By Marie Bostwick
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
I don't trust memory-not really. My mind is a
storehouse of wordless snapshots from childhood,
pictures without context or captions, still frames of
silent movies that seem so true but whose veracity
cannot be counted upon.
I remember sitting in the back garden near a bush
heavy with blooming lilacs, holding a white kitten in
my lap, giggling with delight as the kitten extends a
tiny sandpaper tongue and begins licking my hands. The
picture is clear in my mind, but I do not trust it.
Did I have a kitten? Father never mentioned it, and in
the photographs of our garden in Alexander Platz there
are no lilacs, only serviceable shrubs and rows of
spiny rosebushes, blooming in season exactly as they
were supposed to. I cannot imagine Father allowing
anything as unruly and independent as lilacs to take
root in his garden.
I remember, too, a day in the park, Father smiling and
humming as he carries me in his arms. I feel the brass
buttons of his dress uniform pressing circles into my
chest as I snuggle close to him. Mama and I are in
matching white linen dresses, her eyes bright and her
face glowing with good health, her figure shapely, a
bit plump even. Her hands soft and teasing, her
fingernails pale pink ovals as she playfully slaps
Father on the wrist in scoldingresponse to a joke I
don't understand but laugh at anyway. If I close my
eyes, I can conjure the picture into being, but I do
not trust it. Were we ever so happy? Was there a time,
when we were as carefree as any other young family
strolling in the park on a sunny afternoon? I suppose
it is possible, but I can't quite bring myself to
believe it. I may have imagined the whole thing.
But there is one childhood memory that I am certain
of. I was very young, but I remember the day of my
first piano lesson with utter clarity. I always loved
to listen to Mother play. Sometimes I sat across from
her, rapt and still, in a chair of tufted green
velvet, watching her hands float above the keys,
graceful and fluid as swimmers moving through clear
water. Other times I would lie stomach-down on the
floor, as close to the foot pedals as possible, to
feel the notes rumble through every part of my body.
Every day I spent hours listening to the music Mother
made, but until that day, I never so much as touched
the piano myself, not because anyone had said I
mustn't, but because somewhere inside me lay a belief
that Mother was a magical being and only her touch
could make the heavy black box sing so beautifully.
Her cough was worse that day. Sitting in the green
chair, I grew impatient as she stuttered through my
special song, "Für Elise," starting and stopping to
clear her throat. Finally her shoulders started
convulsing, and she pushed the piano bench back and
leaned down, coughing violently, her handkerchief held
tight to her mouth. I jumped up from my chair and ran
to her side, thumping her back with my little fists,
trying to free her from the invisible obstruction, but
my efforts seemed to make no difference.
"Mother!" I cried and thumped her back even harder
than before. "Are you all right? Tell me what to do!"
She just shook her head silently and waved a hand to
motion me back to the green chair, but I wouldn't
leave her side. Finally the fit passed, and her
shoulders dropped more evenly as she took in deep
breaths of air, becoming herself again. She sat up and
pulled the cloth away from her mouth to show a ragged
circle of red, cruel and unseemly against the ladylike
linen and convent-made lace of her handkerchief.
"Mother! You're bleeding!"
"No, darling," she murmured, folding the hankie
quickly to hide the stains. "I'm fine. I was just
coughing too hard, that's all. It brought up a little
blood. Nothing to worry about, Elise."
"Are you all right?"
"Yes. I'm just a bit tired, that's all. Playing the
piano is hard work, and I get tired more easily these
days." She smiled so sweetly and reassuringly that I
didn't think to ask her why that was. She chucked me
under the chin playfully. "I can't always do all the
work, you know. You've watched long enough, my love.
It's time for you to start playing and me to start
She walked slowly to a bookshelf, chose a couple of
thick leather-bound volumes that she stacked on the
piano bench, and perched me on top of them so I could
reach the keyboard. Then she sat down next to me and
let her hands hover over the keys. "Watch," she said
and gave me my first piano lesson.
Completely bypassing nursery songs and scales, Mother
began teaching me Beethoven's "Für Elise." She played
through the entire composition. Urging me to watch her
fingers carefully, she played through the first eight
bars twice more, then told me to try.
Surely that first attempt was halting and punctuated
with mistakes. After all, I couldn't have been more
than four years old, but in my memory the music flows
from my fingers unbidden, unerring, an untapped spring
of music gushing from my fingertips, spilling into the
room and quenching a thirst I'd never known I had.
Somehow I understood that it didn't matter if I never
spoke again, because the piano would always be able to
express what I felt more completely than words. Words,
like memory, can't be trusted. You can never be sure
that you've chosen the right ones or that they were
heard correctly. Music isn't like that. It cannot ring
false. Music doesn't try to describe the heart: it is
the heart. It says exactly what it means. It cannot
dissemble or be misunderstood.
This was a revelation as my fingers rocked
rhythmically from ebony to ivory and back. I finished
the phrase, beaming with the joy of my discovery and
looked to Mother for approval and her acknowledgement
that, like her, I, too, was a magical being. She
rewarded me with a smile and a rare, delicious peal of
laughter, silver and bright, a sound like pearls and
new coins pouring a generous stream into my open
palms. Her pale, delicate face was suddenly unlined
and glowing-mysteriously, there seemed to be more of
her, as if a new layer of flesh had suddenly been
added to her thin frame. She was the Mother of my
memory again, pink and healthy and strolling through a
park where every day was happy and gilded with
I laughed too, giddy with my newfound power-the power
to banish sickness and age, the power to make Mother
well again. I played through the phrase again without
being asked. It was even easier than the first time.
Mother laughed again, and I joined in, the sounds of
our shared delight filling the dark corners of the
room and making them light.
"That was beautiful, Liebling," she said in the soft,
breathless voice I still hear in my dreams. "I was
right. You could only be called Elise. When Herr
Beethoven sat down to compose this, he surely had you
I believe in destiny, but not in fate. Maybe that
sounds contradictory, but in my mind they are two
completely different things.
Fate says that whatever happens is meant to be, and
nothing you can do will change it. If I believed that,
I'm not sure I'd be able to get myself out of bed in
the morning. What would be the point? Destiny is
different. It is a place. Once you arrive there, you
understand that this is precisely what and who you
were created to be. Fate is resignation and defeat.
Destiny is peace and discovery. If you are lucky,
sometimes you stumble upon clues to your destiny-riddles
that, after you have reached your destination,
are suddenly so obvious you wonder why you didn't see
the answer to begin with.
Before I was born, my parents agreed that if I was a
boy I would be named Herman Braun, the name my father
shared with the previous four generations of firstborn
Brauns. There was not much thought given to the
possibility of my being a girl. However, in the
extremely unlikely case of such an embarrassing
occurrence, my father declared I should be named
Helga, after his own mother.
On the day of my birth, mother held me in her arms
and, in a rare and surprising display of independence,
insisted that my name was Elise. Father protested
briefly but indulged my mother, chalking it up to
female inconstancy. When his son followed, he would
have to be firm, but why not let Mother have her way
this time? I was, he reasoned, only a daughter. It was
of little importance what I was named. Mother knew
Of course, destiny does not always leave a trail for
us to follow. Sometimes, if you are fortunate, you
stumble upon it by accident. I was born in Berlin in
1925, a link in the chain of an ancient Prussian
military family that stretched back to the days of
Frederick the Great. There was never any reason for me
to suppose that my destiny lay in the tobacco country
of the Connecticut River Valley, but it did. At the
age of fourteen, the seemingly accidental tides of
history carried me across the sea. I fought against
the current, and yet, at the moment I stood on the
edge of the valley and saw the ribbon of river at my
feet, a great peace descended upon my heart. I
understood my arrival in that spot was meant to be.
Someone once told me that the Connecticut River is the
third most beautiful river in the world. I don't
believe it. There cannot be any place more beautiful
than this. Here, just outside Brightfield,
Massachusetts, the river is generous, and paradise
lies on both banks. It is like the Jordan that we must
cross to enter into the bounds of heaven, except this
crossing is unnecessary, for whichever side you rest
on, you are already home.
The river moves slowly. There is no reason to hurry,
and it seems even the fish linger a time before
swimming downstream to the sea. The river valley is
lovely in every season. In summer, the fields fed by
the river are dressed in swathes of green velvet and
fine white linen; the swaying leaves of the tobacco
plants and the cotton tents that are erected to shade
the growing plants protect the best of them from the
harsh summer sun. In fall, the meadowlike intervales
are brown and rich, their scent ancient and sure. In
winter, snow blankets the landscape, stretching
pristine white to the edge of the world, unspoiled and
chaste, unblemished by human contact. In spring, the
soil is soft and stoneless, so tender the blades of
the plow cut through it like butter. So rich you might
think planting almost an act of egotism-as if you
could toss the seeds in the air, come back a few weeks
later, and find a jungle of green had sprung up. It's
a cunning disguise, but I know the truth.
The ground is fertile and yielding, but tobacco is a
fickle mistress. She requires coaxing and care and
sometimes life blood before she'll give up her
favors-if she chooses to give them up at all. Still,
if you come to the valley and it speaks to you, there
is no other place for you on the face of the earth.
I had no more asked to come to the valley than the
tobacco seeds had asked to be planted. Someone brought
those seeds from the jungles of Sumatra, and against
all odds they flourished in the river washed soil of a
New England valley, just as I did. We'd both been
brought from foreign shores and climates, transplanted
exotics, moved by forces beyond ourselves, but once
planted we took root and became as much a part of the
landscape as the life-giving river that fed us both,
that made us grow and thrive in a country that was
ours not by birth but by destiny.
Excerpted from River's Edge
by Marie Bostwick
Copyright © 2006 by Marie Bostwick.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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