It seems like I've been in the spotlight my entire life. Not that I was forced into it or anything. I love having an audience. If anything, I started the whole thing myself. My father was pretty reluctant about it, but it seemed to make me so happy, and my mother insisted that it was good for me, so eventually he caved.
I remember the first time I saw a real performance, live. My parents didn't let me watch much television when I was little because they didn't want me to see anything that might not be good for a small child or to become lazy and lethargic like all the other children. If there was something important going on, I was allowed to watch a little bit with them, but I never went to the movies or watched the children's shows that were on in the mornings. Not that I noticed. Our house in Belgium wasn't very large--Mother was a kindergarten teacher, and Father worked at the downtown office as an executive clerk, so we weren't particularly well-off--but it had a lawn that stretched out into the fields behind us without fences, and plenty of room for all the neighborhood kids to run around between their own houses and the others. It was much more fun outside, when I was allowed out. I used to catch cold easily, but once I was about two years old I grew out of that and was allowed to play outside much more often.
The show was on one of our trips downtown to pick up my father at work. Every so often Mother would take me with her to run errands instead of leaving me with one of the neighbors, and we would surprise Father as he got off work and all go home together. That day, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant for a change; this was a very big deal to me, as I was barely three, I think, and rarely got to go out for more than an hour or so to run errands with Mother. It wasn't a very fancy restaurant, but it was nice, the food was good, and the servers were very friendly, even bringing me an extra flower to put in my hair. I remember giggling over the rose and how I kept taking it out from behind my ear to look at it again. Red, like my hair. It was such a novelty.
After dinner, the three of us started back to the garage where Mother had left the car (Father usually took the bus to and from work). On our way there, I heard music, and soon enough we passed a small crowd by one of the benches in the square. My parents stopped for a moment to listen, and I managed to pull my mother far enough forward that I could see what was going on.
There was a young girl playing a fiddle next to the bench, an up-tempo folk tune that I don't quite remember because I didn't know the name of it at the time, and in front of the bench were two slightly older boys throwing bottles, balls, and small fruits and eggs up in the air. I'd never seen anyone juggle before. I'd never seen anyone play any instruments before either, save my mother on the piano, but I'd heard fiddles before on the radio. I kept tugging at my mother's sleeve and demanding to know what they were doing, but she just kept warning me not to get to close in case they dropped something. Still, she and my father let me stay longer to watch them. I was enthralled. When they finally took a break three songs later and my family and I left, it was the biggest let down of my short life.
I didn't see another live performance like that for nearly another year. Or rather, I saw a few live shows in town passing by, and in restaurants, but they were almost always musical. There was nothing like the juggling duo to be found, but I had mostly forgotten about them anyway, at least until the next year. I was busy learning to climb trees when my mother wasn't looking, or trying to teach the other children to do somersaults. I was trying to teach one of the boys, Joseph, I think, when all of our parents came outside with the big news. There was a small circus coming to town, and they had decided to take all of us that weekend to go see them. Most of us didn't know what the circus was yet, but the older children and their younger brothers and sisters did, and when they cheered we cheered, too. Whatever it was must be exciting, after all.
The night before we went to the circus, my father told me all about what would happen there; how I would get to see the elephants and giraffes and all sorts of strange animals, about the acrobats and trapeze artists that flew through the air like in the stories, the clowns like I'd seen in picture books that rode around on tiny bicycles, the cotton candy and toys I could buy, everything. I was so excited I couldn't get to sleep that night. I kept running into my parents' room and asking when morning was coming and how soon before we left now, until my mother yelled at my father for getting me so excited and told me to go to bed right that instant or else I wouldn't be going to the circus at all, young lady. After that, I stayed awake as long as I could in my room, staring out the window and imagining what the animals would be like, or twirling around the room pretending that I was one of the dancers in the circus that I'd heard rode around on the backs of horses without saddles.
Of course I fell asleep eventually, but I was just as excited when I woke up as if I never had. Mother let me wear my nicest yellow dress, the one with the white sash and ribbon trim, with two white barrettes in my hair. She even cleaned up my dirty white sneakers so that they looked nicer and I wouldn't throw a fit about not being allowed to wear my church shoes. Of course when I went outside, the boys and some of the girls teased me, but I just shot back that I looked better than they did, stupid kids that looked like weeds in their best clothes. The last part I said in French and my father gave me a warning pinch, but I was glad I said it. Even if I was wearing yellow, I thought I looked like the roses that I'd always liked ever since that night in the restaurant. Red roses, red like my hair.
I think that was also the first time I'd ever dressed up for others as well as myself. All the other adults exclaimed over how I looked, and I wasn't just happy to show the other children that I was pretty, but I almost expected the attention. I know it was the first time I dressed up before the circus, although pale yellow and white proved wholly impractical for later performances.
Oddly enough, I don't remember much about that circus at all. You'd think that with how excited I was and how important it ended up being later on, I would remember every detail of the performance, but I don't. I think it might have been too much for my little girl mind; I was overwhelmed and just forgot most of it. I do remember getting sick on too much cotton candy and my mother making me drink flat soda to calm my stomach so we didn't have to go home early. I remember looking at the elephants and wondering if I'd ever be that big. I remember thinking the clowns were rather silly and not that interesting, though I don't remember what it was they did or what they looked like. I remember the excitement, the sounds of the crowd gasping as the acrobats and trapeze artists and tightrope walkers and daredevils of all kinds performed amazing feats that none of us in the audience could ever dream of doing...I just don't remember what they did.
I vaguely remember thinking, I could do that. Of course, all of the neighborhood children were busy saying the same thing on all sides of me. The difference was that they couldn't, eventually. But right then, we all thought we could, and so did I.
Really, I don't remember much outside of how I felt watching everything that one time. I never saw a circus again, not really, not with the innocence and wonder I felt then. The trouble was I didn't understand what I was seeing when I was just barely four. I was the youngest of all the children there. Maybe the only reason I don't remember much of anything is because I was so young. It's too bad, really. I do remember liking everything I saw, and I didn't get much of a chance to see it again.
But I remember the jugglers, because when I saw them I remembered those two young men and the fiddler girl from the year before. And I remember when one of them brought out the diabolo.
I never asked for lots of toys and presents as a child. I'd get one new toy and amuse myself with it for weeks until something new came around. There was no reason for me to beg for more things like you might think. I was happy with what I had. But I begged and pleaded for something as we left the circus. The other girls were all picking up dolls of the performers or batons and things like that; the boys were grabbing the stuffed lions and tigers or demanding devil sticks and plastic swords. My mother started to pick out a stuff tiger for me, but I shook my head and kept looking until she grew impatient and tried to get me to leave. It wasn't until we passed the last stand that I saw what I wanted.
"Papa, Mama!" I grabbed my father's sleeve and tugged back on it and my mother's hand. "Papa, Mama! I want-"
"Darling," my father started in a tired voice, "the circus is closing. We have to go home now."
I refused to go. "I want that!"
I let go of his sleeve and pointed at something red on one of the middle shelves of the stand we were passing, jumping up to show how high up it was. My parents stopped and followed my gestures, looking at each other inquisitively when they saw what I wanted. I was too busy chanting to fully notice. "That one! That one! I want that one!"
I suppose my father bargained with the man at the stand, and I'm sure my mother gave me a short talk about how I couldn't play with that thing indoors or until the next day when it wasn't too dark to go outside, but I didn't pay attention. The seller asked if we wanted a bag, and I shook my head when my mother started to say yes.
When my father handed me the bright red plastic diabolo and the wooden sticks with the rubber grips at the ends all tied together with the string tied to the other ends, I wrapped my arms around them, hugged them to my chest, and didn't let go the entire drive home.
It was only a week or two later that my father was transferred to France again. I was still young enough to not really know what all moving to another country would entail, but I was angry at having to leave our nice house with the open yard and all the tall windows for a big house that we rattled around in and that didn't have nearly as nice a yard. It was large enough, but everything was fenced in because we were nearer to the city and we had more neighbors and some of them had dogs.
I also hated how some of the other children made fun of my accent. It wasn't there, really, not much, and I got rid of it quickly enough, but they still laughed. And their French was so fast, andthey usedall these words I had never heard before! I made friends eventually, when I started school, but that first spring and summer I didn't talk to the other children very much. I didn't even approach the ones that were friendly to me in case they teased me, too. I didn't like being made fun of.
Since I didn't much care for our new house, I spent most of my time alone in the backyard. We did have a small wading pool--the one new novelty that I really enjoyed--but it wasn't deep enough for me to drown unless I hit my head and fell into it. The deeper end might have been dangerous, maybe, but my father had taught me how to swim after a country wedding where I kept diving into the river after the fish when I was two, so I was still safe. It was only ever deep enough for the water to come up to my shoulders sitting, and my mother was watching from the window. I spent a lot of time in the pool, pretending I was climbing in and out of a mirror between here and "home" in Belgium. Sometimes I would ride my tricycle around the yard, or try and make little forts in the grass to hide in. Mostly, though, I played with the diabolo.
The man at the circus hadn't given any sort of instruction book, so I spent quite some time even figuring out how to get the pretty red diabolo spinning. I could throw it around all right, but the string was too long for me to pick it up off the ground and get it spinning. After I hit myself in the face trying to get the diabolo and string off of the ground one day, my mother shortened the strings. She also got rid of the rubber grips when they proved too slippery for me to hold on.
Once I figured out how to get the diabolo spinning, I wanted to see how fast I could get it to go. Little kids have so much energy, and when they're having fun they don't notice themselves getting tired or their muscles getting sore. I didn't notice if my arms grew sore or if my shoulder hurt. I was having too much fun. I could get the diabolo going quite fast after only a little practice. I imagined it was fast enough to outrun the cars in the streets, and the airplanes that sometimes flew by overhead. I used to spend hours spinning my little diabolo and yelling for my mother to come and watch, or my father if he were home. They always pretended they were, but I got the impression that they were growing bored very quickly. That was why I had to learn to do more.
By my fifth birthday I could loop the strings around the diabolo and unloop them again with getting them tangled, swing it in circles in front of me, and make it climb up the strings in either direction. I could even start it spinning without rolling it on the ground first. I had some trouble catching it when I threw it in the air, but that was mostly because I wasn't allowed to practice that indoors and my father tended to worry that I would hurt myself if he saw me when he came home. Every time I learned a new trick I would show it off to my parents and grandparents (my mother's parents, of course), and sometimes the neighbors if they were over. The diabolo was fun, but it was even more fun when people were watching and clapping. They weren't bored very much any more. Even my parents, who saw me playing day after day, were amused when I performed.
The little red diabolo chipped and started to wear out. My mother bought me a new one from a store in Paris when she was visiting her sister one weekend, a rubber one. It was heavier than the plastic one, but somehow that made it easier to throw and catch. I got better at throwing and started playing around with spins to make the catches more impressive, and sometimes tried working with both the new and old diabolos. My parents noticed me struggling with the different weights, and immediately went and bought me two more of the nice rubber kind. The little red plastic diabolo went into a special drawer in my bedroom, and later onto the shelf where I put the toys I'd outgrown but didn't want to throw away as I grew older. By the time I started kindergarten, I had started making up routines to the music my mother listened to through the kitchen windows, and whenever I had the chance I would perform them for whomever I could find that was willing to watch.
We had show-in-tell in kindergarten once a week. My turn didn't come until it was almost October. There were five of us that went at a time. Because we went in alphabetical order, I happened to be last because I was the first of the "P" names. Everyone oohed and aahed over the four children who went before me. Henri had brought in a truck that turned into some sort of snarling beast when you pressed a hook in the back that his aunt had brought him from America. Violette had photos of her three kittens, who were only a few months old. Anne had brought in her favorite doll, which had twelve different outfits and a fancy toy car to go with it. Jean didn't get much applause, since he brought in a shed snakeskin he'd found that summer and most of the girls were afraid of it, but all the boys were impressed at least.
When it was my turn, I didn't say anything. I had made quite a few friends by then, but none of them were close because I was still shy and worried that someone would make fun of me like the neighborhood children had at first. That and I didn't go to the park to play with them or stay the night at their houses like most of my classmates. I wanted to practice my diabolo. So when I stood in front of the classroom, I didn't say anything at first. I held the bag with my diabolos and sticks in them close to me, and looked at the teacher. After a moment, I held out a tape for her to play. I wasn't afraid of messing up or being laughed at for once. I was completely sure of what I was going to do. I was just too excited to speak.
Once the teacher had put the tape into the player, I tipped the contents of my bag out onto the floor, set the diabolos on their rims and picked up the sticks. When I was ready, I looked at her and found my voice for just a moment. "Start, please."
The second the music began playing, I forgot that I was just a five year old girl, not even a native of France and just beginning school. I was as confident and sure of myself as if I'd been doing this my entire life. I suppose, given my age, I sort of had been. I'd had to revise the routine a bit so that I didn't hit the ceiling or swing the strings out so far that the diabolo hit someone in the audience--not my class, the audience--but the rest of it was nothing but muscle memory. I spun, threw, twirled, jumped, and juggled my way through till the end of the song. It wasn't perfect--I still wasn't strong enough to catch the heavier rubber diabolos without losing too much tension in the strings, and when I tried to make one jump over my foot I just set it to spinning up the string instead--but I thought it was. What was more important was the way my class reacted when I was done.
They didn't just applaud or go, "Awww," like the adults did. They cheered. Some of the boys even stood up and waved their arms in the air. The girls were all screaming my name.
It was, needless to say, a thoroughly satisfying first public performance.
After school that day, when my mother came to pick me up, the teacher took us both aside. I remember that I was worried she would be angry at me for ordering her around during show-and-tell, or that I was going to get in trouble for throwing things inside since I wasn't even allowed to at home. My mother didn't say anything, but I think she was worried, too. Probably not about the same things I was, no--she was a kindergarten teacher, too, and knew what sorts of things might make one talk with a student and parent after school let out. Still, she was worried, and that made me even more afraid.
Instead of yelling, though, my teacher took us back into the classroom and asked my mother if she'd seen me perform before.
My mother told her of course she had, she had been the one who bought me the new diabolo and she and my father always watched me while I practiced in case I tripped and fell backwards into the pool again or hit myself with an errant diabolo. She told my teacher a little bit about how much I'd liked the diabolo performers at the circus in Belgium and how I played with mine more than any of my other toys. There was pride in her words, although I didn't completely register it at the time. I was too worried I was about to get slapped with a ruler or thrown out of school.
"Madame Passel," the teacher continued with a smile when my mother had finished, "your daughter performed in class today for show-and-tell. I must say, I've been going to see the circuses in Paris since I was a little girl, and your daughter is easily as talented as the younger performers there. Not the amateurs, the professionals."
I didn't understand, but my mother's mouth dropped open. "She--how? She's only a little girl, she's taught herself and she's only been playing around for eight or nine months..."
"Oh, she's hardly the most talented diabolo performer I've seen," my teacher laughed, "but she's still very, very good. And I don't think she views it as playing around. Do you?"
This last part was addressed at me. I wasn't afraid anymore, but I was still confused and didn't want to risk speaking lest I get myself in trouble anyway. I nodded slowly.
"Madame Passel," the teacher continued, turning back to my mother. "you and your husband have done a wonderful thing, nurturing your daughter's interests. She has a gift, a true gift. I would encourage you to find a teacher for her, someone who can fine-tune her abilities and bring her up to the professional level with her diabolo. She may decide that she's lost interest or that she would rather practice by herself for her friends and family, but it can't hurt to give her the opportunity to become the best of the best as soon as possible, can it?"
I couldn't keep quiet any longer. "Madame!" I raised my hand politely, but I was still demanding answers, already a diva in my own right. "What are you talking about with my mother?"
"Darling." My mother leaned forward on her knees. "Your teacher thinks you're very, very good at performing."
"Exactly." My teacher nodded. "I truly enjoyed your show today."
"How would you feel," my mother asked gently, "about having someone come to teach you the diabolo, maybe..." She looked at my teacher questioningly.
"Once a week or so," my teacher finished. "Wouldn't you like that?"
I stared at both of them for a moment. Were they loony? "Of course I would. What kind of question is that?"
Both my mother and teacher burst out laughing at that, and I was even more confused. Still, the euphoria at hearing I was going to really learn the diabolo stayed with me the entire walk back to our house. My mother didn't hold my hand because I was carrying my bag, but she walked right beside me as if she did and didn't offer to carry the bag for me. I would come to resent everyone for acting as if I were self-sufficient later on, but right then I was grateful to her for letting me carry it myself.
I don't remember the rest of the day, since I immediately went outside after changing into play clothes to practice more. At dinner, my mother and father spent most of their time talking about finding this teacher for me and whether or not it was a good idea. I probably should have paid more attention to the argument then, but I was too excited.
I remember, though, when my mother tucked me into bed that night. She smoothed down my hair over my forehead, something she hadn't done since we'd moved to France, and smiled at me before kissing me goodnight. On her way out of my bedroom, she turned off the light and spoke to me from the doorway, but it wasn't her usual "Sweet dreams."
"Someday, Rosetta," she said instead, "the world will think you're as amazing as we already do."