As irritated as I was that Soryah might have been the one to replace the clothes I had pulled out for her the night before, I couldn’t really blame her for rebelling. If she had in fact pretended to be asleep, waited for me to leave, and dug through her dresser to find something--anything--else to wear besides what I had selected, deep down I sort of understood her motivation.
Despite their mother’s strict expectations, these children were very deeply devoted to her. And that’s how it should be. They should want their mother to be the one to read them a story at night, pick out their clothes, reminisce about the “chaotic” day they’d just had, and wind down together as mother and child--as a family.
So that is why, at least at that moment, I could not be upset with Soryah. She was rebelling against a foreign presence in her family, an invader of intimate moments that ought to be initiated by a mother or father instead of an au pair. The more time I spent with the Silverman children, the more I became convinced that each and every one of the tiny rebellions they plotted was nothing more than a cry for help, an appeal for affection from parents who were often absent, even when they were physically present.
But honestly, I didn’t actually believe that Soryah was the magical fashion fairy who had seen my selection and sneered. On the contrary, as preposterous as it seemed to me at the time, I was fairly certain that Netta had been the one to do the deed. She had been the one to sneak into Soryah’s room, decide to question my fashion sense, and select an entirely different outfit for her daughter to wear. Once again, she had found fault with my approach to the most insignificant of tasks, as she apparently deemed dangerous my questionable flair for fashion.
And that’s just how it was going to be between Netta and me, for the next four months: The mountain lion protecting her cubs from the very wolf that she, herself, had welcomed into the pride.
* * *
“Hurry up and get dressed, sweetie,” I said to Soryah who’d been giving me the evil eye. “Time to take a shower.”
“Aawww! Do I have to?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“You still have to do it.”
“Because your mother said so.”
“I’m gonna go ask her.”
Calixthe, who had come upstairs to tend to little two-year old Yasmine--whom they called Minnie-- had overheard Sorya’s protestations and immediately put in her two cents.
“You can’t ask your mother,” Calixthe explained with arms crossed, eyes narrowed.
“Why not?” screamed Soryah.
“Because she’s not here,”
“Well, where’d she go?”
“She had an early meeting. Now stop your whining and do as Chrissy says, do you hear?”
Soryah had no trouble hearing her; it was the heeding part that came as a challenge.
“I don’t feel like taking a shower!” Soryah screamed again, this time with a full-blown foot stomp, nostrils flaring.
“That’s it,” Calixthe said, grabbing Soryah by the hand.
“Let me go!” shouted Soryah in clipped, blood-curdling screams. “LET-ME-GO!” She repeated this phrase in short, staccato notes until Calixthe grabbed her by the arms and dragged her into the bathroom, turning Soryah’s staccato screams into the long, sustained final chord of a Beethoven sonata.
It seemed wrong of me to find this funny, but I couldn’t help myself. I stepped back as Calixthe shoved Soryah into the running shower, fully dressed, letting the water gently muffle those blood-curdling screams. Calixthe waited until she finally saw Soryah begin to disrobe, taking that as her cue that she’d accomplished her mission.
Calixthe quietly closed the bathroom door, and brushed off her hands comically as a sign that the incident was all in a day’s work.
“I could never have done that, Calixthe,” I said, eyes wide, completely in awe of her masterful handling of the situation. She rolled her eyes and said, “How man go do?”
The laughter that ensued was enough to sustain my spirit for the entire duration of my stay in the Silverman home. The laughter, oh the laughter!
While Calixthe and I were enjoying ourselves, Stuart stomped out of his bedroom and threatened to tell his mother on Calixthe for having made poor little Soryah cry.
“Go ahead and tell your mother,” Calixthe said, still laughing. “I have plenty of tings to tell her about you, too.”
This displeased Stuart in a way that pleased me. Immature? Yes. Forgivable? I should think so.
“You’re next in line to shower, Stuart, okay?” I asked, truly trying to play nice.
As Stuart stood there pouting, the bathroom door opened and out walked soggy little Soryah. Though Soryah and Stuart didn’t really resemble one another all that much, their pouting faces made them look like twins.
“Did you brush your teeth, Soryah?” I asked, still trying to play nice.
“Well, let’s march back in there and brush those choppers.”
“What?” she said, suddenly smiling.
“I said, let’s brush those choppers.”
“Why do you call them choppers?”
“Haven’t you ever seen that old cartoon with the singing tooth? Wait--I guess you’re way too young, or I’m way too old. Anyway, there’s this tooth and he starts singing about the importance of ‘brushing one’s choppers to avoid tooth decay.’”
Children are strange little creatures, that is for sure. But if I had been told that they would have found my “brush your choppers” tale amusing, I never would have believed it.
“So let’s go brush those choppers, brush those choppers, yeah!” For reasons unknown to God and the universe, I have this tendency to compose silly rhythmic chants. If you were one of my students, you would know very well of what I speak.
Before I knew it, Soryah, Stuart and I were clapping, snapping and chanting our little ditty: “Gotta brush those choppers, brush those choppers, yeah, yeah!” We conga-lined into the bathroom where they grabbed their tooth brushes, squeezed out the toothpaste, and without any form of begging, pleading, or dragging, they did what I had asked them to do.
Thank you, sweet Jesus!
Pretty soon, Lia had joined in, and the four of us were chanting and conga-lining down the double helix. To be honest, it was straight out of an episode of The Nanny.
Oh, what a glorious spectacle were we!
By the time we made it to the foot of the stairs, we were all out of breath from laughing, and, for one sweet moment, it felt like home.
“What other fun songs do you know, Chrissy?” Lia asked, grabbing the giant juice-box-like carton of milk from the pantry.
Yes! The French drink warm milk from a giant juice-box! Who knew?
“Umm.” First of all, it was hilarious that Lia had called what we had just done, a “song.” Secondly, to ask me to name “what other fun songs I knew” would be like asking Bette Midler to name all of the fun songs she knew.
“Well, how about this one?” I started to sing a few bars of American songwriter Billy Hill’s “Glory of Love,” and the kids were hooked, all of them.
“You've got to give a little, take a little,
And let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love."
During breakfast that morning, between sloppy chomps of French cereal, I taught the three Silverman children the lyrics and harmony parts of that classic song. We rehearsed, and rehearsed again, for what--I didn’t yet know. But later that morning, when Calixthe had mentioned that James would be returning from Belgium that evening for his birthday dinner, I thought that maybe the children could put on a little show.
“So it’s James’s birthday today?” I asked Calixthe, wondering why the children hadn’t mentioned it.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not until next week, but he’s going to be away. So they’re celebrating tonight.”
It would have been nice if Netta kept me abreast of such things, but I digress.
“Do you think I should have the kids sing for James and Netta?” I asked Calixthe.
“Why not?” she said with a shrug.. “I tink it would be nice.”
And so it was on. The Family von Silverman would be putting on a show!
“Do you think Netta will approve of her children engaging in such questionable activity?” I asked Calixthe.
“I tink she should be glad to see them doing some-ting other than screaming like spoiled brats and driving us nuts,” she replied. “But, what do I know?”
“Lia has a really pretty voice, don’t you think?”
“Yes. She sings all dah time. When she’s not reading, she’s singing.”
“Does Netta know that she likes to sing and that she’s good at it?”
“I tink Netta knows, but doesn’t really care about such tings.”
Calixthe was right, but I still wanted to go through with the performance. After all, it was just one song, right? What could possibly go wrong?
As various doomsday scenarios played out in my head, the gate buzzer sounded through the foyer. With a roll of her eyes, Calixthe ran out the side door and down the driveway to open the gate for Queen Netta.
The second Netta walked through the door, dressed in a sleek suit, carrying a sharp black briefcase, I could tell she was not in a good mood. Her high heels clickety-clacked back and forth across the ceramic-tiled floor, as she began the preparations for what was to be James’s welcome home feast.
I’d just been standing there in the kitchen with Calixthe, both of us stupidly waiting for Netta to acknowledge our presence, when her tepid greeting finally arrived.
“Hello, Christina,” she finally said after an awkward amount of time had passed. “Where are the children?”
I thought about what they were probably doing at that moment upstairs in Lia’s room: singing, dancing, laughing, a.k.a. ruining their chances of ever becoming President. I didn’t want to lie about what they were up to, but I also didn’t want to ruin their surprise.
How’s that for rationalization?
“They’re in their rooms,” I mumbled.
“I didn’t ask where they were, Christina. I asked what it was they were doing.”
“Um, I was just about to sit down with each of them individually so that we could begin to develop the grid you discussed with me.”
“That’s fine. Please make sure to show it to me before you type up the final draft.”
Type the final draft?
“Fine,” I said, completely bewildered by this woman.
“Oh, and so you know, tonight we’re celebrating James’s birthday. He’ll be back from his trip around five o’clock, and the children will want to spend the evening with him, as he will with them. So if you could make sure that all of the children have their clothes laid out and their school supplies in their backpacks before dinner, that will alleviate the stress of their having to worry about it after dinner when they’ll be tired. You did remember that tomorrow is their first day of school?”
“Yes, I did. I’ll help them prepare their things for the morning, but um, I was wondering if you’d rather have Calixthe select their clothes from now on, or maybe you’d like to do it yourself.”
Netta took her head out of the cabinet where it had been during this entire exchange.
“What do you mean, Christina? If I had wanted Calixthe to pick out the children’s clothes, I would have asked her and not you.”
“Well...” I considered whether or not this battle would be worth fighting. I was presumably stuck there for at least four months unless of course they fired me. Upon realizing that the former scenario was more likely than not how things would go, I went for it.
“Well,” I continued, “it’s just that I noticed that someone had laid out different clothes for Soryah. When I went in there this morning, there was an entirely different outfit on her chair. I just assumed you didn’t like what I had chosen.”
Netta was staring at me. Not in an “I’m going to kill you” sort of way, but rather, a “You little witch” sort of way. Calixthe pretended to busy herself with something in the pantry. She knew all too well what Netta’s look meant.
“If you must know, Christina, I thought what you picked out didn’t really go together as an outfit. It didn’t... capture Soryah’s... playful essence, so I simply picked out something that did. Is that a problem?”
I had absolutely no idea what Netta was talking about, so I responded only with a nod and then excused myself. Seriously, Soryah’s essence? Was she kidding me? The only “essence” of Soryah that I could detect thus far was of an extremely spoiled little girl who was in dire need of parental attention. As I walked out of the kitchen, I saw Calixthe laughing behind the giant juice-box of milk she’d just taken out of the pantry.
Once upstairs, I went straight to Lia’s room, where I knew they were all rehearsing for the big show. Having seen Netta’s mood, though, I was beginning to think maybe I should call the whole thing off.
You say potato, and I say po-tah-to...Let’s call the whole thing off! It’s a sickness, I tell you!
When I entered Lia’s room, there they all were--singing in harmony like sweet little angels. I didn’t want it to end.
“Hey, guys, you sound really nice, but it’s time to sit down and prepare this week’s grid.”
“I know. But it shouldn’t take that long, right?”
Netta’s instructions were for me to determine what I saw as each child’s strengths and weaknesses, and then help them set specific goals based on that assessment.
First I sat with Lia, thinking hers would be the easiest, and it was. We talked for a few minutes, and she was done. Next was Soryah, who I thought might be a bit more of a challenge, and she was. She couldn’t seem to admit any of her own faults, much to the detriment of our progress, as we sat there for forty minutes trying to arrive at at least one area in which she possibly, ever so minimally, might need to improve.
Eventually, it was Stuart’s turn, and boy was I dreading it. For forty-five minutes, I sat in a chair, trying to get him to sit in a chair next to me. For close to an hour, I watched Stuart wriggle and roll over in his desk chair, bouncing from one wall to the next, completely incapable of sitting still for more than a second.
Needless to say, I had no trouble in outlining what I perceived to be Stuart’s areas of weakness, the primary area of concern being his mind numbingly annoying hyperactivity, a concern which I would euphemistically label as an “inability to focus.”
When you’re good, you’re good!
Just as I was finishing up with Stuart, Lia and Soryah went running down the hall, squealing with delight.
Apparently, Daddy was home.
Stuart darted out of the room and down the double helix. I followed the children downstairs, being greeted by the scent of roast duck wafting from the kitchen.
It was such a strange moment for me, watching the children climb all over their father, hugging him, smiling, telling him how much they had missed him. I almost felt like I was part of this family, maybe because I knew how much these children needed their father, and how much they had missed him when he was gone. Witnessing such an intimate family moment made my heart swell with love for those children because it made me feel good to see them happy. They were a complicated family, but a family nonetheless.
“Dinner is served, everyone,” Netta announced. “Go wash up, children.”
The meal that Netta and Calixthe had created was a feast for the eyes and nose as much as for the belly. Roast duck with cranberry-apple jelly, rice with a shitake mushroom sauce, broiled asparagus drizzled with butter, and freshly baked baguette.
We ate, we talked, and we actually laughed as we sat together, as a family, savoring that sumptuous feast. Netta didn’t really look at me much, or maybe it was I who had averted my eyes from her. Either way, for the first time since the day I arrived, I felt welcome.
“I’m going to get dessert,” Netta announced as the meal drew to a close.
“Let me help you, Netta,” I said.
“That’s really not necessary...”
“No, I insist.”
“No, I insist.”
I followed Netta into the kitchen, hoping I had made the right decision. Soryah ran up behind us and grabbed onto her mother’s leg.
“Soryah, what has gotten into you?” Netta asked, attempting to loosen her daughter’s grasp.
“Nothing, Mama!” she answered. “I just love you!”
“Oh, my goodness, Soryah!” Netta exclaimed, wincing as though she’d just smelled bad cheese. “Did you take a shower this morning?”
“Yes, Mama,” is all Soryah had to say on the subject. She looked up at me, daring me to tattle.
“Well, did you wash properly, Soryah? Christina, did you make sure she washed...with soap?”
I thought of all the ways to wash oneself without soap. I was stumped.
“We were having some...difficulty...getting Soryah showered this morning. But I saw her get in there, and I assumed she washed...with soap...”
“So you didn’t stay with her and make sure she washed properly? She’s just a little girl, Christina. She doesn’t yet know how to maintain proper hygiene.”
Just as the words “I’m sorry” were about to leave my lips, I stopped myself and instead took a deep breath.
“I wasn’t aware that I would need to instruct Soryah on how to wash. But now I know.”
“Soryah, after dessert, you will march right upstairs and meet me in the bathroom, is that clear?”
“Now go and take your place at the table.”
It was all my fault, really. Not the fact that little Soryah was running around the house unwashed and smelling like cheese. Rather, I never should have let my guard down as I had done during dinner, allowing myself to believe that maybe, just maybe I might be able to survive this god-awful experience. Once again, I had failed, and thanks to Netta, I was graciously reminded of that fact.
“I think I can handle dessert from here, Christina. Thank you.” And with that, after not having helped her at all, I went back to the dining room where the children were now jumping all over James, who, while puffing on a Cuban cigar, looked uncannily like the Monopoly Man. All he was missing was a top hat and monocle.
“Chrissy, let’s do the song, now, can we?” the children asked when they saw me enter. “Come on, let’s do it now! Can we? Can we?”
James looked surprised, but in a good way. He probably thought the “song” they were referring to was “Happy Birthday.”
“So sing the song, little Silverados,” James said, in between cigar puffs.
“Well, okay, but shouldn’t we wait for your mother?” I asked, suddenly feeling nervous.
Just then, Netta called from the kitchen for Calixthe to dim the dining room lights. The children leaped up and took their places for the performance. What happened next, I never could have imagined.
Calixthe dimmed the lights and the children began to sing.
"You gotta give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
You gotta laugh a little, cry a little, until the clouds roll by a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love."
Listening to those three children sing in perfect harmony, I started to cry. Instantly, tears welled in my eyes, blurring everything before me, softening the edges of my hostility toward them, toward Netta, toward all mankind. I couldn’t see, but I could hear a faint whisper of hope in my head, a fragile and feathery voice convincing me that I had made a difference in these children’s lives, that I had finally found a way to really reach them, through the magical, mystical language of music.
I looked over at James who was smiling with pride. Then Netta walked in, carrying a silver platter with seven flaming bowls of crème brûlée.
That’s how the French do birthday cake.
The children were singing, I was crying, James was smiling, and Netta--poor Netta--was staring at me through the flames that stood between us like a wall. Still wet and swollen with tears, my eyes couldn’t read with any accuracy the expression on Netta’s face. She stood there, holding that tray, as we both tried to understand what was happening on the other side of the flame, studying one another’s unsteady eyes that flashed blue and white in the fast, flickering light of the dimly lit room.
And then, it all came quietly crashing down.