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From the novel....Milly and Johanna's Mother, Leah, in 1962

November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving, 1962     


Driving back from Charles’ parents’ house in Summit we had the most ridiculous fight. Not that it was a fight in the sense that we were arguing. We had the girls with us, of course. Milly was in the front between us, her head on my lap. She slept most of the way. Johanna was in the back seat, reading Nancy Drew, every now and then spelling out a word and asking me what it meant: 

“What’s an r-o-a-d-s-t-e-r, Mommy?’ ‘What’s a hex sign?’” 

Charles is no talker, anyway, so that’s another way it wasn’t really an argument. But you can have a fight without fighting words, of course. What happened was that I brought up the idea again of me giving piano lessons. Not even teaching school again. Just piano lessons. I ought to have known better. Charles was already in a bad mood because his brother had been at his parents’ house, as well as his older sister and her husband—not that they count as a threat to him. It’s his brother, Henry, who riles him. Henry is five years his junior and makes more money than he does. His wife, Suzanne, is younger than I am and they have two sons instead of two daughters. 

Suzanne could double as Dinah Shore singing “See the USA in a Chevrolet.” She’s sprightly, for God’s sake. Tall, blonde, busty. She wears those artillery bras. And the sons are the same way—tall and blond. Hitler would be proud of their erect carriage and sparkling blue eyes. I don’t think a holiday goes by that Charles doesn’t not-so-subtly rue his choice of a Sicilian fisherman’s daughter from Gloucester as his wife, even if she did somehow make it out of Gloucester, as well as into and out of music school. 

Before we got married, before the babies, I thought he liked it that I taught school. But once Henry married Suzanne and he rose at Alcoa like lava at the top of a volcano, Charles has been impatient with his life. Or the deficiencies he notices: We don’t have a vacation home. Having had daughters, he can’t coach a Little League team. He doesn’t have a wife with a chiseled clavicles and manicured fingernails. 

I think it’s superficial of him to want all that. But I still can’t help feeling apologetic. Inadequate. I feel I’ve failed, somehow. I’m short. I’m dark. (In fact, our daughters have my complexion and brown eyes.) I listen to “Cavaleria Rusticana” and Verdi instead of Bing Crosby and Patti Page. I read instead of playing tennis. I grow vegetables instead of day lilies. I make pasta with cauliflower and sardines (actually, I don’t make that anymore; I’ve learned from the women at the church how to make Swedish meatballs and angels-on-horseback). I’m almost there, but not-quite in an unsettling, though defining, not-quite way. 

So when I brought up giving piano lessons, Charles just said quietly, “And turn our living room into a store front?” 

I knew what he meant. I even know who he was referring to: Angela Orlando Brancaleone. Her husband had been a drunk as well as a fishermen, as if the two weren’t incompatible. And she was scolded by the Our Lady of Good Voyage priest for giving piano lessons in her parlor after Vito Brancaleone’s ship went down off the Georges Banks. 

‘What’s she supposed to do?’ my mother had asked, time and again, ‘Say novenas to the Blessed Virgin Mother to send poor Angela another drunken fisherman that she could marry and bury some more? Though it’s true she didn’t have to bother much about the burying part. The sea took care of that.’ 

I think my mother sent me to Signora Brancaleone for lessons just to spite the parish priest. And if was spitefulness toward him, it was such a gift for me. 

Signora used to talk about music as if it were tactile, as if every musical phrase had a concrete correlative in the real world. 

‘Listen,’ she would say, as I practiced one of Schumman’s “Scenes from Childhood.” ‘What do you hear in ‘Traumerei’? Does it make you think of dreaming?’ 

After every lesson she’d send me home with laden with treats, loaning me her recordings of operas and symphonies. 

“Next lesson I want you to sing for me the Funeral March in the Beethoven 3,” she’d say. Or, “Listen to this and next lesson, you tell me what it was that Smetana was writing about when he wrote, “The Moldau.” (I didn’t even know then that the Moldau was a river.) 

She gave me easy assignments, too: Everybody knew the Offenbach can-can music and “Pomp and Circumstance” and “The Waltz of the Flowers.”
“Yes, but what do they have in common?” she’d asked. I, of course, had no idea.

Jane Avril, Can-can


“It’s all music for showing off!” she’d declared, as if anyone with ears would have heard that. “The putains dancing and showing off their backsides, the scholars parading in to special music because they’d passed some tests—as if any fisherman in Gloucester ever got a diploma for making it back past Dog Bar breakwater. No, it’s just prayers and tears when they don’t come back--. Oh, but then there is “The Waltz of the Flowers.” They have a right to show off. Flowers are better than can-can dancers or scholars and even fishermen. All they do is live to give beauty. And when they die, we’re sad, maybe for a day. But we know they’ll come back next spring. And the next spring after that. The flowers don’t ever really leave us.” 

That’s the kind of thing she would say and it made sense to me. Maybe she was a little crazy—she was a widow who had five kids to support. That would have made me crazy, too. But she told such great stories. She made music this invitation into another world, a world beyond the cramped streets and smelly wharves where drunken men, back in port and flush with cash, wanted girls like me. Or any girl, actually. 

So Signora Brancaleone was a kind of anchor, grounding me. She was also as much a beacon, letting me know there was safe passage: I could leave Gloucester. I would be all right.

 

 


And I got my scholarship for the Crane Department of Music at the normal school up in Potsdam, New York where it was colder than I believed it ever got anywhere except at the Poles. And then I moved downstate where I got a job teaching music to kids at St. John’s in Riverdale. I thought I’d fit right in. I was Catholic. I knew all about what the nuns and priests were like. 

Only St. John’s wasn’t Catholic. It was Episcopal. And though it took me a couple years to even become interested in the theological differences between the two, I learned right away that the mothers who came to pick up their kids from St.John’s looked a lot different from the mothers who used to come to pick up their kids from St. Ann’s in Gloucester where I’d gone to school. These mothers wore slacks and twin sets and worked for charities and played tennis, since many of them had women who cleaned for them or cooked for them so they had all that extra time. 

They weren’t all like that, probably. That’s just how I remember it. But that’s how I met Charles--during my second year at St. John’s at the back-to-school tea the Women’s Auxiliary was hosted for the faculty. Charles didn’t teach there, but he worked for a nearby engineering company and he came in a few times a year to speak to the science classes about geology and mineralogy. He was at the faculty tea as a Friend of St. John’s.

We exchanged names and, after an hour or so, phone numbers over glasses of sherry. I had passed on the tea and the biscuits that would have left a shower of crumbs across the ample shelf of my chest. 

We dated. And it wasn’t as if Charles were my first boyfriend—hardly!—but he was the first to seem interested in my life, in where I’d come from. Most of the other boys had come from the same place as me. They didn’t need to hear about fishing or Christmas traditions or tales of Dogtown; they already knew all that. 

But I was exotic to Charles when we met. He liked my stories. I told him all about the Saint Peter Fiesta, walking the Greasy Pole, the annual Blessing of the Fleet and the roster of men lost at sea on the walls of City Hall, as well as the Man at the Wheel statue that looks out across the Harbor toward Ten Pound Island Light. He didn’t know anything about the danger of fishing, the vigil of the wives, the drunken carousing and subsequent Mass-going. I didn’t tell him any of those stories.

 

 

Sandy Pallazollo on the Greasy Pole, 2008

 


Eventually his interest in my history waned. He knew all the stories about a hard-scrabble girl from a fairly-storied town. Now it seemed he wanted me to grow some new wings and adjust to the more refined and rarefied air of the professional class. (And I have, haven’t I? I didn’t grow up using the word ‘rarefied’!) 

I wanted to be someone else, too. Marrying Charles seemed the route to my transformation. Rather than a stubby Gloucester girl, preoccupied with music, I would be a capable wife and caring music teacher. I was sure I could manage both. 

I practiced, sharpening my flattened ‘A’s and becoming more conscious of my ‘R’s. I learned to play bridge and cook the dishes that seemed fashionable among the wives of his colleagues: beef stroganoff over egg noodles, crabmeat-stuffed avocados, chow mein casserole, even champagne punch. I learned how to put my hair up, eventually getting it cut and using rollers to try to establish an actual hairdo. Charles seemed pleased; I think our early married years were actually happy. After all, we were both growing into new people, growing up, actually. 

But as he progressed at work and as I became more and more preoccupied with teaching and then, later with the girls, things began to change. It turns out I hadn’t made the kind of transformation he had apparently wanted. And when Johanna was born and grew into a carbon-copy of what I had been as a toddler, his disappointment was subtle, but I could feel it. 

Yes I, too, would have preferred that Johanna look more like Charles and less like me. Though at least she got his height. They both did. But otherwise they look like me. The darkness--the coarseness--as I had come to think of it. Johanna’s hair is more tame, but Milly has my thick, wild curls (which I’ll soon have her keep in braids or trimmed and styled as I keep my own). Both have chestnut-colored eyes with brows as thick as a Gericault brush-stroke. Nor are their limbs lithe and sinewy, with long narrow feet, like Charles’ family. They are thickly-muscled, with small, wide feet that look sturdy enough to walk for miles. I gave them variants of the first names of a German and a French composer—Johannes Brahms and Camille Saint-Saens. But I might as well have named them for Gesualdo and Boccherini. Or Vivaldi and Frescobaldi. Or Palestrina and Pergolesi. 

So when we were driving in the car and I’d spent all this time in reflection after Charles asked me, “And turn our living room into a store front?” I just didn’t respond. I couldn’t. Johanna was awake and half-listening—she could both read and listen at the same time. And Milly was only dozing. I couldn’t leap to the defense of poor Signora Brancaleone, my teacher, nor say that I only wanted to be a little more than a mother; I didn’t want my daughters to hear me say that, since being a mother was enough. Always enough. Except that the poor, foolish heart always wants more, much more. 

“No,” was what I said. “I just think music is good for children,” I said, not expecting Charles to say more because normally he didn’t. 

But he surprised me. 

“That’s what school taxes are for,” he said, “To give children what’s good for them without their parents having to supplement it. Do you think a public school education is so lacking?” 

I knew that what he really wanted was to send our girls to Riverdale Country Day School. We just simply couldn’t afford it 

“No,” I started to say, but he cut me off. 

“Did you get so much more going to your Catholic school in Gloucester than what our girls will get in our public schools?” 

“No,” I said, angry now. I wished I had been able to say to him that there hadn’t been a music program at St. Ann’s and that that was why I’d been sent to Signora Brancaleone’s. But there had been a music program at the school. It had been heavy on sacred music, not surprisingly. And the nuns seemed to both sing and teach without pleasure in their musical offerings.

Besides, the issue wasn’t what my experience had been or what my opinion was. The issue was that Henry and Suzanne’s sons are at Sewickley Academy, while Johanna is a fourth-grader in our local school district and we have no plans, as yet, nor the money to send her or her sister to private school. Once or twice I’ve brought up the local Catholic school, but Charles has dismissed the idea. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I knew what he meant: the parochial schools were for the Irish kids. Or the Italians kids, like me. Our daughters weren’t either one—though, of course, they were. Italian, anyway. (My mother would have said, no, Sicilian; so maybe on that one point, she and Charles might have been in agreement: not Italian.) 

“So why is it our business to supply the school district with something in addition to what it is already providing?” he asked calmly, rationally. 

He had me cornered with his logic, of course. I’d already admitted I was satisfied with the idea, if not the specifics, of public education. And I couldn’t, at that point, say the truth, which was that I wanted to teach again. I wanted to play not for pleasure’s sake alone, but in order to share this—what’s a good way to put it?—this language without words, this world in which there was no room for the anger and dishonesty that words only made worse. 

Music was the world of ordered chaos or of untamed beauty. It was all that God was supposed to be—and didn’t appear to be—and even more. I never believed that the Holy Ghost visited Bach each week when he wrote his cantata for the following Sunday morning. I always believed it was Bach tapping on the Holy Ghost’s study door and saying, “And here’s what we’ll be singing this week, in order to remind the Three of You of what we want to believe about You.” 

And the Holy Ghost—a wordless creature, evidently—would simply take the score and pass it before the omnipotent eyes of God who’d nod and say, with an admirable humility, ‘Amen.’ 

I believe that’s how all that sacred music came to be. 

It was Vaughan Williams tapping the shoulder of the Holy Ghost and saying, “Um, let me write a song called “For All the Saints” just to remind you how many of us there are. And I’ll call the tune sine nomine which means ‘without a name’ to make it seem that much more other-worldly-conceived and holy.” 

It was Beethoven, in his Missa Solemnis bellowing into the Holy Ghost’s ear Cre-do! Credo! just in case the Holy Ghost was deaf to the entreaties of the faithful who only wanted to be heard. And to hear. 

And it was Verdi, using the traditional words of the Mass for the Dead, repeating, insistently, into the Holy Ghost’s ears: Grant, O Lord, that they might pass from death into that life which you once promised to Abraham and his descendents. 

And no, I didn’t think that a public education schooling could teach this. I didn’t think the church could, either. At St. Ann’s the well-meaning and sometimes fierce nuns taught us what was godly and what was not. Music was what the nuns used to sing the Office. But the point of it was the Office and not the music. 

It was only in Signora Brancaleone’s living room, at her piano, that I began to understand that if God was going to bother to speak to us at all, it would be in a language we couldn’t speak to each other in words. Words were street signs, map legends, traffic signals. They got you where you needed to go from one moment to the next. God’s language was infinite, invisible, aural. And its purpose was inexplicable. You couldn’t get a local school board to back that logic. To teach music that way. 

When Charles and I were first married, before we had the babies when I was still teaching, I was required to teach things like “The Boll Weevil” song and “Jump Jim Crow.” Jump Jim Crow! There was a dance I had to teach to them, as well. And I had to teach “Come, Thou, Almighty King” and “Beautiful Savior,” in spite of the fact that even at St. John’s a few of my students were Jewish and hymns and ethnic songs had much to do with sociology and little to do with music. 

Back then I wasn’t sorry to quit teaching. Charles didn’t want a wife working, though I insisted on finishing out the year I was pregnant with Johanna. But in the ensuing years I really haven’t missed it. Missed the students, yes. I’d only taught the younger grades, but their willingness to sing, to clap (qualities which my colleagues who taught older grades assured me disappeared with the onslaught of breast-buds and facial hair) seemed magical. Even if we had to sing the inane folk-songs the district prescribed. 

But I wanted to the chance to have a student one-on-one. To talk to her, to help her to hear in a way beyond our normal hearing, what there was to listen for. 

So the point was—the point I wouldn’t make to Charles—was that I didn’t want to turn our living room into a store-front. I wanted to turn it into a sanctuary. 

Because naturally, I would never say anything like that to Charles. The sanctuary was where we sat on Sunday, kneeling during the confession, intoning the fraction anthem, taking the wafer the rector dipped in the wine, then returning to our seats to thank God we were Episcopalian, not Catholics, Jews or Presbyterians, even though Charles’ brother, Henry, in Pittsburgh, had converted to the faith of that philanthropic former Scotsman, Andrew Carnegie. 

*** *** *** 

When we got home, Charles carried Milly into the bedroom and I followed, helping Johanna, now half-asleep, to walk the distance to their room. I knew it bothered Charles that the girls shared a bedroom, that we hadn’t yet moved into the larger house he’d been planning that we buy, or that we’d build. I had been dragging my feet: I didn’t want to live farther out of New York than we already did. I didn’t like driving. I didn’t want to have to bring Charles, day after day, to the train station and pick him up at night. 

I didn’t want to leave. He did. And I knew we would, one day. We’d have a nice house. We’d have plenty of room for the kids. For a dog, if we wanted one. For neighbors and houseguests and gardens. I liked the idea of the garden. I liked the idea of expanding mine. Maybe then I could put in the day lilies that would make Charles admire my efforts. I would hide my zucchini and peppers behind a scrim of day lilies, I thought. And when I cooked with garlic, I would spray the room with the aerosol Glade that Charles thought was important to keep in the bathroom. God forbid we should smell what goes in or out at either end of us. 

Anyway, after Charles left Milly on her bed and I settled her under her covers and Johanna burrowed under hers (she was a burrower), I sat there and wondered at the arc our lives would take. And I confess, I wondered at the arc our lives would take—the girls and mine. 

I hoped ours was flexible, mutable, full of surprise, but I doubted it. Because Charles was the fixed star and we were in his orbit. He provided the money, the family name, the gravitas by which we were organized. Nothing I could offer—no lessons in our living room, no daughters with dark skin and eyes—could improve upon the vision he sought for us. 

He wanted us wealthy. Safe. Well-educated, or at the very least, as well-educated as his brothers’ sons. If such education mattered for daughters. 

And maybe he also wanted a son. 

It wasn’t too late. It wasn’t too late for two sons. Or three or four, if he wanted people to think we were Catholic. 

I was only thirty-one. Not too old to have one more child without it seeming we were slaves to eros rather than to our club. I wasn’t too old to provide Charles with a son. 

And, truth be told, the idea made me laugh inside. As if I were some kind of breeding ground for the perpetuation of Charles’ not-so-significant family name. 

I wasn’t a breeding ground. On top of that, I wasn’t good enough. I was a squat, Sicilian out of Gloucester who wanted music more than a son. 

Besides, I had given birth to two daughters, daughters even more precious than music. I would forget every note of every mass, requiem, symphony or chorale. I would forget every weeping note sung, every sustanato, crescendo and every dimunition. But I would never forget the breath, smell, small noises, errant passing interests and nearness of my daughters. Without them, I couldn’t even begin to hear music. Without them, there was no music. 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.