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…!”
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.
At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.
I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.
When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.
The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.
Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.
I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there” so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?
You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.
When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.
Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.
It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.
By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.
Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.
The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.
You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.
When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.
The piano is in the formal living room and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.
We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.
Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.
You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.
We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.
I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.
But now you are not here.
You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.
This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.
Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.
There is nothing that can break the heart quite like music. Or reassemble its jagged, scattered, keening parts. It inhabits such power partly because music is a human birthright as much as it is any other creature’s (or element’s) within nature’s domain. Everything warbles, croaks, chirrups, bleats, bays, whistles, howls–something is offered up. Behold the loon’s peculiar call. The snake’s slither and hiss. The dog’s curious vocalizing. It is inside our voices, runs in our blood. Even the wind-blown grasses, fallen leaves and quieter waters have music to make. And when they do, we listen and it stirs us.
But the human of the species ascribes much more to what might be a simple rhythmic utterance. I know something of this, having grown up in a musical family and having aspired to become a musician the first two decades of my life. I hummed and sang as a little child and a violin was placed in my hands before kindergarten. I sat by family members at the baby grand piano and plunked along when I could. Surely all children come by music naturally, no matter what they hear, sing or dance to. Just watch them.
It becomes a communal state of being when a family is rooted, nurtured, shaped and bound by making music. It is a many-limbed entity that hews a major part of its foundation from vigorous realms of musical expression. Especially if it is classical music. Which means: in our house there was played on the stereo or via our instruments and voices an almost entirely classical repertoire. The exceptions were hymns, a little big band music and musical theater songs. The emphasis was on quality of musicianship even then. If it wasn’t very well executed, it was not abided.
It’s a topic I’ve written about and around countless times, attempting to clarify its meaning and impact. There is an essential musicality of life, it goes to our cores and impacts all cultures– not just mine. And then there is the breaking and reassembling aspect.
Despite being inundated by it, I stopped my engagement in music before I was twenty. I simply abandoned all this: private cello and vocal lessons, innumerable daily hours after school of redundant, critical practice, rehearsing and performing in orchestras, studying musical scores, trying to decipher music theory and learning music history, memorization of long and difficult pieces, performing in voice concerts and music competitions, attending workshops and music camps, protecting my fingers so they would be strong and calloused for heavy pressure and rapid movement upon cello strings, protecting my voice so it was responsive, resonant, accurate.
There is far more to it than this but you get the idea. The ultimate goal was to be worthy of others’ time and teaching, and especially of a discerning audience’s approval. At least, that is what I thought. Learning to play classical music and play it well is about many things. Strict discipline. Patience. Being able to take and utilize criticism. Seeking or creating nuances of sound even within a single note. Duplicating with exactitude a composer’s complex marks on a page. Becoming mathematically oriented and intellectually awake even while opening profound emotional channels–and all this while practicing the same measure over and over and over, then performing in front of people who may be utter strangers as if it was fresh and personal.
And the fact was, I adored it, despite the laborious parts or disappointments, tired hands or those failed attempts with a new measure. Music nestled in my bones, directed my dreaming, held up hope and resided in my best places. And I was singing more and more; it was becoming more compelling than playing cello, at times. So on it went, this life made of music among all the other activities of a child, then youth, those movements through time.
Until I could not do it, not anymore.
For years the drill went as usual, the pleasures were daily; it was nothing extraordinary. Many of my friends were learning instruments at young ages. In our city, elementary schools had music programs, courtesy of my father and others, started when children reached the fourth grade. If they did well on music aptitude test, they were given instruments to play throughout their education, though many bought their own before long.
Our own house held six musicians who were blood-related. (I often thought my mother might have been one, too; she’d played “a little piano once” and possessed a pleasing alto voice.) There were three cellists (the girls), one of whom deserted to play flute and bassoon. One brother played viola while another played clarinet and saxophone, then flute and more. One of my sisters, Marinell, was a very good pianist but became a cellist who played professionally in symphonies and chamber music groups until her early seventies; she passed on at 78. My other sister, Allanya, played sporadically into her thirties with groups. She also learned how to repair instruments. The woodwind- playing brother, Gary, revolted and only played jazz professionally; he’s now in his mid-70s and still plays often. Our younger brother, Wayne, played viola professionally until recently–also past 70 now–and still sings professionally. Our father played all of the above and knew how to play several more. But other than playing sax, clarinet and trombone in dance bands while in high school and college, he always played violin and viola professionally. That is what he mostly taught others. He also was a conductor.
So you can see how it was. We all played something; it was expected, even imperative. We all sang, harmonizing with one another around the piano as Dad or Marinell played. After we dispersed to other places we still would make music when we got together. This extended beyond our nuclear unit. My father’s younger brother was a flutist and successful composer (Dad was a music arranger, too) and his wife a pianist; my cousins have played cello and violin professionally. We have an opera singer in the family tree, Dad’s second cousin, I think. It goes on…
It would have been hard to back away from this life saturated with music. It never occurred to me; I was committed to being a musician then. I was passionate about music, happy to play classical. Things began to change a bit as I strayed into folk music by mid-teens, teaching myself to play acoustic guitar. I sang all the popular folk songs, started to visit coffee houses where singer-songwriters played. And then I discovered the joy of song writing, performing them as I could. To me, it was that happy union of two creative passions–writing (lyrics being a configuration of poetry) and music. But classical “art” singing had become the priority–or, rather, my father’s. I found it harder and harder to sing with hands clasped before me or at my sides, standing with erect carriage, my body so still. I wanted to move–I danced, as well–to express the music more fully. In community musicals I got the chance, so there was a small reprieve from the more rigid aspects of classical training.
Too, when Dad was home doing nothing much–a rare occasion–he would play the old standards from the thirties, forties and fifties on our piano while I got to sing out like a bird uncaged. And he did approve–just as long as I got back to business later. I understood that was frivolous singing, for relaxation and fun. It wasn’t serious music, important music, not to him. Well, this was no shock, but I resented it more as time went by and further explored genres like blues and jazz–but secretly. It was truly a forbidden world. I was drawn into its human woes and triumphs easily despite my primary allegiance to classical. Not that there wasn’t struggle, victory, comedy and tragedy in classical music–it was just set to another beat, was given a different sort of platform, had a different life.
It was clear to me that being a fine classical musician was my father’s true calling, and also the teaching of it, the nurturing of the potential of each student. He did what he was meant to do and was lauded and even loved for it. It seemed some of my siblings wanted to follow suit.
But as much as cello held my poet’s soul in thrall, it was singing that had finally overtaken me. When singing I felt like everything in my life was cohesive, aligned. Enriched and authenticated. Freed. I’d had good training and I had a rapturous desire to sing truly well. I performed often at school and community events as well as music competitions. I did well. But it was no longer about singing well to please anyone. It was for the music that I sang, for the precise beauty of each note and the moving, sassy, challenging lyrics. It was singing for life. Its wonderment and aching. By 15, I was struggling to stay alive due to abuse from outside my blood family and then a assault. It was becoming nearly impossible to always keep up a good front, to speak nothing of it. And music kept me breathing, kept me reaching for a better day. Singing was my lifeline in so many ways, as well as my solitary writing.
But it was that singing that I finally let go after a second rape, after the drugs and breakdown they brought, after I could no longer see the point in believing God might seriously protect me in the world. Sometimes life overcomes the very best intentions, even courage mustered once again. Its contradictions consume such energy and effort. I was 20, and exhausted.
After the grave woundedness and protracted healing, I tried to sing a bit more. Quietly, alone. It came out hard and slow, scraped my throat as if it protested against release of it song. I felt sick when I tried to sing more, as if all that music had slipped away, perhaps recoiled from my living. It left me nothing but a hollow echo and worse, it left me without the easy, spontaneous joy, the passion. It was as if my voice had been snatched from me, the essence squeezed out of it. There was nothing good to sing about or for anymore, not the way I wanted. I had not the stomach for it and, I realized, as many accessible opportunities. It would take such will and work. Each day living with music was both a balm and a bitterness as I felt it slipping away from my destiny.
I had longed to sing so long, so deeply that it struck me soundly with pain when I opened my mouth. So I became more silent, an old way of dealing with things. I stopped wanting it in the same way, then hated ever wanting to sing. It had become a wound that would not give up and close. I was nearly an adult; I had to gather every remnant of strength and move on, leave behind what couldn’t be repaired or reawakened. The life I rebuilt sheltered a tunnel of subterranean anger. It held the fierce resolve to never be caught off guard in the world or in my heart. It would take many more years for that armor to be dismantled. But there were better changes in life direction. I lived another year and then another, grew up despite myself. In time, there were other goals, college, new family. There was love. I sang for my children a little, softly; their very presence somehow made music flow.
Sometimes I was asked to sing but refused. My voice had lain down, made a nest in a faraway cave, wanted to sleep. And a singer who does not truly sing, cannot hope to sing true.
I hadn’t lost my belief in Divine Spirit, but gradually there unfolded a profound renewal of my Christian faith which had been hibernating, only awaiting my return. God had not abandoned me, never would; I had mistakenly abandoned God’s wisdom and succor, inviolate compassion and mercy. I realized again that though the world has few welcome mats for a loving, transformative God, I can still live as though God walks with and among us, in the midst of all the chaos and terrible disregard and grief. I can open doors–mine, too– to what is true and good, still, and work with and share what I yet have left.
But I didn’t rekindle that potent spark of desire needed to sing–really sing. I may have given it away without fully understanding it– to weariness, to a leave-taking of youth, to old scarring that no longer meanly defined me. I remember walking away from my music and singing, as if from a dearly beloved. As if it was a terrible love that could not break through the heartaches. I chose to give it up in the end, to not do whatever it took for my voice to return. Even though it broke the believer, the dreamer within more thoroughly. Even though I was, in spirit, a ready warrior, last to go down, rising up for one more challenge.
It was something I could not, would not, speak about other than the barest reference.
The decades brought what marriages and children, fulfilling experiences and new places, trials and more loss, happiness, work, sharing my life. I sometimes got out my cello, its soulful sound billowing in the room, giving me goosebumps and peace. But it was hard to keep up skills without practice, without performance.
I did not sing except for my little ones, then less, then nothing came.
Until something astonishing came to pass.
In 2001, after my second parent died and my heart attack in the forest at 51, I worked hard to recover. I took three years off work to find ways to sturdy healing and a longer, happier life. Prayed and meditated often every morning, read and studied. Briskly walked an hour each day. Wept more easily, began to laugh more. Created peace and found gratitude. Made it a priority to have a little fun every day. Traveled a bit more and reached out. Started to make art and take photographs. And I wrote and wrote, wrote a novel and more. That sort of thing–the good stuff we can forget or just put off. Until it’s clear you can’t put it off, not one more second.
One morning I awakened with music full blast in my head, songs I hadn’t heard in decades. I barely had my eyes open when I began to sing, still in bed. They were the old standards I used to sing with my father, at first. The songs just slid out between my lips. I was sure they would disappear but no, I got up and they kept coming. I sang right out loud in the shower as if I had never stopped singing. My voice didn’t hurt, it wasn’t strained, it was on key. I was no longer a soprano but an alto–that was alright. I kept on, not laboring over notes, not trying to remember more songs. The songs arrived like they wanted to be sung. I was entirely happy with this, to have so much music rise up and be freed. To know it deeply again, to feel that rumble of air, recognize notes intimately as they swirled about and rose from my innermost being and then–that sharing of light and life. Oh, Lord. That perfect melding of heart, mind, body and soul given sound! And I knew I was all put back together. The old terrible things were just ghosts that had no songs of their own but now my music was back.
Music, it has always seemed, is God’s mouth.
I didn’t go on to become a fabulous singer in my fifties. Those lovely songs lasted for a few months. I find I can sing more easily at church whenever I attend–I had been used to feeling breathless and constricted. I also joined two choirs but the repertoires–classical– weren’t what I wanted, anymore. I enjoyed the seasons but did not return.
I believe, though, that the sudden gift of singing made serious repairs in my physical and emotional heart. It opened wider and then gentled and fortified my soul. That late-coming, magical time of having an easy, rich voice came to an end as mysteriously as it began. Now I hum about the house. I am a quite good whistler. Half-sing along with snatches of music I enjoy. I might even put on a CD and let loose when I’m alone. But more often I do not. There is a small empty room inside me, that holds my singing. I keep it well tended, but the door is barely cracked.
I don’t make music with my family members now. I might, but it’s alright like this. They’ve been living their musical lives and I have lived mine in my way. We are ever attached soul-to-soul by inherited abilities and adoration of music, by the ways we yet make it and inhabit it. Or to it. For this alone, I love them well.
The result of all this is that not singing as I once sang (and hoped to sing) doesn’t hurt nearly so much. In fact, it doesn’t reduce me to tears, anymore. We all make choices whether we grasp the truth of it or not. Things get left behind. Or certain manifestations of our dreams slip away. It was likely that all that music played and created and sung was enough–for that time, for those needs.
My cello now reminisces in its case, is stained with the lost heat of my fingers, the sweat of my chest. My singer’s voice sneaks out now and then and sometimes startles me with its vivacity. And I attend great concerts performed by others. I hear music daily on the radio and computer, play my stacks of CDs. I listen to two primary genres: jazz and classical. Anything that catches my attention I will give a serious listen. Love a little soul and bossa nova, flamenco and Celtic, indigenous, experimental, singer-songwriter, electronic–but that is another post: such myriad music I adore or seek. I would, I admit, still like to compose music.
But classical music….its complexity and dignity, its swell and flow, the mercurial shaping of notes and rhythms; its fractious and buoyant nature contained within the bounds of deep structure, like an elegant sound architecture in wilderness…It yet serves me well and has my devotion.
But I would have sung jazz if I had found my way to it.
Here’s the thing: music is everywhere, moving us. That is its power and mystery. Its gift to us mortals. How can we all not hear it in our waking or sleeping, in our plodding, seeking lives? It is a primal connection to all. And I don’t have to even sing it to stay alive, anymore. It will go on within me or without me; it sings me–and surely you–through each moment. Will do so until eternity where there is surely an extravagance of music.
Beneath the print of Diego Rivera’s “The Flower Seller” and behind the African drum stands my cello, safe and silent. It is now enclosed in a hard storage case that my father gave me in 1984. If I had only had that case before the move to Tennessee, when a moving company delivered my cello in pieces to our newly purchased home. They had failed to properly pack the cloth case and fragile body within, but it was I who had exposed it to danger by not taking better care from the start. Or so it felt.
I took in the wreckage swiftly. The graceful neck broken from its body. The once smooth back jaggedly split in three places. Graceful curves of the front of the cello nearly collapsed under a failing sound post. The perfect bridge which held the strings in place now just gone. My own flesh and bones recoiled. I left the house and family to take in gulps of open October air, too warm in a strange land. Devastation trailed me. I wept the tears of one who had lost her beloved, bitter sobs slowing to moans. My children were held back by my husband as I lay on a porch.
What was left of my cello was sealed away in its soft case, pressed into a dark corner of a walk-in closet behind a box of shoes and purses. The maiming of my cello felt like an omen of worse to come but there was little time to worry. Within the day I was immersed in mothering and adjusting to our new community. I pushed away the lingering sorrow. A task I dreaded was telephoning my father, giving him the bad news.
My cello was his gift to me when I was twelve years old. I had studied music–a little piano and violin, a little harp–since I was old enough to hold an instrument for long and would go on to study classical voice. Making music was as much a part of daily life as hands being held around the table at dinner with a prayer offered or seven of us managing a fast shower in the crush of early morning hours.
I had begun more public playing in fourth grade music classes, the third of my parents’ three daughters to profess a desire to play cello. My two brothers sampled wind instruments as well as violin and viola. Since Dad administered and developed the public music education program as well as conducted, we often had him as a teacher both at school and home. I aspired to great heights–to play like my eldest sister (my other sister changed to flute and bassoon) at the least, or like the famed Jacqueline Du Pre, if at all feasible. So I devoted myself to it as best I could. The tedium of practice, the pressures of perfecting skills could be tough but I loved my instrument. Apparently by sixth grade my father felt I had made enough progress to graduate from the school’s rather mediocre cello, as he took me aside one spring when he got home.
“There’s a widow woman in Bat City who says her husband made stringed instrument and also collected them. She wants me to take a look at them. There are a few cellos. Some might be decent. Do you want to go with me?”
The next morning we wedged in our trip between his piano tuning appointments. I was as excited about spending a few hours alone with my father as I was about looking for a cello. I wasn’t certain I would actually take one home but secretly thought I might. A quiet man unless espousing on his favorite topics–including music, history, Scripture, science and math, and perhaps oddly cars and motorcycles–he said little on the way over. The air fairly hummed with our separate thoughts. I glanced at him a few times, noted a smile visiting his barely lined face. He bought, sold and repaired stringed instruments; he harbored a profound appreciation for craftsmanship. I suspected he felt like a treasure hunter.
The large, dusty attic of the woman’s house was half-full of instruments. I learned she had requested that my father appraise them before she sold them. I poked through worn books, a collection of porcelain dolls, a stack of yellowing Life magazines, waiting for the adults to stop talking business. One by one, the instruments were examined by Dad, his touch intuiting and testing, wavy black and silver hair shifting a bit over his forehead as he leaned in closer. He then pulled a bow across a few violas and violins and shook his head. He tried another bunch of bows, too, peering down their length, loosening horsehair on each. He was checking for any deviations; I had watched him in his home workshop doing the same work there.
I quietly made my way to the five cellos and plucked the strings gingerly. My hand rested on the one I was most curious to try.
“Find anything?” Dad asked. Anticipation seemed to color his large blue eyes bluer as he moved closer and stirred up a tiny swirl of dust.
I shrugged. He looked over the cellos of deep red and rich brown woods and then stopped at the one that was tinged a slight yellowish-green. Lifted it from its resting position. The one that had drawn me to it.
“That’s the one I wanted to try,” I said shyly.
“Well, time to see what it does.”
A high-backed chair was found and I sat upon it with suitable cello bow in hand, the instrument settled between my knees. I drew the bow steadily across the C strong, then the G, D, A strings. The muted tones drifted through the rafters. I adjusted the pegs until it was tuned. Played a scale, then, encouraged by my father’s nod, a short exercise. The notes rang out more robustly, as though released from a long sleep. The sound rang out, warm and bright. With a sudden determination to make this cello mine, I played an adagio only learned a week before, the strings letting go a resonant timbre, the notes clear, sure.
“It’s a little homely, but I think it has a strong voice, don’t you?”
I studied his face, unwilling to make assumptions, but he smiled reassuringly and then–the giveaway–winked. I could not imagine that we had enough money to buy this instrument. He wrote a check then and there for one hundred fifty-dollars, a fortune in my thinking. They finished their business while I stood with hand about the fine neck, twirling it now and then on the point of the endpin, light from a small window bouncing off its smooth wood.
“It sure is an odd color…I’m not yet sure what that is…but he was an excellent craftsman. In fact, that cello is remarkable for the cost.”
“Thank you, Dad,” I said as we backed out of the driveway, waving to the older woman. He patted my knee and off we drove.
All this I recalled in Tennessee one day as I settled by the first wood stove fire in early November. It was barely cold enough, but the habits of a northern life lingered. The sunset behind the west woods of our acre dissolved in a thunderous, restless rain that stirred up treetops and longings. I had resolved to call my father, had planned what I would say. It had taken a month to develop the courage and my heart was jumpy. I dialed the number.
“Lawrence Guenther here.”
“Well, hello. Did you want to talk to you mother? All okay?””
“Yes, no, I mean, I want to talk with you about something.” My breath caught in my chest and any composure was futile. “It’s so terrible, what happened. My cello was broken when we moved. It’s all in pieces and I don’t think it can be salvaged. It’s just lost, Dad, gone just like that!”
There was a moment of dreadful silence between us before he answered. “How about if we come down to Tennessee and take a look at it?”
More tears took my words until I pushed on. “Yes, please come, Dad.”
I was thirty-four years old. I had not seriously played my cello since I was eighteen. Unforeseen events–assaults, drug abuse, failed marriage and a second one with dear children–had altered my life course radically over the years. I hadn’t done a lot of things I had planned like finish degrees or becoming a performer. A scrabbling, zigzag course had taken me far from the passionate center of my self: music. The truth was, I had been afraid my father would be angry at such carelessness–or worse, offer simple condolences and suggest I get on with my non-musical, pedestrian living.
When my parents arrived he took one look at it and shook his head in disbelief. He caught himself and sighed. I stepped away and chatted with my mother, waited from his pronouncement. At the end of their visit, they took with them what was left of my cello. Never once did my father say it wasn’t worth the effort and cost it would take to mend it. My insurance company would reimburse some of the cost but I knew it would take more than allotted. I tried not to think of it. He was a fine string repairman after forty years of such work, but I hadn’t known him to fix one that ruined.
After about two months he called to tell me he had shipped my cello to me–in a new hard case. He didn’t assure me it played well, only saying it was playable.
“You’ll see,” he said.
The day it arrived I was alone in the house. I opened the box and its new hard case, afraid of what I would see: a badly scarred instrument not worth the wood it was made of, a cello deeply changed and without its telling voice. I ran my hands over the shattered but now healed places, each rupture sealed almost imperceptibly. It felt strong to my touch and glowed, refreshed, even more than it had. It was all of one piece in my hands. More or less.
I rosined my new bow–Dad had given me one that was far better than I needed–and inserted the endpin, pulled up a chair in the living room and nestled the cello against the bony spot on my chest, between my thighs. The strings were surprisingly in tune; I drew the bow across them with verve, as if to challenge them to talk back to me. The first notes lurched into the stillness and I tried again, drawing horsehair against taut metal strings until sound billowed bit by bit. I ran through some scales, warmed up with an exercise or two. Then I played the opening measures of “Allegra Appasionato” by Saint-Saens. Then, emboldened by notes issuing from awakening strings, gave over to Faure’s moving “Elegy.”
Time ceased. Every fiber of my flesh and portion of my being were transported. It had not forgotten the sound of its own singing. My father had brought my cello back to life. I was excited to share the news with my family when they came home.
But I was right about the sense of there being an omen. The stay in that small town in Tennessee could be enchanting but it finally too trying, the weather too often dangerous, the kudzu and snakes and insects so insistent. As Northerners in a yet Confederate South, there was a loneliness that dogged us. We left after less than two years, cello and five kids and husband and all.
Twenty years later I took my cello in for refurbishment. The shop was in an exclusive part of the city and the proprietor was pleasant but unimpressed with my instrument.
Uncertain whether he would have time, he inquired about my musical background, I admitted I am a sometime-musician if that, certainly more a has-been than a will-be. It was a little embarrassing. I knew he worked with some of the best musicians and their instruments. But there must have been something in my eyes because he reconsidered.
“It’s always good to make music, no matter the age or circumstance. I’ll see what I can do.”
When I picked it up later and handed him a good sized check, I lingered a moment. It seemed to have lost its greenish-yellow hue. That didn’t seem possible so I didn’t remark on it.
“This is costing me a lot more than what it cost my father to buy it in 1962,” I said with a half-smile.
“Well, I can tell you the bow far exceeds the value of your cello–it’s a truly fine bow– but it sounds pretty good and it’s yours. So play it, you must play it to keep it alive.” As he showed me out he offered a real smile, his bright critical eyes warming.
But something inside me knew I was unlikely to draw from it the music I had before and left with sadness tinging my relief to have it back again. I was writing, I was working every day at my job. I was not really making music.
It has been over fifty years since my father gave me my instrument. He has long exited this atmosphere. Sometimes I wonder why I have kept my cello so long. Other times I wonder why I can bear to leave it so silent, untouched. It has a past that, though short of being illustrious, is not so unremarkable to me. It has played under the open sky and on velvet curtained stages. It has competed and won and has been attendant to the hurt of defeat. My cello endured all kinds of lovely and ghastly weather as I lugged it from one event to another. A lot of sweat. It was for years almost my closet companion, led me into a life shaped by discipline and challenge, a devotion to beauty that can be heard and felt. To moments where epiphanies awaited. Without my cello, I would have been far less courageous, found less relief and hope.
And yet I do not play it now, not truly. I have fewer excuses since being retired from counseling with greater solitude. But it has gotten harder to pull the bow (it yet bears a minuscule sticker with my father’s initials, LWG) across the strings and elicit sounds I am happy to hear. Every now and then, though, when the apartment has the sort of stillness that begs for the sweeping alto of my cello, I take it out. Play fumbling and coaxing until it sings a small song. It harbors that voice, brings to life something good and lustrous that has always been there. Something I had the gift of sharing just ten or twelve years with other young musicians. But more so, God, and my deepest self. So whenever we try to speak with one another, my cello and me–oh all that reunites us still.
(Note: This is a revision of my previously published creative nonfiction piece bearing the same title. It first appeared in VoiceCatcher, an anthology, copyright 2006. I retain the rights to this work.)