October is for ghosts

I’ve mentioned to some people before that I have this particular recurring dream. I am walking up a sidewalk on a hilly suburban street, through rows of yellow maple trees. It is definitely October, and there are yellow leaves everywhere on the ground, too. After a short trek, I turn into the front walk of a white house, and I go up to the screen door. Behind the door is a tall, smiling, white-haired lady. When I’m asleep, her name has been “Mrs. Pleasant”–I’ve heard myself address her as such–but she’s actually my violin teacher, who died at 89 years old in 1999, when I was fifteen.

The first time I had this dream was a couple of years ago, but it’s come back several times since then. It’s not only a dream, I guess, since sometimes I have mind flashes of the dream even when I’m wide awake–at work, on the train. I guess now it’s just become a thought process for me. I especially associate her with October–the fallen leaves, the wind and sun, the simultaneously eerie and exciting feeling of climbing the hill.

There’s no particular reason October is when I think of her most. She died in April, and her birthday was in July. I’ve always wondered if part of it is weather-dependent, if the settling cold and abrupt color and scent changes somehow make us feel like the atmosphere is less controllable, more permeable. Maybe it’s the same reason the Pagan calendar chose to tie Samhain/Halloween to October instead of some sun-related holiday like equinox or solstice, like most other Pagan holidays. The weather simply causes something to rustle inside us and think about things–people–we don’t have anymore.

I was reminded a couple days ago that October is breast cancer awareness month. Mrs. P died of breast cancer; apparently her body was too old to fight metastasis. Several years ago, when I was first working in publishing, I edited a piece on cancer research and was angered and horrified to read that a case like Mrs. P’s is considered, by medicine, to be a “success”–her cancer may have been fatal, but as she’d lived well beyond the natural life expectancy, what was I really complaining about? But that is, really, neither here nor there. I doubt my subconscious made a connection between breast cancer awareness month and Mrs. P. When I think of her, after all, I don’t think of her with cancer. I think of her standing in her screen door in a loose white turtleneck, her arms outstretched so all the gold bracelets she used to wear on her right arm jangle.

I think it’s a little strange that she is my recurring ghost. There are other people I have lost more recently, other people I ostensibly new better–wouldn’t any of them be my ghost? But then again, maybe I didn’t know her any less. Mrs. P and I spent an hour alone together every Friday night for seven years.

The worst part of this story–on my side, at least–is that after Mrs. P died, I quit playing violin. In my last year of lessons with her, I had been at a threshold, a point where I could have chosen to take the instrument much more seriously or to back away. I was never cut out to be a violinist, though–I’ve never had the rigorous precision required. I guess when she died, I realized I had been working as hard as I had in order to please her, not stress her out while she was sick. When I wasn’t practicing for her anymore, I felt much more listless about any musical accomplishments. I studied with another teacher for about six months before we agreed our expectations did not match. In the twelve years since then, I’ve only played a handful of times. It is hard to listen to my sloppy muscle atrophy, and it’s belittling to fail to read through a piece of music I once could have read like a nursery rhyme.

“How would she feel if she knew that?” F asked me when I told him.

He suggested Mrs. P’s smiling ghost visits me because my conscience is guilty about the fact that I quit. Perhaps he is right. But what can you do with a musical instrument as an adult? My mind is not fertile now, and cannot retain what it used to know, never mind learn new things. What is the point in an amateur pursuit that will annoy your neighbors and never yield any kind of gains, except, perhaps, to pass time (time you probably should have spent on some other project)?

Who can say.

Last night, I took out my violin for the first time since last November. It was (obviously) really, really awfully out of tune, and my tuning fork seems to have gone missing. At first, I tuned it to itself and felt ok about it, but finally I decided to call my friend with a piano and get a real A out of her. I’d been at least two full tones off (hey, I never claimed to have perfect pitch). And although at first it was rough and unpleasant going, it rapidly became much less unpleasant.

I think I’ll try again tonight.

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13 Responses to October is for ghosts

  1. What a very poignant post — one which made me want to go unearth my own violin and tune it. Don’t know that I’d be brave enough to play it, though. And I can see one of my violin teachers right now, lecturing me about the length of my fingernails. “Cultivate the nails on your right hand as long as you like,” she’d say. “But those left hand claws have got to go!” Funny how I can suddenly remember the smell of cigarette smoke that used to linger in that small room where I had my lessons. She never smoked during lessons, of course, but it lingered on her clothes. I can’t remember exactly why I gave my lessons away all those years ago. And I wonder what my teacher is doing now….

    • How long did you study, Maree? (Or, a more violinistic question, what were your concertos? 😉

      • I started in what was then called Form 1, so I would have been about 11. I remember I wanted to play the clarinet or the saxophone, but the school had none of those, so I came home with a really nasty cheap violin. The look on my mom’s face, LOL! She told me once it started to sound halfway decent, she’d buy me a “good” violin. Which she did in Form 3. So I took lessons for about 7 years, until I left high school. And I never played after that. It’s a shame, because I did love it. Didn’t have the physique to be a really great player — short stubby fingers! — but I loved playing the country music jigs.

        I have gotten the violin out once or twice when the kids were small. And again once or twice to accompany my daughter’s piano practice. Reckon I’d sound like a wailing cat, now. My wrists wouldn’t cope after years of pounding the keyboard trying to be an author, LOL.

        So, did you take your violin out again last night? I’m sure your personal ghost would have been smiling down on you *VBG*

      • Oh, I love country music too. And although sometimes the fingering and rhythms can be tricky, since each piece is nice and short, with some personal application you can learn to play it in a pretty short period of time. Very good for my internet-frittered attention span. 🙂

        Actually, the thing I’m trying to learn to play right now is the Rondo from Abdelazer, by Henry Purcell. You may know it from Joe Wright’s Netherfield Ball. http://bit.ly/c09we4 (music starts at 0:49) I’ve been hitting some setback (erm, like the 3rd position, which is apparently hell-bent on eluding me) but I persevere!

  2. There are certainly scarier ghosts to have. I know how you feel–I gave up playing trumpet years ago and my ability to read music has all but vanished, which makes me sad.

    Maybe she represents a time in your life when you were allowed (and even rewarded) for pursuing activities that had nothing to do with a job or getting paid.

    Maybe you visit her in your dreams as a reminder to yourself to take time for something creative in your life.

  3. Wisteria789 says:

    That woman was really on top of her game – she was the first to suggest I needed glasses. I was not pleased with the suggestion, but as always, she was right.

  4. JES says:

    Love this post.

    My dad was a drummer, and gave private drum lessons by way of a local music school. Both my kid brother and I got lessons from him for a while; neither of us grew up to be drummers. I also got guitar lessons from an uncle, and had with guitar the same long-term… success as with drums.

    But boy do I love music.

    Closest thing I ever came to learning it on my own has been with a harmonica, which I pick up from time to time. (Not since we got The Pooch, though. Afraid of setting her off.) Amazing how quickly and pleasantly time passes when I’m, y’know, involved in a harmonica session. You must have read at some point about the physiological and neurological effects of music. (I’ve blogged about them, but I think that was before crossing paths with you.) F is very shrewd (or maybe “wise” is a better word) to have questioned you as he did, I think.

    • It’s definitely true re: the effects of music. I’ve never been great at producing music, and to some extent it’s always embarrassing because I make so many mistakes, but I take that thing out and time just flies away!

      Or 😉 you reminded me of the words of Lady Catherine de Bourgh: “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”

  5. Re: Rondo from Abdelazer — Ohhh, lovely piece! Definitely worth perservering with. So go conquer that 3rd position!

  6. linda says:

    After the bridge repair, I thought the rondo sounded pretty good….keep at it….Mrs. P. has company, you know, and he lo00000ves to hear you play…….

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