I haven’t been to the exhibit about Nureyev at San Francisco’s De Young museum, but as great a dancer as he may have been, I think my Mom outdid him today. Sitting in her wheelchair.
Our visit started off on a sour note. She was sitting with her cheeks stuffed with food, a favorite storage place, and not only didn’t smile when she saw me, but waved her hand and told me to go away. But she was curious about the book in my hand and when I showed her the music notes by Scarlatti, she seemed intrigued. She didn’t protest when I suggested we go to the piano and so we did. I left her a moment to bring her some water, came back to find some of the stored food on the floor, but after a sip of cool water and a cascade of flowing notes from Scarlatti, she settled back into her groove and off we went.
For almost five years now, we’ve done this dance. Me playing the piano, her at my right hand side mimicking the contours of the music, dancing with her arms or playing air piano. I’ve noticed lately she seems to like the single lines of 16th notes dished out by Haydn, Mozart and Scarlatti, riding them like a whitewater rafter heading downstream. She was in fine form today, marking the ebb and flow, the rise and fall inside each piece of music and always approaching the climax with a clear foreknowledge that we’re heading for the last notes, which she punctuates accordingly, opens her eyes wide in astonishment and then claps for our mutual performance.
My mother took piano lessons briefly and enrolled in a belly dance class when I was a kid, but really had no formal music or dance training. She occasionally listened to WQXR, the classical music station, but mostly listened to easy listening selections— Henry Mancini, 101 Strings, things like that. Even when she was more lucid, she couldn’t name any favorite songs and never really sang along with my other octagenarian friends who gather with me at the Jewish Home for the Aged.
But now close to her 92nd birthday, she seems to be channeling some musical intelligence out there in the universe. Her intuitions are spot on as she conducts me from her chair and occasionally, remarkably inspired. Like today, when I played the ballad Two Sleepy People and trickled gently up the keyboard at the end, she rose one hand upward in perfect synchromicity and looked to the heavens, flicking the last note up into the sky. I know someone should be filming this, but such grace doesn’t come on command and I’m not that organized. So I’ll just keep that image with me and marvel yet again at the extraordinary power of music and movement and gesture, the way it can arrive so unexpectedly and fill our hearts with a beauty almost too large too hold.
Thanks, Mom. See you on Friday with some Mozart and Fats Waller.