Ever think that if your parents and mine hadn’t bonded just when they did – to the split second, and maybe even nanosecond– neither of us would be here at the same time? You wouldn’t be reading this column and I wouldn’t have written it. You and I have come a long way just to be here together, today.
Following author Bill Bryson’s fascinating thought about generativity even further, if we went back in time, perhaps to the landing of the Mayflower, you and I would have had no less than 16, 384 ancestors “earnestly exchanging genetic material in a way that would eventually and miraculously, result in you (and me.)”
Even after we’re gone, we’re not finished. We’ve left something behind that is in the process of becoming. It will be realized at the right time.
Although she’s long gone, I often think of my mother. I have one recollection that stands out in my mind and although it is not exclusively about my mother as such, it’s one of the images that speaks obliquely to me about the mystery of generations, and what we have inherited that our ancestors wanted us to have. We certainly know they wanted us to have life, but beyond that it’s hard to discern. There are so many people involved, so may dreams, so many aspirations, so many eons. It takes time.
I recall sitting on the stairs at the far end of the living room in the Tudor style house where I grew up. I’m maybe eight or nine. I’m just home from school. It’s late afternoon. There’s a large, small paned bay window opposite the stairs with a southwest exposure. In the afternoon, the sun streams through it illuminating the room and particularly the baby grand piano that’s sits by it. My sister is playing. She plays well.
I remember three of the classics she would play; there was a Chopin etude, emphatic and almost bombastic although hauntingly melodic. Then she would play one of the Bach inventions, which tripped along methodically with its measured cadence, like the ticking of a metronome. Then the musical mood would shift to become breezy and playful as she played Percy Granger’s Country Gardens. It’s strange how we remember things and how over time we even alter or add to the recollections something that originally was not there. Nevertheless, it becomes a permanent part of the entire mental image and a reflection of how, with time, we sculpt our experiences by shaping and reshaping them. The core of the memory remains. It seemed to me in retrospect, that as the sunlight shone through the window it made my sister appear luminescent, as if she were glowing from within. Can music illuminate?
My sister was the only one in the family to take piano lessons and to stick with them until she left for nursing school and was married.
My mother was eager for me to take piano lessons. I was sent to Miss Lissenden to have instruction. Miss Lissenden was nice to me and patient, but there was something about the art of playing a piano that I just couldn’t get. I loved music and had an ear for classical music but I think I was too impatient at the time to stick with practicing long enough to see results. I did get as far as Moonlight Sonata, but I would have to concede that playing chopsticks was the height of my achievement. I played chopsticks well because it was simple and required nothing of me.
I sensed it was important to my mother to have one of her children play the piano. Although I knew she didn’t play any instrument, I was aware she had great interest and love for classical music. She took us to concerts. If I had just said to her that I really didn’t like taking lessons I know she would have accepted it without a fuss. I did not want to disappoint her by saying directly I wanted to stop. I grew passively aggressive instead, torpedoing my musical career by not practicing and missing scheduled lessons. The whole matter died a quiet and natural death.
I regret it now.
I know how much pleasure mastering an art such as the piano can bring to the performer as well as the listener. I also know I disappointed my mother because having a pianist in the family was one of her dreams. My sister abandoned the piano shortly after she left for nursing, my brother had no interest whatsoever, so her dream ended with us, or so I thought.
There’s a twist, however. I am persuaded now that there is a fullness of time when the genes flow down from generation to generation, from person to person until a certain genetic configuration is achieved. At that moment, some personal gift or a skill emerges in a family like the flower that blooms in deserts to appear as if from nowhere. The process, however, had been in the works during the long line of our family evolutions.
My grandson Patrick expressed an early interest in music. When he visited our house as a young boy he would go to the piano and with one finger play some tunes he liked or hymns he recalled hearing in church. What began as a child’s diversion eventually grew into a passion. He attended Peabody Institute, studied piano and settled on the harpsichord as his instrument of choice. Patrick has performed in local and international competitions.
I have often thought that his interest in music, and ultimately his graduating from Peabody and working on his doctorate in harpsichord was the consummation of an historical family dream of a musical career, brewing in the family for heaven knows how long and finally coming into its own.
It happens when it happens.
On one occasion, I shared my idea with my grandson. He listened to me patiently, even indulgently the way people do as they humor someone whom they believe means well but thankfully is harmless.
Nevertheless, I hold resolutely to this thought. It’s my understanding of evolution, of destiny, of that long process of becoming which has characterized our universe.
The exciting part is being there when a becoming of some particular is realized, and being a witness to the fullness of it.
“Someday,” writes the celebrated priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
At the right time, I believe that our world will arrive at its collective destiny. It will take a long time and lots of practice, the way becoming coming a concert pianist does.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.