A nutshell story.
“I’m thirsting for a little cultural refreshment, Mel,” Daddy said. “I feel like we’ve gone through a long, hard drought with regard to the higher arts.”
Mama looked wary. “What did you have in mind, Frank?” she asked.
“A string orchestra is playing this Sunday afternoon at the Tillbury,” he said. “Why don’t we take the girls and expose them to what I feel sure will be an uplifting experience for us all?”
“They’re forecasting snow this weekend,” Mama warned, but Daddy assured her that it never snowed to amount to anything in January and anyway the car had excellent tires—as she should know, since she had insisted he buy the expensive, high-performance brand that could carry us through fire, deep water, or glacial ice without incident.
That is how we came to be sitting in the Tillbury Theatre just before 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon, with a light snow falling on a day of cold so bitter that only a clutch of folk had gathered for an afternoon of Bach and Tchaikovsky.
“Cold and snow are ideal for Tchaikovsky,” Daddy said. “It will make us feel like we are there in Russia with him, don’t you think? We should be wearing bearskin hats and coats. Only we don’t have any. Which is just as well, because it’s hot as a match inside here.”
It was warm inside the Tillbury, which is the prettiest theatre in the world. Sitting in it is like sitting inside a red-enameled jewelry box with diamond earring chandeliers. While we waited for the concert to begin, Daddy read to us from the program. This is a habit of his, one that makes Mama clench her jaw.
“Tchaikovsky has said of this particular selection, ‘I am violently in love with it.’ He also referred to it as a ‘piece from the heart,’ and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic merit. Always remember, Dixie, that if it comes from your heart, it is a true and beautiful thing.”
The conductor came on stage, and soon the theatre filled with music like warm silver water, until we were all swimming in it, oblivious of the cold and the snow outside. The conductor led us through Bach, then showed us Tchaikovsky as if he were revealing a magnificent dream. Then, In the last Walzer, which was lively, the conductor lost his grip and flung his baton across the room.
Every person in that tiny audience rose, clapping with such vigor that the diamond chandeliers trembled and quaked. “We were warned there could be violence,” Daddy whispered. “Dixie, go see if you can find that baton.”
Mama looked as if she intended to contradict this directive, but I slipped out and went to the side of the theatre where the baton had last been seen cartwheeling over the second row. I found it against the wall—a thin gleam of light-colored wood, I thought, with a darker wooden bulb on the end. It felt alive in my hand, and I wondered if it had flown of its own will out of the conductor’s hand, a sort of magic wand.
I crept back to my seat and showed the baton to Daddy as the orchestra completed its encore, a reprise of the Walzer portion of Tchaikovsky. The tiny audience once again stood and roared its approval, as Daddy whispered that I should take the baton up to the stage and give it back to the conductor, who had turned to take his bows. “I don’t think it’s like a foul ball that you get to keep if you catch it,” Daddy added, with an air of regret.
At first the conductor didn’t see me, and I knew that I would not be heard in the tumult of the ovation. But then he caught sight of his baton, which from his perspective must have appeared to rise from the edge of the stage on its own power, and he smiled as he reached down and took it from me. He tapped me with it, first on my left shoulder, then on my right, and we all went out into the soft white world, lifted up, and shining.