Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

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As wildfires in our county (in Oregon, so many places) threatened our safety, I got emails from two cousins I hadn’t heard from in years. They were checking in on me with concern and care from their homes in New Mexico. Shortly after came a package from one of my cousins. She’d found CDs from the 1950s and early 1960s of my hometown high school orchestra, which my father taught and conducted. I am not on the recordings; this was before I was an adolescent. But a couple of my older sisters’ cello and bassoon solos are noted. There is Gershwin, Dvorak, Bach, Mozart; pieces from Bizet, Handel, Tchaikovsky and more on the playlists. I haven’t listened yet, just gazed at them. I know the orchestra will sound very good–it won a fine reputation all over Michigan from the fifties on. I played my cello in Midland High School orchestra in the mid-to-late sixties. First seat, then second, then…well, I stopped rigorously practicing and competing with others by my senior year. And I was singing more and more.

What the CDs did, nonetheless, was reawaken memories of my family’s commitment to and love of music, the ways it shaped us. Though I don’t know Randie or Sally well now, I once did know them better–to love them was to love the music in their lives, too. My extended family enjoyed many reunions in Missouri where our fathers were raised as I grew up. Inevitably there were swapped music stories, and soon people played–just as we did in our homes if in different states from very early ages.

Randie has been a professional violinist and teacher all her adult life. Her sister, Sally, has made a career as a professional cellist. Their father, my Uncle Ralph, was a flutist and a composer with many published works, and a university professor. There are other musicians in the family–an opera singer and professional choir members, many instrumentalists who have played professionally. Nieces, nephews and on and on–we all played or sang, even without monetary reward. It hardly seemed we could shift the central focus from music. Not that folks wanted to, anyway; it was a major fixture of life.

So I am glad to hear from my Uncle Ralph’s daughters once more. Sally played cello in Bergen, Norway’s symphony for many years, then she played in New York, LA and who knows where else. Randie lived in Seattle, (where my cellist sister lived til the last two years of her life, so they were in touch often). These cousins seemed bigger than life when I was young–and, in fact, are six feet tall as were or are my uncles, father and brothers. (I am 5 ft. 2.5; perhaps I was 5 ft. 4, once…) But they were lovely and smart, as well as very talented.

We, as happens as kids grow up and move, lost touch. A childhood memory I have is of convening in my Grandfather and Grandmother Guenther’s white house with its back garden and front porch. We shared blankets on the living room floor at night, giggling and talking quietly, ran about and played games for a couple of days, music a bit less compelling under age 10. Our fathers made music; Grandfather shared thoughts and books(and sometimes his writings with me, an honor) and our grandmother cooked huge meals that we ate around a crowded dining room table. The last adult memory of my cousins and I together was for my Uncle Ralph birthday in Seattle. It was his 90th birthday, and Sally and Randie played a fine duet for the celebration. Elegant and aged Uncle Ralph sat quietly listening in a wheelchair, and he was so pleased we all came that could. (My Aunt LaVonne, his wife, was an excellent pianist.)

Musicians, then–even in my home town where most of my friends played instruments or sang–informed much of my life. Performing issues or goals, discussions of music-related topics, time filled with this passion and the increasing accomplishments. All four of my siblings played one or two instruments and later made money at it. Dad was a violinist and violist, an arranger of music, a conductor and teacher, piano tuner, instrument repairer and appraiser, and more. He was a man who was intimidating even as I found him mysterious at times and charming. I watched him often, head bent over a book or a musical score he studied for an upcoming performance. It was clear he had much on his mind, more to accomplish every day. He was certain about what mattered to him: music, providing for his family and God being highest on the list. In fact, that may have been the list despite having diverse interests.

One of Dad’s “side jobs” was repairing musical instruments, a fun thing for me if work for him, though he seemed more relaxed doing it. He specialized in violins, violas, cellos and basses, but it was not an unfamiliar sight to see woodwinds propped up–or, as the others, lying rather lifeless on a long table in various states of repair. Occasionally, a brass instrument showed up; his expertise reflected instruments he knew how to play, which were various. Dad counted string instruments his favorites, as far as I knew. But he also played trombone and saxophone in dance bands long before I came into his life–a revelation in my early teens. He even played them once in awhile for certain entertaining performances he participated in, like the City Band he conducted or a high school show which allowed teachers to also perform, called “Rhapsody Rendezvous.

One of my favorite things was to follow him down to the basement. It was like entering a country unto itself, populated by musical devices both beautiful and broken. I would stand at his shoulder. The not unpleasant odor of special glue he dabbed on seams of wooden bodies permeated the cubbyhole he called workshop. The overhead, flex-armed light illuminated a concentrated circle for close work. The room’s corners were swathed in friendly shadows. I sometimes fingered the instruments, admired their shapes and sounds. He got to it but with patience and precision but added very few comments, and mostly to himself. He knew I was there; he asked for pliers, brushes, clamps, just as he asked for tools when he worked on our cars in the driveway. He appreciated both kinds of work and I could be a helper if he needed it. And it was music-related without being music performance.

I loved being with him when he fixed things–it might also be a toaster or a lamp–because he was more accessible, down to earth, then; he could show me interesting problems to be solved and teach me things that weren’t lofty or important in the arts world, but in everyday life. More usually he was a man deep within himself and propelled by clear visions. I used to joke with friends that he seldom knew what I was up to–as long as I practiced my cello (my sister and I both played) and voice lessons, got excellent grades and was respectful, he didn’t notice much unless there was a huge crisis that he could not ignore–Mom took care of those, usually.

It is a gift growing up in a musical family, a joy that in time one realizes is not actually everyone’s experience. And it also could feel like a burden with its mandates to perform and do very well all the time, made more so when Dad intoned and thus imprinted on my brain: “It is a sin to not use a talent.” I doubt he meant to threaten or shame, but to remind me of the blessing of music and other innate abilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he might also say in his Bible study voice. But it still landed hard. Otherwise, he was the quintessential gentleman, a dreamy-eyed musician and amateur scholar of history, sciences, classical music and the Bible, a competitive player of many games, and possessed of an inventive bent–but there was no mistaking what he believed and expected. He worked so hard; he expected all of us to do the same, and to excel. To find fulfillment as he sought and often found. To use all the potential we could.

Music was so vital to my life that it truly directed and drove me, enriched and comforted me–and wounded me. I adored the cello my father and I bought together, to my utter surprise, when I was 12. I was moved by its large body pulled close, its resonance and ready responsiveness to placement of fingers and a strong bow across strings with sweeps of channeled emotions. I felt at home with it in my arms and greatly extended by its eloquent speech.

But it was singing that held me captive even more. Opening my mouth and throat and letting sounds smoothly, happily flow. How they could be shaped b y the body and mind to make all the difference in expression. I sang in every theatrical production, choir, and single event that I could. I performed with a trio and a couple of bands. I sang while trying to compose at our baby grand piano– but I dreamed of being a jazz singer, not a classical soloist. Jazz was not much played in our home, and never discussed as an option for us kids to study. Every fiber in my being woke up when I sang; life seemed much better embraced and interpreted. Decoded, even. It was also fun when much of my teen life was not. Human life was somehow magnified, cherished, given infusions of hope and joy with song. Music was, after all and no matter what, the purest form of love. So I believed.

But jazz, folk or pop music certainly was not what Dad planned for his children. He found these largely inferior forms, perhaps even inauthentic musical genres and only now and then did he grudgingly admit that there was other music that could be exceptional. There was one great music and it was classical–despite his playing in dance bands as a college student.

So I was bewildered why he agreed to play piano to accompany me when I sang–or he might even join his voice–old standards. But that was recreational, a relaxing downtime, not something for the finest musicians. It was like we shared a secret admiration of songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Embraceable You” and “Spring is here”. He smiled as I sang out, but it was understood that these didn’t quite count in the end, no matter how well I sang. He never deviated from the idea that classical music was meant to enlighten, challenge and enthrall while good popular music was “entertainment”, thus dismissible. I never knew why it had to be that way for him. I kept practicing my art songs, resentfully.

My mother–not a musician but a visual artist/creator/maker– all those years stood at the edges of our intense music making. Yet she watched, listened, intuited much–and gave out quiet praise, applause, was in attendance at all our concerts. She is who made Dad’s career in music reach a higher state. She is who believed in us always when we did not.

One of my bothers did manage to successfully move in another world to play jazz the rest of his life. Gary had a college plan of becoming a psychologist and he was for a few years. But jazz took him with it and that was that. I was thrilled to hear my gifted brother play sax, clarinet, oboe, flute, piccolo with bands in Portland after I moved here, and he sang, as well. He asked me to sing with him a few times–he was convinced I’d do well–but I always declined. By then I was 40, a newly single mother and recently moved to the NW. I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I did not want to disappoint him. Or myself. And, too, I was a little afraid I would fall back in love with singing. I could not afford to trod that route–and he played in bars while I was not about to drink again. I had to get serious about making money to support myself, a daughter and son–to just take care of business.

There had, in fact, been no dreams of being a singer since I was 20– right before my first marriage. I had learned long before how to not tell secrets. Leaning how to not sing was as hard, but just as doable. But to not want to sing? Incredibly hard.

It was a mystery to many who knew me why I left music almost entirely after a childhood and youth of being utterly immersed in it, and also having successes. For awhile I was baffled, but it was easy to blame various circumstances for not supporting easy access to music making. I sang to my babies or when teaching them songs; when alone outdoors; in the shower sometimes like everyone does; and when playing recording artists–comfortable favorites of 1960s, 70s and 80s like Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell; newer jazz singers such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and even–dare I say it–the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whom I still so revere. I was happy when I sang at home in those days still, but alongside the pleasure was sorrow. It was becoming clear that there would be no good opportunities as I became daily more domesticated, less engaged in the arts as I lived out my twenties. As I struggled with more trials and a hope of some victory over demons of abuse and substance use.

I rarely sang for either of my husbands–the first liked my voice but didn’t encourage me; it felt embarrassing to even spontaneously sing out. He was a sculptor; for some reason he enjoyed my occasional cello playing more. Otherwise he liked quietness, didn’t talk much–so liked that I wrote–some poems were used in multi-media shows we did. The second husband liked to sing and play guitar, but he preferred doing it alone, both at home and in coffee houses back then. He didn’t have a desire to sing with me, and it shocked me that even though we worked on good harmonies when he did agree to let me join in, and when we wrote a song or two together, he still wanted to go solo. It didn’t take long to stop trying since my voice was an intrusion on his musical domain. It was fine that I played my cello, again–that was another thing altogether.

It is possible that people give up what they love because they get worn out by failing to get what they want or need. I can’t blame my spouses, really. But once married, I didn’t often live where musical options or performances were well accessible. And soon there wasn’t time with a growing family and husbands often gone for longer and longer for work. I stopped singing even at home as children kids grew up–they’d sing over me as kids do without thinking anything of it, or cover their ears when wanting to hear something they desire. I put on their music and sang with them then.

But, really, I began to let go of singing by age 20, when it all got difficult. When it hurt more than gave me happiness. It felt foreign but it was how it was. I was gradually losing the joy of my cello, of song.

Traumatic events can cause people to go mute. Cumulative trauma may have caused me to lose the natural capacity to sing–certainly to be pleased and fulfilled by singing, and finally to believe in the transformative, positive powers of music in the way I did as a child, then youth. Violent or disturbing experiences kept happening one after the other. For me it meant that music–the golden power and instinctual ways of it, the inspirational wonder and bold stories it offered–leaked away from deepest self, my very breath, so that soon I no longer wanted to or even could produce music from my lips. A few years later, when I tried, I wept and so gave it up again. Even in church when I sang familiar, pretty hymns. Maybe I recalled my father told me that to not use a talent was a sin; maybe that haunted me.

It was just as likely I no longer felt worthy of singing. I left music as I had known it because it’s immense mystery and passion had seeped away as I battled with life, learned how to be tougher, to survive alone. It felt like gorgeous, lively waters eroding and then abandoning a riverbed, to leave it it empty and useless. It was a hollowing out.

I sang almost nothing (“Happy Birthday” to loved ones, a holiday tune with others) for over a decade, not when alone, not even a little humming along with songs. It was not in me. My family of musicians made their music, and my children made some music and I listened and was glad of it. But I was no longer a part of that major experience, that special tradition. I was adrift like a castaway, and I steered by sheer instincts more than with my heart. And I got to where I needed to go, finally, one step and a day at a time.

Life went on. Then when I reached my mid-forties there came the day when my youngest daughter, who did sing with a lovely soprano, decided she wanted to join a women’s chorus. She asked me if I would, too. Terrified, I finally agreed. I figured I might be able to sing very quietly if there was a large group. So each week I practiced with the group as I attempted to loosen up, to remember the techniques to sing correctly, as well as enjoy the songs as my eyes scanned musical notations I had only half-recognized, anymore. It got a bit easier each time and it pleased us both that Alexandra and I were singing together. But my throat–my whole body– felt constricted, even sore after each rehearsal. I wanted to sing louder and better, but it was hard to stand there and hear the music, to encourage any sound to come out. I thought, well, I am trying.

Alexandra took voice lessons. I wondered if the right vocal teacher could show me how to recover my lost singing voice. If someone could help heal me. But the usual excuse was that there was not enough money for that, other things mattered more. I was writing as I had always been able to write– stories, poems and memoir. And I was publishing here and there, had found good writing groups. Maybe written language was truly enough–I’d loved stories my whole life, perhaps as much as I had loved music. But more like words and I were kindred spirits/ comrades. Music was…different. After so many years of disciplined effort and a deepening devotion, perhaps I could say I loved writing more. Perhaps. Why then reopen the wound of music? I did try to sing alone, now and then.

But when my mother died (Dad had passed years before) whole songs came to me out of the blue even as I grieved a long while. It was distressing and wonderful that I opened my mouth and they were right there, and I found it a liberation. Why? Maybe the wound was turning to scar tissue at last, and so pain was losing out to joy again. Maybe I was letting go of the burdens and opening my hands to more possibility.

I didn’t become a singer, I didn’t join a fine choir. I just sang a little more. There may not be a clear end to this story. I did sing with another community chorus or two; it became more pleasurable each time. But I learned to sing more in church–the times I don’t want to cry during the moving hymns are more frequent. I did not take voice lessons. I have sung a little at home when alone, along with a CD or the radio, but not often, and not loud. I have sung to my grandchildren. I do not sing with my second husband, who is with me and still sings alone. But–progress. Taking more chances helps incrementally, though my voice sounds rusty to me too often, and songs need to be cajoled and teased, enchanted out of me. I often choke on words or certain notes escape me just enough that I have to stop. But I know I might start again, even if it is in my living room or in the woods.

I am remembering more how it was. In my late teens I stopped competing with others and working to be a classical vocalist. Instead, I let my body move to music and my soul tell a story and tunes welled up to take me with them, then out to the listener–it was for awhile that easy to sing and know happiness was mine fully. And the memory is good, even if the talent was forsaken, the passion turned off for later survival. Sometimes it is better to leave what one loves the most than to slowly starve from hunger for it, the terrible relentless longing. It was what had to be done, I know now, to get on with my life at 19– after another rape, a breakdown and addiction, slow recovery, then a marriage. Discovering the miracle of being a mother and the salvation of putting one’s self quite aside for the sake of beloved others. It could be done, living for good moments, for love again. I found new goals, explored other creative impulses and was glad of remaining passions I have been fortunate to enjoy.

At 70, I have made more peace with what was not and with what is. I see the great benefits of forgiveness of self and others, of overcoming hurdles and striving onward. I can see a wound as a particular kind of reckoning with self and the world, and its healing as a process of surprising renewal. The spiritual warrior and seeker in me has better implemented clarity and found more bravery. As with all things that matter, it is a fact that I left music, but that doesn’t mean it ever left me. It waits and lets me find it as I can, to experience it as feels right.

I feel sometimes that I may sing a little more, be more okay with what comes out in spurts and pauses, with breathlessness, even if made slippery with tears. But I am aiming for lighter music, simpler fun tunes, melodies for the grandbabies–and perhaps some small sharing with others if it ever comes up. My three biological children happily make and share music in one way or another, and so do their children. I asked Dad when he lay dying, as I sat with him awhile, if he thought my youngest should keep singing more seriously. I don’t know why I asked; he just knew so much about music, though he hadn’t heard her voice in quite awhile. But he said: “If she sings like you have sung.” It was the first time he’d acknowledged what was left behind, and also told me he always did value my singing, no matter my style. No matter if I loved jazz and pop and world music and blue grass, and all the rest–as well as beloved classical (which still often fills hours of my time).

This is some of what it is like to be born into a musical family, and given a musical inheritance. It is a love story of many sorts, a madness and and a celebration. I cannot be untethered from my DNA, nor divorced from my true loves. I will likely sing whatever songs will have me and I, them. Even if no one is listening.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Songs for Better Living

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The first time my fingers felt a surrender of the strings, it was like the world was flung into outer space and I was riding it there. The sounds were tinny and screechy but the action felt so good I did it again, my left hand’s fingertips straining against light gauge steel. My right hand worked to strum and bang across the strings and as it all exploded into the atmosphere my head and chest caught vibrations on a shimmering wave.

“Naw, not good– it’s either you or the flea market guitar. Both, I’d say.”

My brother Terry was propped on his side and leaned into the edge of the top bunk bed to get a better look at me. I hit the strings again and the sound wailed through the room in search of a chord. I placed my fingers this way and that and strummed twice.

“Give it to me.”

“Dad said I could use it. And it actually is a Yamaha FG150.”

“It’s a piece of junk, you know he’s always bringing so called vintage stuff home and bragging about his deals–$200 just thrown away.”

Terry stretched himself over the edge, testing gravity. I waited for his body to slither down, giant snake of a brother. I fought the urge to remove myself but too late, he landed on his feet with a thud. Pointed at the guitar. I ignored him and tried a few more things, trying to get a feel for it in my hands, in my head. Terry sat beside me then, muscled weight causing the mattress to sink so that I listed too far, into him.

“Let me see it. Please, knucklehead.”

I shoved him away with hard shoulder against his.

“Okay, Danny, my turn!”

I gave up, my fingers raking the strings a last time. Terry got what he wanted; he was good at that, like most things.

He had studied piano since age 5 and I played the trumpet and though we both performed well, it was Terry’s capable pianist’s hands plus chestnut- curly hair and amber eyes that stole the show. Not that he loved piano; he just played it very well, so now he was in search of the next big thing he might conquer. All he needed was a guitar and his megalomania would increase by ten thousand. Everything about him screamed “star quality” by age 17, my buddy Jack once informed me with a shrug, and he noted he had a younger sister like that, center stage all the time.

I took that in as Jack tried to slam-dunk one in our driveway and of course it bounced right off. Then I got one in, if barely. We laughed as we flubbed more–all irritations slid off his back, he was easy for a friend– and went in search of food.

At 15, I was not only inches behind Terry in height but a seeming lifetime behind in accomplishments. Unless you counted billiards. At least I had that–our dad had found a billiards table with equipment and in a flash I’d found a sort of sporting call. Terry rarely beat me. And golf, I was pretty good at that. Terry complained it was too slow a game to excite him, he’d take basketball, anytime, or hockey. But then, I was always the tortoise and he was the rabbit, Mom said, and neither was better than the other, only different. Okay…I informed her it just didn’t sound good, so please quit.

As he carefully fingered the 6 strings and tried to pluck a tune, I got up and pulled the curtains back from the window. The undulating hills radiated warmth in the last of a warm caramel sunlight. Dad was throwing Riley a stick, who dutifully retrieved it and waited for the next toss. They could do that for an hour, easy. I had been the one who threw the sticks but Grey Dog, our aging, grey muzzled Labrador, died last year and since then I’d lost interest.

We’d daily walked the hills, in silence more often than not. I told him things. I even sang him songs, which he seemed to like.

I swiveled around to meet Terry’s stare as his hand took a break atop the pretty wood body.

“You done trying that out yet?” I asked.

Terry strummed away. Though it didn’t yet make much sense, he had a smart way with it like his piano notes did, clipped and sure. He shook his head and grinned. I left him to it. Fought the urge to slam the door on the way out, so pulled it to a hard close and went outside to watch Riley and Dad.

******

I played the Yamaha when I could, which was more often than expected. Terry had gradually and miraculously forgotten about it. He was cramming all the time to elevate already excellent grades–the goal was to get into University of Michigan. He and Dad had been discussing the merits of studying law, like he, himself, did before getting into global economics. I was less of a student–it bored me. I liked music, played trumpet in the orchestra and wrote things in my spare time, just loosely connected ideas and thoughts. I tried my hand at manuscript notation but found it hard, with no one to get help from; my music teacher didn’t write or even arrange music, he explained, embarrassed.

Sometimes Dad–eager to reassure me I was loved despite there being a star player in the family–I made things out of wood, our hands working with the grain, piecing pieces of a design together with respect for the trees that gave up their beauty. Like the oak coffee table for the basement rec room. I appreciated the shared hobby but it was that vintage guitar that was best. The rec room was where I usually played when people were gone. My hands were getting it, how the strings worked, how the notes felt under the less tender pads of each fingertip.

I had decided that song writing was a possibility only after I met Nance.

“I hear you play guitar,” she said after school. We’d just gotten out of chemistry class and we walked down the hall. It gave me jitters walking so close.

I cocked an eyebrow, surprised. “And–so?”

“Just think that’s cool, that’s all, you should play for us all sometime,” she said and was gone, her arm grabbed by her best friend. She looked back at me and I looked away. She was too amazing to look right at for long. And I had grown two and a half inches in the last four months and could barely walk down the hall without tripping. Besides, was she teasing me? Had Terry spread things around, made fun of me as he often did? I didn’t trust it. But I wondered about love at first sight, heretofore scorned as a real thing.

One night Terry and the parents were at a basketball game–I had to beg off, saying I had too much homework to watch him play. I started to work on a tune. It was just a few notes that sounded sloppy but then got silvery, then there came a verse with a mishmash of words, then a passable verse. I wrote the words down, revised them, tried again, again. Then a chorus came right to me. My voice had gone and changed, gotten deeper– it growled and caught but I found with less air pressure forced through my throat it could sound decent. I practiced that song for weeks, only when I was alone, but finally it came together. A victory. I told Jack but refused to perform it for him so he dropped it. He was into old rock and metal bands which was fine but it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know what I was trying to create. I just did it, then did it more.

Once I heard footsteps on the stair landing outside the rec room and kept on singing, as I was recording on my PC. But I knew they were my dad’s by the way his weight slogged up creaking steps; his pace picked up as he hurried on. I almost wished he’d come in but was relieved he hadn’t interrupted. A couple days later he stopped me on the way to the garage where he was repairing a lamp.

“You have a feel for that old Yamaha, son,” he said. “It was a worthwhile find.”

“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.

I wrote, played and sang what I could never say to Nance. She was going out with a guy already, I found out, but I still could look at her, wait to hear her speak in a hallway or class. Her voice was strong as a brass bell when excited, then rushed easy like water over a hill; it was soft as a leaf falling to ground when she whispered. Her presence filled a large part of me but all I wanted with her just became more music. I kept it all to myself. Not even Jack heard those songs. But he did like the spasms of hard, fast chords I put together for him.

There wasn’t much else I liked doing and my grades showed it. I worried the parents would take the Yamaha, at least limit me so I vowed to study more.

“You’d better get on those grades, bro,” Terry said. “You want to go to the local community college?” He popped a slice of last night’s pizza in his mouth.

I grunted, shrugged, stared out a window in my second story bedroom. A potential chorus to a new song looped around my head as clouds formed and re-formed. I needed to record a few bars. But there he was, lounging on my brown plaid love seat against the opposite wall, big feet and long legs all over as he dug in for awhile. Taking up my time.

I sat at my desk, guitar wedged between bookshelves and bed. Terry had moved to another room years before but at times stopped by our original bedroom. Which meant, I pointed out, that I’d not entirely had my own room since he just walked in as if it was his, still. No one seemed perturbed about that though Mom expressed sympathy and asked Terry to be more considerate. I had to yell at him to stay out more often. Finally he’d stopped by less and less.

“To what do I owe the honor of your annoying presence today?” I asked.

“And he did it, Terrance Michelson slipped right into U of M, touchdown, let’s hear it for blue and gold!” he announced in a bombastic sports commentator voice.

I regarded him evenly, unsurprised. He was fist-pumping the air, screaming a silent triumphal scream as air hissed from his mouth, overjoyed and proud of himself.

“Congratulations, wise ass,” I said with a fist pump of my own to be more brotherly. Fair. “A few more months and you’ll sweating it out in Ann Arbor and I’ll have this place to myself, at last.”

“And you can sing your heart out all you want, I won’t have to plug my ears but no one really cares, anyway. Maybe you can visit me sometime–I’ll get back to you on that.”

“What?” My heart thumped faster. They had all heard me? And he never let on?

“You think no one’s around. You get so into it! One of us comes home and can hear you in the basement or from up here, you don’t even know we come in. Singer slash songwriter stuff, huh?… What’s that about?”

The sneer under the words–singer songwriter stuff; I was surprised he’d gone that easy on me—told me what I already suspected: it meant little to nothing to them, it was stupid to his family. Otherwise, they’d have said something, anything by now. The trumpet, sure, that was a worthy instrument but guitar and songwriting? I flushed, studied my hands. I had great callouses now, the strings never bit flesh as they once had. My fingers fit with those strings.

Terry sat up, guzzled his soda. “You can do a lot better than that, right? I’m glad you got into the guitar, though–not my thing, too busy, anyway. Makes Dad feel good that someone uses it. ” He surveyed the bedroom, looked at me a beat or two and laughed. “A few more months, Danny boy, and I’ll be outta here!” He rolled off the couch, squashed his soda can and tossed it at me, then exited.

I shouted after him, “Guess what, it’s blue and maize, idiot, not gold– look it up!”

The room was so quiet then I already knew how it’d be when he was at U of M. Peaceful. Maybe lonely, occasionally. But I sincerely doubted that. I might let my music be heard by the parents, test it out. Maybe. I was tired of hiding what mattered most. Tired of being afraid to show who I was, not a rock ‘n roller like my brother and friends admired. I was, basically, a sort of poet who loved music, and if that felt awesome in deeper reaches of me, it was also terrifying.

And I was not going to college. I had to break this to our parents before long. I was going to make a lot more music. And make a basic living doing it. I could think of nothing else I wanted to do.

******

This stage was like every stage but smaller. Intimate, homey. The capacity crowd was cheering like every other audience, enthusiasm spilling over into manic energy, but the massive roar felt softer inside me than usual adrenaline surges in my body and mind. This time it was the hometown stage.

This time I had nothing to prove, right?

Yet even as I played as always, my head was bowed less toward the mike, there was less of my usual closed eyes–and before long rose an intensity that at times had been lacking as we toured. It was as if I needed to come home after the years of struggle, then success that I sweated to maintain. I wanted this audience to know that this–this was exactly what I had been made to do all those years when nobody knew me. When my music was kept under lock and key. The boy who was becoming the man whose music they now danced to–the kid transforming while no one noticed. Even, it seemed, my family.

I looked over the crowd, scanning, scanning as the band played and we sang out, music rising and falling. I had called my parents and we’d chatted–they were mildly supportive once they’d heard my earliest music, and more so when I started to make a decent living. I’d not gone to the house as they’d moved, it wouldn’t be the same; we were flying out early morning, too. Instead, we’d had an early dinner and a good catch-up. They’d be out there just as they had been at a handful of other concerts. “That Yamaha FG150,” Dad always said with a happy shake of his head.

I hadn’t heard from Terry in well over 2 years–he was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, married, had a son. He’d called and congratulated me on our second, more lucrative album and I’d sent kudos when he joined a good law firm–but we had little more to say.

Neither of us was to to blame. He was another kind of person, ambitious in another way– for our parents, for himself. I couldn’t share music twelve years ago; it hadn’t felt real or nearly good enough. Life felt so tentative then, made of dreams and longing, like a shaky attempt at a magic wish. Now music lived in my days and nights; it was the whole of it.

My band, Dan and the Grey Dogs, had made three albums in seven years. We had traveled thousands of miles, lost track of the countries, found ourselves with more money than we’d dreamed of having. I was doing what I had desired, and this great band had made every laborious moment and crazy dream connect and it worked. I sang out. My guitar cried and soared, quieted and called out– and the other guitar and percussion lines rose up, turned this way and that, unreeled the notes and carried the tunes into the universe.

The crowd was swaying, jumping about, calling back to us. I closed my eyes again, let my voice respond, guitar riffs reach out to grab or caress: this language that had given life to a boy’s lovelorn poems told broader, deeper stories. Stories I no longer needed to hoard or protect.

Back to our dressing room. Squeezed between band members. I threw my arms around each, thanked them as always. Jokes and criticisms, relief of laughter. Beers passed around. A loud knock on the door, three times. Our manager answered as we seldom saw fans at a dressing room. I ran my hand through dripping hair, grabbed a towel for my face, took off my soaking shirt and rubbed down, leaned against the wall. Waited.

“Dan, hey-is that you?” He glanced at me, then all over the space and back to me. Stared as if surprised to see me there in the flesh at last. As was I, him.

“Terry… come on in! My brother, guys.”

They nodded at Terry, a couple slapped him on the back, then the band melted away from us.

He looked too big in the noisy, cluttered room, sport jacket folded over his arm, shifting from one foot to another as the door closed, his eyes squinting, eyebrows unsettled. He put hand to forehead, rubbed at a crease. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly and he began to speak, then stopped. I stepped closer, held out my hand, which he grasped hard.

“Great show!” he said to the band, then, “Good one, Danny” to me but without much enthusiasm.

“Thanks. But where’s… Iris…?” I asked as we moved to a corner, that had to be right, a flower, yes. “I knew you wouldn’t bring little Thomas if you came tonight, but maybe Iris?…I know I only met her at your wedding four years ago, but–“

“Well, that’s the thing, you never knew each other, did you? We haven’t been much in touch. And she couldn’t come.”

“Oh, okay. Sorry, I hope all is well.”

Terry looked past my shoulder. I followed his gaze. He stared into the mirror above the counter where we got a bit made up, blown dry and so on, and his eyes drifted from the strain of his face to tiredness of mine in the reflection.

“She left,” he said to my image. “Five months ago. She has Thomas–for now, not all the time, either. I asked Mom and Dad to not tell you.” He gave me a weak half-smile, as if this was all there was to it and it was what it was.

“Terry, I’m sorry, man….” My hand went to his shoulder but he stepped away, looked around again.

“I always wanted to play, you know, but I had a lot on my plate, not enough time and you had a natural feel for it….I had to be the lawyer. It’s okay, I’m good at that. Anyway. You always had more true talent.”

“Always? I did?”

“Of course, so I ignored you, at least your music. I couldn’t compete well and win, for once.” He sighed hugely. “Competition, that relentless engine that has driven me so hard.”

“It does most of us. I guess we succeed when we push on, right? And you succeeded in your work, too, so we both did okay.”

One of the guys from the band pointed at the door asking if I was going to join them at a local bar or the hotel or stay. I inclined my head–go on.

“I should go, your band is ready to pack it in.” He started to the door after the Grey Dogs.

I felt an urge to leave just as he did. It had felt very personal fast. Uneasy at moments already. Maybe it was enough that he came and said it was a good show. Enough that he shared a hard thing, the truth. But I didn’t know when I’d be back that way again or if I’d get to Pennsylvania in the next year or two. Or ever, who knew? What else would happen in our lives? When would we get to know each other as adults, anyway? There was no more bunk bed in our lives, no yelling down the hallway. Time took us down a damn big river and here we were, both mid-stream for once.

I swiped my neck again with a towel and grabbed a clean T shirt from my battered duffel bag and pulled it on.

“Hey, want to get a drink and a bite to eat at the ole Eastlake Bar and Grill?”

Terry looked at his wristwatch, said, “I guess, sure.” He tapped the gold and diamond face, “a gift I got when I made junior partner at the most financially prosperous firm in town,” he noted proudly. “Dad would love this fancy throwback of a watch, right?”

“Just what I was thinking! It’s pretty nice, bro, hang onto that. Maybe you should go see them, show it off. Now I say let’s get out of here before more fans congregate at the back door, okay?”

“Wow, impressed.” Terry gave a small mock bow but it didn’t feel mean spirited. “Please–after you, Danny boy,” he said for the first time in his life, and maybe the last but it didn’t matter, anymore.

We ran for the car, flashes going off around us, people screaming as I grabbed my brother’s arm to drag him faster along–and there was Jack hanging at the edge of a growing clot of fans, both hands waving, smile infectious as always. I strode over to greet him and thought, Lucky dog I am, lucky life.

Friday’s Pick/Poem: Bodies of Trees (for my father)

They glowed like sumptuous bodies

lazing along a horizon, curvaceous,

heartstrings stilled from neck to belly

as they awaited your hands.

Violins wounded and worn out

were lain on the table, spruce or willow

parted from maple, ebony fingerboard set aside.

Burnished by use, flame and curl of grainings

brightened in a small pool of yellow light.

I handed you tools that pried, filed, shaved,

smoothed, fragile curlicues falling,

glue pot bubbling its tangy stink.

Your voice pianissimo, calando, as always

now more so as you split, rejoined wood

tenderly, and through thickened air it all

spread to me, the longing for symmetry of beauty,

its promise of more, all emptiness resonant

with respect for wonder,

and deft measures of love.

Tonight I rest inside this poem, watch trees,

maples shaking leaves as percussion,

pines gathering notes of blue shadow,

willows draping skirts for dancing.

The crickets call me closer to twilight.

And I know you were not satisfied

with hours of exquisite work, nor

your good, honest music making

nor the lives of your children of whom

you knew far less yet expected much more

but I tell you these trees are yet singing,

a timbre of richness and strength of the wood

and it takes hold of me as sudden light in

this deep forest, its vibrancy a sound post

for spirit, life’s movements a vibration

I claim, hum, can sing in kind solitude.

They are made of every song you taught me

and every song I did not share.

The bodies of trees ever pull me,

a living offering of grace,

their sacrifices never forgotten

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

Play It Andante, Play It Allegro, Just Play On

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.

Marinell life pics 001
Marinell as a young woman