years, “Good effort, Kendra” is a staple term in my family.

A few years after I hung up my volleyball spandex shorts, I was playing tennis and totally missed a shot. Laughing at the folly (tennis ended up being my sport), my dad yelled down, “Good effort, Kendra” and I busted a gut. It stuck. I mean, stuck. Mom makes a homemade lemon pie that resembled lemon soup? Good effort, Kendra. Kurtis falls out of the penalty box at a playoff game? Good effort, Kendra. Lauren plans an epic dinner and a family fight breaks out? Good effort, Kendra. Friend hits a terrible golf shot? Good effort, Kendra. Friend looks at us, confused, who’s Kendra? She asks. Months later, she’s saying it to other friend who hits a bad shot. I mean, people in my circle hear this phrase often—likely without a clue as to where it came from or who it’s referring to. But it lives on…and I think of her. I think of thirteen-year-old Kendra and me playing volleyball on our mediocre team. I don’t have a clue where she is these days or how her parents are doing. I do, however, look back fondly on those days. Somehow, that loud-voiced little girl and her effort-loving father have managed to be a part of my life for the last twenty some years. And with each folly in my life or that of anyone around me, their legacy lives on—good effort, Kendra. Good effort. 

*Name changed.