Cages Don't Always Hold Birds

Written by Marjorie Montenegro

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Cages Don't Always Hold Birds
     Elizabeth entered the small, empty apartment, tossd her bookbad onto the sofa and hurried to the well worn bench.  Each step she took knowingly as the path to her world was well worn and as familiar to her as her own voice.  As her fingers lovingly slid across the polished ivory, only occassionally tapping upon the cool black ebony, she entered her world.  The musical land where nothing could harm her.  For thirty minutes a day Elizabeth could see, not with her eyes but with her ears and her heart.  Only the sound of her mother's keys turning the unoiled lock of their front door could break the spell of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
     Ann returned hom every day at precisely 4:15 P.M.  The thirty mintues that her sightless daughter spent alone were the most agonizingly long minutes of her day.  Necessity caused Ann to consider allowing her fourteen year old to stay alone after school; however, it was Elizabeth's desperate plea for independence which sealed the deal.  Ann lived and breathed for her daughter, existing solely to compensate for her failure to give Elizabeth sight at birth.  Although she was struggling to provide for the two of them, Ann managed to scrape together enough money between tips, loans and the sale of her grandmother's jewelry to buy Elizabeth the piano which she seemed to need.
Early in Elizabeth's life Ann saw that for what her daughter lacked in sight, she was amply compensated for with intelligence.  Her extraordinary ability was bolstered by years of intellectual conversations with her mother and a plethora of tutors.  No matter how hard times might be, Ann always found the means to supply her daughter with the stimulations, which she had read somewhere in a magazine, every genius needed.  This constant supply of culture and education resulted in Elizabeth's love of classical music, and thus, the need to learn to play it.
Every evening Ann and Elizabeth shared a pleasant rite of passage.  Ann would enter carrying the evening's fare, dinner for two ala Tom's Diner, to the sound of "The Entertainer," a particular favorite shared by both.  After taking her bow for once again safely arriving home, the two would embrace and begin to set the table.  Although paper plates would seem ideal for the two, Ann always made a point of using her best china, service for eight obtained by saiving receipts from the local supermarket.  She could not fathom any dinner companion more worthy of dining with on the most special plates in the house.  There was, however, a more important reason for using the china.  By giving Elizabeth the responsibility for setting the table with such fragile plates, Ann proved the amount of faith she had in her little girl.  Only once had Elizabeth faltered.  After many tears had fallen, by Elizabeth for her failure and Ann for Elizabeth's pain, Ann handed Elizabeth another plate saying, "Enough of this, I'm starving."
After dinner they cleared the table together and retired to the drawing room, conveniently located three paces from the kitchen table.  There they caught up on the day's events.  All lookign lovingly at her daughter, attentively drinking in the tales of who did what to whom and which girl liked which boy.  The sound of Elizabeth's voice was an elixir straight from the fountain of youth.  She studied Elizabeth's features as she spoke, looking for signs of change from girlhood to womanhood, fearing each noticed difference.  Her chestnut hair, once long and in plaits, was now replaced by a shorter, more sophisticated look.  Gone was the baby fat which once rounded Elizabeth's rosy face, replaced by the chiseled chin and high cheekbones that was one more inheritance from her grandmother.  Ann sighed knowing that her little girl would not be her little girl for long.
After Ann regaled her daughter with the stories, both real and made to order, of the customers she had encountered that day, Elizabeth would move to the bench - her bench - and play for her mother.
Thus, the two lived each day as an instant reply of the day before, never tiring of their ritual. For Ann, her little girl was her sole purpose in life. For Elizabeth, music filled a void that would otherwise be filled with friends. There were moments when Ann believed that she was being selfish by not encouraging Elizabeth to pursue friendships, but she would quickly dismiss such thoughts as she knew she was protecting her daughter. Life was cruel and dangerous to a sighted person, let alone for one whose world was cast in darkness.  Ann proudly took on the role of sentry, guarding Elizabeth's little heart from the suffering which she knew lay just outside their safe haven.  Diligent was she in her duty to protect, and with her steely determination, no one would ever break this heart she held so dea.  The shelter that Ann had built around her daughter was made of stone, impenetrable by all until . . .
"Beth, honey, are you okay?" called Ann tentatively into the silent apartment.  "Elizabeth?  Sweetie."
Out of the darkened room came a meek and shaky voice, "Mom, I'm over here.  I'm okay."  Relieved to hear her daughter's voice, but apprehensive to what she would find, Ann walked unsteadily toward where she heard her daughter.  She found her sitting on the bench with her back toward the piano, her eyes swollen with tears, trembling.  Racing to her daughter's side she threw her arms around her.  Then suddenly, strangely, rather than melt into her mother as she had done before, Elizabeth stiffened.  Ann recoiled as if bitten, looking warily at her daughter, who no longer cried.  Before anything was said, Elizabeth looked to her mother and asked, "Why?"
Like lightning suddenly illuminating the evening sky, Ann knew what the question meant.  Backing away from her daughter and dropping to the sofa quickly to keep her legs from giving out.  What could she say?  How to explain without hurting her precious gem?  She had always been honest before, but how can you tell your daughter that you don't believe she is strong enough to handle life, that the world will just chew her up and spit her out?  She looked to her daughter and asked her, "How did you find out?  Who told you?"
Elizabeth was enraged at her mother, perhaps for the first time in her life, and could not believe that she would have the nerve to answer her with a question.  "What difference does it make how I fould out!  How could you?  That was my dream, my dream not yours, and you just throw it away.  What, I'm not good enough?  If I'm so bad, then, why do they want me?  Do you know how many scholarships they give out?  How about how many scholarships to the blind?  THEY really and truly want me!"
Ann's world was spinning out of control.  How could she explain?  Words snuck past her brain and out of her mouth.  From fear?  Desperation?  "You are good enough, you are.  I know how much this means to you, but I also know how hard it will be.  If it were only the piano you would be fine.  But you are comfortable here aren't you sweetie?"  Ann continued as she tried to regain control - to regain trust.  "Peoply know you, your teachers love you.  Why do you want to risk all of that?  It's harder than you think out there.  Especially for someone who . . . well, someone as inexperienced as you."
"You rejected my scholarship because I was inexperienced?" Elizabeth shouted in disbelief.  "You would have let me think that I was not good enough because I was inexperienced?"  Elizabeth's anger took on a new, more controlled tone.  "I got a call mother.  That's how I know.  Are you happy?  You have your question answered, but I don't have mine now do I?"
Ann just sat stunned.  She never dreamed that this day would come, nonetheless so soon.  She knew in her heart that this would be Elizabeth's one chance, but how could she let go?  Searching for a way to justify holding on to her little baby, each new word was a hammer's thud against the wall Ann had so carefully built around their world.  As the stones came crashing down, Elizabeth continued.  "I cannot go to the Conservatory because I'm inexperienced, is that the story?  Well, listen mother!  I think it's time that you understand something.  I am not inexperienced!  I AM BLIND mother.  Say it!  BLIND!
Elizabeth's voice lowered and suddenly seemed to be pleading.  "Should I just lock the doors and hide under the bed?  Would that make the boogy man go away?  Listen, it's you that is afraid of the dark, not me!  I don't care how hard it is.  I hope it's hard.  I hate the way you baby me.  I am NOT a baby mother.  Can't you see?  All my life y ou rushed me to grow up and be mature, now, you want to take that away and treat me like a baby, but it's too late."  Elizabeth ended her plea and began sobbing, not just because of disappointment, which she as already used to, not just because she was angry, which she was only now acknowledging after years of holding back; rather, it was a lifetime of tears held deeply inside in order to protect her mother.  The sound of Elizabeth's weeping was more than an expression of her pain, it was also a fledgling bird's cry as it soared for the first time.  She was free.
Ann also cried but her tears were tears of mourning.  How to let go?  How!  "That damn school!  How dare they steal my baby!"  Ann's thoughts merged with her tears, "How could they expect her to go all the way across country to study music?  She doesn't belong in Los Angeles, she belongs here.  With me.  Damn them!"  But such thoughts remained lodged in her throat.  This was the time for Elizabeth.  So Ann rose slowly, took Elizabeth in her arms, and stroked her hair as her baby's, no the young lady's, tears began to abate.  "I am so sorry, sweetie, I am so sorry.  Of course you are good enough, you are much better than good enough.  Baby, you will be wonderful.  Go.  Make me proud.  I love you."  With that they held each other for what seemed like an eternity.
As the seasons changed one thing did not, the two shared a rite of passage.  Passage into another day, into a higher place than that from where they came.  Of course, over such distance the ritual changed; however, there was comfort in there being a ritual at all.  Cards and letters were written and read daily as they kept to their resolve to never lose each other.  Ann would enter her lonely, silent apartment, open the tin containing her dinner, grab a fork and sit on the bench to read her baby's leter.  Elizabeth's joy exuded from each description of lessons learned, concertos mastered, friends made, and - much to Ann's chagrin - crushes had.  Only the hoy in being a part of Elizabeth's life allowed Ann the ability to eat at all.  Her life became one of contemplation, introspection and a new found appreciation for the beautiful woman her daughter had become.  One day she opened the box to find more than the usual letter.  Within the folded pages was  round trip ticket to Los Angeles and an announcement about the Conservatory's Exhibition of Student Talent.  Written on the back of the announcement was a simple note written in the familiar style Elizabeth so painstakenly learned.
Mom, I saved the money you sent since I got here so that when my most special day came, my most special friend would be here to share it with me.  That day is here.  I love you Mom and am counting the minutes until I get to say that to you in person.  Smootchies to you - Beth.
Ann's tears flooded the paper with her joy.
Ann walked into the Conservatory dorm on the arm of her much matured daughter.  The adultness to her daughter's posture and appearance contrasted with the childishness in her giggles and excite.  They were together again.  Life was good.
That evening Ann sat in the first row of the auditorium anxiously awaited her angel.  Speakers spoke, yet she did not hear them.  Her focus was on only one person, her baby.  Then the magical moment occurred. After a brief introduction Elizabeth entered onto the stage.  The long black gown betrayed her scant 16 years.  Elizabeth glided to the bench.  After a short curtsy she sat at the keys, and from Ann's position she could see that Elizabeth was prepared to enter her world.  She played and although a single pianist was performing a symphony seemed to fill the auditorium.  Ann was stunned.  Although her faith in her daughter was boundless, never did she imagine to live to hear such beautiful music.  After she finished and the thunderous applause died down Ann heard a voice from behind her.  "That girl is going to be somebody someday.  Now that is talent."  Ann turned to the voice behind her and said simply, "She's already somebody now."  Then, with tears in her eyes she headed backstage to await her jewel.
After mother and daughter had finished embracing they went to the dressing room shared by all the day's performers.  Once they had found a quiet corner Ann quietly told Elizabeth of what she had found since Elizabeth had left.  "Darling, I am so proud of you, and not just because of how beautifully you play, but because you play at all.  I know that I have been hard on you.  I suppose I could say it was because I loved you so much.  But that is only half the truth."  Ann paused and took her daughter's hand.  The warmth of that touch gave her the strength to continue.  "I have kept you to myself because I needed you.  Not because you needed me.  I  know how selfish I was - and maybe still am.  You're my world, but, that's not enough of a reason and I am so sorry."
"Mom, it's alright, really.  We need each other.  Maybe not for the reasons you thought, but we do."  Elizabeth said while patting her mother's hand and smiling.  "A day doesn't go by that I don't wonder, what would Mom think of that, or I can't wait to tell Mom this.  That's need, just . . . well . . . It's not needy need; it's just need.  so don't fee so bad Mom, because I need you too."
Ann felt mixed emotions at that moment.  Part of her was a child who had just learned something new.  Part of her was the mother of the most remarkable young woman she had ever known.  "For every one thing that I've ever done wrong," said Ann, "I must have done ten things right, huh?  For me to miss seeing how much strength I get from you, well . . . say it baby, you are BLIND mother."  She took her daughter into her arms laughing until tears covered both their faces.  This time, however, they were tears of joy.  But for Ann the sound of their laughter mixed with their cries was also the sound of a fledgling bird being pushed from it's nest as it takes to the sky.  She too was free.

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