July 11, 2008
Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California knowing that it would probably be the last time we would ever see her. I brought with me a small overnight bag and my violin and bow.
Almost two years earlier on the occasion of mother’s 100th birthday, I had asked her what sort of a gift she would like. Without hesitation she wanted my brother Victor and me to play for her. The birthday party was a joyous event. Mother, who was born poor in a Polish shtetl, who had lost her mother as a child, who had traveled unescorted to America at age 14 with her younger sister, who had worked in sweat shops and survived the great depression, had nonetheless managed to have a good life and reach the remarkable age of 100. A large cake with 100 candles was brought out and 100 roses were placed along side. Then family, friends, and staff sang happy birthday and afterwards Victor and I played a movement of a Mozart violin and piano sonata.
Mother clearly loved the gift of our performance but it was, in part, a repayment for another gift she had given us decades earlier. Ballerinas, chess players, skiers, tennis players, and we musicians must all begin our professional journey at a very young age. But what child has the discipline to practice? Without the encouragement and occasional tough love from both our parents, Victor and I might never have become professional musicians. Mom took me by streetcar to my early music lessons, dad tuned my violin, mom pestered me to practice, dad threatened to withdraw lessons if I didn’t, they both attended my student concerts as cheerleaders, and later on when I played especially well, they cried with joy.
Victor and I played again for mother’s 101st birthday but now, several months later, the time for celebration had passed. My son and I tiptoed into the room where mother lay in bed dozing and greeted her. She stirred with the sound of our voices. Mother opened her eyes, smiled in recognition, and told us how happy she was that we had come. In her weakened state she managed only a minimal amount of conversation and then fell silent. But perhaps words were not that important after all. Perhaps music was a better way to express the emotions that struggled for clarity in me as my mother’s life ebbed away. I opened my violin case and considered what to play. Fritz Kreisler’s Preludium and Allegro was one of mother’s favorites. I had performed the Kreisler often as a teenager and in later years she frequently asked why I no longer played it. There was no real reason except that music had taken me to different places in my adult life. For the first time in almost a half a century, I began the Preludium, tentatively feeling my way through its noble opening intervals, then into a brief improvisatory section, back again to the opening material, and finally into the Allegro itself. When I finished, mother looked up at Alexej who sat at the end of her bed and said in a half whisper, “Sounds pretty good.” I had to smile. “Pretty good” meant only one thing: Practice. Then I played something more familiar but equally loved by mother: The Meditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. When I came to the end mother again looked up at Alexej and said in a slightly more robust tone of voice, “He plays beautifully.” I smiled again, but this time for a different reason. At the age of seventy-one, a vestige of the child I once was still lived in me and still enjoyed praise from his mother.
Soon it was time to leave. Even though mother had fallen soundly asleep, I leaned over and spoke gently to her. There was no time or need to make an inventory of our relationship and yet I felt an urgency to open my heart before death closed the door irrevocably between us. I held the gnarled hand of this shrunken figure who had once been a vivacious, charming, headstrong, difficult, and very determined woman – a woman who made sure her sons practiced so that they might have the best possible chance if so desired to become successful musicians. I kissed her on the forehead, told her I loved her, and said goodbye for one last time. Two weeks later on June 8, 2008, just three months short of her 102nd birthday, mother passed away.
Those seemingly simple sentences of mother’s have stayed with me. “Sounds pretty good” (but you can do better) and “He plays beautifully” (ah, now you are reaching your potential) highlight the discipline, encouragement, and praise that our parents gave Victor and me when we were growing up. Certainly in my present life as a performing musician, I can think of no finer compliment than the one my mother paid me as she was leaving this world: “He plays beautifully.”
Born September 15, 1906
Died June 8, 2008
Photo by Dorothea von Haeften.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!