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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Life may have hit some wrong notes along the way, but my mom never stopped playing

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

For years and years, the sound of my mother practicing piano hymns for our Mormon congregation was the accompaniment of our family life.

“I Know that My Redeemer Lives.”

“Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

“God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”

Her piano playing was a constant – something she became known and admired for, in her church and community, at a very young age. She played frequently at our church, and was more than once assigned to be the congregation’s chief accompanist, playing every hymn, every Sunday. And she played for other gatherings around the community, as well.

She played in the small home we lived in 50 years ago, on Main Street in Gooding, Idaho. She played in our other homes in Gooding, as the family grew and we moved around. She played on the dairy farm, and she played in the small house back in town where I spent the bulk of my adolescence with my six brothers and sisters.

In my mind, I can see her at the keyboard perfectly: swaying forward and back with the song, peering at the sheet music, fingers finding their way nimbly to the right note. Always the right note.

She played all the time and she was great at it – deeply, truly skilled. I somehow managed never to truly appreciate that, despite the evidence in the air all around me.

Until recently, that is, when she sat down with me at the piano in her living room – that same piano she has played all these years, that same piano I had practiced on as a young child until I complained my way out of lessons, the piano that she still plays, though her hands sometimes hurt too much to play for long – and gave me some simply excellent advice about how to begin again after a lifetime away from the keyboard.

I saw then that my mother was something I never once gave her credit for being: an artist. A creator of beauty. Someone with an ability, and a practice, that could have, if I were paying attention, taught me a lot about the sustaining value of finding an artistic practice in the midst of a life that does not make it easy to do so.

The older I get, the more clearly I see that. And the more clearly I see all that I did not see – about her piano playing and everything else – before.

Living with Dad’s ghost

We had a bad dad, my brothers and sisters and I.

He was more than that, of course. More than any two-word summary. He had a long life, a life of ups and many downs. He was a good dad at times, even a great dad, especially early in our lives.

There were many, many years when I loved him – years when I could not have admired anyone as much as I admired my dad. And then came many, many years when I thought I hated him, and then some final years where I knew what I felt was neither of those, neither in pure measure, but something that was made of both. To reduce him to two words – bad dad – feels too small.

And yet, he was unquestionably not a good father. Starting when I was 11 years old, after a lifetime of being a business and church leader, Dad managed to land himself in jail for crimes of increasing desperation and absurdity. His dishonesty covered the landscape from the petty to the criminal, and hung over my adolescence like a cloud.

So, even for the many subsequent years of estrangement, when we had no contact, he remained in some ways the chief parental presence in my life. The ghost of him did. My brothers and sisters and I talk about him all the time – probing the hidden places to try and understand what happened.

I have written about my father before. I wrote a short memoir about him and his crimes and my family. Before I wrote it, I spoke to several people who I grew up with, asked them questions about Dad, tried to fill in the blanks, tried to figure him out. In one of those conversations, the father of my oldest friend told me a lot about what my father had been like in the good old days when I was very young.

And then he asked me a question I’ve been asking myself ever since.

Why don’t you write about your mother instead?

Mom’s life lesson

My mother’s early years were spent on a farm without indoor plumbing in Richfield, Idaho. She was one of a large, close-knit Mormon family. Her father died when she was in high school. She went on to college, and became a school teacher in Gooding, where she met and married my father and raised us.

We don’t agree on plenty of things, me and Mary Jane Bodily. She raised me in a religion that I have left, Mormonism. She is reverent, and I am irreverent. She has a passionate devotion to a clean, tidy house that utterly failed to attach itself to me. She loves hymns, and I love rock and roll.

But whatever moral grounding I’ve got, I got from her. Whatever work ethic I’ve picked up, I learned from her. Whatever instinct toward kindness or forgiveness came from her. Whatever ability I have to absorb difficulties and move on – whatever my level of grit, as they now call it – I learned by living through difficult times with someone who took on an enormous burden left to her by a derelict husband, out of the blue, and carried it day by day, obstacle by obstacle.

She was the grittiest, my Mom, and there may be no more important life lesson than the one she modeled for us: Keep going. Don’t give up. All of this passes.

That was how she carried us through. Head down, moving forward. We didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on problems. We spent our time living on, moving ahead, acting as if those difficulties didn’t exist.

Until, after many years, those difficulties drifted ever further into the past, ceased being the main story of our lives – or at least stopped feeling that way – receded more and more into the prologue to our long and fortunate lives.

She got us through. And, like her brilliance at the piano, I didn’t fully appreciate it while she was doing it.

My new perspective

When I was young – 5 or so – Mom would drive me half an hour to a neighboring town once a week for piano lessons.

I still recall riding in the car and listening to AM radio. “Delta Dawn.” “Angel of the Morning.” I can recall stopping every time at an outdoor water fountain built into a basalt wall in the Snake River Canyon, on our way to and from lessons.

Later, she took me to lessons from other teachers. I remember the little Chopin bust one teacher gave me for completing a set of lessons. I remember the anxiety of waiting backstage to play at a student recital in an echoing room on a still Sunday afternoon.

I never liked it. I complained and complained, and eventually she let me stop. Then, like so many of us, I spent my adulthood wishing I could play, wishing I had the skill that my mother had.

A couple of years back, I bought a keyboard and began trying to play again. I am not good. I play songs out of books meant for students and children, and I struggle. You wouldn’t want me to play hymns at your church.

But doing so has helped me to see my mother with fresh eyes. To find an appreciation for her artistry that I never had. I wish I had been able to see it earlier, and let her know then that I saw it. I feel the same way about her mighty effort to carry her six children through unexpected hardship. It’s only now, as a parent myself in circumstances that are luxurious and self-indulgent by comparison, that I really recognize it.

When I play the piano, I hit a lot of wrong notes. But I’m lucky to know, because she showed me, that if I keep trying, I’ll hit more and more right ones.

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