Tag Archives: piano

Losing Susan

18 Jan

yellow, orange rosesHer favorite colors were orange and yellow. I didn’t know this about her until after she died—when I had to ask her family what color flowers were going to be ordered for her memorial service which I was helping to facilitate. All these years she’s been my friend and I never knew that she loved orange and yellow the best. How did I not know that about her?

For over twenty years, Susan Samuel and I have seen each other at least once a month at our music teacher meetings, recitals and musical events. Although she often talked about her family, I had never once met her two grown sons or said more than a quick “hello” to her husband on the phone. I knew that she was originally from Montana; that she was a micro-biologist before becoming a piano teacher and that she loved music. I knew that she was a brilliant, funny and kind person and that I always felt completely comfortable being around her. I knew that I loved her even though I never once took the time to tell her that. Now I wish that I had told her how much she meant to me.

Two weeks ago, Susan suffered a massive stroke. She was only sixty-seven and in excellent health. She went to her yoga class, came home at noon and was discovered unconscious by her husband later on that afternoon. That night, after emergency brain surgery, she was placed in drug-induced coma until a week later when the difficult decision was made to take her off life support. She died peacefully with her family at her side.

Susan’s memorial was held at the small church where I’m the pianist; Susan also held her piano recitals there, so her husband thought it would be appropriate to honor her in a place where she had a connection. The church was standing room only—people stood against the walls and packed the foyer to listen to the musical offerings and spoken tributes in honor of Susan. It was a meaningful and emotional service.

I had the honor of speaking at Susan’s memorial and this is a part of what I shared:

You may not know this, but we music teachers are a nutty bunch. We’re highly emotional, often insecure and have a habit of taking things personally. We can also get quite hot-headed if things don’t go our way.

It’s not our fault—we can’t help it. After all, we’re artists, and as artists our greatest desire is to bring as much beautiful music into this world as possible. Who has time for organization, protocol and good sense? Who has the skill and ability to handle all those annoying details so that recitals and events run smoothly and easily?

Well, once in a great while, along comes an artist who has all of aforementioned attributes—someone who was passionate about music AND was able to keep a level head and civil tongue, as well as a smile on her face. That artist was Susan Samuel. And to be honest, I don’t know how anything ever got done in our music teachers’ organization before she came along.

When I was nominated as president of our branch, I took Susan aside and told her I didn’t want the job. She looked me right in the eyes and said, “Yes, Jessica—you do want the job,” in that reasonable, no nonsense tone of voice which meant, you’re doing it whether you want to or not. Well, okay then. Then she invited me out to lunch to talk about the job responsibilities, and I thought, “Good. Here’s my chance to pick her brain about how she does everything so effortlessly.”

But that didn’t happen when we went to lunch. In fact, we never even discussed it. Instead, she asked me about my other life—my husband, my children; my gardening and my writing. It was the start of many meaningful conversations over the years where she would tell me about her life—that how before she was a piano teacher, she was a micro-biologist; what Montana was like during the summer; about her two brothers and their struggles; about her father’s antique car collection; about how she loved to play the piano. She especially liked to talk about her husband, Chuck and how proud she was of her two boys, Jon and Dave—and how Jon’s wife, Emilia was a keeper. Oh, yeah—and the grandson on the way. She really liked to talk about that—a lot.

Susan was always our go-to person. At one time or another, most of us in our branch have relied on Susan to give us the correct answer or word the sentence in exactly the right way. I know I’ve never once made an important decision without calling her first to ask her opinion. Last week, when I found out that Susan had suffered a stroke, I wondered when it would be appropriate for me to send out an email to the membership to let them know what happened and my first thought was: I need to call Susan and ask her what I should do.

The fact that none of us call Susan any longer is beyond my comprehension. That we won’t see her smiling face at our monthly meetings and listen to her laugh or watch her roll her eyes over something ridiculous. That she is gone leaves a huge space in our lives and I can say with certainty that our branch will never be the same again.

Susan touched us all with her warmth, her kindness, her graciousness and her humble nature. We will miss her intelligence, her wit, her funny, yet gentle sarcasm, and especially how easy it was to spend time with her. We will miss how she kept us grounded.

Yes, it’s true that we musicians are artists, and we often walk around with our heads in the clouds. Sometimes we ignore the details; sometimes we forget to be diplomatic; and sometimes we fly off the handle. But Susan set the bar for us—she showed us how to do it right; and how to do it well, and for that we will be forever grateful.

We will always love you, Susan. Rest in peace, our dear friend.

Since Susan died I have been walking around with a lump in my throat and a burning sensation behind my eyes. I realize it’s because Susan is the first close friend I’ve lost.  I know there are many profound lessons to learn from her death,  but as I’m in the midst of grieving it’s difficult to figure out what those lessons are right now. Perhaps it’s that I need to learn to live each day as my last, because it may very well be. Or that I should not be afraid to say aloud to those people I care most about the words I should have expressed to Susan: Thank you for being so wonderful. I love you. 

Susan Samuel 1946-2014

Susan Samuel
1946-2014

I’ll leave you with two poems—the first on was written in honor of Susan by a member of our music teachers’ group and the second was read at Susan’s memorial by her close friend. I believe that both capture the essence of Susan’s spirit.

What I knew of you

was warmth,

humble rays of winter sun

and solidity,

like the piano’s ivory keys.

Your music is a hand

now secured

between our shoulder blades,

your steadfast kindness

a melody

humming within our ribs.

–Linda Holland

Let Evening Come  

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing

as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned

in long grass. Let the stars appear

and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop

in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

–Jane Kenyon

A Dream Come True

26 Nov

The Mireles Family 2012

When I was a  teenager,  I used to dream of becoming famous. I pictured my face splashed across the pages of People or Seventeen and I imagined how it would feel to be adored by millions of fans. My young mind believed that my future happiness depended on whether or not the world knew who I was.

My fantasy usually involved me playing the piano on the concert stage, probably because this was the one area at which I excelled. I couldn’t dance, sing or act, and no matter how much time I spent in front of the mirror tweezing my eyebrows, exfoliating my pores or straightening my perpetually frizzy hair, even then my teenage sensibilities were developed enough to realize that I didn’t have what it took to become a fashion model.

But back then I believed that my fame as a concert pianist was the only way I would be noticed. And I had to be noticed because I believed that in order to find someone to love me I had to be extra special. If I became a celebrity, someone was bound to think I was deserving of that love.

My fantasy always played out pretty much in the same fashion: I would have just finished playing a note-perfect performance. A warm yellow spotlight would be focused on my white organza gown that floated like fluffy meringue across the concert stage. As I took my bows to a thundering standing ovation, I would suddenly lock eyes with a handsome, intelligent and witty man, and the two of us would fall instantly in love with each other. We would marry, have four beautiful children and live happily ever after.

So I practiced the piano for hours each day, thinking that for this dream to come true, I must work diligently. I kept meticulous scrapbooks documenting all of my successes and they grew thicker every year as I won piano competitions and performed in more recitals that I can remember. I believed that all of my musical accomplishments would lead me closer to turning my dream into a reality.

I kept the fantasy alive for as long as I possibly could, or at least I did until my senior year in high school when I lost the fight with the raging hormones that surged through my body. At age seventeen, I confused lust for love and fell for a twenty year-old boy who was exceedingly handsome, but who turned out to love alcohol more than he loved me. Having had lots of practice as a co-dependent with my own family’s dysfunction, I turned it into my mission to fix him.

But like an old Polaroid photograph that fades over time, the image of my once vivid dream of becoming somebody famous disappeared into nothing but yellowed paper. He and I stayed together for five mostly miserable years until I finally grew up enough to realize that I deserved better.

But our dreams often have a way of manifesting themselves in ways that we don’t expect, and about eight months later I found my future husband in a Santa Monica restaurant where he was a cook and I was a waitress. In my stained green uniform and smelling of french-fry grease, I locked eyes over a sizzling grill with one of the cooks, who just happened to be a handsome, intelligent and very funny man. He barely spoke English, was undocumented and uneducated, but he held all of the other criteria of my girlhood fantasy. So I took a chance on him, and he took a chance on me, and surprise—this part of my dream did come true.

We married and began our lives together and I never did become that famous concert pianist as I once envisioned. But I realized that maybe that this dream of fame was not what I really wanted after all. Instead, I became a piano teacher and started having children, and I can honestly say it’s been a very good life.

I even have documented proof that my life has turned out well for me. We’ve made it a tradition in our family to take a group photograph every Thanksgiving to send out with our yearly Christmas newsletter. The annual photos hang in sequential order along the hallway wall, where each year we add the newest one. As we’ve grown and changed (and we have changed a lot over the years) our history together has been authenticated in one smiling face after another.

This past Thanksgiving, our family once again gathered in our backyard to take a photo. We dressed up, combed our hair and fixed our make-up. It wasn’t the paparazzi snapping photos as I once dreamed of as a teenager— it was just my nephew trying over and over again to capture that one perfect shot. It certainly isn’t easy getting everyone to smile at the same time—especially a wiggly seven year-old, but we managed to find one or two acceptable photos, so it looks like the tradition will live on for another year.

I’m awed by the love that is evident in these annual photographs: A dark-skinned man, a light-skinned woman and four mocha children are all smiling together in one single moment in time. They are clearly devoted to each other. They don’t realize it, but they are without a doubt as stunning and perfect as any celebrity. Not one of them is admired by millions, or even the least bit famous, but that’s all right, because they are absolutely adored by each other.

And that’s the kind of fame that comes only in dreams.

1994 just after Nino was born

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003: Shortly after this photo was taken I became pregnant with Isa

2004: just after Isa was born

2005

2006: The year Nino grew his hair long (not a good look for you, son….)

2007: With Isa bald from chemo–a year we will never forget

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012: A bunch of goofballs

Creating Art My Way

24 Jul

We are all artists in our own way. Some of us may never pick up a paintbrush and splash color onto a canvas, or sculpt a hunk of clay into something miraculously beautiful, yet we manage to find other ways to express our artistic talents and bring beauty into the world, one small creation at a time.

Some of us use words to create an artistic vision that comes to life in the mind of the reader. Some of us create art through musical expression and some of us use our hands to dig up the soil and plant.

I’ve used all three of these mediums to express my artistic creativity: writing, playing the piano, and gardening. I’ve got to admit that even though I thoroughly enjoy all of them, the digging in the soil comes closest to placing me in my own personal nirvana.

When I work in the garden, I’m at my happiest because I don’t feel a sense that anyone is judging me—I’m solely doing it for me. I’m not worried about pleasing someone else, but I’m creating the beauty for my own delight and satisfaction. And isn’t that what creating art is all about—doing it for ourselves?

My most recent artistic explorations…..

This:

Plus this:

Plus this:

Equals this:

More examples of a different kind of artistic expression….