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Do You Hear What I Hear?

An essential part of Thanksgiving and Christmas for me is music. So I hold my breath until it’s confirmed that my brother Bill and his wife Cathy and daughters Christa and Abigail are 1) making the annual Thanksgiving trek to Cape Cod from Frederick, Maryland, and 2) bringing their instruments. Then I know for sure that when the Thanksgiving table is cleared and the kitchen is more or less under control, (thanks to sister Nancy a.k.a. the Dish Fairy” and others) we will reconvene in my living room to savor the holiday’s last, glorious treat: the gift of music.

As individual professional musicians this Palmer crew has soloed vocally and instrumentally, taught fiddle, harp, and Irish step dancing, recorded numerous albums, and composed songs; as a family, they have been performing together at the Maryland Renaissance Festival for nearly 30 years. And I get them live in my living room!!

A born musician with an excellent voice, my brother Bill plays 12- and 6-string guitars and octave mandolin, as well as bodhran and djembe drums, all with a fluidity and grace that takes away my breath. His ability to inspire listeners was unforgettably witnessed by those sitting with him one summer day on the steps of my Cape Cod front porch. Bill was playing his djembe like a tribesman sending messages across an African plain. Apparently they were heard. Suddenly, out of the house directly across the street burst a man. My neighbor, the irrepressible Mickey McManus, claimed the street as his stage to imitate Bill’s increasingly wild drum beats. We still savor that fine memory of Life Unscripted.

Cathy has played fiddle since she was a teenager and has a special ability in teaching children. I love watching the complete control she has over the strings and bow of a challenging instrument made in 1890. Many of the Celtic songs she plays are ancient pieces, undoubtedly sung with relish five hundred years ago by people living in unheated huts and castles.

She often closes her eyes as she plays, smiling I believe for the sheer joy of making music with her family, including grown daughters Christa and Abigail, both in their 20s. Abigail keeps a harp nearby the way a journalist keeps a notebook, just in case. She idly plucks her harp during a conversation, producing what most of us would consider performance-ready music, but when she plays seriously she is a maestro orchestrating reflections on darkness, light, joy, or hope. Abigail has a personal relationship with her numerous harps, just as Christa has with her grandfather’s silver flute, which she plays so elegantly and effortlessly, and with her dancing shoes which she was devastated to nearly lose recently.

I cherish the Thanksgiving memory of Christa’s step dancing on the wood floor in front of my fireplace, those supple legs flying chest high, her blue eyes sparkling with laughter. This year I watched these four, my family, perform a Renaissance dance called Sellenger’s Round together. As they circled and twirled Abigail played her harp and Christa played her flute, never missing a beat, a step, or a note. Cathy smiled at the joy while Bill, I suspect, was quietly bursting with pride.

The rich and timeless sounds my talented family produces with wood, metal, gut and hide, as well as with feet, hands, and voice, resonate profoundly in my grateful heart. I know that music is a higher language. And I know that musicians receive the gift of music as fully as, or perhaps more than, their listeners.

* * *

Many years ago I impulsively responded to what I saw as a shameful lack of responsibility by my church in meeting the needs of an underserved if daunting population: junior high kids. Since I had one of my own, I knew what I was getting into, but we moralistic folk often find ourselves on the far end of a thin branch. So I volunteered to teach junior high Sunday school.

I am confident no lives were changed or re-directed, but I had the time of my life when I realized that you could ask 12- and 13-year-olds ANYTHING and they, unlike most adults, would give it their very best shot.

I’d long been fascinated by the indefinable power and might of music, a substance-less something that can make you cry when you are perfectly happy or raise the hairs on your arms when you are sitting, calmly eating a poached egg. How can something you simply hear, something completely without immediate context, sooth or wrench the very heart within your chest?

So one Sunday out of sheer curiosity I asked my Sunday school class: what is music? I was unable to imagine what they might say but confident any answer would be an original thought, fresh as a snowflake, not memorized or learned, offered by a young person hovering between childhood and adulthood.

After the slightest pause, an answer was provided by Jean Paul, and I’ve quoted him often: “Music is a noise that makes you feel good.”

See what I mean.

* * *

My best Christmas memories will always include one particular time my folk trio was hired to provide live Christmas entertainment at the Falmouth Mall. The trade-off for harried, often indifferent shoppers was great acoustics and, of course, payment. We always brought baskets of small instruments to pass out to children, encouraging them to join us in “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

At that early morning hour only a few people were in the mall, and all of them were hurrying to get their shopping done. Except one very small boy. The little fellow’s face shone with delight as he stopped to listen to our guitars and flute. His father stood a few paces behind him, smiling broadly as he watched his child play jingle bells, sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and other songs with us, and dance.

Soon another father and son joined them. The boy was older, a teenager apparently with a developmental disorder, and he also beamed with pleasure at hearing our music. He too began dancing, with considerably more proficiency than the younger child, and his father also looked on with enjoyment and obvious pride.

When it came time for us to do a periodic stroll through the mall with our instruments, we invited the boys and the dads to join us. Soon our short but enthusiastic parade was making its way through the Falmouth Mall: three middle-aged women in long skirts, followed by a little boy, a teenager, and two fathers, all singing loudly and playing instruments.

The gift of music, indeed.

Look on for information on harpist Abigail Palmer’s CD “Sow Hope” which includes many songs she uses in music therapy programs for Hospice and other organizations. She wrote the title song and others on “Wine in the Knitting Basket,” a 2014 CD she recorded with her mother Cathy.

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