Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The piano lady is no longer Mrs. Anderson

So after grocery shopping for the first time in three weeks, I came home to a typical e-mail from my mother.

As I'm a lucky kid whose parents still feed her, and because my so-called permanent residences typically change annually, my bills are send to my parents' address. Mom's always great about letting me know what kind of money I've spent.

It went something like this:

Hi Kelsey,

How was your day? I'm paying bills.

She then interjects that $24.99 is due to my credit card account.

And closes with:


But, it was her post script that prompted me to write:

The piano lady says hi! She's not Mrs. Anderson anymore.

My mother must have seen her in the dental office. With a father as a dentist and a mother a hygienist, I typically both brush and floss and receive greetings through the grapevine. But if she's not Mrs. Anderson, who is she?

Such a statement aptly jogs the memory: the soft hearted woman in whose basement I'd spent nearly all my childhood Monday afternoons is no longer the same. Unlike my mother's former teacher, she never hit my knuckles when I stuck a G instead of a C, and never reprimanded me when I'd blunder through a piece of music I'd obviously not practiced. When I started at six, I played by ear and learned staff lines and key signatures as an afterthought. I memorized and performed competition pieces and played a duet on Northrop's stage in an honors concert at eight. But by sixteen, I was enjoying her company during my hour long lessons more than I wanted to learn Bach's piceces in my Suzuki classics. She'd adjust her glasses beneath her salt and pepper hair as I painstakingly picked through a piece, before gently indicating it could use some work. But she never squirmed or stopped me; her patience was probably a direct gift from God. She drank warm, red juice from coffee mugs and loved her cats and her baby grand. She encouraged me to play more jazz and embellish the pieces on which I was working. And I did. I'd add new syncopation in a rift of eighth notes, fermatas as the bass line plunked away... It was the only thing I ever practiced in those last few years of lessons.

But it's amazing the kind of bubble that surrounds you as a child. You learn piano theories, while theories of love aren't holding true. Not that love has ever been scientific. As it turns out, gentle Mrs. Anderson had been verbally abused by her husband for years and finally broke away during the last. How do you enter someone's home 52 times in a year for ten years and have an indication of her pain? Perhaps you're allowed naivete when you're sixteen, but why should that be an excuse for tunnel vision?

Friday, March 14, 2008

From a work still in the works.

I just thought I would share a scene from a larger piece I'm currently working on about growing up Catholic.

From "Of Catechism and Crosses"

As a kid in the church, my involvement began with the children’s choir and vacation bible school, culminating in the fifth grade, when I was allowed to begin altar serving. For years I’d watched older kids bring the chalice and water and wine to the right place at the right time, and I was itching to climb the stairs and sit next to Fr. Ed on the altar. Even more, I was anticipating a look into the “back room” – the sacristy – where only servers, lectors and priests were privy.

The first mass I served was a cool morning in September, and like any other event in my life, the whole family – grandma included – had come. She warbled when she sang, and throughout my childhood managed enjoyably to bring her volume above everyone else in the church. I was pleased that I would hear her praises from a distance. The mass began like any other; five minutes before, I lit the candles and after the lector welcomed everyone and invited the congregation to “stand and greet those” around them, I pretentiously took the church’s steel cross out of its stand for the opening procession. I banged it on the doorframe of the sacristy and turned red, grateful that everyone was standing and only a few could see the scene. The song continued and I struggled to carry the cross up the aisle. At twenty-one I tower just past five feet, and as an eleven year old I was wrestling a giant with spaghetti for arms. The cross teetered forward and backward and I grit my teeth as I staggered up the stairs at the end of the song.

Placing the cross in its stand was like threading a needle. Its post was round but scarcely an inch in diameter. To support the rest of its heavy shape, its stand – a round tube just larger than the diameter of the cross – rose nearly a foot off the ground. With the cross's top towering over my head I stabbed at the stand and missed to the left, then clanked it too far forward. I had broken a sweat by the time I wiggled the cross back and forth and the friction of steel on steel met its post with support. The service began and I flawlessly held the gigantic book for the opening prayer; the lector read and the choir sang the responsorial psalm.

While my success had been limited up to this point, I had made a cardinal mistake as an altar server. The morning had been cool and I’d chosen a wool sweater to wear beneath my cassock. As the mass continued on, my insulating layers cooked like a crock pot. The intensity of the heat came in waves, and waves of nausea came with its intensity. My face was a lobster and my hands clams. I ran their sweaty surfaces down my thighs and slowed my breathing. Just relax, Kelsey. Get through the mass and you’ll be fine. You’re just nervous.

And then I was swept with the feeling you get just before you vomit. Your muscles drain themselves of power and you tend to shake like you’ve just run a marathon. Your mouth goes dry like you’ve swallowed soda crackers without water.

Was I going to ruin my years of anticipation as an altar server? Not if I could help it. I stood my ground and swallowed gingerly. And swallowed again. And closed my eyes.

As I perched on the bench next to Fr. Ed’s ornate chair and he delivered his homily, I kneaded my palms and then clenched my fists while the congregation took no apparent notice of my struggle that went something like this: The crackers, the marathon. The crackers, the marathon. Lobster face. Clams. Lobster face. Crackers. Clams. Marathon. Face. Clams. Crackers.

I couldn’t swallow.

But I couldn’t leave my post and abandon my responsibility. I was only eleven, and what was this going to say about slacking off and its relation to the rest of my life? Somebody still needed to symbolically pour the water over Fr. Ed’s hands before the consecration. And I knew how to do it and wasn’t going to leave him out to dry.

But I had a marathon in my muscles and clams in my hands and…

I lost the battle as my breakfast hit my shoes.

I ran to the Sacristy. My mother met me there as tears of stress from both vomiting and sadness squeezed between my eyelids. “I’ve ruined the mass!” I sobbed, “And there’s puke all over the carpet up there!”

Mom took me home and Dad stayed after mass to apply vinegar and water to the soiled, gray carpet of the altar. We dry-cleaned my white cassock, and I could never figure out how my mother was allowed to come back to the sacristy without permission.