My latest book, HALLEY,
Awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon
When I first began to think of college as a remote possibility, at around age 17, I believed it was very important to become sophisticated. Intellectual, even. I’d already been doing my dead level best to use good grammar without sounding too fancy to Mama and Daddy. They resented it when their young’uns acted “above their raising.” When hearing one of us use “isn’t,” for example, Daddy would say mockingly, “‘Isn’t?’ You too good to say ‘ain’t’ like everbody else?” for that reason, I tried to improve my vocabulary, without actually using the long words. I struggled in vain to lose my southern mountain accent too–making sure to sound out “ing” endings. It was like Loretta Lynn trying to lose her mountain speech patterns. Wasn’t going to happen.
Of course, I tried to read and appreciate all the classics, only to find I disliked some of those books, like MOBY DICK and THE SCARLET LETTER. Other classics, such as Jane Austen, I immediately loved. Finally, when I managed to obtain a used record player, I was ready to move on to music appreciation.
My hometown library had a wonderful collection of records that could be checked out like books. First, I listened to the recordings of Broadway musicals. Got those down–I still know some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics by heart. “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City. They’ve gone about as far as they can go…”
Next, I tried opera, which I knew you had to understand to be cultured. Was I ever in over my head! Even though I liked some of the music, I found little satisfaction in listening to Italian lyrics. My family lost patience with this “high falutin” music right away. “Somebody put that woman out of her misery,” Daddy would say if he happened to be present when a soprano was belting out a love song or a lament. Later, when he watched one of the country/western shows on TV, he would be sure to say, “Now, that’s music! What you listen to is just noise.”
My sister Jean and my brother John agreed. They were listening to Elvis. They owned a few records of their favorites and played them whenever they got a chance at the record player. Since Daddy didn’t approve of Elvis, they had to sneak him in when Daddy was gone.
Though I refused to admit it even to myself, I liked a lot of the country music and the rock, but I kept on struggling to appreciate the “high brow” stuff. I moved on to classical music–Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Chopin–and found some music I liked, but a lot more that was boring to my untrained ears. Then I discovered Mozart. From the first moment, his music spoke to my soul. I listened to those records over and over and over.
Sadly, I went off to college without achieving the sophistication I so longed for. The first year in particular, I had a mighty steep learning curve. With all I learned, I became more and more aware of how much more there was to learn.. Eventually, I learned to accept who I was, with all of the contradictions and gaps.
One day a few years ago, I was talking about funerals with a good friend. I said, “I want daisies on my casket, a good gospel quartet to sing one of the Carter Family songs like ‘After a While’ or ‘Some Glad Morning,’ and then a really good pianist to play Mozart’s Sonata 454.”
Joan laughed. “And with dinner on the ground immediately following, I guess.”
“Exactly,” I told her. “That would sum up my whole life.”