Happy 97th to Elizabeth May Knight

Mother, please, I'd rather do it myself.

Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself.

Today my mother would have been 97 years old. I’ve never read (at least don’t remember) any writing about his mother by any man that seemed easy, unforced, matter-of-fact. I think it can’t be done. Perhaps the truth is that my feelings about, my relationship with my mother are so ambiguous and conflicted that I simply assume (I hope? I don’t want to be alone in this) every man’s feelings about his mother are the same.

The last home my parents owned before they moved to the retirement community where Mom died was in Sacramento, CA. This is important at the moment only because place is such an important part of any memory I want to write about. We were standing in the kitchen on one occasion when I was visiting when she announced that she had made arrangements for me to play something on the organ on the following Sunday at their church.

That I love to play is obvious. What may not be so obvious is that performance of any kind must be on my terms. I’m not, as my mother was, a natural musician. When she was young, playing the piano was second nature to her. Even when she was 90 years old and in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, she could sit down at the piano and play her favorite hymns when she had only the vaguest notion that she was in the lounge in the assisted living unit of the retirement community because it was next to the dining room where she had just eaten breakfast.

Unlike my mother, I don’t simply sit down and play. I regret that. Standing in the kitchen of my parents’ home in Sacramento was not where I wanted to hear offhandedly that my mother had arranged for me to play in public. And the place was, of course, only the smallest part of the problem. She had arranged for me to play without consulting me first.

If you were around in the ‘60s and paid attention to pop culture, you remember the TV commercial in which an over-sensitive woman virtually screamed at her mother—who merely made a suggestion about cooking, as I recall—“Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!” The commercial was for Anacin and was meant to convince us that Anacin would eliminate the pounding headache that was causing us to come unglued and be rude to our mothers.

That day in my mother’s Sacramento kitchen I did not have a pounding headache. I simply wanted, by myself, to make any arrangements to perform. “Mother, please. . .” For the first time in my life, I was able to tell her so. I did so with as much vehemence as the woman in the commercial. I was about 42 years old at that time. I know because my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary during the three or four years they lived in Sacramento. And I got sober during that time.

Mom in a pensive moment at her 50th wedding anniversary party.

Mom in a pensive moment at her 50th wedding anniversary party.

So it took 42 or so years, when I was chairman of the music department at a college, living a continent away (in Beverly, MA) in a committed relationship with a man whom my parents knew, before I was able to make clear to my mother that I did not want her to make arrangements for me to make music in a public place simply because she wanted to hear me.

OK. Petty.

Or the sort of thing a healthy man in a grown-up relationship with his mother would have managed to communicate long before he was 42 and she was celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary. Oh, come off it. Your relationship with your mother is just as complicated.

The fact is, of course, that much of what is important in my life today comes directly from her musical talent—and her pushing me to develop my meager ability. That’s almost as obvious as reporting that the earth is going to rotate far enough for me to see the sun in about fifteen minutes (it’s a few minutes after 6 AM as I’m writing this). Half of my nature and probably more than half of my nurture comes directly from her. Or whatever the psychological cliché is these days.

I still have the toy xylophone she bought me for my fifth birthday. Fortunately in those days such instruments had brass tone-bars and no computer components. I had to learn a melody in order to play it. No little stars twinkled simply by virtue of my pushing one key. My mother was my first piano teacher. She taught me until I was in first grade and could read “Silent Night” in four parts to play it, and then—with some wisdom about my learning more proficiently if making music were not simply doing what my mother did—my parents sent me to a “real” teacher (whose musicianship was probably eclipsed by my mother’s).

So the conundrum is that I’d rather have done it myself, without my mother’s meddling, but I couldn’t have done it at all (and still could not) were it not for her. And I’m reporting nothing that anyone reading this doesn’t already know about her relationship with her mother.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, just crowned the oldest man in the world, said a daily intake of bananas and six Anacin tablets contributed to his longevity.

Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, just crowned the oldest man in the world, said a daily intake of bananas and six Anacin tablets contributed to his longevity.

One Response to Happy 97th to Elizabeth May Knight

  1. Mary Kalen Romjue says:

    I do not have to think but more than a moment to hear your Mom’s voice, hear her speak and see her smile. Happy Birthday Mrs. Knight, I remember you with fondness, as I do all of your family.

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