Christmas when Sanders was six his parents took him to New York. They admired the tree in Rockefeller Center; they gaped at the lights and the toy store windows; they ice-skated in Central Park. They saw the Rockettes, Joan Sanders’ dream since her own childhood. In half-embarrassed whispers she had shared memories of seeing the Rockettes on television, of wanting to be a Rockette, herself, when she grew up. Young Bunchanan didn’t see what was the big deal, but he understood that it was a big deal, and he, the dutiful son, listened politely, recognizing even at his tender age that his mother, all things being equal, would rather have had a daughter. “You probably don’t understand,” she said, laughing it off, and he shrugged and smiled to indicate that he sort of did, maybe, that at least he wished he did.
But the Rockettes scared him. He couldn’t have said why, but sitting in the darkened theater he began to cry. When it became clear that he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop, his father offered to take him outside, and Joan — Buchanan would never forget her face at that moment — Joan nodded in agreement, smiled at her son to tell him it was all right, but he saw the sadness in her eyes. He saw the disappointment of someone who, convinced that what she has is really too good to be true, is almost relieved to have it taken from her. And — for an instant — a flash of anger at her husband, as if he had planned his escape from the beginning, coaching the boy to cry and practicing his look of patient regret in the mirror, while shaving. Then she turned back to the show, and Paul Sanders led his sniveling son down the row of people who turned their knees to let them pass but arched their necks to keep their eyes on the action. They found the spectacle cheery and Christmas-y and not a bit frightening; little Buchanan Sanders sobbed all the harder in embarrassment. Read on