Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, Down in my Heart - And the Burden of My Mother's Mask

I just brewed a fresh pot of coffee.  I'm drinking Sumatra Dark Roast from the World Market and it is such a delicious luxury and pleasure to sit in the living room, as I am now, drinking from a beautiful china cup, nibbling on a white chocolate, Macademia nut cookie and listening to one of my oldest and favorite vinyl records:  the incomparable Anton Rubinstein playing the Chopin Nocturnes.


Rubinstein is my favorite pianist of all time.  He has none of the flash of Horowitz or the fastidious precision of Artur Schnabel.  (Yes, I confess to a preference for the pianists of a generation past.) But what Rubinstein does have is a tender, delicate touch that exudes love for the instrument, the music and the soul of the composer.


No other music or musician has ever moved me as deeply as Rubinstein playing Chopin, except perhaps when I was five years old and belting out, "I've Got that Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in my Heart" in the basement of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.


I thought that boisterous spiritual was the most gloriously uplifting music in the world.  Singing in chorus with about fifty other children before we dispersed to our Sunday School classrooms, I wished that song would never end.  I remember feeling so buoyant and exhilarated, I don't believe I would have been surprised to take off and soar all around that simple, concrete block room, literally flying on the wings of song.  


I have wonderful memories of that Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  It was, in many ways, the center of my world when I was a very little girl.  Why?  Because it was the center of my mother's world.  The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was, I think, an island of normalcy in the ever so strange 'Atomic City' where we lived in the 1950s.  


It was at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church that my mother found other people like herself, people from working class and rural backgrounds rather than Oak Ridge's pointy headed scientists and engineers, and their sophisticated wives, all of whom my mother imagined as being her superiors.  

My mother was self conscious in Oak Ridge, a town that boasted the highest per capita rate of Ph.Ds in the U.S.  She lived in fear of being found out as simple farm girl with no more than a high school diploma.   


Her icy reserve, which was likely misconstrued as snobbish aloofness, was actually social anxiety and timidity.  But at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church she could drop all of that pretense and just be herself; plain old Pattie Jean Walker from Sugar Tree, Tennessee: not Mrs. A. de la Garza, the anxious and self effacing wife of one of those brilliant, pointy headed engineers.  


Mrs. A. de la Garza was the carefully constructed persona my mother inhabited everywhere in Oak Ridge except the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It was a persona that required the vigilant maintenance of an ill fitting mask.  She wore that mask for over fifty years, but I don't think it ever got any easier.


 I can still hear the sad regret in her voice:  "I wish I'd never left Sugar Tree."  I wish she hadn't either.  She might have been happy there. 

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