Everyone seems to enjoy stories, so I guess I'll continue sharing some of my memoir pieces. Here's one I wrote in April of last year.
For most of my life, I was painfully shy. Now, when people hear painfully shy, I often wonder if they really understand what that means. As a child, if I saw a classmate in the grocery store, my stomach would start cramping. If it looked like they saw me too, it would get worse, and I would start to shake all over. If my mother noticed and suggested that I go over and say hi, I would be almost doubled over in pain and feverish. An extremely outgoing person, Mom never understood. She would get angry and accuse me of being over-dramatic or of acting like I was sick to get my own way. Maybe that was true, but to me, it was extreme pain and panic that came out of nowhere, and I didn’t feel as though I could control it. This lasted all through school, making school a nightmare, and beyond. The actual pain lessened as I grew older, and I could stifle the shaking a bit, but it was still very uncomfortable.
My husband was also very outgoing and also didn’t understand. We would go to parties together, and I would follow him around until I felt comfortable with a few people. Then I would be okay on my own. He resented being shadowed and tried to coach me at being more social. He would feed me pieces of conversation, and we would practice small talk at home. Finally, I got up the courage to try it out on my own. The first time was a disaster. I spit out the first few lines I’d practiced and got very little response, so I stood there squirming, flushed and nauseous. I didn’t know how to escape gracefully, so the other person finally just walked away leaving me feeling humiliated. So, I crawled off to a corner of the room and stared at my drink for the rest of the night, fighting back tears of rejection and shame. My husband was furious. He insisted that I had ruined the party for him and everyone else because of my sour face and bad vibes. I tried a few more times, but my conversations were stilted and forced. Because I never learned it as a child and didn’t have the practice that comes with making and having friends in school, I didn’t feel it. It was just a role I tried to play.
As time went on, I was finally able to function in social situations. I watched others closely and tried to imitate their free and easy demeanor. I had become a good actor, but it certainly didn’t come naturally to me. The whole time I played the role, my palms sweated and my insides quivered. It was a miserable feeling. But, I loved parties and other social events, and was very interested in people. I just preferred to be a fly on the wall and listen to all the fascinating conversations, invisible and inconsequential, because of my intense fear.
My second partner also tried to teach me social skills. He had more patience than my husband and understood my extreme discomfort. If he noticed me isolating myself at a party, he would often come over and introduce me to someone or counsel me out of the corner. After a while though, even he got tired of coaxing me along. However, when we started performing together, he began to ask me questions onstage, forcing me to answer in a very public way. After a while, it became easier. It almost felt like we were sitting at home together just having a personal conversation. The audiences reacted so favorably to this, it encouraged me to embrace storytelling as a part of my performances. I would think about my stories when I made up the set lists and even practice them aloud to make myself more relaxed at the gig. I suddenly discovered that I could make people laugh. I realized that they weren’t laughing at me but with me. People actually liked me and wanted to hear what I had to say. And, after being told my whole life that I had no sense of humor, I found out I could be funny. That was a first for me and an important revelation.
Eventually, I transferred that comfort level to other social functions by playing a part. I was totally aware of the fact that it was a dramatic or comedic role, but it didn’t matter. Finally, I could navigate parties without panic attacks. Occasionally, the panic would sneak up on me, and when that happened, it was almost as bad as in my youth. It could ruin a fun time in a flash. I would feel as though everyone was judging me, that they all wanted me to leave so they could enjoy themselves without my wet blanket dampening everyone’s spirits. It wouldn’t matter that I had been having a great time up to then. All I would feel was rejection and desolation.
In 2010, my mother had a severe stroke and never recovered. She was very outgoing, always the life of the party, had more friends than anyone else I’ve ever known, was generous in spirit and loved by everyone who met her. She also was an adult child of an alcoholic and had to control everything. She tried to run my life up until the stroke and ostracized me from many family functions because I didn’t comply. As a child and a teen, my mother picked out my clothes, chose my few friends and tried to tell me what to think and feel. When I moved out on my own, I had no idea how to do anything for myself. I picked out the most bizarre outfits, didn’t know how to keep my home clean or how to cook, and didn’t know how to manage my money. When I was 20 and living with my boyfriend more than a few blocks from my parents’ house, she bought me groceries and would let herself in to the house to deliver them. I didn’t dare refuse her a spare key. When she came into my bedroom early one morning, where I was asleep with my boyfriend, to wake me for work, I knew I had to escape her clutches, so that’s when we hitchhiked across the country. That escape enabled me to learn how to stand up to her, which I did.
During the 6 or 7 months after her stroke, I visited almost every day. I read to her, helped her to regain some speech, though it was very little, and learned how to do her physical therapy when the insurance company cut the funding for it off. I immersed myself in her recovery, and healed our relationship in the process. One day, I looked at her, and laughing, said, “You know Mom, because you can’t talk and can’t criticize me, I feel like I can finally be myself with you.” She laughed too and nodded. It was an important moment for both of us. I don’t know what got into me that day, but it was a relief to have it finally out in the open.
I never felt as though my mother liked me. I know she loved me, but she always wanted me to be someone that I wasn’t. When she died, something shifted for me. It’s hard to explain what I felt. Of course, I felt sorrow but there was an almost physical change that happened deep inside. All that shyness just melted away, and I could feel it melting. It felt as though I had been encased in a block of ice all those years. A warmth grew inside not unlike the uncomfortable heat the I experienced during the panic attacks, but this time it was comforting and stimulating. I felt as though I could conquer the world. Ever since then, people describe me as an extrovert, a social butterfly. Ah, if they only knew …
The day after she died, I had a dream that she walked into my music room and complimented me on the "beautiful" dulcimer tune I was playing. In life, my mother never gave me a single compliment and was not very supportive of my music. When I woke that morning, I wrote this tune, named for her.
Here's another memoir piece. This one was more recently written.
Growing up in the 60s was not an easy thing. My dad was a newspaperman and believed in educating his children about current events, which I am mostly thankful for. I often went out to cover important stories with him and, as a family, we watched the TV news every evening, often during dinner. In 1963, we watched a Buddhist monk set himself on fire and burn to death while we were eating, or trying to eat, a meatloaf TV dinner. We watched shootings of our leaders, Viet Nam war footage, Civil Rights demonstrations, student demonstrations, police brutality and more while having our family dinners. No wonder I ended up with anorexia and weighed 80 pounds all through high school. I still have trouble remembering to eat sometimes.
After the news was over, the TV was shut off, and we would discuss these current topics. I was always on the side of the underdog and even back then, leaned very sharply to the left. Everyone else in the family was staunch conservative. My brother even joined the John Birch Society as a young adult. Despite my different opinions, or maybe because of them, I learned to look at all sides of an issue and try to find a middle ground.
I was born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut in Fairfield County. The Bushes and Kennedys lived in Greenwich, our neighboring town. Paul Newman and many other Hollywood icons, lived in Westport, which was also very close by. Greenwich was full of old money, while Stamford and surrounding areas was filled with new money. Thrown into the mix were all the working-class and lower middle-class families trying to survive. Then, there were the Blacks and Hispanics who were relegated to the downtown ghetto. I never even saw a person of color, except on TV and movies, until I was 19 when I worked at a downtown bank. I occasionally went downtown to go shopping, but the stores were far enough away from the “bad” section of town that I never encountered anyone even slightly different from the usual waspy residents. The exception to this were the Jewish shopkeepers.
In 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights protests, I overheard my mom and dad talking about fires and looting happening in Stamford. Curious, I rushed in and asked about it. Dad told me that the negros were burning and looting their own neighborhoods. I didn’t understand why they would do that. Why not go to the rich neighborhoods and burn them down? Dad answered that it was because they were ignorant and hotheaded and, thankfully, never really thought things through. I knew this was not the right answer, but quickly asked if I could go with him to the paper while he put these stories together. I often accompanied him to cover stories and helped out at the office, running copy and writing headlines. Dad, who was the City Editor at that time, told me they weren’t going to publish these stories. I was aghast. This was big news, right in our own town. How could the local newspaper ignore this story? He explained, that was just exactly what they were looking for, and he wasn’t going to give it to them. It was all just a publicity stunt. I pleaded in vain, trying to get him to see how important it was for the townspeople to be aware of their conditions and valid complaints. He never gave in, I didn’t get to go with him, and the safe, comfortable white people in Stamford never got to read about this important event. I was dumbfounded.
Dad was also a political reporter and columnist, so I grew up surrounded by politicians and saw corruption first-hand. I watched well-meaning kind people be changed by power. I saw them use their power to get ahead and help their friends get ahead. I saw them use their power to destroy their enemies. I saw them use their power to get away with crimes. And I was disgusted by this misuse of the trust given to them by their neighbors and friends. One of our closest family friends, a lawyer, was involved in a huge corruption scandal. He got off and was given a job as the Public Defender, which paid him less than he had been making, but enabled him to remain a lawyer. Another close family friend was appointed the Public Works Commissioner. Every Fourth of July, we would go to his home for a picnic, where he would hang out the Confederate Flag, shoot off his cannons, and blast “Dixie” on his stereo in the direction of Jackie Robinson’s house, who lived two doors down.
As a child, I saw power as a tool of oppression and a vile, hurtful thing. I can’t remember a single time when I felt as though it was used for good. I look at the world today and the people in power and still don’t see any difference. Even the so called good people eventually must play the game to get ahead. They’re forced to cut deals and agree to distasteful things to make some of the changes they see as necessary. I’ve seen that power corrupts and is corrupt, absolutely!
In the wake of yet another school shooting, I question those in power. What is the real reason for not making stricter gun laws? What is happening behind the scenes? What will it take? How many more children must die before this crucial legislation is passed? And, why are we not outraged? I am not anti-gun, but hunters don't use A-15s to go shoot deer. When we think about our own defense here at home, are you going to defend your home against intruders with an A-15? Are A-15s going to stop tanks or drones? Times are changing. Let's wake up before it's too late.
I'm getting ready to do a very interesting show at the Altamont Free Library for their "Songteller Sessions" series on March 9th. They've asked me the same 10 questions they ask everyone who participates, and I make my set list based on those questions. As a result, I will be doing things I never do in public. One of the questions is, "What was the first song you learned to play?" I started playing songs on the piano, which I never play anymore, but I will be bringing a keyboard to this gig and will do a song from those early days. Because of that upcoming gig, I decided to share one of my memoir pieces with you. I've added an update at the end.
When I was 10-years old, I was offered music lessons at school. I wanted to play the violin. I loved the violin. After the first week of practice, my parents set me up in the unfinished, dirty basement, next to the parked car to continue my practices. I kept practicing, but quieter. I didn’t realize until I was 40 that pressure on the bow stops the squeaking. Apparently, that’s why very young children have an easier time playing this instrument. They aren't worried about the obnoxious squeals that emanate from it, so they play with vigor. But not me, I was always looking for peace, trying to fly under the radar. After not getting any further than “Hot Cross Buns” which I played over and over and over again, and being teased relentlessly about it, even to this day, I quit. A few months later, I overheard my mom and dad talking about an old upright grand piano that was being sold for $25, but you had to pick it up yourself. I ran in and begged and pleaded with them. “No,” they replied. “You didn’t stick with the violin, so why should we get you a piano?” I promised to practice every day and reminded them that the piano makes a beautiful sound no matter what key you press and wouldn’t squeak and squall. I even cried. I wanted that piano with all of my being. They finally relented, found friends to help move the piano, and the torture began.
The piano turned out to be a treasure and, as promised, I practiced every day. I also played when I wasn’t practicing. When I sat at that beautiful instrument, all of my worries and fears went away. I could almost feel them melt off of me. And, no one bothered me when I played. There were no fights, no punishments and no misunderstandings. The music made a bubble around me, shielding me from all the turmoil in our household. I was in a world of my own, and it was like heaven. That lasted until my piano teacher told my dad that I wasn't working hard enough. I’m sure she meant well, but Dad decided that now I had to practice with a timer running and him sitting there next to me. Now practice was hell. The timer I was forced to use made a loud ticking sound that was not in time with the music and had an abrupt loud bell that signaled the end of the session. Dad yelled when I made mistakes and sometimes made me practice the wrong way, causing trouble at my lesson. I think the teacher finally figured it out and asked him to let me practice alone so that she could assess my progress. That only made things worse. Now, I had to do things Dad’s way and lie about it to my teacher. What a mess. I finally decided to practice for two hours, one by myself before Dad got home and another with him. That was not as successful as I might have hoped but was definitely an improvement.
As my life got harder, I played the piano more and more. It was my lifesaver. I took voice lessons in high school and learned to sing classical music and mostly loved to sing the blues. Mom always said she could tell what kind of day I had by the music I played afterschool. I played until all was right with the world. It was a protective cocoon that couldn't be penetrated by anyone.
When I moved to the West Coast, I obviously couldn’t take the piano with me. My parents assured me that they would keep it for me. After all, it was my piano. They moved it to that same unfinished, dirty garage, uncovered and unloved. Whenever I visited, I would go down, dust it off and play it a little, but the basement was very uninviting. When they moved to upstate NY, they brought it with them, and it lived in the basement, which was much cozier. I moved my family into that basement for a few months when we moved to NY and sometimes played it then. Our cat loved it and walked across the keys, listening to the sound of the music the piano sang. As soon as we got our own place, Mom started pressuring me to take the piano with me, but I had two small children living in a small second floor apartment with no space for such a large piece.
A few years later, we moved into a trailer in the country and were afraid the piano would go right through the floor. Finally, they were finished holding it for me and gave me a month to take it or lose it. A wonderful friend agreed to house it for me in exchange for piano lessons for her girls. Now it lived in a home again, and I visited it every week for piano lessons. They fell in love with it, and maybe it fell in love with them, too. My friend was very sad when I finally had a place to welcome my cherished instrument. After moving it, I found a piano tuner. When he came, I explained that I couldn’t remember the piano ever being tuned. It had always stayed in tune with itself. Like me, it was a survivor. I even checked with Mom who confirmed my theory. It really had never been tuned, at least not in the last 40 years. Though skeptical at first, the tuner confirmed that it was indeed in tune with itself and was less than a one and a half tones flat but more than a whole tone flat. Afraid of breaking strings and damaging the sound board, he suggested tuning it to less than concert pitch and then assessing the situation. He managed to bring it up to pitch that day without any damage and came back in a month to tweak it. When he came back to find that it had stayed in tune, he offered to buy it. If I had a dollar for every person who has offered to buy my piano, I would be a rich woman.
And I am a rich woman. I have a very old, very beautiful piano with an incredible rich tone that stays in tune and soothes my soul. Unfortunately, I rarely play it. I play lots of other instruments and even make my living doing music, but when I sit down to play the piano, I hear my dad’s voice in my ear every time, “stupid kid, can’t you get it right?” When I was a young teen, I worked for months in secret on a Chopin piece, one of his favorites, as a surprise for his birthday. When I played it for him, he got up without a word, put on a recording of Van Cliburn playing the same piece and said to me, “Now that’s how it should be played.” Try as I might, I can’t shake that voice constantly telling me I’m not good enough. But every once in a while, when the house is quiet and no one is in the room, I will pull out my classical music and play. Once I start, it’s hard to stop. Sometimes I even cry while I play, just like I did when I was a child, overcome with unexplained emotions. I play until I am exhausted and satisfied. Then months or even years go by before I play again, but I always play again. Now after all these years, I have another cat that walks across the keys, listening to the sound of the music the piano sings. Now after all these years, I still yearn to play my piano with ease and walk past it every day as it reaches out, wanting to soothe my soul. Meanwhile, I dust it regularly and touch it as I walk by. Meanwhile, I love hearing my children and grandchildren play it and smile every time my musical cat plays for me. And, I feel very rich.
I no longer have a cat, though I have very fond memories of her coming into the music room every time we jammed, and of her "singing" lullabies with me to my granddaughter. She would hear me singing and would climb up into the bed, rubbing up against us and meowing in a musical way. At first, it was hard to get through the songs with both me and my granddaughter laughing so hard. After a while it became the normal bedtime routine with me and Butterscotch singing together. My piano no longer lives in my house but currently lives in my rented studio in Albany instead. I would like to break through the barriers that stand in the way of me playing it regularly, but I need it in my home for that. Moving it up the steep flight of stairs into our living space is prohibitive at this time, but I still hope that one day it will come home again.
Wow! The last time I looked, my new video "In Winter" had 573 views, and now "Norwegian Wood" is climbing as well. It's only been two weeks, and already it's surpassed my other videos. Thanks go out to everyone who has watched and shared it with family and friends.
The only thing I've ever wanted to do with my life was pursue my music. My parents always said that I sang my first words. I know that music kept me alive during the worst of my struggles. Now, after a lifetime of raising children and living in poverty, I am finally able to live my dream. And, I know that I can embrace all of the hardships because they led me here. It doesn't matter how long it took. I've finally arrived.
I have a couple of fun gigs coming up. One of them is at The Altamont Free Library on March 9th. It's for their "Songteller" sessions. It will be quite challenging, but inspiring, too. There are ten questions asked of each songwriter, and we base our set list on the answers to those questions. The questions are as follows.
*What is a song your parents loved? That one's easy but hard to choose just one.
*What was the first album you bought with your own money? Oooh, I definitely know the answer to that.
*What was the first song you learned to play? On what instrument? My first instrument was piano. I'm not sure I want to dredge that up.
*What’s the first bad song you wrote? That one's tough because I don't tend to hold on to those.
*What’s the first good song you wrote? I've written so many songs, and hopefully, most of them are good.
*If you could have written any song, what would it be? Hmmm ... I have to think hard about that one.
*What song do you love that other people seem to dislike? What? People don't share my taste in songs?
*What’s a traditional/folk/children’s/church song that you like? There are just too many to choose from.
*What’s a song that reminds you of home? I guess it would have to be an early childhood one, or maybe one of my own.
*What song of yours would you like to be remembered by? This seems impossible to decide.
As you can see, I have a lot of homework to do. Want to know the answers? You'll just have to come to the show. I think I'll be working on these up to the last minute. But, it's been a lot of fun sorting through old notebooks and stacks of papers and tripping down memory lane.
I did another similar show once at Pompanuck Farm Institute in Cambridge, NY. That show was about the songwriting process. I shared the stage with Bob Warren and Tom Keller. We would play a song then answer questions about the song or the process from audience members. There was no opportunity to prepare answers, and the questions were fascinating. It was challenging but invigorating and one of the most fun times I've had on a stage, not only answering the questions myself but also listening to answers from the other performers. I also performed at a nursing home for retired nuns once, and they had tons of questions, too. A lot of them had been former music teachers and asked the most intelligent questions. I loved it!
That said, I've been asking families what topics they would like covered in the Family Blog and have gotten some great suggestions. For me, the most challenging thing is choosing the topics. So, what would you like to know from me in this blog? Do you want opinion pieces? My personal history? Tales of adventure? Stories about my songs? If you let me know, I will address each thing. If you leave me to my own devices, well ... you'll have to be surprised. But thanks and more thanks for the support you've given me. I look forward to sharing more with you soon.