“Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the departing sun, it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart.” Washington Irving
Ten years ago, I founded the community chamber choir I direct. Developing into a solid core of singers, we have experienced much together. We have been through all sorts of life events; marriages, births (of children and grandchildren), retirements, illnesses and deaths of parents and spouses. But it wasn’t until February of 2015 we experienced the death of one of our singers, alto Elaine S.
Elaine was special for many reasons. She was a Genius and an Odd Duck. She played the ukulele. To say she was a “character” is too mild a way of putting it; she was a kooky character!
When she called our choir phone to set up an audition, I didn’t think it could possibly be her. She stated her name—Elaine S. (I had grown up with a family with this unique long ethnic name)—and wanted to know if I was THAT Marie Grass. Returning her call, I told her I was Marie Grass Amenta now and she said, “well, la-de-da”…it was that Elaine! She had been a classmate of one of my sisters, from grade school through high school, and I had been a classmate of one of hers. Elaine and I had sung together in high school; mixed chorus, Madrigals and musicals. She had studied voice with my opera singer Mom when she was in college. In our phone conversation, she thanked me for graduating so she could finally get the parts I had previously (she had been my understudy for more than one role) and we set up an audition.
Elaine had one of those creamy, contralto voices that just get better with age. Her voice was wonderful but her musicianship had slipped… but I couldn’t turn her away. She agreed to be coached by our accompanist, Ben, who is also my son. When Ben asked what he should call her, she told him to call her “Crazy Aunt Elaine” and since she knew his Actual Aunts, she assured him she was every bit as crazy! When Elaine auditioned, she shared with me she was a two time breast cancer survivor. I told her Mom was a two time cancer survivor as well.
She attended her first rehearsal, and I dragged out an old yearbook to show everyone our high school chorus picture. Thank goodness we were wearing robes! From that moment on, Elaine fit in. The altos loved her and the rest of the group found her funny and quirky. If she had any musical problems, she asked Ben for help or the altos would have impromptu sectionals before or after rehearsal. Elaine was Greek, had sung for many years in Orthodox Church choirs and would joke about Kyries being Greek so finally she felt comfortable with something.
After she sang her first concert, Mom and Elaine held hands during the reception and compared chemo war stories. It was so touching. Unfortunately, Mom’s cancer reoccurred and she was again on the Chemo Train, as those two called it. Mom lost her battle that summer and when I called Elaine, she wept. She wasn’t feeling well enough to attend Mom’s wake or funeral even with us offering to take her. I should have known something was up.
Rehearsals started in fall and Elaine looked like (her word) “crap.” She told me her cancer had reoccurred and had a drain in her lungs so her breath control was “nada.” If I didn’t want her to sing for that concert, she would understand. Of course I wanted her! She missed only one rehearsal due to a treatment leaving her “high as a kite.”
After the concert, we had two break-out gigs and she wasn’t able to sing. She left a message on my cell phone, “Now don’t have a cow Marie, but they say it’s no use. I’m done for. How can that be?” Days later I got a call from one of her friends.
As I put folders together for this spring, I think of Elaine and what an honor it was having her sing with us. I miss her!