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Personal Essay | Singing On a Grave

By Anne E. Johnson

Thanks to Baltimore’s late September heat, the grass over my late sister’s plot was already hard and nubby only a month after her burial. Or maybe the cemetery laid a special type of sod meant withstand rain, slush, and the sorrowful weight of mourners like me.

I sat cross-legged, almost on top of Allegra’s flat granite stone. Allegra. The name meant “joyful.” I wish I could say her name described her life. In my own sadness after her death, I tried to be joyful for her sake. And so I sang. It was “The Whistling Gypsy,” an Irish folk song we used to sing together. She loved that tale of a woman’s escape from a stifling life. Allegra never managed such an escape, at least not until her death from cancer at the age of 29.

For the funeral, my dad had chosen the music, a CD of slow, beautiful pieces for orchestra. As I entered the chapel, I saw the closest companion of my childhood lying in her coffin. Samuel Barber’s Adagio was playing through the loudspeaker. The combined effect was otherworldly. Sickening, to be honest.

I used to find Barber’s rich, languorous sounds moving, in a calming way. But ever since that August afternoon at a Baltimore funeral home, it has devastated me. At the time, I had never seen a dead body before, and there she lay, my very own sister. And that music, thickening the air. It is impossible to dislodge the association of death from its sound. But that’s not fair, either to Barber’s glorious work or to my memory of my only sibling.

Anne-&-Allegra

Allegra’s relationship with music was one of the few aspects of her existence that lived up to her name. Music brought her joy. It also brought us closer together. As is often true in families, she and I proved that the same household, the same opportunities, the same loving parents, can produce two completely different people. Allegra never quite learned to love herself, and therefore never found the key to happiness and peace. We grew apart—an irreparable chasm—once puberty took hold. But before that, we shared everything. And especially music. I played the violin in the same youth orchestra where she played French horn. We were in the same chorus at school, my soprano to her alto. Every Christmas, we delighted all the relatives by harmonizing our favorite carols. “Good King Wenceslaus” was our pièce de resistance.

The only genre we couldn’t agree on was pop music. This was the ʼ80s, and while I hooked into the experimental New Wave, Allegra dug the tight-jeaned, big-haired “locker poster” bands. In her junior year of high school, when she was dating an older loser name Scott, she used to swoon every time “Keep on Loving You” came on the radio, sighing, “That’s our song!” I didn’t have the heart to point out that the lyric about the coiling, hissing snake was not emblematic of a happy romance.

To her credit, Allegra did become a connoisseur of British Invasion rock, particularly Led Zeppelin. At the time, I was still too much of a classical music snob to let Jimmy Page into my heart. Since her death, and largely in her honor, I’ve changed my closed-minded ways on that score, and it has certainly enriched my life.

Allegra-pipesAllegra wasn’t just a spectator, but also an eager participant in all kinds of musical arts. Piano and singing, French horn and bagpipes. She even studied conducting. When the high school band director told her French horn wasn’t a good instrument for marching, Allegra convinced him to make her the band’s drum major, so she could parade through our little town. Let me tell you: She rocked that tall, furry hat like nobody’s business, and I was one proud little sister.

But as much as Allegra loved Sousa marches and Scottish airs, as much as she loved Mozart horn concertos and—I cringe as I write this—REO Speedwagon, I don’t think she ever loved any music more than the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The LPs by that four-man Irish folk band were like mother’s milk to Allegra and me. We knew how to sing dozens of their songs, with me on guitar, and Allegra enriching our duo at a third below the melody.

We were two Midwestern American innocents singing mystical ballads and tragic elegies of war and loss. Yet somehow, those story-songs of far-off worlds spoke to us deeply. And of all the beautiful, plaintive melodies we pilfered from the Clancy Brothers, “The Whistling Gypsy” was Allegra’s favorite.

So much defiance in that tale! The woman runs away from her comfortable home and joyless marriage to follow an intriguing nomad. He brings her to his camp, where she is welcomed by the community of gypsies, and she becomes one of them. And even when her lawful husband moves heaven and earth to track her down, she refuses to return home with him. She’s glad to give up security for the sake of love.

When I consider the serious issues Allegra had with self-esteem, as well as her own suffocating marriage and dead-end cubicle job, I know it wasn’t just the lilting tune that attracted her to the story. She surely imagined herself as the young woman swept away by danger and adventure.

But when, in the autumn of 1995, I sat on her grave singing “The Whistling Gypsy,” I was not analyzing its psychological significance. I was just sitting with my big sister, my only sister, singing her favorite song. Because she loved that song, and I love her. And I wanted to bring to Allegra’s memory the joy she did not have enough of in life.

 

 

Anne E. Johnson is a Brooklyn-based writer who grew up in Wisconsin. Her degrees in classical languages and medieval musicology and her background in folk music and tap dance exemplify her wide-ranging interests. Her writing is equally eclectic, running the gamut from science fiction and historical fiction to music and theater journalism. She writes for both kids and adults. Learn more on her website, http://anneejohnson.com.

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