A gift of long-remembered music


May 16, 2011 · Todays Family ·

A gift of long-remembered music

Congratulations to Paul Benedetti on the National Newspaper Award on Friday May 13. The recognition was noted in the Hamilton Spectator . Paul Benedetti, a former Spectator reporter who now writes a weekly column, won for a story about how his daughter learned to play Debussy’s Clair de Lune as a Christmas present in memory of a grandmother she never knew.

Here is the column:

A gift of long-remembered music

Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 10:24AM

For weeks now, our daughter has been busy preparing her Christmas present.

This is surprising behavior and utterly unlike that of her two brothers who, much like their father, will dash around madly in the final shopping hours before Christmas vainly trying to find presents on a small budget and an even smaller gift-giving imagination. The results are predictable – a box of scented soap, an Old Spice gift set, a tie, maybe a set of steak knives. It’s all okay, of course. It’s the thought that counts, even if the thought comes late and without much funding to support it.

No, Ella is getting ready, but not in the usual way. She has not been saving her babysitting money or checking online catalogues. She’s been practising – learning, slowly and sometimes arduously, the complicated and beautiful passages of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

She does this almost every night, sitting at the piano in our living room. The same piano, a lovely Heintzman baby grand that her grandmother played on many evenings, many years ago. Ella never heard her grandmother play, but has heard countless times about the song she loved most – Clair de Lune. One afternoon, a few months ago, Ella asked her mother to drive to the music store where she bought the sheet music, came home and began to practice.

Ella did not know her grandmother. My wife’s mother, Elin, died suddenly at the age of 46. She suffered a brain aneurysm, was rushed to hospital, monitored for several days and then operated on. After the surgery she never regained consciousness, and a few days later she died. When she passed on that July day in 1977, she left seven children, a husband and an army of relatives and friends who loved her. My wife was only 16 when her mother left this world, just a couple years older than Ella is today. Though Elin has been gone now for a long time, a vivid picture of her remains indelible in her children and in the people who knew her. Oddly, considering that she died more than three decades ago, she is spoken of often, and in a way that makes you sad if you did not know her. I have never once heard her name mentioned, by both men and women, without the word beautiful in the same sentence. There are old photographs of her, though not many, and they show a slim blonde with fine features and large, blue eyes. In the pictures, she is often smiling. She was, by all accounts, a striking woman. When she was young, she did some modeling, and later, even while managing seven children and a busy household, she could, with a touch of lipstick and a hastily pulled on dress, present a simple elegance that other women admired. But she not only beautiful, she was fun. When people talk about her, they often mention her infectious laugh, her favorite cocktail, scotch on the rocks, the signature string of white pearls around her neck, her sense of joy – she would sometimes perform an impromptu dance on the living room coffee table – her natural grace, and always, the elegant sound of her playing the piano.

She would, when the mood hit her, usually after dinner while the children cleared the table and washed the dishes, sit at the piano her father had given her, and play. And frequently, she would fill the house with the haunting, stirring strains of her favorite song, even a few bars of which today can instantly evoke her memory. Perhaps this is how people endure, in a passing hint of perfume, a familiar laugh heard across a room, in the smoky scent of Scotch whiskey on a winter night, or in the rising notes of a haunting melody.

And so, this Christmas, when the dinner is done and the table is cleared and the gifts have been opened, Ella will give her mother a present. A gift with no wrapping paper and no bow. She will sit down at the piano and her fingers will move across the ivory keys filling the room with music, with the soaring, shimmering sounds of Clair de Lune. And a young woman will bring back, if only for a fleeting moment, the grandmother she never knew for the mother she loves.


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