Tuesday, July 11, 2006


I was requested to expand on an old comment about the rigors of my mother's "Stalinist Purges." Trauma rhymes with momma. Let me first say that I have done a TON of work on my relationship with her. I love her very much, and though she has apologized for nearly everything, she will never really be what I need(ed). That's ok, I suppose it's the lot I drew for myself.

Let's start with moving six times by the age of fourteen, not including the months we spent nomading up and down the west coast when she left my father. I was 5, and she was relying upon the kindness of family and friends. Each move necessitates a major unloading of garage sale fodder, and generally means you will never again see your friends, even if it is only a change of neighborhood.

What of importance got tossed? I think it was the indifference to my artwork that bothered me most as a kid. Somehow none of it got saved, except for a few ceramic pieces and those funny plastic plates I did when I was maybe four (you sent your drawings in to some company that would immortalize your scriblings in plastic), the contents of which are ridiculously telling. In one, the Man, dressed as cowboy, ties up wife and child to tree. In another there is a torrent of blue, green and maybe black scribblings, with figures barely discernible beneath the maelstrom. In yet another, the Man is separate again from woman and girl. The females, as I always depicted them, have absurdly long eyelashes which encircle and radiate from the irises like sunbeams. Each wears a crown. There is a mirror mirror, and the Man is on the other side of it. The girl wields a magic wand. There is a perfect acorn. Acorn? Don't know why, maybe it's the seed of something.

Mom loves to tell the story of my apple watercolour, which I painted while studying at the Children's Art Museum, at the ripe old age of four. Apparently they wanted the drawing for the permanent collection, because it looked as though it were drawn by an adult. I can not vouch for any of this, as I have no conscious memory of it, but it seems I was not amenable to such a donation, and my mother honored my wishes. Good for her. However, when we left my father behind, she decided to leave the painting with him, because she "didn't want to leave him with nothing." Again, a noble gesture, but ultimately tantamount to putting it curbside for Thursday morning pick-up. It's sad to me that I will never see it.

There were old records (45s from her youth, mostly), porcelain dolls, and even her vintage clothing that I would love to have. Mostly what was painful was being pushed to decide what I would throw away, when I wanted to turn loose of nothing. It was a task that became more and more difficult for my mother, as I became increasingly obstinate.

I know that from a Feng Shui standpoint, my mother was quite in the right - clearing out the clutter of your life prevents stagnation, and allows for new energy. Out with the bad air... The trouble was, I was being asked to give up so much so often - the real important stuff. Life demanded sacrifices of home, father, school, old friends, a dog, and even three siblings who I barely saw again. So I'm sure I clamped my little fists as tightly as I could around any artifacts of our former lives, especially the one we had when we were a family. It's a materialism born of trauma. To this day I will save a scrap of paper if it is some marker of memory. I am nostalgic. I am sentimental. I can't always let go of it. How much more could I be asked to give up? The answer to that seems to be, life will strip you clean. Is that why it's next to Godliness? If so, I've probably failed to absorb the lesson.

Then there are the things they make you release, things non-material, things you have to turn loose because they get you caught in a bind. You get squeezed so tightly that your very ability to breathe requires it. So in a way, it's your own fault.

When I was five I began studying piano with a well-known instructor - a woman who had graced the New York classical music world in the 60s. She was a comtemporary and friend of Eileen Farrell's; she was chair of the state music teachers association; there are scholarships in her name at the state university; she has students who have won international competitions and wound up at prominent music conservatories. After five years of continual success pushing me through city and state competitions, as well as testing for some sort of musical certification (the name eludes me), I was ready to become one of her proteges.

She told my mother I had "Bach hands," which meant something like my reach was greater than an octave; my fingers, like every limb on my body, were long. She said I could read and assimilate music faster than just about any other student she'd had. She wanted to turn me into a concert pianist, which meant a far more rigorous course of study. If I wouldn't commit, then she wouldn't teach me at all.

I knew there was a reason she dressed up as a witch every single Halloween. Perched in the post and beam structure over the front door, she would shriek like a Fury once the kiddies had rung the doorbell. It terrified them every time; Hell was looming. Of course, my daylight experience of her, though somewhat cold, certainly rigorous, and always tainted by the unhealth of age-worn enamel and coffee breath, was not entirely unpleasant. She did praise me when I succeeded, I liked playing the duets, and sometimes she let me play her antique harpsichord.

But consider the implications of a teacher giving a child this sort of ultimatum: if you won't devote the bulk of your life to what I'm teaching you, you can't have it at all. So, though ninety percent of my life I was demure and compliant, I did what I always do when someone really gets to a childhood quality my mother would describe as an unmoveable core: I said 'no.'

This was an act of self-preservation, there's no question about it. But it's a real shame, because it cut me off from something I was good at, and something I could really have enjoyed. It also severed the development of a part of myself - I dream musically from time to time. Music I've never heard before. Usually there is only melody, but somtimes it's lyrical. (Once and only once, I dreamed what seemed a complete Musical. Show tunes, sheesh.) Sometimes I get little bits during my waking life, but it's the nighttime when the melodies are more resolved. And harder to pull over into the day. Ephemera wants to dissolve like wet crepe paper when you hold on to it. So maybe it's not really there at all, like my bygone piano skills.


Citizen H said...

Perhaps the music you hear is similar to eyesight at night-- you notince everything on the periphery, but once you stare directly at something it disappears.

kissyface said...

sometimes i really can carry it over to day. and the stuff i get during the day, even though i can work it out some in my head, is soon lost because i have no good way to record it. if i stop humming it to myself, i don't seem to be able to remember the tune for long.

i can write music down, but i don't have that knowledge of pitch that corresponds to the written note (outside of middle c, which i can sing for you). if i have a piano to work out the melody, i can then write the music, because i know which key is which. i probably mostly need a tape recorder, then get access to a keyboard.

but then, whether it's worth hearing is something else entirely.

congrats on your soon to be free status!