Thursday, May 7, 2015

My Mother and the Prodigy

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

     If you had met my mother when she was a poised, accomplished adult, wife of a Vice-President of Borg-Warner, you’d have most likely been very surprised to learn that she had grown up riding a horse on a working ranch near Norman, Oklahoma. And possibly even more surprised to learn she’d dealt with discrimination from a very young age, since her father was the son of a member of the Choctaw tribe. In other words, a “half-breed Indian.”
     At some point in what I laughably refer to as my adult life, I realized what an extraordinary woman had given birth to me, and I made a point of telling her how much I appreciated who she was. She married my dad the summer after her high school graduation (I realized eventually it was most likely a shotgun wedding) in the depths of the depression. I recall she took some college courses when I was in elementary school. She read constantly. She was one of the most observant people I knew, and because of that and her intelligence she remade herself as often as necessary to keep up with my dad’s rise in the corporate world. She was devoted to my father. She was the wife he needed; she kept a beautiful home; she was a gracious hostess.
     She was also an incredibly kind, witty, loving, nurturing, and considerate person. When writing Eli's Heart and recalling the friendship I enjoyed with Samuel Sanders the summer I was fifteen, I also remembered the role my mother played in that relationship.
     We met him one spring evening near the end of my sophomore year when he performed for our Junior Music Club while visiting his sister, who lived in my home town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His genius as a musician and pianist was apparent from the first notes he played, and everyone who was there that night was enthralled.
     When he returned for a longer visit during the summer he came to our house on several occasions. As I recall, he generally arrived in time for lunch. Mom and I were both aware of Samuel’s heart condition – one of the first things he told us was that he’d had an operation which took away the blue color from his lips and fingers, but that he wasn’t expected to live past the age of thirty. So we knew this extraordinary boy was dealing with two challenges, a bad heart and the burden of being a prodigy.
     We weren’t allowed to go outside, so I asked Mom what we could do to keep him entertained and happy while he was at our house. She wisely suggested I let him determine that. It turned out he liked playing piano duets with me, though heaven knows why. He also liked the copies of Sporting News and Sports Illustrated he spotted in the magazine rack, and he was delighted when I admitted those belonged to me.  He was a huge New York Yankees fan. We listened to baseball games on the radio, and he liked that I had a little knowledge of the game so could appreciate what was going on.
     He seemed to enjoy playing piano for me while I stood next to the piano and watched and listened. He played with such confidence, and the music seemed to pour out of him. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe this prodigiously gifted boy was seated at my piano, performing solo recitals for me.
     Mom’s biggest concern was making sure lunch was something he enjoyed, so she always offered a choice of sandwiches, salads, or soup. He always wanted grilled cheese: “And please don’t cut it in half.” He liked to rip the sandwich into sections and watch the melted cheese try to flow away from the fried bread. She also offered a choice of beverages, beginning with milk. Next was water. Last was soda, which was inevitably his choice. “I’d prefer Coke.” Dessert was always squares of Hershey’s chocolate, which was a staple in our house.
     She did comment after his second or third visit, “I wish he’d ask for something besides grilled cheese and Coke.” She was fine with the chocolate.
     On rare occasions we went out for ice cream, and I believe his sister initiated those outings. If you’ve read Eli’s Heart, you may recall Eli and Krissy had a banana-split-eating contest and Eli won. That’s drawn from life, and I’ve never even been able to look at a banana split since. I remember the two women laughing almost hysterically as they watched us try to inhale all that goop.
     Samuel seemed much younger than sixteen and I looked at him as a sweet, funny, slightly geeky little boy with this huge talent. Mom never said much, but she may have seen what I did not see – that he was most likely going through a late puberty and experiencing a lot of emotions I was totally unaware of. She said many nice things about him, but never suggested I should look at him differently or think of him as anything more than a good friend. Both my parents encouraged me to think for myself, to be my own person. Which meant making my own sometimes bad choices.
     After that summer I saw Samuel Sanders only one other time, when he returned some months later to perform with our local symphony orchestra. He played the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto – brilliantly, passionately. He’d also grown up. He wasn’t a little boy any more, but a poised and appealing young man. I think my extraordinary mother saw what this extraordinary boy was going to become.
     My book Eli’s Heart is not about Samuel Sanders, but it was inspired by the remarkable opportunity I had to enjoy a brief friendship with him. My mother, (Lillie) Erma McKee Moore, appears in the book as Lily Porter. And Lily definitely is my mother. I’m glad I had the foresight to preserve some of her wonderful qualities in the book.