A decade ago, in my early forties, I decided to let myself be. A writer.
I’d already been writing for some time.
Since the age of 18.
Alas, I was not one of those girls who always knew that she wanted to be a writer.
(I write memoir.)
Oddly or coincidentally or serendipitously, I am sandwiched between two women who were the kind to always know.
Jodi to my north.
Robin to my south.
Had I known this about them then, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to join them.
But one was disguised as a beloved elementary teacher;
and the other, an award-winning performer.
The three of us live, on the same road, in a row.
Until last winter, when Jodi left the Green Mountains for the coast of Maine.
“Most everyone does,” she says, about the members of her family.
(There are at least 7 MacArthur households on MacArthur road.)
I come from a big family too. But I left. Which is maybe why I write memoir.
(Safe distance and all.)
Fiction. Memoir. Fiction.
MFA. Not a real writer. MFA.
Published. Unpublished. Published.
This year both Jodi and Robin have books coming out, one after the other.
Jodi in May. Robin in August.
Short story collections.
I’ve never liked short stories.
They leave me longing.
But Friday night, after dark, we made the trek down our hill,
through the valley, and up another mountain, to the village of Putney,
to its newly renovated Next Stage Theater.
We brought my son along. Not the one upon whom a character may or may not be loosely based in one of Jodi’s stories… (sometimes I think we’re all writing memoir. Or fiction.) but the younger one who still lives with us on MacArthur Road.
During the interview, Robin spoke of her family’s history in Vermont, with mention of her father as a baby; and Aidan, 15, turned and whispered:
“I can’t imagine Dan as a baby. Can you? Ask Dad if he can.”
Though they’re not old enough to be our parents, Dan and Gail MacArthur are like the grandparents of MacArthur Road, and actually have the pleasure of all 4 of their grandchildren here, including Robin and Tyler’s two.
Gail drove the school bus and served on the select board and helped shape a number of community initiatives in town; and Dan has the same years of dedication, including the Board of Directors for the elementary school, and raising many of the houses in the area, like ours and Jodi’s–one after the other, about a decade ago.
Gail and Dan also have the sugar shack a 1/4 mile up the road from our place, where my boys make maple syrup each March, and further still–another 1/4 mile up–the farm stand–where we pick our berries each summer and eat scones on Sunday, baked by Robin and Tyler.
“Why didn’t I know that?” whispers Aidan, when the Poet Laureate of Vermont introduces Tyler as “a graduate of Harvard,” who has scored numerous feature films, feature-length documentaries, shorts, art films, and radio and media sites.”
Aidan turns toward me again, this time with a smile, when Robin tells Chard deNiord that she and Ty met at Brattleboro Union High School (where Aidan is a freshman now.)
“We were in an art class together,” Robin says. “He looked at a piece of my work. Said it could be better.”
Tyler tells Chard that he wrote Peaches and Plums–the March 2013 edition of Songs in a Lunar Phase (a monthly subscription-based CSA–the A for Arts instead of Agriculture)–after Robin rebuked his earlier attempt to write an upbeat song about March.
I sulked away, he said, but then Peaches and Plums came which is pretty down on Vermont.
“Filled with yearning for spring,” Robin corrects.
Though they haven’t performed together in two years, they played a handful of songs on the stage this evening.
Tyler joked that his goal was to bring as many instruments as songs.
Ty and Robin ended the night with one of my favorites. A soulful tune that she wrote:
One Last Tear.
As Robin sang, “Will you bring your blue dress and your pale blue…”
Aidan turned to me quizzically, but I refused his stare, for fear of laughter; because like him, I thought heard “pale blue ass” instead of “eyes.”
The short story Robin selected read like music too.
Flooded toward me.
And then in me.
Like a quickening.
Then they picked up speed and rocked me with the rhythm of labor.
Climaxing in a body of water.
in a field.
“The stories take place at the edge of Vermont towns,” Robin says. She admits that Tyler makes plot suggestions. She adds:
“I’m not wild about plot.”
“She’s half-wild,” Aidan whispers.
We both smile when Robin announces the release date for her book–August 2, 2016–Aidan’s 16th birthday.
It was just after his 15th that we visited Jodi and her husband Bob for the first time in their new place in Maine. Aidan never did get to have Jodi as a teacher, but the timing worked out that our oldest had her for four years straight. Under Jodi’s wings, Lloyd became a reader, a writer, a mathematician and a scientist.
The following summer, alongside the MacArthurs, Jodi helped lay the sub-floors that would serve as the foundation of Lloyd’s second-story bedroom. In later years, he stacked her wood and mowed her lawn–a scene which inspired the first story in her collection.
Jodi returns to Vermont from the coast of Maine this spring to read from: They Could Live With Themselves.
The event takes place at the Hooker Dunham theater in Brattleboro just after the book is released.
It’s just like Jodi to have both an auspicious pre-order date and publication date: Brigid’s Day and May Day.
Thirteen years ago, we bought a parcel of land together on MacArthur Road in much the same way. With intention and magic.
I feel poised between these two women.
Each writing about Vermont.
While I write about the sea,
and its hold on me.
Hoping that their paired success will serve as a threshold to my own.
I think my parents suggested fiddle because there was this insane teacher named David Tasgal. He was kind of nuts, but he had an amazing ability to communicate music to little kids…. He was definitely an inspiring figure for me, not only musically, but also because he had this slightly cracked sense of humor.
He had this deadpan vibe that I thought was hilarious.
- engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose
• amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense
• (play with) fiddle or tamper with: has somebody been playing with the thermostat?
I never thought about David’s age before, but if I had to guess, I’d say early sixties, which is why I dismissed the news that a 72-year-old man was struck on his bike on Bernardston Road in Greenfield, Monday afternoon.
David has been a part of the Marlboro Elementary School family in Southern Vermont for over a decade. His quirky, fun-loving approach makes this classical instrument accessible to all kinds of kids; and his death this week leaves our school family aching–especially as I imagine all those young children–with their tiny violins–waiting for him on Tuesday morning, ready to play (and I mean play.)
A list of David’s original compositions for the violin lends insight into his heart for children, while revealing his characteristic playfulness:
Marching to the Practice Room,
The Tough Cat,
Cha Cha Cha Cha,
The Rabbi Dances with his Dog
Bingo Suddenly Meets Mozart
My youngest son, Aidan, who studied with David from 1st through 8th grade, believes that one tune in particular had a handful of title changes over the years: Song for a Pet Who Died became Song for a Pet Who Ran Away became Sad Clown Fish became The Lonely Fiddle–all in attempt to make the children less sad.
Aidan also marveled that David could compose a tune such as The Duck Song–from a single note–and still make it “interesting and satisfying.” As a parent and a teacher, it was particularly pleasurable to see so many children, of all ages and skill levels, play together, and David’s unique approach made that possible.
David swept in for school events wild hair and wild shirts, and then began without fanfare, keeping the focus on the violinists, while enthusiastically accompanying them on piano. In fact, it’s at the piano that I remember David best. I loved the mornings when he’d arrive a bit early for lessons–at the tail end of All School Sing–and then slide his way onto the piano to add pizzaz to our last song.
On the evening after David died, I entered the school auditorium to teach yoga, but felt his presence so strongly that I could barely begin my class. To soothe myself before I left, I placed a small light on the piano to sit shiva with David’s spirit through the night.
We lit a candle at home that night too. Our older son, Lloyd, 20, who was in David’s very first class at Marlboro recalls how perfectly David tailored lessons to engage him and his more sports-oriented peers: “At one point, he gave us percentages so that we’d compete with each other,” Lloyd recalled.
Aidan was uncharacteristically quiet as his brother reminisced. Aidan graduated from Marlboro in June, and on that night he tucked a small gift aside–a bar of soap–his favorite because of its crazy colors and textures and how he gets to slice it to size–and especially because of its name: Dragon’s Blood. He thought David would like it too.
Aidan gave himself whole-heartedly to music during his years at Marlboro and has continued on at the highschool just as enthusiastically; while Lloyd just about gave up on the violin in Junior High. At the time, I drafted a parenting piece entitled: The Violin Wars, which alas, I never finished, until now…
The Violin Wars
My 13 year old sits slumped behind me in an arm chair in my office while I blare Dave Matthews, Ants Marching and then Last of the Mohicans–two “cool” songs with engaging strings that I hope will entice him to play along and reignite his lost passion.
The violin sits on his lap.
Things between them almost ended–abruptly–two weeks ago, though truthfully, they’ve been on the rocks since Lloyd was about 10–the time of the First Violin War–an apocalyptic parenting moment–complete with yelling and threats and stalemates–followed by the stark realization that I had crossed the beginning of the end of my role as commander and chief.
But a deeper truth is that Lloyd and the violin have been together forever, into their ninth year, and they courted even before that. As a toddler, Lloyd offered rapt attention to any string music he came across–live or recorded–contemporary or classical; and as a preschooler, he brought the same toy guitar to show and tell every Friday, while truly longing for a violin.
When we finally found a toy one to match the guitar, he was at first delighted, and then quickly disappointed with its inferior sound. He insisted he needed a “real one,” but as neither my husband or I were musicians, we didn’t know how to go about that for such a small child.
One afternoon, while walking down Elliot Street in Brattleboro, however, Lloyd pointed to a sign above the sidewalk–with a picture of a violin–and said: “Let’s go up there.”
We climbed a set of steep stairs, and entered a small shop where violins–of all sizes–hung from the ceiling. I felt like a fish out of water, but Lloyd looked up in wonder. Reverent. Riveted.
The shopkeeper came around the counter, took out a tape measure from his apron, and sized Lloyd up.
“Come back in a year,” he said.
Lloyd was devastated.
But when he entered kindergarten that fall, something magical happened: the school instituted a pilot program with the Brattleboro Music Center and Lloyd came home carrying a case with the real thing inside.
Despite his passion, Lloyd was not a virtuoso, but he stuck with it, year after year, and so did the school–deciding to continue the program until the fourth grade when children could begin traditional band instruments.
Many of Lloyd’s peers gave up the violin in favor of a flute or a trumpet or a drum, but not Lloyd; he kept playing until he was the only one holding a violin, which is where we find him now, at the beginning of 8th grade:
“I want to quit,” he says. “I can’t take it anymore.”
But he isn’t resolute. He is miserable. Torn. Angry and frustrated. Feeling betrayed, by himself.
I’m not sure how to help.
Our tempers mount.
With so much at stake, I feel the Second Violin War coming on, but now I am a wiser or at least less foolish parent, so I suggest we reach out for support. I quickly compose an email to dispatch to family members–cousins and grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and regular ones too.
The replies flood in.
Do what you want, says one. You can always pick it up again.
Stick with it, says another. You’ll never pick it up again.
With each response, Lloyd feels tossed about–first one way; then the other. In the end he does. Stick with it. But half-heartedly. And once in high school, he leaves it behind, while watching his little brother, 5 years his junior, follow in his footsteps, sticking with violin, through the 8th grade, but so whole-heartedly that it inspires Lloyd to pick it up now and again… “just to see how it sounds” (and to see if he can still play better than his younger brother.)
Lloyd is grown now, a man of 20, and to our surprise, he recently called to say: “I think I want to start playing again.”
We don’t know what will come of this spark, but it warms us, particularly in its timing.
We attended David’s funeral together. No one even balked at the suggestion. Not Lloyd who was leaving that afternoon on the train for Burlington. Not my husband who had to arrange coverage for his classes. Not Aidan who was… well… 15.
The music was exquisite. The service solemn and playful and irreverent. At one point, a handful of children came forward to play some of David’s pieces for beginners. I nudged a reluctant Aidan to join them. He sat firm in his seat until he saw another same-age peer, across the room, move toward the altar.
Aidan swiftly brought the violin case, hidden between his knees, to his lap, and as he did, I felt the collective attention of all those who shared the private mourning space around us.
We watched transfixed as he opened each latch, and carefully lifted the instrument from its bed, and then there was a palpable embrace as he approached the altar on our behalf.
When the children began the last of three pieces, we were invited to hum along, after which we accidentally broke into the applause we had held inside for the soloists who had so stirred us earlier.
As Aidan rejoined us at the end of the pew, I turned toward him to mouth the words: “Thank you,” just as he locked eyes with mine, nodding his head, offering the same, not once or twice, but a handful of times: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you…”
The sky was a stunning blue as we exited the temple doors that afternoon; the surrounding streets lined with the cars of those who came to grieve David’s departure–students, colleagues, family, friends.
As we walked, Lloyd spoke to me of the music–of the viola solos–played by loved ones.
“I could barely breathe,” he said. “I couldn’t remember how.”
To find out more about David’s approach to teaching violin, or to purchase his curriculum, see his website: Strings Fun and Easy.
(This is part of a series dedicated to our local elementary school–the heart of our community–on the occasion of my last child’s graduation… count down–two weeks!)
As an army brat and the oldest of eight children, I’ve seen my share of school performances–in places near and far.
Add to that the decades as an elementary teacher and you could say I’m a school concert officianando. (Lucky me!)
And just in case your experience is more limited than mine, I’m here to let you know that Marlboro Elementary School (MES) events are by far the cream of the crop.
I saw my first MES performance in 1994 at Marlboro College, and felt the first quickening of my first born right in the Whittemore Theatre, aisle three, center left.
A handful of years later, that same child was on the stage exposing his belly to the audience in a kindergarten performance that was well past his bedtime.
The following year, he was in the “orchestra” sounding percussion for his class play beside his best buddy. After watching the sword dance, Timmy leaned over and whispered to Lloyd: “How will we EVER do that?!”
A couple feet later with deepening vocal fluctuations, there they are, teenagers, dancing in the dark, with glowing sticks.
If Marlboro’s Holiday Concert isn’t your idea of a fun night out, it might help to look at it through the eyes of an anthropologist. The rites of passage steeped in the curriculum that music teacher Charlene Morse offers, matches that of those tight knit cultures we admire.
From the enthusiastic participation of the primary room to the grumbling of the junior high, it’s all good–the stuff of coming of age in a strong community. The Youngers look up to the Olders, and the Olders look up to the Alumni–who voluntarily return to the place they once couldn’t wait to leave.
There is Joseph, a Marine, standing on the stairs beside his fifth-grade teacher, David Holzapfel.
His brother Jesse is back on the stage playing drums.
There is Harry speaking to the audience–channeling the love of our community–to MES graduate Jesse Lopata at Dartmouth Hitchcock.
There is baby Chloe toddling now and there is baby Dylan, speaking!
Families who haven’t seen each other since summer days at South Pond reconnect, sharing snow and power-outage woes with continued offers of help.
Recent MES graduates linger in the lobby and the whole Reichsman family traipses by with equipment in their arms.
Winter is upon us and once again the pot of our community is stirred.
(Kelly Salasin, December 23, 2008)