Did yall know that Valentine’s Day is loosely associated with three different Mr. Valentines who were martyred for inconclusive reasons in the 400’s AD? It didn’t become officially associated with romantic love until the 1400’s and the rise of the tradition of courtly love, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote swoony Valentine’s Day poems. There were old Pagan traditions of fertility rites around this time, as well as the marriage of Zeus and Hera. So we string all these historical references together, add a little “creative embellishment” from the greeting card companies, and Viola! Modern day Valentine’s Day. On this lovey dovey day, I am going to pay homage to the most important woman in my life. That would be my mom.
Last Sunday I went to the concert of two of my mom’s choral groups, the high school-aged group for changed voices and the touring choir for unchanged voices. The show… was a knockout. Mom stands at a powerful five feet in front of a semi-circle of young people who are rapt in attention; mom seems to draw the most dynamic performance out of them with her emotive conducting, and the piece of music comes alive. She started the Sacramento Children’s Chorus (SCC) 19 years ago, and it has grown from one rag-tag gaggle of mismatching shoes and dress shirts to five levels of choirs, the adorable little baby penguins in their tux shirts and bow ties all the way up to the seasoned and proficient top two choirs. When mom conducts, she is dancing. Having been on the choir side many times throughout my youth, I have a good idea of her expressive faces, her umpire-like cues and directions, as well as her expressions of gratitude and complements when the piece is over that the audience doesn’t see. She has brought these choirs to England, France, Prague, Budapest, Hawaii, New York, Norway, Sweden, and all around the US on a shoestring budget. The choir was the original family band.
Mom was a public school music teacher for almost 30 years. I remember being a little kid sitting at a lunch table in a multipurpose room with a bunch of squirrely parents and siblings, watching my mom conduct a really rag-tag group of pubescent public school kids who were standing on squeaky risers beneath a basketball hoop. Mom’s energetic body seemed to be dragging the music out of them at times. There were years before she retired that she was teaching and conducting the SCC… I don’t know where the energy came from, but it was always something she did, and it was never a question. What she taught me is that you do your art. You just do it. You make ends meet somehow, and you do your art. A lesson I am very grateful for.
It was mom who would bring her guitar into my classes in school and play us songs, and who eventually passed on that guitar to me, along with her love of the original singer/songwriters of the 60’s and the folk music tradition. It was mom who dragged our struggling family through therapy, kicking and screaming, and who refused to give up on her alcoholic husband and her bizarre and troubled children. It was mom who comforted me when I was torn between the girl’s and the boy’s section in the mall, crying because the boy’s clothes didn’t fit me, even though neither of us understood. It was mom who took us three on vacations when dad wouldn’t go. Mom and I have the emotional intensity gene that was passed down from her father, and although it assumes different forms, it is none the less largely responsible for the deep ways in which I experience the world and how I express it. It was mom, that while financial hardship and internal struggles arose in the Children’s Chorus, sat at the dining room table over a book, conducting silently to herself, trying to figure out how to improve their tone. I will often come home to find mom sitting at the piano buried beneath a disheveled pile of sheet music, a pencil in her ear and one in her teeth wearing dad’s glasses, shedding out the different parts of a new piece she is teaching the choir. Sit down in her car and you might hear Beethoven come blasting out of the speakers when you turn the car on. I don’t know how many thousands of children have been affected by my mom, who seems to have an innate ability to meet a child at their level, and make them feel heard and understood and that a grown-up really cares how they feel and what they are interested in. I have seen it happen. And anyone who can entertain and coerce a restless group of 30 kids after school twice a week to perform a complicated and beautiful piece of music works magic on some level, not to mention remembering all of their names. And that was only one of the choirs.
My mom is my greatest musical hero, as well as a hero in the art of living. She taught me to keep seeking no matter how dark things look; she taught me that one should follow whatever it is that their soul desires to do most, no matter how unconventional or impractical; she taught me that things change and doors open, and you just have to hang in there. More will be revealed. She taught me that the pursuit of knowledge is worth it for its own sake. She has also taught me, in many ways, that everyone is human.
Thanks to the little lady who teaches children to sing, who leaves all the cabinets in the kitchen open, who laughs loudly and sings in a restaurant, who can’t ever find her keys, and who loves her children like the most ferocious mama lion there ever was.
With love and gratitude,