I Remember Nana Singing
I remember her voice, coming from the back of the house, when Dad started to play--- she floated toward the piano, and her voice was like a large bird-- white wings gliding through a wide blue sky; a rich mezzo-soprano building a crescendo as it rises toward the sunlight, banking against the high wind; perfectly descending to a soft landing, with a flutter, to the branch of a sturdy tree. My grandmother's songs are still breathtaking to me: the emotional vulnerability in them; the strength of the love in them. "Forgotten", "Love, here is my heart", "Because", "Sing me to Sleep", "Your song from Paradise". Dad found the last two, which were from her era, and carried the nostalgia we all felt for missing her voice, her songs in our lives. Dad could play perfectly for her voice, allowing the needed pauses, so her voice could soar-- and glide through several bars on long notes--- with full-throated ease, like honey in a warm summer sun. My grandmother's name was Ave Maria-- she renamed herself at age 5, because she loved to sing the song for Mary. She sang every version of the song, but she especially loved the Bach-Gounod version of it.
Reading Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" makes me think of my grandmother singing.
Looking back now, I can be amazed at the magic of it, the gift of it-- one could say, the miracle of it.
My grandfather died in 1952, when I was two. They met just before WWI. My grandmother was born in 1892, (and my son Sebastian was born 99 years later, in 1991). My grandmother's life spanned the time in California when the bridges and roads and dams were being built, and my grandfather was an engineer and a surveyor. He contributed to many of the big projects, like the Huntington dam. I found a copy of Omar Khayams's "The Rubaiyat", which he signed and gave to her on Nov. 1, 1914. I never knew him, but I felt my grandmother's love for him in the songs she loved to sing best---and I think he must have known himself to be a lucky man, a blessed man, to be loved by a woman who could sing like that. My aunt Geraldine, their daughter with the perfect memory, told me that they met at the Ventura hotel-- where my grandmother was singing for a benefit just before WWI. My grandfather was in the audience, and asked to be introduced to the girl with the lovely voice. An Irishman, one thinks he understood the value of a voice for singing. They married in 1914, as he was leaving for the war; and my mother, their first child, was born in 1921.
I suppose when people ask now, what Love is, and mull about it, and ask "what's love got to do with it", I fall back onto the absolute shimmering recognition of the love my grandmother felt for George FitzGerald, that went into the songs she loved to sing. No matter the shadows and suffering and pain, the love was a magnificent thing. I also know that the love between my dad and his mother-in-law was deep and true and coherent because of those songs--- how he played the piano for her, and loved to hear her sing them; and he loved to give my mother, her daughter, the gift of hearing her sing them. My mother had no voice for singing, but she also had a deep reverential awe of her mother's voice, and she would stop whatever she was doing, and come to the piano room to listen. The songs from WWI were influenced by the operatic and complex songs sung by professional singers in France and Germany, songs written by gifted composers. But they were made to be accessible to the public, with unforgettable lyrics, and relatively easy melodies. Radio made them move faster through the culture.
Later, Dad would play her songs, and I would sing them-- but my voice is not as grand or fine as my grandmother's-- not as rich and creamy and sure. Still, the habit between us was to sing them, often in the late afternoon, as shadows were falling, honoring her memory, recognizing her absence, and carrying the melody for her.
I went on, learning more songs, singing with Dad-- hoping to be as full-throated and to do as much for presenting beautiful songs, as had she. Later I thought of all I have learned through music; everything I know of heaven and love, and truth starts there. "Love, here is my heart, one rose for your hair; whether you echo the tune, whether you tire of it soon; whether you laugh as you depart, or hear it again; something to listen to yet, or forget, here is my heart".