My mom is, well, my mom. She has been many things over the course of her life, a choir director and church cantor, a master gardener, a cellist in the St Anthony community orchestra, a ceramists, a china painter, a writer, a crazed knitter and for the last 6 years an obsessed–beyond–reason crossword doerer. While she has been all of those things, the thing that she has been the most, and she will be the first to say it, is still a mom. The second thing she has been the most, although it isn’t listed as one of her roles above, but more so because of them, is an inspiration.
When I was six years old, Louise (my mom) or as we more affectionately call her, Mutti (it’s a German thing) began to take Suzuki lessons at MacPhail Center for Music. She was already a choir director and church cantor at this time, but after the death of my dad, she decided to learn the instrument so that she could also play the cello at Mass. She would eventually also sit 2nd chair in the St Anthony Community Orchestra. But that wasn’t until she first drove our cat Spock and myself nearly insane.
What hair the aging Spock had on his body barely clung to his skin as the screeches and groans emanated from my moms instrument, penetrating every square inch of our small house. Even hours after her practice had concluded, the cat could be found in the very farthest corner of the home, huddled and shaking, his eyes glazed over as though he had been to Dante’s lowest levels of hell and back. I guess you could say she sucked, but then again, who wouldn’t, she was brand new to the instrument and playing Mi–Si–Si–Pee–Ri–Ver on one string is much harder than it sounds. It’s also much uglier to listen to that you can possibly imagine.
In lieu of child care or preschool, my mom took me pretty much everywhere she went, from every church mass and choir rehearsal to her rehearsals at MacPhail where I again got to listen to the sounds of whales being massacred by weed whips. Here I was aided by the teacher in “Beginner Cellist Survival Strategies” as she would have me keep time with a baton, a sure way to distract my young brain from the sounds of cars, trucks and large home appliances being mashed up in giant metal toothed industrial recycling grinders in the scrap yard. I was also rewarded for sitting through these horrendous weekly lessons in mental dissociation by the customary meal at Kramarczuks, an Eastern European Deli near our home. If a plate of hot pierogi couldn’t mend my fragile constitution, then nothing could.
Surprisingly it wasn’t long before Spock stopped running at the sight of my mother unsheathing her bow, as if it were a medieval torture device, and I actually began to enjoy the lessons that preceded the pierogi. In only a few months Mutti had graduated from playing the names of rivers and other one-string songs of teeth grinding lament to playing multiple stringed lullabies and simple serenades. It was time for her first recital.
The thing to consider here is that my mother was learning the Suzuki Method. This method was developed to teach children how to play their instruments based on how children learn languages. The average age of a beginner student is anywhere from 3 to 5 years old. Louise was 54 years old.
The recitals took place in the evening deep inside the old MacPhail building, a building that smelled like old varnished wood and nostalgia. Typically accompanied by a sister, we would wait in the vending machine break room deep in the bowels of the old building as my mother would go upstairs and warm up in a practice room adjoining the intimate recital hall.
At the appointed time we would join the 30 or 40 other guests of whom most were proud parents eagerly anticipating seeing their little 3 or 4 year old child perform on their little child sized instruments for the very first time. Introducing ourselves and making small talk, we too shared our excitement and pride, as we were there to support our mother, a fact that left many with an anticipatorily curious smile on their face.
One by one the little twerps would saunter nervously out on the wooden stage and sit on miniature chairs behind their miniature music stands, miniature instruments of various designs in hand and perform impressively for their age under the glow of a single spot light. As the last note fell off into the darkness of the room, the crowd would applaud, the parents being obvious as they always clapped and hooted the loudest, and a smile would appear on the kids face replacing the image of the nervous first timer with the pride of someone who had accomplished something new.
After all the children had performed their various pieces the instructor walked on stage. Removing the miniature furniture and replacing it with an adult sized chair and an adult sized music stand she announced that the final performer of the evening was a bit of an unconventional student as she was the oldest Suzuki student in the history of MacPhail, enter my mother. As the final note drifted off into the still dark recital hall the room burst into applause, the proud children being obvious as we clapped and hooted the loudest for the parent with the big smile on her face.
Mutti took lessons for ten more years and became good enough to second chair in a community orchestra and play at church Masses around the Twin Cities. She even attended a master class with Yo–Yo Ma. If only Spock had lived long enough to hear her practicing Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. But I’m sure he was all smiles and purrs in kitty heaven.
Learning the cello was just one of the many reinventions of self and creative endeavors my mother would embark on. It has not only been an honor to watch and support her but a source of continued inspiration as almost every day of her life has been partially dedicated to the act of creation and participation in the arts in one way or another.
Today we celebrated her 32,850th day on earth. So many of those days have been made brighter by her contribution of music, her gardening, her ceramics, her knitting and most of all, by her mothering. And though I loathe admitting it, as she calls me frequently to ask if I can look up crossword clues on the google, even her crossword doerering makes my days brighter.
Happy 90th Birthday Mutti!