Tag Archives: mothers

You Can Practice, Practice, Practice and Never Reach Carnegie Hall.

DSCN0213I seldom deny my HOBL when he asks for a simple request, but whenever he has pleaded for me to play the piano, I have always said, “No.” No cajoling or flattery from him has ever changed my mind.

It’s the same answer for anyone who comes to our house, and, upon seeing the stately 1934 upright in the corner of great room, asks. I can’t play for others. I haven’t been able to since I quit lessons at age 14.

My love for the piano started when I was four and sang along as my grandmother pounded out hymns on my great grandmother’s piano in her small bungalow in South Norfolk. She played everything by ear, from the cheery “Jesus Loves The Little Children” to the heart-wrenching “Just As I Am.”

When I was seven, Santa Claus brought me a piano, an old, flat black- enameled Charles M. Stieff upright, and I was thrilled. My parents placed it our remodeled garage and hired a piano teacher for my older brother and me. No one asked if I minded sharing. If I dared touched one of his gifts, I could count on receiving an Indian burn on my wrist or even, worse, a tickling until I screamed from pain and someone grew tired of the sound. Little did my brother or I know that, in time, he would receive his comeuppance, and so would I.

Our first teacher was a minister’s wife who taught us in her home a few miles from where we lived in Princess Anne County. After we got past the business of learning notes, playing basic scales, and flying through a series of piano primers, we started on hymns. But they didn’t have the pep of my grandmother’s music, and I told her so. She showed me how to add a zippy swing bass. I took the most dirge-like songs from the hymnals and put my own spin on them until they became joyous and almost danceable. In another time and place, such as on The Voice in 2013 , Blake Shelton or Adam Levine might have been praised interpretations, or not. But this was back in the 1960s South.

One Sunday when the pianist for the Sunday School assembly didn’t show up, I was asked to play for our group of nine- to twelve-year olds at our Southern Baptist Church. Both the teachers and kids had a hard time with my unique pacing, and as I played “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” I could feel and hear their struggle as they stumbled over the words. Afterwards, one of the teachers suggested that maybe my style wasn’t what Jesus had intended for hymns.

During my third year of studying piano, my mother switched my teacher to a woman who had moved down the street from our house. She was not a preacher’s wife. In addition to being a pianist, she was the concertmistress for the Norfolk Symphony, a first-class violinist and member of a well-known chamber quartet. She also commuted to New York to teach music at Julliard.

For a couple of years, all went well, even though she had banned the playing of swing bass during lessons. Instead of church music, she brought out sheets of classical music, compositions from Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok. It was soon after that my brain lost it ability to grasp new musical concepts and mathematic formulas and to understand much of my science texts. It was as though something in my brains had frayed. I went from being a good student to borderline mediocre one.

Exactly what happened, I’ll never know. Perhaps I was tired from the nine-hours days of school and the travel involved, or the lack of sleep from coughing night after night for no reason that our family doctor could discover. The hour of daily practice, which I was never allowed to skip, felt like a slow never-ending torture.

My teacher, whom I admired greatly and hated to disappoint with my lack of progress, threatened to send a report card to my parents, and I thought that was a fine idea. Maybe my folks would see it was time for me to stop lessons, to stop wasting their money. But my teacher didn’t follow through on her threat. I slogged on, even though my brother was allowed to quit.

By the time I was 14, my pleas to give up lessons had worn down my mother. The last time I intentionally played before another person was during my last lesson. I don’t think my teacher was sorry to see me go.

But I didn’t stop playing. A friend I visited in D.C. had a lovely-sounding piano. While she ran her son to afterschool activities, I stayed behind to play it on the sly. One of these times I played for a least two hours the music I heard in my head, and when I stopped a moment to rest and breathe, I was broken from my trance by the words, “What was the name of that?” She had been listening for almost an hour, astonished to hear me play for the first time in our decade of friendship.

One of my brothers also had a fine baby grand, and on holidays when the family was gathered in another room, I would slip off to play until I was swarmed by kids, at least two of them crawling onto the bench with me. I’d stop what I was doing and hammer out Jingle Bells so they could sing or teach them how to play “Chopsticks,” but I played nothing more.

Once I had a house with enough room for my upright, I had it moved to there. For years I played it out of tune before calling Charley “The Tuner” Garrison, whose father had done the job until he passed. Charley came again last year for the last time. Not much later, he, too, died. I cannot look at my old piano without seeing Charley seated on its bench, hearing him praise the workmanship that went into the making of such an instrument. He never minded its yellow keys.

I still play when I am alone. Not everyday. Not every week. I play at times when I need to be calmed, to stop from thinking of the past or future, to be in the moment. Sometimes the music comes from my head. Other times it comes from sheet music I’ve downloaded and tinkered with. But I only play when I believe no one is around, listening, breathing, because it’s the only way I can.

Notes: Want to win one of three free paperback copies of Cooley & Rose. The Goodreads.com First Book Giveaway continues until Sept. 15, 2013. Surf on over, and add your name to the drawing. Here’s the link: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17997446-cooley-rose.

Cooley & Rose is available in ebook format for all readers and in paperback from all online stores. You can also order paperback copies from your favorite neighborhood brick store.

By the way, the library bookcase in the Presidential Suite of one of the world’s most famous hotels has Cooley & Rose on its shelf! How cool is that. . .

If you’ve read and enjoyed Cooley & Rose, please help the indie cause by spreading the word or writing a review or two. Such kindness would be greatly appreciated.

A Father, a Daughter and a Fire: A Cautionary Tale about Voice.

DSCN0139I grew up in an age and family where children were meant to be seen, not heard. If either of my parents could have foreseen how my older brother and I would erupt with ideas and opinions as we neared adulthood, they probably would have been more lax about the policy. But they weren’t. And, boy, have they paid for it.

In high school my brother and a friend put out a political newspaper printed in red ink that protested the Vietnam War. He hawked copies at his high school, and when the administration found that to be disruptive, he took his bundles to the street corner and handed copies to driver stopped by traffic. I can’t remember whether all of this came before or after the year he joined the debate team. He has always loved the art and power of persuasion. How he ended up being a real estate developer rather than a lawyer still puzzles me.

I, too, had my causes. Most had to due with women’s rights, and I still champion those, although I no longer discuss them with my mother whose views are conservative. She still refuses to acknowledge that I kept my own surname when I married 17 year ago. Last week I received a birthday card from her. The last name on the envelope was my husband’s.

Such protest by my mother or others by my father has not stopped me from expressing myself on the pages of magazines, short stories, novels, letters to the editor, feature articles, Facebook and this blog.

Once I wrote a story about a trip my brother, father and I took to Belize in the days before it became prettified enough by Francis Ford Coppola and others to appear on HGTV and the Travel channels. After the column appeared in a magazine, my father threatened to sue me. He said we were definitely not on the same trip. My brother agreed, but his version differed from my mine and my father’s, too.

So, understanding how opinions and point of views can create havoc and dissension in a family, I still can’t believe that my father took advice from me seriously when I was only eleven or so. Back then, even I knew my suggestion was a fantasy, a crazy one. The kind Beaver Cleaver might dream up. But, heck, if my father was willing to listen to me, I was glad to hog the spotlight and talk.

It was a sunny fall day. My brother was off who-knows-where, and my mother and her best friend were going shopping and to a matinee in downtown Norfolk. Before leaving, she instructed my father and me to rake up and burn the leaves four-inches deep on our three-quarter-acre yard. Just the idea of this chore sapped our energy.

I wanted to bike with friends, hang out at the neighbor’s house where the daughter and I would take our Barbie and Ken dolls and smash them together so they could make out. This was long before we found out that Ken was gay. Before we even knew that gay meant something other than happy.

My father, who often kept a bushel of iced Lynnhaven oysters on the flatbed of his pickup and a bottle of Seagram’s under the driver’s seat, wanted to visit his buddies. I don’t know what his exact plans were for that day, perhaps rockfishing, but he had no more desire to clean up the yard than I did. For the first time, I understood we were allies. And that was when I told him I had a plan. I did not think he would go for it. Afterall, he was the adult.

I suggested to him that we rake the leaves away from all the trunks of the trees, then set the yard on fire. He said it was a fine idea. I was thrilled, even though I had doubts that I kept to myself. Whatever happened, I imagined my mother would never ask us to rake again.

The job took longer than we thought, leaving us no time for our friends, and by the time my mother returned home late that afternoon, we were guarding our yard of smoldering ash, careful to make sure the house did not burn down.

It took my mother a few moments to take in what we had done, even longer to find her voice because she was so livid. Madder than when I forged her name perfectly on a failing arithmetic test in third grade or when, at age four, I stole a caramel out of the Braff candy barrel at Overton’s Supermarket.

She wanted to know what we’d been thinking in our addled brains. We told her.

Then she told us what was in her sensible one – that someone would have to clean the smoke film from the windows, the soot we tracked onto the floors of the house, the paws of our white toy poodles every time they came in from doing their business.

But that wasn’t all. Someone, meaning my father, would have to plow up the yard with his tractor, rake it smooth, sow new seed, and keep it watered with a web of hoses attached to sprinklers cross the yard until grass sprouted.

It was a long time before I saw my friends anywhere except in Sunday School. My mother kept me busy after school and on weekends, washing dogs, dusting, mopping and so on. A list too tedious for details.

The next November, what I had imagined would be the best possible outcome – that she would never ask my father or me to rake again – never entered her mind. I hauled one small pile of leaves after another to the fire.
* * * * * * *
My novel, Cooley & Rose, is now available as an e-book at Amazon Kindle Store, the ITunes Store, the Sony Reader Store, the Nook Store, Kobo, Baker & Taylor, Gardner’s, eSentral, eBook Pie, Scribd and Amazon.co.uk. NEW: A paperback version is available from Amazon. Please rate and review, good or bad, with the distributor and Goodreads.com. Thanks.cover final 3-2-13

Alethia, Berkley 1940

Eyes wired red
from searching for nits
on the heads of eight kids,
my grandmother sits alone
in the kitchen
on a new cane chair
bought used with money from
Navy boarders.

Her head cocked,
an ear toward heaven,
she listens
for cries from babies
too grown to suckle
breasts long dry,
so tired they rest
atop her belly.

In her lap
her hands are clasped,
red and swollen,
from packing pickles,
washing the linens
of strangers,
fingers too rough for
rings, tender touch.

With knees pressed.
ankles crossed and
ten toes touching
perhaps she dreams
as she sits
the way she told me
a lady should.


Elizabeth Taylor Was Not My Mother.

DSCN0108When I was a kid, one of my favorite rainy day activities was to dig through the hall closet and haul out family albums and other mementos and spend an afternoon studying them.  Among these items were a small carving of Buddha, a picture of my father’s Japanese girlfriend, Mit-su, and a magical wooden cigarette box that he brought home with him from the Korean War;  photographs of my mother and her seven siblings taken at Ocean View Beach, the streets of Berkeley and my great-grandmother’s house in South Norfolk;  and a bronzed pair of baby shoes that had belonged to my older brother, a baby book that detailed his first year and every inch of him, his birth certificate riddled with errors, and an album fat with photos of him as a newborn.

I was eight before I realized that according to our closet, my own history with my family started when I was old enough to push my naked self up from my belly to stare into the camera. When I asked my mother why there were no pictures of me as a newborn and no baby book, she said, “I didn’t have time.  You were a baby.  Your brother was one.”  And my babies shoes and birth certificate?  “I don’t know.  They’re packed away somewhere.”

For a long while, I pondered her indifference, and it wasn’t until a girl in the neighborhood told me that she was adopted that I suspected that I was, too.  When I asked my mother, she snorted, “Adopted?  You look just like your father.”  And when I went to my father, he told me I looked just like my mother.  To me, their answers were fishy.  They looked nothing alike.

I turned to my grandmother for the truth as she was rolling out dough for dumplings on the kitchen table.  She stopped long enough to roll here eyes to heaven, shake her head and sigh before continuing on with her work.  From her actions and lack of words, I understood she had been sworn to silence.

Evidence mounted.  I spent a good portion of my life on restriction for various infractions, from storing my dirty socks under my bed and refusing to eat eggs, gagging at the sight and smell of them to failing a math quiz and forging my mother’s name on it.  That signature passed muster with my teacher but not with my parents.

It seemed as though years passed without my being allowed to see friends, talk on the telephone or watch TV.  If these people were my real parents, why weren’t they  nicer to me?

Then, when I was 12 or so, I read a newspaper article that said most children at some point in their lives believed they were adopted. Still, I had no evidence that I wasn’t.

And more to the point, I had nothing in common with my parents.  My mother, a Southern Baptist, loved church and True Romance magazines.  I did not.  My father enjoyed any dinner that included wild game riddled with buckshot, which I did not.  Both of them liked car trips that involved lots of scenery, especially long drives in mountains.  With my behind petrifying in the back seat of the Ford, there was only so much scenery i could take, 10 minutes at the most.

After college, I decided to take my savings and travel solo in Europe for three months.  This, of course, required a passport which, in turn, required a birth certificate that I ordered from the Virginia Department of Vital Statistics.  When it came, I saw for the first time that my parents were who they said they were, although our last names, typed incorrectly, were scratched through and written by hand.  Perhaps I should have been relieved to have my roots confirmed.  Instead, I felt a bit let down.  Elizabeth Taylor would not be coming to claim me.  Ever.

But this story doesn’t end there.  In time I started looking more like both of my parents who divorced after 21 years of marriage.  I kept my father’s coloring and my face began to resemble my mother’s.  As the three of us aged, I found much in common with both of them, too much and some things too embarrassing to list here.

Then, towards the last half of 2012, my parents each gave me what I consider as gifts.

My father told me about his cousin’s daughter, a woman close to my age whom I’d never met nor heard mentioned.  He thought we would like each other. because — get this — we both shared common medical histories. While that might be something to discuss, I didn’t see this common denominator as reason to embrace another relative.  (As those of you who read this blog know, I have a billion of them, not including my in-laws.)

My father sent me her email address, and I wrote her.  Becky wrote me back.  We continued to do so, getting to know each other as though we’d been set up by Match.com.  It was crazy how much alike we were in our interests.  Then, on Facebook, I saw her headshot, and there, I saw parts of myself — the shape of her face, the mouth, the teeth, and I knew her to be, without doubt, not just distant family but as a sister who “got” me and vice versa, even though we’d never met.

In November, during a visit to my 80 year-old mother, I told her of Becky and how much we shared in terms of genes, education, interests and so on, and when I finally stopped talking, she stood and said,  “Wait here.  I have something for you.”  She disappeared down the hall toward her bedroom, where I assumed she had a piece of clothing to pass on to me, but instead she returned and held out a set of bronzed booties.  “Take them,” she said.  They’re yours.”