Friday, June 8, 2012

My Mother's Song

"Gonna dance with the dolly with the hole in her stockin', while her knees keep a-knockin and her toes keep a-rockin. Gonna dance with the dolly with the hole in her stockin', gonna dance by the light of the moon."

My mother is one of those people who makes her mark on the world quietly but with great style. We are alike in some ways, most notably in our introverted personalities. We can both attest to the challenges of being an introvert in a society in which extroversion is highly valued and seen as a key to success. On those occasions when the extroverts in our lives seem to overshadow us, it can be difficult to remember that we have something worthwhile to offer. I have been discovering, however, that introverts, once they realize their power, can see themselves as God sees them, and claim their own particular kind of success.
My mother made a remark on my most recent visit home that both surprised and pained me. At the time, I brushed it off, gave it short shrift because the meaning and import of what she said didn’t take hold in my thoughts until later.

Before I tell you what she said, I should preface this with a brief description of the man she married, as it figures greatly into this story.  My dad is most definitely not an introvert and in fact, has oftentimes been described as strict, gregarious, outgoing, loud, a storyteller.  As children, my seven siblings and I feared his booming voice when we were caught doing something wrong, so it was always our sincere hope that if we were found out, my mother would be the one to admonish us instead. The decibel count was considerably lower and she would often respond to our minor transgressions by speaking aloud to no one in particular, with her familiar lament: “One word from me and they do as they damn well please!”, she would huff with exasperated surrender.  She was the steady thrumming rain while my dad was the thunder and, on occasion, the lightning.

When in 1985 I presented them with Cliff, their second grandchild, neither of them had had any experience when it came to children with intellectual challenges. Even so, they responded with typical familial joy and an attitude of complete acceptance, and simply loved him like they would any grandchild. From the beginning, my dad was inclined to try to make Cliff laugh whenever he could. It is Dad's nature to be silly, to bark like a dog, recite the lines from Jack and the Beanstalk—the ones that start with “Fee Fi Fo Fum”, break out into song at the dinner table, and dance to a tune on the stereo. While my dad was involved in these various shenanigans, my mother would sit by and smile, or occasionally raise her eyebrows. But one would never, ever see her risk her dignity by making faces or animal noises of any kind. I suppose you could say my dad was the actor at center stage while my mom hung back, off left in the wings in true extrovert/introvert fashion, respectively.

So, getting back to the remark she made, it was just after my dad finished singing a song about broccoli he made up years ago and still sings to Cliff, with consistent results—Cliff sings along and laughs uproariously at the last vibrato-tinged note. Here’s what she said, and I am paraphrasing here, but the essence of it was “I can’t do that, be silly and goofy and make Cliff laugh like that. I wish I could do that. I guess Daddy just ‘has’ it.” Her tone of voice felt a little sad, as if she were revealing that she had long harbored this desire, and not just in that moment.

I began to think about my mother’s relationship with Cliff, to decipher what it was she thought was lacking. I have come to the conclusion that nothing is lacking. Nothing at all.

 If you don’t know my mom, whose name is also Celia, you might not know she is extraordinarily talented.  She graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and plays the piano in such a way as to make you stop what you are doing, sit down, and listen. She was classically trained, which is why all of us can hum Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. If she hadn’t become a mother, she could have become world famous.

Yet here she was, expressing a desire to be something she wasn’t, could never be. In that moment , I think she had forgotten herself, and all the years of memories where she is sitting at the piano, inviting a 6-year-old Cliff, a 10-year-old Cliff, a 19 -year-old Cliff,  to sit on the bench next to her as she plays to him, singing Rudolph, Simple Gifts, America the Beautiful and all the other songs in his repertoire, leaning towards him as she connects his words to her rhythm. Here in my memories, are visions of her sharing her music with him whenever there was an opportunity, a moment of relative calm in the pandemonium that sometimes describes life at 60 Wesley Ave. There is my mother, playing all the music that has formed the background of my family’s life, starting with Cliff, creating the remembrance of precious moments with each of her 18 grandchildren. But her remark was about Cliff and I need to write this so that not one more day will pass without her knowing that Grandma's unique way of delivering the goods is just as wonderful as the song that belongs to Grandpa. She has done that a million times, in the most lovely way for all of Cliff’s 27 years.
Where my father is the lungs, my mother is the heart. One needs both to live. There is no one else who can do what my mother does. She should know that. And remember it forever.