Thinking Back on Beginnings

If I close my eyes, I can still smell the case, the mixture of age, cork grease, dust, and key oil. I can see its worn red fuzzy lining, see the shine of the old plastic Bundy clarinet, complete with a marching lyre and the first clarinet parts to several challenging band pieces belonging to its former owner. I was so very proud of this, my first clarinet.

With Jim Wood in the front yard of Westwood Lane in all our 6th grade puppy love glory…

I was in the sixth grade and deeply in puppy love with Jim Wood, a neighborhood boy down the street. Jim was in band and played the clarinet; I was fascinated and wanted to join the band the next year. I went to my mother in my excitement, begging her to let me be in band. I remember her look of worry and determination. We had nothing but the very meager child support that my dad sent each month and the little money Mom earned from babysitting and housecleaning. Things were always tight. Always.

Mom never failed to find a way to make things work, though. I can still see her pacing around the old house on Westwood Lane, looking for the next precious thing she could sell to get the money needed to pay a bill or put some food on the table. Desperation.

I often think of how much all of that cost her spirit. She had been the wife of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army for twenty-three years, had ironed his uniforms and uprooted the family to travel around the world with him, had five children with him. She attended fancy officer parties dressed to the nines in beautiful evening gowns, hair and nails and make-up just so.

All of that changed when Dad left her with no job training, a baby (me), a ten-year-old son and a fourteen year-old daughter still at home, all reeling from the effects of the divorce. No more security, no more identity that she had known all those years. She was now what was considered anathema in the Sixties…divorced. She was scarred by that branding the rest of her life.I was such a chunk!

I remember the antique necklace so clearly, and know that Mom cherished it. I don’t know when or how the conversation happened; all I know is that the mother of one of my best friends liked the necklace and her daughter had just graduated high school and had played clarinet in the band. A trade was made, one that would determine the course of my life.

I have always been an introvert, shy, awkward in social settings. The clarinet gave me an identity, a shield to put between myself and the world, and a way to express myself and excel that resonated deeply with me. I practiced my heart out, my mother cheering me on, patiently navigating the awful squeaks and squawks that is beginning clarinet playing. She attended every concert, every band and orchestra booster meeting and fundraiser all through junior high and high school. “You can be whatever you want to be, Neese- follow your heart!” My father told me I’d never work if I went into music. I listened to my mother.

Go Dorothy, go!

She beamed each time I made first chair, All-County, All-State, won scholarships to college. Along with my Aunt Sara, she made the long trip to Tallahassee to hear my junior and senior recitals at Florida State, always always with her mantra, “Never forget- you are as good as the best and better than the rest, Neese!”

My first teaching job…boy, did I learn a lot!

She was there to cheer me on in my first teaching job as a middle school band director, then as I left to pursue my dream of teaching clarinet at the university level by going on to earn my Master’s and Doctoral degrees, win my first college job, to study with master teacher Kalmen Opperman in New York. She beamed, she ‘mom-bragged’ every chance she got. I never doubted for one moment that she loved me and believed in me. Through every up and down in my life, she was my rock.

Board of the International Clarinet Association.

When I was elected Secretary of the Board of the International Clarinet Association, you would have thought that I had won the Nobel Peace Prize, she was so excited. While I am far, far from it, she always thought I was the best clarinet player in the world. For someone with longstanding confidence issues, her unwavering support was such an anchor in my life.

When Mom died almost four years ago, it felt like my foundation had been cut from beneath me. That one person who had been there from my first breath and before, who loved and believed in me unconditionally was gone. No more phone calls, no more hugs, no more whispered confidences on a tear-stained shoulder. I vowed that I would do my best to always make her proud of me.

I wrote a book on my mentor that was published this year and cried wishing that Mom was there to do our silly dance of celebration that we had done from the beginning. Other wonderful things have happened in my life and in my career, and my first instinct is still to reach for my phone to tell my mother.

What sparked thinking of all of this was something momentous that happened to me as a clarinetist recently, something I never had any designs on or dreamed would be a possibility; I was voted President-Elect of the International Clarinet Association.

I am still in shock and deeply grateful for the opportunity, and I have no doubt that I have a certain angel who is rooting for me and always will be. There is zero doubt in my mind that I am happy and doing what I love today because of my mother. How do you even begin to repay someone for a lifetime of love and sacrifice on your behalf? All that I know to do is to keep doing what she taught me and to pass on kindness and encouragement to others. I think of that necklace and that first clarinet and all they symbolize, and I am forever humbled and grateful.

Thank you, Momma.

6 thoughts on “Thinking Back on Beginnings

  1. Congratulations Madam President!
    You are so lucky to have had a parent that was so openly supportive of you. It obviously made a world of difference to you. What/who would you have become without your Mom as your #1 fan and cheerleader?


  2. Congratulations ! You’re so inspiring , even more so because you share your struggles , doubts , and vulnerabilities with us! To me, that makes you super – hero human! Thank you !

  3. Congratulations on a landslide victory! That speaks volumes as to your peers’ opinion of you!! I can’t say for certain, but I bet your mother is doing her celebration dance.

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