Last weekend, before leaving Chicago where I had been on business travel, I had the opportunity to meet an incredibly interesting woman. In her mid-eighties and widowed, she made it clear she was thrilled to see us, my friend for the first time in thirty years, and me, for the first time ever. She welcomed us into her home, ordering a pizza which we shared as we visited.
It didn't take long for me to feel completely comfortable, and soon we were covering topics from her husband, whom I'd never met, to her great grandson who'd made her quite a sporting Easter bonnet out of newspaper. To be perfectly honest, this young haberdasher's work was far better than any newspaper hat I'd fashioned in my day....my angular "sailor's" hat was a few simple folds and "Voila~'.... his was shapely, with curves and bows, as befitting the delightful lady to whom he would gift it.
She showed me her artwork, varied in techniques and subjects and each quite captivating. And we played some music. Yes, as has been my experience in life, music provides a wonderful connection. She played the organ, and we, the accordion, harmonica and guitar. We worked our way through a book of "everybody knows these songs" and transposed a few into simpler keys to accommodate our amateurism.
And we had fun. After a while my friend and I, having branched into some of our favorites, noticed that Miriam was no longer playing. Instead, she was sitting on the organ bench, seemingly in a trance, with not exactly sadness in her eyes, but more a reflective look.
"Why aren't you playing?" asked my friend.
"I'm just enjoying listening to songs I haven't heard in many, many years," she replied. "Don't worry," she added, concerned we'd mistaken her misting eyes for sadness, "it's a good kind of crying...."
We played until the accordion player had to take a break or forever go through life crippled from the weight of the accordion. He went outside to get some fresh air and Miriam started rummaging for something. Before long, she was placing some sheet music, yellowed with age, on the organ music stand. And she asked if I might accompany her as she played a song she had not played in years. The song, though I'd never before played it, sounded quite familiar to me and I had no trouble playing along with her. Twice through and she was smiling broadly.
"That song sounds very familiar to me," I said, in explanation of why I was able to pick it up so easily.
"Really?" she asked. "Your might have heard it on the air." It was only then that I noticed the composer's name. It was composed by Miriam herself. I was surprised! I had no idea she also wrote music.
She was thrilled to be able to play her compositions with someone else, and by the time we finished, all three of us were playing the music. We left with photos of the sheet music, so we can print it out and play it here.
Still, of all the interesting aspects of Miriam I discovered in our short seven hour visit, it was her writing that most impressed me. At 85 or 86 she still teaches chess lessons on Friday afternoons, teaches 14 students how to play the piano/organ, plays for her church and STILL finds time to write, actively participating in a writing club. She told us of the assignment the teacher had given them recently.
The challenge: "On a single sheet of paper, and in sentences of EXACTLY three words, write the story of a single 10-year period of your life."
Well, she said she, like the other students, was certain this would be a silly exercise. What could be told in sentences of three words each? How could ten years of a person's life be succinctly captured on a single sheet of paper? Not front and back... just one side of this sheet of paper was to be used. Still, she set about the challenge and she surprised herself with the results.
She read us the story of her ten years... from first marriage, just months before WWII, to a handsome young man who turned out to be a heavy drinker... the births of her children... the fears of losing a husband to war....the new world in which women worked in the factories... the thrill of his safe return.... the dreams of new beginnings... the realizations of the cruel realities... that acceptance of the inevitable... the dissolution of the marriage...the beginning of the life as a single mother... and her remarriage to a wonderful man...and all of these captured in not only three words sentences, but in rhyming stanzas, intriguing poetry that drew the listener into the story with its cadence every bit as much as with its simplicity of pros.
I've been thinking about that poem/story ever since. I've been wondering if I could do something like that? I don't think I have ever been accused of writing succinctly...but it might be worth a try. I suppose it should have been no surprise that Miriam was the ONLY one of the students who returned to class with her assignment completed. The other students simply did not believe they could do it. She simply could not conceive of not trying.