Sights, scents, and even slants of light can send us straight to our memories. I am transformed, taken to different times in my life, by seeing certain cuts of shadow and light in the sky — the way a low-slung sun shines, fervently tilting its beams through trees, early on a warm, blue summer morning, eager to spread its heat.
Nearly all of us can be taken back in time by delicious kitchen aromas, sprightly perfume or dankly scented oils, or even the mustiness of a summertime basement. Suddenly, through a breath, you are rushed back into a pleasing or wistful memory.
As I get older, sound, and most especially musical sound, is a memory conjurer.
Two homes in my neighborhood, both large by the standard of houses built in their 1930s vintage, are undergoing total transformations. Both are made of red brick that had been at some time painted white. Now, the paint from each has been mostly sandblasted giving each house a new appearance, pleasantly weathered. The houses sit about four blocks from each other, and I like walking past them often to watch the progress and note the different philosophies being used for renovation.
As I approached one house on a recent walk, there were workmen breaking up a large old concrete and stone patio. The work was done “old school,” with sledges and chisels. I saw a man wheel barrowing away debris, but I didn’t hear jackhammering.
Instead, I heard music. I heard a violin concerto.
One expects to hear music playing from construction areas. Usually through a beat-up black and yellow Dewalt work-site radio — tinny pop, or super-trebly classic rock, or Regional Mexican music like Mariachi, Norteña, Ranchera, or Tejano. But here, on this work site radio, was Mendelssohn, loud enough to hear clearly from the street as I passed by.
Not what one would expect…
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Violinist Ray Chen with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Kent Nagano.
In this case, that unexpected music shot me through with a memory of a morning in 1987.
I started piecing the day together – it was over thirty years ago. Was it windy and gray on that day? Or was the sun’s light bending through leaves in the way it was on my neighborhood walk? Was it late September or the first part of October? I couldn’t remember. I thought it probably was cool and overcast, but no matter the weather on that long ago day — it was the hushed and steady determination of the workers, and especially the music, that brought my mind to my mother and a morning when she and I worked together gardening.
Early October 1987. Together, my mother and I pruned plants and cleaned up flowerbeds around my parent’s house. We transplanted chrysanthemums from pots into the ground. We delicately spread thick, fresh mulch around roses. On the porch attached to a short brown extension cord was a portable Sony “boom box” that I had brought outside and set up. And then I remembered clearly, that morning was gray and windy – it was cool, too. Autumn was settling early.
On that 1987 morning she would have been pretty close in years to my current age. And although the song swirling on our portable player was not the same – Bach, not Mendelssohn, the memory surged. There I was in my head, transformed, a young man gardening with his mother – a cello, violins, a viola, and a harpsichord flowing through the winter-promising breeze.
We worked together without rushing. We worked together simply and quietly enjoying our tasks. And here is the most important part of the memory — we worked together and communicated with almost no talking.
In addition to communicating silently about our gardening chores, we were also communicating about this: Pure Uncertainty. I had finished college that spring and had spent the summer pretty actively not planning for any kind of post-college life. I had worked most of the summer while living at home. I had been away from family and friends, and uncommunicative, on a trip to Italy during August and September. I was going to be moving away from Nebraska to Boston in a few days and had no real idea about what I would be doing there – not even about where I might live. Most punishing for her — my father’s health was poor. She was filled with well-founded apprehension, and I was filled with eagerness and anxiety.
Many questions – scant inklings of any answers.
It all worked out. In the way that gardens need attention, or the way that homes need attention, need periodic transformation — their shutters removed, their paint sandblasted, their patios broken up and carted away – our lives get shaken up and we metamorphose. And it all works out.
I am grateful to have had this memory, spurred by the sounds of stunning classical music emanating into the open summer air from inelegant speakers. Most of my recent memories of my mother have come from her in her later, end years, when she was confused and so frail. But I got a lucky picture in my mind of my 1987 mother — her friendly ghost. I began to imagine her at different ages. She was younger, surer, sound, and healthy. And I got a clear glimpse of a morning from my past when my mother and I found several calm moments together, quietly connecting, each forgiving the other of our fleeting fears while our lives underwent their separate violent evolutions.
It all worked out.
J. S. Bach. Harpsichord Concerto in f minor. BWV 1056 (II y III) (Larghetto & Allegro). Ímpetus Madrid Baroque Ensemble Yago Mahugo, Harpsichord / Conductor.
21 August 2019