Mementos 5: Thank You Greta: On Music, Politics, Poetry and Relationships
I’m looking again at this note, written August 4, 1991. Greta always told me, when I complimented her on it, that she got her handwriting, so clear, legible and (I thought) beautiful from working at the library. I think this is the first time that she wrote me about the difficult relationship she had with Anna, our mother. I’m sure it was the first time she confessed finally “growing up” and understanding what contribution Anna gave to her. What a terrible time we children have with our parents! Trying to break free and become ourselves without totally denying the gifts we’ve received, the legacies we bear.
I know it was a conversation we had on many occasions, Greta and I. It was at times precipitated by my defending Anna’s memory from Greta’s husband, who never had much respect for her political opinions. But often it came out of our discussions of music and the often-related hard time Greta had with Anna’s insistence that she was the next . . . Vladimir Horowitz or any other piano virtuoso you could name. Hence the reference in the letter to Marian Anderson, the culture of music, and its death cultivated by piano lessons and, ultimately, Greta going to Yale Music School. (The music school was almost a vocational school, not considered on a par with the rest of Yale in those days, the mid to late 1940s, so the school allowed women to matriculate. The rest of Yale remained staunchly the preserve of the male of the species). I remember Anna taking the child me through the Yale campus to hear Greta practicing on the great organ at Woolsey Hall, Anna with such pride. Greta said Anna was not very happy to hear the news that she had quit piano as a major and instead opted for music history.
Greta was my first piano teacher too. I’m not sure what convinced my mother that I had talent, but it certainly wasn’t talent. While I loved listening to my sister play the “Moonlight Sonata,” I rebelled against the lessons (which my mother assumed was a “sibling thing.”) So one of Greta’s fellow students was invited to challenge my recalcitrance; and when that failed my mother found a music school that gave piano lessons for people who could afford very little — I’m remembering about $1.50 per lesson — and finally, after not succeeding through that door, I started taking private lessons from a teacher at the school, on whom I confess I had a crush. When even that could not get me to practice or take lessons seriously, I went to my mother and told her it was time to give up. As far as virtuosi are concerned, Greta and I shared a common failure.
We also, as we grew together, apart, and together again, shared a common love of music that stemmed from our mother’s reverence for classical music (the classical WQXR was always on the radio, when we had one; though I never learned to like Milton Cross and the weekly opera broadcasts). When Greta moved to Los Angeles, George (my father) and Anna made the trek to visit in the summer, after Robin was born. I was 10 and the year was 1953. We visited again in 1955, when Greta and Leon had moved to Buena Park, and the house they lived in had a room we all called the “music room,” where the piano resided and, more important, the record collection and a stereophonic record player. This is where I first heard The Weavers, Pete Seeger, songs of the Spanish Civil War, Leadbelly, Theodore Bikel, Josh White, Burl Ives.
In 1960, when I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, I lived in a dormitory for the first two years. To civilize me, Greta and Leon gifted me with a portable record player that sat on the desk built into the wall overlooking Figueroa St., where my roommate and I did our homework, and where I played the first record she bought for me — the one I still call the “Green Quintet” because of the cover. This is the version on that record.I also listened to the late night folk music shows with dj Les Claypool, hunkered down next to the radio, watching while crews moved houses down the middle of the street. I retreated to Greta’s living room, the one with the massive ceiling beams 18 feet from the floor, where I first heard the Fauré and Brahms Requiems.
Something interposed a kind of silence between us as I left school and became more politically active. Most likely the doctrinaire attitude I adopted didn’t help. But as Anna began to fail in health — around the mid 1970s — we grew closer together to cope with her Alzheimers and wondering about her death.
The first inklings had come after I had committed to visit weekly, take her to lunch and to help out at the Midnight Special Bookstore. She began to complain frequently of dizziness. After a number of visits to the clinic, the doctor summoned me into his office and asked about Anna’s alcohol intake. The doctor further cracked the shell of my denial, when he encouraged me to smell her breath. After the appropriate investigation, I drove her to her apartment where I found a hidden bottle of vodka. I emptied it down the drain. Anna screamed with anger. By this time she was having difficulty finding her way to the grocery store a couple of blocks away. She had already become unable to manage her checking account. The final straw was the chicken she had roasted and left in the (unlit) oven until the stench in
the house was overwhelming. Greta and I began looking for a placement for her (neither of us were capable of the full time care she required) and quickly found that medicare didn’t provide much more than warehousing for long term care. Nevertheless, we did find a nursing home that was better than most and we made preparations to move her. We bonded again over the terrible task of cleaning, sorting, and discarding the accumulation of a lifetime. I took my father’s books and the bookcases he had built (I still have those). Before Greta moved to Waterloo, Ontario, but while Anna was living in the nursing home, we celebrated her 83th birthday with a barbecue at Penmar Park in Venice, California.
In August, 1983, Anna died at 87 years old. Greta, who told me she felt guilty about having left me to handle Anna’s last, difficult years, came to Los Angeles for the celebration of her life. There had to some ambiguity, some internal conflict but our emotions were both raw. There was not much to say then.
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When Greta wrote that note in 1991, I had moved to Chicago. That spring I went to New York to attend the American Booksellers Association Convention and Trade Show. Greta and I planned a vacation together after the show. She met me in New York and worked out the details of our road trip. We met Randy for dinner in Manhattan, then took our rented
car out to New England. Greta was the link that connected families, while I retreated from involvement with family. This, I thought, might be an opportunity to re-introduce myself to people I hadn’t seen since I left New Haven in 1960 or even earlier. Old habits die hard, and you can’t reinvent or recover the past. So Greta remained my connection to family for the next 17 years. In some important ways, she still is. We agreed, as a result of our trip together, to spend more time together, and, if we couldn’t do anything else, we’d agree to come to each other’s cities for our birthdays. May became my annual trek to Waterloo, timed with the international quilt festival. Hers was to tag onto the end or beginning of her annual learning disability teachers conference a long weekend in mid November with Diana and me. This trip could well have been the first time I told Greta I was falling in love; or it might have been in the fall when I went through Ann Arbor by train to Waterloo (you could do that in those days). I confessed that I really hoped this was for real, feared it wouldn’t be. Greta hoped so too.
Greta had introduced me to a book by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field. I remember our conversations about music from this time. One of the main themes of the book is around music, specifically the Trout piano quintet of Schubert. The main character is a pianist and, as the story begins, part of a philosophy study group in college. As I read the book I listened over and over to the Trout, to the point that I began to think that the Green Quintet was the Trout. I no longer remember what we talked about, even what in the book felt so important, but the book really struck home at the time. As it enveloped my thinking at the time, I brought it into conversations with Diana and think now of the book as part of our courtship process. This is the version described in the book. As often as I credit Sue Ying Peery for being our matchmaker, I also need to credit Greta because of this book. Not a bad pair actually, as I think of walking with Sue and Jack Hirschman in San Francisco one happy afternoon in North Beach, with Jack going on about Susie and Lewie and Jackie (where Susie was Sister Susie).
In the fall of 2004 when Greta came to Chicago, it was difficult for her to climb the stairs to our fourth floor apartment. Nevertheless she stayed with us and ventured out on occasion. Barnes and Noble had just fired me (on the same day that I got my 10 year pin for loyalty and service!). Dave Marsh offered me a gig transcribing interviews he had done in preparation for a book. So Greta sat in our living room watching me Rube Goldberg a computer based transcription mechanism and slowly work through the process of extracting phrase after phrase to make sure it sounded accurate. I showed her the transcripts and played the music he was describing, and we talked and talked. We would discuss the content of the lyrics, the thought process behind the arrangements, the musical ideas that Bruce Springsteen discussed, the artists he referred to. Looking back now it seems to me I was doing in my music room for her what she had done for me so many years earlier. No matter, however; the loudness of rock and roll was beyond her ken, beyond her ability to withstand it for long. Still it was a kind of eagerness, a kind of experience that she could only occupy vicariously, and she valued that chance through our talking and listening together. It was probably the next spring, in fact, that gave me an opportunity to cross the barrier. When we visited in the spring of 2005, I brought with me the recently released Seeger Sessions, and we played that DVD on her TV screen, something I hoped would bridge the gap between the folk she knew and the rock. There were other examples too.
In February 1999, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and killed by the NYPD. In response, Springsteen wrote and performed (June 2000) “American Skin (41 Shots” and I immediately began writing to Greta about this, we exchanged letters (emails). Since then there have been so many good versions done of this song, easily found on youtube. This is the one I would have been listening to, this and the studio version. This is the first of the Madison Square Garden shows that the NY Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association threatened with violence. This year I’d like to share with her the Living Colour version, or the version Jackson Brown did with a gospel choir, or the ones Springsteen has done with Tom Morello. But I can’t. I can only open my ears wider.
I know we talked about the “Ghost of Tom Joad,” and I wish I could have shared this version with her. A song I have always found satisfying becomes anthemic with the added guitar and voice of Tom Morello. I want to talk about metaphor, about the screaming voice of the guitar and why, the insistent drumbeat, to tell her about the homeless under viaducts in my city. I want to listen to her tell me what she hears. I know that she appreciated the lyrics, but what would she think of the sounds?
Let’s come back to Greta’s 1991 note about Marian Anderson. When Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing was published in 2003, I read the book and immediately shared my impressions with Greta. The parent protagonists in this novel meet at the Marian Anderson concert in Washington, DC, when Eleanor Roosevelt skirted the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow Anderson to perform. Instead, Roosevelt arranged for an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and some 75,000 people came to D.C. to hear. Like Disturbances In The Field, the novel crosses music as a central theme with a different discipline, in this case physics. The Jewish physicist immigrant from Nazi Germany meets and marries the musician African American at this concert; their children turn to music and politics. When we visited in May, 2008 we had given her a copy which she was reading and we promised to carry on the conversations further.
May of 2008 passed, Greta and I talked, as we did pretty much every year for the previous few years, we talked about whether she would continue teaching. Each year it became more and more problematic. And as the years passed I finally came to understand that teaching was who Greta understood herself to be. I don’t think she ever fully resolved her anger with Anna, she did begin to understand what she had learned from her mother. We talked about what she would do if she didn’t teach. Greta couldn’t imagine it. And then during the summer, when Greta called to tell me that she had made up her mind not to teach, that she could no longer give her students what they needed, what the families were paying for, it was at best a tone of resignation. And then came the dreadful days of fall 2008 and Greta’s death in November.
There are three more things to say. First, Greta died proud of having cast an absentee ballot for Barack Obama. Second, the memorial/celebration for Greta brought together the family she worked so hard to connect all her life. And third, I continue to write letters to Greta about politics and music and lilacs. (See The Highway Is Alive Tonight, Lilac Time, and Fabric of Memory).