Suzanne and Tim performing, mid-1970’s
(Written 2018July12, about a songwriting event in the dwindling months of 1973, on Seattle’s north side, as Providence slid quietly toward disbanding.)
It’s an autumn evening and my girlfriend, Suzanne, is serving one of her big wonderful salads for supper. Baked sweet potatoes too. Perhaps we had already been tripping for hours on a bit of acid and figured our digestion had recovered enough to handle a real meal. The memory is foggy, except for the delicious tahini herb sauce she put on the table. I applied it liberally … and simply ate too much. My belly wanted nothing more complex than water. Gradually I became uncomfortable, then more so, and too hot. My eye fell on the cello, as it often did, and I took it with the bow and my custom folding chair outside in the cool air where a few stars were able to stab through the cloud cover, to my delight. I opened the door to the water heater shed, went in and closed the door. The pitch dark was just right, my old friend from childhood. I gazed at subtle and fascinating patterns illuminating the insides of my eyelids.
It requires no light to play cello. I loosened up my fingers with four-octave scales and little etudes: Cossman double-stop calisthenics, my own string-crossing games, and the only double-stop warm-up trick of her own devices that my high school cello teacher in Boise, Catherine Bieler, had taught me. I was in the mood to play slowly and listen closely to the pitches, making micro-adjustments to yield tonal shades of various emotive colors. Before long, a modified version of Catherine’s little four-chord cycle was gaining more length and I found myself humming a tune to go with it as a tiny three-voice chorale.
For me, a tune often begets a lyric phrase, perhaps something silly, or thought-provoking – maybe just a placeholder. In this case it begot two lines over the course of a couple hours, which later evolved slightly into:
“Mom, I’m moving far and near; a clear reflection of you teeters on my tear
Blessing, caressing, almost free; the feelings you denied yourself survive in me.”
At some point Suzanne brought me a steaming cup of herb tea, then left me to resume the meditative evening, dedicated to my music major mom, Charlotte Boggs Tompkins. She sang to me as a little kid at bedtime and other times of the day, and sat me beside her on the piano bench, teaching nursery rhymes and Christmas carols, such that, around the time of my third birthday in 1950, she and my dad were able to produce a recording of me on vinyl, with audio from tape that was engineered at the old Oregonian newspaper building in Portland, Oregon. They sent that record to Ongole, in southeast India, where her parents were deeply engaged for decades in medical missionary work, with tropical medicine expertise.
Of course I still think of Mom when I play the song, especially now that she is departed, these past two days. In my early, most formative years, she provided a mother’s love with a warm core surrounded by a structure too stiff and chilly-English for my sensibilities. Yet here I am, happily married going on 38 years to Frances, with music and engineering and complex human relationships to keep me stimulated; with both the inclination and skillset to write words and music to express the thoughts and feelings that boundaries and breaches of boundaries bring out.
Thanks and a tip o’ the Tompkins hat to y’, Mom.