Friday, July 5, 2013

The stuff we're born with, and (maybe) the stuff we're not

Lately I've been thinking about What We Come With: What qualities, what personality traits, are pre-loaded for us before we're aware? Before we're born? Before, even, the joining of our parents' genetic codes begin to describe us? What defines me as a lodestone for some people? What makes other people into celestial bodies around which I am compelled to orbit? Fair warning: it's a very me-me-me blog post; this is your chance to get out quickly.

People are coming and going so quickly in my own life right now. My father, from whom I've been quietly distant for long years, is facing the very serious illness of his wife. My Dear Old Person just suffered the loss of a nephew who, through an odd happenstance of timing, was more a brother than a dweller in the next generation. Other losses have already been touched upon in this forum. My mother's sister, whose kindness to me was profound, died just months ago; again, because of gentle estrangement, I didn't know about it. And some amazing re-connections have offered themselves to me in recent months, wrapped in grief and happy memory in almost equal measure, as though there were some great balancing scale by which the taking and the giving were>
Thoughts of my father are stepping stones to memories of my mother. Those overlaid recollections take me to music, straight as angels. My mother had known my father for some time before she married him, apparently on the rebound from a teenage romance. If she fell in love with him, according to her sister, it was during the singing of music in the church choir; it was in the blending of her unaffected alto with his sweet light baritone. It may not have been romantic love that saw them married, the sister of my mother said to me. It might have been the romance of music, the power of blended voices, that connected them and brief time, produced me. If I did not know the power of the romance of music as well as I do, I might not believe it. But I do. I do, because I can't remember a time at which I couldn't hear harmony in my head. I don't remember not knowing how to hear a third or a fourth above or below a melody line, though I had no words for any of those things. Since before I can remember, I've sung in configurations of voices in which I was always an alto. Was I born, thanks to my mother's warm alto or my father's sweet baritone, to have this voice? Was I born to wrap a melody in harmonies in my heart, whether or not anyone else could hear it? Did it come from them? Did it come from some ancestral power or benediction? It seems a silly cliche to ask whether the power of music might have some from my Scotch-Irish ancestors. And yet...consider my cousin Susan, whose mother is my father's sister. Susan is a Dade on her mother's side of the family, as I am on my father's side. And as I am an Irish McCaffrey on my mother' side, so is Susan an Irish McConnell. I was eleven years old when my mother died. Before then, my mother exposed me to classical music, to bluegrass, to country, but most of all, to the American folk music of her time, with its blood relationship to the broadside ballads of England and Ireland laid bare. I took in the interpretations of Joan Baez before I could read. What did Susan hear? And what does it mean?

I asked my older son whether he could recall a time when, as a child, he could not hear harmony in his head.He said, more or less, "It's funny you ask that. Someone asked me about it recently, and I was surprised to realize that it's not possible for everyone else to filter out other parts. I can hear the melody, or the melody and one part, or all the parts...I can filter them out as I want. And I'd never realized that not everyone can do that."

Yeah, me neither.

But as our venerated teacher of music and musical director used to tell all of us who came through her choir always reminded us, there was learning, too. There was practice. There was the plain fact that when we were paid to spend an hour or so singing at a wedding or a funeral, we weren't being paid for that hour. We were paid for every practice, every lesson, every rehearsal, every moment spent singing the difficult sections in our heads; in fact, we were paid for every time we dreamt about the intricacies of a triplet or the defiant near-impossibilty of the 16-notes so beloved of Handel. So what did we bring to her, as students? And what did we take away from her? It's a tiny example, I know, but what do we bring into this world that is wholly our own, undiluted or enhanced by experience?

Since I like to share some food before sleeping I'll leave you with a reference to the image I posted last night to Istagram and Facebook, unless you can see this one. As a July Fourth finish, I made the James Beard cream biscuits of which we've often spoken here, recounted affectionately in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham. This time they had fresh blueberries tucked inside. These were topped with a mixture of mashed sweetened strawberries and plain strawberries and blueberries, finished with gently sweetened fresh whipped cream. The cream biscuit recipe is simple and beautiful, and nothing's better in all the summer than fresh berries. So. If you need to know how to make the biscuits let me know. Or just ease back into your chair, think interesting thoughts, read something wonderful and bask in the opportunity summer offers us all to macerate our ideas together before we dream about the stuff we might be born with, once and always our own, and the stuff we might re-imagine, making richer with experience: the stuff that must inevitably define us?