Today is about joy. My mom found joy in so many things – having her family around her, cooking for her loved ones, eating an exquisite meal, munching on a Nathan’s hot dog, telling a good joke, teaching, finishing the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle, hugging her granddaughter. Her face would light up at each of these things. One of the things she loved most, though, was music.
When we were young, my mom used to take us to the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. I have many memories of subway rides, and marveling at how my mom knew not only how many stops we had to go, but how many were long and how many were short – I thought she was magic! Watching her listen to classical music was a profound lesson for me. Her eyes would close, she would lean forward just a bit in her seat, and her head would sway ever so slightly. When the music stopped – not between movements, but at the very end of a piece – she would pause, as if reluctant to relinquish the moment – and burst into applause.
In 1963, we were privileged to hear Andre Watts at his debut. He played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Google is a wonderful thing…). After the piece ended, my mom leapt out of her seat, clapping wildly, yelling “Bravo!” I was sure something was wrong, that something had possessed her. It was greatness. It was ethereal. It had touched her. Her face was radiant. She had experienced transcendence.
It wasn’t only listening to music that transformed my mom; singing was a passion of hers. When she was young, she sang on the radio. After that, she sang with the radio, or the TV, or the stereo, or with her best friend in the world, Addy (our families were so close that we called her Aunt Addy and her husband Uncle Herb; their three children are our cousins). The two sang duets, they harmonized, they blended, they brought joy to themselves and others. They sang together at my mom’s 80th birthday celebration. They sang together at my Aunt Addy’s 80th birthday celebration. And they sang together two days before my mom died. One of my cousins drove Aunt Addy from New Jersey to Massachusetts so these treasured friends could be together one last time. They spent the last 15 minutes before my aunt had to leave, on Thanksgiving morning, singing their way to goodbye. It was a time of poignancy and holiness.
My mom eased out of this earth listening to some of her favorite old Yiddish songs – songs her mama had sung to her, and that she had sung to us. Songs that sent her away from us, and toward her parents, long gone. Toward joy.