While I was recording my new album down in Sisters, Oregon, my Grandmother Doris was passing away in her home in Stockton, California.
It shouldn’t have been shocking; she was 93 years old. But we all were surprised, because somehow my grandma seemed unlikely ever to die. She had been such a force of goodwill, hard work, and music her whole life.
People came from all over the country to pay their respects at her memorial last weekend. From Boston, Arizona, North Carolina came friends, former students, family, and colleagues. A whole group formed a special orchestra for the service, and played her favorite chamber pieces. They spoke about how she “liked to found things,” like the Wichita Youth Symphony, Stockton Youth Symphony, the Central Valley Youth Symphony, and the Stockton Arts Commission. This was a lady who was born in a home with no electricity or running water in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska in 1918, but would one day be the first woman to conduct the Columbia University Orchestra. Even more personally, they talked about how she gave them music, all of them. She taught music in public schools for half a century. Well into her 80’s, she was still coaching strings players from both sides of the tracks, doing tai chi, and playing in the Stockton Symphony. She didn’t let issues of race or socioeconomic status get in her way, nor even legislation that decimated music programs all over California. She didn’t allow for injustice; she was a lady who made good things happen.
As a grandchild, it’s easy to miss these things. I occasionally wondered why my grandma didn’t bake cookies, or rather, why she so loved the invention called the “microwave.” Every August she came to visit, and our days would be efficient and organized until “happy hour.” She taught me how to play Tripoley, and set me up with piano lessons starting at age seven. I knew she loved me, even though I found her a little intimidating at times. She supported me in music my whole life, encouraging me though also warning, “don’t be a musician unless you want to live in a cardboard box.” I think she was joking. Just last summer she called me up one day to say she was paying for an expensive surgery that I needed, but didn’t necessarily have the funds for. I started crying immediately, and she said, “Well that’s what grandmas do, don’t you know that?” Actually, Grandma, it isn’t what grandmas do. But it is what you do, for me and all your grandkids, and all of your children who you’ve given everything to for almost a century.
My sweet Aunt Barbara gave me a copy of something my Grandma Doris had written 24 years ago, entitled “A Grandparent’s Legacy.” This is what she wrote in answer to the prompt, “My legacy to you would be:”
“To carry on the beautiful traits you have inherited from your father as well as your Grandfather Bud. Perhaps to share the love of music and the arts as your Grandmother has. To realize that you are a continuance of our selves and all the good things of our lives belong to you to share with your children. Life is a continuous unfolding of our dreams, hopes for the future, which will be in your hands.”
Dear Grandma Doris,
I wish I had been able to dedicate this album to you while you were alive. But I think you know, anyway. It’s hard to know what to say to a person who gave me my first love–the piano– and for the first time in 18 years, the freedom to walk like a regular person. Those kinds of gifts are difficult to thank a person for, because they are so giant I can’t even imagine who I would be otherwise.
So since I can never thank you enough, I will leave it at that.
All my love,