Sunday, May 10, 2009

Clar de Lune, Susan Boyle and My Mother

My novel, THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, yes, the one I'm still revising, draws much from my childhood. My father really was a sword swallower and my mother was a closet chanteuse who played piano and sang with a voice that rivaled the divas of her day. In fact, when I hear Susan Boyle, I think of my mother. She had that kind of voice, but zero confidence.

The photo at right is my mother playing and singing with my younger sister, Angie, who inherited Mom's voice and musical abilities. Sadly, Angie passed away from melanoma in 1990 at the age of 29. My mother has been gone since 2003.

Some of my fondest memories of my mother are when she played piano and sang. My Mother's Day tribute this year is a short excerpt from THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, all of which is true to the point of memoir, rather than fiction.


We returned from school that day to the sound of Mama pounding out “Clar de
Lune” on the piano. Mama’s piano playing was a barometer to her moods. When she
played and sang sad love songs, she was irritable. When she played upbeat show
tunes, we pretended we were the Lennon Sisters and joined in for fun rounds of
musical togetherness. Sometimes she played hymns, especially for Uncle Teddy,
who insisted she sing “How Great Thou Art” every time he saw her. But when she
played from her big, brown classical music book, she channeled the tension of
her life into the music, because when she closed the piano lid and stepped away,
her face was always relaxed and her voice as soft as a kitten.

After dinner that night, Aunt Cissy’s boyfriend, Ernest, pointed to the piano in the parlor adjacent to the living room. “Anyone play piano?”

My little sister jumped up, ran to the piano and began plunking out the right hand side of “Heart and Soul.” She turned and asked me to play the two-handed left side. I was not about to play this kiddy song in front of Ernest, so I declined, saying I couldn’t sit on the piano bench with a broken leg.

Aunt Cissy stuck her head into the room and said, “Ask Edie. She plays and sings just like Rosemary Clooney.”

Mama rolled her eyes, but I could tell she liked the remark. She had a repertoire of songs she would sing and play in the evenings when Daddy was gone out to wherever it was that he liked more than home.

“Really?” said Ernest, looking to Mama with more than a little interest. “Oh, please play something.”

“Play ‘Moon River,’” said Aunt Cissy. “That’s one of my favorites.”

Mama groaned and then opened up the piano bench and dug through a bunch of sheet music. With an “ah ha,” she pulled out a warn folio and spread it across the piano.

I loved it when Mama played and sang. When she put her hands to the piano keys her face changed. The harsh lines around her eyes softened and her shoulders relaxed enough to let her arms flow up and down the keyboard.

She could imitate the sound of just about any singer I’d ever heard. Sometimes Daddy would hang around after supper and ask her to sing for him. Her music soothed whatever it was that drove him away.

“Play Unforgettable,’” he’d say, standing behind her, close enough to touch, but never touching.

Other times Daddy would recline in his chair and smoke, blowing smoke rings inside smoke rings while we ran around trying to catch them. Mama would play through her repertoire of pop songs while Daddy let us crawl over him. Those were memories I cherished. That was the Daddy I remembered, the Mama I wanted.

Seeing Mama unwind at the piano now lit a flicker of something I couldn’t wrap my heart and mind across.

From THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, copyright 2009 by Carolyn Burns Bass


Carleen Brice said...


AJ Harbison said...

That's awesome. Loved it!

AJ Harbison
The Listening Blog

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Thanks for visiting, Carleen and AJ.