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.