Yesterday in the Greenroom we were having the greatest conversations. All the Turandot cover-guys and myself. We were talking pretty extensively about death and dying. (As one does while covering a show where heads are being chopped off!!) About medical treatment and final wishes, and particularly about amazing and funny stories in the context of terminal illness. I spoke about my friend Harvey, about the way that illness changed him and gave him a chance to experience and express love for people in a way that was new to him. Someone else spoke about losing his brother in a car crash.
But, it wasn’t morbid or depressing conversation, it was about life and the uplifting aspects of it despite such events.
Somewhere there must have been a segue, because I asked if anyone was familiar with the children’s story “The little matchstick girl”? It was my favorite cartoon when I was a kid. We had it on 8mm film, and I would watch it over and over until the film broke. I haven’t seen it since I was about six years old.
The troubling part about it is that I couldn’t remember what actually happened at the end. The last thing I could remember was her sitting in the snow on the street with people’s boots rushing by, lighting her last match stick and then being left in the dark when the fire went out. An image that has stuck with me for a very long time…
My lovely Calaf cover, Stephen O’Mara, said he’d check with his German wife whether she had heard of it, and tonight when I got home I had an email from him with a link to actually watching the cartoon on the web. (He clearly has other talents in addition to singing a mean Nessun dorma!)
I must also mention that my father died when I was six years old, and although I can’t remember much about how I dealt with that fact, or what it felt like, I have deduced as an adult that it obviously had a pretty major impact on all of us in the family. It is hard to separate, in retrospect, what issues ensued from the loss of him, versus the trauma that everyone around me was experiencing, but needless to say it was a big deal with far reaching consequences.
Well, anyway, I threw myself over the link for the cartoon and proceeded to watch this little gem of a H.C. Andersen story for the first time since 1972.
It is beautiful. And this rendition is made even more beautiful by the Emerson String Quartet playing a Borodin piece. (The 8mm didn’t have sound!)
It is all in black and white. Set in what looks like a Russian city. Orthodox Church cupolas in the background. Sleighs carrying the little rich families home with their Christmas presents. And there she is, the little match girl, trying desperately to sell her matches, but with no success.
She finally collapses in a back alley, resorting finally to lighting her matches for warmth, and with every match she lights she has a vision (in color) of hot stoves, sleighs with fur blankets, Christmas trees with glimmering lights. At the lighting of her last set of matches she has the best vision of all — a little country house with a perfect little rosy-cheeked grandmother inside who picks her up and twirls her around in the warm and cozy kitchen.
The vision disappears as her matches go out.
This is where my memory cut out. But now I see that there she is, seemingly collapsed in the snow in gloomy black and white, as her perfect Technicolor grandmother appears and picks her up and carries her off into the ether. Except, her little dead body is still lying there in the snow.
I have pretty much not been able to stop crying since I saw that.
Realizing all at once how desperately I must have needed to see that in the months after my father died — to assure the little person that I was that he was there after all, and that no matter what, he’d pick me up — eventually.
And, no wonder I have suppressed the ending of that story for the past 35 years — when reunion would seem to come only at such a tragic and sad conclusion.
In fact, I must admit that it explains a whole number of my fears and anxieties around loss and separation.
I think it is a most beautiful story. Even in its sadness. And I wish it had been on DVD all those years ago – because, I don’t think I would ever have gotten tired of seeing that sweet little girl picked up into her grandmother’s arms.