Kathleen adored the meadow outside her house in Somerset. The rustling, the chirping, the sweet smell of earth whispered music to her. Her mother could see this and decided it was time.
That night—no bomb scare on the radio, no blaring overhead—Mrs. Driscoll put five-year-old Kathleen to bed with great anticipation.
“Promise me you’ll listen,” Mrs. Driscoll said.
“All night?” Kathleen asked.
“Until you sleep. Like you do with the sounds of the meadow. Don’t get out of bed.”
“If you do as I ask, I’ll have a surprise for you in the morning.”
And with her mother’s promise, Kathleen nodded and settled in, wearing her favorite peach nightgown with blue flowers and holding her rag doll, Sally.
Mrs. Driscoll, a woman of elegant shoulders and hands, high cheekbones, and chestnut hair styled up, went to her daughter’s petite bureau, which held an inestimable number of priceless treasures from Kathleen’s backyard adventures. She opened the old record player, which lay atop the bureau, and placed a record on it—a musty 78—was it from when mother was a girl? Kathleen wondered.
The music began. Though she didn’t know what the piece was then, Kathleen listened to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, a piece she would play hundreds of times in concert halls around the world in years to come. She would play them all—Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven.
But on this cold night of a new beginning, the orchestra began the journey, and the girl heard for the first time the searing tones of the Mendelssohn first movement, by way of Heifetz. The rolling motifs, the vibrato, the arpeggios. Kathleen did not move.
Mrs. Driscoll smiled, remembering her own childhood discovery at music school in High Wycombe, and tiptoed out.
Through the first, second, and third movements, Kathleen listened, and listened. A bit fast, then slow, then very fast. Later she would know these movements as Allegro, Adagio, Presto. She would know them like the freckles on her arm, the feel of her skin. Her petite heart flared, flush with excitement.
What was this she heard, she felt? What other world was she approaching? Her own kingdom, her imagination run wild, the notes, oh, the notes, the melody; listen, listen…it embraced her, darting around and inviting her to come out and play. It warmed her like a blanket, covered her like her mother’s love. She surrendered to it, like when mother would tickle and play with her and she would laugh with endless glee, gasping for breath, every inch alive. She looked out the window, at the stars, at her favorite meadow, at the moon. It was all one with the music. This music!
I never want it to stop, young Kathleen thought. I want it forever…
She got up in bed, on her knees. With her arms waving, she pretended to play the violin—she had seen pictures. The best she could, she matched the rhythm of the Mendelssohn, moving her right bow arm up and down, keeping her left arm raised with her imaginary instrument. Yes, she was queen of her kingdom of music, and all the notes were her subjects; she imagined them all around her, ready to be taken up into her instrument. She played, played, she wanted more…
Oh, never stop this; never end, please…
Far into that night, young Kathleen collapsed into bed, exhausted with joyful dreams of what might be.
When she awoke the next morning, the record player was gone, and in its place was a black leather case, rounded wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, curving along like a torso not much bigger than her own. Kathleen leaped from the bed to the bureau.
Mrs. Driscoll, as if she had been listening outside the door the entire night and morning, came right in and guided Kathleen to the instrument, which they gingerly carried to the bed—as if it needed the heave of two people. They opened the case, and there it was: her first violin.
“This was mine, when I was younger,” Mrs. Driscoll said. “I’ll get you one just your size.”
“You and your violin will be lifelong friends, darling, and I know you will do great things with it.”
Kathleen touched her fingers along the beauty: the curl of the top, the smooth neck, the shiny mahogany body, the swirling f-holes, the strings, the fragile light wood bridge that held them up, the bow.
“Don’t touch the bow hair,” her mother explained. “It’s horse hair, from their tails. Very sensitive. You put rosin on the hair so the bow grips to the string for a stronger sound.” She pointed to a puck-sized hard chunk of a maple-syrup-colored material.
Kathleen tried playing, plucking the strings, as if it were a toy she could now enjoy. Her mother stopped her.
“Careful. The strings are made of—well…”
“Just don’t touch them. At least not where that bridge stands. You can pluck them up here.” She pointed to the black fingerboard.
Kathleen listened intently, absorbing everything, at once afraid to embrace the instrument and ready to devour it.
Bounding in wearing red pajamas, Kathleen’s younger brother, Neil, jumped onto the bed, already a master at disrupting intimate moments.
“What’s this?” He pointed at the new treasure.
“A violin,” older sister announced, her whole demeanor changing. “And you can’t touch it.”
“May I have one too?” Neil asked.
“No, Neil. You’re going to play the piano in the living room.”
“Just like you?”
“Even better,” his mother said.
Neil bounded out as quickly as he had come in. Kathleen preened herself, like a swan having to clean up after a duck splashed by. There was only a year’s age difference between them, but it seemed like more to her.
Mrs. Driscoll coughed, covering her mouth, warming her neck with the cup of her hand.
“We’ll start lessons tomorrow,” she said, almost whispering, leaving the room.
Kathleen took the violin in her hands and just held it, like a baby doll, closing her eyes and pledging silently to look after it forever.
In the weeks and months that followed, Neil often looked out the window to see his mother and sister standing in the meadow—one playing a grown-up-size violin, the other playing a child-size violin. Kathleen was getting good, he figured. Maybe he should get started too. Sister can’t be allowed to win this new game of music.
Neil ran into the living room and banged on the piano keys, proud of himself already. He even sang along with himself, having a grand old time.
From the den at the back of the hallway, which the rest of the family rarely used, emerged Mr. Driscoll—haggard, uninterested, annoyed at the disruption. He labored toward the living room. Neil, banging away, could hear nothing.
Mr. Driscoll grabbed Neil’s shoulder and yanked him off the piano bench.
“Shut up! Don’t touch that damned thing.”
“Mum said I could play.”
Mr. Driscoll grabbed Neil by the scruff of his chubby young neck and pushed his head repeatedly against the hard edge of the piano keys and then kicked his stomach into the corner of the bench.
Neil, trembling and clutching his middle, hid under the piano, behind the bench, watching his father roam the room, rudderless, reaching for the whiskey in the nearby dining room. His afternoon tea.
From outdoors into the kitchen came Kathleen and Mrs. Driscoll, dousing a coughing spell. Mrs. Driscoll immediately saw the scene and placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder, trying to appease. Kathleen looked at Neil, who banged his fists on his knees. Their eyes met; they could hear their father mumble something unintelligible and mean sounding. He trudged down the hall and slammed his den door shut.
Mrs. Driscoll, left with the parental towel, always, turned to her children with her responsible face. She consistently tried to forget her well-to-do family’s unending warnings years ago: “He’s a do-nothing bully; he’ll never make you happy.” And she always reminded herself of her young answers: “I love him; I know there’s tenderness inside him; if I make him happy, then I’ll be fine.”
“Father’s just having a hard time,” Mrs. Driscoll explained. “Be patient with him. Just keep playing, Kathleen. And Neil, I will teach you, and you will sound marvelous if you stick to it. Lose yourself in your music, both of you. Because you’ll—always need something.”
With that, Neil darted from under the piano and ran outside, running, running into the meadow, his escape too, arms outstretched, shoes already muddied. He would not be back for hours, until dinner. His mother understood and let him roam.
He would play Knights and Emperors, fashioning swords out of sticks and shields out of tree bark, mounting a large rock near the bushy part of the meadow. Sometimes he asked to borrow a doll from his sister to perch atop a tree branch, the Villain Emperor’s lair, so he could rescue the Damsel Empress and carry her off. The only doll Kathleen was willing to part with was one with a ripped dress and short red hair, because she had performed a ragged haircut on the doll soon after she got it for her birthday and didn’t like it as much now. She refused to part with her princess dolls with full dresses and rolling, long curls—and she never allowed him to touch Sally. Neil didn’t care—he thought the one with the ripped dress and short red hair was just as pretty as any of the others.
Kathleen lost herself for hours practicing in her room—a rare child who loved to practice, sometimes with the record player accompanying her in scales, romances, and minuets, and sometimes solo. Especially after one of her father’s outbursts, she would run to her room, lock the door, and practice. In between pieces, she would rearrange the figurines on her bureau—her treasures. Nothing could be disturbed in her room.
Mrs. Driscoll began steering Neil at the piano each morning. He kept banging on the keys. With her large, loving arms, she would stop him and guide his stubby, strong hands along the keys, affixing her fingers on his so that they would curve just so, arching slightly at the middle knuckle, not stiffened but relaxed.
“Like this, Neil….”
She could sense his need for restraint early on, not merely for being a boy of boundless energy, but because of an unnamable distress already building up inside him.
Not surprisingly, as he grew, Neil became an expert at fortissimo, the loudest passages, and less adept at pianissimo, the softest moments. He hated playing with the record player as his sister did—he felt stuck. Neil wanted to form his own versions of things. His dexterity and range at the keyboard became obvious. And when practicing became too much, he would sprint out of the house and run his meadows.
The first Christmas after the war ended, Mrs. Driscoll gathered her children around the piano, needing some joy. Neil and Kathleen played “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and she sang. Mr. Driscoll, in finer spirits that day, watched his beautiful wife and tolerated the children.
“Joyful and triumphant…” the three sang.
He always saw the children as an intrusion into his life, but that night he didn’t mind them. When they finished, he went to his wife and ran his fingers down her lovely face, under her stately chin. She smiled, savoring this rarity of affection. The children watched, soaking up his tiny show of love to appease their own hunger for it. It was better than a halfhearted clap and grunt. They never forgot that Christmas.
Mrs. Driscoll recognized her own limitations as a music teacher and soon took Kathleen and Neil to professional instructors twice a week. Kathleen’s progress intensified, and she was remarkably ahead for her age—already playing the Seitz Violin Concerti. Neil also learned quickly, already whipping through Clementi sonatinas.
And with the children’s progress came Mrs. Driscoll’s descent.
Two years after that Christmas, Kathleen, a too-mature eight, and Neil, an impatient seven, watched their mother disintegrate into tubercular illness, the cough horrifically body-length, the paleness spreading across her face, the periods in bed longer. Though they could not understand it all, and Mr. Driscoll did nothing to help them, they understood enough, quite enough.
In a biting autumn, Kathleen’s first community recital was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon at the Somerset Town Hall. Mrs. Driscoll lay in the hospital, her family around her.
“She can cancel the damn concert,” Mr. Driscoll growled, roving for something to do in the sterile room.
“No! She mustn’t. Promise me you’ll play, darling, my brave girl,” Mrs. Driscoll pleaded. Kathleen’s nose twitched, but she nodded. Neil held his mother’s hand, looking down, saying nothing.
“You must all go. This is my wish,” she uttered.
And that afternoon, Mr. Driscoll and Neil watched Kathleen excel onstage, playing the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3. She was now tall enough to use her mother’s full-size violin—the one she had seen that first magical night.
Some of their neighbors, such as the chubby and childless Mr. and Mrs. Danning, were there as well. Occasionally Kathleen would look at her father and brother in the audience, checking their reaction, their state. Always mentally agile, she had the unusual ability to think or look elsewhere, and even speak, when she played.
What Kathleen didn’t know, as she glided through the largesse of the second movement, was that Mrs. Driscoll had the hospital call the recital hall.
“Please, if they could just place the phone in the wings…I perhaps…could hear,” she said.
The large nurse frowned and complied. She reached Somerset Town Hall—some backstage hand who swept the floors after concerts. He, too, complied, bringing the archaic phone to the stage-right wing, near the side where Kathleen was playing with her accompanist. He stretched the phone cord as far as it could go, propped the receiver on a stool, and went about his business.
And there, across the wires, Mrs. Driscoll’s final moments of hearing were of her daughter launching into the third movement. Humming with the performance, a piece she knew so well, she marveled at her daughter’s surpassing ability emerging now: the quick arpeggio passages executed perfectly, the higher tones with her hand in third position on the A and E strings, reaching toward the bottom of the fingerboard. The vibrato on the half notes.
“Good girl…my sweet girl…” She drifted off.
Her Kathleen had it; she had the gift, and Mrs. Driscoll’s weak heart swelled with pride, knowing that she had helped, in her own small way, to excavate this gift for all to hear. She scanned through hours and days of playing with Kathleen, and with Neil, of those few precious moments with her husband where the human corner of his heart shone through—here in the coda of her life, in the swirl of the Mozart, through the spirit of her daughter and son, in pain but at peace, she closed her eyes.
As Kathleen reached the final portion of the third movement, energetic in her bow movement, she noticed out of the corner of her eye an usher passing a note to her father. As he read it, he sank in his chair. Watching his father close his eyes, Neil looked at his older sister, clutching his elbows, tears welling; the boy wanted to run to her, needing her already. Kathleen knew her mother was gone.
She swallowed hard and kept her left arm raised, holding her mother’s violin, as if holding her hand in the meadow. She finished the piece with a flourish, right bow arm up in the air as she had been taught—she bit her lip hard, curtseying, wishing she could see that one smiling face, proud and applauding.
BRAVURA by Lisa Kirazian is the first book in The Music We Made series about the Driscoll family of musicians over three generations. It releases on Kindle 10/15/14 and on paperback shortly after and can be pre-ordered here. For the book trailer and more information about how the story came to be, visit last week’s blog post, The Journey of An Idea.