My sister Elsie Lois had a voice so beautiful I teared up when I heard her sing. When she and mom made music together, I inevitably felt a sense of calm and peace. All would be right in my world for at least the length of their songs.
Elsie was as innately gifted with music as mama was–Elsie’s instrument was her voice and mom’s was the keyboard.
My favorite song they did together was “I Cannot Tell,” a hymn written to the tune of the Irish classic “Londonderry Air.” Any time I was with them both, I requested it. When mom died in the 80’s, that song went silent. Occasionally I heard Elsie sing it, accompanied by one of my other sisters and it was beautiful. But it wasn’t mama.
All the girls played the piano. Ruth placed a close second to mom in my opinion. Alice and Martha tickled the ivories but I wasn’t around to hear them much. Elsie could accompany herself but preferred not to. Kate and I never made it very far with the piano.
By the time we came along, mom’s method of teaching piano to her children was to correct us from the kitchen. As she cooked in the back of the house, we’d play. Every few bars we’d hear, “No! F sharp. F sharp!” We’d adjust our fingers and continue our struggle. Both of us gave up along the way. Kate found her creative outlet in art quilts. I’m working on mine.
Elsie and her husband Vince left Greenfield for Hopkinsville, Kentucky and then Belle Glade, Florida. Their growing family — eventually eight children in all — made the trip back home most Christmases or Thanksgivings.
On a cold winter day, the Marquess vehicle pulled into our driveway, the doors flew open and out tumbled tow-headed children of all sizes dressed in tee shirts and tennis shoes. They had little need of winter wear in south Florida so dressing for Illinois winters posed a challenge. Layering was the key. And on the enclosed porch where all the children slept, a well-vented gas heater remained at the highest setting.
I never saw a child that Elsie didn’t love and that didn’t love her back. She could have been Francine of Assisi. She had a quiet way about her. She smiled warmly at strangers, engaged them with questions that sounded like she was totally interested. And she was. She listened no matter how long they went on. And on. And on. Something I’ve not been able to do and, at age 65, probably never will
Mom and Elsie — in fact mom and most of my sisters — had a lot in common. Love of music and laughter. Great cooks. Contented wives. Struggle with weight. Women of faith. And, for the most part, lousy housekeepers. Mom outshone Elsie on the housekeeping. Elsie was much better with children. I believe all the sisters hold people as priorities.
The three boys are like silent partners. They have important positions but speak little and go on about their lives without much fanfare. Charles left home for the army when he was a teenager. Then he went to college, then seminary, he married and lived far from family. He is retired now, in Alaska. Sam, the middle son, remains in Greenfield and chose to farm. John died at 35 and left us stunned and silent.
So it seems the Thornton women are the ones that make the noise and sing the songs and gather the families and help keep the memories alive. Mom would like that. She loved to see her children together, filling her home house with music and commotion.
She wanted us to all get along. To remain connected. To be at peace. Once, when I was driving mom home from an appointment (she didn’t have a license) I made an ugly comment about dad. (I unfortunately went through some anger years and am afraid he felt the brunt of it.) She turned to me and said,”He’s a very good man, Nancy, and he loves you.”
Watson was a very good man. He certainly loved me. He loved all his children deeply and demonstrated it through his actions and his presence. But mom’s love was different. I felt it. I heard it. I saw it. I knew it absolutely. And I loved it.
Now if I can give that to my daughter…