Standing in the bathroom, notes of classical music grating on my nerves, I brushed my teeth after a visit with my mother, swaying and humming to a different tune.
My niece emulated Pink. My son obsessed over the Chainsmokers and my daughter, Cheryl, stalked The Mountain Goats. Friends Nic and Em insisted on queuing up Neutral Milk Hotel. Even my husband had his favorites, the latest a pianist from the CSO, Jeffrey Kahane, and he cranked the classical music loud as ever while I took a shower, immersed in the sounds of an Olympic skating competition.
For me, I chose the Classics. The music of my mother.
But my route to the standards wasn’t straight. It was more like learning the steps to the chromatic scales.
I belonged the generation whose fingers were forced to march through the rigors of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms at the mercy of piano teachers who rapped knuckles with wooden rulers or lived alone in homes where broccoli burned on the stove.
And I did so at the beck and call of John W. Schaum piano books, beginning with the Pre-A Green Book.
Then, if luck or practice, or Mrs. Scutt or Mrs. Bacon had their way, I was invited to master the piano utilizing the lessons presented in the A – Red book.
I was a quick learner, mostly because I wanted to advance fast enough to be through with old John and my lessons. I tickled my way through the beginner books and soon was assigned the red book. And each week, I might receive a check or check-plus on my level of skill in mastering the masters and move on to the C – Purple Book or D – Orange.
I also bored easily.
One day, I discovered my older sister, Laura, had acquired a new piano book from the Driscoll Music Store down on Broadway in Lorain. The book was a combination of Broadway and jazz favorites from the 1950s and 60s. I seethed. Laura had been assigned more contemporary songs to conquer. Laura was a lefty and I would not deny she had been gifted with a bit more artistically than I had. Still, what my older sister possessed, I wanted for myself.
I picked up the book, As Time Goes By, with a rose centered on its cover, flipped it open, and plunked out the melodies to A Time for Us, The Impossible Dream, Moon River, Autumn Leaves, Jean, Jean. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and Misty. I memorized the words that accompanied the melodies. Because the lyrices were there to learn.
When my mother heard me play, she tossed her dust rag on the floor, joined me on the piano bench, and sang along. She would pop out a few notes, or the whole song if I let her. Nervous around Mom or anyone else, I fumbled over notes or apologized, saying, “Sorry, Mom. Let’s start over.” It was a maxim we shared, one that captured our relationship succinctly then, and now.
Mom rearranged the furniture often in our home on Lincoln Street. Over time, she had the piano wheeled from the sea-foam green, sunlit living room to the high-traffic family room. She assumed one of her children would play the piano more frequently.
I played less. I relished the feel of the vacant, sea-foam green living room, alone, with an audience only I could identify. And, I didn’t want my mother’s singing to remind me of my own mismatched voice and how I couldn’t reach the nuance of the lyrics she crooned.
I had grown up and moved on to other pursuits. After junior high, I allowed my skills to lapse.
The book lay crushed beneath the Schwaum collections, and flute and trumpet sheet music, in the bottom of the piano bench, untouched for years.
During my first marriage, I acquired a piano of my own from Aunt Lynne. I asked Mom’s permission to keep the piano book of standards. My fingers soon danced again over A Time for Us.
The piano was forced into storage when I moved to Oregon. I broke the piano out of storage when I moved back to Loveland and installed it, of all places, in the living room, where the bright sunlight of the early morning streamed into another green room, this one a warm khaki, and enticed me to play from that same classic book, rediscovered beneath other musical failings.
Twenty years later, I found myself at my mother’s dementia care home where extracurricular activities (everything is extracurricular after age 90) centered on popular music, movies, and books from my mother’s era.
Recently, I read a social media post predicting what genre of music will be playing, when baby boomers, or post-boomers, like myself, lived in community with others once more.
One commenter predicted Dylan. And I had to break the sad news. Dylan was already on the playlists. Not because of the onslaught of boomers, but because of a few early-age Alzheimer’s residents who deserved to hear their music.
During the most recent music event at Arden Courts, a group called Wild Honey was contracted to play. Several times, I noticed the base player watching me sing along while he plucked away at his strings. I retreated into myself, embarrassed. He probably wondered what kind of 50-year-old knew the lyrics to those songs, Our Love is Here to Stay, April in Paris, by heart and whispered them into her mother’s good ear? What kind of music life did she have?
I wanted to answer Kesha. Or some EDM superstar like Odesza. Or The National. They’re from Cincinnati. Yes, even Neutral Milk Hotel.
But the answer was, I had none. Other than that acoustic space inhabited by memories of my mother’s music.
My children know to fire up The Boss when my time comes. For now, I work my way through lengthy Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra discographies and sing a few Nina Simone songs with Helen, another resident.
I departed Arden Courts with a little earworm or two wiggling around in my head throughout the rest of the day.
Like a spy, my mother and her first loves somehow planted those notes.
They are the seeds of Mom’s life that I carry now, along with the frim fram sauce with the Ausen fay with chafafa on the side.
I don’t want fish cakes and rye bread
You heard what I said
Waiter, please serve mine fried
I want the frim fram sauce with the Ausen fay
With chafafa on the side
Now if you don’t have it just bring me a cheque for the water.