Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving reflections

So it is late on the Friday after Thanksgiving when I finally sit down to write my Friday "cultural" piece. It has been a rich week. My oldest son arrived from California, accompanied by a lovely young woman whom we had the privilege of hosting for much of the week.

The beloved and I consider ourselves to be very blessed -- with three offspring ranging from age 22 to 26, we have had all of them home with us every Thanksgiving and Christmas of our lives, in spite of distances and schedules. Truth to be told, I think they come home as much (or more) to see each other than to see us parents, but that in itself is the greatest blessing of all -- something to be thankful for, since we have raised them to stick together, knowing that they will be there for each other (or not) long after we are gone from this life.

The meal was traditional, as always (there would be a revolt on our hands were we ever to try to do otherwise.) All of the kids took part in the preparation, with my youngest doing a phenomenal job with the turkey -- I'm not sure we've ever had a better-prepared bird, with all due respect to the beloved.

The house has been filled with music, in different ways at different times. My oldest son and I are pianists, and our very nice instrument that I finally rewarded us with some years back stayed busy with Brahms, Chopin, Bach, and Debussy. As is usually the case, whoever isn't playing tends to drift over to look over the shoulder to read along.

His girlfriend is an accomplished violinist and he a talented violist, so they enjoyed fiddling around (pun intended) with my new mandolin (mandolins and violins are tuned the same way.) Strains of Bach, in particular, arose softly from the strings, providing a backdrop and an aura of peace and beauty that enhanced the lively conversation during the evenings.

We enjoyed discussing the ongoing orchestral season at their university and the newly built (and apparently spectacular) concert hall there. We will be making it out there at least once during the spring for concerts, as we try to do at least once yearly. It has been a blessing that he has continued to play throughout his graduate studies, even though he is studying an engineering discipline. Most of the time, once kids graduate from high school, their performing days are done, and we want to enjoy them while they last.

After their flight left today (yet another thing to be thankful for living here in Billings is having the airport 5 minutes from our house, and yet rarely hearing the sound of a jet), we went out for lunch with my in-laws and the two remaining offspring, then split up to run some errands. My daughter and I ended up at my youngest son's apartment to visit Liam the Girl Cat (the name is a long story) -- our family's jet-setting cat who started as a lowly farm cat out at the South Dakota ranch (we try to keep a supply of cats there at all times to keep the rodents down), was "rescued" by the beloved to bring to Billings only to discover that I have become highly allergic to cats (I'd only interacted with them outdoors at the ranch, where the fresh air rules), then flown out to Tacoma where my daughter was living and working at the time and wanted a companion. Cat and daughter then moved to Seattle, and now the daughter is in the middle of a job-related move out east, so Liam was flown back to Billings where my youngest is taking care of her at his apartment for a few months before we will eventually fly her out east when the daughter is settled in her new abode.

Anyway, both my daughter and I were anxious to see our jet-setting feline friend, and spent some pleasant hours visiting her (when Liam deigns to acknowledge our presence (cats!)... until it was time for me to reach for a Claritin, that is.

This evening, the youngsters were out and about and I managed to get my dad's Martin (that I inherited after his passing) into the hands of my father-in-law, who grew up in Arkansas and who now lives with my mother-in-law in North Carolina, where they regularly go to a barbeque joint that has live bluegrass music almost every night. Ah, the things we miss out on, living out here on the frontier. We made tentative plans to come to North Carolina sometime in the next year for a bluegrass festival -- maybe the famous "Merlefest" up in Wilkesboro in April. Yet another thing to be thankful for.

Once I had the guitar in his hands (just to try it out), I quietly got out my mandolin, and as I had hoped, before long he was getting his playing fingers back after long disuse. Eventually, the mother-in-law and my wife made their way into the room, and we were playing and singing as many of the old songs as we could remember -- as is often the case, remembering only one verse and a chorus. I recalled with some sadness something I had once read by the late Mel Bradford (a personal hero) in which he talked about the importance of remembering the old songs, and that when they are finally forgotten (preservation by historicists doesn't count), something about a culture dies inside. But there was more warmth than sadness, since tonight is a night of remembering -- not one of forgetting.

I've only been playing mandolin for a couple of months, but had fortunately learned enough chords and have listened to enough bluegrass to have the feel of the mandolin "chop." A few chord forms were more than enough to be able to play with gusto and enjoyment at this kind of thing, and we had a grand time. The fire was burning brightly in the hearth, and we would laugh as one of us periodically had to break into a melodic "da-de-da" when we couldn't remember some of the words. We surely weren't going to desecrate the atmosphere with any books.

Magical moments when harmonies just materialized as out of nowhere, the satisfying feeling of getting a chord progression smoothly the second time through a song... you just don't trade moments like those for anything. I was surprised to reach back to my one-room country school childhood for a few old songs, like "Hole in the Bottom of the Sea," which George (who is in his 70s) and I knew, but the women-folk didn't (as I have said before, I grew up in a world that is gone -- even the memory is nearly gone, and will die with artifacts like me, who lived in a world that was, even then, archaic.)

There were plenty of old gospel songs I haven't sung in years (but which never fail to move me), rounds of "Dooley" and "Wildwood Flower" and "Bluebirds are Singing for Me" and "You are my Sunshine" (the latter sentimental to me since it is a crowd favorite at my extended family's gigantic reunions that take place once every 5 years or so.) All things to be thankful for, since while none of us are optimistic about where our country is headed, evenings like this help keep the emphasis where it belongs: what is most important is remembering what we have loved dearly about life here in this country, and not dwelling on the changes that frighten, sober, or sadden us.

The beloved has told me that we will need to repeat the musical evening tomorrow night both since it is great fun and since she wants the remaining two kids to experience it -- should be interesting. I expect that more songs will percolate to the surface between now and then -- that's how these things work.

And now, with the sun long down, and the rest of the family in bed, I am here in front of the fire in my leather chair that feels just right, with my legs up on a leather Ottoman that is just the right length. I have a fine single-malt at my side, fixed just the way Alan, my Scottish roomate in Germany (I believe I mentioned him in my Natalie MacMaster review) taught me -- neat, with a small splash of mineral water to bring out the subtle qualities of the aroma and taste alike. When I push "publish," I will go back to the Pointing Dog Journal that I purchased at B&N today, and if I finish that, I'll move on to one of my favorite indulgences in atmospheric richness -- Sporting Classics -- truly a magazine that is a work of literary and visual art that makes one want to be out in the field every day, or at least every week. I had just had a reminder of just such a life when out at the ranch earlier this month -- out every day hunting, usually with my trusty pointing dog working her own art, then returning to enjoy good food, good company, a lively fire in the stove, and a good book.

Of course, whether such experiences are lived in the field or vicariously lived through a work of art like a fine magazine, one cannot live that life every day, not really. Most of life is full of hard work -- satisfying in its own way, and often a work of art in its own right. But still work.

Moments such as I have described above, and indeed the entire experience and the very thought and memory of a warm and loving home, are to be savored each time they happen. Some make the mistake of forgetting the need to live in the moment of love while it is there to be enjoyed. Yet others of us forget that they are, ultimately, foretastes of another and better life yet to come (we hope, pray, and believe.) That knowledge, when we are blessed enough to see it and believe it, is perhaps the thing for which we can be the most thankful of all. Someday, God willing, the petty sorrows and worries of this life will melt away and we will understand the words of that old song we sang tonight:

Oh, come, angel band
Come, and around me stand
Come bear me away on your snow-white wings
To my immortal home...

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