No Beethoven on Mother's Day

WHEN little hands and darting feet jolted the shadows in our old house, Mother's Day came with flowers from the woods brought by small daughters, and there were crayoned masterpieces to be hung on the kitchen wall. Dusty sons, laden with bats and baseball mitts, would slip notes under my bedroom door - notes gouged out in heavy pencil of resolutions to be good, surrounded in teetery Xs for kisses. Now, except for an occasional phone call, I had often forgotten Mother's Day. The girls had left first, happy and rushing with careers and family, and then later the boys with their exuberant cries and boisterous tumult. Sometimes down the years I noticed a silence in my heart - perhaps on Mother's Day - yet this year I was taken by surprise, astounded with what that day brought.

It had happened all so adventitiously. As a family we played string music over the years, some of us practicing diligently and some relaxing over peccadilloes like the odd flat for a sharp ... details ... mere details. But we could always corral a quartet, and with the two boys, it grew into an adult custom.

Dad, as first violin, held us to standards - a decent representation of what was in the score. I did my best, a modest violist who generally got the meals. Second violin was Bill, tempestuous and blond, who used to practice by setting the kitchen timer for 20 minutes even before he had taken out the instrument. John was the cellist, intense and passionate, ringing out favorite passages in all the cracks of the day.

Last autumn a close friend asked us to play at his wedding early in May. Somehow we accepted - rather airily for, after all, it was a long way off.

There were obvious problems, logistics for one. We lived in Pennsylvania, Bill was a dean at at a college near Boston, John lived in the Bronx. And the wedding was to be in Cambridge, Mass. Over various weekend telephone calls we laughed about all this, assuming we would play something we knew, like Beethoven's Opus 18 No. 1. It would be fun - maybe just a judicious brushing up here and there at the last moment.

The months passed - we were all busy, and only a dab of unease about May lingered in the back of our collective minds. But come April, the groom called. How were things going? Were we practicing? What were we going to play? Did we know the wedding was May 7, in Harvard Memorial Chapel? The jolt was profound.

Hearing the exact date instead of a soothing indefiniteness was bad enough - but Harvard Memorial Chapel! We had been cozying ourselves with visions of an overstuffed house with creaking chairs and us stuck in a broom closet almost unnoticed. The groom cleared his throat. ``Have you picked anything?''

``Why, sure ... we've talked some. What about Beethoven, say Opus 18 No. 1?'' we said lamely.

But no, he didn't like Beethoven, not for a wedding - too heavy. Two nights later he called, all enthusiasm. He had found the perfect piece - Borodin No. 2. The nocturne was a love song that really grabs you.

``But we've never played it! Don't even know it!''

``Oh!'' ... and then he rallied. ``You've still got three weeks, you know. See you then.''

We borrowed records in our various locales. The quartet was more than melodic - even poignant and delightful - a rapture, haunting in its tenderness among life's foreboding shadows.

Then the score arrived. Behind the lilting mix of tunes lay a minefield of sharps, flats, chromatics creeping up and down in double stops, intricate rhythms weaving continuities against each other, and solos for all. There was no tiptoeing through this one!

Three weekends the boys rolled in exhausted by car and bus, and the hard, solid work and heavy sweat set in. Sara, Bill's wife who kept trying to do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle during the ruckus, was finally recruited to steady the atmosphere and provide a subtle beat in delicate spots - but certainty still eluded us. Even the moments of unanimity were precarious.

At last came the black Friday before May 7, and rising at 4:30 we drove to Boston, picking up various instruments and bodies along the way. At 4 we reached Harvard, which hardly noticed us, and walked up the chapel steps, feeling like stray starlings in a sanctuary not our own. Inside was a stillness of history, calm and pervasive, with the years hanging in pools of plain white light. And under that unbroken peace our chairs were set up - empty and waiting.

As we hesitated on the threshold, the sexton loomed out of the shadows, a contriving custodian intent on his own perfect order and viewing us as another nuisance to be cleaned up after. ``Wait downstairs,'' he ordered, like a general with raw recruits. ``I'll advise you when the wedding party requires you. And if you must practice,'' he shuddered, ``shut all doors.''

Dutifully we departed to the nether regions, set up stands, and went through rough spots, Dad saying tersely, ``Next bad place,'' and we all knowing immediately what he meant. We managed.

At last the sexton summoned us. We were wanted for the timing of the procession. We explained the segment we'd carved out of the nocturne couldn't be snapped off just any place. It had to be completed. Heads nodded. We played - it was timed - bits of the wedding party tramped down the aisle. Heads nodded again. Not too bad. We retired.

That night we slept badly, slipping through nightmares of a total crash-up. Breakfast was edgy and we rehearsed in a strange silence, intense concentration on private indiscretions of a run not clear, a note a shade low, a pianissimo too empty. But the music was singing in our ears.

Later we practiced in the chapel between other weddings while the sexton kept a gloomy watch. At the correct moment he sent us off with a sizing-up glance indicating sprucing up was in order. Combs were produced and ties straightened. We were conducted to our chairs to wait through the deadly 20 minutes of silence before a distant steeple struck 4. The chief usher sat down behind us - our signal. The nocturne came floating out into the chapel with its song of love rising above our pitiful hurts. Serenity had somehow overtaken us and we were playing with a surety scarcely to be guessed. A pause and then with the carved-out segment of music, the bridal procession moved down its stately course and the couple, young and full of hope, said their vows and were prayed over and blessed. With their kiss of devotion we soared into an allegro, triumphant with joy until at last it died away in a benediction.

Our moment was over and we were limp with disbelief and the blessed relief of the music still lilting down our minds, unmarred and whole. This had been a proud family effort - not to be forgotten. At the party afterward the groom kissed or hugged us all, exulting, ``I knew you guys would come through!'' But the highest tribute came when we left the empty chapel and the sexton walked up. ``You sure had a workout,'' he said and his grizzled old face cracked in a smile.

The next morning we were draped around the kitchen table and someone said it was Mother's Day. John, glancing up from frying sausage, said, ``Well, Mom, guess these sausages are for you.'' And we were laughing but I looked away, knowing suddenly what a harvest this day had brought, while already our separate lives were pulling us away.

As we started the long journey home, after all the goodbyes, Bill rushed up with flowers, laying them in my lap with a big, tight kiss. And all that dark night's ride home, I held them, seeing in their brightness the treasure given me by this time together - the love, the camaraderie, the memories, true as the gold in my wedding band.

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