The Art of Listening
“Can you clear some of the stuff out of the attic?” my husband asks. “I need to fix that cracked window. The clutter’s in my way.”
“I’ll go through it,” I promise.
I sit down on an old stepladder in the attic on a rainy autumn afternoon. It’s not long before I’ve managed to fill several large black garbage bags with old clothing, chipped dishes, dusty, yellowing books and broken children’s toys that sit in decaying cardboard boxes. I sigh at the sad lot stored with memories. To me they are not mere clutter, but the history of a family.
I notice my mother’s record player and her favorite albums tucked away in a cobwebbed corner. I don’t know why I’ve saved them. The sight fills me with nostalgic emotion.
My mother had dove gray irises that lit up when she listened to music. Her eyes would become radiantly ethereal, the stuff of moonbeams. Music was purely magical for her, the musician an alchemist transmutating leaden sound into golden sonority.
My mother actually liked listening to many types of music, but jazz was her favorite. She played the piano and had a lovely contralto voice. I inherited a strong singing voice and a love of music from her. We often sang, performing together at home, her playing the piano, myself accompanying on the guitar. Many of my best childhood memories are associated with our musical companionship. In those days, I even composed original music. It was the most creative time of my life. I still tend to associate particular memories with specific music. I hear those memories as they play back in my mind.
I find an outlet and plug in the old record player. Miraculously, it still works. I select one of the albums to play. I can vividly recall my mother going through her music albums, the ones she especially liked to listen to on her record player. The albums represented the royalty of jazz. The Count, the Duke, and the incomparable King Louis all had their place in her musical court.
As I listen to what I still think of as her music, I can see her selecting a 33 LP with reverence. I am listening again to the cool, peaceful beat. But I hear also the improvisations, rapid instrumental flights like gulls flying out to sea. I feel the pulsating rhythm, the changing tempo, the jump and jive as it connects with me, the listener. It seems to correspond to my heartbeat. It is life in all its passion. It is the sound of Africa and America merged and blended together, a true celebration of the unity of being.
There is the sensuality of the sax, the insinuating beat of the bass, the rhythm of the drums and the audacity of the potent trumpet. I hear each and all, apart and together. I am magically transported into the past by the music.
Suddenly, it is once again the spring of 1965 and I am sitting at the dining room table in our old Victorian house doing my homework. Mom smiles at me in that warm way she has. She is taking a break from her housework. She is never fastidious in her cleaning. There are so many things that she prefers to do.
“Dust always waits. Its patience is infinite. There’s no hurry getting to it,” she says. I do not disagree. “Would it disturb you if I play some music?” she asks. I assure her that it would not.
She selects an album and places it on the turntable. Then she sits back and listens. That is, of course, an inadequate description, because she does not merely listen to the music, she truly hears and comprehends it, interacts with it. She is mesmerized by it. It unites with her soul. It becomes her soul. Her eyes are distant. I try to continue with my reading, but I find myself preferring to watch her.
After a time, she turns to me. “This music takes me back,” she says. “My friend, Sylvia, talked me into going to a club with her that was known for its jazz. We didn’t tell my parents. They would have disapproved. Your grandfather was very strict. Of course, he meant well and he had many good qualities but he was far from open-minded.” She lets out a deep sigh.
I say nothing because my grandfather was dead before I was born, and I hardly even remember my grandmother, except that she seemed very old. She died when I was three.
Mother continues her story with a faraway look in her eyes. “Anyway, Sylvie finally convinced me to go with her to the club. I’ll never forget that night. It was very special for me. The place had once been a speakeasy during the Prohibition era and it still had something of a reputation and an aura. It was originally owned by a reputed mobster who died under suspicious circumstances. They found him hanging from a wooden beam outside of his office in the back of the club. Some people claimed the place was haunted by the gangster’s ghost.”
My mother’s smile is steady as the sun. “I remember that night as if it were this very moment. It was dark in the club. Smoke swirled in the air and the smell of alcohol pervaded. And the room was much too warm. But oh, the music! It was wonderful. Glorious! The joint was really jumping. We sat as close as we could to the musicians. I wanted to be up front where I could listen without extraneous noise or distraction and simply soak it all in.”
My mother was such a vivid storyteller that I could join with her in the past. I feel transported, as if I am there with my mother in the former speakeasy, hearing the hot jazz, sipping a cold drink. I can smell the smoke seep through my nostrils and enter my lungs. I sway to the music along with her.
“The bass player was a tall, dark, handsome man, his eyes deep and mysterious. He smiled at me and kept looking directly at me all the time he was playing. He seduced me with that wonderful, sensual music. During the group’s break between sets, he joined Sylvie and me.
He said, ‘I couldn’t help noticing how into our music you were. It’s flattering to the ego.’
Somehow I managed to speak. I told him that I loved jazz. I must have sounded awkward, inarticulate, and I felt embarrassed.” My mother lets out a deep sigh. I see the bass player as she saw him. I sigh too as she continues to speak.
‘I can tell you’re a passionate woman,’ he said. ‘I like that. You have emotional depth. It’s obvious from the way you get into the music. I like it a lot.’ He took my hand and squeezed it.
I’m certain I must have blushed. My face felt hot as a blood sun. Sylvie told him how I loved to sing and had a beautiful voice. I felt embarrassed.
“When they resumed playing, somehow I knew the music was for me alone. Then he took the microphone in his hand and spoke in that seductive, deep baritone voice of his. ‘I’m calling up a young lady to sing with us,’ he said. ‘Give her a welcoming round of applause. I think she needs encouragement.’ He beckoned me.
“I was so shy. But we agreed on a song I knew. He harmonized with me, and I forgot about my shyness. I never sang in public before and never did again. Yet when I held that microphone in my hand I became a singer. It was a magical experience.
“He came back again to our table later, my musician, and asked if I would go out with him when they finished playing for the night. Sylvie urged me to do it, and I admit I certainly was tempted. I’d never been so attracted to anyone. I was torn. But in the end, I refused him. I knew my mother would be waiting up for me. And there was no way my father would ever approve of me dating a musician. He was so old-fashioned and conservative in his thinking.
“I never went back to that place. I always planned to go, but never summoned up the courage again. Soon after, Sylvie moved away. But then I met your father and we hit it off from the first. Still, I can’t help thinking, wondering what might have been. It’s not exactly a regret. Yet there’s always been that question in my mind. What if, I ask myself?” My mother offers a small wistful smile as the jazz recording starts to build to a crescendo.
I come crashing back to the present moment on a wave of powerful sound. I blink and shake my head as if to clear it and refocus. The album ends. I shut off the record player. There is a slight tremor in my hands. I lived through my mother’s experience with her. We shared a psychic connection.
We never talked like that again, my mother and I. But sometimes when I listen to her music, her jazz, I consider what she told me on that ordinary yet extraordinary day and wonder if she should have listened to her heart the way she listened to her music.
She talked about us traveling together when I graduated college. She wanted to see Paris, London and Rome. But she died soon after I finished my degree. She never got to travel, and somehow, neither did I.
In life, we have to make all kinds of decisions and choices. Not every one is right. But we are only human, mere mortals, and that means we are imperfect beings. My mother was certainly a lot more intuitive than most, but even she was capable of making mistakes.
That jazzman could have been my father. But then I would not be the same person. Maybe I would not have existed at all. Who can say?
I loved my parents; both were fine people. My father truly loved and respected his wife, my mother. Still, if it had been up to me, I wish Mom had chosen to date her jazzman, to listen to his music intimately. I wish she’d chosen to take the challenge, to be just a bit more daring and unconventional.
Yet, like my mother before me, I am often timid, afraid to take risks in my own life, afraid of change. I think about attending live concerts but rarely go. I sit with my CD player and listen to music from the safety of my home. An artificial orange tree sits beside me in my living room: it will never draw a bee. I cannot help but wonder what my own children and grandchildren will ultimately think and say about me.
“Honey, are you done up there?” my husband calls, startling me. “I need to replace that window.”
With a sigh, I let the past go. Perhaps I will travel after all. It is high time for an adventure in my life. I know my mother would have approved. I believe she would have liked me to be more daring. I vow to do so to honor her memory.
“Honey, are you still cleaning up here?”
My husband has jolted me out of my reverie. Quickly, I close my mother’s record player, store it and her albums in a safe part of the attic in a suitcase. Then I pick up the shiny black trash bags and head downstairs.
“All done,” I tell my husband.
“You look sad,” he says, studying me, taking several of the bags from my hands to carry downstairs.
“Just being thoughtful, reliving a bit of the past. Now that the children are grown and we’re free to do as we choose, I think we should travel a bit. Carpe diem.”
My husband smiles at me, his head turned at an angle as if appraising my words. “I agree. What made you think of it?”
“Listening to some of my mother’s old music. You could say I went on a sentimental journey.”