A Nest of Russian Dolls

When I took apart my nest of Russian dolls, painted red and white with touches of pink for the lips and green for leaves on their cloaks, I wanted each face to be different. But each doll, which held the smaller nubs of succeeding generations, looked alike. The charm had simply to do with decreasing size. They were clones of each other.

There are families like that–where the children are rescued from the same gene pool as their parents. Where only decreasing size and being embedded in their larger progenitors set them apart. But our mother from an entirely different European gene pool than our father insisted on scrutinizing her children’s differences. “You’re dark like your father,” my mother would declare, looking closely at me out of the blue. “You have his coloring,” as if he’d taken a box of crayons and laid on me his own olive skin, deep brown eyes and vividly white teeth. He was thoroughly Italian. She was not.

My younger sister sported our mother’s German-Swedish coloring, with blue-green eyes, light brown hair and roses in her cheeks. OK, that took care of the physical attributes. Next came the scrutiny for talents. When I started taking music lessons at second grade, my sister was not even five. It turned out that I was a “good student.” I quickly learned to read music, had fine, hand-eye coordination. I quickly progressed through the John Schirmer “Little Fingers That Play” first piano book.

One day, coming home school, I heard my song “In a Country Garden,” coming from the piano. Our father was an excellent violinist. In fact, he had studied the violin in Italy, which even then, meant to me that he had traveled to musical mecca for instruction. Was he playing my song for fun? Not likely. He was teaching at The Citadel. And it wouldn’t be our mother: she repeatedly announced that she had no musical talent whatsoever, except appreciation.

Tiptoeing to the doorway into the living room, I stood shocked as I watched my little sister stand at the keyboard, playing my song. She immediately looked over at me and smiled her impish grin, which meant “Nah, nah, nah, I can do anything better than you can!”

After that, the scene goes dark until its follow-up several days or weeks later. Somehow my mother doesn’t see me: she’s talking through the back-door screen that leads into the long shadowed hall which runs straight through our wing of the Old Citadel from front to back. Our apartment near the back faces another apartment across the hall, where the Thompsons live. My mother is speaking to Mrs. Thompson. As best as I can recollect, this is what she says: “D. is playing all of Margot’s songs by ear. She doesn’t even have to read music. She’s inherited her father’s musical talent.”

Again I’m stunned: I thought I had the music talent! After all, I look like my father. I’m racing through the “Little Fingers” book. I practice the piano every day. He and I also have played little duets. Plus going to Grace Miller’s house near Ashley Hall for my lessons, is my activity, given to me because I’m older. Doesn’t reading the music in the “Little Fingers” book mean I’m also better, and wiser?

Apparently not. That assumption does not survive my mother’s conversation with Mrs. Thompson. Though I continue to take lessons, though I play a Haydn concerto with Ms Miller at a recital when I’m twelve, the evolution of my sister’s musical talent will eventually prove the correctness of my mother’s statement. My sister has indeed inherited our father’s music talent. Her version of the Russian doll looks and acts quite different from mine.

There are so many ramifications to this early recognition, and to my mother’s complex response to our various differences, that it will take me years to sort them out and to put them at arm’s length. I am not surprised, now decades later, that my sister and I are not close, either geographically or socially. We have periods when we gang up on our mother’s legacy, attempt to prove that despite all this business about assigning attributes and talents strictly across the parental divide, we can have fun together and be decent siblings. But ultimately, we revert to prickly suspicion, waiting for our mother’s voice to come out of the woodwork and assign positive and negative characteristics which create jealousy and hurt.

I like another version of the Russian dolls better: the one in which the parent insists, “I have three daughters and they’re all wonderful.” Period. End of discussion. This is the version practiced by my father’s only living relative, Eleanora of Delaware. When I visit her, as I’ve just done, I hear her describe her childhood of three girls, who did and did not resemble each other, but whose mother, the angelic Josephine, treated them all as her beloved offspring and never praised one over the other. She had enough sense to let life do whatever it would in that regard, and kept the daughters close to each other nestled under her motherly heart.

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