The Passing of The Oriole’s Song

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The Last Question

 

I do not remember          

          what my father said

          when we last spoke.

 

But my mother remembers          

          She was there.

 

In the deep quiet of the room  

          she sat at his bedside

          their fingers entwined.

 

He said,          

           “I hear singing.”

 

She asked          

          “Is it beautiful, dear?”

 

But the room was empty.

 

B. J. Elder

January, 2012

 

Last Saturday Ed and I drove in a rental car through two hours of sheets of rain to Kendal at Longwood, PA, just south of Philadelphia, to attend the memorial service for Aunt BJ. We slipped into Kendal Hall just in time to join her widower, Uncle Dave, Dave’s brother and Ed’s father Joe, their siblings Mim, Alice, Louise, Dave and BJ’s daughters Renee and Jenny, grandsons, many more nephews and nieces and cousins, plus a large contingent of friends from Germantown Friends (Quakers) and Kendal Retirement Community to commemorate BJ Elder’s life in a Quaker service.  The testimonials given, the pictures, mementos, and decorations (including BJ’s favorite teddy bear and preferred candies, Peppermint Patties) celebrated a wonderful woman who was pint sized in stature but great in character, humor, decency, honesty and love.  Herself a much admired woman, the admiration held for her beautifully written memoir “The Oriole’s Song” also embroidered many testimonials and memories.

BJ3I was introduced to BJ and her writings that would eventually become “The Oriole’s Song” during a weekend visit to Philadelphia over 23 years ago.  While Ed, Dave, BJ and other family members were leaving the house to attend Quaker Meeting, BJ handed me sheets of paper with two short stories she had written for her writing group.  She insisted I read them and tell her what I thought, as I was “an artist”.  I felt a little trepidation.  Ed and I had been dating for only half a year and I was meeting many of his relatives, including BJ, for the first time that weekend, and now I was being asked to read and judge her writing?  What if I didn’t care for it?  Already imagining devising diplomatic responses, I sat down to read in the empty house.  By the time the family returned from Meeting, I was flush with the excitement of having encountered a thing of beauty.

The first short story I read dealt with BJ’s childhood in 1930’s China.  Her parents worked in the Yale in China program, which relocated from the capital of Hunan province Changsha to the small hill country town of Yuanling when Japan invaded China, a war that preceded and would continue on to the end of World War II.  I was struck by the clarity of BJ’s writing.  How her words, like the elegant economical brushstrokes of a Chinese watercolor painting, created indelible images with precise eloquence.  Her evocation of a Japanese bombing raid on Yuanling made such a strong impression on me that morning that the mental picture her words inspired has never left me.  I’ll quote just a few lines from that paragraph:

“Then I heard humming, faintly at first, like the summer sound of bees around a hive. Gradually it became more sure, a droning song sustained on one note. … The drone song grew louder rapidly until it filled the whole sky and the air between the hills with malignant ecstasy. … Through the opening in the wall, I saw tiny airplanes turning in the sky over the far end of the city.  Raindrops glinted under them.  … Only when I was pushed down onto my stomach did I realize that those raindrops were bombs.”

BJ4BJ and I spent much of the rest of the day talking about her short stories, and how she planned writing more, vignettes that would eventually form the chapters of her memoir. She told me about her girlhood in China, her experiences of the war, of being one of the only Caucasian children in Yuanling, and feeling even more like a stranger as a teenager in the United States.  She told me about returning to China in the 1970’s during the height of the Cultural Revolution with Dave and the two China born daughters they’d adopted in the 1960’s.  She told me about returning again in the 1990’s, and floating high over Yuanling in a boat, now that the city of her childhood was drowned by the raised waters of the Yuan River Dam.  She told me how her father was one of the last Americans left in China when the Communists took over in 1948, how he was denounced and put on trial and convicted as a spy, marked for execution.

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BJ and Dave Elder’s wedding

I won’t tell you her father’s ultimate fate, you can acquire the book via Amazon or EastBridge, but that first evening discussing BJ’s memoir, we planned to make his harrowing adventure the multi-chapter climax of the book, his peril often foreshadowed in incidents recounted earlier, whereas the 1970’s and 1990’s chapters would form the framing device, bookending the childhood memories leading to the fraught conclusion of the family’s years in China.  This plan would guide BJ through the next ten years of writing and finishing and publishing “The Oriole’s Song”.  The title refers to the birdsong her father would whistle on his way home from work, the first proof of his safe return.

The last decade of her life BJ was struggling with a particularly debilitating form of Parkinson’s disease.  She continued writing, including poetry, until the symptoms made it too difficult.  This February Uncle Dave informed us that BJ had taken a turn and was expected to leave us within the next several weeks.  Ed and I drove to Pennsylvania for a final visit.

This short woman was even smaller than I’d ever known her, curled up in the bed or the chair, her eyes closed almost all the time, whether in soft-spoken wakefulness, semi-dream-state, or sleep.  Even though she appeared already halfway gently departed, when she was awake she still understood what was being said.  During our final hours with her I asked her if she would like me to read to her from her book.  The offer was gratefully accepted.  I chose two chapters from her early childhood, including “Beginnings”, her earliest memory, where she is four years old, being carried up a mountain between her mother and father by “four men bearing my sedan chair up a rocky path so steep that my feet are higher than my head.  The men have refused to carry my mother and me together, so I sit alone in an open seat slung between two poles.  The men lift the chair over an inward bend in the path, and I am momentarily suspended over two thousand feet of empty space.”

At that point I stopped reading for a moment, because I needed to regain my breath after a wave of emotion.  Then I continued reading about BJ looking to her mother and then to her father for reassurance.

And I remain contemplating the image of Aunt BJ suspended over an abyss of empty space, daunting and frightening perhaps, but also lovingly and soothingly guided by her mother and father on either side.

 

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Dwight, BJ and Winifred Rugh

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Remembering

 

I think I remember

A solitary crocus

Waiting for the sun to shine

Before opening its petals.

 

I think I remember

A fire fly slowly winking

Through the shadowed garden

Before we shut the door.

 

I think I remember

A brown leaf dancing,

Twisting and turning in the wind

Before letting go.

 

I think I remember

A snow flake gently falling

Maybe a hundred miles

Before landing on my finger.

 

I think I remember

My father softly singing

My favorite song for sleeping

Before my eyelids closed.

 

BJ Elder

April 2014

 

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About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in Beginnings, Literary Lyricism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Passing of The Oriole’s Song

  1. Dave Elder says:

    Danny – That’s a wonderful tribute to BJ and to your critical contribution to her book. Many thanks!. Dave

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Hilton says:

    Thanks, Danny. BJ chose her creative consultant wisely.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Louise (Weez) Lund says:

    A beautiful and well written , and moving tribute, Danny! Thanks so much for writing it. (now you’ll have to start on a book of your own!) BJ was one special person. We’ll so miss her!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Richard says:

    It took me a while to get around to reading this tribute in it’s entirety. It was so great. I would very much like to read her story some more. Thank you so much. I will cherish great memories of her always.

    Like

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