Arvo Pärt: Fratres for 12 Cellos

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer, whose haunting music is inspired by the tintinabulation of bells.

I first heard this piece in the early 1990s, after my daughter Claire was born.  Her mom is a Brit and we met a group of British ex-pats living in Gaithersburg, Maryland when we lived there.  One invited us to a party, where we met a friend of hers, Michael Moore (not the film maker) who was a lobbyist and had gone to Georgetown Law and graduated with Bill Clinton.  Michael introduced me to “Fratres” along with a number of other works by Arvo and John Adams.  I became addicted.  One reviewer has describe the piece as a “mesmerising set of variations on a six-bar theme combining frantic activity and sublime stillness that encapsulates Pärt’s observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us.

Thinking back to those days, I was reminded of what a snob I was at the time.  Here is why and why I hope I’m not any longer.

The Wizard of Snot

I grew up in a family of sinus-sufferers. We were constantly beset by colds, had never-ending post-nasal drip, and frequent sore throats. Though my mother said my problems were caused by a deviated septum, much later in my life, I realized all our suffering was self-inflicted.

See we were swimmers. When my mom was 40, shortly after I was born, she took swimming lessons and eventually became a lifeguard and swimming instructor. My three brothers and sole sister swam competitively at the local YMCA and then in high school. We spent Friday nights at open swim at the high school. When I was 4 I taught myself to swim, by watching and imitating others. And when I was old enough, my parents made me join the swim team and I swam competitively for the next 12 years.

Now here’s where the masochism comes in. For some reason, we were all allergic to chlorinated water. One drop up the nose would burn like acid, so we had to wear nose clips. Even wearing them, though, we still had burning sinuses that eventually lead to the aforementioned head colds. And that meant we always had copious amounts of phlegm.

The result of this was that on any day you entered our household, you could hear someone hacking, blowing their nose or spitting. Sure we had Kleenexes and even cloth handkerchiefs, but we still spat, even my mother. We’d spit while walking outside onto the ground. We’d spit while taking a shower. We’d roll down the window while driving along the road to spit. Once my sister spit into my face after having an argument with my parents.

We took it for granted as a fact of life and even laughed about it. Once, when we were on a drive one Sunday afternoon, I heard my mother clear her sinuses and we all knew she was preparing to spit. It was so commonplace we didn’t even look up. But when she did spit, we heard her yell, “Oh no.” We looked up. A huge wad of spit was plastered on the inside of the window. She had forgotten to roll it down. My brother Ken and I broke out into howls of laughter from the back seat. And even my father laughed.

Now, there’s something magical about spitting to boys. Projectiles are wonderful, and especially if you can produce them yourself. And on the swim team, we raised spitting to new heights. We had spitting contests. A really effective way to prank someone would be to spit into his locker. In high school, the pranks became even more vicious and the best prank of all would be to wait at the end of the pool when doing laps and when a teammate, of course smaller than you, would finish and come up for air, you’d plant a lung-er right in his face.

Now this might make you think that my high school swim team was a bunch of ne’er do wells. But in fact, my swim team had two of the smartest kids in our school. They were brothers, Paul and Mark. Their mother taught English and their father had studied at the University of Chicago. We’d go to their house on the weekend and the parents would be listening to classical music and reading the New Yorker. It was a whole new world I’d never known. Paul and Mark had three sisters, who were as smart as they, and I fell in love with all of them.

Once in the locker room after a really good spit fight after swim team practice, in a feat of braggadocio to impress Paul, I told the story about the time my mother had spit on the car window. I was almost in tears laughing so hard as I uttered the punch line:

“…and she had forgotten to roll down the window!”

I looked at Paul thinking he would really be impressed.

He was silent.

“Isn’t that hilarious?”

“I’m just amazed that your mother would think it’s OK to spit out of a car window,” he said and walked away.

Of course, peer acceptance is the most important thing when you’re an adolescent, but Paul’s remark went way beyond fitting in with the swim team. In a split second he had shown me that my entire family and I were low, common, and uneducated.

In that instant, I decided I didn’t want to be like my parents any longer. I wanted to be like Paul and his family. So I devoted myself to becoming an intellectual. I started buying and listening to classical music. I started reading only the classics. I pored over books on art. And I came to disdain my parent and their life style.

My father had dropped out of school in sixth grade and spent his life working in factories. My mother left school before graduating, worked as a maid, then in a factory, and finally as a housewife raising five children. They always planted a garden which kept us fed as my dad was often laid off in summer. I was the youngest of the family, and by the time I got to high school, they were able to take summer vacations and started square dancing. For me, who wanted to be like the Paul and Mark, this drove me nuts.

In college I studied English and then French literature. Then I went on to graduate school to become an ESL teacher. As soon as I graduated, I moved to Europe, where, as Eddie Izzard says, “the culture comes from,” which I truly believed. I returned after two years with a British bride and settled in Maryland, which was about as far away from my parents as I could get.

I got a good job using my brains, not busting my back like my parent had done, and moved to the suburbs. My wife and I raised two beautiful daughters. I kept visits to my parents at a minimum and would cringe when my mother made her weekly call to give me the news about the rest of the family. For some reason, there was a big hole in my life and I became depressed. Eventually I got divorced.

Well, I had arrived all right. I was the intellectual I had always wanted to be, but I was absolutely alone. Some good my life’s ambition had done me.

After foundering about a year, I got settled and feeling better about myself and even started dating again. Eventually, I met the woman whom I would marry. Match.com in case you’re wondering. Perfect match, by the way.

My parents took the divorce hard, of course. They were in their nineties and had been married 64 years. My marriage had only lasted 22.

Shortly after I told them, my mom developed Alzheimer’s. I had to return to my boyhood town to help my brother move my parents out of their house and into an assisted living facility connected to a nursing home.

This required doing for my parents, at their advanced age, the things they had done for me as a kid—driving them to doctor appointments, cleaning up after them, making hard decisions about their finances and living arrangements. I reckon I spent more time with them in the three years after my divorce than I had during my 22 years of marriage.

On many occasions, I found myself in a car with dad, who told story after story that showed how much he had enjoyed his life with my mother and raising us five kids. As he spoke, his stories started to remind me of what a nice childhood we did have. It was almost like those cases you hear of adults who’ve repressed memories of childhood and all of a sudden something triggers them and they come tumbling out.

And here’s what I remembered. My father taking me to an art museum at the local university and then to the big museums in Chicago. My father bringing books home from the library for me to read—The Cat In The Hat being the first. My mother standing at her ironing board on a Saturday afternoon listening to the weekly broadcast of “Live from the Met.” My parents going to night school to get their GEDs because they wanted to better themselves. And finally, my parents relentlessly telling me to study, get good grades and go to college so I wouldn’t end up working in factories as they had done.

So some 35 years after Paul’s remark caused me to turn my back on my parents I realize that what started out as a funny story about snot, had, for most of my adult life turned me into one big, stuck-up snot.

As it turned out, I was not able to ask my mother to forgive me for the way I shunned her before she slipped into that netherworld called Alzheimer’s and died. My dad, loving man that he was, forgave me.

Arvo Pärt : Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

My father, Albert Nemes, passed away yesterday at the age of 96.  This is the saddest music I know–full of longing, yearning and the unbearable ache of loss.    I can’t write more.

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