Every year my opera-singer brother would arrive from New York a few days before with a freshly killed turkey and a huge bag of chestnuts. The prep for Thanksgiving dinner would begin right away. Paul was the only person I could ever work with comfortably in my kitchen. Somehow, we never seemed to get in each other’s way. The smell of roasting chestnuts would fill the house as he worked on his special chestnut and sausage stuffing.
Of course, the turkey and chestnuts were not his only contributions to dinner. There were also his hearty cheese and garlic-spiked mashed potatoes, Indian pudding and, of course, the extra actors, singers and musicians he always brought along with him. Some were working in New York, some were between jobs, but if they were unable to spend Thanksgiving with their families, they spent it with us. Every year I would fret about the sleeping accommodations in our four-bedroom house, but, somehow, between beds, fold-out cots, sofas and sleeping bags, we always managed.
Mme Mère, of course, was in her element surrounded by these talented young artists. She listened eagerly to their stories and told quite a few of her own, to their delight. It never ceased to amaze me that, despite the decades between them, Mme Mère and these young people spoke the same theatrical language. The theater is the theater and will always be the theater.
After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia and getting his Masters at what is now University of the Arts, finishing up in the opera program at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and then singing nationally and internationally, my brother was ready to make the move to the Big Apple to try his luck.
He found an apartment in Washington Heights, an area north of Harlem, in a building which was home to an eclectic mix of tenants, many of whom were struggling young artists. The rents were, and still are, fairly reasonable by New York standards, even though the area has since been gentrified. He had a nice living room, a decent sized bedroom and a small eat-in kitchen with a gas stove, which was very important to him, since he loved to cook.
Things were slow for a while, but then he began to find work, and suddenly he was actually doing well and then very well. We would spend time with him in New York during the opera season and during the summer, when he needed to escape the heat of the City, he would spend time with us.
I helped him decorate his apartment. He bought a cream-colored, fold-out couch from an actor friend who was moving to LA, and I talked him into buying burgundy throw pillows to add a splash of color. Like most men, he didn’t see the point of throw pillows, but I insisted and he indulged me. My husband commiserated with him. “They started showing up in my apartment, too, before we got married. Now they’re all over the place.” (See “Pillow Talk and the Great Divide”) The pillows became a running gag between us. Paul pointed them out to everyone who came to his apartment. “What do you think of my throw pillows? Aren’t they great? Gotta have that splash of color, you know.”
He loved entertaining and cooking for his friends and girlfriends. He thought nothing of going to Little Italy for extra virgin olive oil and Chinatown for special spices.
In the apartment directly above his lived a woman who also liked to entertain a lot -- gentlemen callers, so to speak. Paul was never sure if she made her living horizontally or whether it was just an avocation, but things got pretty noisy up there pretty regularly, especially at night, and whenever she had gentlemen callers, she would put her little boy out to sit on the landing.
One night, Paul came home late from a performance and the little boy was sitting there. Paul took pity on him. He knew what it was like to grow up without a father. He was only eight when our father died. “Would you like to come in?” he asked him. Without saying a word, the little boy got up and followed my brother into his apartment. From then on, whenever Paul saw him sitting on the landing, he would take him in and feed him. The child would nod yes or no but never spoke. He would just sit quietly on the couch and wait until the noise subsided overhead then get up and head towards the door.
I never saw the little boy, but Paul would talk about him and how sorry he felt for him. He often wondered what was going on in his head, but it was impossible to know since the child never uttered a word.
In early February of 1987, Paul left to go on tour. We had been together for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, as usual. On February 20th, the phone rang. My handsome, talented brother had suffered an aneurysm as he left the stage and could not be saved. He would have been 32 that March.
I still think about the little boy on the landing and wonder what became of him. I like to think that he remembers the young man who took him in when he needed a friend. I like to think that he grew up, got married, had children of his own and was a good father to them, because a fatherless young man cared enough to reach out to him. But, of course, I will never know.