by Karen Beaumont
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman and the poignant remembering we did together.
Marguerite woke up too early, which she normally did, but even without looking at her clock, she knew it was painfully early.
She lay very still. Maybe she’d fall right back to sleep.
She was too cold for that, the bed too vacant. Her sweet cat lay against her hip, a presence for which she was grateful.
After all these years, she still was still shocked by the absence of Nicholas next to her in the bed. They had not even been afforded a full decade together. She had slept most of her life without him, but the act of sleeping together was so natural, so completely right. It was his absence, before and after, that seemed like the aberration.
What day was it? Tuesday. She thought about what cleaning she would do, what errands to run. A student was coming with her boyfriend accompanist at 1:00.
Marguerite got up and did what she always did first thing in the day: she put herself together – dressed, fixed her hair, put on makeup. The pre-dawn light in the bathroom was the only flattering time of the day. The rest of the day, she contended with the way the bright light did not allow her to escape her age or the sorrows that settled so deeply into her skin and eyes and around her mouth.
She thought she had noticed a shift in her thirties. Her forties, which were the years of the love between the two of them, she never noticed. Even the difficult times were surrounded with an aura of hope. But that aura died along with Nicholas, and her face was never the same.
She had breakfast and checked the news online. She considered it something of a duty to stay abreast of what was happening in the world and knew it was a way to remain relevant, but the headlines did nothing for her mood.
Next there were emails to answer from students needing to reschedule. Once in a while an old friend from New York would write, but she hadn’t lived there in twenty years and not returned since Nicholas died.
She walked to the drug store to pick up some miscellaneous items. When the young woman at the check-out told her the price, it seemed too high. Marguerite paused. Bringing this up would mean inviting the disdain she had come to expect from young women, but her frugality over-road the anticipation of the discomfort.
She summoned up all her diplomacy. “Could you plese re-check the receipt? This isn’t the total I had expected.”
“Well, I was just scanning. I couldn’t make a mistake.”
Marguerite paused again. “Since there’s no one behind me, maybe you could show me the receipt.”
The young woman thrust the piece of paper at her.
“Yes, I see that one item scanned twice. Could you please remove it?”
She left the store cold and humiliated. If Nicholas was alive, their walk home, hand and hand, would have returned her to the bubble of love and hope that they lived in. But Nicholas was no longer alive.
Her student Tess and her boyfriend Sam came on time as usual.
“I just had dental crown put on, so I don’t know if I can sing.”
Tess began the solo Marguerite had given her the week before and then stopped and laughed.
“I think it would be easier to sing with a mouthful of marbles. But, now this gives me time to share our good news.”
“We’re going to be part of the Antique Music Festival in New York in May. You’ve heard about it, haven’t you?”
Marguerite paused and gave a little smile, “Yes, Nicholas and I founded that festival.”
“Then why are you here? Oh, well, maybe I shouldn’t ask, but we have time.”
Sam joined in, “I hope you will tell us.”
“This is your lesson time...”
“Obviously I’m not singing today.”
“Okay. Well, where to begin. You know, in a way, not story has a beginning, and no story is just about itself.”
Marguerite looked at these beautiful, kind young people and had to hold back the tears that their kindness elicited in her.
“Nicholas and I met at a small Episcopal church on the upper, upper West Side in New York. I was rebuilding my life after my first marriage. My husband was an arts administrator, running an important series of international orchestras, and we had attended one of the influential Episcopal churches on the East Side, where we lived. After the marriage ended, I was happy to attend a somewhat dumpy church and escape the hothouse of famous international orchestra, pursuing instead my love of early music, playing in tiny rooms for tiny audiences and accompanied by instruments that couldn’t stay in tune. Am I talking too much?”
“Nicholas was also rebuilding his life. His first wife ran an art gallery in SoHo, a place to be seen. They attended no church at all. He moved uptown after his marriage ended, resurrected his Christian faith in a church where no one went to be seen, and began actively cultivating his very unhip life as a harpsichord soloist.
One Sunday I sang a portion of Monteverdi’s Selve Morale e Spirituale, a piece really for tenor, but it works up an octave. Nicholas came up after and introduced himself. We talked and within a few weeks were planning a recital which grew into a series. It was our own sort of ongoing resurrection. Every day felt tinged with Easter.
Then a new rector came who said our series didn’t ‘jive’, as he said, with the ethos of the neighborhood and abruptly made the command decision to end it.
The bottom of our rebuilt life dropped out. Using our connections which now spanned the globe, we put out the word that we were musically homeless. The University here in Madison responded with an offer to start an early music series. Because it was attached to the University, there was comparatively ample funding and even the novelty of salaries and benefits. We said yes before even visiting.
The thing is, almost any place where we could make music and be together would be home, and, though we had lived in New York City, both of us, our entire adult lives, we adjusted quickly and happily. Yes, lots was different, but the important things – music and us – were here.
Not long after, Nicholas began feeling unwell. It continued and worsened, and he finally decided to see a doctor, who said it was Lyme’s Disease. He received two long rounds of antibiotics. All the antibiotics did was given him severe gastrointestinal distress. The initial symptoms became worse.
Tired as we were of the medical establishment, we saw one more doctor who ordered a few tests, and Nicholas was diagnosed with multi myeloma.
I’m going on too much. You asked about the series, not NIcholas’ demise.”
“I’ve always wanted to know,” Tess said, “We have time. Would you continue?”
Such kindness also threatened her composure once again. Marguerite paused and then continued.
The doctor recommended an oncologist. When we arrived home, Nicholas said, ‘I can’t do it. I’m sick of the doctors and the ugliness of those places and the way it takes me – takes us – away from music and each other. I’m not going to any more appointments. I want to be with you and make what music I have left to make.’”
Hard as it was to know that the end was near, I knew what he was saying. He died five weeks later.
News made its way to New York, and someone wrote saying that there was yet another new rector at the church who was interested in reinstating the series and that maybe I’d like to come.
But Nicholas’ death took energy out of my whole being and took my hope, too. Then COVID made travel impossible and, later, inadvisable.
Okay, long answer. You two probably need to go.”
It was good that the “lesson” had happened as early in the day as it did. Telling the story unlocked memories. Like opening a door to an overstuffed closet, everything came tumbling out: the pain and inauthenticity of her first marriage, the unexpected thrill of Nicholas and their love, the devotion to their series, the grim determination to rebuild after. And then there were the things that she bore every day, in this case, like a large wound that influences every moment and needs constant protection from a world that simply could never understand: her frustration and anger at the medical establishment's miscalculation, her helplessness when he was sick and the enveloping helplessness of his actual death. Her energy took a dip after Nicholas died that never rebounded. COVID gave her a convenient excuse to burrow in. Learning that the series was again active hurt. There it was and summoning the energy – emotional and physical – to respond defeated her even more.
Two weeks later, she received an email from Tess with some music attached.
“Do you know this? I would like to work on this and am hoping you can sing the other part.”
Marguerite responded, “Yes, I know it well. It was the first early music piece I ever performed, a piece that, when I heard it, changed my musical direction. I have sung both parts, so prepare what you wish. I’ll sing the rest.”
Marguerite and Sam came the next day at one, and the three of them began immediately working on the Zefiro torna by Monteverdi.
When they were taking a break, Tess said, “Did you have a signature piece, maybe a piece you did often on the series in New York?”
“There was a piece by Barbara Strozzi that I loved and, yes, sang often, so often I wondered if people were humoring me when they said they were glad to hear it.”
Tess and Sam looked at each other and smiled.
“We’ve heard about it.”
“After you told us the story about the series and you and Nicholas, we contacted the new artistic director who then talked to some former board members. The piece you are mentioning was more like the national anthem of the series.”
Sam continued, “And they’d like to hear it again.”
“Are you going to sing it, Tess?” Marguerite asked.
“No. We are hoping that you will.”
Marguerite sat down and then looked up at her young friends.
“We have a plan, if you will accept. The three of us can fly together. One of the current board members is out of the country, so we can stay in his apartment. There will be plenty of room for you to have privacy, and it is only a few blocks from the church. You and Tess can sing Zefiro torna, accompanied by a new upcoming lutenist. Then you and I can do the Strozzi.”
Marguerite said nothing. It was both an overwhelming invitation and a miracle.
Tess broke the silence. “Please just say yes.”
Marguerite looked at them, their youthful eyes and beautiful skin, their hope and the assurance of youth, and also its ignorance.
“I will regret saying “no”, and Nicholas would have already said yes.” She paused, “Yes.”
It wasn’t easy getting from Madison to New York. They first had to get to Milwaukee and then on the plane. It meant leaving at 2 in the morning. Sam drove with Tess next to him. Marguerite sat in the back seat, watching the darkness and feeding the memories and feelings that flooded her into that darkness.
They pre-boarded the plane and were able to sit together. Marguerite sat by the window and dosed most of the time.
Tess woke her up. “The city is in view.”
There it was, the stage on which most of her adult life had been lived. Tess took her hand.
They took a cab into the city. Marguerite watched out the window, noting what seemed exactly the same and what was different.
After they began settling into their apartment for the week, Marguerite said she was going to go out and buy some groceries.
“Do you want one of us to come?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
Marguerite left the apartment. Instead of taking a direct route to Broadway, she walked along the edge of Riverside Park, feeling both perfectly calm and like she might at any moment emit the huge globs of dark pain that filled her chest and throat and mind.
The church smelled the same and looked nearly the same. The cast of characters was different with the exception that all of these people, like the people she and Nicholas worked with had a deep commitment to early music.
They rehearsed, listened to others rehearsing and performing and prepared for the last concert of the series, the one the three of them would perform on.
The morning after the last concert found them in the airport with a delayed flight. Tess and Sam sat across from Marguerite.
“Are you glad you came?” Sam asked.
“Was it as you remembered?”
Marguerite sat quietly with the question and then began.
“When Nicholas and I became involved, it was natural that our first marriages would come up. For both of us, we had had the experience of setting aside large chunks of ourselves to accommodate the marriage. We said we had, in part, been ‘dismembered’ and that, in reclaiming our religion and our musical identity and in loving each other as fully as we did, we were ‘re-membering’ who we were. Not the accepted definition of the word ‘remember’, but a new definition that we made up. We ‘re-membered’ ourselves, tried, together with and with each other’s help, to put our ‘members’ back in place.
So, this weekend, I ‘re-membered’ a bit of myself. A bit: complete is not possible. What was is forever gone – the series as it was, my youth and hope, Nicholas, Nicholas and I. “
She stopped and tried to stop the tears that had begun to form. Tess and Sam both reached out their hands to her, and she took them.
“But to have a little back, even for a weekend, helps life to feel slightly more comfortable. I won’t think about the feeling lasting or not. I will hear the music in my mind and feel it in my body, as I did when performing, once again.”