Thursday, August 29, 2013

Making the Band

Picture this: My 11-year-old son, sitting in my neighbor’s front yard on a colorful, sun-dappled fall Sunday, his shoeless feet tucked beneath him in the soft green clover and his head supporting a most decidedly dapper black top hat while his pursed upper lip balances a fuzzy felt mustache curling so enthusiastically it practically encircles his nose. He’s playing the trumpet—yes, the trumpet—entertaining our neighbor while he rakes piles of crunchy leaves into brown paper bags and lines them up along his front curb where they resemble a crooked smile. The mischievous midday sun, not wanting to miss out on such a delightful afternoon activity, pirouettes atop the glossy brass instrument before leaping off in high, blinding arcs that land squarely in the eyes of unsuspecting drivers.

Now this …. THIS … is a moment I don’t ever want to forget. May that picture forever be imprinted on my brain; and may my son perpetually remain the kid who can get it into his head to dress up like the Monopoly guy and serenade a hard working neighbor while innocently causing fender-benders, waking napping infants, and soliciting surprised and happy smiles from all the Sunday sidewalk strollers. Because that’s who he is. And this is his story.

Blown Away
My son, at the end of fifth grade, had been playing the trumpet in his music class for exactly one school year when he decided he wanted to be in the town-wide 7th and 8th grade band, even though it rarely included younger students his age.  He enjoyed the trumpet and knew a few classmates who would be auditioning for the band. More important ... and the primary motivator, I believe ... was that every spring the band competed at Six Flags Amusement Park. The jammed-packed agenda for that weekend included a stay in a hotel (sans parents and twin brother); bowling and pizza on the first night; and a full day spent at Six Flags. My son wanted in.

Unbeknownst to me, he sought out the band director's email address and proceeded to schedule an audition at a neighboring school. That’s when he brought me in the loop, so that I could drive him there.

Now, my husband and I are nothing if not supportive and encouraging parents. But although my son had been steadily improving at the trumpet, his skills seemed pretty rudimentary to our ringing ears. Heck, one of the buttons on his dinged and rented instrument had been stuck for the past three months and in my son’s words, “It’s OK, I don’t really use that note anyway.”

So the odds were just about nil my son would make the band, but in our house those odds are as good as any. He had shown initiative in setting up the audition and was very hopeful and eager. I wasn’t about to squelch that with a lecture on realistic expectations. I figured there would be enough of that stuff careening around the bend of his preteen world, so in this case I was going to ignore it like he ignored the stuck key. 

We decided, in a show of solidarity, we’d go to his audition as a family and celebrate his efforts afterwards at a local delicatessen with some chicken matzo ball soup and French toast with strawberries. In the meantime, my son labored over the required piece of music (Theme from Harry Potter) and diligently practiced his sight reading. I didn’t even know he could sight read.

When the day of the audition came, everything went wrong. Both sons were sick, we were running late, and a local fair had eaten up all the parking spots. At the last minute, (actually, ten minutes past the last minute) my husband dropped my son and I off at the large school where we wandered lost for another 20 minutes.

My son was tired, discouraged, discombobulated and on the verge of tears. Not a good way to audition for anything. We finally found the music room hidden deep in a corner of the basement. We opened the heavy door to scores of older students with gorgeous, shiny instruments unfurling scales that magically fluttered up and down the walls in beautiful melodious ribbons. I looked at my son and his face was grim. This was going to hurt, I just knew it.

My son checked in with the director and went into an empty classroom to practice. He asked me to wait for him down the hall, way down the hall. He would come get me when it was over. I sneaked a peak in his room and saw him just standing there, his music case unopened. I wanted to scoop him up and get him out of there.

When he finally came to get me, he didn’t talk much but told me the director would email him in two weeks if he made it. We silently left the school and walked to the restaurant where the two of us shared a bowl of soup. I tried to make it upbeat, but he was sunk low and there was nothing to do but let him be down.

He didn’t mention the audition again and we didn’t bring it up. Three weeks went by when he informed us he didn’t make it. I told him I was proud that he went after it despite the challenges. He told me was going to audition again in January.

Gotta love the resilience.

A few days later he called me from his father’s cell phone. They were at a Red Sox game.
“I didn’t make the band,” I thought I heard him yell over the boisterous crowd.
“I know,” I told him again. “But it’s awesome you tried.”

“No, Mom, I MADE it!” he screamed above the growls of a crowd busily booing A-Rod. “I MADE it!”

It turns out he had merely assumed he wasn’t chosen because he hadn’t been contacted. He had, in actuality, been emailing the heck out of that poor band director and the verdict had finally come through. My son was an official, card-carrying member of the town’s 7th and 8th grade band.

My heart grew three sizes that day.

And THAT is what makes that moment—a few months later on my neighbor’s front lawn—so special. Well, that and the hat. I watched my son playing the theme from Harry Potter on his trumpet—a bright and shiny new one we bought for him—center stage for the world to see, relaxed with a confidence brighter than the midday sun. It was magical. And that’s who he is.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meet Me at the Bell

"Meet me at the bell."

That was how we usually ended our phone calls with each other before hopping on our bikes and joining up for whatever adventures awaited us that particular day. We were best friends, and back then an afternoon could stretch for miles with an infinite number of opportunities dotting its landscape. 

Some friendships are like that, too.

Just like that.

The aforementioned bell was an impressive cast iron affair tucked beneath a red brick steeple in a sturdy stand-alone structure in front of a densely shaded church. Neither of us belonged to this church, I don’t even remember its name or denomination. We chose it for the simple and practical fact that it was centrally located between our houses. We must have met there a hundred times before continuing on to Burger King for a chocolate shake; or to a different bell (one of the Taco variety) for a burrito; or to the nearby lake where we’d carefully cradle the baby ducks in our palms. Sometimes we’d go to the hospital across the street where my father’s key gained us access to the doctors’ recreational lounge, which was almost always vacant except for other doctors’ kids. Once we determined there were no adults to kick us out, we’d play racquetball, idly tug on the weight machines, or hang out in the sauna. All the while we’d gossip and pine over Rob Lowe, his Brat Pack and our favorite, hunky soap stars. And we’d plan our dreams.

We were in the same grade at the same school; attended the same church; and had many of the same friends. I often spent the night at her house, which intrigued me to no end with its impossible quiet and impeccable order. She had only one brother, who I almost never saw, and two little dogs that actually followed rules. These dogs knew what they were allowed to eat and where they were supposed to sleep. They toggled around on tiny, three-inch legs, leaving not so much as an indentation on the spotless carpets. My house held four, loud brothers who rarely followed rules and spun through the place like mad cartoon Tasmanian Devils, marking their territories with crushed pieces of assorted Nabisco products, random articles of clothing and broken boyhood paraphernalia. Our beloved, monster-sized German shepherds crowded onto our couches and beds and, with barely a stretch of their necks, gulped down whole loaves of bread and entire boxes of cake mix ... packaging and all ... right off the kitchen counter, topping it off with long, sloppy drinks from toilets perpetually left in the “up” position.

In my friend’s world, everything had a place. In mine, every place had a thing … or three, piled precariously upon it. I liked my world and was enthralled by hers. Our differences never translated into anything more than a change of scenery.

To me, her house offered a spa-like retreat with bathrooms that smelled liked Vitabath (the bright green kind) and soft fluffy towels that I learned to use to wipe down the shower doors and tiles in a battle against water stains and fluorescent green residue. The absence of sibling rivalry made her home the perfect place to watch the much-anticipated premier of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video or to listen to Jack Wagner croon “All I Need” probably a little too excessively.

If we were in the mood for activity and mayhem, well then my house held just the ticket. Friday night pizza was delivered weekly to my front door in towering stacks of flat brown boxes, the top one of which was always opened and half empty before it ever reached its destination. Long, wispy threads of mozzarella floated in the fragrant steam like silly string as each slice broke free of its host pie, trailing the Pied Piper of Pepperoni like streamers from the elegant front hall, down through the brown-paneled family room and into the farmhouse kitchen. On Pizza Night, the heavy, round oak table that ordinarily anchored all eight members of my family for grace and supper, served as a buffet for half the neighborhood kids. Basketball, Ping Pong and Atari were always high on the agenda and a large lawn that gently rolled into to a backyard lake allowed everyone to thoroughly exhaust their youthful energy and imaginations.

My friend and I never judged each other. After all, we limped through our awkward years together … during the eighties. When you spray Sun-In and wear blue mascara together, you tend to accept each other no matter what.

Just like that.

Eventually we turned 16 and proudly slipped new drivers’ licenses into our Liz Claiborne wallets. The bell became a blur in our periphery as we passed by it on our way to the beach, the movies or a friend’s house. I remember meeting at the bell at least one more time the summer between graduation and college. As if formally acknowledging that time was picking up the pace and change was charging at us like a bull, we vowed to remain friends forever with a fervency of hope and faith distinctive to teenage girls. (We also promised that whomever died first would somehow contact the other to tell her what it was like on the other side. I don’t think either of us are keen for any aspects of that particular pledge to be realized! Is it too late to take it back?)

We celebrated graduation from high school with a trip to Los Angeles where we met Rob Lowe. In the fall, we moved on to separate colleges and for a while stayed connected via peach stationary. Then “we” stopped.

For reasons entangled amongst the complexities of life and the insecurities and immaturity of a young adult, I let that friendship fade like the echo of a distant gong. It would be twenty-five years before we saw each other again … at my mother’s funeral.

It would be twenty-five years and five months before we met again at the bell.


I had run across the parking lot to the church that morning with my husband and sons, trying to dodge the steady drizzle that spotted my dress and reshaped my hair. I planned this funeral and knew the details and sequential order of things by heart. But as I passed through the doorway, my heels fighting for purchase on the slick tile, I felt my thoughts drain away alongside the rush of rainwater that bubbled against the outside gutter and slid beneath the grated grin of the sewer. I stood there, dazed and confused, my arms burdened with heavy picture books filled with my mother’s face.  People were talking, possibly to me, but nothing could penetrate the buzz of nothingness suddenly swarming inside my head. I smiled and nodded like a wooden marionette until off to my side somewhere someone called my name. I turned my head and there she was.
Childhood best friends reunited at the bell.

Just like that.

Some friendships are like that.