by Rita Leydon ©2002

I love my aunt very much and make an effort visit her in the Blackeberg Nursing Home every time I come to Sweden. The Österby Stämma and a nyckelharpa course at Ekebyholm in Rimbo are the reason for this trip. My father, her big brother, died several months ago at age 85. He had lived with me his last three years and I’d watched his mind disappear into a foggy haze similar to the one that has absorbed Berit. When my Dad was in the Alzheimer wing of a nursing home the last two weeks before he died I had played for him there and seen how happy the music made not just him, but the other residents as well. I marveled how good it felt to play tunes for Dad when there wasn’t much else I could do besides love him. I’d had a fleeting glimpse of the power of music to penetrate cracks where nothing else can get through.

Faster Berit has Alzheimer disease and, since the spring of 2002, is permanently signed into a facility for such cases. The insidious transition from her normal self to a woman totally out of touch with reality took a number of years, gradually becoming more and more apparent. Since I live in America and my aunt lives in Sweden, I see her only infrequently, about twice a

year. With each visit, she has become progressively worse—from a slight suspicion that something was amiss to a full blown case of the Big A. The familiar Faster Berit of my youth doesn’t appear to reside in her now spent body any more—or if she does, she’s locked behind too many doors to ever find her way out again. She’s sweet and laughs easily, but quick to scold her floor mates if her motherly feathers are ruffled or if she senses an impropriety. My two uncles, her brother Tord and husband Alf visit every other day, rain or shine. Take the subway and a bus and walk the rest. She claps with delight when her boys come and always wonders if she can accompany them home so she can be with her mother who died maybe 30 years ago.

I decided to bring my nyckelharpa and play for Faster Berit. This decision to take along my instrument was one I wouldn’t have made on previous visits because I was always too preoccupied with my lack of musical self confidence, too nervous to play for others in general, and very easily distracted. Why set myself up for failure and humiliation? I hadn’t yet learned that such an audience has no interest in judging my abilities or lack thereof. Hadn’t yet learned to give freely of myself and my music. Hadn’t yet found the courage.

I strapped on my nyckelharpa in the open hallway by the elevators which serves as a lobby where the major social pastime is observing comings and goings. Berit radiated expectant approval, clapping her hands in anticipation, and literally bouncing on the edge of her seat. She was all dressed up in brand new and spotless clothes, the fruits of a shopping expedition with Tord and Alf on their previous visit. She smiled and laughed, clasping her hands over her heart, head tilted to one side as she fixed an adoring gaze on me, her amazing little Rita from America. My uncles stood sentry on either side of her and shifted weight from one foot to the next, hands secured behind their backs, patiently waiting for my demonstrative foolery to be over. They’re not into music.

The room’s population increased dramatically as wheelchairs rolled in and slippers shuffled on by to see what all the commotion was about. I was well oiled and cranked out tune after tune feeling energized by the ruckus I was causing. Feet tapped, hands and fingers twitched, heads bobbed and nodded, eyes squinted over rounded cheeks revealing ready smiles and unaccustomed giddy laughter. Two especially spirited matrons couldn’t suppress an urgent need to dance—a need I understand only too well myself—each erupting in a very personal solo interpretation of my rhythms. It was easy to keep to the beat by watching the up-down, up-down, up down, of the entire room. Dancing Lady Number One pined for a partner, took my elbow and smiled suggestively, apparently not aware that I couldn’t both play and dance at the same time. Dancing Lady Number Two was soon lost in a trance, totally absorbed by her dance, eyes closed, content smile gracing her life worn face. Not just the dancers, but all the assembled residents were having honest-to-god FUN! When I stopped playing, all motion stopped simultaneously, as if someone suddenly pulled the plug. The dancers were startled and annoyed by the rude awakening. No! No! Don’t stop! More! More! But the lovely spell had been broken. Lunch was announced and my uncles and I needed to take our leave.

An attendant caught me by the arm to express thanks and wonderment and to tell me that nimble Dancing Lady Number Two can just barely walk upright normally, even with the aid of a walker. I stopped dead in my tracks and studied the dark eyes that were penetrating mine. Really? She nodded and released her grip on my arm.

Ordinarily I think of the music that manages to escape from my nyckelharpa as being strictly of the skeletal and utilitarian variety. No virtuoso touches, no nuances, no thrills. Just simple melody lines. But, blow me away, on this particular occasion, my rudimentary assemblage of notes, once released, contained the elusive key that tickled open creaky diseased doors and dislodged old gnarled flywheels into smooth repetitive motion once again. The music I made had the amazing power to bypass obstacles and hit bull’s eye, smack dab in the hearts of a couple of elderly ladies otherwise shut off from their world by Alzheimer disease. The power to lighten their load and stir them to dance. Blow me away!

published in Nyckel Notes, Number 25, December 2002