Monday, November 28, 2016

Early Critters

It may have been my mother's mother, the one who brought me a lame chick to keep me company after my tonsillectomy, who ignited my passion for animals. Or it may have been that, as the only child in an extended family, for me a dog or a cat, a rabbit or a hen was the closest I could get to a playmate, a sibling, someone who did not tower above me and talk about things I did not understand.

I grew up in a vast turn-of-the-century apartment in Barcelona. My mother, having been raised on a farm, believed that animals should not live under the same roof as humans. No dog claws skittered on the hard tile floors. No cat left a drift of fur on my pillow.  I hungered for a friendly, silent presence at my side, but had to make do with watching the pigeons who perched on our balcony.

But summers were different. We spent them at my grandparents' farm, in a fertile valley south of the Pyrenees, where an endless procession of animals amazed and delighted me. Horses and donkeys munched and snuffled in the stable; a sow the size of a bus fed twelve of her children in the sty. My grandmother let me throw corn to the hens who scratched the dirt in the courtyard, giving wide berth to the hunting dog, an Irish Setter who lived chained to his straw-bedded house. She would lift the cover of the nest box in the rabbit hutch and hoist me up to see the hairless litter moving feebly in a cozy cloud of  fur. And when one of the semi-feral cats who lived on mice and bread crusts gave birth, she would take me up to the hayloft and move aside the hay so I could see the still-blind kittens sleep entwined like the fingers of two clasped hands.


My grandmother and I feeding the chickens
One summer, she arranged for a goat kid to arrive in time to be my companion. Another year, it was a lamb. I tried my best to get these creatures to follow me around, but they seemed mostly intent on pursuing their own goals, the goat leaping up to reach the branches of the pear trees, the lamb on getting away from me.


The lamb and I
When one of the sows farrowed, my grandfather would detach a warm, pristine piglet from one of her teats and place it in my arms. Many years later, when the nurse handed me my first-born I inhaled the same clean, slightly oily smell from her scalp that I had smelled on the little pig.

The horses, donkeys and mules were my favorites, both the ones that belonged to my grandparents and those that were brought to be treated by my veterinarian grandfather. I would watch out the dining room window as some poor mule was brought limping into the farmyard by a couple of peasants wearing standard Catalan country attire: black beret, blue shirt, a black sash around the waist, black corduroy trousers, and dusty espadrilles. A hand-rolled cigarette hung perennially from their lips. 

My grandfather would appear and confer with the men, run his hand over the mule's back and lift one of its hooves. The mule would shy and roll its eyes; the men would admonish it in low, soothing tones, and my grandfather would do his work. I paid special attention to his technique for giving injections. After rubbing the area vigorously with a swab of cotton dipped in alcohol, he would drop the cotton on the ground, bring out an enormous syringe and plunge the needle in. When the men and the mule were gone, I would take my toy horse out to the yard, disinfect its hind leg with a bit of rag, fling the rag to the ground, pierce its thigh with a nail, retrieve the rag, rub the other leg, give another shot, and so on until I was called inside because the sun was too hot. 

I spent hours skulking around the farm, watching the creatures, absorbing their smells, wondering what they were thinking, and how it would feel to touch one. But I was constantly warned against getting too close to them--the sows had been known to eat children, the horses could bash your head in with a kick--and my grandmother would have fainted at the thought of bringing the dog, or one of the kittens that periodically tottered to the back door, its finger-long tail held high, into the house.

Back in Barcelona, in early December my mother would take me to the Christmas fair that was held next to the cathedral, to get supplies for our Nativity scene. But first we would go into the cathedral, to see the geese. Barcelona's Cathedral of Saint Eulalia may be the only church in the world to harbor geese--thirteen large white birds said to be the descendants of a gaggle first put there in Roman times.

It would have been bad spiritual manners to go straight to the geese, so first we used to stop before the main altar to pray. Already as I knelt there, with the grit on the kneeler digging into my bare knees, I could hear them, their cries echoing against the stones. I would say a quick prayer and whisper, “Can we go now?” My mother would answer by closing her eyes and praying some more. She knew the art of sharpening anticipation.

Eventually we would rise, make the sign of the cross, brush the grit from our knees, genuflect as we passed the altar, proceed in a dignified manner to the holy water basin, make another sign of the cross...and emerge into the cloister.

The cloister was like no other place I knew—a space that was both indoors and outdoors, where light and sound bounced oddly among the stones and the palms and the orange trees, a space that spoke to me of beauty for its own sake in the midst of the serious business of religion. A space inhabited by geese.

In the center of the courtyard was a raised stone platform, surrounded by an iron grille, where a moss-covered fountain trickled water into a spacious basin. There the geese, with majestic disregard for the holiness of the place, honked and waddled on the flagstones, making the most amazing green droppings and then casually gliding into the water and floating about, looking
pleased with themselves. Warm, alive and untamed in the midst of the stone and cement of the city, those geese seemed like a miracle to me.


Hoping that that goose will let me pet her
Not long after the visit to the geese, it was time for the Christmas capons. They came by train from my grandparents’ farm, in a large wicker basket cushioned with straw and covered with a piece of burlap. When the birds, annoyed but alive, arrived at our apartment, my mother would  put them in the cement tub in the laundry room. There I would sit until bedtime, watching the way their red combs shook as they cocked their heads to look at me with one eye and then the other, stretching out a finger to touch their feathers, inhaling their hot poultry smell and feeding them crusts of bread. 

The next morning, inevitably, the empty laundry tub was scrubbed clean and the apartment became, once again, devoid of animal life. I don’t remember making any connection between the succulent birds at the center of the Christmas feast and my temporary pets.

After the capons were gone, I hibernated for six long months until the train and then my grandfather's horse and buggy conveyed me back to my real home, the farmyard and the dusty summer roads and my animal brothers and sisters--the horses and the rabbits and the chickens that made my life feel real again.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Pizzicato (finale)

“Flat! Flat! You’re flat!” my father cried, swooping into my bedroom and waving his arms. He wasn’t scolding me—he just couldn’t bear it when I played out of tune. Occasionally, these interruptions would turn into a full lesson. More often, after reminding me to hold up my violin, my father would dash off to a rehearsal, a performance, or some other student’s regularly-scheduled lesson.

I was twelve and more advanced now, playing “real” music—Handel, Vivaldi, Viotti—and practicing an hour a day. But as I progressed, my ability to criticize my own playing had also advanced, and I was more aware than ever of the gulf that separated my playing from my father’s.

As conscious as I was of my failings, I had little notion of how to remedy them, and every hour I spent cloistered in my room with my four-stringed enemy felt like a week. Worst of all, my hoped-for reward—an hour of my father’s attention and possible approval—only came at long and unpredictable intervals. Given all this, I failed to see why I should be made to practice at all.

This is where my mother came in. My father having neither the temperament nor the leisure to keep me on task, she became the enforcer. “Have you practiced yet today?” she would ask as I finished my homework.

I would roll my eyes and close the door to my room. I would open the case, inhaling the sad, sour smell that emanated from its maroon velvet lining; pick up the violin; tuck it under my chin, and tighten the bow hairs. Then I would begin my musical Stations of the Cross—first the scales, then the harder position and bowing exercises, uphill through the assigned pages of Kreutzer, finally ending on  the Golgotha of some sonata. When the hour was over I would emerge shouting “I hate the violin! It’s awful! I despise it!”

My mother would shake her head sadly. “Such a pity! Such a pity! Daddy tells me all the time what a fine violinist you could be if only you wanted to. He says you have a good tone—something that can’t be taught….”

I wondered why my father never said those things to me, never looked me in the eye and said I had a good tone. As it was, my mother’s words only irritated me. “I don’t care,” I would say, stamping my foot. “It’s hateful. Why should I spend all this time on something I hate?”

My mother would smile wistfully. “Some day, when you are grown up and married, and living in your own house, on a rainy afternoon when you are feeling melancholy you will pick up your violin and play, and be grateful that I made you practice.”

This explanation only added fuel to my anger. I didn’t want to grow up into a lady with no way to fill a rainy afternoon. I had seen what empty afternoons did to my mother! Despite my dislike of it, to me the violin was serious business, not some bored housewife’s occasional pastime. I knew only too well how terrible that housewife would sound, if she only practiced when she was in certain moods.

Underlying all this was my intuition that there was something amiss in the lives of my mother and the other women in my family. They were charming, attractive, educated and smart. They were good at many things: they embroidered, painted in oils, played various instruments. They read constantly, went to concerts and to art exhibits every week. But somehow, in a way I couldn’t understand but was sure of, they weren’t serious. My father, on the other hand, was.

On the brink of puberty, without ever having been told so expressly, I saw myself relegated by fate to the charming, witty, non-serious side of things. Unfortunately, I wanted both: to be clever and attractive (especially that, please God) as well as serious. As for the violin, if I couldn’t play like my father, then I wanted no part of it.

Years passed.  My mother stuck to her guns and I to my grousing. In my freshman year in college, my father decided that I needed some orchestra experience. The woman who played in the last stand of the second violins in the Birmingham Symphony was going on maternity leave and had to be replaced. My father drove me to the conductor’s house one afternoon. I auditioned, and was told to report for rehearsal that same evening.

The nightly rehearsals and weekend concerts wreaked havoc with my social life, not to mention my study hours. I was so terrified of playing an unintended “solo” that I spent my time in the orchestra mostly trying not to be heard. But in some ways these were good music times for me: my father was the violin instructor at the college I attended, and I signed up for classes from him. On Friday afternoons, when it was time for my lesson, he would suggest that we go back home and do the lesson there. But I, knowing what would inevitably happen once we arrived—the phone would ring, my mother would have to be driven somewhere, somebody would drop by—insisted on having my lesson on campus, in a real classroom, like a regular student.

He must have liked what he heard during those lessons, because one day he announced that he and I were going to play the Bach Double Violin Concerto at the college’s weekly assembly. (In those by-gone days, it was usual for the undergraduate student body to convene for cultural events.)

Both flattered and terrified, I practiced hard. He and I rehearsed together a few times, and I got some pointers on ensemble playing (don’t play loud all the time; listen to the other voice). The day came. I did my best and even enjoyed it, in a strange way. The audience clapped and clapped--the Bach Double is an easy work to like—and one former boyfriend confessed that he had wept during the slow movement. I was pleased, and yet…

I was living at home, cleaning the house, doing the ironing, babysitting my sister, and giving private language lessons. I was taking a full academic load, majoring in Biology and French. I got only one credit for my violin courses, but worked harder on that than on all the rest.

Compared to the violin, the rest of college—the life cycle of the blood fluke, the dissected dogshark, even the poetry of Mallarmé--seemed relatively straightforward. I longed to sit with my classmates drinking coffee in the snack bar in the afternoons, listening to Frank Sinatra and smoking an occasional cigarette. I longed to walk the leaf-strewn campus paths with a boy at my side, like a regular American college student. The violin had to go.

All this was half a century ago. I am now a married lady, in my own house. And on a rainy afternoon, or even a sunny one, whether I am feeling melancholy or otherwise, I open my case and take out my plastic Yamaha alto recorder. I start with some basic tonalizations, remembering to hold my instrument up and minding my breath (which is the hairless equivalent of the bow). I struggle through some challenging bits by “Unknown 18th Century Masters” and cap things off with Georg PhilippTelemann, a composer who devoted himself to tormenting recorder players.


Before I know it, an hour has passed. I look forward to my lessons, and to playing duets and trios with friends. These days, nobody has to remind me to practice. As I swab the spit out of the instrument and put it away, I can hear faint laughter emanating from the woods behind the house, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.