When I was nearing an age of possibly having to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was not at all aware that it was something that needed to be done. I glibly went about my day, having my tea and toast, choosing my clothes for another seven hours at high school, attending class, coming home, grabbing a book, and reading until dinnertime, never even knowing that all of my friends were having stress and madly applying to THE BEST universities all over America. One of my ears was attuned to the drip, drip, drip, that was my mother repeating her dying wish “you have to learn to type, become a secretary, and get married”, while the other ear was listening to Mozart’s Symphony in g minor, a much more appropriate accompaniment to the life of the Alcott sisters, with whom I lived part of my life ever since I had discovered them, and how lovely that I was named for one of the characters in the book. Both she and I have an attitude that is immature in a way, but passionate, and having three sisters was something I was glad that only happened in novels.
My parents had gone to New England for their honeymoon, where my older brother was conceived, (later named for my father’s college roommate Ken Emerson–COULD he be related to THE Emerson?), and the experience must have been pleasant enough that later, after two more children came along and there was a bit of money saved from Papa’s job as a Dealer Utilization Manager (I never knew exactly what he did, but it allowed long lunches and liberating time “in the field”), our family would take a yearly summer sojourn out to the coast of Massachusetts, get rooms in the Anchorage Lodge smack on the Atlantic Ocean, a quaint cluster of gray weather-beaten buildings, whose proprietor did everything in her power to convey to my parents that it was not a place that enjoyed children. She was right. An old home turned into a lodgings, with communal bathrooms, no television, no swimming pool, no playground, and no possible way for three children to occupy themselves was the kind of typically narcissistic choice my mother would make throughout her life, then proceed to blame everyone else when the arrangement fell apart, as if choices didn’t have consequences.
Well, if you think I was the LEAST bit influenced by my mother’s desire to have me follow in her size 7 footsteps shoved in the requisite pointed stilettos, you’d be right. The thought must have taken up residence in that part of my unconscious that occasionally serves me well, the little space where useless information languishes until it springs out at the most awkward times, and there was a stream of successive suggestions that resulted in forming the backbone of what became a terminally single and independent woman, one who would rather be content than upwardly mobile, and one who hadn’t any interest in sharing her space with someone who might be demanding meals and coffee and freshly pressed shirts at all hours of the day, which would interrupt my pursuit of every biography I could get my hands on and a job that would afford me the time to read them.
While other families were engaged in filing financial aid documents, having their daughters and sons write fabulous essays for Yale and Cornell and Harvard, this family was completely ignoring the fact that colleges didn’t come fetch your daughter off the front porch, pack her suitcase, and whisk her off to the dorm as if they knew or cared where you lived and were anxious to acquire students with no direction, no money, and no interest in attending the BEST SCHOOLS. When I was nearing graduation from high school, something must have startled me when I saw my friends grouped excitedly around handfuls of acceptance letters, each one more vocal than the last as they revealed their chosen destination, and what kind of merit scholarship was paying their way. My graduating class had four valedictorians, all friends of mine, a class so smart and accomplished that the faculty couldn’t decide on just one person to give the valedictory speech, and I didn’t care as long as it wasn’t moi ( I also took French, German, and one day of Spanish, absorbing enough of the first two so that I tested out of languages some time down the road). I had no desire to be at the top of my class, because the sheer joy of learning was enough for me, along with singing in the choir, playing in the band, choosing our favorite Williamsburg font for the headlines of the school newspaper and being part of the selection board for the literary publication that contained some of my most tortured poetry.
So when it was almost time to choose caps and gowns and reserve tickets for the Baccalaureate ceremony, where I accompanied our a capella choir on “Choose Something Like A Star”, I suddenly noticed that I was the only one who hadn’t made any plans for attrition, and recalling an offer of “braces or college” from a mother who must have finally become exasperated and resorted to bribing me out of her way, I chose college, then got neither of those things from her. It didn’t matter, as my wonderful little grandmother had been putting away a little bit of money for each of her three grandchildren to use however they liked, and my $2000 paid for the first two and a half years of Cleveland State University, books included, and whenever I mentioned that I was going there, I heard a chorus of people wailing “but you can do better than that!”, and I didn’t listen to them either. I loved downtown Cleveland, and couldn’t imagine anything nicer than climbing up the steps of the 55C each morning with an arm full of books, dangling my chubby self from the pole in the front of the overheated and rather fragrant bus, since it was always full by the time it got to my stop, and watching the scenery, always happy when we got to the Shoreway and the rippled expanse of Lake Erie would remind me why I loved living in Ohio, where all four seasons show up dressed in different colors every year, and I had access to culture of all kinds and bookstores galore. My father being downtown was an asset, because there were rollicking fun lunches to be had, shopping at Higbee’s and Halle’s, many hours spent perusing books and prints in Publix bookstore and salivating over pens in Morse Graphic or Checker Office Supply, with the occasional foray down to the 9th street pier for an ice cream cone from the window behind Captain Frank’s restaurant, a place only for the strong of stomach, the best location in the nation with views east and west and north almost to Canada. Take note, because the preceding story could be called “Recipe for a Spinster”, and if you want your daughter married and out of the house so you can finally have a life of your own, follow the directions on the back of the cake box, because learning to bake also didn’t make my list of “things to do while becoming”. Now what other university offered me all of THAT at a bargain price and a $25 admission fee? It had never occurred to me to try for anything else, because I hadn’t even considered what I might major in, and I wandered through English, journalism, criminology, and a couple of other cushy areas, until I finally almost graduated with a degree in sociology, a subject that didn’t interest me in the least, and after attending college for three and a half years, I realized I hadn’t made a single friend, and that struck even me as unusual.
I had joined the University Chorus, and became associated with a few of the breed called “music majors”, which sounded like a low-rent name for a men’s chorus, and I never associated them with the people my brother was hanging out with down at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he had gone to pursue his dream of being principal trumpet of a major symphony, a dream he fulfilled before he even graduated. Clearly the parents were paying more attention to him than I had thought, and to this day I don’t remember how that adventure got paid for, but I’m glad he went, because I got to visit, and little sisters were welcomed on weekends so they could answer the door when the police came to investigate the odor of marijuana wafting from the open windows. And while leaning against a wobbly stack of beer cases threatening to topple during the question and answer period, I would say with unabashed innocence, “nope, the boys are upstairs studying, officer, and that’s incense you’re detecting”, which was a fine answer, because the rest of the weekend we were left alone, and I stayed upstairs reading while the boys did whatever college boys do, and it didn’t bother me at all.
After realizing that I didn’t want to be the only person ever to attend four years of college without having a darn thing to show for it, I decided to accept someone’s offer to check out the music department, and finding it accessible enough, there I landed, acquiring a bachelor’s degree in music (cum laude just for showing up) and then some hapless soul asked if I’d like to go to graduate school if they paid my way (like they even had to ask), so I left with another degree, this one in piano performance, and a guarantee of a lifetime of low-wage jobs in my future. Both degrees got tucked away in the closet, as I felt that they had been achieved under some sort of false pretenses, and I started to apply for jobs that would provide me with enough money to buy books and stay at home, which must have just about driven my mother around the bend. To augment the $2000 grandmother scholarship that ran out before I was finished with my urban education, I got a job as a “reader” for a blind man (don’t blame me, that’s what he called himself), and I would go to his office for a few hours in between classes, and ended up doing more than reading, but it exposed me to a life challenging in a different way than my own, and I like to think that his decision to buy a piano and take lessons was partly due to me.
I honestly don’t remember most of the jobs I had, and thank goodness the Social Security Administration keeps track of that sort of thing, so that maybe if I work another hundred years or so, I can retire in style, meanwhile, struggling, but struggling earnestly, making enough money to survive, but not so much that anyone might notice. Then something happened a couple of weeks ago that nearly knocked me on the floor, and it might just be the answer to a prayer I never prayed, because I don’t do that sort of thing, and I like the way it distresses people when they find out. A man with a piano calls me sometimes and says “my piano is lonely, would you come and play it?”, and a siren call couldn’t be any stronger, so of course I pack up my kit bag of miscellaneous scores, and head for the Baldwin that’s the object of a good part of my affection these days, and the last time I went I ended up GETTING A JOB PLAYING THE PIANO FOR MONEY. Well, I admit that this event was almost more than I could absorb in the moment. The residents I had come to know from playing there for hours on end, while they clapped and tossed out requests were witness to my tears of joy and astonishment, and they gave me a place to sit down and couldn’t have been more excited to find out I was going to use those degrees after all if they had been the people who put me through college by the sweat of their own brows. These people know their music–who requests Chopin’s A flat polonaise from someone who looks like they fell out of the bin at Goodwill and is so short she can hardly reach the pedals on the 9-foot grand? I’ll tell you who does that: a place full of residents so kind and welcoming, so motherly and fatherly, who shout “there she is–that’s the girl that plays the piano!” when I walk in the door, a place where I’m comfortable, and, dare I say even gingerly confident. After having applied for 2000 jobs in previous years, and finally finding one I love and cherish, to find out I could have TWO jobs I love is almost enough to make me believe in God.
Nope, just kidding. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe that being in the right place in the right time, and being open to trying things that make me a little squirmy has landed me squarely where I would have been if I had been in charge of designing my own destiny. I’ve always, always, felt more connected to people older than myself. Even as a child, if I had to suffer a birthday party where I might be undone at the sight of a too brightly colored pinata, my radar was always set to “maybe the grandma is in the back of the house somewhere”, and I would slink away from the children I didn’t really understand and go talk shop with people more like me, who know what real fun is. Those people are everywhere, just waiting for others to give them a little time so they can tell you what they did during the previous ninety years, and make sure you ask them, because if you don’t, you’ll never find out what really made America great in the first place, and in my own little way, I’m going to keep it great, pedaling as fast as I can, and playing my heart out. I won’t neglect my duties as a care giver, because doing laundry and making beds is just as important as making music. It all goes together to make a soup that comforts and nourishes, and I still feel like I’m dreaming. But the IRS has a copy of my W-9 just in case it was real, and paying taxes is a privilege in a country that gives me me the freedom to make my own choices the best that I can, and I’m lucky that there are other people who often make better ones than I do myself, because they are just waiting to be generous if you’ll let them, and I’m often the unsuspecting beneficiary. You could be too, so keep your eyes peeled, and your mouth closed. Listen, learn, and take notes. Life doesn’t have to wind down when you’re sixty. There’s more fun to be had, and music to be played, and I’m so very glad that a typewriter wasn’t the keyboard I rode in on.