Scenes from Childhood
THE KINDERSZENEN, OPUS 15 of Robert Schumann, were a rare popular success in his early career. They were not, he wrote, music for children, but for adults thinking about childhood. Their style is simple, the title of each piece suggesting nearly universal childhood experiences, an invitation to nostalgia. Only in the last scene does Schumann’s mature voice creep in, affecting a more complex style of composition, the poet-composer imposing meaning on memory.
My father, a gifted pianist, played these little pieces sometimes, and I paid more attention after I discovered that the best-known of them—Träumerei—is often performed by violinists. Its ascending fourths and yearning upward sixths lie easily under the fingers and make excellent use of the physics of violin strings—lightly touched harmonic octaves lending an ethereal wistfulness to the leaping melody. I played it on the violin with my father accompanying on the piano. I loved the fermatas, where I could tyrannically hold a note of melody and make my father wait for me before bringing back the accompaniment of rhythm and harmony.
Memory is full of fermatas and rubato—stretching out a line here, holding a high, sweet note there. Schumann said that the titles of the pieces weren’t meant to be programmatic, just to hint at the scenes of memory. The pieces are not tightly connected in key or theme; they are perfect vehicles for free-floating recollection. Sometimes it is hard to know whether the music evokes memory, or if I am arranging the scenes of my own childhood to fit Schumann’s tunes.
Around 1.6 million years ago, the Caja del Rio opened up and spilled 300 cubic kilometers of the orange-pink ignimbrite that formed the Pajarito Plateau and the Cerres del Rio. A quarter of a million years later, the crater opened again, releasing hotter magma this time, spreading a layer of harder tuff over the earlier formations of the plateau. Over centuries, the forms called the Otowi and Tsherige members—fingers of rock stretching out from the Valle Grande in the Jemez Mountains—were eroded by water and time, augmented by sediment and occasional small seismic eruptions that belched up obsidian and basalt, to make the series of canyons and mesas that hold the town of Los Alamos.
Los Alamos averages about 61 days with thunderstorms annually. There is a small apocalypse almost every summer afternoon, when the sky darkens and torrents of rain carve new valleys in the desert. And that is why in July and August of 1975 and 1976, I spent an hour or so most days sitting on the floor of my family’s AMC Hornet. I was terrified of lightning, and my father, a physicist, had explained that a car is a very safe place to be during a thunderstorm.
“The car makes a Faraday cage,” he said. “It’s named after Michael Faraday, who observed in the nineteenth century—1838 or so—that electrical currents travel on the outside of a conducting object.” I looked it up recently, and it was actually 1836, but at 6, I didn’t fact check my dad. It did not occur to me that he could be wrong.
“It’s very, very unlikely that lightning will hit our car—much less than a one in a million chance. Unless you’re in Florida.” I decided never to go to Florida. My parents told me I would also be safe in the house during thunderstorms, but a house did not sound nearly as safe as a Faraday cage, so at the first raindrops, I would scamper to the car, holding my book under my shirt to shield it from the rain. Storms rolled up the canyon—sometimes the rain seemed to be walking up the street—around 4:00 pm. Rain fell heavily for 45 minutes or an hour. The air grew still and close as the rain pounded the roof of the car–first a quiet background thrumming, then fierce and angry. No matter how loud it was, I was still more frightened of lightning, so I stayed in my little blue cocoon. When the storm ended, the clouds were gone as suddenly as they had arrived. The timing of the storms, and the angle of the sun when it reappeared, meant that there were often rainbows. Sometimes there were two rainbows, one over the other, and once—only once that I remember—there was a triple rainbow, which we were allowed to call Dad at work to talk about, and which my mother failed to paint to her satisfaction. Daddy could explain rainbows too. “Angle of incidence,” “angle of refraction,” “angle of deviation,” “blue light has the shortest wavelength, and red the longest.” I didn’t completely understand, but I stopped asking questions when I could see that he was bored. I knew from Sunday School that the rainbow was also God saying he wasn’t mad at Noah anymore, and it was safe to get off the ark, just like it meant it was safe for me to get out of the car.
One day, Dad brought home a piece of a laser from work and explained it to me again, showing how the light was refracted through the glass and came out in the shape of a rainbow. Then he said some things about waves and particles. I nodded, in the way I did when I was hoping to look smart. It was necessary to nod a lot when speaking with my dad.
There were a lot of lasers at Dad’s work. He was trying to invent something called “laser fusion,” but it never quite worked. It was a little bit dangerous because they had to use uranium, but he said if it worked, it would be better than other kinds of nuclear energy because it didn’t generate radioactive waste. Dad had a badge with his name on it that he used to get into the gate at the lab, and he wore a little plastic rectangle thing clipped on his shirt with the badge to measure the radiation in the air at work. For a while, I checked it every day when he came home, but it didn’t change very much, because scientists had learned how to be careful, he said. But once, he burned a hole in his shirt with a laser because he wasn’t careful enough. One Sunday after church, Dad took us to the museum at the lab. There were models of bombs that had been built there, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” He explained how the bombs worked, how instead of fusing atoms, like the lasers, the bombs got power by splitting atoms—“fission.” There were pictures of cities in Japan after the bombs were dropped, but they were pictures taken from planes, so I couldn’t see anything very clearly. Dad explained radiation sickness, what happened to people whose bodies absorbed ten thousand times as much radiation as the little counter he wore could measure. There was a thunderstorm that afternoon, and while I was waiting in the car for it to be over, I wondered if a Faraday cage would have protected little girls in Japan from radiation. I didn’t ask my dad about that, though—I think I knew what he would say, and that it would hurt him to say it to me.
I do not know why my brother and I were allowed to sing a Tom Lehrer song at a church talent show. In hindsight, it seems like a serious lapse of parental judgment. Then again, maybe my odd sense of humor and the way my jokes land a little sideways is an inherited trait. But for some reason or none, my brother Rich and I, ages 8 and 10, rode our old broomstick horses out onto the stage in the cultural hall at the church with gas masks around our necks and started singing Tom Lehrer’s The Wild West. “Along the trail you’ll find me lopin’, where the spaces are wide open, in the land of the old AEC [Atomic Energy Commission],” we began. There were a few nervous chuckles, and my dad’s piano playing sped up. “. . . Where the scenery’s attractive, and the air is radioactive, oh, the Wild West is where I want to be!” My mother had nixed our clever choreography of the lines “I'll have on my sombrero/And of course I'll wear a pair o'/Levis over my lead B.V.D.'s,” so we just sang it straight and feigned shock at the mention of underwear. A few brittle laughs ricocheted off the cinder block walls. I saw my dad’s determined smile over the top of the piano as we plummeted ahead to the climax: “I will leave the city’s rush/leave the fancy and the plush/leave the snow and leave the slush, and the crowds. I will seek the desert’s hush, where the scenery is lush. HOW I LONG TO SEE THE MUSHROOM CLOUDS!” Fortunately, my dad was, besides our accompanist, the lay minister of the congregation, so the scandalized church ladies and his offended scientific colleagues didn’t really have anyone to complain to. Still, the memory of the silence before the awkward applause when we finished is vivid enough that I have never dared to mention the episode to my father again, and cannot vouch for the accuracy of this recollection.
Sometimes we went to concerts at Fuller Lodge. It was an old, old building, even older than the lab. It was mostly a wide, empty hall with beams so thick I couldn’t wrap my arms around them supporting the roof. There was a fireplace big enough for me to walk in. It had been the dining hall for the boys’ school that was closed to make space for the scientists to live in during the war. Once, we went there to hear a man sing—a “tenor,” my dad called him. Even though Fuller Lodge was the biggest building in town, the room felt too small for that big voice. When he sang some songs in German, a few people got up and walked out. I asked why they hadn’t waited until the end of the songs, and my dad explained that those songs were by a man named Richard Wagner, and some people thought he was so wicked that we shouldn’t listen to his music. I thought the songs were beautiful, though. My dad said what he said a lot, that people are complicated. And that sometimes the same imagination can invent beautiful things and terrible things. Sometimes very good people make very bad art, and vice versa. He sounded sad, even though the music wasn’t sad at all.
Orchestra started in fourth grade. I had already been playing violin since before I turned five, so I was in the advanced orchestra. But in fifth grade, you could be in either orchestra or band. I really wanted to play the trombone. My mom said no way. My dad said, your mom already said no, you know you shouldn’t try to get a different answer from me. But my dad liked to give me reasons. He searched through a big stack of Scientific American magazines and got out an article about acoustics. He said that the way human ears perceive loudness has to do with both the amplitude of sound waves and the way the overtone series is activated. Brass instruments, he said, are louder because the amplitude of a sound wave generated by air against metal is always bigger than air against wood, but also because inexperienced players tend to have less control over how the flow of air is shaped by the lips, so they activate more high overtones, which makes the sound waves perceptually louder. Violin acoustics, by contrast, are inanimate physics, unsullied by the biological mess of breath. He showed me beautiful charts to explain why my mother would infinitely prefer listening to me practice the violin than practice the trombone. I was still mad about the trombone, but it was harder to argue with Scientific American than with my mother.
I was always looking for hidden places to be at home. Across the street from our house, in a little gully (not the big canyon), there was a place where maybe a boulder had been, and the roots of a tree had grown around it. Then the rock had fallen away and left a sort of half cave. It was my favorite place, and for years I sporadically tried to make a third wall and a roof. Once I showed it to my dad, and he didn’t know how the roots could have grown that way. That made me love it even more. I counted on my dad to know everything, but I felt something shivery and delicious when he said “I’m not sure.”
Like lots of girls, I guess, I went through a horse phase. My ideas about horses came mostly—really entirely—from books: Black Beauty, King of the Wind, Misty of Chincoteague. Laura had a pony in at least one of the The Little House books, and coveted an Indian boy’s pony; Nancy Drew solved The Mystery of Shadow Ranch, and in the process taught me everything I needed to know about wild mustangs (and phosphorescent paint). I had an imaginary palomino, even though I had never seen a palomino and probably couldn’t pick one out of an unlabeled photo now. Everything I knew about Native Americans came from books, too, at least until I had Mr. Trujillo as my second grade teacher. Mr. Trujillo took us on field trips to every pueblo within a day’s school bus journey—San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Pojoaque, Taos, Nambe, Tesuque. In San Ildefonso, we met Maria the potter, the oldest person I had ever seen, and also beautiful, which surprised me. Mr. Trujillo said there are nineteen pueblos in New Mexico, and that even long before there were pueblos, there were indigenous peoples in the mountains where we lived.
In the summer between second and third grade, we moved from our apartment on Trinity Drive to a house on North Mesa. Separated by a wide canyon from Safeway, Baskin & Robbins, and Taco Bell, North Mesa was still sparsely settled. Only five houses in our subdivision were finished on the day our house, built in Santa Fe, arrived in pieces on a truck to be put together on the Alamo Road lot, where my brother Rich and I had put our handprints in the concrete of the foundation, and my mom had pressed Evan’s fat baby foot in to make a little blob shape with five smaller blobs on top. For a little while after the house was finished, the plumbing wasn’t connected, so we had an outhouse, which was very exciting and made me feel like a character in another of my favorite books, The Great Brain. As Rich and I explored the neighborhood, digging in vacant lots, looking for treasure, we found mostly lizards and cactuses (“cact_i_,” I corrected my brother—even at not quite eight, I was snotty about Latin endings), but also sometimes shards of pottery and vaguely triangular rocks, which we were sure were arrowheads. They might have really been arrowheads: anthropologists have found petroglyphs and artifacts dating back at least to 1150 CE in the area around Los Alamos, and the Ancestral Puebloans who lived there made tools and weapons from stone, shells, and bone. The soft volcanic rock of the Pajarito Plateau (called Bandelier tuff) was carved into multi-story cave dwellings, sometimes extended with pinyon and juniper logs, filled in with willows and plastered with mud for walls and roofs. No one knows why the Ancestors left northern New Mexico—probably drought and possibly violent intertribal conflict drove them further south and west long before the colonizing Spaniards brought horses. But I didn’t know that then, and in the days when I imagined myself lonely and wild, I always rode a horse.
The Santa Fe Opera might as well be heaven. The stage is outdoors, so the season is in the summer. For a while, the opera sponsored a program to encourage young opera fans, and adults who brought at least two children enjoyed a sharply reduced ticket price. Performances began late, when it got dark and the desert cooled off, so children were bundled in blankets and drifted off to sleep with music wafting over them. The lights of Los Alamos appear in the distance behind the stage, and are sometimes used as part of the staging. This effect is especially powerful in staging Madame Butterfly, when the lights of the town stand in for Nagasaki Harbor as Cio-cio-san gazes out, hoping for Pinkerton’s return. The plot of Madame Butterfly is, of course, completely unsuitable for children. Adultery, bigamy, colonialist racism, child marriage, corrupt nationalism, forced conversion, shunning, ritual suicide . . . but, Puccini! My father must have given a very whitewashed synopsis, and kept the program so I wouldn’t read it. I remember that Rich and baby Evan fell asleep before intermission, but I must have fallen asleep before the end, because I would have been unforgettably devastated by it. I cried anyway, already in the first act when Cio-cio-san’s uncle damns her and the family leaves her, and then again in the second act at Un bel dì vedremo—even in Italian, even though I was too little to have any idea about love or marriage or betrayal, the distilled longing of the aria called something out from deep within me that I couldn’t name and couldn’t bear. I recognized it as sad, but also irresistibly beautiful. Years later, a graduate seminar on German Romanticism with hours devoted to discussion of “the sublime” came close to giving me words for it. I did not feel it more deeply then, when I could box it up in sophisticated multilingual jargon; the words only attenuated the feeling enough to make it tolerable. Graduate seminars would give me words for Pinkerton’s evil, too, but I had seen it clearly enough in the chilly desert night.
“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay, in a poem that feels nearly true. “To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, who neither listen nor speak.” Los Alamos is spread out on mesas—Spanish for table. But there is no children’s table, no place for innocents. We eat death at every meal and no blessing will save us. Guilt is in the cells of our bodies, in the pottery from which we drink mystery. It is in the radiation that makes flowers grow and babies die. Beauty damns and redeems us at once. We know and cannot tell the truth to the ones we love. The mountains sing, and the children can hear. The earth seethes and pitches us into each other’s arms—we fall, and dance, and disappear.
Kristine Haglund is a Senior Editor for Wayfare and the author of “Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal.”
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I love this, Kristine.