These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
Anna finished the dishes and looked out the window. It seemed to be dark so soon. What day was it anyway? She looked at the calendar on the wall and realized she had forgotten to change it. It was November 2: Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. They used to call is All Soul’s. She liked that better. Should we only commemorate the faithful? Well, maybe anyone who gets up in the morning year after year is faithful.
Her cat jumped up on the radiator and butted his head into her arm. It was already cold enough to have the heat on all the time. Maybe it would be an early winter, maybe a hard winter. She picked up her cat and hugged him. Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Who would be on her list? Her husband died twelve years ago. Stefan died nine years ago. Stefan – what should she call him? Friend? Lover? He was Stefan, and he was gone.
She hugged her cat closer. He had come to her on the porch during the last months of her husband’s illness. The story isn’t that tidy, though. He came to her porch, but it was her husband’s lover, Michael, who noticed the cat who would eventually be named Simeon.
“Why Simeon?” Michael asked.
“He has helped me to bear this cross.”
She looked at her beautiful tabby, and he looked at her.
“Maybe I should call you Survivor; you’re the guy who hasn’t died.”
She felt the familiar wave of grief, the way it started in the heart and moved up to the throat, but she didn’t have the energy to cry.
She went into the next room and looked at the harpsichord. It had been Stefan’s mother’s instrument, and he had it sent to her after he died. Actually, he had it sent to the church she belonged to, and it had stayed there for six years. Then a new priest came and said he didn’t like harpsichord music and no one else did, either. She stared at him after he said this because this statement was inaccurate. No one had ever complained about her offering her harpsichord playing during services, and people often asked her what she was going to play. They had become, in this humble corner of Milwaukee, fans of harpsichord music. He qualified the generalization by saying that no one who he wanted to attract to the church would like harpsichord music.
She had the harpsichord moved back to her home which was only a few blocks from the church. She maintained her membership, attending the 8 a.m. service that had no music and withdrew from leading evening prayer, which she had done most Friday nights since her husband died.
For a year, she did not perform on it, but the instrument wanted to be heard. She began hosting house concerts every other month, inviting friends, people from the church, students and their families. It was an adjustment for her – she loved playing for the worship service – but at least the instrument was able to share itself. She thought again. At least she was also able to share her self.
It was November 2 which reminded her that the next day, November 3, was Michael’s birthday and they had plans to take a walk by Lake Michigan in the afternoon. She wondered if it would be cold and windy like it had been the past week. Michael came to the door the week after her husband had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, introducing himself as her husband’s lover and saying that he wanted to help. When her husband told her that he needed to express his homosexuality openly, she felt like her life jumped tracks. His diagnosis did the same. By the time she and Michael were sitting at her kitchen table drawing up a schedule for in home hospice care, she was beyond knowing how to describe her life. She was just living it.
Michael had stayed in touch, calling once a week, partially because they had become casual friends and partially, too, as a way of managing his grief. He had only been involved with her husband for six months before his illness. Through Anna, he was able to continue to learn about the man he had begun to love.
She stretched out her hand over the keys of the harpsichord. “When did my hands begin to look old?” she asked her cat. She shook her head, turned out the light, and went to run a bath.
Michael called in the morning to say that he would be late. “Car trouble,” he said, but she knew he was lying. He was a sweet young man and weak, couldn’t stand up for his self. He would arrive late for their meetings, smelling like sex and alcohol, rapidly enunciating his transparent lies. She never confronted him on it. Why don’t I, she often thought, but then reasoned that it might scare him away. He needed a safe place. And she knew she needed to continue to process what happened to her marriage and to her husband. She often wondered what the relationship Michael had with her husband was like, but she never asked. The answer, no matter what it would be, would come too close to the wounds that still lay raw inside of her.
Michael came an hour after they planned, and they walked on the path near the lake. It was cold and windy.
An email came from Fritz, Stefan’s son. The orchestra’s tour included Chicago, only ninety minutes south of Milwaukee. She had planned to go down by train to hear the concert.
Our schedule just came in. We will have three days off before flying to Mexico City. I can come up to Milwaukee for at least two days. Would it be best to take the train or to fly? Ingrid sends greetings. Mathias Stefan began violin lessons last week. As you might imagine, he is good! Write soon. All my best, Fritz
Anna got out her calendar and began to think about how to arrange this visit.
In the second week of Advent, the priest began his sermon at the 8 a.m. service by telling the tiny congregation that his wife had been diagnosed with leukemia. They were both in their early 30’s and had a three year old son. He said that the doctors were recommending a new treatment known for being particularly effective for this type of leukemia, but that the insurance company was not willing to cover the expense.
Anna didn’t hear anything else in the sermon.
After the service, she asked the priest, who she generally avoided speaking with, what the estimated cost of the treatment would be.
“Will you be in the office this week?” she asked.
“I would like to call you.”
“I will have my cell phone with me.”
She went home and did some math.
“Yes, Anna. You said you would call.”
“Stefan’s son will be in the country with his orchestra in January, performing in Chicago among other places. He plans to visit me. We could do a benefit at the church to raise money for your wife’s treatment. I’m sure he would say yes. His father died of cancer. Fritz was not as young as your son, but he did lose his father. Anyway, we have enough time to do the publicity that would draw the right people, especially with his name and also the harpsichord from Stefan.”
“Anna, I don’t know what to say.”
“Are you saying that this is a bad idea?”
“Should I proceed?”
“Do whatever you think is right. Let me know how I can help.”
Fritz agreed to the plan, happy to be able to help another family and happy to perform with Anna again. They had done a program in New York once and agreed that, given the short amount of time that they had to rehearse, that this would be the program they would perform at her church – a program of the music of Heinrich Biber.
“My father performed Biber with you when he visited, didn’t he?”
There were only about three and a half weeks to get everything put together. Anna still had connections musicians and organizations interested in Austrian culture, and it would be easy to interest the Chicago press in this event given its proximity to the orchestra’s appearance in Chicago. This would help bring well-heeled music lovers from the Chicago suburbs up to Milwaukee. The uniqueness of this particular harpsichord and the repertoire they would play would draw people from the universities in other parts of Wisconsin. By the third week, she had sold out the performance and raised enough money for the treatment the priest’s wife needed.
“Anna, this is Michael. What are you doing for Christmas Eve? I’d like to go to church with someone.”
Anna heard this message on her phone two days before Christmas Eve. This had never been a question in years past: she played at her church every Christmas Eve. Now she knew she would not be playing, and the thought of why she was not playing brought her pain.
“Michael, this is Anna. Well, what are you doing?”
“One of the Episcopal churches downtown has their Christmas Eve service at 7:00. I know you don’t like to go out late. What if I pick you up at 6:30?”
“Sure, let’s do that. Thank you, Michael, for thinking of me.”
“Anna, I always think about you.”
“You didn’t know that?”
6:30 came on Christmas Eve, but Michael did not arrive. At 6:40, Anna tried to call him, but she only got a strange sort of signal which let her know he had blocked her number on his phone. At 6:50, she took off her coat and made some tea. She sat at the kitchen table with her Book of Common Prayer and her German Bible. She read Evening Prayer in English out of the prayer book and the readings, out loud, in German.
The winter was a brutal one. Even the older people at Anna’s church said they could not remember a winter that had so much snow and so much cold. Most New Year’s Eve activities had to be cancelled because of a snow storm that dropped three feet of snow in less than four hours. This was followed by a week of sub-zero temperatures. This pattern continued through the third week of January when temperatures warmed up to well over freezing. Snow melted and flooded the streets, but the sunshine and the warmth made everyone tolerant of the mess. After this week, winter returned but without the forcefulness of the first three weeks of the year.
Fritz and the orchestra were performing in Chicago the last weekend of January.
Anna took the train down for the Friday afternoon performance. There had been some snow the night before, and the train arrived twenty minutes late. Still, after sleeping most of the way on down, she had plenty of energy to nearly run from the train station and make it to the hall on time for the 1:30 performance.
She had always thought that cities imprint themselves on the sound of the musician.
“Really?” Stefan had asked once, “Give me an example. For instance, New York…”
“Wildest bow arms I’ve ever seen,” and they both laughed.
In Chicago, the sound was precise and muscular, so to hear this Middle European Orchestra with its combination of rigor and lightness and warmth was like being transported to a different place – at least while the concert lasted.
She went back stage to find Fritz.
“Haselbock! Frau Ebner!”
Fritz made his way through the crowd of musicians.
“Anna,” he said, taking her right hand in his and kissing both her cheeks.
“Fritz. I don’t have much time until my train departs, but I wanted to greet you now.”
“You look wonderful.”
“You are kind. And you are looking more and more like your father.”
Anna spent Saturday getting all the details ready for the benefit concert. There wasn’t much she could do in the church until after services, but she could check with the people bringing the flowers and the caterer doing the reception after the concert. She called the priest about cleaning after the service and making sure the seating was adjusted and tables were ready for the caterers.
“Anna, you sound like a professional.”
“I did this for almost twenty years.”
“As a job?”
“No, my husband was the director of the art museum.”
“I never met him.”
“He died twelve years ago.”
Fritz arrived by train Sunday morning. Anna was there to meet him, and they took a cab to the church. They planned a program that would need almost not rehearsing: Anna would do solo harpsichord works by Biber; Fritz would do one solo work, and then they would do two sonatas that they performed together in New York.
They talked in the cab, and he showed her pictures of his wife, Ingrid, and their son Mathias Stefan playing his miniature violin.
“How good is he?”
“It frightens me.”
“For now it is fine, but such talent can corrode a person. You’ve seen that, too, haven’t you.”
“You mean those who trade parts of their humanity for the spotlight? Well, that’s one choice. No matter what, he’ll have to give something up. We all do.”
After dropping things off at her house and taking time to change for the concert, they walked to the church. She had had the harpsichord moved to the church the day before, leaving it in a side room. Some parishioners met her at the church in the afternoon to help move it into the sanctuary. While Anna tuned the instrument, Fritz warmed up and ran through his solo piece. Then they rehearsed together.
Everything was moving along smoothly. At 3:30, the flowers and caterer arrived and some parishioners to help re-arrange things in the sanctuary for the performance. Michael had helped Anna find the florist and caterer, and he arrived along with them, helping with odds and ends.
“Michael, you look so good in a suit. What do they say? You ‘clean up’ well.”
“This is your big event, Anna.”
After the concert, which was well-attended by music lovers from the Milwaukee and Chicago areas as well as some Austrian nationals, there was a little talk about the fund raising for the priest’s wife’s treatment and then the reception. Anna, dressed in a draping black dress that had embroidery done by a woman she met once in New York, floated among the guests, greeting people, introducing people to each other, making sure people were all talking and that the reception table was well-stocked. Fritz befriended the priest’s very young son.
Michael came up to Anna shortly after the reception began, saying that he had to leave.
He gave her a cocky smile, “Didn’t know this was going to be a dry event.”
“The priest is a recovering alcoholic.”
“Well, I’m not,” he quipped and left.
As the last guests were leaving, the priest approached Anna and Fritz.
“This was really a wonderful event, and my family is very grateful for your efforts.”
“It was our pleasure,” Fritz offered.
“Anna,” the priest continued, “I hope you’ll have the harpsichord moved out of here tomorrow. I have a group of priests coming, and I want to set the right tone.”
The next morning, while Fritz caught up on some sleep and did some practicing, Anna met with some parishioners who helped her move the harpsichord back into her house. While they were moving in, the Christmas Cactus was knocked over.
“Don’t worry. I’ll pick it up after you leave. Thank you for all the help.”
She saw the three men to the door and returned to the spilled plant. After scraping the dirt back into the pot, she re-watered it. An arm of the plant had broken off, so she filled an old spice bottle with water, put the fragment in the bottle, and set it on the window ledge above the kitchen sink.
In the afternoon, Anna and Fritz had lunch in her kitchen and then walked by Lake Michigan. It hadn’t snowed in over a week and had been sunny, so the sidewalks were dry.
Fritz left the next day to meet up with the orchestra.
Ash Wednesday came early that year and brought with it a snow storm of epic proportions. Bus service was canceled; the airport was closed, and most churches, including Anna’s, canceled their Ash Wednesday service. The bulk of Lent was filled with either snow storms or bitter cold, and most church goers laughed that the weather gave them more Lenten discipline than they could fabricate on their own.
Anna attended the Holy Week services at her church. For Easter, she had been hired by a wealthy parish near the downtown to accompany a Couperin Easter motet for two sopranos. She thought the whole thing was rather extravagant on the church’s part – hiring a harpsichordist and moving her harpsichord all for a seven minute piece – but she was glad to play in a church again.
Michael called her just after lunch to see if she had any time.
“I’m just putting some rolls in the oven. They’ll be done by 2:00. Come over then.”
Michael arrived with alcohol on his breath – not something new – but he seemed to be more inebriated than usual. They sat at her table and ate the fresh rolls. Michael began to tell a long story about some man he had just met, telling Anna details that were too explicit for her.
“Michael, I think the details are better left out for now.”
“Come on, Anna, you’re no virgin.”
That wasn’t the point, but Anna was at a loss for words.
“Well, maybe it’s been so long. I bet you haven’t been with anyone since Stefan…”
“Michael, we are friends, but you must understand that I am modest and private person…”
“Michael, you’ve never been like this. Maybe you’ve had too much to drink for us to have a…”
“He always said you had a prejudice about drinking.”
Anna looked at Michael and then stood up.
“That’s enough. It is time for you to leave.”
The month of April brought delicate green to the trees and bushes. Anna loved her tiny garden, and, though she had been planting and tending the plot for over a decade, the faithfulness of the plants surprised her each year.
And they kept her company. She had not realized before how much she relied on Michael’s companionship and his ties to what she often referred to as her “former life”. He kept her former life part of her present life, and his phone calls and walks and attention, however uneven, cut the loneliness into manageable pieces.
Winter had been hard, and according to the calendar it was over. Her heart, though, still felt helplessly frost bound.
It was Friday in the last week of April. There was an email from both the priest at her church and one from Michael.
The priest wrote, “Dear Anna, I was wondering if you would consider coming to the 10:30 service on May 11 and if you would be willing to bring and play your harpsichord. I have asked a few people if they would be available to help move your instrument, and they have all agreed. Maybe you could play the prelude and postlude? You can let me know. I hope you will say ‘yes’”
Not knowing how to reply, she opened Michael’s email.
“Anna, I am very sorry for my behavior on Easter Sunday. I have to tell you that I was crushed when you asked me to leave, and it was the slap in the face I needed. I got up the next morning and had myself admitted to an inpatient alcohol rehabilitation unit. I was discharged and am attending daily outpatient sessions. Anyway, I miss you. I know May 11 is Stefan’s birthday. Would you be available in the afternoon for a walk? Michael.”
“Dear Michael, I am glad to hear from you. I’ve missed you, too. Yes, I would like to go for a walk on the 11th. A couple of years ago, we walked in the park with the bridges. Do you remember? The trillium will be blooming. Let me know what time would be good for you. Anna.”
This was the easier email to answer. She reopened the other. What to do? She shook her head; the answer was not hard at all.
“Father, thank you for writing and for this offer. Yes, I will be available to play the prelude and postlude on May 11th. I will talk with you Sunday about help moving the instrument in. Thank you, again. Anna.”
She got up in the middle of the night, as usual, and noticed a brightness in the kitchen. Had she left on a light? She walked in. The night was clear, and the full moon nearly lit her kitchen. She looked at it from the window above the sink. Her eye caught the spice jar on the shelf that she had put the broken bit of Christmas cactus in back in January. It had a bud. She had never seen that: a fragment of a plant in a jar of water, ready to bloom.
Early in the morning of May 11 the phone rang.
“Hello, Fritz. How are you?”
“We are okay. You?”
“I’m okay. It has been a nice spring. You know, I don’t have as much time to talk this morning. I’m playing at church this morning.”
“What will you play?”
“Purcell. I’ve never played Purcell there, and, since I haven’t played there in so long, I wanted something different.”
“Yes, speaking of memories….”
“Yes, Fritz, it is kind of you to remember and to call today. How are you on this day?”
“I always think of him, but on his birthday more, and also because I am now working so much with Mathias Stefan on his violin playing.”
“Your father was a good teacher…”
”I wish he could hear Mathias Stefan. But, in his place, maybe you can?”
“Yes, we’ve prepared the very beginning of the Aria of Biber’s F Major Sonata. Do you have time?”
”Yes!” Over the phone, she heard the small sound of a small boy playing a small violin, but the understanding with which the boy played was not small.
“Fritz, I think you must be doing very well as a teacher.”
“Well, he has his special gifts, you know.”
“How is Ingrid?”
“She is fine and sends her greetings.”
“Tell her to write me. Fritz, thank you for calling.”
That Sunday morning was the height of springtime beauty: the trees and bushes revealing fresh and delicate greenery, the scent of lilacs and lilies of the valley wafted through the air.
It had been awhile since Anna had been to the 10:30 service. She forgot how the church changed with extra people, the bustle of children and parents coming from Sunday school, the sometimes elaborate coffee hours that came after the service. People greeted her kindly, and she was thankful that no one made reference to the changes in her activities at the church.
Playing the harpsichord for the prelude was unexpectedly emotional for her, and she was very glad that she had picked music that did not add to the flood of feelings. Memories of her first Sundays there after her husband had died, memories of Stefan’s visit, of seeing his mother’s harpsichord arrive, of recording on this instrument in the sweet acoustic of the room, and of many services moved across her mind. She knew the music at the moment needed her attention and promised her self that she would contemplate the emotions later in the day.
During the passing of the peace, she noticed the priest’s wife with their son, and she looked healthy. Anna had read in the newsletter that the treatments had been successful. Of course, reoccurrence was a possibility, but for the time being, the young family enjoyed a reprieve from illness.
After the Offertory hymn, the priest stood behind the altar to begin the Eucharistic prayer.
“On this Mother’s Day, I would like to offer this Mass in special thanksgiving for the life of Mrs. Anna Ebner whose generosity helped my family overcome – at least for the moment – the fatal consequences of a serious illness. Because of her generosity, my son has a mother on this day.”
At 2:00, Michael came over for their planned walk by Lake Michigan. When Anna opened the door, he handed her a bouquet of hand-picked lilies of the valley.
“Aren’t these your favorite?”
“Yes. Thank you for remembering.”
“Were they always?”
“What? My favorite?”
“Oh, I liked them, but the year Stefan died, I just couldn’t get enough of them. I never pick flowers out of other people’s yards, but that year I had no compunction about it.” She laughed, “Sounds sort of desperate, doesn’t it?”
They walked by the lake and in a part of the park that had beautiful wood brides built through the wooded area near by.
“Michael, how has it been going?”
“You mean the drinking stuff?”
“Well, I’m always scared that I’m going to fall. Sometimes I wonder if I should even be trying.”
“What? Be trying?”
“Yes. Taking the high road means you can fall, but the views are better.”
“He always said you had a good sense of humor.”
Anna smiled, “Are you still getting some help?”
“I’m still in outpatient treatment. I go three days a week.”
“Is that a lot?”
“It would be if alcohol was the only issue.”
“Anna, I’m also being treated for sexual addiction.”
They walked without talking past the newly blooming trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits.
“I never told you about this before.”
“How long have you known about it?”
“I first realized it when I met Richard.” Again they walked quietly. They rarely said the name of her husband.
“I suppose you wonder why I realized it then.”
Anna didn’t respond, so Michael continued.
“He was so hungry for sexual encounters with a man, and I realized I was taking advantage of him.”
“Michael, I am glad you are getting help. And I cannot talk about this any more.”
She woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling that she had forgotten to do something. What was it? She got up to use the bathroom and felt jangled. What was it?
Then she remembered: while playing the harpsichord at her church, she had promised herself that she would try to sift through all the memories and feelings that flooded her while playing. She hadn’t done that. The priest’s words before the Eucharistic Prayer had caught her off guard, and Michael’s revelation was painful in a number of ways.
She went into her living room and sat down at the harpsichord -- Stefan’s mother’s harpsichord. She began from memory the F sharp major prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stefan said it sounded like a walk in the park. “For the listener, yes, but with this key signature…” and they both had laughed before she finished. Did she miss Stefan more than Richard? She had never lived with him; there weren’t the years which inevitably add some wounds. Stefan was a musician. Michael’s revelation came to mind again. How could it not? His admission to using Richard sexually brought pain to her sexuality. People had questioned the ease with which she had allowed Richard to explore his homosexual side. She knew it was not about her. The difficult parts of their marriage had more to do with equal footing. His role as the director of the art museum implied that his priorities were more important than hers. This was a problem. It was not easy to know that his attentions were divided; it had not been easy to set her sexual needs aside, either.
Michael’s revelation wounded her because in a marriage two really do become one flesh: what happens to one happens to the other. Michael had used Richard; in return, Anna felt used.
There was too much to process. She could not keep the promise she had made to herself. She tried to begin the F sharp major prelude again when Simeon jumped up on her lap as he did from time to time when she practiced. He sat on her lap with his head leaning against her chest, purring, looking up at her. She stopped playing and hugged him.
“I’m a little stuck here, loving fur ball. What should I do next?”
He jumped off her lap and went into the kitchen. She kept a small lamp on the table for times when the overhead lamp was too much. She turned it on and went to the sink to pour some water for tea. The moon was bright in the window -- seemed too early for a full moon. It was; the calendar instead said it was a new moon. She looked out the window again when her eye caught sight of the spice glass that she had put the broken stem of the Christmas cactus in way back in January. It was blooming.