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Strange Music

Do you hear the strange 

music? Ringing in a story my mother 

told me once. Not much of a story, I guess—just a 

few short sentences: factual, bare-boned. 

“My mother killed herself when I was twelve years old.” 

She goes on—my mind fills in facts with 

images, voices: 

My mother’s mother lies in her bedroom—the lights are off;  

the room is a deep black throat, threatening to swallow her 

sallow face peering 

from its pillow. Her eyes catch 

the pale, thin girl drifting past the 

door— “Amy,” she calls to my mother (and her voice sounds like 

my mother's voice, and my mother’s voice sounds like 

my voice). 

Mother enters the death den: “Yes?” 

“Bring me my pill bottle. It’s on the bathroom counter.” 

My mother is 

obedient; she leaves, returns with the bottle, leaves again. 

She sees her mother next in the 

Hospital—still, unresponsive— 

and next in a casket—still, unresponsive ad infinitum. 

Her used-to-be mother is lowered down into the deep 

black throat of the earth and  

swallowed. 


II 

This is what I know about my grandmother: 

before she killed herself, she was a painter. 

A Jew. She had a green thumb, though she was sensitive 

to the sun’s rays. From her, I inherited the same sensitivity: 

polymorphic light eruption. What else, I sometimes wonder, 

did she pass on to me besides the bubbling of skin in the springtime? 

Besides this spattering of facts, I have 

her painting. When I was a kid, it hung in my  

grandpa's office, and it drew me in like a  

current during every visit to his house. It became 

a ritual: step away from 

the family, step into his office, stand there, stare 

up at it as the minutes tick by. I felt, even then, 

its movements inside me, although its precise  

meaning, I could not pinpoint. 

The painting reveals an ancient scene— 

prehistoric, perhaps—done in the sharp black and 

accompanying white of charcoal. There is  

a woman, bare-chested: she holds a limp body in 

her arms, held out like 

an offering. The woman’s hair hangs 

limp and lifeless upon her shoulders like a  

blackened mop. Her neck cranes back; her  

face, slack and broad, stares into inky 

heavens. Perched on a nearby tree, a disproportionately 

large raven looms out of (and is partially obscured by) the surrounding darkness— 

its talons curl, its face melts into black sky. 

In the corner, the painting’s title is written in my grandmother’s hand:  

“The Quality of Loneliness.” 


III 

My grandpa followed his wife into the dirt during 

my freshman year of high school. We gathered at 

his house for the funeral. In the basement, I found 

an old photo album. I sat on the floor and turned its  

pages. There was 

my grandpa but his beard was black, and 

there was my mother and my aunt, but they 

were dolls—miniature versions of the women they would 

become. Then there was me— 

laughing in my late twenties, standing in my garden. 

Me: cradling my babies or my husband’s hand. This was 

my first time seeing my grandmother, my 

doppelganger—besides in the family portrait hanging in 

my grandpa’s basement. That picture had been taken near 

her death, and I had looked upon it for years without 

glimpsing a sliver of myself in that stony, unsmiling face 

with its cropped dark hair. 

But here we were—decades ago, tucked in a photo album: 

in her garden, the sunshine kisses her ivory  

skin; she throws back a bright moon glow, just  

like I do, and sunrays catch her flowing brown hair, blazing red 

the locks that now lie buried in a box below. But the sun found 

a new plaything in me, dressing my head  

every springtime in twin flames. 

A smile touches her lips; she laughs; I never 

imagined her to smile or laugh before. Her long, 

thin limbs arch beautifully—they mirror mine. 

In the glossy old photo, they are invincible, carved 

in marble. I gazed at them, then—I, too,  

a young woman who felt invincible. 


IV 

I wish I could say now 

that, in a way, I know my grandmother like never 

before—that my soul transcended 

decades, even death, to link with hers, and 

that seeing her like in a  

mirror filled all the gaps between facts. 

But that’s not true, and I am,  

most of the time, a poet rather than a liar. To me,  

my grandmother remains a vague abstraction: 

a concept, a mystery. 

After all, pictures can never replace 

the touch of a hand in yours or the mingling 

of voices, the sharing of secrets, the taste of love  

settled deep in your gut. Yet something 

speaks to me, moves inside me, when I look upon 

that painting my grandmother made. Yes, 

I took it after my grandpa died—the one thing 

I brought back—hanging now 

on a wall in my house. Sometimes I still 

stare up at it, and I hear a strange music like 

the braying of a raven over my shoulder. 

Do you hear it? Listen—it’s ringing 

in a story that continues still. 

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