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 scolding response 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!" I begged.
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 listening."
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 promise.
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 in mind."
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 better.
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 © Copyright 2012 by Marie Bostwick. Reprinted with permission by Kensington Books. All rights reserved.