Over the past month, my family life has been a bit consumed by the elementary school play, James and the Giant Peach. Claire tried out in the late fall and was cast as part of the ensemble. Since then, she’s had frequent practices after school.
This has required a lot of coordination. The boys finish school at 3:15 and my dad gets them, but then I need to make sure I wrap up everything at work in order to get Claire whenever her rehearsal finishes. Or – more likely – I ask someone to get her. In the weeks leading to the performance, the play seemed to take over our lives.
“This play is a pretty big deal,” I said one day when she was telling me about the importance of practicing the dances.
“Mom,” Claire said with a tilt of her head, “it’s not called the play, it’s called the musical. We sing songs.”
And sing songs they did. One day on the final week of practice, I volunteered to pick up an entire car full of kids. I didn’t realize I’d need earplugs. The six of them scream-sang all of the songs in the car on the way home. Claire was laughing when we finally got to our house. I was a bit annoyed at her and said, “what in the world is so funny?”
“I just love being in the musical!” she said. She was smiling and then she hugged me. She was happy.
I did not point out that she had no lines and there were dozens of other kids in the ensemble. She didn’t care.
Claire was just pumped to be in the ensemble.
Two days before opening night, I watched a practice. Claire beamed at the audience, which consisted of me and a dozen other parents. Her steps in the dance were a bit off, and at one point she ran into another kid, but that smile never left her face. It was fun to watch.
(As an aside, until Claire was in this play, I’d never read James and the Giant Peach. I don’t know much about Roald Dahl, but if I had to wager whether he was dropping acid while he wrote this masterpiece, I can tell you where my money would be. That story is a trip.)
As she practiced, I remembered a key aspect of the book: James is an orphan. Of course he is. How could you have a book or a movie with a child protagonist who has parents? I try not to be too sensitive about it, because my kids really aren’t. But I thought about it a lot, especially as the kids moved towards the actual performance.
On opening night, I got there early and sat near the front. Claire came out in the first number. She was beaming. She continued to do so every time she was on stage. I found myself smiling back at her even though she couldn’t see me.
The last song of the first act was “Everywhere That You Are” that “Ladybug” sings to James about his parents. When the song began, I watched Claire. She was standing right next to the girl playing “Ladybug” and she swayed to the music and sang with the chorus.
I tried not to feel emotional about it, but the soloist sang beautifully and my daughter’s face was so eager. It was a beautiful moment and it tugged on my heartstrings. How much Shawn would have loved to see this. Instead, I was inserting him into the song and worrying irrationally about whether my daughter was feeling sad.
But here’s the thing: she wasn’t sad. She was on stage and she was beaming.
In one of the final numbers, some of the kids danced in the aisle, Claire included. At the end of the song, the kids jumped in the air, and then they ran backstage. I caught her eye in that moment. She was laughing.
At the end of the show, I picked up my phone. Dozens of texts arrived from my friends lauding Claire’s enthusiasm on stage. I found Claire in the hallway of the school, and she jumped into my arms.
“I’m so proud of you!” I said.
She smiled. “We messed up a little bit, but Ms. Harris said we still did a great job because we just kept going.”
“That’s right baby,” I said, “and you did it all with a huge smile on your face.”
She jumped up and down a little bit, hugged her godparents and friends and then ran backstage again. I could hear her laughing.
My girl. Just one of the ensemble, but never happier.
It made me feel good about her future. Because here’s the thing: sometimes you get to be the lead. Sometimes you get to sing a sad song and capture the hearts of the audience. Sometimes life deals you such beauty or such tragedy that the world can’t look away. Sometimes the spotlight is on you – for better or worse.
But most of life is about being in the ensemble. It’s about dancing in the aisle with a huge smile on your face even though no one may be looking.
No one except your mama. I’ll always be watching you, sweet girl.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.