It’s my Aunt Olga’s birthday again. Just at the tip of spring. Aunt Olga was like that too. Spring-like, but shadowed by winter’s chill. Her childhood was so hard and painful. She was a child of the depression, when there was just nothing anywhere for anyone–and she lived the rest of her life in fear that her abundance would vanish.
But Aunt Olga had a great gift, and that was music. She used it to rise up from her circumstances both exterior and internal, and she fiercely pursued her passion. She went to Boston University on a scholarship which didn’t include food. She didn’t have money to buy lunch, so she ate a candy bar every day.
She played for Toscanini, and traveled all over. She recorded music. Later she was forced to play in the pits of musicals like No, No Nanette. I remember visiting her there, in the bunker-like setting underneath the theatre. She hated playing musicals because they weren’t challenging. She knew the music by heart and used to play while reading a novel. I happen, who can barely drink coffee while writing, find that highly impressive.
When she was in her fifties, Aunt Olga bought a coffee barge and turned it into Bargemusic, now a world famous floating concert hall which continues to provide chamber music on Brooklyn side of the East River to audiences several times a week.
She passed away five and a half years ago. My heart aches for her.
I wrote a book called SAVED BY THE MUSIC about our relationship, and building the barge. She read it, but then she forgot it and everything else when she developed Alzheimer’s. A cruel end to a creative, brilliant mind. I was the last memory to leave her–bittersweet consolation indeed.
Aunt Olga used to say that life was heaven and hell in one tough nutshell. I agree, but I think that it’s up to us to embrace heaven and forsake hell. The how if it is up to each of us, but it can and must be done. My heaven is writing, and bringing it to you. That’s how I give you love, which is the change I wish to see in the world. And Aunt Olga gave her love through music.
Art is the remedy for our despair, art is for our souls. This has been the case for centuries, from the beginning of recorded time.
On my aunt’s birthday, I urge you to embrace art, in whatever why suits you. Visit a museum, go to a concert, read a book.
In my book LUNA RISING, the character Aunt Zelda is modeled after Aunt Olga. One of the plot lines in LUNA is the exploration of their relationship, as both of them deal with the residual effects of growing up. (Something we all do!)
There’s a Goodreads giveaway for LUNA RISING right now, in advance of it’s publication. For some reason I can’t paste the link it here, but you can find it by searching for the book on Goodreads. I apologize!
Here’s an excerpt from LUNA RISING:
Waiting for the elevator, Luna rubbed her arms and tried to shake off her chill.
Ding! It arrived. The doors slid open, and there was Aunt Zelda.
“Oh, child!” Zelda stepped out and wrapped Luna in her arms. And then Luna was warm.
The hug had to end, of course. That was the bad thing about hugs. It was like when Luna was little, and Aunt Zelda came and held Luna’s hand through the crib bars. Sooner or later she had to let go.
It was Aunt Zelda who had provided love and companionship in Luna’s young world. And she’d helped Luna discover who she was—by bringing her crayons, a little box of bright colors. Luna held one and she knew. She gripped that crayon, she scribbled purple and she felt it: This is right. And though it would be years before she understood what it truly meant to write, she had peace and purpose in her heart. These things carried her through the dark.
Zelda tried to teach Luna her passion, propping a tiny violin under Luna’s chin practically before the child could speak. As the years passed and Luna balked, Zelda bribed her to play, paying ten cents per music sheet line.
The violin was torture to Luna. She wanted to write.
Every moment she spent struggling over notes, she could be putting words to paper.
That’s how much she knew what she was meant to do, and finally Zelda accepted it. When Luna was nine, her fiddle was retired and Zelda bought Luna a journal. “Far be it from me to fight your passion,” she told Luna. “Write on, Love.”
Here are some things about kooky, wonderful Aunt Zelda:
STATS ON ZELDA
Name: Zelda Lampanelli Belleford Lamar
Ethnic background: The same as her brother Lenny’s, but the similarities pretty much ended there between her and her decade-younger sibling.
Marital status: Twice widowed.
Children: None. Before she was married, Zelda had been something of a free spirit with men. In trouble when abortions were illegal, she had a botched “backroom” procedure. But she couldn’t love Luna any more if Luna was her daughter, rather than niece.
Body: Tall, fit and slim—she had the build of a migrant worker.
Hair: Dark brown.
Occupation: Musician and visionary. Zelda had converted an old coffee barge into a floating concert hall in Brooklyn. She was pretty famous now, featured in the New York Times and on Good Morning, America.
Other likes: Gardening, the sea, whodunit novels.
Dislikes: Arrogance and cruelty.
Religion: Zelda had been raised by a devout Catholic mother whose life centered around her church. When her mother died, the priest refused to bless the grave because Zelda couldn’t pay him. Zelda had renounced all religion until recently, when she’d become a Zen Buddhist. Her second husband’s ashes were sprinkled outside the Zendo in upstate New York, though he didn’t share her beliefs.
Favorite writers: She enjoyed anything she read, but particularly favored Agatha Christie, which she’d read with Luna during Luna’s teen years.
Favorite dessert: Anything sweet, because during the Depression they barely had sugar. Nor did they have much butter, and now she never turned down a croissant.
Favorite expression: “Opposition breeds opposition.” (Zelda offered many profound observations, but this was her favorite nugget.) And when they parted, Zelda never said, “Good-bye.” Instead, she said, “Tootle-oo, old chum!”
Zelda had a strong, deep laugh. When Luna was a child and Zelda visited, Luna had laughed a lot too. The world had taken a different tone.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR AUNT OLGA!!!
Tootle-oo, old chum.