These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
It was nearly Christmas, and there was a snowstorm of historic proportions in New York City. Two feet had fallen in half a day. Had she known it was going to be that bad, she wouldn’t have left her apartment. It was enough of a challenge to negotiate the sidewalks and streets in the best of weather, not because she was unused to them – she had lived in New York for almost fifty years – but because of her physical condition.
But, out she had gone to buy some staples – some bread and crackers and cheese from the Italian grocers on Broadway, some English tea at one of these new places run by very young people. She laughed when she thought of this – very young people. Maybe they were in their mid to late twenties. What was she doing when she was their age?
The snow was deep and heavy, hard to pull her legs through. She felt afraid of the curb. Where was it? What if she slipped? Would she have the strength to pull herself up? How sore would she be? How much harder would it be after that to summon the courage to walk the remaining few blocks?
She walked into the shop where she bought tea. As always, these places had music playing and, at this time of year, everybody had their holiday music out. The Nutcracker was playing, and hearing this didn’t help her mood or her courage.
What a time of year this was in the theater: you never left. The musicians called it The Nut Scratcher. The board of directors wanted it scheduled every season because it paid the bills for the whole year. The fake snow on the stage floor caused spills and injuries and seemed to be everywhere, even in her ears and under her fingernails. But she loved it. She loved it so much that she didn’t really know that she loved it.
Kirsten Larsen had come from a small Norwegian town in Western Wisconsin. There was a little ballet school that she attended because her parents thought she was clumsy. One day, when she was eleven, some scouts came from a New York ballet school seeking talent. They had a cosmopolitan air about them, wore interesting clothes and strong perfume. She didn’t know why they were there; she just danced class like she always did. But they pointed at her and asked her to stay after. They bent her feet and lifted her leg. They hummed and asked her to keep time.
Later the phone rang, and her mother had a quiet discussion afterwards with her father. The next morning at breakfast, they asked her if she might want to try a summer camp for ballet. Well, sure, she thought. Dance was what she did. The next eleven years unrolled before her, and she thought not one thing of it. She went to the camp; then she went to the school full time, living in New York City, away from her small town. By the time she was seventeen, she was in the company, and by the time she was eighteen, she was a soloist.
They would give a barre or set a dance, and she would do it. If her leg needed to be higher, she thought, I can do that, and did it. Whatever they asked, she did because she knew she could do it.
A new choreographer came to work with the company when she was twenty, and he immediately began to make solos for her. He was foreign, well known, and about fifteen years older than she was. He was smart and a very good dancer, and she enjoyed the challenge of meeting his expectations.
There is nothing new about the story of a choreographer becoming involved with or even marrying a lead dancer, and this is what happened to her. They married when she was twenty-one. They bought an apartment on the Upper West Side and settled into a life together.
As she listened to the Nutcracker playing over the speaker, she tried to think how many years it had been since she danced it. She began dancing it at seventeen. Her husband did a new setting of it when she was twenty-four. That was forty-one years ago. She tried to remember what it was like dancing that, working with him, the whole package. It was so beautiful, she thought. It wasn’t the dance or the music or the romance that was beautiful. There wasn’t really any romance because all they did was work. And the dance was so much a part of who she had always been, that that wasn’t what made it beautiful. What made it beautiful was the complete giving. When else in her life had she been so uncalculating? Now, even walking three blocks to buy tea required summoning courage, asking herself, “do I really need to go? Can I go? What happens if…?”
Dancers aren’t dancers forever, and her career ended at age forty. That really isn’t a bad run, she told herself. But it ended fast and hard. She just couldn’t do it any more. Her joints and muscles ached. She was constantly tired as if her body was filled with wet concrete. Then her husband found another dancers to set dances on, and, no surprise here, he left her for a younger star
The financial settlement when the marriage ended allowed her to remain in their apartment with an allowance of money each month. Her standard of living changed, but she had nothing to spend money on, either. For the first nine months or so, she did nothing except rest, walk two or three blocks for provisions, and pay the necessary bills.
The snowstorm began to interrupt her reverie. She only had two more blocks to walk, but she felt spent. Spent: it was a word she had never considered, and it was now part of her daily life, writ small, writ large. Spent after walking to buy tea, spent after picking up some pins that fell on the floor. Seeing some young women pass her, she felt spent in other ways – lacking their vigor, lacking their appeal, and needing, unlike them, to calculate every move.
Her energy at that moment was spent, so, as she turned off of Broadway on 113th, where she lived, she leaned against the steps of an apartment building on the corner. She lived nearer to Riverside, and negotiating the relatively steep downhill in the snow with her packages was something she needed to ponder.
Uncalculated: that word was the only thing that connected the two halves of her life. Remembering this, as she did now and then, kept her from the despair that threatened her mental stability. The first time it occurred to her was at an interview while they were on tour. It was the height of her dancing, and her marriage was an established fact by then. A reporter interviewed her in the lobby of a hotel. They didn’t have much time. She had an appointment with the masseuse who traveled with them and then had to dress for the performance. The masseuse, a young woman from Ukraine, waited nearby during the interview. The reporter asked, “Is this the fulfillment of your wildest dreams?” She had never dreamt of this life. It came; she accepted. The reporter grew impatient and restated the question. She pointed to the orchid potted a few feet away, “The orchid didn’t dream of being an orchid. It is what it is, and it has done what it was meant to do. I have to go now. Thank you.”
While walking back to her room, her masseuse said she had something to show her. Out of her purse, she produced a small travel icon with a picture of the Annunciation. “Your answer is like Mary’s, ‘ Be it unto me according to your word.’” Kirsten Larsen grew up as a Lutheran in her small Norwegian community. She hadn’t attended church since she left home, not because of any dispute but simply because the life she lived consumed all her time. The icon was fascinating to her. During the massage, she asked Rita, the masseuse, if she had other icons. “I will bring a book that I have. You can keep it for awhile, if you wish.”
Kirsten gazed at the pictures in the book. She remembered her Sunday school classes and the Bible stories represented in these icons. The depictions of these stories and characters as icons, however, communicated something to her that she had not considered. They were not of a past time but of a different time, as if they were always alive and living out these stories, independent of our world and chronology.
When her marriage and career ended, she bought a large book of icons. Every night before sleeping, she would page through this book. It was such a dark time: she rested most of the day on the couch, listening to radio shows or books on tape that she found at the library just, thankfully, one block away. Each day she tried to walk a block or two – to the library or to buy some provisions – but this was all she could manage. This lasted for about nine months. Then, one day, while crossing Broadway at 112th Street, she saw The Cathedral of St. John the Divine one block East of Broadway on Amsterdam. Without any forethought or calculation, she walked the extra block and crossed the street. The steps were daunting, and she stood and stared at them. A driver from one of the tour buses that was parked in front saw her and offered to help her up the steps. He nearly carried her, and she thanked him.
When she walked in, the first thing she saw was two large icons, one of Jesus and one of Mary the Mother of God with Jesus. She immediately asked the young man in the guard’s booth about services. She hadn’t been to church in over twenty-five years and certainly not an Episcopal Church. He gave her a brochure. She asked about the difference between the services. The earliest on Sunday morning had no music and was in a chapel. Though she would miss hearing some music, she thought something in a small space would be better.
The following Sunday, she attended the 8:00 Mass at the Cathedral. She did this for four weeks in a row. Then she began to also to go to the daily Mass at 8:30 in the morning. There were regulars at these services, and, slowly, she began to know them. When asked her name, she would always say “Kirsten,” avoiding her last name that would invariably bring up her past.
She was a part of these services in the same way she looked at the icons in her book each night: just open. She was not seeking or desiring anything. She just opened herself up to the readings and the rhythm of the liturgy and the images in the icons. She trusted that there was a power to all of these that was beyond her wanting. They would do what they were supposed to do, and that was enough.
One Sunday, the bulletin had an announcement asking for people to volunteer to help mend vestments. She had done plenty of sowing of ribbons on ballet slippers. She approached the priest afterwards, saying that if someone could deliver the vestments and supplies to her apartment, she was available. The first vestments arrived that week, and she set herself to work. She found that she was quite good at this, even fixing embroidery and the more intricate aspects of the vestments. The word got out among the Episcopal Churches, and she began to spend about two to three hours a day mending and sewing – all by hand. She enjoyed the quietness and also being able to do something physical again. The sound of the needle poking the fabric, the final product shining before her – these gave her a satisfaction she had not felt in years. She sometimes thought she felt more satisfied with this than she had ever felt in her dancing years. She took dancing and, for that matter, life for granted back then. Now, every opportunity was an orb of gold.
She thought she really had to make it back to her apartment. The snow was accumulating and soon the sun would be going down. She heard some French being spoken. On the corner, waiting to cross the street was that young woman who had always lived in her apartment building. Young: maybe fifteen years younger than Kirsten. But she had been a young girl when Kirsten moved into the building with her husband and had always retained an innocent, waif-like quality. Kirsten had never spoken with her. She remembered the family being insular and very quiet. The man she was with looked familiar. Oh, yes, he was the Super in the building for a while and then was gone. He had the build of a peasant she thought, not too tall, thick legs and broad shoulders. He was also speaking in French. He noticed Kirsten sitting on the steps.
“Do you need some help with those bags in the snow?” he asked Kirsten. “I think you live in Henrietta’s building.”
“I would appreciate the help.” The younger couple each took a bag, and the young man offered her his arm.
“I’m Nic. I was the Super in your building at one time.”
“Yes, I recognize you. And you are Henrietta. We have seen each other off and on for decades, and now we meet.”
Henrietta smiled back in response, “May I ask your name?”
“Kirsten.” there was the typical look of recognition in her eyes that Kirsten had seen in many people’s eyes, “My parents told me the ballet dancer I enjoyed watching, whose first name was Kirsten, lived in our building. Would that be you?” Kirsten nodded and looked ahead. Henrietta seemed to understand and dropped the topic.
“Quite a snow, eh?” Nic continued. He seemed to be a bit of a prattler. “We usually go to Evensong at St. Thomas on Tuesdays, but even that was cancelled. We’ve had a nice walk back, though. We were thinking about making some hot cider. Henrietta, do you think you have enough to offer some to Kirsten?”
“Yes. Would you join us, Kirsten?”
She said yes. Outside of going to church, she hadn’t been social since her marriage ended, partially out of physical exhaustion and limitation, partially out of weariness of years of smiling and nodding at strangers who thought they knew her because they had seen her dance. Once she heard a poem on the radio by Yeats. There was a line she scribbled down right after she heard it, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Looking back, she didn’t even know the dancer from the dance.
“Should we stop at your apartment first,” Nic asked.
“No, there’s nothing that needs to be refrigerated.”
Henrietta’s apartment was on the sixth floor and had a view of Riverside Park. It had an old feeling, the furnishings and rugs, and a cared for feeling – clean and intentional, she thought. Three cats, two quite old and one very young, were perched around the main room. Nic motioned to a stuffed chair that she gratefully sat down in. One of the older cats climbed onto her lap.
“That’s Pitch, as in pitch black,” Nic offered. “He loves women.”
“Is anyone hungry? Should I put out something to eat?” Henrietta called out from the kitchen.
“I have some crackers and cheese from the Italian grocery in my bag,” answered Kirsten. Where had that come from? Even in her social years, she was never the one to prepare the food.
“Which bag?” Nic asked, and she pointed to the one on the right. She watched Nic and Henrietta in the kitchen, noting their ease in each other’s presence – not an erotic ease, she thought, a human ease.
They emerged from the kitchen with trays of mugs filled with hot cider, bowls of almonds and pickled mushrooms, and a plate of her cheese and crackers. Nic talked about the snow cutting short the delivery of some necessary parts for an organ that the church wanted finished by Christmas. Henrietta had stories about the donation of some Soviet era ‘Christmas’ cards that gave everyone at the library a good chuckle. Kirsten listened and petted the cat and enjoyed having a meal with company. Henrietta paused.
“How was your day, Kirsten?” Answering such a question takes practice, was her first thought. She petted the cat and look at these very new friends.
”I’ve been mending vestments.”
”Liturgical?” asked Nic. They both looked at her and waited. Despite their age difference and probably big differences in their upbringing, they both shared a quality of curiosity that was endearing to her.
“Yes. It is something I’ve come to at this time in life, quite by accident.” Since it seemed that their odd pairing was most likely the result of some sort of accident, they seemed unmoved by this.
“Would you tell us?” Henrietta asked, and told them she did, enunciated more sentences in a row than she may ever have done in her life. She was raised in a quiet Norwegian household and then became a dancer – does anyone really even want a long answer from a ballerina? And then she married a choreographer who was expected and met the expectation of doing all the talking, and then she was alone. The cider and the bits of food, the warm cat, this odd pair with their curious eyes, the quiet that descends on the city in a snow storm – they all worked as a balm, her entire being relaxing as it had not, maybe in her whole life. Was it the particulars, she thought, or was there something else?
“Are you a member of the Cathedral?” asked Henrietta.
“I am, too, but I’ve never seen you. But, I go to the 9:30 service. It has music but not too many people.”
“I go to the 8:00 because it is in a side chapel – a little easier for movement. Funny, I thought maybe you were members of St. Thomas because you talked about missing Evensong there.”
“We go just on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Have you been?”
“No. It is too far and such a busy part of town.”
Nic and Henrietta looked at each other. Henrietta seemed to be able to talk with her eyes. Nic nodded in ascent.
“We both come from work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but this Sunday, the choir is doing Lessons and Carols. We planned to go. Will you come with us?”
Again, she said yes, and they made plans and exchanged phone numbers. Nic announced he had to get home which wasn’t going to be easy in the snow, and he had an early morning. He offered to help Kirsten to her apartment, and she accepted.
That Sunday, Nic came to her apartment to pick her up, and Henrietta was waiting in front with a cab they had ordered. The snow from earlier in the week had melted off the sidewalks, but Nic asked the driver to take them down along Riverside Park and then to cross town through Central Park because the trees were still decorated with beautiful clumps of snow. The cab let them out on 53rd Street.
“We can go in the office entrance,” said Henrietta, “There is an elevator that will take us to the Sanctuary, so we can avoid most of the steps, and I have places saved for us near the front.” She wondered how Henrietta managed this. Later she learned that Henrietta was quite known in this church.
The office area and hallways were bustling with pre-service activity. Henrietta spotted the Rector.
“Father, do you have just a moment? I’d like to introduce you to the neighbor I told you about. Father, this is Kirsten Larsen, my neighbor and our new friend.”
He took her hand, “Ms. Larsen, your name has come up three times this week in three different ways.”
“Our Sacristan brought back some vestments that you mended, and my wife and I were at the ballet this week. We were remembering Clara of the Nutcracker as danced by a Miss Kirsten Larsen, but we couldn’t remember how long ago…”
”I danced her forty-five years ago.”
“And then Henrietta asked if we could save a place for you this afternoon, so you didn’t have so many steps to negotiate. It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“It is good to be here. Thank you for taking the time to greet me.”
Nic, Henrietta, and Kirsten on the elevator to the Sanctuary and entered, going past the organ console, down three short steps, and to the place Henrietta and Nic usually sat for Evensong. Nic went into the pew first, helping Kirsten, and Henrietta sat on the other side of her. The organ prelude stopped, and, after a moment of silence, a lone boy began singing, “Once in Royal David’s City”. She looked around, and to her right she saw a large icon of Jesus the Teacher. As the hymn continued and procession went by, she kept her eyes fixed on his face, feeling the arms of both Nic and Henrietta touching hers.
They sat and stood at various times, singing hymns, listening to the choir, listening to the readings. She noticed the vestments that were just in her apartment a few days ago, and she shook her head as she watched those boys sing such complicated music and such a goodly amount of it. She didn’t shake her head because she was amazed; she shook it because she understood what they were doing. Someone said to those boys, “Sing this,” and they did it.
The seventh reading began. The angel Gabriel announces to Mary what is about to happen to her, and Mary answers, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Kirsten looked again at the icon of Jesus and asked him if she would ever stop learning all that this meant. And she thanked him for this sentence. It challenged her, and it also healed her.