Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Composing the Air

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"Who will I be if I’m not a gymnast?" my 14-year-old daughter asks in the car on the way home from practice, my first inkling that she’s thinking about quitting the team. After a faltering start, competing for a year when she was eight, leaving and returning when she was ten, her life has revolved around gymnastics for the last five years. It’s second nature for her to ride in elevators upside down, to practice handstand pirouettes in the living room and cartwheels on curbs, to erupt into rows of back handsprings in grassy areas.

I don’t know what to make of the abrupt reversal of her passion. I’m surprised by my profound sense of loss, as if something is being erased from my own life. I actually lie awake for a night, churning with an unnamed sorrow.

~

When I quit piano at 15, my mother plunged into her own prolonged spell of anger and grief. "It’s boys, isn’t it?" my teacher said. "When teenage girls get interested in boys, they always quit."

It was lots of things. One boy, and being overwhelmed by high school, and a longing to write stories, and the knowledge that without a lot of work, I wasn’t going to get better at piano. My mother didn’t understand. When I told her I’d quit, she abruptly left the room. For a week she emanated hurt and fury. She looked at the floor or out the window or past me, at the birds on the wallpaper, never at me. She refused to speak to me. My dad joined her campaign of silence, casting me disgusted looks for hurting my mother. I felt invisible, erased, like I couldn’t breathe. I dreaded going home every afternoon. I contemplated running away, but the idea of that much drama repelled me.

For a week I rode the bus home to chilly silence, feeling invisible and wanting nothing more than to vanish into thin air. Eventually my parents shifted back to normal, acknowledging my existence again. But I believed from then on that there was something conditional about my mother’s love, that I could disappoint her enough to sever our connection. So when my own daughter talks about giving up gymnastics, I know I must tread carefully. I understand my mother so much better now that I’ve lost my round-cheeked baby, my tiny gymnast in shiny leotards, my confident hula-hooping girl, my young teenager who rhapsodized about how her team was her family. One by one, the baby, the toddler, the child, and the teenager have vanished into thin air.

~

At six, seven, eight, I longed to play the piano. At those same ages, my daughter was eager to master back walkovers and arabesques and handstands. She was oblivious to trophies and ribbons, full of delighted surprise whenever she was called to the podium. When I was eight, I received a slippery keyboard for Christmas, its keys color-coded to the notes in the accompanying music books. I hammered out "Good King Wenceslas" and "Scarborough Fair," amazed that I could turn individual notes into tunes, oblivious that anyone might be listening.

The first time my daughter quit gymnastics right before her ninth birthday, I was mildly regretful. She announced that she was returning a year and a half later, at ten, and at 11 was a state beam champion. I was 12 by the time my parents bought a piano and felt far behind my friends who’d taken lessons since they were six. Though beset by self-doubt, I tore through the first few books, much to the pride of my mom and my teacher.

Our piano was a used, black upright that my parents placed against the basement wall so that the damp made the keys and pedals stick. Before it became an ordinary, sticky instrument that was always falling out of tune, it was magical. As you lifted the keyboard cover, the front panel suddenly puffed out as if taking a breath, it lungs filling with air. I held it up, plunking notes, each struck key throwing felt-covered hammers against strings. I was fascinated by this process that normally took place in secret, unseen. Our piano sounded deeper and richer than my teacher’s: hers was small and shiny, honey-colored and rounded, its tone elegant and high-pitched, the bench so polished I feared I would slide right off. It made me feel lunky and heavy-handed, not quite gentle and feminine enough; it seemed to highlight my lack of talent. And yet I had fun, at home, pounding on that monstrosity, my notes competing with the sounds of the washer and dryer across the hall, tennis shoes bouncing through the dryer barrel like a metronome.

I know what it's like to love something deeply and then, all of a sudden, not love it. So my daughter’s fading passion for gymnastics shouldn’t surprise me. She once wrote in a school assignment about the "big graceful swish" of completing a cartwheel on the beam, how it felt to "jump high in the chalky air before landing with a loud bang."  Her descriptions made me think of how, when the gym goes silent between floor music, you can hear the bars creak, the beam crash. My daughter has always taken pride in the rips on her hands, the calluses she has developed, all worth it for the feeling of flying that the bars gave her. She loved the rebound on a spring floor after a final tumbling pass, flying high before she found her balance, struck her pose, and saluted.

At the end of the school year the spring she is 14, my daughter writes in a school essay, "I have lost the excitement of flipping and spinning in the air with a soft gruffly mat under me. I will leap across the beam with my legs in a 180-degree split and suddenly I won’t find any satisfaction or happiness at doing a great split leap on the four-inch beam."

Once upon a time, I had loved our piano, an object that seemed so full of promise; once upon a time, my daughter had loved the beam, the bars, the springy floor for the feeling they gave her.

~

Even after I began to lose interest, I went on playing the piano for my mother. Her impoverished musical background mystified me, mostly consisting of hymns on Sundays. When I was a child, she plotted her life around Saturday night broadcasts of the Lawrence Welk show. When I was 13, she asked my piano teacher if I could learn a piece called "Amaryllis."  Mom had fond memories of performing it with an elementary school rhythm band. She’d played the triangle. This seemed sad since I’d had opportunities to sing in choirs and play the clarinet in the school band, as well as all those years of piano lessons.

But still. I didn’t want to play some dumb song from my mother’s past. I wanted to play my own yearnings; cool, heart-wrenching stuff, the themes from Romeo and Juliet and Love Story. Rolling my eyes, I submitted grudgingly to learning her baby song. "Amaryllis," read the heading. "Air Composed by King Louis XIII."  I played this song over and over, sometimes practicing it in the air, under tables, on desks, imagining that this was how King Louis XIII had composed, on his imaginary air piano. Or maybe instead he’d been floating in a hot air balloon. I didn’t know that an Air was a type of song, and so, as I played, I imagined all the ways it might have been air composed, brought to life out of thin air.

My teacher made me play "Amaryllis" at a recital. I embarrassed my mother, wearing jeans among all the little girls in puffy party dresses. All the kids my age who’d been taking lessons since they were six performed complex, sophisticated pieces, dense with tangles of black notes, requiring the assistance of a page-turner. I slapped my two facing pages of sheet music onto the stand and whipped through it. The subsequent polite applause was humiliating, undeserved, feeling like acclaim for doing something basic, like sounding out the words in a Dick and Jane reader.

But I kept playing a couple more years, my pride in my crashing chords, pedal action, and cross-handed tricks evaporating each time I had to participate in a recital. Each one reminded me, once again, how far I was behind earnest ten-year-olds in coats and ties, satin and flounces. My mother always beamed. Listening to me play made her happy. Sometimes, practicing downstairs in the family room, knowing she was upstairs listening, I played "Amaryllis."  She never let on whether she noticed this small gift I grudgingly offered her.

Who knows why both my mother and I were so invested in our children’s activities?   For my mother, and later for me as a mother, the pleasures of piano and gymnastics were partly concrete—they afforded us bonding experiences with our daughters—but largely abstract. They were about the steady progress through which we could document our children’s growth and change.

When I was young, Title IX hadn’t fully kicked in, and few girls I knew participated in sports. So maybe, as piano gave my musically-deprived mom a chance to live vicariously, gymnastics did the same for me. Despite the hard, backless wooden and aluminum benches of bleachers, the interminable rotations and mind-numbing repetitions of compulsory floor music, watching gymnastics meets made me happy. I liked observing the linear progression of my daughter and her teammates as they mastered new skills and executed them with more and more confidence. I liked the small dramas as kids fell and got back up again, fell short of goals and readjusted them, discovered one small skill or talent.

But for me the best part was the excuse to spend time together, to build a community. On weekends, we drove all over Western Pennsylvania and New York. I got to know other parents around hotel pools containing wall-to-wall girls, their screams echoing, the air so thick with chlorine that my eyes burned until I retreated to my room to read. My daughter and I bought fresh strawberries at Sheetz to eat in the car and lit Hanukkah candles in hotel rooms and late at night she offered confessions about her future dreams and gossip about who in her grade had lost their virginity. And through gymnastics, we made good friends and did things we would have never done otherwise.

The summer my daughter turns 15, she seems sad. It’s not just gymnastics she has lost interest in. All she really wants to do is sleep, glide on a longboard under the trees, and edit photographs that she posts on Instagram:  herself in the backyard, wearing butterfly wings, or floating in the air among the stars. I will later remember these months as if we spent them trapped in a small, dark room, claustrophobic as walls of sadness close in on us. I order furniture for the porch, plant flowers, desperate to sit in a breezy, colorful, sunlit place.

"If I quit, I’ll have to take down my pictures," my daughter says to me. Her bedroom wall is plastered with posters and pages torn from Inside Gymnastics. She seems relieved when I tell her that, even if she quits, she doesn’t have to change everything overnight. So she leaves the pictures up, and she goes on flinging herself to the couch in front handsprings, hanging by her knees from the cabinet in the den, throwing herself onto her hands and walking on them in the living room.

She has fear issues, common for gymnasts. Though she has pushed through her fear of the vault and conquered the back handspring, the high bar kip, the flyaway, the aerial cartwheel, she flatly refuses to do a back walkover on beam or to work on back tucks. Now, at 15, she’s poised to start optionals, where she will finally be allowed to maneuver around her weaknesses and emphasize strengths. So I try to convince her to give it more time, and grudgingly, she keeps going.

She chooses floor music and, at her request, I contact a custom music company for an arrangement. She designs her competition leotard and asks me to hire a dance teacher to help her with choreography. At her request, I find a gymnastics club in Dublin where she can work out while I’m teaching a workshop there. Home again, we drive to Allegheny State Park on hot summer evenings where she practices on the deserted Red House beach, front tucks and back handsprings, leaps and turns. She swims out to the wooden platform to practice there, concentrating for hours.

Afterward she always says, "I still want to quit."

I remember feeling at 15 that I had peaked, that my fingers often remembered notes long after my brain had disengaged, then began to falter, confused. I was having trouble forcing my brain and fingers to connect again. And when it came right down to it, I just wanted to write. Years later I published an article about my childhood love of writing, and my mother said, "I had no idea that this was so important to you."

So I know: sometimes you have to give things up to discover your real passions. "I am itchy for elated adventure," my daughter wrote in a poem when she was 12. At 13, she crossed a busy eight-lane street alone in Guilin, China, to buy gum at a store where no one spoke English. Now, at 15, she takes buses and taxis by herself around Dublin and Galway while I’m working. She asks to attend a combined Muslim, Jewish, and Christian service at Chautauqua, goes to ballets and concerts, reads poetry. She makes a trip to Niagara Falls with a busload of Japanese students and accompanies friends to an Indian concert in Buffalo. She hungers for a bigger world. I pick her up from gymnastics one day and she says, "What’s going on in Egypt? Nobody here cares about what’s going on in Egypt." And I see that something is happening, something more important than any gymnastics skill, and I vow not to miss it the way my mother failed to see what was happening to me.

That night we talk and talk. "I don’t know why I need to quit, I just do," she says. Ten years from now, what will I wish I’d said?  What do I wish my own mother had said?  That it’s okay to follow your heart, that what was once fun, a source of pleasure, doesn’t have to become work, a career.

And so finally, in September, my daughter quits. For the next couple of months, she flies through book after book, she shoots sports events for the yearbook, she takes hip-hop and contemporary dance, she figures out how to make professional-quality bows with a hot glue gun. "How can I understand characters in books if I don’t understand myself?" she asks me.

But she misses gymnastics. And by the end of October and the beginning of the competition season, she waffles again and returns to the team. She’s clearly winding down, though, missing lots of practices, transferring her focus to other things.

I went back to piano for a year when I was 18. My mother had by then taken up lessons herself, learning to play hymns from her childhood. As she picked out songs on the piano and, later, her own fancy keyboard, her Christian soldiers kept stumbling out of line, her grace was amazing for its dissonance, but still, I was happy to hear her slow, laborious process of searching out each chord, the clashes of notes and then her triumph each time she broke through her childhood deprivation and settled into sounds that worked together.

Years later, when I was an adult, before I was a mother myself, my mother, by then half deaf, mailed me her keyboard. I could hardly wait to set it up, and I sat up half the night, finding notes still hidden in my fingers. It was an uncertain time in my life, and I played "Amaryllis," feeling like King Louis XIII himself, the air composer who I’d imagined swept up by wind, a skinny king skittering like an ant on a windy day, too light to keep his bearings, his only gravity the tune in his head. My mother thought of me as flighty, hovering above the earth; she worried about what would become of me. I understand now, as a mother, that I have to brace myself for this: for my own daughter’s floundering need to find her own way.

But for all my own mother’s fretting, I eventually landed in a life that suits me. Eventually I spent years driving with my own daughter to gymnastics meets. And now, as my 15-year-old daughter competes for one last year, on the way to a meet as we pass through a tunnel of trees, the knives of sunlight slicing through us feel edged with the sharp awareness that she will soon be grown and gone. Sun and shadow, sun and shadow pass over our faces like transient joy. Branches lean above us like couples during a contra dance, giving us a center through which to promenade. Hills rise up before us, blocking our view, so it seems like we might climb the next one and then simply fall down into the sky.

But we don’t. We rise and rise up the hill until the incline doesn’t seem so precipitous, surmount the hill, and come out on the other side.


Nancy McCabe is the author of four books, and her essays have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, most recently Oh Baby: True Tales of Conception, Adoption, Pregnancy, Surrogacy, Labor, and Love from In Fact Books. Her work has received a Pushcart and made notable lists six times in anthologies in the Houghton-Mifflin Best American series.


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