I do not know how to tell my story without my mother being central to it despite the fact that I have lived over half my life without her. She died two days after I turned fifteen. In many ways, absence and loss have been the defining forces in my life, and while that sounds grim and negative, it has not been. At least not entirely so.
Fairy tales and the like sometimes incur criticism for the pervasive tropes of motherless children and wicked stepmothers because these so often pit woman against woman. When I write, however, I cannot escape narratives that reflect the shaping of identity against a motherless landscape, a landscape of mourning and absence. I have found absence a strange gift. Everything about it is Janus-faced. Absence creates space, room to grow without imposition, but also without guidance. One can wander out to explore a new horizon, but where does one look for the home light to find one’s way in the darkness? It is a wide horizon.
Loss forces one to work with the terrain of memory. Like a garden to which one returns after years away, crouching down in the dirt, one may find blossoms that had been loved, and yet long forgotten. All around those suddenly remembered loves bloom plants and flowers that one does not recognize, and the memory struggles to make sense of the juxtaposition. One touches the strange flower and wonders if it had been carefully planted by long-gone hands and forgotten, or merely blown in on a wind. One can weave a narrative to make sense of what one comes across, but doubt tickles the memory, and in this way, absence proves both fruitful and treacherous.
One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I went to tinker at the piano. Weary of the stuff that litters my Mason & Hamlin upright, I went to the shelves which hold my mother’s music. Much of it has never been opened as my mother’s taste diverged from mine. Where she loved playing Liszt and Chopin, I have always gravitated towards Scriabin and 20th-century Russian composers. Different loves notwithstanding, I have kept her music, carrying it with me through many a move, all of it every piece of it with her elegant signature on the front cover. Almost at random, I picked Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (Songs without Words).
Aside from the loss of my mother who was a very fine musician, piano is intimately related to loss for me, on many levels. As a child, I allowed myself one dream: to be good enough to play chamber music with my sisters, one a violist, the other a cellist. By the time I was fourteen and getting good enough to mangle the Andante Cantabile movement of Schumann’s piano quartet in E flat major, any dream of chamber music with my sisters was dead. Indeed, my sisters’ dreams of music had been finished off by their own arms and hands steadily falling apart. One sister barely made it through her master’s recital, the other had to take off a semester off from conservatory. In some ways, I was fortunate that my arm problems began at sixteen. I had no illusions. Indeed, it would be many, many years before I let myself indulge in a dream again.
Fast forward back to that Sunday afternoon, decades after all of this. I sat down with Mendelssohn and began sight-reading. (Let the record show that I am a rubbish sight-reader. Noted? Good. We continue.) Now, some pieces of my mother’s music, I remember my mother playing. These are not among them, and from the style of her signature on the front cover, I think that she played this particular music when she was a younger woman, perhaps before I was born. Even so, as I played it was as if I heard my mother playing. In those pieces, I heard my mother’s “voice” more clearly than I had since her death, and so, I played for as long as my hands held out, unwilling to let go of that strange and beautiful conversation. It was not until the next day that I realized that the Sunday had been Mother’s Day.
I continue to work through the Lieder Ohne Worte for the conversations that I find there. Odd as it may sound, the practicing and interpretation of these pieces in poetry has allowed me to contemplate my mother as a woman and not just as my mother. Like a chord that does not resolve or a piece in an aching minor key, absence and loss offer up a strange gift that keeps one’s ear cocked for what may be as well as what might have been.
The following came from working on what is probably my favorite of all Mendelssohn’s Lieder.
Opus 67, No. 2
Search as I might the corners of my mind,
I find no trace of your voice,
for all the years I tuned my heart to its key.
Placidity, weariness, pain.
Straining across the silent years
I wonder what you heard in mine,
what you listened for.
We learn to speak as to walk, a rush
of testing syllables, a flurry of wobbling
words. Tongues do not catch fire.
Ours is no sudden gift, but a slow falling
into place whereby faltering tongue and whirling
thought lock and turn like gears
of muscle and joint, nerve and bone.
Syllable tumbles after syllable
propelled by sheer momentum.
We have monologues in tandem,
mistaking speech for conversation.
Only slowly do we learn to listen around
the words for the rise and rush of breath,
the varied shapes in a silence,
the color of some hesitation.
And so this last, strange modulation:
no longer the child storming to be heard
but a woman longing to listen,
I am left in silence wishing only that
woman to woman we might truly hear.
one another–whatever might be said.