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Drymen, Stirlingshire
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13 December 2012

From the dark parts
of the forest, I hear
my mother's voice

Julia Loyd

Prince Tamino in a production of 'The Magic Flute' in San Francisco

Men make Esther simper and flutter. In their presence, she smoothes her hair and puts a hand to her neck to feel its soft swan flesh and giggles softly. Men are like the sun, she once told me – forthright. You can bask in their light. Women, on the other hand, are manipulative and catty, untrustworthy and soft.

Esther is short, with fine skin and hair coarse as pine needles. Due to a recent accident, she's been bedridden for weeks and now has an unaccustomed pot belly, like an extra passenger hanging on to her delicately porous bird-bones. Even though she's started walking again, her movements are deliberate, as though she now understands that the world (and surely it is a female world) can turn on you, can throw skillets and bread knives at you for no reason other than that you are standing in its kitchen and it's feeling snarky.

When I visit at the old age home, I watch as she suddenly throws up her hands in alarm, or clutches at a tabletop or the smooth surface of a wall, and then forget to let go, looking out at the newly hostile world with watery eyes bleached of colour. She avoids my gaze, but peers suspiciously at the walls and at the door, just waiting for them to come at her.

Esther is my mother. She is 91. When I see her, the first thing she says, is 'How old am I?'. I answer with her age the first few times, and then sometimes say, 'You're 29, and my are you pretty'. She used to think that was very funny but more recently, she's looked concerned. 'No, that can't be right,' she tells me. 'I think I'm very old.' I agree, and then she says, 'Well, no wonder'.

No wonder she can't remember stuff. 'I think there must be something wrong,' she says. 'I can't seem to think right.' She closes her eyes and clutches at the table. 'And I feel dizzy all the time.' Esther is stuck in a sticky, confused world inhabited by women, but she would much rather be in the crisp, sunlit world of music and men.

When I visited her last Monday, she was asleep in bed. I came into her room and turned on the light, then moved quietly around, emptying rotting flower vase water into the sink, rinsing out sticky coffee cups, gathering the most recent dozen unopened letters from me – from her walker basket, the top of the refrigerator, her unused knitting bag, the top of the toilet tank – into chronological order and putting them into a neat stack. I opened her junk mail and wrote replies asking to be taken off their mailing lists.

From the bedroom, Esther began to sing. She sang Brahms' 'Lullaby', and 'Ode to Joy' (which she used to sing to my sons but not to my daughter), and 'Weisst Du Wieviel Sternlein Stehen', a German lullaby about God, male, sunny and precise, counting all the stars for you. I sang too. We no longer converse much, but she is fully present in song.

On Tuesday, she was in bed as well. I rustled around until she woke up, and then I told her I was hungry. Well! A German mother can't hear of such a thing! She leapt out of bed (slowly) and asked me to show her where the dining hall was. Luckily, by the time we got there she had forgotten about feeding me, and picked at her food dutifully but with no pleasure.

Back at her room, we sang a bit and then she went back to bed. She asked me to barricade her in with some chairs in case she fell out. I put a Mozart CD on, because she loves Mozart but can't remember how to operate the player by herself. She fell asleep humming along with 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'.

On Wednesday, she was sitting at the table with one of the people we pay to visit her, another woman, in a sticky confusion of puzzle pieces, cookies, and half emptied coffee cups. The caretaker and I worked the puzzle while Esther watched. Suddenly, she began to sing 'Twinkle Twinkle'. We joined in, and for the next half hour, we sang various lullabies and children's songs. Finally, the penny dropped.

'Would you like to watch some Mozart on the internet?' I asked.

Esther looked confused. I found 'The Magic Flute' and propped up my iPad.

'What is this?' she asked, clutching at the table with white knuckles.

'We're going to watch "The Magic Flute",' I said.

'What is that? Magic? Why?'.

'Just watch,' I advised, and, obediently, she did.

'My, he's handsome,' she said when Prince Tamino appeared. She giggled and put her hand to her neck. 'Now, who wrote this music?'.

'Mozart,' I said.

'Oh, Mozart. He was one of the ones who died before their time,' she told me. Then, as though a switch had been turned on, she began to sing.

Her voice warbles alarmingly. Freed from social restraint, she belts out the melodies with enthusiasm. She used to be an alto but is now a tenor, or rather, a mourning dove, calling from the dark parts of the forest. I read the subtitles to myself while Esther sang every aria, even letting go of the table now and then to wave her hands in the air. Mozart says: 'Do not listen to women and especially not to your mother'. He says: 'Do not listen to your own body'. He says: 'Music can save you and help you find love'. He says: 'Men are rational and like the sun'. Esther must have listened to this opera a lot.

She sang with Pamina, rejected by Tamino, alone on the dark stage flanked by the suffering hero and the determinedly silent bird man. 'Ah, I feel it, love is forever gone, nevermore will bliss come back to my heart.'

Esther sang loudly as tears came to her eyes, sniffling, and singing, and singing woo, woo, woo when she couldn't remember the words.

Julia Loyd is an artist and teacher