My mother's birthday was yesterday, June 9th; she would have been 89. I was singing all day, which would have made her happy -- she knew how important music is to me, and during the period of my life where I wasn't doing much of it and was rather unhappy, she finally suggested, gently, that I might consider getting back to it. I did; she had been right.
She wasn't a fan of the Church, nor was she a believer, though she faithfully attended services every Sunday during the long years when my dad and I were singing in the choir; she did it for us, not for any other reason. For her, Nature was holiness -- that and loving those closest to her. But through a keen intelligence, a great deal of reading, observation of human life, and personal challenges that included the Depression, World War II, and chronic asthma, she developed a personal philosophy that was far more robust than that of many "religious" people; it stood her in good stead her entire life, including her last years. She was tremendously patient, generous, and kind; industrious about whatever needed to be done; and almost never complained about personal problems. My admiration for her grows as I too get older; I miss her actual presence but am happy to continually notice that her love and wisdom stay with me.
She'd be quite amused to know that my father, at 88, played table tennis and came in second in his age bracket in the New York State Senior Games on Saturday.
That day, while he was competing, I spent some time listening to Ian Bostridge singing English songs by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Somehow Bostridge hadn't been on my radar until I visited Teju last weekend, when he played an episode of the BBCs "Desert Island Discs" for us featuring the selections of Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy. When I heard Bostridge's voice, I knew I had to listen to a lot more. Some people prefer Peter Pears for Britten, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and others for German lieder; be that as it may, I think Bostridge's voice is perfectly suited to these very English works by Vaughn Williams, and I like his interpretations of Britten, too.
I wasn't consciously thinking of my mother as I was listening, nor is this her kind of music, but for me it created a reflective and elegiac mood that reminded me of the countryside, and only afterward connected with my mother. Later, on Sunday evening, I sat down at the keyboard and played through a bunch of jazz standards that she really did like. There was a bouquet of yellow roses from my garden in her Wedgewood pot, too, adding their spicy fragrance to the night air as I played and thought of her sitting in her favorite chair, listening while she read or knitted, the screen door open so that the sounds of insects, birds and frogs filled the silences. When I finished there would be tea and a little something sweet, and before going to bed, we'd step out on the deck and look up at the stars.
JOHN DONNE - HOLY SONNET 17
Since she whom I lov'd hath paid her last debt
To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravished,
Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers off'ring all thine,
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea devil put thee out.