28 November 2010

the season of aloneness

I have a trove of teenage poems exploring my dire emotional winter landscape...it was a time of intense creativity for me, even as it was despairingly lonesome because of home-life factors and the repetitive failure of my h.s. relationships to make it past Thanksgiving. Anyway, unlike some folks who despise their adolescent written voices, I'm an unabashed fan of my own, even as I acknowledge my naivete and creaky language choices....

the season of aloneness

and you,
shed like crisp autumn leaves--
still fragrant, still reminding;
summer wasn't so long ago...
painless, timeless, hopeless,
a curious reminiscence--
full of romance and
our temporary innocence

love, leaves, summer, warmth;
memories guarded
like a brilliant fallen leaf
and our friendship preserved.
gingerly possessed
as we drift into winter
the season of aloneness

NBR 11/30/81

30 August 2010

Pathfinding: A Loyola Memoir

The first week of my freshman year at Loyola was unseasonably hot, even for late summer. The wool blazer—which took some getting used to under any circumstances—was even harder to tolerate during that early September of 1978. So the deer-in-the-headlights feeling familiar to any new freshman was compounded by the stifling New York City heat. I can remember feeling basically stunned that whole week.
So when Louis Tambini began one of our first history classes by standing in front of us, silently holding up a silvery dime, I felt completely mystified. He was an impressive figure to begin with, sartorially elegant, with a laser gaze and a bottom-line voice. In my years of parochial school in Queens, I’d never seen a teacher like him. Then he spoke, emphasizing his words with the dime between thumb and forefinger. “This is all you need to get into the Metropolitan Museum,” he said. “Don’t ever feel like you can’t go there because you don’t have enough money to get in. It’s a suggested donation. So go to the Met.”
Many teachers at The Loyola School made a lasting impression on me. Charles Winans, who nurtured my writer’s soul and extolled my Irishness; Ellen Fee, the calm, collected artist, who helped us all create in the serenity of her studio; Father Ferrand, the unforgettable dynamo en français; Daniel Sullivan, a rigorous communicator of the events that shaped our modern world; Richard Vogel, under whose tutelage I became a full-fledged writer and editor; Sister Maureen, a most unique theologian with a sunny outlook; Joe Hanser, who tolerated my mathematical blocks with gruff kindness; Colleen Ranney, with her unabashed enthusiasm for science; and Jim Lyness, who taught so many of us how to express ourselves before a crowd with confidence. These people truly set up the building blocks of my life and career—what I learned from them I still utilize to this day. But as I seek to summarize my Loyola experience, I turn to Lou Tambini. He opened up this scholarship student’s world with that dime.
Does anyone else still have their “Tambini Bible”? (For the uninitiated, that was our history class notebook.) Mr. Tambini’s approach was brilliant: he wrote carefully outlined notes on the blackboard which we copied word-for-word into our notebooks. Those notes described the great ancient civilizations, starting with archeological evidence of early man and ranging through Egypt, Greece, Rome and Europe. They were matter-of-fact and tailor-made for efficient exam studying. But he took our note-taking to a higher level by demanding that we illustrate our Tambini Bibles. Not with drawings, but with photographs clipped from any source we could track down. Travel agencies were our best bet, he advised—they were chock-full of glossy, free brochures that depicted the wonders of the ancient world. Old encyclopedias, National Geographics, any source would do. And each picture had to have a caption. Thanks to this latter requirement, my Tambini Bible still serves as an excellent learning tool about the development of civilizations. I’ve proudly shown it to my own kids, who love to see the pictures of old statues, ruins, castles and other remnants of the distant past…the ancient world at our fingertips.
Moreover, I took to heart Mr. Tambini’s admonishment that we should go to the Met. I spent many happy afternoons there as a Loyola student, particularly in the Egyptian galleries and the beautiful Temple of Dendur hall. For a kid from Astoria, Queens, this was a transporting experience. In fact, all of Loyola was. “Diversity” is an oft-heard buzzword in education these days, and well it should be. But Loyola represented a kind of reverse diversity for me: an introduction to the world of diplomats’ children, Park Avenue dwellers, students attired in haute-preppy wear and accustomed to more freedom than I had ever imagined. It was not an easy transition to make; I suffered silently about not being able to shop at Bloomingdale’s and wear Izod-Lacoste shirts, and excursions into New York’s nightlife required Herculean arrangements to get home safely and on time. It seems trivial now, but my otherness was a major heartache then. As my sophomore year commenced, however, the school’s accepting atmosphere finally penetrated my psyche and I realized it didn’t matter. I was valued for my own self, not for what I looked like or where I came from.
And along with that brand-new revelation of individuality came the expansion of my intellect. I was by no means a model student, but I learned that certain subjects were native to me, and teachers in those areas helped me to thrive. That prepared me for the challenges of college, where one has to select carefully the courses that will advance one’s goals. But the social lessons of Loyola also prepared me for my stint at Bowdoin College, where my Queens-ness really stood out against the L.L. Bean-dominated, ultra-preppy landscape. I made my way regardless. Loyola had taught me to do that.
Ten years ago, I married the son of a classical history teacher (she taught at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia). My mother-in-law still drills her children on significant dates, events and places. She took her son to Greece and he experienced the beauty of that civilization firsthand. So in a way, Lou Tambini even helped me prepare for my married life! I deeply mourn his loss but am fortunate indeed to have been his student. And I thank the Loyola family, too, for helping me to find and follow my own path.

08 April 2010


Until I was 22 years old, I never called anyone Dad. In fact, when I said the word aloud as a kid, it felt weird, like a new word I was supposed to memorize for French class. I cringed like I wasn't pronouncing it correctly...like no one who heard it would understand what I was talking about. "Dad." Gulp, try again. "Dad." Thudding consonants with a short a in the middle. Foreign.

On the first day of kindergarten, I came to realize what an effective social tool this fact could be. Seated at the blue table (bright blue-gingham circle pasted in the center of a cool, smooth wood surface), the assembled kids were offering snippets of their life stories and talking about what their dads did for a living. As always, this irked me. Wait, I thought. Just wait for your chance. And then Warren, at my left, said, "My father is a mechanic."

"I don't have a father," I announced brightly.

Eyes bugged; little voices said, "Huh?" "What?" "You have to have a father!"

"Nope," I said. I savored my big word: "My parents are divorced."

"Oo-ooo-ooh"'s went around the blue table, as divorce was still relatively rare in 1969. My classmates looked at once admiring and wary. I've elicited that facial expression many, many times since. Call it a pioneer's survival skill. Maybe even a badge of honor. It's who I was for years and years: a searching, fatherless child.

Mom tried not to talk about him--and eventually, my stepfather didn't allow her to. Any discussions Mom and I had about my father were furtive and gloomy, and there was never a chance to bring it up again later; each conversation was self-contained, so I had to get my questions in immediately. The factoids I gleaned about his drinking, his anger, and his irresponsibility as a parent were no more enlightening than the National Enquirer. Meanwhile, my stepfather's comments about my father were pretty clear: "That asshole has no right to see you. I'd kick the shit out of him if he came anywhere near here."

I called my stepfather by his first name, because calling him "Dad" would have been like bestowing "Your Highness" on Miss USA; the two just don't equate. He had no clue that, deep in the recesses of my bedroom closet, I hoarded the single photo album that showed my parents together, sometimes even looking happy. My mother had no idea how often I plied the album's yellowing paper pages, onto which scores of black-and-white photos had been rubber-cemented. The album smelled like a lost past, keen and musty. The photos still shone, crisply focused by my father's photographic skill. Rarely, his own image surfaced in there, and I scrutinized it like a detective for signs of similarity to mine. So close to the face in the photo...as if I could start a conversation with it.

We never saw my father's family members; they were cut out of my life before I was old enough to know who they were. I have a gauzy memory of seeing a crowd of them at some event; I recently surmised that it must have been after my paternal grandmother's funeral in New Jersey. Tall, talking adults drifting around a kitchen, far above my bewildered two-year-old head; a screen door and blurry green trees beyond it...pressing my nose up against the screen. I remember watching a cousin playing on a swingset outside, but my tentative attempt to join her was interrupted by a bee scouting the yard. I was outlandishly afraid of bees, so I stayed inside. My father must have been there, but I had no reason to recognize him amongst all the similarly featured Burnses. People spoke loudly as the afternoon dragged on, and I cringed as I always did at adult voices being raised.

So, I was consigned to rummaging in the closet, shooting glances over my shoulder to make sure no one opened my bedroom door. Carefully pulling out the album--Mom actually put these pictures in a nice one, not some cheapo plastic thing. This album had a leathery cover, black, with gold embossed on it. The pages were supple and organized chronologically. Once, I guess Mom figured she would want to look back.

I'm the only one who wanted to look back, as it turned out. Do I look like him? Would I have liked him? ran through my head as I flipped through the precious five pages of pictures where my father appeared (the rest of the album was taken up by baby pictures of my brother, a bonanza of images that dwindled as the marriage listed sideways...and then the album goes to Kodacolor and I'm born. A few pages to cover five years of my life, then...done).

Try as I might, I could never connect the black-and-white pictures with 3-D reality. In them, Dad's smiles and gestures are frozen. He's not a whole person, just miniature moods on film that don't change. (Mostly good moods, when you looked.) And he was young...goofily, affectlessly young. I suspected that I looked like him, but I never had anyone in the room to second me on that. And whenever I asked my maternal grandparents (in the safe haven of Maine), as kindly as they were, they would immediately rush in to reassure me. "No, dahlin', you don't look anything like him. You don't want anything to do with his people. You are just you, that's all, and we are so glad of that."

They wanted me to feel loved and cherished...I don't think they realized I was yearning for them to link me up with the Burnses. And knowing how much they disliked my father (in fact, had never liked him from the first meeting, and continued to compile a list of offenses that would not let any positive feelings creep in)...well, I did not want to challenge them further, forcing them to remember him too vividly.

I did come upon one other fragment of my father's life. The third drawer in my bedroom dresser was stuffed with papers and documents: the legalese story of my family's life. (In a three-room apartment, no one truly has a room or even a dresser to herself.) Left to my own devices, I adored pawing through that drawer, even then showing signs of a budding obsession with genealogy. Awkwardly shoved into the space was a folded stack of photostatic copies (dimly grey, shiny, smelly pre-Xeroxes). Mom must have copied these pages in some office setting, probably before I was born. They were poems--a meticulous, lofty manuscript. The faint typewriterly words seethed with anger and intellectual disdain. My father was a poet. This revelation came to me after my own writer's voice had made itself known, rendering the discovery ever more magical. For years, I puzzled over his works, which were denser than T.S. Eliot in places, positively Joycean in others. I had no idea what this man was ranting on about, but he was difficult to cleave to; his casually dropped Gaelic and classical references were not exactly bread to Gretel. It was not until high school that I could begin to decipher the verse-heavy, word-laden works. Quickie summary: that residual anger my mom was carting around about him? He flung his own back at her, fueled by a wounded youth and penchant for infidelity. This poetry, even as it became more comprehensible, still left me at sea.

Some years later, the fall after I graduated from college, my mom called me--I lived in Maine full time by then. She said, completely apropos of nothing, "Do you want to speak to your father?"

For a bewildered second I thought she was about to hand the phone to him or something--after all, the stepfather was long gone. But, no, she had decided to track his number down because I was an adult now, and it was up to me what I went and did with it. This was pre-Internet--it's a miracle she found him at all. In California, no less. (And what a classic Mom thing to do: practical, emotionless, just thrusting the ball at me: here.) Shall I define mind-blown for you? Mom's question pretty much clinches it. I practically swayed. To this day I can still picture the room I was in as I clutched the phone and let Mom's deed fully dawn on me, breaking across my mental shore in waves.

I might have waited one night before I made the fateful phone call...maybe. Despite my terrified nerves, uncertainties bubbling in my brain, wild imaginings about how wrong this could go...I punched in the numbers Mom gave me. He came to the phone immediately and I swear to you, I knew his voice. The man of poetic, liquored fury had been domesticated and sobered by his third wife, and was now a wry, productive eighth-grade English teacher (talk about penance!). Thus began a relationship that closed so many books, opened my mind, and made me whole. Also, it placed into my mouth a word I had always deserved: Dad. And in his mouth, a word that made a girl of me: "Sweetheart."

We called each other weekly and wrote epic letters to bring each other up to speed on lives that had never intersected. We exchanged pictures--expanding my visions of him a hundred times over, and giving him something tangible of his daughter. Peter was new in my life then, and Dad wholeheartedly approved. This had not been the case with all of my relatives, who warmed to my eventual spouse a little more slowly. Dad knew personally how the right person could alter the course of your life, leading you to better choices and happier days (and nights). Not for nothing did my own sobriety coincide with all of these events.

After five years of phone calls and the aforementioned barrage of correspondence, we finally met in 1992. I was pregnant with a son, and Dad had just been diagnosed with cancer. Being together in-person was suddenly urgent--and how fortunate, indeed, that I could make the trip, as it was the first and last time we ever spent time together. Dad's treatments had just begun, and he was vigorous and engaged by my visit. For my part, I tried to adjust to the alien landscape of Los Angeles in February, and hugged this man as often as I could. Our stomachs--mine swelled with six months of fetus, and his swelled with 56 years of living--would bump, and we'd giggle. We spent hours tucked into plaid-cushioned chairs across from one another, talking, comparing notes, absorbing. Every night, I puttered in his kitchen and made dinner Reifsnyder-style, since his treatments mandated extra nutrition.

One afternoon, Dad told me about the day of my birth, and that may have meant more to me than anything else he said in our time together, because it was vivid and true and connected me to him as never before.

It was the day after the Beatles had arrived in New York City, and Manhattan was swirling with screaming hordes and bemused journalists. The city winter cold was charged with an undeniable cultural electricity. Meanwhile, in a delivery room on the Upper West Side, my father's head swirled with a vicious red-wine hangover, the result of a Friday night house party my parents had hosted. The hospital staff insisted he wear a surgical mask while he watched Mom give birth to me; now, the wine fumes steamed from his mouth up to his nose, recycling, fueling the hangover. Still, he hung in there and witnessed my emergence, gamely.

Joy glimmered into the pain when Mom's female obstetrician displayed me to Dad immediately after my delivery, flawed and bloodied and human, his daughter. Dr. Ammann had allowed Dad to bypass the smoke-choked waiting room, the soundproof glass, the tightly blanketed infant in nurse's arms and the empty congratulations. This was rarely done in that era--I know Dad must have really wanted to be there. Perhaps we even bonded, in the parlance of latter-day infant researchers. Did his eyes--bleary above the mask line, but proud--meet my steady newborn gaze, that deceptive moment of lucidity before the long first nap sets in? Did he reach for me? Enraptured by his words, I forgot to ask him.

I had been conceived in a spirit of detente between my parents, I was told. A one-last-try for the marriage, an upswell of love and loving. But despite that auspicious beginning in the delivery room, Dad was out of my life within weeks. Vanished. By his own confused, conflicted, alcoholic choice. And my family unit sealed up behind him, to stanch the pain.

Had I never found Dad and gotten to know him, I know I would never have become fully adult. Some part of me would have stayed girl...a keening, unanswered invitation. Robert Leo McAllister Burns: I look like him, I laugh like him, and I write like him. It's my pride and distinction to call him Dad.

25 March 2010

The Answer

I wrote this while on the road, and wanted to let it simmer for awhile before I typed it up. It's about as open as I can get...which is pretty scarily, guilelessly open. So be nice to me. :) I dedicate it to everyone I've met along the way who knows....
"How could you see anyone in concert more than twice? I wouldn't want to see God in concert more than twice!" --my brother Sean, pondering my John Mayer concert plans for late winter 2010

Here's my Sunday-morning, legs-aching, post-show answer, live from the Indiana farm kitchen of my dear friend Gret (a person I would never, ever have met, were it not for John Mayer). It consists of multiple strands:

The elusive connections and total abandon of youth.
The desire to be outrageously female and sassy, which finds no safe haven in a small hometown, but blissfully blossoms on the road.
The window-staring wanderlust of a lifelong bus-train-plane passenger.
The say-anything recklessness of a solid friendship (or 20).
The anticipation of planning, the revelation of discovering (cities, people, food, you name it).
The nerve-wracking experience of stalking tickets online, literally seconds after they've come on sale...frantically inputting codes and waiting with held breath to see what row comes up, all without leaving the mundane homeport of your office desk. Then triumphantly and abruptly scoring seats that will place you a few scant yards away from THAT GUY.

See, I've already managed to fill a paragraph with deeply felt reasons, and it's not even about John Mayer yet. Well, until the THAT GUY part. Because FL1 Row E Seat 4 is a satellite to the planet of his whirling, expanding career. I've had a hard-won seat for his trajectory since 2003, and I'm not about to stop now. Another strand: The moment when the stage lights blast on, and a roar swells behind me and washes over the stage, where at the center mic is that affable face, the tumbled waves of dark boy hair, the acute angle of that guitar neck, and his hands plying the instrument surely and knowingly, even as he acknowledges the roar with humility. At that opening-song reveal, every time he's standing in front of me, I think: There he is again...those precise words; and each time, I feel the same expression cross my face: fortunate, joyful fondness.

John Mayer's music got into my bloodstream starting in August 2002. Back-to-school shopping with Zoë and friends, in someone else's minivan, radio waves beamed out his voice. Do I know this guy...? I wondered from my passenger seat, monitoring the grey highway horizon. I bought Mayer's first album not long after, feeling like I needed to hear more than the single. It was instant DNA music (credit Zoë for that term). His lyrics knew things that I already knew, but framed and elevated those things so that they could be shared and comprehended. As I stood then at the portal of 40, pondering who I was after decades of being someone for others, Mayer started handing me keys. Just as you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone, sometimes you don't know what you need 'till you get it. Then, finding myself in a community of fellow travelers experiencing such epiphanies was a blessing beyond imagining. From my lonely island lifestyle, my occupation wearing thin, with losses of authority figures piling up, I found rescue.

But, really. John Mayer: easy on the eyes. Check. A band that wields collective power to make me dance my ass off every single show, left sweating and thankful. Check. These items are heady and freeing. Check. Undoubtedly, I needed these things.

On this rainy farm morning after show #25, I've just grasped yet another powerful answer for all these shows. I felt it so profoundly last night that it seems to emphatically underscore all of the above. Here is the fact: I am an unrelenting, ravenous, lifelong music fanatic. Never endowed with the skill to create my own music, instead I seek it and bond with it. I will admit that I have an astonishing capacity to embrace multiple genres, and all of that music burns within me. In fact, Peter and I merged lives with this same urgent instinct as one of our strongest connections.

I learned that John Mayer was the same kind of polyglot music freak when I first heard the audio commentary on his DVD, Any Given Thursday. (That's right, he and a buddy provide narration over his own concert performance, hilariously.) Not only did his self-deprecating, endlessly referential banter sound completely familiar to me, but out of nowhere Mayer talked about Jimmy Smith. I listened, I paused, I rewound: seriously, did I just hear that?!Yes, I did.

Many people don't know who Jimmy was. That's all right--most people didn't grow up with a jazz musician mom. She exposed me to a universe of hip players, all of whose talents reeled out, literally, on a reel-to-reel tape player in our living room. You carefully threaded the slender brown tape into that 1960s luxury, then engaged a chunky "play" button that pulled up the shiny strand and started the music flowing. It was a ritual, as was the process of determining which LP would fill the apartment. Jimmy Smith was a go-to choice for me, and even as a preschooler, I clutched his tape cover like a teenybopper swooning over Meet the Beatles. Jimmy bridged the trad jazz world with wicked West Coast funk. (Well, I didn't know that then, but maybe I sensed it.) Simply stated, Jimmy Smith was the best jazz organist ever. He brought startling emotions to a staid, churchy instrument: nuances and nudges, jubilance and full-throated wails. And rhythm.

John Mayer knew who Jimmy Smith was, and quite plainly adored him. I was floored. When someone gets what I get, I want to know them. In that way, my life's been like an all-embracing music club, with numerous friends and family already in it..and I felt driven, watching Any Given Thursday, to add John. (No cheesy Hangover wolf-pack jokes, s'il te plaît.) Because it wasn't just John's music that felt like common ground, I realized...it was a huge range of music that we listen to and absorb, performed by others.

Last night, at show #25, new ground was broken. John was covering a song from my AM-radio youth, "Ain't No Sunshine". Mayer does not play this song straight--he interprets it like a jazzman, injecting levels of personal emotion that transcend Bill Withers' original Top 40 recording. I watch John avidly when he's off on these tangents, drawing energy from it. (People say I dance like a musician, which is not necessarily flattering, although it's better than The Elaine.) I would have done the same if I could have seen Jimmy Smith in his prime, I promise you.

There's a bridge in this song when Bill Withers intones a mantra: "I know, I know, I know, I kno-ow, I know..." Trying to convince himself; wishing he were wrong. I have my own emotional landscape for this song; Mayer obviously has his. After a blistering solo, Mayer began playing this bridge on his guitar, far from the microphone. I instantly knew he was riffing the bridge, and I started moving along with the insistent "I know" repetition, and singing it over his guitar notes, reveling. I was dancing up on my tiptoes, seeing my way clear over a few rows of tall people. Mayer made his way to the mic, still riffing, and started singing too: "I know, I know, I know." We locked eyes at that moment and started moving in unison as we both sang that heartfelt mantra, over and over. I stayed with it no matter how he syncopated it, and kept looking right at him, and he at me.

You know, I've had some transcendent moments in my 30 years of concertgoing, but nothing approaches the physical and mental high of being that musically in sync with someone who, yes, knows what I know. I certainly lost any inhibitions I might have been dragging around, and at the climactic end of that bridge, "YEAH I'm gonna LEAVE your thing alone, ain't no sunshine when she's gone...", the energy generated by that singing and moving left me in a cloudburst.

Unforgettable. Bracing. Mine.

So, brother o' mine, I haven't seen God 25 times in concert. But I have experienced strong emotions, bathed in fortifying music, and learned life-altering things about myself and my potential. I share the road with amazing friends from all over the continent. I never fathomed that my 40s could bring me so many gifts. And ultimately, it all boils down to pronouns and a verb: I know, he knows, they know, we know.

And one more thing, the obvious: he never plays a song the same way twice.

16 March 2010

Stranded at LaGuardia, March 2010

Slumped in a seat--
grey vinyl, pressed smooth by
ceaseless travelers--
confronting, confronted by
a sea of window
Triboro Bridge floats beyond this
grey field of tarmac at my feet
listening to "Assassin"
pounding loud
in black foam headphones
left to right,
regional jets
pierce the sky:
needles seeking cotton

NBR 3/15/10
for Karen, whose plane took off as I wrote this

10 February 2010

The Hands

They were the hands of a worker. A laundress, maybe, or a housekeeper. She always lamented how short and ruddy her fingers were, as she pushed on the emerald and opal rings that she loved to wear. Her knuckles were formidable, and the gold bands had to be slid over them just so. The rest of Maryann's skin was palest white with scatterings of Irish freckles, but her hands were reddened.

Facing a long row of white piano keys split by shadow lines and minor black rectangles, Maryann's hands became muscular, precise tools. She had a finger spread that spanned an octave without strain. Her left hand brought bass chords to life in accurate sync with the melody. And she was able to inject softness, nuance, and emotion along with the emphasis. Her hands were made to speak; they were servants to the spirit of jazz music. She realized this before she was 10 years old, in fact: the tunes of popular American song were destined to pour through her hands as entertainment for others. No need for sheet music; she could hear it and reproduce it. Maryann surrendered to that knowledge, transporting herself to a place of balance and peace whenever she played. Her life beyond the smooth wood box of a piano was often dissonant, as though she repeatedly and suddenly became a stranger in the face of everyday events...but the piano was her harbor.

She would gladly have forfeited attending smalltown parties in her youth, but there was an expectation that she would play for the gatherings, and Maryann was very good at living up to her responsibilities. Small talk made her uneasy, and although she had lifelong female friends who always included her in their fun, Maryann could never shake the feeling of being apart. The call to "Play something for us, Maryann!" was a relief even as it was a nuisance (because the partygoers would inevitably tell her what to play, demandingly, and then only half-listen as their small talk and smoking raved on). In the Northern Lights Class of 1950 yearbook, they nicknamed her "Paderewski".

Her graduation gift from her parents was an extravagance that befitted her nickname: a baby grand piano. Dark sepia wood, with lighter swirls of grain...beyond furniture, it was practically a planet in her parents' modest living room. An anchor in the harbor, you might say. An enticement, even...a plea for this golden only child not to leave.

It didn't work. She departed easily, plunging into the swelter of New York City summer. Maryann's hands ventured to nightclubs on Manhattan's fabled 52nd Street, where larger and even noisier crowds listened as the redhead coaxed the standards to swing and emote. Places like the Hickory House and the Embers, whose names evoked steak and smoke. By day, she was a radio station page, to pay her rent at the YWCA. Her nights glittered and simmered. Maryann found a community of fellow-travelers in the city...players from nowherevilles all over the world, for whom a musical instrument was equally effortless and all-consuming. Their lingua franca was their coolness, their ability to instinctively bend music so that it became something more shining than its original form.

She began dating a fellow-traveler named Bob Burns, late of the storied US Navy Band, a drummer whose conflicts and demons made Maryann's moments of social estrangement seem tame. He burned to play like she did (surname pun ruefully acknowledged), but there were gaps in his groove. Maybe his methodical intellect blocked him from giving over to the art. Bob ached to possess Maryann as his wife, perhaps to absorb some of her light, but ultimately, he snuffed it out with mundane duties. It was the 1950s, and Maryann was well aware of what she was expected to do: make this man a home, give birth to children. Wear an apron and have dinner ready. Their early married life in an urban apartment was not so dull, if the black-and-white photos are to be believed. But Maryann was certainly not sitting in at nightclubs on Wednesdays at midnight, and Bob had become a university student on the GI Bill...living out his own version of what-was-expected.

Bob and Maryann's jazz world must always be viewed through the amber glow of alcohol. It may well have enabled their muses to emerge fully flowered, without inhibitions, but as their marriage encompassed parenthood and salaries, it robbed them of any sense of settled contentment. Bob became bitterly angry, his tirades insensible. When infidelity was added to his list of domestic sins, Maryann scooped up her young children, returned north to her small town of birth, and left New York to him. The baby grand had awaited her in its living room berth, and it slowly reawakened her soul.

I have staccato memories of early childhood which linger far more vividly than most people's. My mother's elusive persona, her tether to a piano while my grandparents guided me through toddlerhood...it's all right at the fringes of my psyche, shards of places and events. Eventually, our family returned triumphantly to New York City, as Maryann got the gig of a lifetime: playing piano every night onstage in a hit Broadway show, Cabaret. Every night, some older woman--my nana, a babysitter--tucked me in while Maryann performed and brought home the bacon. I never minded her absence, but I jealously guarded her presence whenever I got it.

I stlll recall preschool afternoons when she would fill our apartment living room with the sound of the Steinway upright she'd purchased for herself. I stood to the right of her bench, eye-level to the keys, wanting to be as close as possible. I could stand there all day, watching the blur and pause of her hands. The music, I remember, was surprisingly louder from that vantage point, resonating through the wood. The wood itself had a scent, a deep sweetness. I knew, without being told, that my mother was phenomenally talented; that the songs she played were just as good as the jazz LPs in rotation on the stereo in that same room: Count Basie, Marian McPartland, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver. Maryann's mantra to her children differed from other mothers'; it was "Sssssh. Sssssh. Listen."

As Maryann's hands ranged over the keys, larger-than-life in that proximity, I was inevitably seized with a temptation: to strike a key with my childish index finger. I wanted to be swept up into the music, become part of it, not just her bystander. I could never deny the urge, and soon my hand would approach; my finger would choose a key. Most of the time the note was a lemon against whatever song she was playing. I knew that, could hear the note's high-pitched awfulness...but I would plink it again and again, listening to how it stood out, alone on a rich tapestry of beauty. Maryann did not stop me.

Among my genealogical treasures are the receipts for her baby grand and her Steinway, fluttering pink reminders of her time, her sound, what made her free.

13 January 2010

O Pioneers

For most of my friends here (whether peers or younger than I), 20 years ago was still a time of carefree youth. Peter and I were among only a handful of people in our group of friends/family who made the decision to marry and procreate whilst in our early 20s. We were the youngest sibs in our families, but we birthed the first grandchild on both sides. Peter was literally fresh out of college...he was by far the first in his class to become a father.

These decisions were not made by us momentously--that is to say, we were still carefree enough to see our marriage and life together as a flow, and we just went with it. We started out with the proverbial nothing, and added to our early days of frugality was the sudden responsibility of caring for my grampy, who came to live with us two months after the wedding. We learned as we went along in every way, because we really didn't know anyone else dealing with the circumstances we faced. Grampy was experiencing physical hardships that required a lot of supervision; Peter had to bathe him and help him get up from a sitting position at times, while I had to cut his nails and hair, clean his dentures, feed him, clothe him, entertain him (a lot of "Golden Girls" and "Murder, She Wrote"), and generally help him understand why our roles were suddenly tipped over after decades of the reverse. His mind was impaired in unpredictable ways--he knew who I was, and who Peter was, but he couldn't recall why he had had to come live with us, and was mortified that his handwriting had been impaired enough that I had to pay his bills for him. I would be writing the check for his Blue Cross payment, and he would be sitting alongside me saying, "Here, now, what are you doing that for??" and I would say, "Grampy, you can't write just yet, remember?"

(As if I knew anything about Blue Cross, back then. Talk about baptism by fire. Don't even get me started about the Medicare snarls, the hospitalizations, the desperate attempts to keep psychotropic drugs off his doctors' prescription pads...)

But let's go to the happy place of that retro era. The place where, at age 25 and juggling this brand-new hybrid household, I was surprised to find myself pregnant. Only surprised, in hindsight, because I'd staved it off so well during my wild college years, yet when Peter and I thought we'd experiment with not staving...well, kerwango. I stood alone in the kitchen with the telltale stick, Pete's laughter echoing on the porch as he left for work, and Grampy still waiting for his breakfast (not to mention, an explanation...that was delicate). I had no other family within a 500-mile radius. In fact, we had only lived in that house--our first real rental--for a month-and-a-half. After getting Grampy situated, I went across the lawn to my next-door neighbor's house. Her name was Fran, and she was a 60-something mom of 4 boys who had the least flappable demeanor you can imagine. An oasis of no-nonsense womanhood, and none too fussy about housework, all of which endeared me to her.

Fran and I sat down at her '50s metal kitchen table and perused the Ellsworth phone book to try and figure out who the OB/GYNs were nowadays. We chose a doctor and I made the appointment right there, on Fran's rotary wall phone. Having Fran's company and advice on that bewildering day was everything. I stumbled home in a daze to call my mom and deal with reality.

No Internets, my pets...we are talking retro days. In my usual way, I obsessed about what the heck was going to happen to my body, myself. Lacking health sites to peruse on a glowing screen late at night, I was left to take long walks to the local bookstore, where I ruminated on all the books on pregnancy and childbirth as I stood in the aisle. This was an extravagant purchase for us back then, so I had to be choosy. Ultimately, I decided on three books:

--Dr. Spock, mais oui (and did that ever get a workout).
--Sheila Kitzinger's Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth--because she had given birth five times without drugs, and she said labor felt like standing in front of an oven door and having sudden whooshes of heat and sensation come over you. Plus, her week-by-week descriptions of gestation were stellar.
--some 1980s-era, first-person motherhood narrative that was like having a knowledgeable older friend whose writing style you liked.

I needed so desperately to know what all of this was going to feel like, what were the potential complications, was I going to be able to breastfeed, and how could I make sure I wouldn't get drugs during labor (in 1989, midwifery and natural childbirth were still not the norm). Those books were companions that I read, reread, and read again for months.

Aside from these concerns, Peter and I were faced with clothing a baby and setting up our household on a single starter-level salary. That was the era when credit cards were fairly easy to come by, so we began our lifelong tango with debt and repayment. Nevertheless, money was still very tight, so we became connoisseurs of rummage and yard sales. Every Thursday we snagged the Ellsworth American and the Bar Harbor Times, heading straight for the classifieds. Our objectives were actually trifold:

--check to see if we could find a better house rental
--check to see if there were any jobs for book editors or writers (ummmm, no)
--review the listings of yard sales

This latter exercise was the sole means by which we became familiar with downeast Maine. Starting out first thing on a Saturday morning (and without GPS), we would clutch a map and compare it to the two-line sales ads, plotting out a logical circuit from one sale to the next. Obviously, we sought sales that specified baby clothes and goods; fortunately, there were many of those. Those early spring forays are burned into my memory...meeting other families, sorting through cardboard boxes or pawing over long tables in a church basement, and assembling everything we could have needed for our baby-to-be. I can still remember where I bought well-loved items that went on to be worn by all four Reifsnyder babies. I was (and am) firmly of the belief that a good hot water washing and drying will take care of almost anything and make it wearable, and most of the sellers had taken good care of the stuff, anyway. Pete and I also benefitted from generous friends and co-workers who shared bags of clothes with us--not just for our first baby, but the ones to follow. We were blessed in every way.

I look back on that era and recall that my overriding emotion was wonderment. Peter and I found ourselves in the land of New, as surely as if we had taken a covered wagon to get there. Behind us were urban childhoods, elite high schools and a prestigious college. I swear to you that neither of us regretted pushing forward into this spousal, parental, semi-rural lifestyle, and though we never discussed it as such, we fashioned our own way of living and parenting that has endured for 20 years.

When Zoë arrived, the light in our lives got brighter. We never stopped venturing out and learning; we just added another passenger who was just as curious as we were. Both Pete and I adapted to baby tasks in that flow-going way, and Zoë helped immensely by being about as even-tempered and manageable as a baby can be.