My mother escaped in her music. I imagine that it held magical qualities for her. It lifted her up out of her life. It gave her a voice when she didn’t allow herself to speak. It gave her eloquence. And it was private. She played at home, preferably alone.
If you’ve ever seen someone play piano by ear, you might have an idea of what I am describing. It’s amazing to hear and watch a person completely transformed while they play. But again, with mom, it was immensely personal and I always knew it was how she communicated best, or worked out her feelings. My mother rarely said she loved you without crying, for instance, so it wasn’t an every-day thing to hear. As her child, you knew she loved you, but she just couldn’t speak it easily. She also rarely talked about intensely personal things. She did so through her songs—most from the Big Band Era. Not only could she play by ear, but she would get into a trance-like state and would free-associate by playing one song with a meaning that led perfectly into another that carried that meaning a bit further until she seemed to come to closure or have had a complete conversation. I so wish I had recorded some of her “sessions.”
When she was going through her divorce and I had taken a bit of time off college to stay with her, I felt privileged to listen to her play. Some evenings after work I would tiptoe into the house if I heard the piano so she wouldn’t stop. She might play for 30 minutes and had no idea I was there. She played dramatically with an emotion that you’d never see her display anywhere else. I could even hear her nails clicking the keys she was moving so fast. I’d sit in my old room upstairs and listen as she played old musicals that might lead into a Tommy Dorsey tune and then surprisingly to a pop melody of Lionel Richie‘s, as long as they held a key element of a similar message. Anything she heard on the radio, she could play perfectly, as she only needed to hold the melody in her head to translate it to the keys. She didn’t like to “perform” and rarely played for others. I was therefore, really shocked when she played piano at my wedding. Every song had “baby” in the title (as I’m the youngest of her four children). I don’t recall all of them, but “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” and Dorsey’s “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” were some of them. I don’t think anyone, outside of family, knew how emotional it was for her to play these songs in front of a crowd and the photographer caught her shy feelings of love perfectly. I was touched beyond words.
As Alzheimer’s grips your loved one, you sit by helplessly as they slip away. When living in London, I flew back each summer between 2005 and 2008 for a few weeks or longer each visit. I’d notice that she had a harder time with the piano by 2007, but would continue to play. Although sometimes, she’d have a harder time with verbal conversation and would still play perfectly. Alzheimer’s is funny that way. By the time I was really going through the ringer with my husband, my mom was in the moderately severe stages. She got easily upset and I hid the fact that I was going through Hell from her. Even though she might not remember specifics the next day, I knew she was a sponge and would absorb my sadness and would worry about me every time my name was mentioned. Somehow that worry would carry over. She might not know why she was worried, or couldn’t remember my soon-to-be ex-husband‘s name, but I only wanted to bring her happiness when I visited. I swore my siblings to go along with me and not talk about my separation with her. Well, in July 2010, I was far from happy. It was incredibly hard to visit and pretend everything was ok. I had my then one and a half year old with me, who was sick a lot and had a hard time sleeping. I was barely 100 lbs from grief. My soon-to-be ex had left me for another woman in September of 2009, less than a year after we had moved back to the States when I was pregnant. He was back and forth with his emotions and his behavior was erratic when he was back from Europe. But at this point, I’d been a single mom for almost a year. I had just dropped the older son with relatives in Tennessee for a camp before coming home. I don’t want to use this blog to post sorted details, but suffice it to say, I’d been through a year with broken promises and many attempts to reconcile, and I was now trying my hardest not to show any of this mess to my fading mother. Southerners can be excellent actresses—and I’m the queen of being able to ‘fake it till you make it’ for the most part—but this was going to take an amazing feat. I pulled it off, remarkably, for most of the week spent on walks with the dog or visits with the neighbors or in her garden. One evening, however, Jamesy just would NOT sleep. He cried most of the night and I was at breaking point. My mom came down the stairs at 3 a.m. to the room where we were. She was having a remarkably lucid moment. The kind of moment that loved ones pray for. For a year I knew I had angels helping me survive and I guess one came on this trip too. As mentioned, I didn’t tell mom anything about what was going on in my personal life. She adored my ex and I didn’t want to give her one more heartbreak. But she saw I had been crying and she calmly took Jamesy’s hand. They walked into the living room and she played this song. It’s not the best performance of hers, but out of her entire repertoire, she chose: “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” (For those of you who aren’t well-versed in 1930’s Broadway tunes, it was also performed by Judy Garland, Benny Goodman (one of Mom’s favorites) and Louis Armstrong.
I’m convinced that she was trying to help me with Jamesy and send me a message of comfort at the same time. Somehow, she was able to break free from the entangled plaques crippling her mind and play once again. It was a miracle that I caught it on tape as I never seem to have the camera at the right time. I’m so thankful for this moment as I haven’t seen her this lucid again. Happy Mother’s Day, Annie. And yes, I’m finally finding my way to the sunny side of the street. I wish you were here with me, but I know that you are, somehow, in spirit.
- From Piano Parent to Piano Student – What My Mother Now Knows Pt. 3 (thefameschoolblog.com)
- From Piano Parent To Piano Student – What My Mother Now Knows Pt. 2 (thefameschoolblog.com)
- Microsoft co-founder builds biotech legacy with $500M neuroscience odyssey (fiercebiotech.com)