Saturday, January 12, 2013

Covered Keys

I'm thinking about my Aunt Iris right now. Her funeral was held today and I couldn't get to Ohio to attend. Our oldest is still dealing with his infected toenail. We spent half the day at the doctor's on Thursday and now we're waiting for them to get him into the podiatrist so they can just remove the whole nail. They're starting to talk about MRSA and drug-resistant staph, so it's really scary. He's pumped full of antibiotics.
So, today we closed our keyboard cover on the piano to honor Aunt Iris. This week my creative work has been mostly musical. Jerry gave me a lot of new music for Christmas and I've been practicing. Today we also planted daffodils. It's late (they were on clearance), but down here you don't dare put them in too early or they will sprout right away. They won't look good until next year, when they've had a chance to sleep beneath the ground and gather their strength. I want a sweep of yellow underneath the trees in the front lawn.
Iris was my great-aunt; my grandfather's sister. I don't write about my father's side of the family as much as I do my mother's, although, they did in fact care for me quite often. Not as much as my mother's side, but they did do quite a bit with me and for me. The main feature of my childhood from age 3 to 5 or 6 was my time spent with all my different relatives. Everyone pitched in to take me for days or weeks. Iris was 92 and had, until pretty recently, been in very good health. Over this past summer she really declined and had to go into the same home as my recently-deceased grandmother.
When I think of my father's side of the family the memories are always permeated by music. I can't remember much about my father at all except his music. If he wasn't scuba diving he was playing his guitar and singing, or playing his trombone. He played in a doctors' band. The doctor who treated him in the ER the night he died was one of his fellow band members.
Everything we ever did at my grandparents' house centered on music. My grandfather bought The Starlight Orchestra in the 1930s and led that until World War II. During the war he was a military band leader and traveled from base to base holding dances and shows. He had a much better time in the war than most! When he returned to the States he opened an auto parts store for income, but the profession of his heart was his job as  the Choir Director for the Methodist church in town. He held that position until he died: 40 years, and he is now interred in the church's pipe organ itself. When he died we had him cremated and had the ashes placed in a special container inside one of the pipes. I like to go to that church and "visit" Grandpa by listening to the music.
At home, Grandpa had a small organ and he played it pretty much every day. We all did. He played trombone as well and usually was a member of a band. Later in life he wintered in Florida and was a proud member of his "Dixieland Band" down there. My cousin and sisters and I were lined up by the organ to sing in harmony for many occasions, but especially Christmas. Grandpa was very invested in teaching us all to perform and had me on stage from almost the moment we moved home from California. I was always singing for schools or churches or special events, and usually Aunt Iris accompanied me on the piano.
Although Grandpa would decide where I should perform, Aunt Iris was most often the person who actually had the job of rehearsing with me and making sure I was ready. I spent many long hours standing by her piano. Iris kept me at her house quite often, and I always enjoyed going there. She lost her second husband, my vaguely-remembered Uncle Gerry, to cancer when I was pretty young. They were very nice people, and I was happy there.
The town where we lived curls around Grand Lake like a garland. You can walk on sidewalks anywhere in town and it is a real town, with stunning old Victorian houses and wide, tree-lined streets. The stores downtown have pretty apartments above them. There are some amazing buildings downtown, including the stone courthouse whose frescoed dome would be right at home in Washington, D.C., and the Catholic cathedral with its domes, straight out of Europe.
Aunt Iris lived only a few blocks away from my grandparents' house and even closer to my great-grandmother's house. When I was very small she would often walk over to get me and we would run errands together. Back then the town still had some of those tiny corner grocery stores and we would stop by the nearest one for milk or bread and Aunt Iris would let me open the big cooler and buy a Popsicle. I loved the clean smell and the icy air that would pour out when I opened the lid.
Aunt Iris' daughter was grown up and living in California, so I think she enjoyed having a child in the house again. She would almost always have a homemade angel cake to serve and to this day I don't think I've had better angel cake. She had a candle holder I thought was the most beautiful thing ever. It was a goblet with an inner glass and inside the two layers of glass was crushed colored glass. When the candle inside was lit, the colored glass would glow like a rainbow of flames. I had big plans to make one for myself and was always grubbing around in the lake for "sea" glass, but our lake was mostly full of glass from broken beer bottles so colors besides brown or green were rare. One time I saw a flash of blue and I was so excited to find blue glass. I dug it right up to find it was actually an antique aquamarine ring, which I still own!
Whenever I hear the British phrase, "safe as houses" I think of Aunt Iris' house. Aunt Iris kept her house so well that once, when her oven died, the delivery men who brought the new oven took the old one back to the store and put it on display for a while because it was the cleanest used oven anyone had ever seen! I remember so happily the days and nights I spent in that clean, well-ordered house. My grown-up cousin's room would always be made up for me, and her old toys brought out for me to play with. Iris, like her brother, would always have records playing or would be playing the piano. At church she sang in Grandpa's choir every Sunday. In the nursing home, even after she could no longer remember who we were, she still played her hymns every day until the very end of her life. Another aunt said, "Music poured out from her until the very end." I guess that's all you can ask for: to keep the one beautiful part of yourself, the inner expression of your soul, until the very end, even after everything else has fallen away.
When I go back to my grandparents' I always like to stand in a certain spot and look across the lake at my town. In this spot the wind is always blowing, and it's always cooler here than anywhere else, even on the hottest days. And from this far distance I can make believe that when I go back into town everything will be as it always was. My family will all still be there and alive and healthy and we will live our lives together again.
My town, viewed from across the lake. The domes are on the Catholic church.
I am really a very lucky person. I had so many people raising me: my mother and father, my grandparents, and great-grandmother, and all my aunts and uncles. Each of them is responsible for a different facet of my personality, and I try to remember the lessons each taught me.
Aunt Iris taught me to always just do my best and to keep on going. Although her life was often difficult and lonely she just kept going and she was never a negative person. She just kept filling the world with the beauty of her music and her devotion and love. She always was available to help others. Over the past several months I've lost so many people who were dear to me, through death, through our move, and just through folly. I have been sad, but thinking of my great aunt reminds me that these all were people I loved, and so I can't regret anything. I think no love or beauty you put out into the world is ever wasted. Even if you don't see it right away, it will return to you.

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