Today is Day 3 of my mother’s Birthday Project. (Happy St. Stephen’s Day as well. “Come on over; we’ll celebrate getting stoned”…one of my mother’s quips.) On the docket are 10 musical memories. My mother began her formal music training at the age of 5 when she started piano lessons. To this day, she plays and sings for the residents of her senior community quite regularly.
Her musicianship far exceeds mine, even though I have a B.A. in Music/Voice Performance. She has an M.A. in Church Music. She can improvise at the piano in various keys as well as play the organ: pedal keyboard and two manuals at once. I am “keyboard proficient” and can play the pump organ at the museum…meaning, essentially, I can read piano music and ride a bicycle at the same time. NOT the same skill set. My favorite arrangement is her at the piano bench and me singing alongside.
So here are 10 more musical snapshots of my mother:
1) She is a young girl, her mother calls out proudly, “Anne Louise, play Clair de lune.” She rolls her eyes. Not again! Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her play it.
2) I am a young girl, a wee little kindergartener. Mom tucks me into the bottom bunk bed at night and sings, “Now the day is over/ night is drawing nigh/ shadows of the evening/ steal across the sky. Jesus gives the weary/calm and sweet repose/ with his tend’rest blessings/ may thine eyelids close.” She kisses my forehead. “Ni’ – night, d’good girl!” All is well. I hear her voice complete in my memory. Every note.
3) Mom is studying at Concordia Teacher’s College. She needs to do some organ practice, and I’m not in school. Perhaps I’m sick? So she takes me with her. The organ is enormous. The room is large and institutional. I sit beside her and watch. I am fascinated by the pedal keyboard. Mom lets me crawl around on it, picking out tunes. I play “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys, like I do on the piano. It booms out all over the room. This is great!!
4) I am about seven years old. I am the youngest member of our church choir which consists of my parents, my 3 older sisters, and a few others. I sit in the front row of the loft with the sopranos, leaning out to see the candles in the Christmas Eve procession. I am singing Midnight Mass with the adult choir, and I am going to stay awake through the whole service! How exciting to be allowed to sing out like an angel from up here instead of being stuck in the basement in the church nursery! Anthem’s over. That sure was fun! There’s a pile of coats in the corner of the pew….my, I’m feeling sleepy. I’ll just rest a bit before the next hymn…oh! What? We’re going home now? Did I miss the recessional? Drat!
5) I am about eleven years old. I’ve been taking piano lessons for 3 years. I practice before school every morning, while Mom washes the breakfast dishes in the kitchen. I am out in the living room, struggling away with a new piece. I hear Mom calling out from behind the swinging kitchen door, “It’s F-sharp, Priscilla! Look at your key signature.” I look. She’s right. How did she know that from the other room?! I am trying to play a piano reduction of Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli. I can’t get the stresses right to make the piece dance. It comes out stiff. I’m playing what’s written on the page, aren’t I? Mom comes in, “Think of it this way…try singing in your head… cot-tage cheee-eese, cot-tage cheee-eese…” Suddenly, it clicks! Oh, this is that piece from Fantasia with the hippos in tutus!! I’ve got it now! But cottage cheese? What made her think of that?!
6) My mother and my piano teacher, Mrs. Lerner from around the corner, are in a community choir called The Village Accents. They are giving a little concert at the Women’s Club in that Frank Lloyd Wright building in River Forest. The family must be in attendance. There they are, this bevvy of ladies in skirts made of green and blue polka dots on white fabric. Their shirts, and the piano, are chartreuse. Oh, Lord. This is embarrassing! (Can you guess I’m in Junior High? And it’s 1975?)
7) I am in High School. I am dating a guy whose mother was a concert pianist. He sings in the community college choir and has a great voice. My mother highly approves. She invites him over for dinner. Afterwards, she sits at the piano and pulls out some sheet music: Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are”. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s a great fit – the style, the sentiment, the voice. I am in romantic heaven. Months later, he invites me to one of his Jazz Choir concerts. “I have a surprise for you,” he says and puts a piece of paper in my hands. On the program, I see he has a solo. Yes, you can guess the song. He tells me he’s dedicating it to me. Yes, that was Jim, my husband for 24 years, until his death.
8) So I go off to college to study, um, music. I’m 400 miles away from home. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my mother and Jim have been singing in church together and have formed, along with some other church music colleagues, a group called Renascense (or some archaic spelling pronounced ren-NAY-sense). I’ve done an entire blog post on this memory in the past, titled “Christmas 1982” and you can read it here.
9) Finally, I am a junior in college. I have just been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society. My grandmother purchased the gold PhiBet key as a gift to me, and I went to the awards banquet, alone. I’m told a bit later that I should come to the annual Senior Awards Ceremony in May, even though I’m not really a senior. Well, maybe I am. I have enough credits to be. I figure it’s related to the Phi Beta Kappa thing and tell my mother about it over the phone. “Just a bit of news, Mom. I know you have a 9-year-old at home to take care of, but there’s going to be this other ceremony…” That sunny morning in Southern California, I am seated in Balch Hall with the choir and all the senior women of Scripps, glowing with promise. It’s a beautifully festive day. I scan the crowd…and there’s my mother! What?! She came all the way down here for this little ceremony? The awards are given out. The next one sounds interesting: The Gladys Pattison Music award, given to “the most deserving student in the field of music for the purpose of enriching her music library”. Drum roll, please….yes! It’s me! I am surprised; I beam. Afterwards, I find my mother. She hands me a little gift. It’s a music box, wrapped in keyboard paper. I turn the handle and hear the opening notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Professor Lamkin, the choir master, joins us and suggests that we all go out to lunch…off campus. What a treat! I stare in amazement at Mom, who is not the spontaneous type. “How did you just up and take off to be here?” I ask. “Oh, honey. I’ve been planning this for weeks.” Oh. Well, that explains it.
10) And in closing, every medley eventually ends up with “My Buddy”. This is mom’s signature when she’s been at the piano a while. No matter what key she’s in, no matter where she’s been dabbling, she always figures out how to incorporate this theme. “Miss your voice, the touch of your hand, just long to know that you understand, my Buddy….my Buddy, your Buddy misses you.” I miss you, Mom. Thanks for all the music! I look forward to much more in the New Year!