I think I got my perfect pitch from my mother's side of the family. I got my anger from her side too. I call it the curse of perfect pitch. Or the chip-on-the-shoulder gene. My son has it. He used to scream every day for hours when he was younger. I would tell people that he channels my mother, and she isn't even dead yet. He and I are both extra-sensitive: to pitch, to socks (him), to temperature (me), to nonmatching clothes (both of us). He has some kind of angst, and he likes to share it in the middle of the living room. I've taken to wearing earplugs. I discovered that my son had perfect pitch when he was 5H years old. My daughter, who is three years older than my son, does not have the ability to recognize pitches by sound, nor does my husband. One night my husband leaned over the dinner table and said to our daughter, "Don't feel badly; I can't do it either."
It never dawned on me that my ability might be genetic. I thought it was unusual that I could tell what the piano notes were when others couldn't, but it wasn't until I was 15 that a choir director realized I had perfect pitch and told me so. My parents never knew. My father recently e-mailed me that he thinks it comes from my mother's side. "Your grandfather was into music as a young man and played the trumpet in the Army in World War I, and your grandma was into playing piano. My family was never known as musical."
I remember my grandfather's trumpet and how my mother would warn me not to drop it for the few seconds that I got to put the mouthpiece to my lips for one quick blow. Then it was put away for another year. The trumpet was silver and had mother-of-pearl caps on the tops of its pistons. I remember the contrast of the silver metal lying there against the purple felt of the case's interior. It was nickel silver, the same material that plates my Holton Farkus French horn, which I have owned since I was 18. I'm 47, and I've played the horn for 37 years. My grandfather also had a bugle: a smaller, dingier brass thing. I can only see them in my mind for I have no idea where they are now.
I can't ask my mother because I haven't spoken to her in eight years, ever since she threw a scene at Taco Auctioneer in Cardiff. I won't send her a Mother's Day card because I don't have any emotion left for dealing with her. I know it's tough being a mother. I was in the 98th percentile in spatial relationships when I was seven, and I think all that ability has gone into loading the dishwasher. I am a master dishwasher setter. If it seems like overkill, you have some insight into the life of a mom. Highly skilled and changing diapers. Mothers wig. They lose it at some point. One mother confessed to me, "I never wash the dishtowels with my underwear for fear of pubic hairs." You have to be crazy to really spend that much time thinking about your laundry. Another mother told me that her son wanted a tattoo but she said absolutely not. He said, What about you? She confessed to me that she had gotten her lips permanently colored, but "that was different."
I use these reference points as a way to understand my own mother. Even though I don't want to see her again (the therapist says you don't need to see your family if they make you crazy), it helps to put her in context. To realize that to be a mother is to go a bit cuckoo at times. When I was breastfeeding my firstborn, I called the police at 3:00 in the morning to report a car driving down the street slowly with all its lights on. It looked as if there were four people in the car. The next night when I called again to report the same suspicious car, the dispatch officer asked, "Could it be the newspaper deliverer?"
Yes, it could. I realized that what I thought were people were really stacks of newspapers. I also realized that I was losing it. In my case, it was remedied by more sleep. In my mother's case, there is no remedy. People always ask, "What could she have done that was so terrible?" I don't like to be sensational, but if they force me, I will tell them about the time that my mother pointed a rifle at me when I was 13 and said she was going to kill me. That tends to shut people up.
My mother has never had a lot of self-esteem. I remember her telling me that when her older brother died (she was 14, he was 16), her mother -- my grandmother -- told her that she wished my mother had died instead. My grandmother said that Sid had gone to live with the angels because he was too good for this world. My mother told me that Sid had died while pouring gas into the family car while it was running. She said, "People didn't know not to do that in those days." She told me that the gas tank exploded, and he fell off and hit his temple. I remember this story like a litany. But one time when I was visiting my aunt and uncle, I recited this story, and my aunt (who is not related to my mother but grew up in the same small Northern California town -- I have a picture of them in kindergarten together) inhaled sharply and said, "Is that what your mother told you?"
According to her, my grandfather, who was known for his inebriation, had accidentally run over my uncle in a stupor while the family watched. My aunt said, "The whole town knew it. He killed his son because he was drunk."
Remembering the time that my grandfather forced me to eat a bruised banana, which I said I didn't want, his breath hot and stinky as he leaned over me, I can believe he could be drunk enough to run over his son. I don't think I ever ate much of the rotting fruit because I was faster than he was. Another time I remember my grandfather showing me a vial of gold that the company he owned had drilled out of the ground. It was a fine powder that he accidentally spilled on the floor then futilely tried to pinch up and put back into the vial, along with dog hairs and the detritus of an ancient house. When I think of my grandfather as a dad is when I realize that my mother had it tough too.
Knowing all this doesn't make up for my childhood, but it does make my mother more human. It doesn't pay to romanticize, however. I hadn't seen my mother for ten years prior to the scene at the Mexican restaurant. The absence didn't seem to make her heart grow fonder. So I will spend the time that I would have spent with her with my children instead. Discovering their special talents rather than threatening them with firearms. It seems so easy as I write this and they are asleep. And now, for me, it is.