My parents separated shortly after my fifth birthday. The two events were, as far as I am aware, unrelated, and the severance of their nuptial vows has had little, if any, damaging affects on my emotional well-being. Being that I was hardly anything more than a toddler, there are only a smattering of concrete memories lodged into my gray matter from my parents’ married years.
In one of these sepia-tinged cerebral snapshots, I am peering over the edge of our family home’s back deck, the eight foot drop between my furry head and the ground an insurmountable distance for my baby brain to comprehend.
The soundtrack to Les Miserables is playing in the background, my mother is vacuuming or baking or throwing pots (not violently- she and my father met at an artists’ commune in Connecticut, she a potter and he a box maker). And I am looking down off the deck, a dangerous activity for a toddler to endeavor, but it was Vermont and we were hippies. Gravity had not the same threat to myself and my siblings as the average soccer-mom would fret it to.
Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye
Look down, look down, you’re here until you die.
Those of my readers (all three of you) familiar with Les Miserables will recognize these couple lines as excerpted from one of the musical’s many tragic overtures. Those words throbbed through my uncomprehending little noggin as I looked down from my parent’s deck. Just looked.
Perhaps doubled in age from that day, I can recall taking a bath at my mom’s house and listening to a cassette tape, Excerpts from Les Miserables. I rewound the tracks until the spools of tape wore so thin they snapped, until the bathwater had turned frigid, and I tried to cry. I know, that’s kind of insane. But it’s fact and the truth is generally more absurd than anything you could fabricate.
A quarter-of-a-dozen years down the road, and a handful of my vehemently theatrical friends and myself undertook an abridged, all-female rendition of Les Miserables. I was furious to be cast in the role of Monsieur Thenardier, a minor character and a crook, who’s appearances edge almost on comic relief in the otherwise sincere action of the musical. I resented my friends for thrusting such an unsavory role on me.
Looking back, it is clear that– for a cast of thirteen year old girls– the role of Monsieur Thenardier was one that could only be dubbed on a the bravest of the bunch. Too bad I was such a little bitch back then. I could have seen to implicit compliment.
Now, I am twenty-three. The other day, I Dreamed a Dream fluttered into my head. I found myself whispering it under my breath at work, singing it in the shower, and finally resorting to fully belting it out in the car as I drove to the grocery store. The song, and every other on the soundtrack, elicits such an emotional reaction from me that, to the casual observer, I’m sure I looked insane.
If you saw a girl crying her eyeliner off in the Stop & Shop parking lot, singing show tunes at an unwieldy decibel, would you deem her sane?
Clarissa Dalloway, of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, (a gorgeous novel, chillingly introspective when considered in the context of Woolf’s own life… but that’s a boring story for another day) (maybe), claimed that, “to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.”
Clarissa really DOES explain it all.
There are few things that have been constant from the earliest onset of my memory creations. This is not a bad thing. A life overwrought with consistency breeds boredom, dullness, inanity. But as a human being it is in my nature to cling. There must be some things, some people, places, objects, or ideas, onto which we can hold, toward which we can look or work.
The emotion with which I now listen to Les Miserables is in part attributable to the maternal desperation of Fantine’s final moments, the poignant parallel’s of Val Jean and Javert’s respective internal conflicts, the brilliant passion behind Marius’ immediate devotion to Cosette… the power of a revolution enacted by the little people. But it is also because this play, this silly collection of songs, is one of the very few common threads woven throughout my life.
Many knots and patterns surround this thread. And it might be a minor, almost invisible wisp to the subjective spectator of my life quilt.
Yes. Life quilt.
But to be brought back to my earliest of memories– looking down from that unimaginable eight-foot deck– that is to dream a dream.