Monday, December 16, 2013

My Mom's Christmas « seanrants


My mom was judging a choral competition in Eastern Europe on September 11, 2001, so she couldn’t make it back for a couple of weeks and she was just in a panic. Three of her kids were living in Manhattan south of 42nd Street, and the emails and phone calls were certainly reminding her that we were *alive*, but the fact that she couldn’t be with us was just maddening. My sister had been at Ground Zero for weeks, passing out water and clean socks, and when my mom finally got back, she ran into her arms and sobbed for five minutes.

But then the five minutes were up, and everyone went back to work.

My mom loves enormously. She’s pathologically affectionate and has turned her very body into a place where all of her grandkids have curled up and slept in the last few years. But she doesn’t *dwell* on it, she seldom rhapsodizes about her love for her family and her job… she just does it. For her, loving someone is an active thing, it’s not a commentary. Nobody has ever wondered if she loved them, and any time she’s *said* something about it, it has felt… redundant.

Her own mother was much the same way, minus the affection. We never wondered if Grandma loved us, we knew she did (or in the case of people on the wrong side of her, that she didn’t). I wrote a blog last year about Christmas and I’m sure that my blue-collar approach to the holiday was passed down from Klea (and Pearl before her) to Linda and then to me. And I hope it’ll go down to my kids as well.

When Klea died, she left a chunk of money to each of her four kids. Some of them invested it, some fixed their houses or their bodies, but my mom went to work. She’s been a composer since high school in the 40s, when composers tended to be old men who didn’t like popular music, and my mom was combining avant garde sensibilities with the new burgeoning pop music, and now, sixty years later, she had a Christmas album she wanted to record.

Twelve standards, twelve new pieces. The first half are all the modal and foreign familiar carols (We Three Kings, El Noi De La Mare, Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella… those kind) and the latter half are the pieces she wrote for her own version of the Christmas story.

Her version is what astonishes me. When she talks about the Christ child’s birth, she tells us of the angels singing, “Be not afraid”, but the rest of the story is so *human* and so workmanlike. The characters in her story are an old father, “his hands are strong, calloused and warm, but his voice is gentle as summer rain,” and a young terrified mother-to-be who “has the face of an angel, even in pain…”

Every Christmas, I never hear about how hard it was for Mary to survive the actual birth. Leave it to a woman who’s had five kids.

The other characters are shepherds and children, coming to the stable to see how they can help and to bear witness. And the men dragging themselves on camels, following a light in the night sky, bringing gifts. And my favorite, the stableman, a character she invented, who’s job is just to make sure the animals let the baby sleep. His last line, “for you and I, gentle friends, have seen birth many times before.” As if *every* time, animal or man, that we bring life into the world, it’s a small miracle.

The album is finally mastered and we’ve finally got it online in time for my mom’s 82nd Birthday just a few days ago. I directed the choir for her and got to sing on some of the pieces. And if you want to know how good her music is, I’d offer “Journey of the Magi” and “Shepherd’s Band” as two of the finest choral pieces I’ve ever had the good fortune to conduct.

We released it through Catapult, and they put it up on iTunes and a whole host of other sites, including Amazon. It would mean a great deal to me (and to my Mom and Grandma) if every single person on the face of the earth bought a copy.


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