My Mom’s best friend, my surrogate mother growing up, was an opera singer named Maria Callas. No, not that Maria Callas, the tempestuous vocal genius and companion to Aristotle Onassis. This Maria Callas was altogether different — warm, gifted, fragile, yet steely strong. She passed into another life September 8 2017, and her daughter, Michele Morin, sent me this letter I wrote to Maria more than 20 years ago to commemorate her 70th birthday. I reprint it here. — arielle
When I think of Maria Callas, I always think of music. Of course, that’s my first recollection of her name…Maria Callas, the great opera singer. I remember my mother telling me that Maria Callas the opera singer lived next door. Of course, this was a different Maria Callas; I was eight years old then, and spent hours trying to puzzle this one out. How was it possible for two opera singers from Greece to have the same name and yet not be the same?
To answer the question, I spent hours one day studying a record album portrait of Maria Callas the mezzo-soprano diva. I was trying to figure out how that full-figured temptress with lavender-colored lips, husky voice and flaring nostrils could possibly be the frail, finely chiseled Maria Callas, who was practically on my doorstep; who was a “coloratura” soprano and sang up in the clouds somewhere. Obviously they were different. It was a delightful difference, though, and it was not long before there was only one Maria Callas in my life. Guess which one? (The other became quite a fine spokesperson for RCA Victor).
This Maria Callas had dark lively eyes and a hummingbird presence. In no time, I thought, she embraced me as a welcome addition to her complex life, filled with music, art, children, mother, and a Greek husband. She called me “dollie,” made exotic foods with olive oil and parmesan cheese, and had two dark-haired children name Peter and Michele. There was also a strangely beautiful photograph of my Maria Callas in youthful profile that appeared in every house Maria ever lived in. I followed that portrait in time, complete with veil and nose I didn’t recognize, and, between the long intervals of not seeing her, reflected on it, much as I would think of the photograph of George Callas, her husband, once captured as a sly little boy in a sailor’s suit. (He carried that same expression throughout his life.)
I recollect many things about Maria’s walls– her embroideries, her tiles, her columns and rows of paintings, arranged in European fashion. I remember her funny swooping walk, a loud lipsticked laugh, and that bun! It grew magically like a Buddha lump on top of Maria’s head, all the more magical because Maria otherwise sported a smart-cropped hairdo. Only in the 60’s could anyone get away with that!
I remember the first time hearing Maria Callas singing in our Unitarian fellowship. Listening to her voice, so tremulous and lovely, as though she had lived and breathed every note and word, I had to turn away. I never imagined that such emotion wrapped up in a musical form could come from someone so close to me. She sang Donizetti, I think, or was it Scarlatti? All these Italians I had never heard of! In any event, it was definitely not Wagner!
I remember we all sat listening, my mother and father smiling quietly. George Callas somewhere in the audience nearby, and Peter and Michele listening as patiently and proudly as they could. I remember distinctly hearing the admiration in my mother’s voice; I think Maria Callas was the only personal friend in whom my mother truly expressed something beyond admiration– a little awe. For me, she seemed a confirmation that artistry and family and a great openness to the light and pratfalls and darkness of life could flow through one human being. I also remember the gift she painted for my father when he was 36– that “Thunderbird”– wrapped up in delicate brush strokes of a black and white dove. There were always so many layers to Maria. I think of all that complexity (never worn with heaviness or too much subjectivity) wrapped up in a figure as fragile and delicate as glass. Fortunately, Maria was more durable than glass. Later in life I thought there were times that Maria would break– but she never did. So, I’ve always thought of her as the consummate survivor.
Today, reflecting back on these and other times, I think of our lives now as caught in a time warp, where many of those moments are crystal clear, others as “smears.” I can still see the winter days and nights of Huntington, when darkness fell around 3:30 pm, and my mother still was not home from teaching, and I was lying in Maria’s family room, sick with bronchitis. I remember feeling a little lonely and yet reassured, having my books and homework in my lap. It seemed I’d never get better. But I remember now Maria coming in and out of the room, humming, sewing, cleaning, reading, preparing delicious dinners, incessantly industrious- no doubt the product of Depression upbringings! I recollect trying to eat spaghetti she made for me (no tomato sauce, how strange!); having her test me on homework; listening to opera; also horsing around with Peter and Michele in the basement, and Peter somehow howling in pain.
Somewhere in all these recollections I think of Maria’s home as just to the west, off a curb of space and time and green grass that will never be again. I can still see the hills in Huntington and the fine large oak trees and the sunsets that spilled across the Western sky with hues of amber, magenta, and orange. These were the colors of our hearts, of passion and conviviality and growing up. I can still hear the sounds of the Callases, Dannenbergs and Weisners in their kitchens; the laughter at pool parties, winter parties– the Ehrensal girls; the families, children, singers, writers, doctors, engineers, teachers– purposeful and optimistic people, raising their families and living in the best possible worlds.
Maria, there is no way I can tell you what is in my heart…. only thank you for having shown up on Turtle Cove Lane at the precise moment you did.
Thanking you for staying with us. Thanking you for taking what was the very best in you and touching all of our lives in a way that made us different– better, happier, and richer.
Happy Birthday, Maria Callas!