Weeks 17-33: On the death of my grandmother and the last days of summer in Marquette.
I will admit that I am finding it very difficult to start this blog entry. I last wrote on May 16th, about three and a half months ago, and the sheer amount of things both good and bad that I have experienced since then has made it virtually impossible to cover everything. I will do my best, but I apologize to all who were involved if I paraphrase certain things.
Today we spread the ashes of my grandmother, Esther Magdalena Taylor, into the wind atop Mount Marquette in Michigan. This mountain, which overlooks the city of Marquette in a truly beautiful way, was one of her favorite places, and because of that it has become one of mine as well. I remember the last time we made the climb on her 86th birthday in October. My brother Logan and I supported her on each side, slowly making our way up the rocks from the parking lot. She was frail then, but determined to reach the top, just as she was determined to survive until the world premiere of “A Child's Requiem.” Thankfully she achieved both of these goals, but when I embarked on my first journey to Scotland in January I knew that it would likely be the last time I would see her in person. As much as I hoped this feeling would be wrong and that she would live to see another beautiful Marquette summer, my intuition was correct.
Grandma Esther died peacefully in her home on May 25th, 2014, an empty bowl and a half-drunk cup of coffee, still warm when my mother found her, on a tray her in lap. Dan later discovered leafy green tops in the sink, indicating that the bowl had been filled with strawberries. In her last days she would read and reread a poem that my mother had just published in Passages North, which, in an odd sort of congruence, was about a woman eating wild berries from her lap. To be honest, my grandma's death was one that all of us could hope to experience some day: a cup of warm drink, a bowl of strawberries, and birdsong drifting in through the open balcony door as she fell asleep for the last time.
I like to think of my grandma as a collector in a way. She surrounded herself with pictures of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. I can picture her there, sitting in her favorite white arm chair, gazing at the people she loved most on this earth and feeling close to us regardless of how far flung we all were. I remember when grandma met Renata for the first time, she turned to her impressive wall of family pictures, spread her arms wide, and said in a dramatically hushed voice: “And this... this is my tribe.” She had three children, seven grand-children, and ten great-grandchildren. After the Requiem she set herself the new goal of surviving until her eleventh great-grandchild, my soon to be born nephew, was born. Though she didn't ultimately reach this goal she did live to see her family ranks swell substantially, and she was always sure to tell each of us what the others were up to every chance that she got.
I couldn't write about her death until now. Holding her ashes in my cupped hands and casting them into the wind was cathartic, bringing me the closure that was so difficult to find. These past few months since her death have been a whirlwind of traveling and questioning all aspects of my life. I was on tour in Wales with the Devahna Consort when I received the call from my mother telling me that she had died. I returned to the States for two weeks for the memorial service and then I went straight back to Scotland for the University of Ulster Chamber Choir's tour to Aberdeen. Soon after that our own chamber choir went on tour to Belgium and Holland, an incredible experience that I will hold with me always. Then it was back to Aberdeen yet again to move out of my flat before returning to the Choral Music Institute at Oxford for ten days, this year as a guest composer. I hope to write about all of these things in detail at some point, but that is not for this entry.
I finally arrived back in Marquette on July 17th, roughly a month after I returned to Scotland following the memorial service. I flew in the night before the annual Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival, which I have come to regard as both something of a family reunion and my own personal New Years celebration. The seven weeks I was able to spend here were a Godsend. Finally I was able to stop moving for a period of time that was long enough for me to process everything that had happened. I find it odd that I tend to work less when I come home for a visit, and yet I always seem to get more accomplished. Songs of the Questioner, the large work that I produced here in Marquette, was the product of my own the reactions not only to the death of my grandmother but to the myriad of experiences that I had while I was in this period of questioning.
In addition to the work I produced in the classical music world, I managed to find time to return to my roots in a more visceral way as a drummer. Together with my brother Logan and my good friend Bud we have formed a three piece group playing (as per usual) a sort of hybrid form of math rock fused with circus music. I know I am primarily a composer now, and after that a pianist, and after that a conductor, but I think that at the very core of me I am a drummer. In fact, my favorite thing about this summer was that it gave me a chance to play music with my old friends and penetrate the crowd of glorious misfits that surround the Merlot Mansion. For those that have not heard of it, Merlot is a show house here in Marquette that provides a venue that is vital to the underground music scene. The people involved with this venture are honestly some of the best people that I have ever known, and I'm very happy to have fallen in with them for my short time here. If you want to hear some great music, come to Merlot tomorrow night, the 5th of September – our three piece band is playing for the first time!
I know this entry has been scattered. I wish there was time to go into more detail about all of these adventures, but the reality of making the trip back over the pond to Scotland is closing in and I have much work to do. I'd like to conclude this entry with the poem that my mother wrote that spoke to grandma Esther so much. After all, August has officially come and gone...
Until next time. Love you, Grandma.
August is a woman of some reputation.
She's been in the sun some; there's no hiding that -
Part the Queen Anne's lace that grows round her throat
And you will find her breasts, brown as dunes,
Coarse and soft at once there in her blue gown.
Even among the white limbs of birches, where water
Falling now takes its time tapping down the stone stairway,
A ray of sun lights a torch of goldenrod,
There in the green moss. For the time being,
She lies stretched out in full sun, curling and flexing
Bare toes, eating wild berries from her own lap
With lips stained and shining. She is laughing
As the grasshopper who has tangled himself in her hair
Rasps his love song into her ear.
What if time and wind shall take her treasures,
And winter gather like age upon her head?
What matters most is all -
She'll have her fill before her fall.
- Esther Margaret Ayers
Music of the week: White Stones, with text by my mother. For the family connection...