Friday, December 21, 2012

Farewell to a Righteous Woman

As some of you know, my mother died on December 15. She had asked me to sing the great Negro spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning" at her funeral, which I was able to do in part because of the impressive sangfroid I'd developed over years as a professional singer, and in part because it occurred to me that this was the whole reason I'd become a singer in the first place.

My mother was a righteous woman who loved God, and who was inspired by this love to do good works in her community, especially for the benefit of disadvantaged urban children. In her long suffering I worried sometimes that she was losing her faith, but my worry, I now think, reflects on my own weak faith and understanding of God, for certainly God knows the effects of illness and medication, and, as we know, he did not send His son to condemn, but to redeem.

When I read the Mass readings for today, I imagined that Christ might be speaking these words to my mother (who, incidentally, did have a beautiful speaking voice):

Hark! my lover--here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Here he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices.
My lover speaks; he says to me,
"Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one,
and come!
"For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
and the song of the dove is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
and come!

"O my dove in the clefts of the rock,

in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Repost: Mother Mo Chroì

My mother is at the point of death. This is a re-post of a little essay I wrote about her exactly two years ago today.
As some of my readers may know, my mother is very ill with a chronic degenerative disease from which, barring miracles, she will not recover.  One of the reasons I've been so busy this fall is that I've been traveling to see her every few weeks, which has meant mostly standing by helplessly as her condition deteriorates further, and more resources are scrambled for and determined to be out of reach.

My mother is one of the people I admire most in the world, though, until I became an adult, we had a stormy relationship.  She was a lonely girl, neglected by her own mother, who had essentially left her children for her one true love, the Communist Party.  At the age of fourteen, my mother became a Christian; in just a few short years, she also became a teen mother.  She left high school (her principal wept when she told him the news; a gifted student, she was going to be valedictorian) and worked in a factory for several years, later attending night classes and winning a full fellowship to graduate school, where she met my father.  She was a petite, dark-haired beauty who, even as a single mother, had many suitors.  She loved music, and I suspect it is from her side of the family -- musicians for generations, though she herself is not one -- that the musicality of my own generation is derived.  In her factory days, she would buy herself season tickets to the Philharmonic every year -- the cheapest seats available, which were in the top balcony, and which made the experience a mixture of transcendence and penance for her, since she was dreadfully afraid of heights, and the walk up to the top of the house, staggering in high heels and clutching the banister, was always a series of terrors.  She attended the concerts each year alone, since her friends preferred rock.

Later, in a sense, my mother left us too.  When I was a small child, she was hospitalized more than once for severe depression.  I remember my feelings of shock and betrayal when, as a five-year-old, I overheard her telling a friend that her psychiatrist had instructed her not to tell her children about the circumstances relating to her extreme grief.  Even if we found her crying, she said, she was not to tell us why, though she could pick us up and hold us.  As a small child, I was horrified by the implications of this deliberate withholding, although, nonetheless, I now know that there are some things that parents should never tell their children.

My mother taught me to read when I was three, because, she said, I was ready.  As a result, I was writing little books, perfectly punctuated and copiously illustrated, by the age of five.  Every day after school she had a project for us:  making paper, or soap, or butter; trying our hands at the arts of batik or stained glass.  Neighborhood children would come over to make our arts and crafts with us.  She was endlessly creative.  She was also a gourmet cook, which forced my siblings and me to become good cooks ourselves (one of us became a professional cook, and another semi-professional), or risk a lifetime of disappointment at our own tables.  She baked her own bread and made her own pasta, and every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas she made what my father called the Platonic idea of a pumpkin pie.  She ran a food co-op out of her tiny kitchen.

I am not exaggerating when I note that this wonderful mother also made some chilling choices, which harmed and will continue to affect her family for generations to come.  A deeply flawed woman, she made them out of fear and desperation, out of a lack of trust in God, in her children, and in herself.  She was and is, in this respect, what Nietzsche called "human, all too human."

It is one of the great sorrows of my present life to know that she is dying, though no one knows the hour or the day.

This is for her.  You'll have to turn it up.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Great Things Have Happened

This is without a doubt one of the best poems I've ever read, by the late Canadian poet Alden Nowlan, who suffered a great deal of hardship in his life. The poem is about an experience he shared with his wife and her son, whom he adopted.


Great Things Have Happened

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, "Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time." But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn't mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I'm sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

"Is that all?" I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you've never visited
before, when the bread doesn't taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

(From What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread. © Nineties Press, 1993.)