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Mobile Register
November 6, 1994

By David Thomasson

A ragtime mama and a classical gal

A few people called her Mrs. Thomasson. Most, by far, knew her as Mary Harper. Assorted nieces, nephews and grandchildren preferred "Hoppy," a toddler's rendering of "Mary Harper" that stuck.

To me she was just Mama.

She made a typically matter-of-fact departure. Nothing dramatic and, blessedly, no drawn-out erosion of frame or faculties.

Mama never got around to studying the ancient Greeks, so she would have scoffed at the suggetion that her life bore classical markings. But in fact she carried things out pretty much according to Aristotle.

A proper human life, he wrote, has by nature a beginning, a middle and an end. More important, the middle is properly characterized by vigorous activity of a certain kind, activity that realizes one's unique poetntials. More important still, a good life consists less in doing the right things than in becoming the right kind of person.

Mama's characteristic, defining activity was playing the shellac off a piano. From the time I was tall enough to rest my chin on the keyboard, I remember watching her hands darting and scampering across the keys like young rabbits.

On many a childhood night, I drifted off to sleep with tunes like "Down Yonder" and "Darktown Strutters Ball" resounding joyously through the house. I was a good deal older before I realized that Mama wasn't just pursuing a hobby; she was fulfilling a vital, expressive need. Aristotle would have understood perfectly.

A trace of her musical ability — the rhythm gene, I think — was passed to me. While still a tot, I began clattering away with a pair of sticks, and by my teen years I was prowling around Central Virginia in bands with dangerous sounding names like The Lancers and The Upsetters. While I was out disturbing the peace and making pretty good money at it, Mama was playing for free. Church suppers, country clubs, sing-alongs, nursing homes, private parties — she would play whenever and wherever she was asked.

From my superior status as a paid musician, I rendered professional advice: "You ought to be getting paid. You're crazy to play for nothing. Next time, tell 'em you want a hundred bucks." She understood this advice, I suppose, because she never debated the point.

She also never changed her ways, never charged a fee. When she occasionally did get paid, she would reveal it to me in the excited, hushed tones of someone who had made off with the silverware. "When I finished playing last night, the manager came over and gave me fifty dollars!"

Gave? Gave her? I've since wondered whether Mama had any conception of what she gave others. How many thousands of feet were set to tapping by her boisterous music? How many timid voices were lifted in song? Even if we knew the answers, these would be superficial measures of what she gave.

During her last couple of decades, Mama spent more of her time playing at nursng homes — for "the older folks," she would say, overlooking the fact that most of them were now her juniors. Even with her 90th birthday on the horizon, she continued to scurry among the nursing homes, busier than a little dog in a big yard. The schedule on her kitchen calendar made me tired just to look at it.

Mama didn't understand that when one reaches a certain age, it is permissible to take it a bit more moderato. Not her. She picked up the tempo, falling in league with Charlie Beard, a young buck of 70 or so who flayed the banjo and whooped out vocals. Mama and Charlie egged each other on, expanding and embroidering their musical outrages.

One night at a family foot-stomper, Charlie was putting the wind to "Alabama Jubilee" and Mama was clawing furiously at the keys. The house shook and the very walls seemed to bulge outward. Sitting quietly to one side, I watched plaster drizzling from a corner of the ceiling and seriously wondered whether the place was going to collapse around our heads. If Aristotle liked vigorous activity, he should have seen those two at it.

Aided and abetted by Charlie, Mama gave even more — which returns us to the question: More what? Songs and foot-taps can be counted, but how does one calculate the value of the spirits lifted or the hearts gladdened by those raucous torrents of music she distributed so freely across seven decades? In what units does one measure joy? It embarrasses me now to think that I ever advised her to demand payment. Aristotle would not have seconded that advice.

He would have explained that Mama was not just doing, she was being properly human in her own unique way. It's a subtle distinction worth lingering over. She was not giving charity. She was being charitable — not so much from a conscious plan as from an acquired disposition. It wasn't the things she did that mattered most, but the kind of person she became and exemplified in doing them.

Mama accomplished with apparent ease what most of us grope for and approximate with clumsy effort. She threw her energies into doing well what she loved best, and in doing it, became a kind of person worth becoming, lived a kind of life worth living. She was a rare piece of work.

I don't know whether there's a heaven or a hereafter, but if there is, she earned her ticket in. What worries me is that she isn't going to sit quietly on her cloud plucking at a harp. If I know her, she'll rove the hallways until she finds some back stairway that will lead her to a basement room with a battered old upright.

How Paradise is going to be transformed once she finds it, heaven only knows. But I do know this: If Mama is on the scene, the joint's gong to jump.

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