My Mom is 91 years old today. She missed the 1918 flu pandemic but came into this world during the great depression. And now, we are in the middle of the great coronavirus pandemic, and we haven’t been able to see each other in person since just after she turned 90. What a strange and difficult time we are in.
Two words that I think nicely describe Mom are resilience and perseverance. I suppose that resilience is a natural outcome of starting life in the great depression where everything was scarce. She is also a great story teller. One of my favorite stories that she tells is about her father, my grandfather. Each payday he always saved some of his pay in the bank after he took care of his expenses. One day in 1929 there was a run on his bank, because people were panicked that the bank would collapse. When grandpa got to the teller with his regular cash deposit, the teller asked if he really wanted to do it, because everyone else in line was withdrawing their money. Grandpa made his small deposit, and the bank survived.
Over her 91 years, Mom has had many struggles: various illnesses, divorces, loss of friends and loved ones, decline of her hearing and eyesight, and in this awful year of 2020, loss of her younger sister. But she keeps on going, and her stories get longer and funnier. One of my favorite new twists on her prodigious story telling is that she now can start a story with a pre-story that explains in detail why she is retelling the story, even though we have all heard it a number of times already. And the stories always get better and have a way of changing with the times!
Perhaps the best example of Mom’s resilience and perseverance is her career in music. She played the cello from an early age. At the time, professional symphony orchestras were all men, but this didn’t deter her from pursuing this career. She attended the Eastman School of Music and by that time, women had started to be hired into symphony orchestras. After a few years of playing with small local groups in different places (including both Oklahoma and France!) Mom got the opportunity to join the Utah Symphony.
Maurice Abravanel was the conductor and musical director, and when he took the job in the late 1940s, the Utah Symphony was a small community orchestra in Salt Lake City. According to Mom, Maestro Abravenel needed to hire women, because nobody had heard of the orchestra, and it was difficult to attract talented musicians to move to Utah. She first joined the Utah Symphony in 1954 and then left for 2 years to complete her Masters degree at Eastman. She returned to the Utah Symphony in 1959 and had me in 1960.
Because of Mom, music has always been part of my life. She taught cello students who my brother and I tormented when they walked in for their lessons. My brother also broke her cello one day just before a concert when he was playing “blind man”, another example of Mom’s resilience (stretched to the limit that time…). Even though in the initial years, the Utah Symphony was part time, it seemed like she was always rehearsing, recording, or performing. The exception in those years was that the Symphony had summers off, and we always celebrate with a fun “end of the season” party that included all the “exotic” food that we could find like baby corn, artichoke hearts, macadamia nuts, and chocolate-covered ants (really!). Many of our family friends were in the symphony, so music just seemed normal.
The 1960s were a time when celebrity was a different sort of thing than it is now. By that time, the Utah Symphony was gaining national and international recognition through Maestro Abravanel’s efforts and musical connections. They were becoming especially famous for performances and recordings of Mahler symphonies, which were one of Abravanel’s specialties. We lived near the Abravanels, and for many years Mom needed to pick him up for rehearsals, because he never learned to drive. Almost daily when I was young, we’d get a phone call from the Maestro, who was worried that Mom would be late picking him up. I often picked up the phone, and he always politely introduced himself “Hello, this is Maurice Abravanel, is your mother there?” When the call came in, mom was rushing out the door and motioned for me to indicate that she was on her way.
Mom is a living history of great symphony stories, almost all of which made me realize that the musicians who were always dressed in black dresses and tails were regular people who often had some very colorful lives. One of my favorite stories that she tells was about a concert the symphony gave in a small southern Utah town. They were performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and at the end of the first movement, the audience enthusiastically clapped (a no-no for “sophisticated” audiences). Maestro Abravanel took the opportunity to educate them about the structure of a classical symphony. He turned and told them that the piece had four movements and that they had just completed the first. He also mentioned that audiences in Europe would wait until the end of all four movements before clapping. The audience was silent and started counting the remaining three movements. The problem came between the third and forth movements where an oboe sustains a note, rather than complete silence. When the orchestra completed the very loud and energetic ending, the audience thought there was still one more movement, and they were dead quiet. At that point, Abravanel needed to turn around to tell them that the piece was over and that it was fine for them to applaud. Every time Mom tells me this story, we both laugh even harder than the last time.
Mom retired from the Utah Symphony after more than 40 seasons. I heard her play many times, and when I was out of high school, free concert tickets for me were a great way to impress girls on a date! In fact, that was my first date with my wife just about 40 years ago. I also own several Utah Symphony recordings with Mom playing. But one important goal of a symphonic musician is not to stand out, so it is impossible to pick Mom out from the crowd.
A few months ago during one of my COVID home-based activities, I re-organized my old vinyl records. I came across one that I must have gotten from my childhood home after my father passed away, because I didn’t recall seeing it before. It was in a yellowed paper record sleeve, and the record was only cut on one side. Here is the label:
It was recorded in the Nesman recording studio the year before I was born. She did this while she and my Dad were in Wichita Falls for my Dad’s time in the Air Force. It turns out that Nesman Studio was quite good and even recorded some of Buddy Holly’s early work. Mom is accompanied by Margeret Bebb on piano. There are a fair number of cracks and pops, but the music is beautiful, and I was able to capture it digitally.
What a joy to be able to hear my Mom play over 60 years ago!
Happy Birthday, Mom! I’ve arranged for a nice astronomical present for you (well, I can’t take all the credit…). Just look up in the southwest sky shortly after sunset for the Jupiter and Saturn conjunction. We can always tell people later that it was all for your 91st birthday!