Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More on the definition...

          I am going to Cape Cod for part of July 4th weekend. I am fortunate in that I have a lovely little cottage to stay in. It is the summer home of my late grandparents and there was a dual purpose in buying it. My grandfather loved sitting on the beach and my grandmother loved cleaning. Grandma used to tell us tales of when she and Mrs. Eleskevich used to “go up the Cape” and move all the furniture and dust behind it, take all the curtains down and wash them, and take all the mattresses out and beat them. My family has coined the term “Ukrainian Picnic” to describe this concept of a vacation scheduled expressly for cleaning. It was also for this reason that my grandfather would have been perfectly content to just continue staying in hotels on the Cape.

          My mother has inherited this zeal for cleaning and organizing and participated gladly along with her mother in the activities described. This particular gene is one that has passed me by. I seem instead to have inherited my Dad’s propensity to flee the scene, because after all, Ukrainian Picnics are not limited to the vacation home. An example from my Dad’s recent past: “When I pulled in the driveway, I saw the car mats strewn over the bushes on the front lawn and I knew there was a Ukrainian Picnic going on so I put the car in reverse”. Similarly, my roommates have always known when my mother has arrived to visit because the stairs have been swept and the spices alphabetized. Maura recalls me yelling from the kitchen: “Who uses cumin that frequently?!” My dad usually brings reading material in preparation for visits to my apartment. But on the whole, can I really whine about my mother’s earnest desire to dust, vacuum, and scrub sink stains upon every visit? To quote my aunt: “Mrs. Eleskevich’s are always welcome in my home”.

Monday, June 28, 2010

It's a Christmas Miracle!

My mother's guestroom

          The concept of moving into a new home and having to "fill it" with furnishings is completely foreign to me. This is because I am not only descended from a legacy of depression era-saving, but also from one of collecting.

          I recall visiting the home of a childhood friend and being stunned at the streamlined nature of not only her family’s living spaces but their closets. There were uniform white shelves, matching boxes for photos and miscellany, and that was about it. I recently visited another friend’s apartment in Manhattan, and while looking around at the decided dearth of knick knacks on the bookshelves and counters, I was forced to ask: “Where’s all your stuff?”

          This is because we are a family of savers and buyers. And this has most to do with a compulsive whirlwind I call Mom. Recently my mother assured me that, not to worry, she and Grandma had been saving me my own set of Christmas Lenox. She said it as though she had been assuaging one of my great fears, as if I had been spending years worrying: “How would Christmas truly be Christmas without serving my dinner parties on my very own holly-covered china?’ I was never asked whether I even liked the Christmas Lenox or whether I thought three sets, one for each generation was a bit in excess. The pieces were collected regardless.

          Why it should be the habit of Ukrainian peasant farmers to save every possible piece of value, I can only imagine, is because at one time they simply had nothing of value. Of course, this is a piece of the American dream that has gone awry. We have all of the habits of collecting, an inherited sense of entitlement after want, and in the case of many families, very few resources to house said collections. Or is it that, as suggested in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, having power over things like your finances allows you to symbolically buy pieces of your immortality? If you are able to pass things on, are you able to go on living? The other question is, are you able to actually continue living with all that shit?

          On the subject of resources, my parents’ newest one is time. My mother has always been a veritable tornado of energy, yes, but at one time she was running a business full-time and raising two kids and she was forced to do her shopping in the cracks of time that fell in between the balancing act. As a cousin of mine so aptly pointed out, now retired, my mother has not slowed her pace at all. She just has more time to shop in. Now, my mother has probably only stepped foot inside a mall once in the last thirty years. She is a thrifter, a consigner, an antiquer-boutiquer. The root of her aesthetic makes sense. As an educated, well-travelled woman, her goal in shopping is to find an item that is unique and interesting with a past or a personal story… and then to buy fourteen of them. “Less is more” was not a phrase I remember ever hearing as a child. No sooner did we gut and renovate our beach cottage, than my mother started filling it back up again with antique decoys and turn of the century clothing racks covered in embroidered hankies.

          Of course four walls cannot contain the generosity of my mother’s heart and so I reap the “benefits”. She has a habit of sending me the entire Sunday arts section of the Times piece by piece in the mail. (See also: plastic bags, photos, padded hangers, and Dove soap). My current apartment was essentially entirely furnished with basement finds before I had even signed the lease.

          I have told so many tales of my mother’s energized compulsion to shop and collect that recently, a friend looked at me very seriously and said “Katrina, is your mother a hoarder?” I assured my friend that my mother is not, in fact, saving 30 year old newspapers in piles. My parents’ things are all organized and stowed away. You will find everything labeled i.e., “Al’s summer polyester pantsuit, 1974”. We can walk easily in my parents’ home and even be ignorant of the basement and attic storage. You just have to move the decorative mannequin, whose outfit my mother changes seasonally, to set up the guest-bed, (no, seriously).

          I understand of course the absurdity that one of the biggest problems I have with my mother is that she is too generous. I would also be lying if I said I did not share my mother’s basic style. A few years ago I had to do a sweep of my childhood bedroom to remove some superfluous empty hatboxes, doilies and lace parasols but I do still look at the Yul Brynner commemorative plate my mother bought me with a fond joy as I pass my own dining room hutch. “You’re either going to love this or hate this,” she had said at the time. The answer was love. If you don’t believe me, you can come to my apartment. In the summer we dine on Japanese lusterware and in the winter apparently, Christmas Lenox.

Fach'd up

          I am a classical singer, more colloquially known as an opera singer. If you’ve never hung out with opera singers before, there is a great deal of talk about shop. It’s a lot of:

“Well, Netrebko thinks she can take on the coloratura but you simply can’t sit through it when you’ve heard Dessay in the same role…”


“And then CaballĂ© walked out onstage in a blanket for “Casta Diva” but you know it’s impossible to disguise an elephant…”

(*Cue peals of elitist laughter.)

          I actually think singers spend too much time talking about technique and repertoire. I went into music because I fell in love with the music. I wanted to probe into the minds of the great composers and find out how they wrote the things they did in the time period they wrote them in and inform my performances with that knowledge. In that way I have the interest, if not the work ethic, of a musicologist. But in my interactions with my grad school colleagues, it is often this idea of “fach” that we all found so confounding yet enchanting.
          The German fach system was devised to base casting decisions on a single audition. If you could sing one aria, you could be declared a “dramatic coloratura” soprano and thereby, you could sing fourteen other similar roles. (Incidentally, dramatic coloraturas are like unicorns. I have yet to meet a true one in person, although I have met several sopranos who have purported to be). The problem is that this system implicated by the German opera houses is one of convenience and is therefore flawed. But similar to an analogy in one of those Nora Ephron movies, (is it You’ve Got Mail?), it is not unlike finding your perfect Starbucks order. When you order your tall non-fat soy mocha frappuccino, you have bought an identity. (Is that even a thing? I don’t drink coffee.) For $3.95 you have bought yourself a definition. That very specific drink defines you and so does your fach. So when I say I am a lyric soprano with coloratura extension, it is because I, or rather, my family has paid $60, 000 dollars for a piece of my vocal identity.

A Conservatory Education

          When my dear grandma fell and broke her hip three years ago, my parents, who normally were only fifteen minutes away from her in Connecticut, were in North Carolina helping my paternal grandfather move from the hospital to a rehab facility. Needless to say, they had their hands full at the time. My grandmother’s caretaker had found her in the house and fortunately, she had not been on the ground for long. Grandma had been too embarrassed to use the emergency lifeline she wore around her neck because it was the middle of the day and “the neighbors might have seen the ambulances”. Amidst many a call from my mother, (who clearly just wanted to be nearer to her mother), it was decided that I would go down from Boston to see my grandmother. Her surgery was scheduled for 1:00 in the afternoon and my mother asked me to go down for 12:00 and re-confirm with the doctor what she had told him over the phone. Grandma should have a spinal and not a general anesthetic. (My mother has always had a wide knowledge of things medical for no substantial reason I can think of. She could have been a nurse in another life, so comfortable is she with the sights and subjects of blood and poop.)

“We just don’t know what it does to the brains of the elderly”, she said.

           So my job was clear. As my family’s representative I was to make sure that our matriarch’s brain remained intact. At 96 years old, my grandmother’s sharpness had not faded. With her memory of an elephant, she was our family’s storyteller and story-holder, remembering details from 70 years ago when my mother has forgotten most of the details of last week, not to mention my childhood. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told that they had taken her into surgery two hours earlier than scheduled and I was told she was already in recovery. The nurse did not know whether she had received a spinal or general. Panic set in. The time capsule that was my grandmother’s mind, which we had expected to have for at least a bit longer, could have been completely scrambled because I had not arrived early enough to talk to the doctor pre-surgery. My grandma, who was always there to tell me “This too shall pass” when I had cried on her shoulder, could have become a vacant vessel in one afternoon.

          They let me into the recovery room and the nurse watched as I took her hand while she slept. My grandmother had big hands, used to work but still with a softness underneath. The nurse told me I could talk to her and even wake her up if I liked. “Grandma?” Her eyes popped open. She looked at me. She looked at the nurse.

“This is my granddaughter Katrina,” she said proudly, “She came all the way down here from Boston. She has her Masters degree in music from the New England Conservatory… What’s she gonna do for a job, I don’t know…”

“She’s fine.” I said.