My mother, Buttercup

A Table Talker remembers the woman who gave him the gift of music, and a voice in the grotto.

Published August 18, 2006 8:13AM (EDT)


I Miss ...

David Giltinan - 07:25 pm Pacific Time -- Aug 16, 2006 -- #224 of 231

I miss accompanying my mom on the piano. She was blessed with a magnificent soprano voice, and in the small community in Ireland where I grew up she was much sought after to sing at weddings, and was an active member of the church choir and the local choral society (as well as being an extremely busy G.P., the only woman doctor of the six in the town).

The choral society would generally schedule one production a year. So throughout my teenage years, until I went away to college, it was my job to help my mom learn her part for whichever show was being produced that year. She'd have the Nettie Fowler/Reverend Mother/Lady Thiang/Aunt Eller kind of role, or if it was Gilbert and Sullivan, she would be the battle-ax who gets to marry the patter-song guy at the end (Katisha/Buttercup/Ruth). The fun thing was these parts often get some really beautiful music to sing. Besides the showstoppers ("Climb Every Mountain," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the like) there was some wonderful music, often subtle, some of it quite difficult.

Although I used to whine occasionally back then about having to do it, I think, even during the emotional fog of adolescence, that I was never a total brat about it, because somewhere deep down I realized that this wasn't something most kids got to do. In addition, the music was so beautiful, and when my mother sang, she lit up -- and could light up a room. You'd be an idiot not to want to be a part of it. And it was fun to go with her to Shanahan's, the sheet music store in Cork, to look for new music for her to sing -- the shop owner, whose daughter was a patient of hers, and a fan, would have these great suggestions (Rusalka's Song to the Moon, Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt).

Though I realize it only now, I suppose that part of what made it so much fun was that this was guaranteed time with my mom; it was something just the two of us shared, as neither my dad nor my sister could play a note on any instrument. Given that she ran a thriving medical practice, organized or participated in most of the volunteer efforts in our town, and raised a family, things could get pretty busy.

But what sticks with me is the extraordinary quality and purity of her voice. When I was 14, we went on a family holiday to Italy. Long story short, we find ourselves doing the usual tourist stuff, visiting Capri, scheduled to see the Blue Grotto. So the deal is, the entrance is really narrow, you have to transfer to these really small boats, no more than two per boat. Generally the gondola guy gives you a couple of minutes inside, then out again. My mom and I are in one boat, my dad and my sister in a different one. We get inside the grotto, which is truly spectacular, and the boat guy points to my mom and says: "Sing!" So she starts with "Return to Sorrento," which she and I had agreed she had to learn in Italian before going on vacation. It's just one of those moments that you're thankful for your whole life. The acoustics are phenomenal, she's hitting the high note, I look over at the boat guy -- he's weeping! She finishes. All the other boats erupt in furious applause.

So the reverberations die down and all the other boats move out of the cave, including the one with my dad and my sister. Our guy doesn't move. He points to my mother and says "Encore!" She starts up on "O, mio babbino caro." The acoustics are amazing -- I'm looking at the gondola guy, who has this completely beatific expression, and I start to wonder how long the recital is going to be. "Musetta's Waltz Song," Mozart's "Allelujah," ... "The Last Rose of Summer" ... Twenty-five minutes I will never forget. My poor sister was sooooo pissed and soooooo jealous. Though it was not an entirely risk-free experience -- when we finally got out, the guy was so busy kissing my mom that I thought someone was going to fall out of the boat. Although I never really thought about it when I was growing up, looking back I realize that it was to my dad's enormous credit that whenever something like that happened, all he ever took away from it was sheer delight. Proud of his wife's gift and happy at the joy she took in singing and the joy she brought to others.

And I get to spook my colleagues with my uncanny familiarity with all of the songs in "Calamity Jane"!

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