My childhood suburbia in Southern California embodied a small town built over orange groves. When the sun went down, the ghosts of the orange groves took over the land. The fertile trees beamed with terracotta-colored radiance and the earth pulsed.
My brothers and I raced across a rectangular swimming pool, our bathing suits little racing flags; teal in first, lime in second, pink in third, orange in fourth. During the insufferable heat waves we moved hide and seek inside. I sat in the dank corner of a closet, mist fell over dirtied knees with the smell of the whirring air conditioning.
I lounged in my bedroom for long periods, dancing and singing to a white boombox. Once I tuned into the unexplored AM radio spectrum and stumbled across 550 AM, a station that played only 1940’s big band, jazz and swing. I listened from the floor on the black shag carpet my mother had put in my room for a “bit of flare” and listened to the music of World War II for hours as if I had discovered a hidden museum of sound.
School children came over to play. Becca, an aspiring entomologist with white-blonde hair and neon braces, explored the backyard with me as if it was a jungle. She showed me how to turn two dried snail shells into mermaid necklaces. What you do is find a sharp pointed rock and twist the point into the shell, slowly perforating a tiny hole. I yanked twine from my mother’s craft drawer and we looped the twine through the snail shells and we wore them round our necks and dove into the pool, young fish disappearing beneath the deep.
“Wouldn’t you like that? To take piano lessons?” my mother asked excitedly, leaning towards me over the kitchen bar where I sat on the opposite side, my bare, child legs dangling from my chair.
It was spring, near the end of my third grade year. That year I inhaled books like cookies, eagerly picking up a new one just minutes after the prior was consumed. Trumpet of the Swan, Stuart Little, Matilda, The Big Friendly Giant.
Though painfully shy at crucial moments like this, I nodded my consent to take lessons.
My first piano lesson was on the first Wednesday of summer when the sun shone at zenith and the silken hair of children reflected heat. The languid Californian warmth lay over the wide backyard as my silver scooter clicked and rolled over the chalk-covered pavement. Beside the turquoise pool, water evaporated from the white-hot cement in the shape of a wet silhouette. Children buzzed like bees, shouting and pointing at things, throwing balls and riding bikes restlessly in the cul-de-sac. Their small bodies were overwhelmed with summer joy, inexhaustible playthings with the freedom from cursive scribbles and schoolteachers. Hide and seek, ready or not here I come— run to safe, run run run, laugh until your chest heaves. Big sherbet popsicles dripped onto patio furniture. Miss Suzie had a steamboat and clap-clap-click-clack mixed in the breeze.
“Wednesday at 7:00 PM. Okay, see you then,” Mom said, the white phone wedged between shoulder and neck, spiral cord dangling. She addressed an envelope, plucked a stamp, licked it and stuck it on the letter.
Ding dong. She’s here! My nine-year-old legs ran down the stairs, clunking and clopping each step.
The piano teacher gazed through the window of our glass front door, her small frame draped by long, pewter hair and an equally flowing dress. Beams of light weaved through her curls as she stood patiently, hands folded in front of her. I answered the door. She smiled with big, brown eyes that reminded me of a horse’s, warm and trusting.
We sat before the keyboard. I tugged at my shirt, avoiding her gaze. My mother offered her a cup of tea. Jasmine would be great.
“So, what kind of music do you like?” she asked.
I had no idea what to say. None of the pop songs I knew seemed worthy of mentioning but I remembered how much I loved sitting in the front seat beside my mother singing “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la.
“I like…Van Morrison,” I said timidly.
A wide grin cracked her face.
“Do you like “Moondance”?” she asked.
I gave her my trademark smile and nod. Mom brought the tea in an oversized sky blue mug. This became Robin’s mug- no on else ever used it and every week my mother had a cup of tea brewing for her with a dab of honey. Perhaps it always was her mug even before she came.
I looked down at her petite hands, not much larger than a child’s, adjusting and fixing mine to the proper poise over the keys. This led to a long interest in handworkers, sculptors, carpenters, illustrators, painters, musicians, writers; I saw that handworkers were creators, and I longed for admittance into the society. When she was content with my hand positioning, she took out my lesson book and set it on the stand.
Tara, my cousin of the same age, lived a short drive away. Being girls who were outnumbered by male siblings, we clung to each other at family events. Her backyard sloped up a hill, and towards the top of the hill there was a row of hidden orange trees, survivors. We fled the house and clung to the earth beneath the greenery as we climbed to the top and sat where no one could see us. We plucked the ripest globes, peeled the taut skin and sank our teeth into the sweet juice.
I began singing whatever song I was working on with Robin as I rolled my silver scooter around the yard. I once came upon a trail of ants, braked, stepped off and carried the scooter over the colony, not wanting to crush them. The joy of summer was upon me and I had a fresh appetite for music.
“Court! Robin is here!” Mom called.
On the best days of summer, I forgot that Wednesdays existed and that I had any scheduled engagements. Robin sat patiently waiting at the keyboard as I scrambled in and fell onto the bench, panting.
“Well! You look like you had a nice swim!” she said warmly.
My hair dripped down my back as I sat at the keyboard.
“So, how’s your summer going?”
I told her about the oranges, and the ants and the afternoon air so warm you could taste it. Her smile revealed her crooked teeth that I liked and her eyes enveloped me. I could tell her anything.
“That’s called joi de vivre!” she whispered in a thick French accent.
“Joi de vivre,” I whispered, the words like rubies in my mouth.
“Let’s continue. Shall we?” she asked shrilly. Robin always had a way of unexpectedly putting you on your toes.
Robin came every Wednesday for several years. Saying that I liked Van Morrison really set the stage for our lessons, and so began my tour of learning classic rock songs. As I grew older I told her about whatever sport I was currently trying on before we went over “Have I Told You Lately”. I told her about my sixth-grade crush before we practiced “Here Comes the Sun”. By the time I was in high school I had mastered the dizzying introduction to “Light My Fire”. Robin told me what it was like to see Jim Morrison at Madison Square Garden when he was fresh and skinny. I learned other Doors songs, “The Crystal Ship” namely, and she told me about her college boyfriend named Keith and how after a big fight she listened to “The Crystal Ship” over and over again, thinking about what they had said to each other. The first time she saw my braces she assured me that they were appealing for my age. She told me to be safe before my first high school dance.
I took a short break from piano, two years to focus on cheerleading, but soon as that ended with a defiant streak resulting in me getting kicked off the team I knew something was wrong. In the rampant emotion and confusion of teen years I longed for an outlet to get things off my chest- I thought I missed music with an ache in my stomach, but more than that I missed sitting at the keyboard and talking to Robin.
In my tender adolescence, Robin was a voice of calm reason, nonthreatening and open as a sea breeze. When I confessed that my friend had tried cocaine at a party and I didn’t have the balls she uncharacteristically exclaimed “Holy Shit!”– in shock- and then calmly told me it was all right not to do the popular thing and that she was proud of me. She knew and prescribed the guidance and attention I longed for, while also helping me discover the musical depth of Paul Simon. When Obama first ran against John McCain, Robin didn’t tell me who to vote for. She told me to go to the party offices and find pamphlets on each candidate and make up my own mind. What I learned over time Robin did not tell me what to think. She taught me how to think. And she taught me how to use music to help me express myself when words were not enough, a crucial outlet for any teenager. I knew early on that within this one person I had found a confidante, friend, counselor, and band mate. She was not just a piano teacher, she was a life teacher.
My keyboard was kept in a common hallway by all the bedrooms upstairs. Piano playing hours lasted as long as anyone was awake. When my parents went out of town I played music whenever I wanted. I walked around the house in my underwear, sneaking slurps from the liquor cabinet, and played “The Sound of Silence” late into the night, a cigarette dangling from my lips.
In my last week in my childhood home before I moved away to college, Robin and I had our last lesson. After working through an exhaustive Bach Invention, the trickiest exercise I know to this day, Robin and I exchanged hugs and gifts. Just before it was time for her to go she told me she had an invitation.
“I’d like to initiate you into the goddess group,” she said.
I had heard about this goddess group before. Robin was no pagan, she was Jewish and from New Jersey, but she was a feminist and she had told me before about her girlfriends, a group that to me seemed as impressive and unreal as a group of fairies. The goddesses, she explained, were a group of women that got together to discuss “goddessy things”. Goddessy things could be anything: politics, literature, career advice, cooking tips. When she asked if I wanted to join the group I agreed with a determined, “yes.”
Months later, I received an invitation to a summer solstice party, an event for goddesses only that would be held on June twenty-first. The invitation asked that each goddess bring a dish to share, a small donation for the homeless, and a little gift for someone else.
I packed a Greek salad, taking the theme very literally, with a homemade lemon dressing, and slipped on a flowy floral dress like the ones I’d seen Robin wear time and time again and drove to Los Angeles. The one request Robin asked of me was that I bring my keyboard. I parked on the street of the hilltop home overlooking the fertile hills of the valley. When I arrived, there was a circle of women chatting, looking like very ordinary people dressed in a variety of clothing from business wear, jeans and t shirts, and others like Robin with large stone beads around their necks.
We sat in a drum circle rhythmically patting drums, Robin cooing on her flute, and me beside her on keys. We dawdled in sync as another woman burned sage, dragging the trail of smoke over us. A large table was decorated with plentiful dishes. We feasted together, sharing our stories and our backgrounds, getting to know each other. One woman told me about the organization she had started that provided free music lessons for impoverished kids. Another woman was a psychologist in an institution for mentally disturbed girls. She was curious to hear that I was an English major and we talked about writing exercises she did with the kids to get them to externalize their emotions and sort out on paper what was wrecking havoc on them internally.
As Robin introduced me to her incredibly altruistic friends she held my arm softly and said, “This is Courtney. She’s a writer,” making me blush while simultaneously bolstering my self-esteem as she always had, reminding me of her constant belief that positivity gives strength and that strength leads to action. Later in the night a goddess who was a poet and painter invited me to come to her poetry reading and suggested I read as well. I couldn’t believe the magnitude of the enthusiasm and encouragement I was immediately welcomed with from a group of total strangers. It was as if the goddesses were not a group of friends, but a commune of women who solely existed to encourage and lift each other up.
The theme of this solstice event was celebrating Thankfulness. The goddesses, young and old, wrinkled and smooth, brown, green, blue, and amber-eyed went round sharing the gifts they had brought, while discussing the things they were grateful for.
“I’m grateful for my sweet little pooch,” someone said.
“I’m grateful that after years of trying…I’m pregnant,” a woman announced. We awed and cooed in that loving way women do when one of us becomes a mother.
Soon it was my turn. I stood, feeling the many eyes on me and my paralyzing shyness of childhood threatened to creep up on me. But looking around at Robin and the generous eyes around me helped give me strength.
“I am so grateful to have had someone like Robin in my life,” I began, “and to be in company with such kind and intelligent women.” I stumbled over the words, but the faces surrounding me were warm and nourishing. I folded my hands and sat down quietly as the girl beside me, another of Robin’s students, stood up.
The sun set. Music tinkled in the balmy evening and the goddesses danced barefoot in the grass, summer air on our shoulders. Our eyes shone, and our hearts beat fervently. The joy of summer was upon us and pulsed in our chests, like the tiny children who played and cried gleefully in the cul-de-sac.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Courtney Prather is an Emerson MFA alumnus, writer, and caretaker in Boston and a proud member of Pug Squad. Her work has been published in Digital Americana and around the web.