Friday, November 30, 2018

The Little Boy on the Landing

Thanksgiving has come and gone.  It was just the three of us again this year – Dan and I and the Ghost of Thanksgivings Past.  The latter has become a welcome guest -- very discrete, never intrudes on the present, says little, eats nothing and serves up a feast of delicious memories.  

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. 


  1. Dear Marie-Therese,
    What a tender story. I'm so glad Paul had the insight and sensitivity to show kindness to the little boy. It amazes me how adults (parents) are so foolish to think that children don't understand basic elements in life. While the child may not have understood the dynamics of sex, he clearly understood that his mother preferred the companionship of others over him. And the isolation made him depressed.
    I admired how you first weaved the story about the artists and your mother, speaking the same language. The arts’ being inclusive does not have a generation gap.
    When it comes to Thanksgiving, we share an affinity to be grateful and that translates into loving one another. Beautiful story. My hat goes off to you!

    1. Dear Linda,
      What a beautiful, insightful comment. I always look forward to your thoughts on everything I write.

      If only you could have known my brother. I cannot do justice to this very special man. From the day he was born we had a special bond that will never be broken. I am so grateful he was in my life, even for such a short time. So many beautiful memories.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

      Love, M-T

  2. My hat is off to you too...and this story elicited tears for the boy and his truly tragic life. I fear for the rest of his life afterward as he had no shelter from the raw "storm" he had to endure night after night. I was gratified to learn your dear brother helped the boy during those lonely and awful times with his friendship. And I had sincere sorrow to learn of his passing. My brother Paul passed away with the same Philadelphia. Happy Christmas to come, my dear.
    Carole and Katie

    1. Dear Carole and Katie,

      My sincere sympathies go out to you on your brother's passing. What an amazing coincidence that both our brothers were named Paul and both passed in the same, sudden way. In the intervening years I have learned to be grateful for his quick death, although sudden death is such a terrible shock on loved ones left behind.

      How lucky we are to have had them in our lives. I have not cooked a Thanksgiving dinner since he left us, but I do honor Christmas as much in his memory as for us. He adored Christmas. Every inch of his apartment was decorated for the season.

      He left a beautiful cat behind when he passed -- a white cat w/a black tail, a little stray he named Colette, which is my middle name. They were inseparable. His close friends who had been looking after her when he was away on tour asked if they could keep her, as they had grown so fond of her. Of course, we agreed. They also took his piano, as they, too, were opera singers. She sat on that piano bench every day. It must have reminded her of Paul.

      A Happy Christmas to you and yours, my dear.


  3. Comment sent to me by my friend Anna:

    "I loved the new French Touch. I would have liked to have met your brother. I can only imagine how much you miss him. I am so sorry for your loss. He was an exceptional person,
    Love chestnuts. Nothing like roasted chestnuts around Christmas. My mother used to do that when we where still children. It was special. Unfortunately Novis does not like them.
    Looking forward seeing you both for dinner."

    1. Anna, he would have loved you and Novis.

      Cheers, M-T

  4. Life can be bittersweet. How wonderful for that dear child (who was mostly ignored by his mother, the reason for his shyness and silence) to know kindness. Bless your brother. I hope somehow the little boy got word of your sweet (and handsome) brother's fate for closure's sake. I also hope he somehow grew up to live a happy life ... and yes, I think the interest and kindness of a neighbor can make a big difference in a child's life.

    1. It's so sad to be confronted by the bitterness of life when you are a child. I hope he found some sweetness and light somewhere along the way. It surprises me that I still think of him at this time of year and keep him in my prayers.

      My brother was the kindest man I ever knew. Always touched by the unhappiness of others.


    2. His sensitivity and depth ... no wonder he found success as an artist ... and a good one.

  5. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    That is a true Thanksgiving story... remembering the goodness and kindness of a dear brother!
    Food never will taste the very same but the memories will stay with you forever.
    What a sad story about the little boy being shoved aside so to speak. What must his little heart have been aching and he took it all inward. Good for him that he had a warm and kind hearted neighbor in your brother!
    Sending you hugs from a wet and rainy (thunder all night and morning) Georgia. We just enjoyed a Christmas music presentation...

    1. Dearest Mariette,

      I must say that after my brother's death I never cooked another Thanksgiving dinner, and, as you so brilliantly said, the food never quite tasted the same again. But...we move on and create new traditions while holding those of the past close in our hearts.

      We have had a few sunny days, but basically, the same weather you are experiencing -- rainy and foggy. Glad you and Pieter enjoyed your Christmas music presentation. Christmas music really gladdens the heart.

      Big hugs from the Northeast,

      Cheers, M-T

    2. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
      Yes, it never tastes the same... We are nearing our 35th Christmas without family. Missed that the most of anything, all the food, the traditions and special memories with Parents and in-laws. We have 2 days in Europe for alternating. But that is all past. Always glad when we're into the New Year and move on... literally.

    3. Dearest Mariette,

      It is bittersweet that as we move on in life, the Holidays can be a source of sadness when we think about loved ones no longer with us. I hate to admit it, but I do breathe a sigh of relief when they are behind me. I prefer to look ahead with the New Year.

      Warm hugs, M-T

  6. What a beautiful person your brother was. Forever in your heart xxxx

    1. He was indeed, and will always be in my heart.

      Thank you so much for your sweet words.


  7. Marie-Therese, I haven't stopped by your blog in a while, and just read this post. We do find a way to go on, don't we? And our loved ones are always with us.

    My beloved, only, best big brother in the world died a few weeks before Thanksgiving this year. He'd be quite sick for a few years, so we had time to plan, but was one of his favorite holidays and he loved to cook. We gathered with his extended family this year, at their house, and my two nephews took over the cooking of the turkeys. We all brought sides and too many desserts, and too much wine. It was bittersweet, but so good to be together, sharing laughter and tears.

    I do so enjoy the way you write and weave a story. And I'm sure that young boy has remembered Paul and the care he showed (and probably the wonderful food he shared!). May your brother's memory be for a blessing.

    1. I am so very touched by your story, Adele, and so happy you stopped by.

      My deepest condolences for your loss. I know what you are feeling. It never matters how it happens. We may think we are prepared and have time to grieve in advance, but when the moment comes it's always too soon and too painful.

      My Paul's memory has been and continues to be a blessing as well as your brother's memory will be for the rest of your life.

      One of the greatest gifts he left me as he passed from this life was that I suddenly no longer feared death. I'm not quite sure how to explain that, but all fear of it suddenly disappeared. I still feel him with me, especially when I am at the opera.

      Thank you so much for sharing your loss and your feelings with me. I am most grateful.

      Warmest regards,

  8. Greetings! I've been following your blog for a long time now and finally got the
    courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Humble
    Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the excellent work!


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