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: The Quartz Creek Trio

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The upright bass player, JD, was not in Quartz Creek Valley, New York because he had long craved a life in the country. Rima had dragged him there so she could nurse her mother back to health–hopefully–and give a helpful hand to her father. They now shared the 62 acre spread, and lived in the tiny cottage that was built ten years earlier to accommodate visitors and now themselves. There came with the shelter the tasks of keeping chickens, grooming and feeding and exercising two horses, tending the three dogs whose names he barely kept straight and a black, dusty one eyed cat. JD was okay with cats–they minded themselves.

He liked her parents, Neal and Emma, fine and the cottage was good enough–a nice change from the apartment they’d had in Pittsburgh, though so quiet he could hear his heart beating every night when it went dark. That was the worst part–the dark w hen in bed, lying still as can be so as not to wake Rima. For one thing, he was used to being awake until 2, 3 even 4 in the morning. And there could conceivably be menacing spiders creeping out from the corners, and random rustlings that could be anything from bears to racoons to snakes outside their screened bedroom window. They were in a huge forest. (Rima said it was just the woods, with meadows about, too.)

He lay there wide awake, then got up to sit with a book until his head drooped or another foreign noise shook him up. He’d especially never liked racoons, with their mean little faces and grabby hands, how they stood on hind legs ready for a fight he could care less about. They were welcome to his garbage, have at it, party on. But that was a city alley, not here.

Rima had been hesitant at first to ask him to go with her; he and the city were one, she believed. He could have stayed in Pittsburgh, yes. The truth was, his gigs had been less than satisfying and then he got sick. In the last month he’d recovered from a bout of pneumonia; he was still tired out. Not only physically. The club scene had felt a little stale after twenty years. So he said sure, let’s go hang out on a country lane, rescue your parents awhile. It made her happier than he had seen in years. So, Rima left her position as an Admissions Coordinator at a community college and he took time from from his most recent band once assured they’d take him back. They rented their place to a friend of a friend, packed a couple bags.

JD had grown up in Pittsburgh and though he had left twice before for a couple years, he always returned. And he had played in two bit dives, then decent bars, then supper clubs and cabaret, summer jazz festivals. Then strictly jazz clubs, at last. Not that he had trained for that.

Jamisen Dean Hardisty was the son of two prominent Pittsburghers (or Yinzers if you were truly local). By age 10 he knew he wasn’t meant for cello but the upright bass. From then on it was “JD” he answered to, and it was the bass he studied and played with enthusiasm. Jazz crept up on him. Before long he had a bad case of falling in love, and classical music, though it left its mark on him, was pushed to the periphery, to his parents’ misgivings.

Jazz was his life anchor. Rima often said it was his mistress, but in fact it was his first and would be his last love. His wife was his treasured everyday partner, his fine lover–she put up with his music obsession, after all. But jazz– just another category altogether. A different passion he could not explain to those who didn’t get it.

Emma was showing improvement after four months; the chemo was working. They all began to dare to hope. Neal was roused by this change and by JD and Rima’s help with daily chores so he could just be with her more. Although JD did mainly yard work and took the dogs out for runs, he had a quiet presence that helped steady Neal’s nerves. He was surprised; his son-in-law might be moody some days but he was rock solid, it turned out. Rima was the best daughter he could ask for in troubled times.

For a month, JD only played exercises, plucked and bowed whatever came to mind, then he took a break for a couple weeks. His fingertips softened and got grimed over from outdoor work so he kept to the routine, playing after dinner for an hour or two. No one complained; he played, after all, very well even if that music–the more contemporary of the stuff– was not their cup of tea. Sometimes he’d play a tune that Emma requested. it cheered her; he liked that it did.

So things went on like that the first couple months, until he got restless. This bucolic daytime life was not a comfortable fit for him, though it suited Rima. They got on well as ever despite a few misunderstandings about how to do things in Quartz Creek Valley–JD never would blend in–and she was grateful he’d come. Still…the music he wasn’t playing began to yank at him all day and night long.

And then one afternoon when he went in for groceries and a new hoe, he saw the woman sitting at front door of Enid’s Grill. She had ear phones on and was bobbing her head to the beat, and singing softly–he couldn’t hear her but he surmised–and her right foot was tapping away. Her eyes were closed. He stopped in his tracks, two big bags in his arms, one hand grasping the hoe. He wanted to run across the street, ask who, what, and why. Because she was not a local–he could see that by her clothing, colorful and verging on outlandish compared to what most people wore (jeans and old t-shirts and work boots or sneakers). And her body was full of music. And her mind, because she was surely another musician. Wasn’t she?

She looked up as if she had felt him watching, and pulled off the ear phones, lips moving to the lyrics and music she still heard in her brain. She lifted a hand and smiled across the street at him, then got up and went inside.

It took JD three days to find out who she was from the bakery owner where he stopped to get coffee and bagels often.

“Oh, that’s Kelsey, has a week-end house but can be gone for many weeks so we don’t see her much. She tours and such.”

“Tours? She plays with some famous band?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said, looking anxiously at the line behind him. “She sings but jazz or pop, not good bluegrass or–well, look, can we get a move on now?”

“Kelsey lives–where?”

The woman frowned at him then shrugged. “Well, JD…since you’re a musician, too– it’s on Brookhaven Road but that’s all I will say. Next order!”

The next day JD drove up her long gravel driveway, heart happily pounding in his throat.

******

Kelsey was not born a singer. Her father said she was, but she was born a dancer per her mother and Kelsey agreed, some of the time. She was so often swaying and turning about, tapping and swiveling and bending when she reached a year old and walking. Her feet were happiest sliding and stomping, her arms lifting and reaching to beats of cheery children’s songs. She’d hum a bit and squeal. But put on classical music and she was transfixed. She got so still that it scared her mother at first–it was like she was possessed of a spirit, she told her husband: “Look at her face, she’s seeing angels or something!”

He shooed her away and glanced at Kelsey with a pleased look–he knew she would sing even if she danced well enough. He could feel it; he sang once, after all, in the men’s chorus in college, but teaching suited him best so maybe it was her turn to sing on and out, make things happen.

Kelsey did take rhythm classes, then ballet and jazz dance, and she was good at it, everyone said so. But after her classes she’d put on the old records her dad had of jazz standards and a little opera and learn the words and tunes as best she would. By twelve, she sang a few songs for her parents and their friends on a bridge game day. It was decided: she was a singer and then some.

It was all in the body, that’s why she danced so soon–the music took hold and her nervous system worked it out, but then it went straight to the soul. She practiced and before long she was in a few choirs, then it was bands and she rehearsed and performed so much it threatened her school work. At nineteen she started to sing at a local Detroit club, a few songs here and there, and gradually, one thing led to another until she sang three nights a week with their house band. Jazz was what she did the best. Before long she was full time, then touring with this band or that, small potatoes in the beginning but she stepped up and up. Chicago, at last. A home base. She had no doubt this was meant to be her life. She travelled and made decent money. Each year she became better known and in Europe they turned out in droves.

And then a week before her thirty-fifth birthday her older sister died. The one with cerebral palsy, the one she adored and always visited first when she had a few days free. Ellen, with whom she shared all her secrets. Ellen, who had more patience and compassion than anyone else, and who easily made her laugh and vice versa.

Kelsey quit the band she was with and hid out at Quartz Creek Valley. New York, the countryside, far from the city. It was recommended by someone who loved to vacation there–“a quaint country village, an anonymous kind of place to relax.”

Kelsey had bought a cheap, ramshackle house there. Over time it was fixed up by a team she talked to via texts and long calls and she made quick visits. It was finally a good structure again, inviting and eclectic, a refuge from the stress of travel and performing too much. Ellen liked it, too, but hadn’t visited her there in a year, to their mutual dismay. There never seemed time enough, then Ellen was less and less well.

Everything came to a stop with her death. Kelsey didn’t enjoy eating as before; she didn’t want to go out with friends; she slept long hours, day and night; she had no interest in returning calls from men who had given off a spark. She knew it was the river of sorrow that carried her, that dulled her usual appetites. Even singing became less wanted, a guest that wasn’t welcome, then soon a bothersome ghost that could not remain unobtrusive and stay under the eaves to let her be.

Yet at Quartz Creek Valley she was removed from her large grieving family and from the hustle of the music scene, and from the endless sympathy of friends. This was a good thing, peace. She settled in and was relieved to find it helped ease tension and sadness–woods surrounding her, the creek behind the new deck. Her very house seemed to know how much she needed it and had been waiting, so closed about her in the green shady setting and held her snug, protected.

There was a second hand upright piano in the living room that she played sometimes, tinkering, really–but it, too, failed to move her to do more. Instead, she recalled songs Ellen and she loved as kids and teens and that made music come faster–and more painful. The best she could seem to manage listen to music on her iPod, let it all come as it wished, or not. It seemed enough for a couple weeks, at start.

And then that day the doorbell rang, two short rings and a long third. She peered out her window and determined he looked more or less okay, so opened the door a crack.

“Yes, what is it?”

“You must be Kelsey–I’m JD Hardisty,” he’d said, grinning at her as if they’d had an appointment set up and she was expecting him. He looked pleased. “Tanya at the bakery said you were a musician, and so am I.”

Kelsey opened it a bit more and stuck out her hand. His palm was broad and cool; she gave it a firm professional shake. Did this make them quasi-friends so soon? She took a deep breath, wary and impatient.

“That right? Kelsey Minor. And you thought…that maybe you would just pop on by?”

With a slight frown he noted her drawn, pale face, her pressed lips and bright hair in the sunlight, then let his glance sweep over the big, flower-bordered yard.

“I don’t know, I thought we might talk a little. Maybe I’d find out what kind of gigs you do.” He paused but she said nothing. “That sort of thing.” He hesitated again, stepped back. “I’m from Pittsburgh, play jazz bass–but, hey, maybe this is a bad time? If it helps to know, I am staying with my wife at the Lane’s house. Her mother has cancer…”

She tilted her head at him, then looked up at the sky, then at his flannel covered shoulders. New plaid flannel. So he was a city transplant. How could it help to know his mother-in-law was sick and maybe dying? It felt like a sharp pain in her chest. Still, he was being friendly, that’s all.

“It could be a bad time, all things considered, but maybe not. Go around the side of the house. We can sit out back.” She gestured at the corner of the house and went indoors, then came back out to meet him there.

They got caught up–her sister’s passing, his wife’s devotion to her mother and father. He had been there a couple of months; she had been there barely one month, had taken her time to wrap things up with her band.

“Millstones and the Feast, you may have heard of us…? We play more in Europe.”

“I have. Good band, I think one of my friends played with them awhile-Art G, drums.”

“Must have been before me; I joined them three years ago. I’ve sung with quite a few bands since I started out. How it is. And you?”

“The Evan Blake Quartet. We’ve played in Pittsburgh for many years. Hate to say how many. It’s a decent living, great guys. I toured once, too, but I got older, more sleep deprived and ornery than I wanted to be.”

He laughed easily and she felt his good nature spread among the trees.

“I miss it already,” she said, smoothing her long denim skirt over her knees, fiddling with a silver and turquoise necklace which shone in the sun. She then crossed her arms. I want to sing but can’t quite do it yet…You still play wherever you’re living? I mean, staying in good shape? I worry I will totally lose the skills. But not much to do in this little berg, is there?”

“I’m adjusting alright except for the nights. I play daily. Have to keep the fingers supple, calloused. Why don’t you sing at all?”

“I hum, I pull out notes, I run over lyrics. But everything comes back to my sister. We were that close.” She crossed her forefinger with middle finger.

JD said nothing and neither did she as the crows squawked at them from strategic perches. He was thinking how they could try a few things out together. He had noted a piano as he walked by the front windows. He felt that leap in his pulse, anticipation of making music with others once more. Even once a week, a couple times a week–it would feel so good to get back in touch with music in real-time, in the flesh, not just in his head or only exercises, some noodling. Not playing along with tunes on the radio.

But Kelsey thought of how it hurt to sing, how she wanted to cry when she sang, How to ease away from this, yet be kind to the guy? Why would she want to sing with a stranger, anyway? It could take a long time to mesh with other musicians. They had their style; she had hers. JD had his life to tend, she had hers. She did not want to get into their repertoire, into the intricacies of interpretation or performance, or of name dropping–shooting the breeze all afternoon. She had not planned this social call.

“Well, JD, I’m not much of a piano player, and my voice is on hiatus. Maybe another few weeks. I need to just hide out, you know what I mean? Sometimes we need to step back. I am so far back from all of it, I spend my time reading and sleeping pretty much, not dreaming of music.” But as she said it, it felt like a lie and she wondered if he caught it, too.

She rose from her chair and stretched, shaking her chestnut mane off her face and shoulders. When she turned he was standing, too, hands in jeans pockets, face closing, quiet.

“I see. Well, if I find a pianist, I might stop by again, okay?”

Kelsey held out her hand to him. “Maybe. I don’t mind talking music, I guess. Bring your wife–Rima? Is she a musician? Lovely name.”

“No, no, not a musician!” He guffawed at the thought. “Well, thanks, Kelsey, and take care, pleasure to meet you,” JD said, shook her hand, nodded and left.

As he drove away in the rattling truck that no doubt was his father in law’s, she shaded her eyes from midday ight that struck her square in the face. It made her eyes sting, all that streaming early autumn sun power, and the air cooler and richer all at once, and the heady talk of music.

JD Hardisty. Had she heard of him or was she only thinking so? People knew all the good people in the world of jazz and word gets around. He hadn’t heard of her, or so he said and so what, they were both working musicians, thank God–if not actually famous. She might be a little but not for now. She was ready to hibernate. Turn the lock in the door and close the curtains–that was the way she’d intended.

But his face–one that you immediately feel is familiar. The eyes…no rancor, no comeuppance, likely no big agenda, she concluded, other than wanting to play more jazz. He was likely for real, stuck out here in Quartz Creek Valley with an ailing in-law. In backwoods country, did they have to forget jazz?

What or who was she? Too damned good for him since she toured much of the world? Or maybe afraid she wasn’t so good, anymore? Or was she just worn out? Like her heart and soul had been overused. Now her voice was weakened, too. How much did it matter now, no news to give Ellen, no reports of the tours, no songs to share with her as she lay contorted in bed, the pain of it.

Still. It might have been his dark blue eyes. They were so kind it nearly hurt her to look at them. And she’d had enough of that. Did he play like his eyes spoke?

“Ellen, what can I do with myself now? Dig a hole and pull the ivy over top of me?” she asked, face to an empty sky. It was absurd to talk like that, wrong, even–but some days it was all she could do.

******

He had not been a regular in this circle nor was there a desire to be but there he was, almost a fixture at Frannie Palmer’s house. It had become a week-end thing, and she’d suggested it become a longer term thing until he got his feet back under him. All the booze-drenched parties, then his partner leaving, and his concert schedule heavier than was healthy–it was enough to drive anyone over the edge.

They’d finished a scrumptious dinner once again and were relaxing in the study, which was really a brainstorming room where Frannie worked on marketing and product development for body and face products. He picked up a jar and opened it, gave it a sniff, gave it the thumbs up and closed it again.

“That’s yours now, dear. Really, you have to get off the fast track and take a breather, Rodney, you can see how it has helped me! Anytime I’ve had enough I come to my country house, lick my annoying little wounds and repair any broken brain circuits. I wholly recommend it.”

He sipped his elegant goblet of red wine rather than downing it as he felt a gripping desire to do. “If it’s good for a CEO of a thriving beauty company it must be good for an aging bonnie boy slash pianist headed for rack and ruin from alcohol and a bleeding heart. Right? I swear, if Tony had half a brain he’d know what he’s missing, get humble and come to his senses.”

“You are neglecting to consider the upside in this situation, my dear.”

“There is no upside! I have lost the love of my life…and it’s all your fault since you introduced me to him.”

“Oh, do get over it. More fish in the sea.” Frannie jumped up and opened the French doors to the distant tinkling of the creek and a gust of piney air. “The upside is that you get to start over to a degree, alone and with a clean slate.”

Rodney felt the scrape of those words but ignore it, joining her. The air was soft and sweet and he thought how fortunate his oldest friend had this beautiful second home. Since she was getting older she’d spoken of retirement in this place but Rodney felt it was premature–she was too glamorous to take up residence in Quartz Creek Valley, surely. On the other hand, she was at least ten years his senior– and he was already getting grey at the edges, signs of loosening jowls. Perhaps it would be good to get a few things fixed – Frannie would steer him the right way.

He joined her at the open doors. “I think I’d like to have more fun with music, for a change. One can only be a classical pianist for so long unless you are a genius, and far more devoted than I tend to be…”

He stated this with wistfulness; Rodney truly did want to be much more dedicated to the finest of all performing standards yet had had to be. He had to work very hard to even remain where he was after thirty years–far better than above mediocre, of course, but also a very far cry from the top of the heap. There was always some up-and-comer to take his place, and fast. His days might be numbered.

“I’m getting more accompanist jobs, Frannie. My concerts average a couple times a week at most, in maybe eight or ten states. It has slowly and surely changed. The rest of it… all the playing for someone else. Not that this is so dishonorable…it takes talent and skill to play for the best soloists…”

She lay a hand on his back, nudged him toward the pool and patio. “Better to get paid than not; and better to play some than none. I know you, Roddie, you would not be happy unless you played something until the day you died!”

“I could play for old people, I suppose, if it came to that, just sign me up for the boomers’ dances and swanky retirement homes, darling Frannie.”

“You already play for old people–me, my friends and so many more! We love you as much as the rest of the audiences do.”

“Maybe more, ” he said with chagrin. “Well, I’m based in Coral Gables, Florida–as are you–so how can I lose? I always have a good crowd in that state.” He put an arm around her shoulders as they walked to the chaise lounges. “To think I almost like this place in the northern woods. You came from around here? I forget.”

“No, Roddie, I hatched from a golden egg outside of Chicago, you know that, and was born with this beautiful hair. It was hubby’s summer tromping grounds, not mine.” She giggled as she patted her champagne coiffure and then they fell quiet, at ease.

He stared into the underwater lighting of her turquoise pool and wanted to dive in and paddle about but he’d smell of chlorine, then have to shower. He had no energy for all that. He licked his lips clean after a last bit of wine, closed his eyes, leaned back and listened to the crickets begin their songs.

Fran cleared her throat. “Well, it seems I do know someone who sings, Rodney. She’s had a vacation home here for some time but often is gone on tours. I saw her yesterday. Kelsey Minor.”

“Hmm, never heard of her.”

“She’s a jazz singer.”

“Oh, swell. No arias to belt out for me?”

“Rodney Cannon, you really must ease off the snobbery-“

“Says the pot to the kettle–“

“–because she is that good. Maybe that would cheer you up. I can call her tomorrow, set up a meeting. Maybe you can even do a run-through with our piano.”

Rodney grunted. He was busy feeling wine loosen every muscle and then every knot that squeezed his overwrought mind. “Maybe.” He yawned. “Sure, why not…you often know best, Frannie.”

She smiled to herself and got up to dip her toes in the water. Mission accomplished.

And that was what sealed it, Rodney realized later.

******

The first time they all got together at Fran’s–she had that shiny grand piano–thanks to her determination and Rodney’s charm–it seemed like a madhouse. Kelsey was trilling away between scales and vocal exercises. JD was tuning and retuning, then playing tunes with pizzicato as if the strings were wild things to be tamed, while Rodney was working on chord progressions that sounded as if they might be be overjoyed to be let lose in a cathedral. But when all got quiet, they tossed around ideas and settled down some though no one wanted to take the lead.

“Well, how about just trying an old standard?” JD suggested.

“How old do you mean?” Rodney asked. “I only do old, that supreme age from when my father loved standards.”

“You know, like Sinatra?” Kelsey suggested, eyebrow raised as Rodney looked at his hands with a smirk. “Or-okay, then, earlier?”

JD had been scrutinizing Rodney from the minute he came in. “Do you even play jazz, my friend? I mean, not can you imitate it… can you play it?”

“Yes, bud, I do play it when I run out of my usual classical repertoire and every one is begging for more…” Rodney’s words held an edge.

Rodney suspected JD was like every other jazz club musician he’d come in contact with–maybe three or four of them, anyway. Leaning towards arrogance and cloaked in a ultra calm cool. Kelsey was nicer so far but she had probably been trained to be nicer from the cradle, sadly.

JD suspected Rodney was once deemed too fabulous for his own good, and his classical rigor stymied all hope of experimentation. But JD was willing to give it a try. He’d had cello lessons for years as a youth, after all, but he wasn’t sharing that with Rodney. The guy ought to know better.

“Come on, you idiots, let’s get the music going or give it up!” Kelsey bellowed, hand to weary head. “I don’t have the wherewithal to play games. It’s hard enough to consider singing much less with bickering men…”

Both men shut their mouths, composed themselves and were sheepish. Kelsey was, then, not just a lovely gal with impeccable manners–all the better for it, Rodney decided. It took grit to keep in the game.

“Suggestions, then?” JD asked.

“‘April in Paris’? ‘Stairway to the Stars’?” Kelsey said.

“Right,” JD agreed and picked up his bass bow.

Rodney flexed his hands, lay fingers atop piano keys and soon the familiar tune of “April in Paris” was slipping into the dimly lit room like a somewhat crumpled satin ribbon.

Kelsey hummed at first, voice warming a bit more each measure as the musician found their places, out of sync at times but urging themselves closer to the heart of melody, the luxurious beauty of sweetly emphasized notes. They were professionals; they knew how to do this, even Rodney, who was surprisingly adept at the genre. And it seemed they might have promise.

Then Kelsey opened her mouth wide and the richness of her alto suffused the spaces like liquid into hands. The men puzzled out and played with each other’s lines and her interpretation. She, however, soon shaped it, the song growing, breathing, her command of her instrument creating an embraceable tune. It was an offering to them– as if she was singing of their times in Paris, their love affairs as well as hers–and many others’. She swayed to the music, her body gone fluid, too, and they all leaned toward one another, face to face, sounds to sounds, following each other down flowing measures, and to the tender end.

Rodney dabbed at his eyes, then sat up tall. He smoothed his pants legs and nodded at them. Kelsey and JD nodded back, not entirely displeased.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s try it again… JD?”

JD led them into the melody and they were off once more, fewer odd bumps, more attentiveness to one another and the song. Then again they ran through it, embellishing here, simplifying there, interweaving, correcting, emoting more but not too much, making the song a lovelier thing.

Frannie was at the back of the room with Rick, her husband, who had come to the house after a trip to and from Columbus. He leaned against a wall, her hand in the crook of his white shirt-sleeved elbow. As the song started up once more, he took her in his arms and they danced ever so quietly, careful not to disrupt the trio, their movements restrained in the small area.

She patted him on the back as he deftly stepped along with her. “Now that’s a great tune, wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed Frannie, let’s keep them on, shall we?”

She hummed along in his ear, and he kissed her plump cheek.

Frannie Palmer, CEO, was also quickly planning how she could get them to form a new band, then market them to friends. And, of course, beyond.

One day, she dreamed. For al her brusqueness and learned gentility, she was often just a gladdened dreamer.

******

That was the start of it, the Quartz Creek Trio. They played every day after that. The name was suggested by Rima, who was glad JD had a purpose other than labors he’d been willing to do (basically forced to do) in that dull, jazz-club-less country life.

JD was encouraged to slough off chores. The family was getting back to a more normal routine. He was so grateful that he yet took the dogs for runs morning and night, still mowed the yard weekly and continued to grocery shop for them. Rima foresaw their moving back home by early to mid-November–he had gigs galore then what with holidays. But for now, peace and easier days reigned.

Kelsey got up in the morning and attended to a healthy bowl of oatmeal and toast, then ran a couple of miles and finally practiced, banging away at her second hand, tuned up piano as needed. She found her voice was getting deeper and wondered if it was all the crying. Or just rustiness. But she was better than she had been before the guys came along. Before the music was gradually returned to her.

Rodney was a perfectly pleasing guest. He entertained them daily with “Breakfast with Roddie” which entailed English muffins with cream cheese and scrambled eggs; fresh coffee; and piano music while they ate. He was fired from cooking but they adored his music, as usual. “Bach for Breakfast” they called it–changing the composer’s name as required. But he enjoyed the jazz standards more as days went by so he slipped one in now and again, to their delight.

The Quartz Creek Trio played that fall for three weddings and two retirement luncheons and two big parties of Frannie’s for which people from New York to Florida came. A few wanted to hire them right then for their future soirees. It left the trio privately gasping with laughter–to think they would do such gigs, just like in the first days of their careers! But they had fun, that was the point of it all, wasn’t it. They enjoyed playing together and they’d’ gotten to know one another. It was a good thing all around.

Their time was short, they knew that. It made the hours seem more potent, at times quite worthy of remembrance and always instructive as they worked out the kinks. They got to know their unique moods, their ins and outs–the individual styles and inside knowledge of each piece. It was building a complex and careful dialogue even as it became freer of constraints, all their playing and singing.

So it got harder to think of saying goodbye. They might cross paths, though. Kelsey would remain there through the winter–she needed more healing rest. JD would be coming over once a month–or as feasible– with Rima to visit her parents. And Rodney, well, he flew all the time, anyway, and he figured he’d make a stop at Frannie and Rick’s, too.

Just once Rodney suggested, “Maybe when we run out of steam doing our usual programs and plans, we can form an official trio. Not just for entertainment of friends and family here…I mean, when we get older, or bored with things. Try a new path.”

“Speak for yourself, buddy. Will it pay the bills? Rima is finally pregnant!” The reality of that scared the heck out of him, but a kid later in life was also a boon, he imagined, and he felt very good about how things were turning out. He had plenty of gigs lined up, anyway–yet, he wondered, too.

“What? And spoil what we have now?” Kelsey said, somewhat appalled at the idea of leaving her band and engaging in this little act once more. But she’d been surprised how it had helped with the loss of Ellen, and how good hearted the guys were–not to say, very fine musicians.

She’d think it over. They’d all think it over. Their worlds connected at the outer edges of the music world, they overlapped in theory, they admired each other greatly. But it would take a lot of effort to make a new commitment. It was a rather serendipitous series of events that demanded greater consideration: a chance meeting, an odd connection, a creative process that grew and made them feel more themselves than they had felt in a long while. Well on the way to being rejuvenated musicians, they were more excited to share music–and also ready to further open up their lives. Together, and apart.


Celia on the Verge

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It came to that in the end, Max needing someone and Celia not needing much of anything as far as he knew. If she had required real cash, he wouldn’t have approached her. And if she’d been successful in New York, she wouldn’t even have been in town again to ask.  Max expected her to jump at the chance but she played with him a few days.

“This little venue? I don’t know, Max. I could fit ten of these into one hole in the wall club in New York.”

“Yeah, but you’re not in the city, you’re back home to Marsh Cove after five years and it’s the beach, a hot tourist magnet now. At least you’ll have an audience who claps after a good stiff drink.”

That was a low blow but Max tended to tell it like it was. Though he could be wrong, it had been awhile. He wanted to take a chance on her.

She twirled coppery waves about a forefinger, studied the glossy ends as if they held a needed clue. “You’re still a piece of work, you know that, Cuz? I have to consult my weekly and monthly agendas. I’ve got plenty to do. And do not need any measly charity offering.” She tossed her head back, grinned at him with startling white teeth, narrowed her eyes. “You aren’t offering a dime, are you?”

Max shrugged, refilled her new coffee cup and brought her the last almond bear claw to gnash on despite having hidden it for himself before the breakfast rush. He knew it wouldn’t take her long. She missed singing, she’d confided in his wife.

Celia was, it was true, well occupied since marrying Van Gibbs, nursery and garden supply chain owner as well as aspiring county politico. He was gentrifying the crap out of their town, buying up this and that. They had met after Celia returned with her supreme confidence wrung out of her. Well, she wasn’t all that fabulous a singer from what Max could tell though he did possess what his wife called “the worst tin ear in the county” as he hummed about the house. He loved both those women, he was open to learning more.

It had been many years since Celia had sung in Marsh Cove. Bonnie insisted Celia was always underappreciated for her real talents. Bonnie insisted she had “a kind of charisma, sumptuous looks plus a supple, sultry voice that carried well.” That was Bonnie, lots of adjectives to cover the territory. Max thought, well, okay, no wonder Van Gibbs had taken to her when he’d settled into that huge glass and steel eyesore at the edge of town. And she, to be grudgingly fair, to him. Maybe it would work out.

Max had always thought his second cousin was more than just okay. She had a fast, good wit and that hair which he also got looked better on her. She was just a good egg. But he was primarily interested in drawing more people into Maxim’s, his medium-fine restaurant –and his wife’s bookstore, Bonnie’s Book Nookery–and Celia could work for peanuts. Bonnie tried to persuade him to call the tiny bar addition Max’s Rookery due to resident crows in trees at that end of their building. She said it was sure to go over big, she with the big vocabulary. (He worried she’d succeed in making them twins–Bonnie’s Nookery and Max’s Rookery?–as she’d tried a few times to buy them matching t-shirts.) He’d agreed to The Rook–that was an actual name of a crow, right? Bonnie kissed him. And they agreed maybe Celia could sing once or twice a week.

Three days later Celia came by one afternoon between lunch and dinner rush. Looked all over The Rook with Max trailing behind her.

“See, it’s got a piano now, we just need a player.”

“If that’s what you call a piano!”

She ran up and down the keys. He had had it tuned up so she couldn’t complain much.

“Where’d you get it, on the street corner?”

“Naw, Tim sold it to me for a pittance. He’s moving into a condo. It’s okay, then?” He wanted to encourage her without seeming too solicitous as he felt it very important they have music. His budget was slim to start up the bar.

Celia nodded absentmindedly as she wandered about, touching the tray of glasses readied, the few lamps, the attractive chairs and homely tables. “It feels cozy I agree, not too cute. With the lights low at night it might do. For the tourists, anyway…You know, I might do it for fun. For a break from Van’s constant politicking, having to do fancier cooking, helping with his schedule and calls and…” She turned, smiled wistfully. “Marriage, huh? A rusty roller coaster some days, but you know he’s a good guy.”

He didn’t know that for sure, they all had dinner only three times. Max thought Van was well on his way to seriously uppity. Max sincerely hoped his cousin would not follow the man’s lead. Max also felt his marriage was his true good luck charm. Bonnie and he never fought– well, maybe a few hours silent treatment that further aggravated the hell out of him. But they made up well.

“Look, I can give you maybe ten percent of the gross, if and when I can, that’s all for starters.”

“Oh, I don’t want that pittance, Max, I want a few hours to enjoy myself. Who do we have to accompany me or is that up to me to figure out?”

“What about Trusty ole Tim?”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, alright, I’ll talk to him and see what he can still plunk out on the keyboard. But if he’s lost his touch, I’ll root out someone decent. You better pay the piano player, singers come and go but a good piano player….just can’t beat ’em.”

Max constrained his show of delight and just patted her fondly on the back, then they chatted about hours to stay open, number of customers for peak hours, which sort of drinks to offer. He secretly wondered if she would like to invest. He thought Celia had a great head for business despite an aversion to it. And she was all in as long as she got something out of it, too. It was a family trait. The LaLondes all did fine in business, even in small ways.

Van Gibbs might not even know just who he had married. But he was sure to find out.

******

Friday night, eight-thirty, and so far there were seven customers. The pace held thirty-six, tops. Max had poked his head in during a half hour break the restaurant. Tried to not panic, first night to open. He’d hired a bartender and waitress and when Tim bowed out they’d had to find another guy. Young Eddie came from Rock Point, forty minutes away. But he was playing good tunes, sounded darned good as far as Max could tell. He’d trusted Celia and Bonnie on that.

And there she was now, coming into The Rook with a dress on that Max imagined been worn during her few moments of glory in the city. It was a dark blue but shone in the dim light, yet still outdone by her mass of hair swept up high.

“Max, you need to keep the door open, open all the windows, too. Stuffy in here. Don’t you want people to hear the music down the street and come looking?” Celia tugged the point of his open collar and laughed. “Opening night jitters. Me, too, silly, isn’t it? I go on in a half hour, so what can I do now?”

She sat near the door, greeted anyone who stuck a noses in while Max checked on the bar. Soon there were two more, then four. It was a beautiful night cooled by salt sea air, jasmine drifting on the tail end of a breeze, and moon a glinting crescent. They needed a patio to the side, Max decided, then told himself: one thing at a time. He returned to the restaurant just as Bonnie came in but promised to come back in a minute.

“I’m here to cheer you on,” she told Celia, settling her bulk into a chair.

“I don’t know about this idea…I’m nervous, they can see me too well, maybe pull the closer tables back. Eddie is so good, right? We practiced but this kid just picks things up, amazing, really.”

“He’s not much of a stone’s throw from your age, darlin’. And you always improvised fine. It’ll be a kick for you both.”

“Okay then, I’m diving in, wish me luck.”

Bonnie kissed her chubby fingertips then tossed her one. Max walked back in just in time. Celia Lalonde was a sight up there next to the chambray-shirted young man who sported shoulder length, sun-spun hair. Bonnie thought they smiled warmly at one another and the gathering listeners. Fact was, he sounded much better than good; he had talent he needed to put to the test in the city, himself. Pity Celia came back after barely five years–but perhaps good for them, their bar venture. Well, the place looked good enough to start. Maybe sage green candles next time, candle holders of shells. Or small smooth stones. Or gold glittery stuff?

Max stodd before the piano. People loved to drink in order to talk louder and more in a bar, he thought, but they quieted enough as he welcomed everyone. The half dozen.

“I want to welcome you to my snug new bar, The Rook, one of the LaLonde family businesses in Marsh Cove and beyond! My cousin came back from New York,  lovely voice intact, and we are the better for it, as she sure sings pretty! Give a big hand to Celia LaLonde and the piano player from Rock Point, Eddie Reed!”

A spattering of applause, a whistle or two, glass clinking about in glasses. Max took a seat by Bonnie. How could he even know if Celia still had it? It was only a little bar but it was to be his bar. He wanted it to work. He wanted Celia to make good on finishing touches, make it happen, he couldn’t say why exactly, maybe how she avoided talking about her nine months old marriage. Unless it was to note her husband’s progress financially and politically. There was something unsettling in her eyes despite the megawatt smiles. He felt she would like this bar to pan out as much as he, though she’d made light of it.

Eddie ran his hands over keys, those opening notes, and Celia grasped the mic, wide eyes roving over tables, willing empty spots to fill. Was she an absolute idiot to try to sing again, even in tiny, now trendy Marsh Cove? All she needed to do was two, thirty minute sets, that was it. Eddie had agreed to an hour more if Max gave him the cue. She closed her eyes. Her bright lips parted and she took a deep breath in, then let it loose and like that she set off to rise on a crest of song. And there she was getting a hold on the notes, stuttering a bit, then soon a-glide.

People leaned into their drinks as they looked up at her; talked softly, then stopped. Max watched a man slip his arm around his lady and hug her close. Saw a couple stand in the doorway, then come in and seat themselves, eyes on the musicians, then a younger man slip in, sidle up to the barkeep. Celia’s voice slipped over space like an incoming velvet tide, that’s what Bonnie thought as she, too, closed her eyes so as not to catch Celia’s gaze and make her anxious. And to feel those smoky notes move closer, linger inside her weary head. She hummed along. Max watched his wife some then kissed her cheek and headed to the restaurant. He had made a pretty good decision. They all had, he thought, as he threw a last look at his surprising cousin.

Eddie was playing the heck out of the piano but he was also watching Celia, seeing nuances taken in, felt while forming in her body, her mind. Her voice rang clear and rich, a thing of magic like molasses poured on anything, a ticket to somewhere better in any way you might want. He was captured by chords his hands made and the center of her lustrous notes, overcome by piano and vocal music becoming one. He leaned into the ebony and ivory keys, gave it his all. People were coming in, listening. He was playing with a singer who knew about the soul of songs. He felt something free up, flew into sound.

She had found it again, that spot, that moment, the center of things. The note fluid, vibrant, revealing to her the parts that moved in joyous balance. Moved her. Held her together. Celia surrendered so the music danced and beckoned and soothed, voicings of dark and light, of sorrow and longing and a thrill of happiness. Her eyes fell upon Eddie’s and they somehow knew what came next, next, next. They were making such music and it remade them as they went, reached out to listeners, found them there.

Van Gibbs entered the amber-shadowed rooms. He felt his strong pulse rise, the heat of summer and desire gather in his veins. He saw her there, apart. Listened long and deeply. Celia filled up the whole room. She made it a secure refuge, a testy ride, a tinder box, a cave of want and need. Who was this woman who was singing of moody life, chances found and lost, that silver magic of a big old moon? Had he married her and not even known the real story? Was she in a simple disguise with him, her true self revealed in a spotlight?

Beside her sat Eddie, pounding keys with precision, teasing them with delight. He kept an eye on her, sometimes on the room. He was so skilled and attuned that Van knew the two of them together could even become extraordinary. It shook him up, Van the wily guy, the rich guy, right then and there.

He saw this and knew he could lose his new wife. To this music. Or that piano player. He ordered a drink and pulled up a chair in a paltry little humid room that was filling up, a room rowdy with applause and cheers. Rested his chin in his hands, wondering.

Celia laughed, shook out the thick fall of red hair, bowed slightly. Face hot, eyes clear, mind razor sharp. Every cell was responding. She dabbed her forehead with a napkin then nodded at Eddie. He began again and she joined in. Her voice melded with the piano’s and off they went.

It was a modest bar in a beachy place, her funny hometown. But she was on the verge of enchantment again, one song after another. It was all Celia needed to be content in the entire world, that was certain. For now. For one finely suspended moment.

 

Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts

Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts

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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.

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For my sister, Marinell,

And for my father
and my dearest father

The Good Luck Girls

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“We have to be the best we can be!” Pen always said, and she should know. She was the one who brought home all the trophies, going way back to first grade when she was given a blue ribbon for best behaved at recess. She had broken up a fight by hugging an angry boy who started the fuss. After that, there were awards for reading excellence and penmanship, followed by tennis and debate team, then four years on the honors list. Finally, all the commendations garnered a scholarship for the top rated teacher’s college downstate. In 1949, three years after she began her career at North Village Day School, she was voted Teacher of the Year of the entire county, so was being sent to a state education conference in Five Lakes, an idyllic resort town. And that is where her sister, Bree, lived. Perch Lake, the largest body of water, clasped to its shore a rustic though well appointed conference lodge. There were events all year round, including that conference.

Bree was nervous about seeing her. She used to think they had been close siblings, four years apart but thick as thieves as children–“best friends, not thieves!” Pen corrected. They’d stayed in touch the last six years by letter and had seen each other at the homestead, as they called it, for their parents’ Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. These were arduous for Bree. In fact, she hadn’t gone often the last few years. There were brief phone calls every now and then. Pen filled creamy linen-like pages with rhapsodic descriptions of teaching experiences and little else. Maybe a brief description of a possible suitor, a recipe she’d tried, the undependable weather. Lately, notes about pieces she was trying to learn (“how time consuming, even painful it can be”) on her new (“aged, really, and I suspect out of tune, you should come and report on its condition”) upright piano.

Bree was jolted by this news. It was surprising that Pen would study piano after years of refusing an offer of lessons alongside herself. She’d also demonstrated a lack of natural rhythm when they had dance classes together. Pen could not even, if one was frank, carry an agreeable tune. But she loved music, that much was true. There was always had good music on the radio or record player. Their mother was abashed to admit she idolized opera singers though for her husband popular music called.

Music, in fact, was Bree’s specialty. Her one saving grace in a family where the older sister collected awards as if trinkets. For Bree began singing the moment she registered the robins outside her nursery window. Her mother still noted this as if it was a miracle a baby cooed in response to feathered warblers. But true, she sang without hesitation from the start, mimicking each sound she heard, later absorbing tunes and lyrics. Bree was born with a musical talent that surprised her musically untalented though otherwise capable parents. So they put her in a church children’s choir where she might elevate the congregation. They instructed her to sing when visiting the pharmacist, Mr. Gundell, himself a fine singer who pronounced her a marvel. She was lauded in school music classes. Given vocal lessons early. And at home soon was paraded in front of visitors like a show pony. There was a girls’ quartet in early adolescence, her soprano ringing bright and true. Solo recitals elicited large enthusiastic audiences. She learned how best to bow and smile with appreciation. For she was appreciative–to sing was her life; to hear applause, a lovely bonus.

The “Culture and Lifestyle” section of the newspaper had a loquacious reviewer who noted her vocalizing held “a certain piercing quality for mind, heart and soul” and “the range of a far more seasoned vocalist, according to this impressed reviewer and Solomon Hastings, Professor Emeritus of Music, Arbor-Kessling Conservatory. Breeanna Irving, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Reynold Irving, is in truth bound for great things.” She began to give recitals around the state a few times a year and participated in singing competitions. And won. Then she was courted by Arbor-Kessling, among others, before she was seventeen.

Bree mused over her sister’s piano and their upbringing while she misted lacy ferns on a side table. Her past. What she’d given others were the fruits of studying voice, the endless practicing, performing, competing. She’d wanted, yes, to attend a top notch music school, to study and perform more and then–if fate allowed–become a full-time concert soprano. To honor the greatest music with the best she could give.

“But get your degree in music education,” her father had advised one evening as they lingered after dinner.

“I don’t want to teach,” Bree insisted. “I’m singing or I’m doing very different.”

Her mother tittered. “What? Please let us in on it.”

Pen piped in. “You do want to be able to provide for yourself, right? I mean, in case you don’t catch a good man. It is, after all, the twentieth century, nearly decade four.”

“Is that why you’re going to college? To be able to pay your way in case you can’t snare the right man?”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Bree, it’s reasonable and I’m glad of her ambition,” mother inserted.

“Well, fine, but I’m going because of my passion for my art.”

Pen spoke with her usual authority. “Of course, and I shall want to teach even if I marry, otherwise it will be a waste.”

“You may decide differently, dear.” Mother was bent over a darning egg, one of dad’s heavy sport socks pulled taut around the wooden shape. Her stitching was so expert we could never feel the repair work.

“So, Bree, you will consider a practical degree to pull your head out of the clouds? It’s a necessary asset, even for one such as yourself. ” Dad smiled at her with a wink to cajole her into it.

“I’m either singing for my supper or going off to the pristine wilderness and living off the land, ” Bree pronounced. “If there isn’t singing I may as well leave civilization. I’ll commune with birds and swim naked. But I will not teach or get married for no good reason.”

Pen shook her burnished auburn head of hair, her hair ribbon awry, and sighed. “Don’t be so terribly dramatic, so–radical!”

Mother and Dad simply ignored Bree. The family was used to such pronouncements. Both parents thought them harmless if oddly idiotic (“eccentricity is a part of musicianship” Mother assured Dad after another odd statement), whereas Pen found them mildly alarming if annoying.

“You two are my good luck girls,” Dad said, not for the first time. “You’ll both do fine work, you’ll make us even prouder. We’ll be fulfilled in old age, to know we raised such capable young women.”

“And you will marry, too, have wonderful grandchildren!” Mother hastened to add, then bit off the thread under the knot and tossed the sock to Dad.

Bree knew she would attend music school, but the back-up plan was just as she said. Leaving behind the city for somewhere beautiful and wild. She only could enjoy cities if she sang in them.

And it was a good thing she had such a thought. In her third year at the music conservatory she contracted infectious tonsillitis and had a tonsillectomy. She did not rebound well or quickly. Her father felt helpless to work miracles but her convalescence finally ended. Then, as she was working on limbering up her voice for the umpteenth time, it became apparent she could no longer replicate those superior tones that drew an audience to their feet. The resonant, shimmering notes that lived in her higher range had vanished; the lower rich and warm ones faltered, sank. Bree could not coax them with skilled commands, not even her talent. Her vocal teacher worried some as weeks and months passed but reassured her it would take time, that was all.

Bree knew differently. Much had changed during feverish days and nights as rawness took over her swollen throat. The scalpel sliced away her tonsils and left her weak, almost empty. It was not the life for her now. It could never be the same after such a moratorium on singing. No amount of persuasive debates from her mentor and teacher or others, no pleading from her parents changed her mind. There was nothing worse than being a pitiable has-been trying to re-establish worthiness. More than that, she was utterly bereft. Bree would rather be that musician who once delivered flawless music full of heart, but then just no longer sang. Soon people would forget what was.

But Pen didn’t. And her parents never quite forgave her.

******

The sun slipped behind the rim of the earth and Perch Lake was splashed with golden and orange hues. Bree heard the low growl of a car engine, light rattling as it shuddered over the gravel road. It had to be Pen. She was given a raise so bought a good used Buick.

Bree didn’t have a car. There was Hardy’s work truck, and that was it; she drove it well after a time. He liked to see her behind the wheel, enjoyed being driven to town where they loaded up plumbing supplies for the business as well as their pantry. He’d taken a ribbing the first times she’d driven, as if giving her the keys made him a soft-touch or a fool. Soon residents saw Bree MacIntyre as Hardy’s indispensable right hand and a good woman, at that. She helped run Mac’s All Plumb Repair as expertly as she directed the Young Artists program at Five Lakes Retreat and Conference Lodge. The town was delighted to have someone who cared for their children’s artistic side and handed them over for a few classes each year.

Bree swatted at her neck. It was getting warm already; mosquitoes were hatching. She pulled her shoulder length hair back and slipped a rubber band around a neat ponytail. There was no time to change into a dress but her blue blouse was clean as were the tan slacks. She stared out at the lake. Languorous waves slapped against the shoreline a few hundred feet from their front porch; she listened to the water’s depths. Her heart beat harder though her mind told her all was fine, it always was in the end when they met up.

A car could be seen around the last bend now, the blue Buick. Would Hardy make it in time for dinner? It might be better if he did not, but Pen had said she’d be glad to see him. He’d had an emergency call at 5:00 at the lodge, of all places. Pen might have run into him there as she checked in. Bree laughed at the thought of Penelope Irving crossing paths unexpectedly with her husband in soiled work clothes. High heels clacking against the wood floor, her skirt too tight to make fast progress, wavy hair swinging. Then Hardy: high cheek boned face and powerful shoulders, clear but questioning eyes, broad, often dirt-smudged hands. Few words fell from him. She would have dodged his path, yet tried her best to be mannerly. Pen wasn’t fond of his country ways, the animal grace and strength as he moved and reposed. His pithy observances. Neither were her parents the three times they visited after the elopement. Hardy was nowhere close to what they’d wanted for her.
As with her singing, she had made a terrible choice, they’d all agreed.

The Buick honked twice and soon Pen, suit jacket off, shirttail hastily tucked in, was out of the car and up the steps. The sisters embraced.

“I thought I’d never get here! I nearly ran out of gas. How was I to know? Last time I visited I took a taxi from the train station, remember?” She held Bree at arm’s length. “My, you look healthy and gorgeous as ever, you get such sun!” Pen gazed at the lake, then blinked as if trying to break the spell before it interfered with her consciousness. She did not love the outdoors except from a good view indoors, but she did like Bree’s welcoming log house and this lake at sunset. “Lovely.”

“Of course, the sunset is courtesy of nature, just for you! Let’s go on in. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I hope Hardy can make it. Want a beer?”

“Do you have a little scotch? Mmm, pot roast or beef stew.”

“Stew, I know you enjoy it.”

Bree got herself a cold beer and a scotch on the rocks for Pen. After they settled on the sofa Pen swept her gaze over the room. It had been repainted. New curtains with vines and birds were hung. A rectangular antique mirror gleamed above the sofa. She noticed they had a television on a painted bench in the corner. The business was going well.

Pen slipped off her heels and threw her head back, then spread out her hair along the back. She turned her neck and met her sister’s pensive eyes. “I can’t believe I’m here, Bree. It has been such a year! I never expected that award and now I have to make a speech and talk on that panel. You know I don’t like public speaking. The stage was your venue, not mine.”

Bree took a long drink and licked her lips. “It’s a learned thing. I got better as I got used to it. When do you get the trophy and give your speech? Should I sneak in?”

“It’s at the banquet dinner on Saturday night. It’s not a trophy, it’s a plaque of some sort, not showy. The presentation is tomorrow, too. I attend workshops all day, then the panel, then speak at the end. Exhausting. Success in teaching should be a humbling thing, less fanfare!” She said it lightly, as if she didn’t mean it, then sat up and faced Bree. ” Anything new since we talked a couple months ago?”

Bree knew this was a hint about the possibility of pregnancy but that hadn’t happened. She and Hardy were busy with their business. Bree had an affinity for numbers and organization, as well as outdoor life and her fledgling youth arts program. Not necessarily having children. Hardy was okay with that for now, too.

“I’m finding work satisfying on all fronts. My arts program is getting better monetary support and kids keep joining! Hardy and I are growing the business. We’re done with cross country skiing for now but fish, boat. Soon we’ll water ski, swim, hike. You know all this–how I love it here.” She tucked her lower lip under the upper a moment, then blurted it out. “Nope, no kids for now. I’m tied up with projects, Pen. Mom and Dad will have to wait.”

“Well, I’m not dating since Ted and I broke up.” She looked at the drink in her hands. “I guess they’ll survive.” She took a gulp. “We sure have lived lives other than what they imagined.”

“Not true, Pen. You’re the teacher they hoped–you hoped–to become. You’re more visible with this award. You’ll likely do much better as you pioneer those methods you keep talking about. A real educator. That’s what you want, right?”

Pen’s fine eyebrows rose, then settled. “You know, I do like teaching, implementing my ideas. But I enjoy public notice and want to research modern educational practices. I was to forge ahead! I’m pretty happy so far.”

“Losing Ted was tough. But I know you’re darned good on your own, too. Funny how I turned out to be marriage material, though!”

Bree brushed a dark lock from glowing skin, her eyes radiating pleasure. Pen thought again how extraordinary her sister was, how impressive she would have looked on the nation’s stages, even the world’s. With her face and that voice, what might have come to be? It pained her to think it.

Shifting against a plump pillow, Bree said, “Well, my ambitions took a turn. We all end up with quite curious lives.” She touched her sister’s forearm. “Say, what’s with the piano playing?”

“I adore my piano! It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself! I got it tuned last week and it sounds good. I think. It brings back good memories…”

Bree was silent. Glancing out the front door, she hoped it was Hardy’s truck she heard as dusk gathered and spread itself over trees, water, cottages and creatures. She thought of the bats swooping and darting by the pole barn, their electric cries. She hoped the barn owl would visit again.

Then she spoke carefully. “I admit I was surprised. Are lessons harder or easier than you expected? What is your goal?”

Pen grinned, her large eyes brightening.”The lessons aren’t so bad, it’s the daily practice that taxes me. I have much to learn as fast as I can. I plan on playing a few things for the parents by Thanksgiving. I can’t wait to see their faces, they’ll love it, won’t they? And I hope you’ll be there.” She took her sister’ s hand and squeezed it.

A charge of cold energy erupted in her spine, traveled to her neck, then spilled over her. Playing piano for their parents like she, herself, did long ago? A family performance. Would they expect her to play, try a song? Like when the girls presented a dance routine or a play. Or when Bree sang the newest tune. That house had a large space that only masqueraded as a family room; it was really a theater for their parents’ and their friends’ entertainment. For their pride to bloom with each new trick the girls learned.

She pulled her hand away, hoping her shudder wasn’t obvious.
“I don’t know. I’m glad you’re enjoying learning how to play.” She felt heat erase the chill as her heart pumped faster. “Are you playing for your own enjoyment? Or to please Mom and Dad? Or trying to rectify things somehow?”

Bree looked into her sister’s face, saw the deep blue irises and the pupils expand as she sank back, frowning.

“Maybe you’re trying to make things perfect, even now. That thing I dared do that hurt them. The disappointment I caused you all. Such a career I might have had, right? Perhaps even fame, likely some fortune, child so-called prodigy makes good and the family is lifted up in the eyes of all beholders. Isn’t it enough that Dad is a fine doctor? No, Mom and Dad had to preen at the supermarket, at church, at concerts.” Bree felt her voice as roiling steam trying to push out of her throat with a screech.

Pen pressed her lips into a taut line. After a slow, steadying breath Bree stood. She didn’t want to be so near her sister, nor look at her. Her eyes welled with forbidden tears. She never cried about this anymore, she rarely even thought of it. It was done with. But there it was, subterranean all this time, now rousing itself from a sleep in dark places where it had lived, now forcing itself into this tender spring light. Bree leaned against the doorjamb as Hardy’s truck pulled in. He sat in the cab, looking down at something. She took a deep breath.

Pen came close but not too close. “Bree, I can barely play right now and it isn’t about that. I knew you were the special one… I was the ordinary girl who worked damned hard to get what I wanted…” She reached out and touched Bree’s back but her sister’s shoulders hunched, recoiling. “Yes, alright, I wanted to do something for them, why not? They do like music, they miss it in the family! I can learn for myself and others, can’t I? I had no idea this would bother you so. I thought it would please you! That we could enjoy a little music with them again…Bree, look at me.”

But Bree didn’t want her sister’s words. She kept her tears at bay by watching cottage lights undulate on the lake, hearing the rhythmic rushing forward and falling back of water in a dance upon good earth. It was not so much Pen playing, it was the reminder of all that was lost. Her parents’ easy appreciation. Her sister’s pleasure and admiration. And that music that owned her, body and soul, oh dear God the feel of that music welling up from mysterious places and entering the atmosphere of the world like a healing thing. Making its primal, ethereal life deep in her blood, her being. It was what she had to offer them, as well as others. It had been almost the whole of her. And then it was gone.

Bree pressed her fingers against hot eyelids as Hardy got out of the truck, willed her heart to lie down and rest, her mind to uncoil. She turned back to Pen, who stood with arms crossed and her brow furrowed in anger.

“I don’t get you, Bree! I come to see you, we’re just talking and you have to pick this time to do this–”

“No time is a good time, is it? It was me who lost something, not you, not Mom and Dad! The one passion of my life. You had so many. I had one, Pen, one, and it carried me, fed me, loved me, transformed me–it shaped my every moment. And then, it was taken. That’s what I have wanted to say all these years. It wasn’t about disappointing any of you or my giving up or casting aspersions on more good fortune we might have had. Not being able to sing as before was…it was like dying. It was a terrible death. And no one came to pay their respects or offer true condolences, because no one really saw it my way. I let others down? The ruin of that passion was what was left me. And I was alone with it.”

Hardy waited on the porch as his wife finished speaking. He heard her but had sensed what it was about as he stepped down from the truck. He felt her pain, caught its signal of grief, and he knew to wait, be still. He clutched a bouquet of daisies in one hand and thermos in the other. When she was quiet he said her name and she opened the door. Bree stepped outside, sank into a rocking chair. Hardy went to her, put the flowers in her lap and his thermos on the floor. Then he knelt down and took her hands and kissed one palm, then the other.

“Hello love. Smells good, dinner,” he said.”Pen staying?”

Pen was passing them, then stopped and raised her hands in the hushed spring evening as if in surrender. “But we lost the real you, Bree. I lost you!”

Bree touched Hardy’s bushy head and he lifted it to see her. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m still here, sister, just changed.”

But Pen was already in her car. As she backed up the tires spun against rocks and dirt. She turned the Buick around and sped down the country road.

Hardy walked to the top step of the porch, sat as Bree joined him. They put their arms about each other’s waists. Watched the lake change from a deep bruising blue to a swath of silvery black, as if the stars had fallen in love with water, spread themselves over its buoyant surface. And Bree sang a wordless song to the lake, the night, to him.