Today is the fifteenth anniversary of Mama's death.
Very few people remember her now. Such is the fate of entertainers. One is popular while one performs. And she hasn't performed for twenty years. The best remembrance she could have expected from the public these days is that she was the mother to three talented children. Four, had they known I am her daughter as well. For my own reasons, I never remind anyone of that fact. My work is sold under a pseudonym. Papa would be furious if he lived to know about it.
But he didn't. Papa's loss was the second blow my family had sustained.
Whenever I think of Papa, I think of movement. His schedule forced him to be in perpetual motion. Rehearsals, planning, performing, composing and – the most surprising one of all – being a parent. An adoring, enraptured parent, who saw each of his children in a penumbra of light. Each one was a thing of rare beauty, and our mother – the sacred center of all things, the being who held the strings to everything that gave meaning to his existence. No one could suspect him capable of loving – or liking anyone, but to us, his family, there couldn't have been a more generous, loving, faithful and supportive father.
Mama told us the story of their acquaintance and marriage. I cannot tell you how spellbound we were. The part that puzzled us most – at least, until we went out into the world by ourselves – was how anyone could be disgusted with Papa. Scared – yes, there was no one quite as terrifying as Father enraged; we've seen him that way and prayed never to cause that sort of glint in his eyes. But disgusting? Repulsive? We never thought of him that way. Most of the credit goes to Mama. If there was no one in the house but us – not even the aged Madame Giry while she lived – Papa had to take his mask off. It was an unspoken rule in her little domain. In fact, the mask went off first, before the hat and the cloak. That way, his face was a natural phenomenon to us children.
Routine was sacred to both of our parents. While the children did schoolwork, they rehearsed, and then Papa taught an entire class of his own. We would all gather in his vast study and he and Mama would preside over our practice. All at once he'd be listening to Vicky sing, pour over Pierre's blueprints and come from behind me to see the progress I made on my latest still life. And Mama would be watching Elise pirouette before the vast mirror. That mirror would always be in front of me, so I could always tell when Father came to watch me work, since I couldn't hear his footsteps.
Just imagine the famous tenor and composer and his celebrated soprano wife produce a deaf child! I was told that it was a heavy blow. But they recovered quickly. Papa, ever the inventor, devised a system of signs. As I got older, he taught me to read lips, so that by the age of ten people could simply talk in my line of vision and I'd know what they said. His success was revealed when I was sixteen. I was watching Vicky practice and something struck me as odd.
Are you pronouncing everything correctly? I asked her.
Only then did I see Papa's face. He looked torn between shock and jubilation.
"Very well done, Lovisa," he said. "I was about to correct her pronunciation, but you were quicker."
I saw Mama wipe a tear when Papa told her.
You mustn't think that we had no childhood. True, most of our time was rigorously filled by various studies and practices. We practically grew up at the concert hall. But we always had summers. July was always especially looked forward to. Mama returned from her annual three weeks in Paris, or else we joined her at their end, and family time began. I cannot count the times we crossed Europe in our travels. Sweden was visited regularly. Papa liked to visit Germany rather often; Mama liked the lakes of Switzerland but objected to crowds of tourists clustered around them. Italy was a natural attraction. It was a favorite amusement of us children to go to La Scala and then relish Papa's scoffing.
Somehow, we traveled less around the Americas. Europe was our parents' spiritual home. We knew France better than many French. Not so much England – Papa, who judged a country by composers it produced, never liked it there. And the climate was rather taxing for him.
With the beginning of August we returned to New York. Mama and Papa would begin preparations for the upcoming season, and we would get ready for school. It was a busy, happy time, when plans were laid and perfected; a time when rehearsals began. I remember the year when Vicky sang for the first time. We were all so thrilled. Her first role was Adalgisa to Mama's Norma, even though Vicky was a soprano. I can never forget Papa's face that night.
Papa was the strangest man anyone could come across. His children sometimes suspected that there were several people trapped in his brain. He had every kind of temper one could think of, depending on who was with him. He had the greatest capacity to love – actually, it was more of adoration – and hate. He could rave about one thing with fire spilling out of his eyes, and a second later compliment Mama's choice of jewelry. He was unpredictable to the last degree and yet could exhibit unrivaled self-control. But whatever he was at the moment, one thing was always true – we all loved him madly.
I remember the last autumn before he died. I can't recall where we were on that particular day – at the villa, most likely. Papa sat on a bench under an enormous oak covered with golden leaves. Mama stood directly behind him, a hand resting on his right shoulder. They were both wearing dark colors. Vicky and I were just turning a corner, when we saw them. It was the single most memorable vision of our parents together we both had ever seen.
By then, Papa's lungs were already very weak. He had not sung in public for just over two years. Mama wished to stop as well, but he forbade it. Over my dead body, he had said. That was just what had happened.
Three months after that sunny day he was bedridden, never to rise again. His heart deteriorated quickly. Mama waited on him hand and foot, despite his protests. And we, the children, watched in mute horror – watched our colossus crumble. It took three weeks for him to find rest. Mama did not seem to leave him for a moment. She would often sit beside him on the bed, an arm around his shoulders to prop him up in a comfortable sitting position to ease his respiration. She would read to him and sing to him and feed him in the last three days, when he was incapable of lifting a spoon. She would not allow anyone else to do it, and we all knew he would accept such ministrations from no other. Papa's pride was the stuff of family lore.
My mind naturally wanders back to when our family was complete. We would spend weekends at the villa; Mama would tend her rose garden – she had the most glorious crimson roses anyone could find, and Papa would compose – because that was how his soul lived. And we delighted in watching them love each other – and us.
I have alluded to the villa. It was our favorite place in America – except Papa's concert hall perhaps. It was his gift to Mama for their first wedding anniversary – an escape from the bustling New York City, a slice of ancient European splendor that they both adored. The house itself, in Italian style, is precisely in the middle of an enormous plot of land and surrounded by an artificially planted forest to ensure complete privacy. Papa wasn't exactly the entertaining sort.
We would go there for the odd weekend, whenever circumstances permitted. A woman from a nearby town would come in to dust and clean on Thursdays, so there was never anyone but family when we were there. Mama was an excellent cook, so we required nothing else. Once Father died, she barely left the house. I almost always kept her company.
Then there were the "three dreaded weeks" as we children called them, the time Mama devoted to the Other Son (another of our childish appellations). Every year until about four years before she died, Mama spent three weeks in Paris, and invariably in June. She would see the child of her first marriage. We met him several times – a rather pleasant man I always considered him to be. No, our rather obvious dislike came, I fear, from Papa's influence. He generally contrived for Mama to go alone; we would usually join her in Paris at the very end of her stay. I will never forget the look in his eyes every year as he watched her ship sail away – as though he may never see her again. Until he did, he became even more irritable than usual. We knew to keep him as much with us as possible – he wouldn't lash out at us for every little thing at least.
As we grew up, we took our places on the arts scene. Vicky was essentially Mama's replacement in singing; Elise was a dancer, and Pierre – Peter, but we spoke in French amongst ourselves – was a celebrated architect. I painted with some success, but I lacked my siblings' ambition and I am the most reserved out of all. But I am always thrilled to read of their successes and then discuss it with them over Saturday tea, which we always take together. Just the four of us – the spouses and children come a little later for dinner on occasion. It is the teatime that is sacred to us four; six, really, for the ghosts of our parents seem to forever hover around us, listening with absorbed interest to all we had to say.
Listening was their forte while they lived. Papa especially had the gift of looking at you as though there was nothing more important on the planet than what you had to say.
Papa and I were always especially close. I think it was because I was like him – flawed. His efforts were always directed at helping me find my place – he was thrilled, I'm told, when I began to display my affinity for painting. We spent hours together –it was pure magic.
Mama and I got along splendidly as well. She had chosen to name me after the mother she had never known – Lovisa, the Swedish girl who fell in love with a violinist. She was an extraordinary woman, my mother. A truer equal for my father could not exist.
Christine Mueller could change the atmosphere of a room. She walked in, and heads turned to see her – always elegant, always imposing. When I was about sixteen, I witnessed a conversation about my parents, and a man referred to her as Mr. Mueller's consort. I giggled to myself at first, but almost instantly saw the truth of the term. In his theater, Papa did rule a kingdom, and his wife was the indisputable queen. In public, she often faded into the background a little – with the intention of making her husband as prominent as she could. In private, she was constantly behind his back as he worked – at his insistence – suggesting, pointing out, advising. Papa used to say she and the children inspired him like nothing else could. Together, they created programs for the season ahead, costumes, sets, props – Papa oversaw it all down to the shoelaces the actors could use.
So passed our days. So passed the twenty-three years of marriage my parents had together. We were all young when Papa died. We still needed him. Or, rather, we always needed him. I suppose we ought to be grateful for what we had. How many humans can boast of such parentage?
Mama lingered for five years after his death. She would play the piano on occasion, but never again did she sing. Her voice, she said, died with its creator. She lived at the villa, and I was with her almost constantly.
When she died, it wasn't of anything in particular. It was a gentle end – she died in her sleep. None of us were shocked. We were grateful for the time we were blessed with her presence.
I have several nieces and nephews. Papa did not live to see any; Mama was around for the eldest one. None of my siblings had the heart to name anybody for our parents. We simply couldn't bear it. But their eyes, mouths, and Mama's nose are very much in evidence. And little Sophie has quite a voice.
They will always live on.
 Teatro alla Scala – the single most prestigious opera house situated in Milan, Italy.