More than two decades after losing my mother to pancreatic cancer, childhood memories of seeing “The Nutcracker” with her still come flooding back every holiday season. I loved the ballet, but watching all those ethereal dancers flit across the stage isn’t what made it special.
Instead, it was the joy of nestling against my mother, head tipped against her shoulder, as sparkling snowflakes rained down on the stage. I had her all to myself in those moments, and together we saw things we’d never encountered in our everyday lives.
For Xanthia Walker of Phoenix, it’s memories made with her grandmother that stand out. From the time Walker was 4 or 5 years old, she’d go with her grandmother to see not only children’s theater, but also the symphony and ballet.
“We would have these really amazing conversations about art and how it connected to the world we lived in,” Walker recalls.
Seeing the performance was just part of the experience, she says.
“Usually we went out to dinner beforehand, and it always felt super special,” Walker says. “My grandma and I used to get really fancy, and sometimes we went shopping for theater clothes.”
To this day, Walker remembers the white shoes with half-inch heels she’d wear to see shows when she was 8 or 9.
That bond remains today, but with a twist.
Walker co-founded Rising Youth Theatre in Phoenix, which pairs local children and teens with theater professionals to present works exploring tough issues facing today’s youth. Now Walker’s grandparents fly from Milwaukee to Phoenix every year to watch Rising Youth Theatre perform as a whole new generation of families makes memories together.
Like Walker, Joshua Borths of Phoenix has strong memories of seeing performances as a young child, including concerts, operas and touring Broadway musicals.
“My parents weren’t artists,” he says, “but arts were a central part of their relationship.” So Borths and his big brother grew up listening to albums from popular musicals and singing favorite numbers in the car. He loved it.
“We saw the symphony together,” Borths says. “And we’d always prepare before the performance.” They’d get the music from the library months in advance, and talk over dinner about what it sounded like, and what it reminded them of.
Usually they’d all be seeing a show for the very first time together, which added to their sense of family adventure.
“Our parents were curious,” Borths says, “and they wanted us to be curious.”
Today, Borths is director of education for Arizona Opera, where he’ll direct this season’s production of “Rusalka,” an opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Even now, after more than two decades, he and his brother, who’s a paleontologist, love seeing performances with their parents. Last year, they all traveled to New York to see the musical “Hamilton.”
“Our family vacations still center on the arts,” Borths says.
“Theater and cultural experiences are a touchstone of my family. They’re really what has bound us together.”