Choral Tribute to Elaine J Kent

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque Sky

As the plane taxied from the gate in Dallas/Fort Worth to takeoff en route to Albuquerque last Friday, the sunset evoked Mom’s favorite landscape. As my brother said, mom found her peace here. Missing Frontier Restauranther these past few months has been odd, a sensation I rarely felt: I don’t recall experiencing homesickness, our bond just wasn’t like that. The intimacy of our relationship grew gradually over the years, culminating in a slow summer full of sweetness followed by a precipitous ten-day dive.

Decades ago, inspired by some radical crip friends of mine (notably Mary Frances, and one or two others) and motivated by a penchant for creative fiddling, Mom had wanted me to apply for a patent on her over-the-shoulder bag that allows for the equal distribution of weight to the front and back. At the time, I was as intimidated by the process as she was, and it wasn’t too long before somewhat similar designs began to appear on the mass market.  I always felt that I had missed that moment for her; a regret that I carried even before she died. But otherwise there are relatively few, a tribute, I believe, to her insistence in carrying forth her mother’s ethic of not imposing on her children. At least, that is how Mom explained, in her last coherent conversation with me, the hands-off approach to parenting that was a source of angst for much of my life.

wood in snowNow, in retrospect, I discover depths of dimensionality that were obscure to me while she was alive, such as her singing with the New Mexico Women’s Chorus.  It was a bold move for mom to branch out from choral singing with church groups to join a group composed mainly of lesbians, whose eclectic choices of material ranges rather far afield from the Christian hymnal. As George said in the Chorus’ tribute to mom, “Elaine always tolerated our choices,” elicited a low rumble of appreciative laughter from the audience who had just been regaled with such numbers as the “Menstrual Tango” (by Jamie Anderson, this was Sangria Girl’s favorite), “The Lesbian Second Date Moving Service” (David Maddux), and a liberal adaptation of Paul McCartney’s “(Now) I’m 64.”

Reciprocal Tolerance

It is probably unwise to dwell too much on what an odd bird my mom was.  “I know she was awkward,” I told one member of the chorus. She responded, “That’s a good way to put it.” Then she told me how Mom often came to rehearsal with her own mini-electric keyboard, which she played according to some logic that had nothing to do with the numbers being practiced by the chorus.  “Everyone remembers her for that!” Oh boy. I couldn’t help but wonder at potential parallels: how often am I plinking away at my own tune at the edges of some group who’s trying hard not to let the annoyance get to them?! But Mom was usually responsive to feedback (hopefully me too!), and she brought interesting music from her background for the group to consider.

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I can’t imagine Mom acting in any of the skits. That would have been something to see!  But it seems she did break out and display her independence every now and then. “If she liked a different part, she just sang that one.”   The most common adjective used to describe her was quirky.  “She had her quirks, but then we all do,” one of the Directors told me. “That’s alright,” Emilio observed. “People remember odd people.” Some people really did click with her, and several appreciated that I had come to share, vicariously, in that part of Mom still reverberating in the rhythms of this vital community.  “I appreciated her sense of social justice,” a public school teacher told me, “she was always bringing me articles from Teaching Tolerance. It was her way of learning and passing it on.”

Singing for our Lives

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There were several numbers that really got to me.  The whole trip was emotional, of course, although I had not anticipated when, where, or how the grieving would strike: such as walking off the plane into an airport with no mom to greet me. Still, the loss was compensated for by an incredible sense of gain. This group of women whom I had only heard about in the barest sketch from Mom welcomed and embraced me – just as they had done, for several years, with Mom herself.  Living the talk, sharing the walk.

The chorus had chosen a beautiful song by Jane Siberry to dedicate to Mom, Calling All Angels. On the night of the performance however, a few soloists were ill and they weren’t able to sing this one.  Luckily I had heard it during rehearsal the night before. I was surprised at the first point that caught me in the throat during the concert. I have always enjoyed Dar Williams, but I don’t think I’d ever carefully listened to the lyrics of When I was a boy. The last stanza makes a surprising shift, from a woman’s gender assertions to a man insisting “when I was a girl,” and then recalling moments he had shared with his mother.  My brother leapt immediately to mind. You were there, Rich, in all the ways that matter, during childhood and now.

The last stanza of the song, May I Suggest, rendered by soloist Kathy Morris , also brought tears to my eyes. The wonderful thing that I have always experienced at both gay men’s and women’s choruses is the mix of humor and poignancy about real life.  So, while one of the Directors earned a posterboard advertisement – “Director Needs 1st Date” – from a helpful DSCN0540 member of the chorus, another member’s boss snapped photos of her in pap exam stirrups while she bewailed the rigors of maintaining the reproductive organs (“Women’s Health Medley” by Lisa Koch). I don’t think too many other members of the audience were crying in-between laughing, but there is a spirit of communality that can be felt when everyone is simply paying close attention – it generates a force invigorating the mix of joy and pain we all experience while living these, our precious and irreplaceable lives.

In lieu of the planned dedication number, Mom got the whole concert dedicated to her before the final song, an original piece by Director Liz Lopez, “I Remember Falling.” I am hopeful the audio-recording comes out because it is quite a beautiful piece. And then, according to tradition, the New Mexico Women’s Chorus closed by inviting the audience to join in the singing of a popular civil rights anthem:

We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”

Thanks Mom, for singing with and for us.

5 thoughts on “Choral Tribute to Elaine J Kent”

  1. Great post, thank you, Steph! What you write about the choir your mother sang in puts her character in quite a different light for me, she seems to have been even more remarkable than I had gathered from your stories until now.

  2. Stephanie,
    There is not a memory that I have of your mom that doesn’t leave a smile on my face. She is missed. And more than memory, she came back in the embodiment of you. You have her eyes, her smile, her face. It was great to see her mirrored in you. I hope we see you again soon. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts about the concert!

  3. Liz, I just read this passage: “A Choir is a beautiful thing”

    “…silence fell and the performance began.

    Every time, it’s a miracle. Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck – it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion. Even the singers’ faces are transformed…I see human beings, surrendering to music.

    Every time, its the same thing, I feel like crying, but my throat goes all tight and I do the best I can to control myself but sometimes it gets close: I can hardly keep myself from sobbing. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone singing together, this marvelous sharing. I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.

    When the music stops, everyone applauds, their faces all lit up, the choir radiant. It is so beautiful.

    In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song.”

    The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Translated from French by Alison Anderson.

    “…just one part of a sublime whole…” is what I experience during interpreting (at least when the interaction is going well, grin). One of the beautiful aspects of this passage is that, reading it in English feels exactly right, as if there could be no other, better way to express these sentiments. Yet the meanings were originally written in a completely different language!

    That kind of blending, when so much difference is subsumed into a shared experience, is desirable to me. Not ALL the time (yikes!), but as “a rule for everyday life” – well, I think merging into communality is a skill that more people could use more often to greater effect. I’m thinking Mom experimented quite a bit to find the edges and boundaries of that kind of belonging. Meanwhile, my own practice shows I’ve got a long way to go. 🙂

  4. I’m so glad you got to go for the entirety of the weekend especially to witness the rehearsal too. Thank you for sharing it with us on such a deep scale. It sounds like it was a very fulfilling experience for you and a blessing for the choir members to have you there. You have that power of meaningful presence just like she did.
    It leaves us all feeling filled up.

  5. What a lovely and profound reflection. You not only conveyed your own responses to the visit and its various events, but also such vivid sketches of your mom and her life there. Thank you for sharing with such skill and insight, as always!

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