Today is my mother's 95th birthday. Or, at least, it is the 95th anniversary of her birth.
Mom died this past summer (the torch passes). On 4 September, to be exact.
I promised I would write a summary of her life, but I could never find a hook for the essay. There was also another problem. I do not like obituaries. We too often strip the deceased of their humanity in the false belief that beatification will cure our grief. I have not found that to be true. If we truly love a person, we love their warts as much as their virtues.
So, let me tell you the story of my mother's life through a simple exercise. If I had celebrated her birthday with her today, it would have centered around two things that were important to her: an appreciation of good music and a love of God.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visits with her during the last two years of her life. If I could, I would visit her in her room by walking in with a bouquet of flowers that she would inevitably declare as the loveliest she had ever seen -- even though they were no more special than the bouquet I had brought on my last visit. Mothers are like that.
Then, we would get down to serious matters. Discussing current events had long slipped down the list of her priorities, but we would take a quick side-swipe of some absurdity perpetrated by the government before getting to what mattered -- music.
Mom and I had formed a bond around music decades ago when I was taking piano lessons. She was always interested in the pieces I was working on, and often added historical tidbits of back story in the style of Leonard Bernstein -- who she thoroughly admired. But it was our talks about music theory and how music could be used properly to enrich the soul or to crudely manipulate emotions that stayed with me over the years.
I do not recall the year, but I had introduced her to one of my favorite movies -- "The Mission" -- because of its profound message of forgiveness and grace. The tale is powerful. But its message is augmented by Ennio Morricone's score that effectively complements the film's message. Especially, "Gabriel's Oboe."
Mom loved the piece. We would listen to it over the years and find new threads in it each time we discussed it. She and I finally came to the conclusion that the piece is a good representation of our need for forgiveness and God's grant of grace.
The piece starts simply with deconstructed major chords leading into the pure voice of the oboe that plays a very simple tune with few embellishments -- as if representing the beauty and simplicity of God's grace. The oboist then displays the upper limits of the instrument's range with an unwavering high note denoting that God's grace is not only simple, it is powerful.
The strings take up a far less-magnificent melody as if replicating human voices asking for forgiveness. Followed by the simplicity and magnificence of the oboe in response.
We both agreed that we wished Morricone had ended the piece eight bars earlier than he did -- on an unresolved oboe chord. It would have given the piece more intensity musically, as if grace is never ended. But this is from a movie, and Western ears like their chords resolved. Even so, we both admired the piece.
"Gabriel's Oboe" is often played at memorial services. That is appropriate with its theme of forgiveness and grace. But, too often, I hear the piece described as "sad" or "weepy." It most certainly is not. It is a tune of joy and hope. That may be why Mom and I liked listening to it so often. And analyzing it.
On her birthday, we would then turn to our shared love for God -- usually, by reading a Psalm together, and then analyzing it. Something llike Psalm 27 with its resounding promises.
Adonai is my light and salvation;
whom do I need to fear?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life;
of whom should I be afraid?
Just one thing have I asked of Adonai;The sad part of all this is I can never again sit down with Mom and discuss two of her passions. But I can still analyze music and practice my faith and share those passions in my life because she was a good teacher.
only this will I seek:
to live in the house of Adonai
all the days of my life,
to see the beauty of Adonai
and visit in his temple.
And, from this day forward, that is simply how life is.
But I can still wish her a happy birthday -- and celebrate it in spirt with her.
Happy birthday, Mom.