Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no meditation.
- Oliver Sacks, from Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
My nonna would hear a song, any song, and grab you to dance with her. We could be in her living room, Marshall's, the street. And if she didn't pull you in to dance with her, she would sing. I had a feeling that if she and Ella Fitzgerald had met at some point in life naturally, they would have made great friends.
When she came over our house and pushed me to play my (largely unpracticed) sheet music on our old upright piano, she would encourage me to keep playing after I'd messed up. After I became too flustered to play, she would sit down and play St. Louis Blues, one of her favorite tunes on the keys.
For my nonna, music was the movement of her life. She sang and danced as long as she could remember. Everything in her life revolved around melody. She would organize fundraisers for her church involving singing and dancing, she was the lead cantor at her church in Whitestone, NY for decades, and she encouraged my brothers and I, her only grandchildren, to play music.
When I was growing up, I never quantified her love of music. As children we accept who people are at face value. Until adults or peers teach us judgments of others' habits, tics, and nuances, we absorb them as some of the essential ingredients that make them them. That's why I count myself lucky to have had such a kind and exuberant woman show me what the love of music looked like. It was simply part of her; the part that gave her the most joy. Just as my nonno's legacy was one part food and wine connoisseur and one part suffering, bitterness, and hubris. We accepted him for his interruptions of a (three course, very Italian) meal to talk of his harsh and tragic past or to comment on the right way to do this or that or how many tomatoes this year had brought his garden. We accepted my nonna for her questions about our lives, comments on the family, loud warbling to a song in public. Ultimately hers was a legacy of compassion, like a light in the dark. A beaming face was what she reserved for most people despite a life of difficult relationships and situations. She sang often, and appeared the happiest when one of us could join her in her musicality. The time in my life that we were closest was when I was actively singing and playing. We could talk about music for any length of time. In high school I had seriously begun to play the piano as a hobby, and I was able to play for her without the embarrassment of childhood's (lack of) practice.
This connection began to weaken in the last few years of her life, when Parkinson's and dementia deteriorated her movement, speech, and memory. In reading Oliver Sack's Musicophilia, a 2007 book threading clinical tales, personal experiences, musical research, and musical culture-I find myself thinking of her often.
I think of the house in Whitestone. The baby grand piano in the room at the end of the hall. The one my Nonno would see me playing, the first words out of his mouth: "Did you wash you hands first before playing?" "Always" I said, even if I was guilty of fingers stained with breadcrumbs and proscuitto. I never wanted to face his wrath or disgust. I would play through some tunes with interest but never much discipline, stumbling through Debussy or Chopin. And my Nonna would shuffle down the hallway, eyes sparkling and face smiling, leaning on the piano over me to watch me play. I would become more flustered, play poorly, become more embarrassed. But looking back, she never expected perfection. She was overjoyed that one of her kin loved music.
Singing was our shared passion. It came most naturally to both of us. When we would take our annual shopping trip to Macy's or Marshall's, a bonding experience I was always grateful for in our frugal household, and she sang, warbled, swayed with every pop tune pushed out over the loudspeakers.
Music brought her pain as well. Short of breath, she fainted during a Christmas mass and fell, breaking her hip and landing her in physical therapy for many months. Her way of walking never quite healed, and led to more falls and more anxiety for us all.
She never stopped singing. She would have continued as cantor if her church did not wish for someone younger than her, cutting off a sense of what I'm sure she thought of as her usefulness.
But this chapter, on Parkinson's and music, did not initially bring back those early memories, smelling of rosemary and garlic tomato sauce and sounding of the windchimes outside her home. Instead I picture her during her last year of life, lying in a bed in a nursing home. It became more difficult emotionally to visit her, as she lost speech and spent more time confused or asleep. It was painful for my parents, who visited her everyday, and it was painful for me, who had trouble finding words to say to her. Sometimes I would tell her about my day and my life. Sometimes we would sit in silence, and we would hold hands. I'd like to think my presence was all that was necessary, rather than the words I spoke. She had forgotten my name but she knew she loved me. Never unkind, always happy, even if happiness was keeping her eyes open and mumbling unintelligible words while squeezing my hand. The only time she spoke at length was when her son, my uncle Charlie, visited. They had an unbreakable bond, even in the last days before her death. Her soul would come alive with him. He mentioned in a sermon that once, very close to the end, she had come out of the fog and spoke to him clearly, in a way that pierced through the years of cruel, memory-stealing haze.
My mother and I, during this time, decided we would visit her together. Inspired by I'm not sure what holiday, we played music on youtube on my mother's phone and sang along for Nonna. It was magical. She lit up, she squeezed our hands and moved them to the rhythm. We did this several more times. Once she even sang along to the tune. It was the first time I had heard her voice in months.
If the damage is very severe, the parkinsonian may be reduced to virtual immobility and silence--not paralyzed but in a sense "locked in," unable by himself to initiate any movement, and yet perfectly able to respond to certain stimuli...To enjoy any real sense of freedom, a longer release, they need something which can last over time, and the most potent unlocker here is music.
- Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia. from the chapter on Parkinson's Disease and Music Therapy
It was so hard, during those times to see a loved one, always bustling and shuffling around for so much of my life, reduced to a life in bed. To see the joy that our singing brought her, more than any recording we played in her room, was a revelation. I wished I could have sung more for her, to share that music that she needed, that constant motion that lifted her whole life. Music was never passive listening. It was a full experience for her. Those are the memories I will keep in mind the most; the singer and dancer. Now that she is gone, I have only memory and music for reminders. I can listen to a piece of music I know she would have liked, and there it is, the memory and the loss rolled up into a ball of pain.
But how lovely, how warm to be comforted by that melodic nostalgia. And to have music as the carrier for them. In fact, without the intervention of my grandmother, would music be what it is today, nestled in a special place within my soul? Granted, it's not a passion to play or practice anymore (my sold keyboard and cello attest to this), nor do I seek out performance or concerts. But music still moves me, as swiftly and intensely as the interlude to this post from Sacks. If we're lucky, our passion in life was passed down by an adult, one who was so enamored by the process of transcribing or capturing or analyzing or absorbing the world around them that they transferred this process to us. That is what the best teachers do. Through a process as magical as music itself, they grow a love for something with a small seed planted in our minds. I hope to do that as a teacher. I hope to do that as an eventual parent, and if I'm lucky, as a grandparent. For you, nonna. Ciao, tesoro.