Her violin in my hands would be the only thing there to invoke my mother. She did not want any part of her body preserved for a ritual. Give it all to science, even the parts they don’t want.  “They cannot touch my soul,” she often said, when others would insult her—and whenever I came to her with hurts—whether emotional or physical—that was her answer.

My mother, the one who told me to embrace my contradictions. She told her sisters this as well; she spared Billy, she said, because it was redundant: the male’s contradictions are made into law.

It’s the female who needs to own herself, her body, her mind, her soul…has to be taught—and you shall teach your daughter well, Mama said. “Daughters, perhaps,” she said.
“If one is male and one is female—well then, you’ll be on double duty.”

Males have to be untaught, Mama said. Females too, to a certain extent. Different lessons, she said. Nobody taught me what I’m teaching you, she said. I learned the hard way. Listen to me, and it will save you years and blood.


Not even a week ago, it happened that we found Mama.

You’d think I’d be prepared. As the youngest of this incredibly large extended family, I’d seen my share of death.

She didn’t grow up with wakes and flowers and open caskets, but my father did—with open caskets and flowers galore; but it was to no avail, and anyway, I became obsessed with the fly that couldn’t take its eyes off my grandfather.

But there would be no fly, at least none that I’d see, because my mother had chosen to give her body to science—even the parts they don’t want.

No big send-offs, she’d told us many a time.

It was odd because when we went to the cemetery for or even with my grandfather, she often brought her violin.

We were all shocked and broken-hearted.

And yes, I was nine months pregnant.

With twins.


It wasn’t as if I didn’t feel the glare of William Goldsmith Teng, my illustrious brother, as he sat there behind his cello, his deep, rich brown eyes spearing mine.

We’d agreed to play the Beethoven’s Cavatina, but he insisted that I play the Bach, as well—a daunting request on so many levels.

We were knee-deep rehearsing the Cavatina when it became clear he wasn’t giving up.

“How can you refuse, just like that?” he’d said.

“How can you ask me, just like that?” I said. If I weren’t nine months pregnant, I would have offered, would have pleaded with my father to prescribe me a drug to keep me from imploding. “Which measure would you like me to go into labor in?”

“Any one you want,” Billy said. “I happen to know a highly qualified obstetrician who will be in attendance.”


In the end, we compromised, and I played the Chaconne facing windows. People were walking in, and all anyone could see was my back. I didn’t have to see them, and they didn’t have to see my belly or my tears. Yes, I spent hours practicing, and no, my playing would not reflect any of it. I prepared myself for that. Part of our compromise was that my brother would take the responsibility of talking and greeting—he and my father, and my aunts. I would perform both the solo and with our sweet quartet and leave directly after everyone who wanted to spoke. My husband, Sam, would accompany me. I wanted to go home to the dog, but we would go to my mother’s apartment for the private gathering. It meant that I could disappear without schmoozing. I couldn’t bear everyone’s pity. I who held the children I had so wanted to share with her.


Billy had picked out the Central Park West venue, such a beautifully lit room with wall sized windows and all those trees dripping red and yellow and brown tears.

No photographs, no book to sign, just the view of the park, the elegant high ceilings with the Victorian crown moldings and likewise cushy chairs. Once the door closed, they—Billy, his wife Stella, Aunt Beatrice—joined me in the small ellipse-like formation of chairs to the side, a dark wood table that held our instruments.  Four music stands with our ipads, with our footpads to turn the pages on the carpet. I had memorized the Chaconne.

My father stood up to speak. Billy hadn’t quite set up the microphone high enough, and we watched my father as he twisted up and raised the inner bar high enough to meet his lips without looking, without fumbling.

“Everyone who knows anything about Clair Isabel Stone,” he said, “knows that Bach’s Chaconne in D is—or was—her signature piece.”

But he raised up his hand when there was even a trickle of applause.

“This is not really about performance,” he said, although he did add that quite obviously they were all about to hear some more music from those who would have likely “never touched an instrument without my wife’s influence.”

And then for a while, I was just hearing the dynamics, listening to my father’s voice softening in order not to break. Honestly, it was a blur of faces, but for Sam and my favorite uncles on my father’s side. My mother’s and father’s incompatibility was always a topic of conversation behind their backs. My father, a tall and thin man with a serious but kind face, stood there in a black suit that looked a size too large, and so stiff, as if it were holding him up. Clair was fierce in her love, my father said. How dedicated she was to his parents, especially his father. My father’s long and delicate fingers worrying a page torn from his prescription pad likely listing the details, including orchestras she’d subbed for, chamber music groups she had been a part of, letters by her students. And how industrious, writing the occasional review for a Jersey newspaper. How she sometimes answered the door with the violin under her chin. Her greatest joy, he said, besides the violin that was his pleasure to help her buy, was giving music to her children. She was waiting for her grandson’s readiness, my father said, at which point Billy, Stella and I shared a glance, then looked down, each of us trying to hold it together. Stella’s mother had little Fu on her lap.

In my hands Mama’s violin, its smell so ponderous. I don’t deny that I imagined it playing itself.


Billy, too, was wearing his black suit. He pushed the microphone and music stand to the side. He had taken everyone’s notes—mine and my Aunt Beatrice’s; even Stella had things to say—and he likely made a few phone calls. Sam, my husband, is a writer—Billy had asked him for some pointers, but Sam said he should just speak from the heart. Speech in hand, Billy wound up speaking extemporaneously. “We settled on the music,” Billy said, and even as I tried to pull my eyelids together, the timbre of his voice, the way he pronounced the word music struck me, the sheer individuality of human existence: how irreplaceable we are, each of us. “The music itself is the quintessential way to invoke our mother,” he said, “music and the spoken word—the ephemeral.” The Cavatina, he said, this perfectly synthesized movement of Beethoven’s quartet was our chosen receptacle, a crucible to hold and transmute our grief into beauty.

He introduced us, saying that three out of the four of us were musicians because of her. Because of Mama. Because of her dedication. To music.

And to us.


Transmuting grief—it made me think about our sign. As a child I wanted a plan for when one of us died, assuming we didn’t die together in a fire or explosion. “What a morbid little mind you have,” Mama had said. Or maybe Billy said. She didn’t want any part of this sign, but once, just out of the blue, she said, “Just remember that anytime you hear or play Bach, I’ll be there—especially if you’re playing the Chaconne.”

It was her piece de resistance. What she played to warm up, what she played to close down her practice, what she taught to only one or two of her students in the decades-long enterprise of her studio. “It’s what you play only when you no longer require a teacher,” she’d tell them, that you’d play it for your soul.

I’d said something like, “Okay, if I’m to hear the Bach, you’ll hear the Beethoven.”

And she’d given me a terrifying look, and under her breath saying, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare, Aurora Stonoffsky Teng.”

I was barely reading when she had us playing Bach Double Violin Concerto that she had rewritten for the cello. And here we were now, her memorial, and about to play my favorite, the Beethoven. It was uncanny that the last time we played the Cavatina, she was where I was.

I imagine my mother playing the Chaconne when it struck, that moment. Or, dreaming it, her mind stilled in that cadence, an architecture like steel. And the synchronicity of its story, whether or not true, that Bach composed the partita from which the Chaconne comes after returning home, discovering his beloved wife had died, was already buried.

Suddenly, there we were, as if swimming, that synchronicity, when a texture like gossamer took me over. We were immersed, each of us in our own orb of mourning—my brother, Stella, my Aunt Beatrice—our eyes more on each other than on the notes. Through tears, we muscled through the give and take, pervasive and dependable, within that delicate space, of the challenge and comfort specific to the Cavatina. I say comfort, but really it’s an endless, intense rise and fall. And then Beethoven disrupts you in the part of the piece he calls the Beklemmt, when there are almost infinitesimal breaks in the music, in the first violin—these tiny rests that take your breath away.

I felt it weaving the four of us together, how sustaining and supporting were the strands of melody and harmony, how the music gathered our tears and softly stirred them and whipped them, and how it rose and fell—all of this until that moment introducing the Beklemmt, that felt like a premonition. And I could not help but weep with those notes, and gasp with those rests. Oh, it felt like a cry—was it a birth cry? Was it like the chick whose scratchings begin to open the egg? Or was it like a cry for help? And just as quickly we moved beyond it, and we once again produced the theme—but no, it was as if with the knowledge, a golden feeling. The entire movement shines of gold. The first violin becomes a voice carried above the wind, the light dispersed, turning the world into golds and purples…. the sunlight a shield. My circling, my sustained sound rising upon the wings of others.


I felt something.

I told myself it was a kick.

Then the Beklemmt came with all its rests.

Beethoven composed from a dimension higher than sound to produce the very sound that could take you there to that wordless place.

Then finds the exact word for it.

That kick. I thought it was a kick–I insisted.

It was not a kick.

Then silence comes, like gasps for air.

Calls it the Beklemmt, probably the only time that word is used in a piece of music.

Beethoven with his musical lexicon for every feeling. Even the one he labeled unspeakable. So overcome with the emotion he was, himself—so they say.

The music suddenly became a blur during the Beklemmt.

Or Verklemmt in Yiddish, meaning choked up, holding back despite giving it all. I think that’s the secret of music, maybe life.

Overwhelmed with feeling; breathless.

Aunt Beatrice said it was a common word in Yiddish that she heard popping out of her aunts and grandmother left and right.

I’d never heard my mother using Yiddish.

Likely she never used it, Aunt Beatrice said, but your mother knew the word.

They were opposites but close. If my mother snapped her fingers, Aunt Beatrice would come, but my mother rarely snapped. Not once she left home, my aunt said.

She ruled the roost of us.

My mother had organized her sisters into a quartet, had started the entire musical enterprise in her childhood home, but they all got sick of her dictatorship, and then she broke away.

My mother, the prodigal daughter.

She succeeded with the two of us. Or maybe it was Billy she’d convinced, and Billy convinced me.


I wanted my mother to be part of my team. I wanted her there, in the birthing room. I wanted her to take those newborn little children into her arms and make bow-holds with their tiny fingers. I wanted her to look my little Clara and/or Rosa—or King and/or Sam Junior in the eye and ask whether they’d like a violin, a cello, or God forbid, the piano.

I said as much more than once.

“We’ll see,” she said.

“I want her to bond with you, have the first bond, so that if we ever leave New York and come back to visit, she’ll always know it’s you.”

“She’ll hear the Bach,” Mama said. Whenever Mama said “the Bach,” we knew she meant the Chaconne.  “She’ll hear the Bach. And she’ll know.  And really, there is no way she won’t be a part of me—assuming she’s a she. But even if she isn’t a she,” mother said, that violin under her chin, which bobbed a little. “No matter what they are in there, they will be a part of me.”

In the year between my wedding and this memorial, she had given me many of her students. The rest she farmed out to others. She’d barely leave her beautiful apartment, the one we’d all helped her to decorate when she left my father. She told us she was not long for this world. No, she wouldn’t take meds to keep her going, although she would gladly swallow them to take her down.

Sam was there with me making the case—so good with words, but she was good with silence.

“I want you to teach our children how to play the violin,” I said. “That will keep you busy. That will give you purpose.”

She smiled broadly, those green eyes lighting up.

Trying to cajole my mother to make a promise—ask my father, ask my brother. If she demurred in the slightest, you knew it was never going to happen.


The Beklemmt is when it started, that liminal space in between my notes, the rumbling.

We know that Beethoven shed a tear—they found a stain on the manuscript. Tears—when not even a note will do, not to mention a word.

I wondered about the signal—that I should go into labor during her memorial—but that it would be while playing the Beethoven, not the Bach.

Like the fly on my grandfather’s face. The fact that it meant something. It was his spirit, my uncle Tom had said. At first, it troubled me, that fly. But after a while, whenever I saw a fly, I began to think of it as a sign. Over the years we joked about my having come up with this idea when I was quite young. She really didn’t take this seriously . Maybe she used it to make sure I’d play it, that I would not wait for my soul’s call. Maybe she was just humoring me.


Mama never told me how to do anything. She modeled. She said if I was anything like her, I didn’t need anyone to tell me what to do, because when that happened with her—and people were always telling her what to do—she did the opposite.

In the end, neither my father, my husband, nor I attended the after-memorial. All three of us took off after the Cavatina—and Billy got more than he bargained for.

The middle of the night seems to be a perfect birthing time. I cannot see the others, but I am in solidarity with them. Songs of labor, eruptions, fire, and then the high-pitched watery songs of birth.

The nurses are excited about twins.

Because my name had to begin with an A, and because I came out like a flash of light, Mama wished to name me Aurora.

They disagreed about whether I came out like a fish or a flash.

It’s also possible that my father said fish, and my mother heard flash.

My mother’s births were like locomotives—with a tempo that is fast and furious.

Like Heifetz’s third movement of anything.


And what with the percussion I am producing, combined with that of the equipment and various vocals, there is a sudden hush that has come over the world, along with the sudden influx of medical interns.

Clara Teng-Grayson—arrives with a song, in the key of B flat.

My yelp is an octave below hers. You could call it a roar.

Sam’s bass note, on the other hand, is a song of songs for the darling named after both the patriarch of my family and the patriarch of his people—King Teng-Grayson.

Who has decided to emerge feet first.


And then waking up, with the world of my family in the room, along with not one but two little bins.

One day, Mama, they will play the Bach Double Violin Concerto together.


Photography Credit: David Wong

Geri Lipschultz has published in Terrain, The Rumpus, Ms., New York Times, the Toast, Black Warrior Review, College English, Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing, Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II, and others. She was awarded a CAPS grant from New York State for her fiction, and her one-woman show, “Once Upon the Present Time,” was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.