Sunday, January 16, 2011

My mother's Memorial Service held today, with interesting music and a standalone comedy play

Today, Sunday Jan. 16, 2011, the Memorial Service for my Mother was held at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC. Please see the Dec. 21 posting on the “BillBoushka” blog for a coordinated post.

The musical prelude was a fugal and polytonal setting for piano of the old hymn “O God Our Help In Ages Past”, originally by Isaac Watts, adapted by Dr. Lawrence Schreiber. But a lot of old hymns can use some polytonality.

The same hymn followed as conventionally harmonized, for the congregation to sing. Later the Hymn “Lord Speak to Me that I May Speak” by Robert Schumann followed. I am not sure if the theme comes from one of Schumann’s sets of piano “miniatures”. The other hymn was a favorite of the Virginia Federation of Music Clubs when I took piano in the 1950s, “All Creatures of Our God and King” (St. Francis of Assisi).

The scripture was Psalm 90:1-12, and Matthew 25:31-40, which deals with openness to take care of others. There was also a homily based on the famous Love Chapter in I Corinthians. I remember the popular song, "Without Love I Am Nothing at All", playing on my car radio in 1970 as I drove off Fort Eustis when getting out of the Army!

The tributary music was the ninth movement from the two-piano set “Shy and Mighty” by Timo Andres (Nonesuch 522413-2) (The review of the entire set appears on this blog May 20, 2010 and has the Amazon link for CD and MP3 purchase). The piece called “Flirtation Avenue”, which starts out slow and picks up momentum, through a mixture of jazz and polytonal manipulations, with a rowdy proliferation of 88-key arpeggios at the end, up and down. In a sanctuary, played through a sound system, the effect was stunning, even overwhelming. The sheer physical virtuosity of the piano music seemed to capture everyone’s attention. It sounds like a musical “program” of courtship, eventually leading to climax, and, well , maybe a baby. All the sudden it seemed that the Memorial service was becoming a cross-century tribute to a life that had spanned 97 years, with cultural elements ranging from High Church to the Poisson Rouge, hipster culture and Bleeker Street. The young carry on a culture that previous generations no longer recognize.

I then gave my tribute:

“On a Sunday in late January, 1956, when I was in Seventh Grade, My Mother I were baptized by immersion by Dr. Pruden in the baptistery right behind this lectern, simultaneously. The sanctuary had opened Christmas Day, 1955, when blue light came into the sanctuary through windows that would be filled with contributions, including those of my parents. New Years Day 1956 we had sung the same hymn that we opened this service with, which in those days was Hymn #1.

“I have great memories of my childhood and adolescence in Arlington, in the same house in which my mother lived almost until her passing. My Mother’s memories go back to a childhood in Ohio during World War I, to her coming to Washington in the 1930s with the help of Great Aunt Frances in Alexandria, to find work during the Depression. Both of my parents lived in Y’s until they met and married; in those days, middle class people typically didn’t have their own places until they got married. She came of age in a time when people took streetcars, and when men were expected to protect women and children, regardless of their own status. She would marry Father in this Church, but the previous building, in May, 1940.

“There’s a detailed biography in the program, which I hope you will read (See “Bill Boushka” blog, Dec. 21, for links). There is even more detail to tell, which would make a great movie. What I say there about my piano lessons is particularly relevant. For my mother, Life was to be experienced and lived as it was, as part of a family and as a community. It was not her prerogative to try to change things globally in the external world outside the family. She believed that we all must belong, that we must take care of one another, and that everyone is his brother’s and sister’s keeper, regardless of life choices.

“She was wary of the dangers of violence in our culture, particularly the media, even when I was growing up, and wary of the dangers of drawing attention to self when not involved in meeting the needs of other people.

“As many of you may know, my own life would take a different track. I am an only child, and I did not give my parents grandchildren and carry on a family lineage, which they may have at one time thought they could count on. I would be so much like both my mother and father, and then so different from each one, because that is what happens with having children.

“I was different, and the title of the composition excerpted for this service composed by my friend Timo Andres, “Shy and Mighty”, perhaps sums up my outlook. I became an activist, and with the aid of modern technology, joined the battle to overturn “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. With the advent of desktop self-publishing and the Internet, I became very public as to my own story, and yet socially somewhat hidden away, literally as in Josh Groban’s song. The early part of the story occurred when I went away to college, to William and Mary, in the fall of 1961, having won a chemistry scholarship. I would be asked to leave the college right after Thanksgiving, after admitting to the Dean of Men, under pressure, that I thought I was gay. The Dean actually called my parents visiting friends in Charlotte, NC, probably putting them through an agonizing holiday weekend and trip to Williamsburg. My parents stuck by through a very difficult period of my life, as they put me through college at George Washington (as I lived at home), a Masters at the University of Kansas, and served in the military (through the draft) anyway. (This kind of incident, given the circumstances could have tested their marriage.)

“The story that would unfold in the decades to follow is filled with the twists and ironies of any good movie. It would become as much about how I would accomplish things as what I would accomplish. I would not have to compete with others or interact with them emotionally in the way most people are accustomed to. In time my mother became ill, and eventually I would return. The last two or three years, in which she did decline from her own epic life, were very difficult for me to both watch and participate in. I am grateful to the caregivers who made it possible for me to function at all.

“On Friday, December 10, I went by Metro to the Capitol grounds for a rally concerning the final standalone bill (from Senator Lieberman) to repeal DADT. As I arrived, I got a call from a caregiver that she needed immediate attention from Hospice; I tended to my own life and remained for the entire rally, given how critical it was. We know that the repeal would soon pass. That evening, Mother went to Hospice. The last time she was conscious with me around was when some of the music of Schumann was playing in the Hospice system. The last music she would ever hear becomes the Postlude to this service. It is music of defiance, and of triumph, and of closing of one period of one’s life and entering another. The music has a hymn-like theme at the end, which is not used in our denomination, but I believe it is used by others.”

“I close by mentioning the song by Josh Groban,” If I Walk Away” where he sings “Please follow me”, which we’ll hear in the Reception. You have to Believe to follow someone, because usually it takes a conceit to demand to be followed. Mother believed.”


A friend of Mother made her remarks, toward the end, into a series of quotes that I had never heard of, befitting Sarah Silverman or Kate Clinton.

For example, “What’s the matter? You want to talk with your girlfriend?”

To a question about chasing men, “I’d like to, but only the rich ones would make it worthwhile.”

“You tell King Tut that’s what happens when he sits on his butt too much.”

As far as the odd spelling of the family name, “Well, I haven’t found another man to change it for me.”

When someone wanted to come over and look after she’d fallen on ice, “You do and your backside will need the same treatment.”

“I hope a good looking guy doesn’t come around tonight. I’m just too tired to try to chase after him” (Hint: “Flirtation Avenue.”)

“He knows that I prefer older men.”

“If I’m thin-skinned, it’s a good thing my tongue is loose”.

“That bad leg has been giving me an awful time… I wish someone could have made it worthwhile.”

About her husband, “she always did like cake.”

Everyone said that she had her sense of humor, even with dementia. It was hard to tell if it was intended to be funny, or if she was really unveiling her “moral” expectations for everyone.

The postlude was the finale of the Second Symphony of Schumann, as performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419190, 1985). I’ve written about this work before, but, just as in the Dec. 11 concert reviewed here, Andres and Schumann on the same program make a good mix. And I think every church can use some Schumann.

In the reception, we played some of Josh Groban’s CD Illuminations (CD may offer a Webcast product key). I guess Groban composes a lot of the music (such as the instrumental prelude “The Wandering Kind”). The guests seem to enjoy “Hidden Away”, “If I Walk Away”, and “War at Home” (which seems to refer to the former draft). I followed this with the fugal cadenza and finale from Eugen D’Albert’s First Piano Concerto (“The Everwood”, composed before age 20), and started, to conclude, Stanford’s “Irish Rhapsody #4”, which we didn’t have time to finish. So I played it loudly when I got home before I did anything else.  (The "Danny Boy" theme that Josh Groban sings in "You Raise Me Up" actually appears in Irish Rhapdsody #1, but it is #4 that rises to such an overpowering close; would have been good for the Royal Wedding.)

So my take is, even if Prince William and Kate Middleton have the Queen’s composer (Maxwell Davies) for their April wedding, they should start their married life off with the Stanford Rhapsody as their wedding postlude (forget Mendelssohn and Wagner). They’ll have their own live symphony orchestra (if the royal budget can afford it). As with the Schumann, the triumph at the end of the 19-minute Stanford tone poem is transformative, moving us from one life to another. Every royal wedding can use some Stanford! And maybe the royal wedding should also try “Flirtation Avenue”. After all, we’re celebrating marriage.

My own parents were married for 45 years, before my father’s death on New Year’s Day 1986.  Memoiral services, and the receptions that follow, mark a time of transition, a moving into something new for everyone. It's just the life cycle.

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