Monday, September 24, 2012


I was working on September Birthday Cake No. 4 yesterday (Middle’s, chocolate with cream cheese frosting, decorated with strawberries and hearts) and pondering musical memories when I opened the cupboard over my stove and got showered with pearly cake decorations. Now, I have a habit of thinking that if I can get a door or lid or suitcase closed it means that whatever’s inside fits. I am sometimes wrong. At least this time when something came flying out at me I didn’t have to get stitches. (I also have a habit of using my stovetop as extra counterspace, and then not paying close-enough attention to which burner I turn on. It hasn’t happened for a while, but can you see the partially-melted handle on the scissors in the background? Yeah.)

So I looked at my mess, the pearly cake decorations and scissors with the partially-melted handle, and had a dark moment in which I decided I was looking at clear evidence of what a mess I was in general.

And then I looked at my mess and thought, “Those pearly cake decorations look very pretty spilled all over the black stovetop.”

*       *       *

Before my little mess I had been thinking about how pieces of things lodge themselves in your soul and become part of you, maybe in ways you don’t even realize. How it seems, sometimes, that we are completely made up of fragments.

*       *       *

Take the Mozart Violin Concerto in A Major. Learning it in college was like learning no other piece, ever. I felt like I already knew it, like I was re-learning it. I have felt that way before, especially as a child, with pieces I’d heard older kids play so often that I knew the notes inside-out before I started “working” on them. But this concerto was a much more extreme case. I’ve never learned anything so effortlessly. I actually called my dad, to ask if I’d somehow worked on it before and simply forgotten.

It turns out that when I was an infant my parents played an Oistrakh recording of this concerto for me every day. For months and months. Once, when I was 3 or 4 months old, my mom left the house to run a short errand while I was taking a nap. My dad was practicing Bartok, getting ready for a performance. And I woke up almost immediately, and cried and cried. Hoping to not lose rare practice time, my dad switched to "my" Mozart concerto, and I calmed down and smiled. So he switched back to Bartok. And I started crying. And we went back and forth for quite a while, between Bartok and Mozart, crying and smiling. To this day my dad is certain I knew the difference.

Somehow this piece is part of me—it is my piece—more than any other.

*       *       *

There is other music like this, too, though—fragments that have taken hold.

The Dream Pantomime from “Hänsel and Gretel,” by Engelbert Humperdinck, for example. I’m not sure how many Decembers I accompanied my parents to their performances of this with the Minnesota Opera, but in my head the music melds with Christmastime, and slushy parking lots, and the sound of my boots clunking through backstage hallways, and entering the theater by climbing out of the orchestra pit, and sitting next to my sister trying to figure out which angel surrounding Hänsel and Gretel was the one we knew, the son of one of the horn players in the pit with my parents. By 1:24 in the Pantomime I am ten years old again and there in the darkness with those lost children; danger and hurt and hope are rising up together around them, and around me and my sister, as well. When I finally played this opera as an adult, I suddenly understood where so much of my taste in music comes from.

There is, also, the memory of my grandparents’ house one summer, not being able to sleep because I could not breathe, and how it felt—sitting with my grandma on her porch on a vinyl-cushioned glider, eating butter brickle ice cream and looking at distant city lights while Pachelbel's Canon in D played in the background, still not getting quite enough air but feeling calmer, and safe.

There are symphonies—Dvorak 9 and Tchaikovsky 5 and Bruckner 7—music that when I played it for the first time I thought: “I knew this existed! I’ve always known and now I have proof!”

*       *      *

Sometimes the pieces that make up a life are bits picked up along the way, treasures gleaned and held safe. Sometimes the pieces are really just pieces, what’s left of something shattered—jagged shards—but still they work their way in. Somehow the treasured bits and jagged shards intermingle. At a certain point, who is to say which is which? Maybe you get to step back from them to see better, maybe you don’t. But together they form something new.

Something whole.

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  1. Hi Karen,
    Your aunt Peggy who is my neighbor and close friend sent me your post. Sadly, I have become quite deaf in recent years, but your words make me "see" the music and remember the sound internally. Thank you for your well-written and moving mix of memoir and music.
    I write (and blog) about bereavement and spiritual experiences, so I know how hard it is to pull off such an interwoven and interesting piece. Bravo!
    Elaine Mansfield

    1. Thank you so much, Elaine! How lovely to hear from you and "meet" you online! My Aunt Peggy is a dear woman to connect the people in her life with one another.


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