April 14, 2021

Distant Voices

Mary Jane, Martha and Mac, Plant City.

Pandemic time stretches in novel ways. The days glide by without accomplishing anything of note; perhaps it is this strange elasticity of time and somehow full emptiness of hours that leads to so many Proustian interludes.

I fiddle with the internet in the morning, read afternoons, and listen almost daily to one of the Metropolitan Opera’s free broadcasts. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is a favorite, and Deborah Warner’s elegant production, first broadcast in April, 2017, is outstanding: a rare occasion when concept, setting, cast, and conductor mesh agreeably. I admire the way this work commences, how it lures one into the score and story. Two older women, Tatiana’s mother and nurse, sit at a table chatting while awaiting the harvest’s end. Their hands, preparing food, are as busy as their mouths. Tchaikovsky perfectly captures the comfortable rhythm of the spoken Russian as two long-time companions discuss, yet again, stories from their youth. Listening to the broadcast, I was struck by how women’s voices — usually at a distance, while preparing food — have colored my life.

* * *

Left: Mac, Jacksonville. Right: Kids eating watermelon.

I was nearly five when my father, a World War II Navy lieutenant, was transferred from Jacksonville to Adak in the Aleutian Islands. Mother and I moved in with her parents (Baba and Papa) in Plant City, Florida, a town of about twelve thousand people. Aunt Otie (Papa’s sister and Baba’s stepmother) was also in residence. Uncle Willard; Aunt Helen, known as “Sister”; and Martha and Mary Jane, my double-first cousins (the sisters had married brothers), lived next door. I was suddenly surrounded by my extraordinarily interconnected family, and I was bewildered; in Jacksonville, there had been only three of us.

But I soon settled in. My favorite place was a small sitting room at the western end of the house, next to the master bedroom, with a door to the backyard. I remember a daybed, a small table under the window with a radio on it, and a chair. Adjacent was an even smaller room with space for a couple of chairs and a desk on which sat a Bakelite telephone; a door led to the kitchen, the most active room in the house. The sitting room became my refuge. Most days, I played with my cousins outside in the Florida sunshine, but when it rained or I was plagued with tonsillitis, I liked to curl up under the table and listen to the radio. Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, a family favorite with its upbeat mix of music and chatter. I was particularly fond of daytime soap operas like Our Gal Sunday, Lorenzo Jones, Portia Faces Life, and Stella Dallas. Sometimes while listening, I would sprawl on the daybed looking at comic or story books, frustrated by not being able to read. Whatever I was up to, the background soundscape was the murmur of female voices while the women fixed meals and went about their chores.

Hailing from small-town Georgia, my mother’s family had soft, refined Southern voices. (Unusual for that time, all of the older adults were college educated. Papa and Aunt Otie at Bowdon College and Baba at Wesleyan, where two of her classmates would one day be known as Madames Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen.) Like the women in Eugene Onegin, they chatted while they worked. The low murmur of their palaver mixed seamlessly with the occasional clang of a pot lid or dropped utensil, a constant cushion of pleasant sound; out of sight, I could eavesdrop to my heart’s content, overhearing things not meant for my ears. Often Sister would join them at the kitchen table for a cup of coffee. Then, I was treated to a quartet. Their burble was punctuated by occasional phrases repeated a bit louder for Aunt Otie, who was hard of hearing. Treble notes were added by my cousins as they scampered through the house. (During play time, I was also encompassed by female voices; my cousins, five years apart in age, were best friends with the Henson sisters, who lived a block away. Whether I joined in — or was excluded from — their activities, their piping chatter filled my ears.)

Left: Aunt Otie. Right: Baba.

I was read to from an early age. First by my mother and after the move by Baba and Aunt Otie. “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin” were favorites. And Aunt Otie was a master reciter of Joel Chandler Harris’s tales of Bre’r Rabbit and the Tar Baby. No one could plead to be thrown in the briar patch like Otie — and at that time, I was blissfully unaware of the racism inherent in these yarns.

Of course, I often squabbled with my cousins, but I can’t recall hearing an adult voice raised in anger. They never argued with each other, and Baba was particularly serene. Her look of hurt disappointment was enough to quell my naughtiest impulse. Quiet voices prevailed.

* * *

Arch Rock is a house at Sea Ranch, a community perched on the coast of Northern California, that five colleagues of mine from San Francisco Opera often rented, especially on long weekends in the off seasons. About an hour’s drive from the city, designed to fit snugly into its surroundings, the dwelling was large enough for the six of us: Chris (the only other male), Tessa, Janet, Amy, and Renata. A north-facing wall of windows in the spacious living room provided a panoramic view of the cliffs that border the Pacific there. After the tumult of San Francisco, the quiet was intense, broken only by an occasional seal’s bark from the colony in a nearby cove. There was also a faint sound of waves breaking against the rocky shoreline. Our voices were the only human sounds.

Late mornings were a particular pleasure. I would sit in a comfy chair, book in hand, dreamily gazing out the windows, only occasionally turning a page. By then, Tessa would have returned from her early morning hike, Janet was taking a break from doing her laundry, the others had slept in and were getting a lazy start to the day. Outside, Chris was squeegeeing the windows. The stillness was punctuated by squeaks against the glass, and nattering and giggles issuing from the kitchen as the women prepared their breakfasts.

Their accents (Southern, East and West Coast) joined mellifluously. The conversation rose and fell in the rhythms of chitchat, sparked by outrage at some shared workplace trauma or laughter at a joke. What could have been an irritant to my reading was strangely soothing, reminding me of my family’s wartime breakfasts on the Gulf of Mexico.

In memory, these days seemed endless, halcyon. But they didn’t last. Chris and Tessa’s relationship, which dated back to their years at Yale, shattered. Chris, newly married to a woman from the opera’s lighting department, moved to New York. Tessa left for a job with the Los Angeles Opera, where she met a harpsichordist whom she married and moved to Germany with. Janet, diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent harsh chemotherapy sessions and died from the disease. After leaving the opera, Amy struggled with complications from diabetes and passed away soon after being placed in a nursing home. Renata’s present whereabouts are a mystery: multiple health issues, including Hodgkin’s disease, and a terrible family situation, pulled her down and she disappeared into the wilds of Pasadena.

Often, when I’m at a party or dining at a restaurant and hear a group of women enjoying each other’s company, I am caught unaware, transported to my chair at Arch Rock, hearing the soothing sound of vanished voices.

* * *

My first crush was Judy Garland, and I happen to know the first time I heard and saw her. Eager to watch the new hit movie, my mother carried me to the Polk Theater for The Wizard of Oz, which was released in 1939 — the year I was born. Who knows what impact this exposure to a gay icon had on my baby brain? My earliest image of Judy is a shot from a black and white musical of her outfitted in a pair of those satin shorts favored by tap dancers. She is singing her heart out while descending an endless staircase lined by chorus boys in evening wear. I’ve never been able to identify this film; maybe it’s my fantasy, cobbled together from various Garland epics.

Music — indeed, most experiences of the world outside my small family — reached my ears via radio. I listened at home and with the entire family on our Sunday drives around Jacksonville in our blue Chevrolet. I liked the novelty songs and knew all the words to “The Hut-Sut Song,” “Mairzy Doats” and “Three Little Fishies.” Judy’s place in my affection was soon shared by the Andrew Sisters: Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein” was already a big radio hit. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and, in 1945, “Rum and Coca-Cola” followed. I adored their bouncy rhythms and impeccable close harmony.

How my musical tastes changed between my Florida upbringing and move to New York City in 1959, from the Andrew Sisters to the glorious trio that ends the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier, is beyond the scope of this rumination. I had already discovered the world of grand opera and reveled in the classical music stations, then numerous in the city. My first live performance was at the Metropolitan Opera, at its original home on Broadway and 39th Street, for a Saturday matinee production of Carmen with Rise Stevens, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill. Listening from my perch in the next-to-last row of the Family Circle was both terrifying and thrilling. I recall the steep climb to the top of the vast auditorium and the clarion sound of unamplified human voices. I soon returned, this time to a seat below nose-bleed level, to hear Don Giovanni with Eleanor Steber (I wish I had seen one of her final performances at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in Manhattan), Mattiwilda Dobbs, and Cesare Siepi.

My big discovery was Richard Strauss, whose early successes with Salome and Elektra were followed by a string of compositions that exalted the glory of high voices. Perhaps, due to the influence of his long-time librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his view of womankind morphed to a more nuanced vision, far from the terrifying heroines of his early hits. In the conclusion of Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered in 1911, three overlapping monologues tie up the narrative knots, offering one of the most glorious showcases for sopranos in operatic history. Words become indistinguishable as we are seduced by intertwining voices. In good performances, sounds from the orchestra pit made by wood, strings, and brass blend ecstatically with the three sopranos; human voices soar over the top of dense orchestration.

* * *

Mother, Sister, Baba and Papa.

Current research confirms that the womb is not a silent haven. I likely heard my first sounds at eighteen weeks: my mother’s heartbeat, stomach growls, the air expanding in her lungs, even the blood rushing through our umbilical cord. At around week twenty-five, I started to respond to outside noises, predominantly my mother’s voice. I also began noticing music and conversations, and of course my mother’s voice remained the one I heard most frequently and clearly, its vibrations were transmitted through her body. Meaning wasn’t important to this little critter; intonation and rhythmic patterns were paramount.

Czech psychologist Stanislav Grof pioneered research into intrauterine consciousness using such techniques as hypnosis, altered breathing and, before it was criminalized, LSD. During an LSD session, one of his regressed patients realized he was near term and suddenly became aware of strange noises from the outside world. He recognized human laughter, yelling, and what seemed like carnival trumpets; the idea came to him that he was hearing sounds from the annual village fair held two days before his birthday; Grof interviewed the patient’s mother, who revealed that, against family advice, she’d attended the fair in an advanced state of pregnancy. Her family claimed the excitement brought on the birth.

It is hard for me to see my mother at a carnival even during the early stages of her pregnancy. But I can easily imagine her blasting music on her radio (Judy G? Patty, Maxene and LaVerne?) to lighten the drudgery of housework. And, since her parents were still living in Lakeland, I’m sure she spent many hours with them at their house on Louise Drive. My newborn ears were primed to respond to Southern cadences and music.

* * *

At the beach house.

It was nighttime at Indian Rocks, the beach just south of Clearwater, where my family spent summers since the late 1930s. I had taken a couple of puffs on a joint and was sitting on the wooden steps leading down to the shore, gazing out at the ocean. On the horizon, too far away to hear, an electrical storm raged, sending jagged bolts down to the water. The intense silence was highlighted by my mother and aunt’s voices, carried to my ears by the warm, humid air, as they busied themselves in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner. Just two years apart, the sisters considered each other best friends; they were in their mid-seventies and, except for a few years in early World War II, had never been separated. The rise and fall of their Southern accents reflected years of talking together. Their words were indistinct and I wondered what they found to discuss. The women had few cultural or intellectual interests that I knew of; the only news that caught their attention was local, and political topics were verboten. After all these years, they still spoke with gusto. And I had spent years listening to them. Sitting in the dark, I was transported to my first visits to the beach.

My paternal grandfather had gotten a great deal for a house and two adjacent lots from a man just drafted into the service. Vaguely art deco in design, the front of the building sported a terrace shaped like the prow of an ocean liner with a rope railing; the building’s rounded corners were clad in glass bricks. Its large rooms all had terrazzo floors. The garage in the back had a shower, two changing rooms, and a small bedroom, always referred to as “the servant’s quarters,” a rather grandiose title since we had no help.

To us kids, the journey from Plant City was arduous, everyone crammed into my uncle’s black Hudson, a seemingly endless drive on narrow roads. But we knew we were getting near after we passed Largo and could smell the salt water from the tangles of mangroves. We traversed a rickety bridge, made a right turn and, in minutes, were coasting down the alley to the garage. There were few rules at the beach; it was a free, happy place.

My mind, in full reverie mode, was buoyed by the faint music of the women’s dialogue. Though I hated Central Florida during my teen years, as an adult, it seemed to have its advantages. I had an okay job with a small theater company; I had made new friends. More important, I was able to accept my family as people, not ogres. Still a little stoned, I was happily settling in for a long spell, but something began to disturb my peaceful state. Practical thoughts floated to the top of my hazy consciousness. There was an itch on my back; my hand reached to scratch it and returned holding a Palmetto bug (for non-Floridians, these are gigantic cockroaches, two inches long). I leapt to my feet, dislodging more of the repulsive critters — I resolved to leave and, on the spot, decided to move to San Francisco.

Comments (10)

  • Many thanks to all who have responded so positively.

  • Susan Wise says:

    This is an exquisite piece, Mac, brilliantly woven and captivating in its quietude. Truly elegant.

  • These are eloquent memories of the peaceful patterns and sounds of Sea Ranch, Mac. I wish you’d remember more of it for us all, the three who are left and the three who have fallen silent. Mid-20th-century Florida seems more remote than 18th-century Vienna, thank goodness that Palmetto bug catapulted you to California.

  • Julie Trachtenberg says:

    A quiet operatic piece Mac. The story paces and yes, please continue to write more and share. Beautiful tonality throughout.

  • Richard Brydon says:

    I like the way the ordinary is dignified and exalted. It should be. You must have felt valued and cared for, yes?

  • Daniel gundlach says:

    What a beautiful tapestry of recollection, with the thread of women’s voices weaving in and out, holding together a lovely story.

  • So lovely. Thank you.

  • Sandy Phillips says:

    Please give us more! You stopped too soon!! Thank you so much!

  • Renny Pritikin says:

    Hey Mac this is so elegantly shared, so sweet, thank you. More!

  • Love this, Mac. The texture of women’s voices, backdrop and foreground. I love the way the sounds float through & create so much sensation of space, time and memory, threaded through domestic spaces. Really gorgeous. thank you

See all responses (10)
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