Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Going to the Opera

At age twelve, Linda was on the verge of womanhood and great things in her life, only she didn’t know any of that yet. She was the eldest child in a poor immigrant family, and she loved to read. Each morning she would sit at the breakfast table with her father and read the newspaper. He would read the front page and the sports section, and she would read the comics and the advice column by Ann Landers. Sometimes Linda and her father would discuss what was in the newspaper that morning, and her father would say, “It’s important that there are people who trouble the elected leaders, because disagreements make people stop and think.”

In the summer, Linda spent every day in the public library that was just a few blocks away from the apartment where she lived with her parents, two younger brothers, and two uncles. The two-bedroom apartment was tiny and crowded, while the library, an old stone building with tall ceilings, was spacious. The library had a large window seat with leaded stained glass windows, where Linda sat for hours each summer day. Linda’s family was too poor to afford vacations and travel, but Linda took flights of imagination with every book she read, imagining the places to which she would travel and the things she would do.

Linda read some very long novels, such as Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. She was fascinated by stories of women who were bound by the customs and standards of their times and yet motivated to do unconventional things by their passionate feelings. One summer Linda read all the biographies contained in one floor-to-ceiling bookcase of that library, starting with the letter “A” for Jane Austen until she finished the alphabet. She especially liked the stories about women like Florence Nightingale and Amelia Earhart, who had built careers that were notable for women in their day from interests that they couldn’t resist pursuing with all of their energy and willpower.

In school Linda sang in the school choir. Her music teacher was a fiery Italian man who described the composers whose music he taught with great demonstrative gestures. Her music teacher’s introduction of great classical music had inspired Linda to borrow records from the library so that she could listen to the music at home. She also read biographies about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach and Giacomo Puccini with extra zeal.

One Friday night Linda decided to go by herself to see a performance of Puccini’s famous opera, Madame Butterfly, at the big downtown theater. She dressed up in a red suit and low-heeled pumps and took two buses to get to the theater and sat way in the top balcony. Linda was so happy during the entire opera and felt like a very adult lady when she rode the two buses back home late that evening. She thought it was the very best night of her young life. Later that night, Linda found herself shedding tears of frustration, because she thought that her life couldn’t possibly be as beautiful as the opera that she had seen performed that evening.

It would be many years later before Linda found out that she was wrong about how beautiful her life would be, but that is another story.

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