Music and Memories: Living Along the Void

Just before my father turned 80, he decided to sell his ocean-front condo in Florida. Dad was living in an over-55 community, and he was getting depressed seeing so many of his friends and neighbors become infirm or die. His kids expected him to move to a smaller condo in an independent living residence. To everyone’s surprise, Dad opted to buy a big house instead. My brothers and sisters expressed skepticism at this turn of events, but a social-worker friend was overjoyed when I told her the news. “He’s embracing life!” she proclaimed. “It’s wonderful!” As if to underscore her point, Dad bought a puppy. Ever since he had moved to Florida, Dad wanted a dog, and now he finally had his own back yard. 

When my step-mom passed away a few months after Dad, I inherited their 13-year-old shitzu. For the next couple of years, I had sweet puppy cuddles as a daily reminder of my father’s love. That little guy was a joy and blessing.

I’m thinking of my father’s affirmation of life now, after receiving the news of the death of one of my childhood friends. Jan and I drifted apart when we were 14. The last time I saw her was in 2007 at a class reunion. In the 1960’s, we both enjoyed folk music and had some shared adventures. Our parents had no problem with two 13-year-old girls catching the bus in our suburban neighborhood, riding to the Howard Street station, transferring to the Chicago “L,” then venturing downtown on the train to Wells Street. Jan’s bold spirit lifted me from my timidity. Together, we discovered John Denver, when he was at the beginning of his career. He was singing as the front man in the Mitchell Trio at Mother Blues in Chicago’s Old Town. We went to the same club a couple of other times, to catch performances by Jose Feliciano. It was a small venue, and we always managed to get a table very close to the stage.

It’s getting easier for me to understand what my father was going through, as he watched his friends decline.  Maybe I’m not always aware of the trickling sands in the hour glass, but the passage of time is not something we can avoid. Less than three months ago, my dear friend Ruth died. She had recently retired and moved out of state to be near her sisters. One of our shared interests was opera. Pre-lockdown, Ruth and I would go to the local cinema together, to see the live-streamed Metropolitan Opera HD performances. Four years ago, we took a road trip to attend a Los Angeles Opera production of El Gato Montés starring Plácido Domingo. 

El Gato Montés, LA Opera

Ten months after my Dad’s dog passed away, I decided it was time to try to fill the void. To my delight, the local county animal shelter had a six-year-old miniature poodle mix that was ready for adoption. Before I could take him home, he had to be neutered. As it happened, I picked him up the day after Ruth died. She had loved my Dad and was very fond of his little dog. I had been looking forward to texting her a photo of my new canine buddy. Instead I found myself with a bigger hole in my heart to fill. My fluffy new pup couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The truth is, Dad is always in my heart, and Ruth remains close to me in my prayers. I may not have ever told Jan that I hold dear the memories that the two of us made together, but I hope that somehow she knows it now. 

Crying time

London Bound
London bound

One year ago today, on February 27, 2020, I was on a plane bound for London.  There were a few more documents I wanted to review at the National Archives and one book I particularly had to see at the British Library.  Two weeks after I got home, travel was restricted.  As much as I would have liked to return to England, I was very grateful and relieved that I had gone when I did.

Royal Opera House – Curtain Call

In January of 2019, I had been in London doing research for a new historical novel about the world of opera.  It was exciting to stay in Covent Garden and attend a performance of the Royal Opera.  On my last day in town, I indulged a whim to go see a portrait of a British Army officer that I had come across when I was writing my novel, A Moon Garden.  When I saw the painting, I was captivated.  The artist had masterfully captured the essence of a young, confident, strong, and beautiful man.  

It was difficult to find out anything about this soldier, and I realized that the novel was going to have to wait.  It had become my mission to uncover this man’s story and tell it.  After researching for a year, I began writing.  My pursuit of information was ongoing throughout the year that it took to complete the written chronology of the life of this inspiring man.  When I was nearly finished, I became sad.  As I wrote the last lines, I cried.

A friend recognized my symptoms.  She laughed at me and said, “You did this last time too.”

“When I wrote A Moon Garden?”


“I cried?”

“You got very emotional.”

I did.  Writing the novel was a psychological journey. The main character was constantly faced with challenges and crises in matters of war, love, family, and community.  As I wrote his story, I felt his worries, his joys, his internal conflicts.  I would listen to arias while working at my desk and suddenly find myself weeping.  But that was separate from what I experienced when I finished writing the book. A different kind of sadness enveloped me.

While I felt the thrill of accomplishment, I also had a sense of loss.  After spending over a year researching and writing about my fictional characters, I had a strong attachment to them.  Although I was glad at last to be able to share the story with my readers, it was an adjustment to let go and change my priorities.  That is how I feel now about this soldier.  For two years, I was singularly absorbed in connecting with him, discovering who he was, what he did, where he went, how he thought, why he made his choices. It is a relief to know that his story is closer to being known. 

For a few minutes, I indulged in some crying time.  The mood has passed.  I still have work to do.

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Life without regret

La Bohème Curtain Call

La Bohème: Curtain Call at the Metropolitan Opera

Before my sister decided to be a candidate for the state senate, she called Dad, seeking his advice.  He told her that she may or may not have regrets if she decided to run, but it was a certainty that she would always have doubts if she decided not to do so. He was right, of course. She chose to run.

The Metropolitan Opera season premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème was in late September. This production featured the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo in the role of Rodolfo. I had wanted to go because Mr. Puccini is my favorite opera composer, La Bohème is my favorite opera, and Mr. Grigolo is my favorite tenor. The Met is the theatre where I saw my first opera, many years ago, and I had never been back. 

Dad became quite ill in August, so I made no travel plans to Manhattan from my West Coast home. After Dad passed away in early September, it may have been fear or inertia or mourning that kept me from scheduling the trip, but that gnawing regret was ever present.

When I read the glowing review of La Bohème in the New York Times the morning after opening night, I knew that I had to see it. Besides, I needed to strengthen my commitment to my new book, and that meant an expedition into the living, breathing world of opera.

Although it had been many years since I had been to New York, and had never traveled there without having a friend on hand, I overcame my fear. I purchased a front-row ticket to Mr. Grigolo’s closing night, bought the plane ticket and booked the hotel.

The weekend in New York exceeded my dreams. Seeing La Bohème at the Met was a thrill. The woman sitting next to me was delightful, and we had a lively conversation before the show and during one of the intermissions. I told her that her insights into opera were going to be helpful to me as I write my next historical novel. She asked me if I had ever met Mr. Grigolo. I replied that I had not. To my surprise, she invited me to accompany her and her friend after the performance, and she would introduce me.

As you may have noticed from the awkwardness of the following photograph, I do not take selfies. However, Mr. Grigolo does, and he graciously took this one of the two of us.

Vittorio Grigolo & Me

Vittorio Grigolo & Me

One of my new friends took the photograph of me with Nicole Car, the beautiful Australian soprano who performed in the role of Mimi.

Nicole Car

Nicole Car & Me

No regrets. Dad would be proud.