Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: The Power of Humblest Mementos

I listened closely and yes, it was for certain her hands on those ivory and ebony keys. Then her speaking voice. I pushed “play” on my iPhone’s voice memo files again. And again. Marinell, my sister, was playing an old standards song, “Stairway to the Stars”, on her lustrous grand piano. It took up a living room corner in one house, then inhabited its own room in another–and was sold, to my private dismay, before she and her husband moved to Texas.

The song was a little slower, more richly nuanced than it is often played or sung (Ella Fitzgerald did a more chipper version), and that was part of her piano skill with popular music, a more languid, casual, endearing coloration of notes. She had her own brand of soul stirred and shined up by a certain frisky but sweet touch as such a song as this deserves, if not requires. It lends a gorgeous sound, warmly so.

At the end of the song, she laughs–that light yet expressive sound– and says it wasn’t so good, but I shout out a muted exclamation of “Yay!” It has long been a favorite of mine and we long shared this love of standards.

As a child and youth I learned to sing whole collections from this era at Dad’s or Marinell’s elbow on the piano bench. I once thought this could be the music I’d sing for a living with luck and more hard work. Thus, the genre gives me uniquely good sensations as much as does classical music, my first old love and later, jazz (only a hop and skip away from the standards). I’ll find myself humming or singing snatches to myself even now when no one is near. I could only sing out with my sister’s accompaniment, though, as years passed. I trusted her, felt at ease making music with her.

To hear this, then, nearly three years after her passing from pneumonia and multiple heart attacks far from me in Texas is an unexpected treasure held close. Those simple and good times we had at her piano! And when more of our whole family gathered it made for a booming, harmonized chorus. She sometimes sang along as she played. I wish now I’d recorded the rare times we were all together.

Last week I was scrolling through ancient voice memos–all the way back to 2012 (I keep my phones a long while and obviously memos). When I came to two dated 4/16/13, it was a shock. I had forgotten I’d recorded her playing. I have some CDs of cello performances, a couple other recordings of her playing piano as she was a professional musician. But these were quieter personal moments in her home. In time, there were infrequent sessions due to her health issues and I was barely singing, anxious to not display how rusty I had become. Yet perhaps I worried that there would soon be no more live music and thought to record the songs her long, thin, strong fingers produced as they flew over the keyboard.

It seems appropriate timing to find that mini-recording. I have been wanting to talk to her but of course can’t, exactly. (I do communicate with her in the ways people do who miss their loved ones.) I needed to hear something good, reassuring. I wondered if she was still keeping an eye on things down here, along with our parents– both gone, too…if they understood what I felt.

Two of my other older siblings have been wrestling with life challenges as they age. It has been like gripping a seesaw most days the past few months, and tossing and turning at night as I contemplate their lives, who they have been to me and others and what may be ahead–for us all. Time finally takes us to task, demands we face mortality. My only living sister has an unfortunate penchant for accidents–has all her life, with many broken bones–and has more often fallen this past year at age 73. Many times she also has endured car accidents and now deals with memory glitches due to concussions. My oldest brother is a lifelong, die-hard performer, a jazz musician, playing until six months ago though he is now 79. But now he has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and is not well and has significant mental health issues to manage. My husband works furiously hard at a demanding position and suffers wear and tear the last years before retirement. I have felt often sad, picking at the problems, making them more noxious and sore while not having any brainstormed breakthroughs for healing solutions. Then I turn them over to God’s wisdom and grace, hoping for better. And this is just how it is to be the youngest of a large family, I remind myself. I may just lose them one by one–this, although I also have heart disease. But we cannot know–perhaps for the best– what lies ahead for certain.

So I’ve needed to call up Marinell and have one of our heartfelt, no-nonsense talks or better yet, visit her (I’m in Oregon, she lived near Seattle with–also deceased–her spouse). But that isn’t feasible. Hearing her play and that brief measure of laughter–our sharing a few comments–is the next best thing. It felt like a small hello from her. I have this to listen to any time. Without that voice memo I might have one day forgotten the manner is which she played, along with the heartening energy of her laughter.

Sometimes a most efficient and satisfying way to recall the best of life is by revisiting the past with our senses. It often these days is by way of fast-posted photographs or silly-good videos, yet think of the variety of scents associated with people and places; the tongue’s recollection of tasty foods; the feel of something we touch that is so familiar as well as sounds galore.

I had a butterfly dress when I was perhaps seven years old. Whenever I gather and smooth between my  fingers a highly polished cotton fabric it brings the dress back to me and how special I felt, My mother made it for me. The cotton gave off a soft sheen (or it seemed) and I was enthralled by those colorful butterflies flitting across a white background, and the attached belt that tied in a floppy bow at the back. There was even a soft tulle underneath so that the skirt puffed out. I felt like a butterfly-swarmed flower of a human kind, swanning about in that beautiful church and party frock. I still find myself looking for butterfly decorated fabric, seeking a way back to love of my mother, that elated moment when I tried it on at first.

I appreciate all types of sensory cues, but it seems to me that the audible captures can be especially vivid, a gateway to memories of certain kinds. At least for me. A family can compile a history of valuable data or personal stories via recordings. I have been mindful of this option. Having sounds attached to facts and visuals is enlightening at the least and satisfying at its best.

I began recording my writing years ago on tape recorders. In 2012 when walking or driving I began to use the voice memo feature on my iPhone to record ideas–first lines, titles, a paragraph here and there. It is a handy help for writers. I’ve composed whole poems dictated from short memos. I have written, then recorded and posted a couple of poems on WordPress but haven’t yet perfected the process so it sounds really crisp and true. It can be helpful to my creative forays to record and replay a piece–the rhythms of words, pacing of line lengths and the internal and ending sounds of language in orderly sequence–it is all magnified, for better or worse. With music that value is self-evident, so useful for critical evaluation, a way to hone in on the faulty notes, a diminished execution or lack of emotive power.

Still, I use this ploy in everyday life. I have recorded nature sounds: from crickets to trickling streams and roaring oceans to bird songs and wind in a number of trees– so much more. On a hike I once desired to record a mother bear’s “huffing” sounds after I heard her cubs and their interchanges but became too anxious about proximity to pause a long moment. Drat that lost opportunity but I recall it well. I’ve recorded my children’s and grandchildren’s laughter, playful banter, music making. My husband’s twelve string guitar compositions as he played (valued more as he doesn’t play now). My youngest daughter’s soprano ringing out at concerts, belting out during performances with her old bands. I have on tape, also, a 1997 community radio broadcast of me reading my writing. It was fun and instructive. I am pleased to have it.

My father’s concerts were recorded by others often enough. Even though I can’t hear him conducting, I can in the sense that I visualize him standing on the podium in his suit or “tails”, nearly dancing as he moved toward the orchestra/ symphony  musicians and then a leaning away, lifting and turning and pulling the music up to crescendo or quieting it with his gentled hands and carrying the music through space with his body and the slight conducting baton.

Last year when my oldest daughter, Naomi, and youngest, Alexandra, were visiting, I put on a very old tape cassette for them to hear. I wanted them to hear just how real was real my love of music was. I’d stopped regularly singing (and playing cello) right before I had children. That is another sort of story that has little to do with them, but it is also true I’d determined to be a present and engaged mother– I ended up rearing five–and free time was scarce. Of course, the children knew I had passion for my instrument and for singing. They’d heard me sing at home, usually for/with them when they were little, sometimes as we listened to popular radio  or other music. And of course, singing hymns at church, the one time I let loose. But as a youth and young adult I had often performed and had embarked on a path to become a dedicated, skilled songwriter. So, when they were together and our home was otherwise vacated, I got out one tape I’d found in a box of miscellaneous others. They sat on the floor as I got it started in our stereo equipment. I briefly explained: me singing, something I’d written long ago but taped when 28 for my parents’ Christmas present. (I had inherited it when they passed.)

Soon my voice and guitar could be heard rounding out the room’s edges. I looked at my hands, the floor, the wall and speakers, as inside I was trembling. This was a great risk for me. I didn’t want to see deeply into their eyes, not too soon. Did not want to find dismay or disappointment. But when I stole glances near the end, I got far more. They were staring at the speakers with looks I cannot quite describe. Maybe disbelief. And yes, love. Maybe surprise and real pleasure. They seemed to hold questions, too. I closed my eyes, let the strength and tenderness of the song “Workers of Light” move through me, each note familiar as if I’d written it yesterday. My elastic and bright, emotion-imbued younger voice.

When it ended my youngest spoke in earnest. “That was so beautiful–and you’re saying that was your song? You wrote it, even played guitar? Why didn’t you keep writing and singing, Mom? I had no idea!…”

Her face registered deep surprise and eyes were gleaming. I looked at my other daughter as she turned her face away. But I saw her though her hair covered her eyes. She was trying to not shed tears. I let her be; she is a private person, does not always offer words for her feelings. I was afraid I’d start to weep, too, if I closed that intimate space between us. How to answer Alexandra or Naomi? How to explain leaving what I so profoundly cared for that it tore me up as I turned my back and walked away? I could not. Sometimes dreams are replaced by  other pressing needs and they become frail as wisps of smoke. I didn’t want them to think of my loss when they heard me singing but hear unadulterated passion for music and my surrender to it, a music rooted in resilient, undying love.

“I just wanted you to know more of what it was to me. Will always be.  Now you know there is at least one recording to play sometimes after I’m not around here anymore…!”

“Mom!…”

Alexandra protested–she doesn’t want to contemplate that I will leave this flesh for other realms. Naomi, who knows things about life and death in a different way, smiled wanly. We went about our day but a deeper knowledge had passed from me to them. Then back to me. They knew the truth of their mother more than before; I was glad to have shared it more fully.

This experience demonstrated to me again the importance of keeping record of certain moments–in this case, by virtue of captured sound– lived by those we love. Of what matters to us, whether human or not. And I for one would like to leave something for my family.  It will unlikely be much, if any, money. I don’t have a precious stack of family recipes, either, or pricey heirlooms. It will instead be reams and files of my writings (which they may toss when I’m gone, no matter), recordings of some music and writing, a few videos of me dancing about the living room (they know nothing of those, but have danced with me) and happy family gatherings. Photos of places I’ve visited and people I’ve known or just seen along the way and found curious and fascinating. Drawings in a sketchbook. Cards and letters, too, handwritten and sent to them just because, like ones my mother sent me (some of which I still read from time to time).

I will keep recording events to share either now or later. It’s part of a broader history, too, small threads of the far-reaching human tapestry, everyone’s common domain; I can contribute in a minuscule way. Mostly, I want the kids and grand kids to be able to recall how riveted I was by the magic chorus of crickets while walking in the warm evening. To realize that to move the exquisite body to music is to feel it all, exalt in life–in case they forget or need to find more joy. That their mother and grandmother is still singing to them, here or elsewhere, a song just for them. Such mementos can connect us intimately across time and distance. Just as Marinell yet plays the piano for me when I shall play that voice memo–a chance gift of good cheer, a succor when I need it.

And though he and his band have several CDs (the Kung Pao Chickens) out, I have made my own videos and iPhone recordings of my brother Gary playing his saxes, clarinets and flutes; of his playful, strong voice slipping around, under and over many great swing tunes at his best venue, sounding, well, entirely wonderful. Just in case. And yes, for posterity. For the family.

Me, the girl who did sing, age 22

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: The Power of Humblest Mementos

  1. Such a poignant post, Cynthia. Linked with your creativity. At 75 I have reached the age of losing one by one, although, as you know, my first widowhood was at 22. Mum is still living and has lost one of her five children.

    1. Thank you, Derrick. Such a young age to lose someone loved though any loss is sorrowful for us who remain. How fortunate that your mother is yet with you–I have enjoyed posts that include her! You must have good longevity in your family. My mother lived until 92, my father until age 83. But none of us get to stay forever, perhaps for the better.

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