On Sunday, February 23, I attended a matinee concert at Carnegie Hall. Beethoven’s Pastorale and seventh symphonies.
I was in something like the fourth row center in the balcony.
I got there about a half an hour early.
Two middle aged guys sitting next to me were having an animated discussion. In Russian, as I realized after a minute or two.
Hearing Russian spoken always excites me. I can make out words and phrases but can’t follow the conversation.
I couldn’t resist. I leaned over and said to the guy to the left of me, “Excuse me, are you from Russia? I have studied Russian. I can’t speak it well. …”
Not much by way of response and no apparent interest, but he did tell me, in answer to questions of mine, that they were from Russia and were visiting. The guy next to me said he was a professor of mathematics. of which he seemed proud.
For how long? “Two months,” the guy next to me said. He seemed to be fluent in English.
“Where in Russia are you from?” I asked.
“Siberia,” he replied
“Siberia!” I said
The conversation seemed to be on life support. But curiosity got the best of me.
“What city?” I asked.
“The largest city in Siberia?” I asked.
“Yes. 1.6 million people.”
I told him that I have befriended two Russian scholars through the internet — one from Arkhangelsk and the other from Petersburg — and that we collaborate on research and scholarship.
Absolutely no interest.
“I love Russian composers. Shostakovich. Also Tchaikovsky.”
No interest or response. As if the names Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky meant nothing to him and/or he had no opinion.
“The conductor conducting tonight, John Eliot Gardiner, is great for Beethoven,” I said. “English. Believes in fidelity to the original score and orchestration.”
At this point, he wasn’t even pretending to listen.
Contrast all this with my mother, Elinor Handy Smith.
She loved to engage people and draw them out in conversation. (I learned this from her.)
Some stories illustrate this.
In the 1930’s, my mother’s kid brother Roger was riding in the back seat of an open convertible. My mother was at the wheel. My mother, a notoriously bad driver, was involved in a collision in which my uncle was ejected from the back seat and ended up on the roadway.
My mother, unfailingly polite, got out of the car and was exchanging information with, as well as offering apologies to, the other party.
My uncle told me years later — it amused him greatly — that my mother almost forgot and drove off without him. She found the persons in the other car extremely interesting and had gotten into a deep conversation with them about some topic entirely unrelated to the present situation and the accident. To my uncle, this was characteristic of my mother; and it illustrated things like a certain up in the clouds quality (in the good sense). I think it was this that amused him most, but in the sense that, which my uncle realized, some things mattered to my mother more than others. People, for example (not thumbtacks).
Then there was Mr. Dustin, the farmer from Concord, Mass. who would deliver fresh farm produce to our house in Cambridge once a week in the 1950’s. My mother loved his visits. He loved them. He would sit and talk with my mother for I don’t know how long. She looked forward to his deliveries because she enjoyed talking with him so much.
There were many others, many other instances, such as the interim Unitarian minister, whose name I forget, at our church (this was in my high school days) who loved to be invited to our house on Sunday afternoons because he enjoyed my mother’s Sunday dinners and loved their dinner table talk; he didn’t want to leave. There were many other visitors – all were welcome. They came from all walks of life and a notable diversity of backgrounds and countries. They would depart saying to my mother. we enjoyed so much talking with you.
I attended a 50th class reunion at my high school a couple of years ago. In attendance was my former classmate Jack Horigan.
Looking at his nametag, I said. “Nice to see you, John.”
“Everyone calls me Jack,” he said
“Oh, my. Jack Horigan!” I replied. “I didn’t recognize you.”
How I had failed to I don’t know.
“I remember you well,” Jack said. “Because of your mother. I had an egg delivery job every morning before school then. My favorite customer was your mother. I loved it because of the talks we had.”
A high school boy. Jack was not a close friend of mine; I never spoke of him to my mother. My mother was interested in EVERYONE.
— Roger W. Smith
February 25, 2020