(published December 25, 2009 in the Erie TIMES-NEWS)
Dad slowly lowered his once-nimble body onto the hardwood pew. First row was best for him. As Bronze Star-awarded forward observer under Patton, he belonged close to the action. Placing his cane nearby, I checked to see if he was comfortable and turned to begin preparations for the evening’s musical performance.
This was my 23rd year as ‘cellist with the Erie Chamber Orchestra. Our annual Christmas concert, always held at the local Romanesque jewel affectionately known as “St. Pat’s”, was well beyond its 30th year and everybody planning to attend knew what they would get when they arrived: a nice medley of orchestrated carols; the sweet youth chorus from a nearby cathedral; more nostalgic if redundant medleys of all the holiday favorites; a visit from Santa for the velveteen children, home again, home again, jiggedy-jig, Merry Christmas!
Yes; everything would seem to happen as predictably tonight as ever before.
But, this year and every year since Mom’s passing, I was ever more eager for the moment when our conductor, Bruce Morton Wright, would take his place at the front of the orchestra. Because, at that moment, I would be turning my gaze to the sixth or seventh pew on the opposite side of the center aisle.
Mom was as different from Dad as pudding from cake. She had been raised by sectarian Protestant fundamentalists, and the dogma which bound her were legion. Fiercely loyal to the purity of the Lord’s Table for communion, all those in the fellowship were indoctrinated to shun all forms of Christendom represented by the “organized” church. As such, any Catholic church, therefore, was completely off limits; one was never to set foot inside the domain of the “pagans”.
My career evolution, that of performing with a professional orchestra, was particularly difficult for Mom to digest. Rehearsing on Sunday afternoons. Playing concerts in Catholic church sanctuaries. Expecting “true” Christians to attend these performances. Too much for the aging brain of a steeped-in-the-Scriptures devotee to the doctrine of separation, of touching not the “unclean thing.”
But, not, apparently, for Mom. I was never sure what turned her toward me instead of away, but once that first tentative toe stepped into St. Patrick’s Irish Catholic Church it brought the rest of her with it and she never missed a concert thereafter. And, she always chose a seat at the end of the sixth or seventh pew, in full view of the ‘cello section.
She’d spent most of her life as a dressmaker. A “seamstress”, as they were called in her day, she forsook a career in New York when the Great Depression descended, married my father, and raised three children. Mom loved to sew late into the evenings, after the house had gone quiet. I was especially touched when, mysteriously, she’d set aside her favorite passtime to dress in her Sunday best for me on concert night.
The year she died, playing this and all concerts was a mixed blessing. Music had always been my solace, through all hardship, through every transformative and dissonant episode of my life thus far. But, I was missing Mom in her special place that first year, and couldn’t help noticing the peculiar empty seat at the end of the pew. So, at the end of that concert, I walked over to make myself known to the man, woman and young girl who had chosen to sit beside it.
I asked them why they had left that spot empty at the end of the pew. When they disclosed that a friend who was to join them had not, I told them about my mother – her life, her death that summer from cancer. I described her early years as a sewing student of my grandmother, how she had begun to earn money as early as age 11 doing alterations. To my astonishment, their young daughter spoke suddenly: “I’m 11 years old”, she declared. “And, I sew, too!” Her parents confirmed. Indeed, she was a budding seamstress.
I left St. Pat’s that night in serendipitous, amazed solitude. The glistening snow was no match for the thousand points on the stars in my universe. Mom had visited me; of this I was absolutely certain.
And, visit me she would again, every single year at St. Patrick’s for the Erie Chamber Orchestra Christmas concert and every other concert held there during the season. Right there, at the end of her pew, where nobody else dared appear.
Here we were again, 15 years hence. Instruments tuned, the concert about to begin. The harsh winter not yet having descended, I turned to view an absolutely packed house. Yes; standing room only – except for one, lone seat at the end of pew seven by the aisle. Unbelievable. Not an empty seat in the entire church, but for the place where Mom had brought her spirit. I smiled the private smile reserved for this moment alone, and sailed through the first half of the concert toward intermission.
Had I wings, they would have flown me to that spot. Did the man, woman, and young lady know why there was an empty seat at the end of their pew? Would they mind a story about it?
The guests were very gracious. They listened without interruption as I held forth about my mother. I told them, too, about that first year — the young girl who had disclosed her love of sewing. Thinking that I had shared my lone miracle with appreciative if silent concertgoers, I finally stopped narrating. The woman, who had been riveted to every word, spoke. She said: “ I, also, am a seamstress. I make ball gowns, and costumes for the Historical Society.”
There was no snow tonight to compete with the glistening shimmer in my soul. Dad and I headed home together, to reminisce each in our own personal place. Looking at him now, I could see ahead to a time when he might also speak to me from beyond the limits of this present world.
Since Mom was alive, dressmaking has long since become a lost art. Soldiers now scope out the enemy from remote location and electronic transfer in cyberspace. Our world is whizzing toward an uncertain future, perhaps more indefinite than ever before. Our traditions, and the very institutions that founded them, seem at times perilously close to life-altering annihilation. Our disciplines, and the skills that make them possible are challenged by the formidable, mind-replacing machine at every turn. Paradigm shifts notwithstanding, much of that upon which we have depended for sustenance, nourishment, encouragement, and security is in serious question. Predictability has nearly vanished.
But, there is life and hope and future beyond this still-pale frame. The Providential Power of our universe reveals something precious every second – perhaps, waiting right beside each of us, in the next empty seat.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 12/5/09
[RETIRED]music teacher/drama coach, Erie City public schools
professional ‘cellist, Erie Chamber Orchestra
PO Box 3628
Erie PA 16508
all rights reserved.