When I was four, my mother paid me a nickel to memorize the words to her favorite songs. She spoke fluent jazz and swing long before she married my father, a piano player. Every week during my childhood, Mom accompanied him to his Saturday night gig, a Cinderella ball for this working mother of thirteen. She’d rake a comb through her Peggy Lee hair, dab on a little red lipstick, and hop in the smoky coach with her husband—leaving us little ones in the questionable care of our derelict older siblings.
I imagine her worrying about our safety, for at least a block. Sighing aloud, she would contemplate the grim possibilities and pray a silent litany: Please God, don’t let Willy have a party. Please God, don’t let the police be called to the house again. Then for good measure, Please God, don’t let the roads get bad. Once at the club, she’d sit at the table next to the piano. She had a great voice, but she wouldn’t sing in public like the show-offs who flirted with my father and belted, “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” with too much confidence and too little sense of irony. Still, the relief of her night out would carry my mother through the workweek like a long note’s preparatory breath.
When life turned back into a pumpkin on Monday, the lyrics game spared her the tedium of having to engage with me, her youngest and chattiest child, after working third shift at the maximum-security prison in the middle of town. She’d been a mother for 24 years by then, and she still had a four–year-old. Her exhaustion inspired the only music education I would receive: Long before I could spell B-I-N-G-O, I had learned L-O-V-E from Nat King Cole during these Monday morning tutorials when my mother would play with me before putting herself down for a nap.
Her house crawled with open-mouthed kids whose father took naps and leisurely showers after composing and before drinking. But inside my mother’s body, taxed by pregnancy, childbirth, and third shift sleep deprivation, was a cacophonic urge to play music herself. It was a longing loud enough to drown out the siren song of guilt and doubt that would have lulled a different woman back to the kitchen. So, at 48, having faithfully served a 20-year pregnancy sentence, she dug out her saxophone, ducked the bullets of accusation aimed by her children, and joined the Auburn Civic Band.
We did not approve of our mother carrying on in this band. Her insistence on practicing every day during “Gilligan’s Island” provoked a chorus of angry growls and an aggressive increase in the volume of the television. She ignored us. She ignored the howling dog. When she played her saxophone, she created a room of her own in our crowded house. Liberated now from unrelenting domestic demands, she invariably served fried hamburgers on bread for dinner and disregarded the riot of dishes in the sink.
For the next 40 years my mother would never attempt to transcend her second alto status. She practiced the disembodied parts, trusting that they would give the arrangement legs in performance. For 40 years her Irish skin would flush with exhilaration at a concert’s end, each heady performance requiring a therapeutic dose of ice cream to help her recover. For 40 years, through the Bicentennial, the births of grandchildren, the deaths of children and her husband, through the millennium, she would play that saxophone, proud and humble.
Retirement from the band was inevitable when she reached her late eighties, the unforgiving spotlight of the summer sun wearing her down during the outdoor performances. But she always deferred the decision until the end of another concert season. On a Wednesday night one July, my brother, who’d lived out of town for thirty years, was charged with driving Mom to a band performance at an assisted living facility. She was rattled but still coherent when my brother mistook Westminster Church for Westminster Manor. Speeding through the main street of our small town, he tried to calm her escalating hysteria as one-way streets, locked doors, and a strong wind conspired to truly delay them.
My mother had never been late for a concert. Preparations for each 7:30 p.m. performance began in the morning when she would hang her white “band” shirt like a basket of begonias on the front porch, where it could bleach in the best sun. Food consumption ceased at noon to avoid (God help us) having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the concert.
Arriving at last, Mom was stricken to hear the first notes of “The Star Spangled Banner,” taunting her through the now open passenger door. “They’ve started!” she cried, sinking in despair. “I’m going to kill myself!” Summoning his training as a guidance counselor, my brother rose to the occasion. “Don’t kill yourself, Mom,” he advised, helping her out of the car. “Just quit the band already.”
The last time I drove my mom to band rehearsal, she didn’t bring her saxophone, just the music folder she was planning to turn in for good. I hoped someone would say a few words to her, something poignant. Don’t even the least assuming of us yearn for emotional punctuation when things end? But after fewer than five minutes inside the music room of the local junior high school, she hustled back into the car, her brisk pace belying her disappointment. “Well,” she sighed, “I guess that’s it.” As we drove out of the parking lot I tried to remember whether Mom had been this sad when she retired from the prison, or when I, her baby, had left for college. She dug a clean, wilted tissue out of her pocket, smoothing and folding it several times, the quiet action relieving some of the silence. “The party’s over,” she sang to the window in the same earnest voice that had been the soundtrack of my childhood. “It’s time to call it a day.”
I could almost hear the piano playing in her head, part of the house band that had taken up residence decades ago in her body and which was invulnerable to time. “They’ve burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.” Her eyebrows lifted with the high note. “The old songs are wonderfully maudlin, don’t you think?”
We’d reached her house by now, so I put the car in park and turned to say goodbye. “At least there’s no heavy saxophone to carry in,” she sighed, in her best optimistic Irish.
No, there wasn’t.
“Come in for a dish of ice cream?” Her face brightened elfishly. “We’ll play some Chet Baker so it feels edifying.”
I glanced at the clock. My own children wouldn’t expect me home to read to them tonight because it was Monday, the night I took Grandma to band rehearsal. I smiled elfishly back at her, tickled by the freedom of this gifted hour.