A tale of two women

When the music came over the air I pulled the car to the side of the road. In order to hear every note. For those notes evoked two images. The first was of a beautiful woman at one with her piano. The other was of a hapless, hopeless creature strapped in her wheelchair.

The music was, I think, a Chopin polonaise. The image of the pianist was a memory of my mother, who often performed that music. The creature we will deal with later.

I was told that when my mother was a girl, people fell in love with her music. She grew up in Oswego in upstate New York. On Saturday mornings she would scamper aboard a train to Syracuse. The conductors doted on her. Because her father, my grandfather, worked for the railroad. And because she was a regular on that train.

I can easily imagine her. A lithe and lively girl, dashing down the platform to catch her train with seconds to spare. I see her tripping up the steps to Syracuse University's School of Music. I picture her flummoxing back down to chase the music sheets that escaped her clutches.

Her sister, my Aunt Jule, told me my mother could play any music she saw or heard. That she awed and enchanted her piano teachers. That the lessons in, and intricacies of piano, were playthings to her.

It is easy for me to believe this. For my memories from childhood are accompanied by her music. Her fingers frolic across the keys. Her body sways with the melodies that fill the air at what seems like her effortless command.



No sooner did the radio air anew song, than we heard my mother play it.

She romped through many classical pieces from memory. Today when I hear any, I try to stop what I am doing. To listen. As I did with the polonaise on the car radio. It cannot be true, but my memories assure me her performances were richer, more colorful than what I am listening to.

Her music ended when we lost her piano. It seems to me that maybe our piano was on loan and at some point the owners took it back. I suspect we did not have the money to buy another.

Many years passed before she owned a piano again. And that was a down at the heels upright. It sat against the wall of the dining room at the Empire, the country hotel my parents bought. It held its tune about as well as some of our regulars held their beer. She did not play it much.

During those years she lost her interest in music and in most of lifeís joys. In her deafness she could not hear music. Drowning in her Alzheimerís, she let slip her grasp of the sharps and flats and chords of everyday living.

Her final years found her bound to a wheelchair in a home for the aged. She withered into one those toothless babbling vegetables, who recognize no one. She could not speak, nor hear, nor stand. It is not out of disrespect I refer to her as a hapless creature. To all the world she was little more. And she bore no resemblance in any way to the woman who I remembered as my mother.

One Sunday we wheeled her around the grounds and hall of the home. We came upon a piano. I cannot tell you why, but I decided to maneuver her to it. Her head flopped to one side. Her eyes brimmed with confusion.

I lay her leaden hands upon the keyboard.

Suddenly they sprang to life. Suddenly the hall resounded with every note every chord of one of her classical favorites. And just as suddenly, she stopped.

She began another. And after a few seconds she stopped. Came another few bars of another favorite. Followed by another silence.

She lifted her eyes to mine. In them I saw bewilderment. As if she were beseeching me to tell her what she was doing.

She had managed to waft us back to my childhood, to her young motherhood. For she had plunged into the porridge that her mind had become. She had fished out a few shards that still held a scrap or two of substance. Scraps that were not filtered through the experiences and tragedies of her years.

Upon those scraps were imprinted a flurry of notes of the music of her young life, and of my own.

I did not mourn my motherís death. I did my mourning years before. When she no longer recognized her children. That is when I mourned. When her tongue lashed at us in bitterness. When she wandered around the block and lost her way home. That is when I mourned.

It is as I knew two different people. One was my mother, dead and mourned, from Alzheimerís. The other was a stranger who occupied a shell that vaguely, barely so, resembled my motherís body.

The two people had no connection with each other. But on that Sunday afternoon she drew the two together. With a few bars of music she bridged what had been an unbridgeable chasm.

With the lilt of the music, by the dance of her fingers across the keys she signaled me. That prisoned within that creature was the lass who had dashed off to Syracuse aboard the train. Was the young woman who had mothered us so many years before, with a polonaise of Chopin.

From Tom ... as in Morgan.

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