Classical is a Period not an Adjective
Posted on July 9, 2012
The summer after I finished grade ten, my family moved suddenly from Calgary, Alberta to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They didn’t say why and it didn’t make sense: We’d just bought a fine old house on a tree-lined street near the Elbow River. In the sale, the owners had included Persian light fixtures that my mother loved. “I can’t believe they’re leaving them behind,” she’d said, like she’d discovered hidden treasure right there in the open. Changing houses has always made my mother happy, and we’d already moved six times in my fifteen years.
Both of my parents are musicians; my mother’s a violinist, and my father’s a composer and a pianist. At the time, he was teaching Theory and Composition at the University of Calgary, and she was doing studio recording with the BBC. My sister, Nina, one grade behind me, played the violin, and I played the flute. We’d been a quartet, attending recitals, playing chamber music in the living room, until my mother got pregnant with Gianna and then Gigi. “They should’ve asked us,” I said to Nina, “since we mainly take care of them.”
In Calgary, I left behind my first love, a boy who skied and hockey-skated, who I could dry kiss for hours because no one had shown us how to French. “Why’re you moving down there with the alligators and the possums?” he pleaded, but I didn’t know. “I don’t want to leave Tim,” I confided to my mother, thinking she’d understand a broken heart. “There’ll be more Tims,” she said.
We drove in a Merry Miler across the wide provinces of Canada and every kind of grain field, took a sharp right through the waterways of Sault Ste. Marie, and traveled down the Eastern Seaboard, stopping at the homes of musician friends so we didn’t rack up expenses. “I wore out my welcome,” I heard my father explain to an oboeist they knew in school over cocktails in Lexington.
In a cemetery in Tennessee, Nina found me crying behind a gravestone. The air was chilly, damp, it had just started sprinkling, and sadness felt perfectly right. “You miss Tim,” she said. “I miss Charlie,” and she sat next to me and cried too. “Charlie who?” I said. “I’d just started with him,” Nina said.
My mother kept things up in The Merry Miler like she did at home. There were petunias in a vase she’d velcroed to the pull-out table, fluffy towels in the water closet, Irish linen curtains on the windows. Nina and I watched our younger sisters the whole way; we fed Gigi and changed one hundred diapers, and pre-occupied Gianna by playing paper dolls, or drawing stick families. My father drove all day while our mother hunted for the next RV park in the giant guidebook. They listened to serious music on the BBC.
“How about you find our music on the dial?” Nina asked. We’d just been to hear Jethro Tull at the Saddledome, and I liked to riff “Thick as a Brick” on my flute.
“Read,” my mother said, sternly, over her shoulder
An hour into Georgia I said, again, “Why are we doing this?”
“Canada’s too cold,” my father answered, as if weather was a reason to leave home. “I went for a job interview at the University of Southern Mississippi and swam in February.”
“I need snow,” I argued. “Mississippi’s a swamp.”
“Says who?” he said. “You won’t believe the pine trees.”
He was right; Hattiesburg did have tall, graceful pines, and I never once saw an alligator or a possum except at the Kamper Park Zoo. We moved into a ranch-style house in a new subdivision with no trees but plenty of azalea bushes. “Those light fixtures wouldn’t have made sense here,” she reassured my father. Neighbors brought over pecan pies and chicken casseroles, and wanted to know what instruments we all played. “Southern hospitality,” our mother said, not quite believing it. She smoked cigarettes on the patio, and flipped through recipes for grits and fried chicken in cookbooks dropped off by the Southern ladies. “Hmm . . .” my father said, trying cheese grits at breakfast with his scrambled eggs. “Gritty.”
The Hattiesburg American called and wanted to write an article about the musical family that’d come to town. A photographer came over and took a photograph of Nina and me playing music in the living room, with Gianna, doll-like, in a chair, clutching her stuffed rabbit and pouting, and Gigi on her stomach, digging in the blue tri-colored shag carpet for a lost cracker. We’re reading music on a rickety stand, but I don’t know what piece would’ve been scored for flute and violin. Maybe a Bartok folk song that my father transcribed on the fly so we didn’t have to fake playing serious music. In Calgary, we played chamber music as a family – piano quartets because my mother could read the viola clef – but the newspaper only wanted a photo of the daughters. At the last minute, I ripped the hem out of my pants because they were too short, and Windexed pen marks off my saddle oxfords. Nina changed her shirt three times and parted her wavy hair into pigtails. We held in our stomachs.
By the first day of school, everyone had seen the picture and read the article on my family . “Y’all are famous musicians,” kids said.
Not famous, I thought, freaks. In spite of their unreasonable beauty and dewy skin, the Southern girls wore makeup to class and slept on orange juice cans so their hair came out ribbon-straight. They faked periods to get out of P.E. Nina and I excelled at P.E. At basketball, volleyball, dodgeball, at back flips with harnesses, vaults over horses. We didn’t wear makeup, and missed skiing and ice-skating and indoor badminton. “Bad-mitten?” the kids said. “We play that outside.”
At night in bed, Nina and I listened to the radio low. We could pick up a scratchy midnight broadcast from Little Rock, where the d.j. played Black Oak Arkansas’ “Go Jim Dandy” to open the show up, and to end it, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – my favorite part the intro’s slow tease; Nina’s, the driving final section. “I’ll never get sick of that song,” I promised her. We liked secretly listening to music we didn’t share with our parents. “Charlie felt me up,” Nina said. “On the outside,” I said, hoping. “Nope,” she said.
Tim broke his front tooth attempting a flip on skis, and he sent me a letter with blood drips, the tooth inside. I put it on the mantle next to a photo of me at youth orchestra camp in Lethbridge. I’d played second chair and still knew the fingerings to Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I tapped them out on my stomach at night, quietly counting the bars before my entrances and every other instrument’s too.
“I’m getting zero letters from Charlie,” Nina said, after I thought she’d fallen asleep. “I guess it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to see him again.”
“I’m going back to have sex with Tim when I finish high school,” I said.
I did go back to Calgary the summer before I started college. Tim had a girlfriend, and couldn’t spend much time with me, so I kissed his best friend, a proxy, who wanted to race through the kissing, when that’s where I meant to rest.
Our family moved two more times in Hattiesburg, into a handsome yellow house on Court Street with a swing on the front porch, where Nina and I smoked midnight cigarettes with boyfriends while we babysat; then into an architect’s house my father found in a neighborhood filled with swaying pines our mother feared would snap and crash through the vaulted living room.
Nina and I stopped taking music lessons in high school because we’d turned our attention to dating and our parents didn’t want to pay for us to be dilettantes. “Is that a bad word?” Nina said. We sulked unconvincingly, packed up our instruments. We wanted to be a part of our parents’ music; we didn’t know how to play for ourselves, although Nina told me the other day that she’s picked up her violin again, and practices scales and double stops when nobody’s home. “My bow arm’s still good,” she said.
My flute rests in the gray box with the red velvet lining, on the top shelf of the hall closet. Gianna and Gigi took piano lessons until they went to college, and are the delighted mothers of small children who bang on pots and pans for the noisy, joyful music. My sisters chose other arts to pursue: graphic design, painting, photography, and I ran to fiction writing, where parents who divorce come back together to make music for six in rooms lit by Persian lamps and possibility.
(Published in OXFORD AMERICAN – The Music Issue 2007)