In the Trailer Park with Elise and a Deaf Man

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Woman piano player
(Image/Mike Kemp)

I lived in an Iowa trailer park.

Mom always called it a “mobile home,” and fondly remembers it as being “the nicest one in the neighborhood.”

I have no idea whether that’s true. Little kids don’t think about things like that.

I’d sit atop my favorite blanket spread out in the living room and play with my Star Wars and He-Man toys. I was 3 years old.

My mother sat on the bench in front of our upright piano—probably our finest possession—playing beautifully, despite the handicap of having small hands consistent with her short stature.

I’m sure my mother played many things on the piano.

But I only remember one: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, a common choice of beginning pianists. I didn’t know the name of the piece until I was in my 20s. This version is gorgeous:


Near as I can tell, this is my oldest memory.

What are our lives, if not a collection of memories? And if this is my oldest one, what must it be worth?

Save the things we cherish today—right this second—what could be worth more?

I cried and begged my mom not to make me take naps, staring and poking at the bottom of the top bunk which no one ever slept in.

I sobbed when she threw away my blanket because the stitching had come undone on the binding.

I developed anger issues when my parents later divorced and mom moved us 500 miles to Ohio.

But there is no amount of sadness, anger or pain that can erase those moments with mom at the piano.

Everything was—really and truly—okay.

I didn’t worry about what people thought of me, or how to make more money, or whether I’ll ever meet a girl who will like me, and who I like back.

I was just there. Just being. Pure and innocent and totally content.

With my mom who would make it okay. With my dad who would come home from work later and play Star Wars with me.

And with this piece of music. Magic.

Just a footnote on the list of Beethoven’s best work. One he chose not to publish for the final 17 years of his life.

Maybe he thought it was shitty. Maybe he thought it would never matter to anyone.

I wonder what he’d think of that score being an endearing and enduring memory of some random stranger on the other side of the world more than 200 years after writing it.

He probably wouldn’t care.

But I’d like to believe the implications would make him feel good about his impact on the world.

Beethoven is famous for being deaf.

He wrote some of the world’s most influential musical pieces between age 30 and his death at 56, totally unable to hear any of it.

What’s the equivalent of that? A fragrance maker who can’t smell? A photographer who can’t see? A choreographer who can’t walk?

The story of Beethoven’s accomplishments in music following his hearing loss (which happened gradually—he wasn’t completely deaf until around age 30) is the ultimate retort for anyone offering excuses for why they can’t achieve success in their life pursuits.

He was shy. Socially awkward. Ill-tempered. And had, according to various biographies, an “unfortunate physical appearance.”

Women apparently didn’t want to have sex with, or marry, him.

The lonely genius.

So he poured himself into his art, producing many of the world’s most famous symphonies, which are still heard today—more than two centuries later.

A deaf man wrote music that people absolutely adore 200 years later. I don’t have an adjective for how astounding that is.

Even though Beethoven never married, he still had feelings. A love letter he never sent to a married woman named Antonie Brentano was found after his death.

Für Elise is linked to a couple different women, but there’s no direct evidence he was in love with them.

Beethoven’s loneliness is worth contemplating. Here’s a man so famous that every classically educated person on the planet has heard of him. He was admired and beloved while still alive despite being a prickly cock to most in his life.

We all know somebody like that. Except the one we know is a retired electrician or factory worker, and not very many people will remember them after they die because they didn’t leave behind anything of value.

They didn’t leave behind anything beautiful.

Not like this. This ode to Elise.

Beethoven was dead 40 years before ANOTHER guy named Ludwig found Für Elise and published it.

This musical composition is an afterthought.

If any hardcore classical music fans read this, they’ll probably think the score is low-level bullshit compared to Beethoven’s—and his genius German musical predecessors, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—most influential work.

You know how popular albums always have three or four songs everyone knows, surrounded by songs most people have never heard or care to?

It’s super-common for my favorite songs to be among those lesser-known titles. It’s either because I have amazing taste that most plebs could never understand, or because I’m the trailer-park rube who likes crappy things that will never be popular.

Both are possible.

I can listen to Für Elise on repeat for hours, as I have through this entire writing.

I don’t know how the world hears it. Maybe people think it’s silly that I don’t prefer Beethoven’s 5th or 9th symphonies.

Maybe dudes who lived in Iowa trailer parks can’t tell the difference between good and great.

I only know this:

My mother didn’t play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 while He-Man was riding Battle Cat, or while Luke was lightsaber-fighting Vader back when the good guys always won.

She didn’t play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 back then. Before the whole world changed, and everything went from safe and perfect to something else. To something unsteady.

But mom did play Für Elise 33 years ago, and it was beautiful. And even now, when it’s playing, it’s almost like nothing bad could ever happen.

It’s almost as if everything is going to be okay no matter what.

Maybe because it is.

19 thoughts on “In the Trailer Park with Elise and a Deaf Man”

  1. These little life lessons through the eye-gate of a young “Matty” are so endearing…. I can barely deal. Such an important exercise too. I kind feel bad for those who don’t identify as writers. I wonder if they miss out by not reflecting back through the written word. How are you stranger?

    1. Looking back and writing it down does wonders for your ability to sort of organize memories in a way you can look back at and use to make sense of things today.

      Even though I’m not writing nearly as much as I used to, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to go through the process.

      I’m well, lady. Thank you.

  2. PS – I started listen to the HOUR LONG link you posted and about 13 minutes in realized that, while I appreciate the song (especially as a musician), it doesn’t have the same affect for me. lol…. Typical….trying to force stuff that isn’t there. 🙂

  3. Besides the poignant memory you so eloquently described, your ability to create the entire mental scene is a tribute to your writing and how far you’ve come.
    I remember playing piano at the tender age of 8 or 9. It was the instrument my parents felt I should learn. Lillian Fontana….what a nom de plume for a piano teacher, huh?
    Playing your tape brought back such a flood of memories.
    It does harken back to a simpler, gentler time for sure. Perhaps you are right. Things will be all right.
    Thanks for sharing

    1. Thank you for the nice compliment. They say if you can play piano well, you can more easily learn any other instrument.

      I have no idea how true that is. But I certainly wish I could play.

      Maybe I could still learn.

      Please don’t hold your breath.

  4. Was not aware of the background of that particular composition. I tend to like the “deep cuts” as well, so that probably explains my own attraction to it. It is its very simplicity that makes it so approachable, imo.

    And I have to disagree with WVB not caring. Musicians, I have noticed, LIVE for that stuff. Knowing that something that came from within them resonated with another. As a word-artist, haven’t you experienced that? It means something.

    I have certain songs that I associate with particular memories – and when I hear them, it all comes rushing back to me – what I was doing, how I was feeling – the song evokes the memories and the feelings associated with them.

    Pretty powerful stuff.

    1. Given that this is the “oldest” (from a memory standpoint) song I can remember, no piece of music evokes those feelings more effectively than this one does.

  5. Everything will be okay. All we must do is remain positive. Also, we may not all leave behind a beautiful musical masterpiece, but our life and all that we’ve done with it, the people we’ve touched and the lives we’ve changed is an amazing one-of-a-kind work of art that no one will ever be able to replicate.

    1. I re-read that part where I talked about crotchety old dudes not leaving anything beautiful behind, and that was a really thoughtless and incorrect thing to write/say.

      Certainly it’s possible that they helped someone in their personal life, friend or stranger, and really made a difference for someone.

      It’s possible that the hard work they did provided opportunities for others to do something big and amazing.

      It’s possible they had children, and that those children were extraordinarily special people who made the world a better place.

      I was already thinking it. And you are absolutely correct to point it out.

      Always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for stopping in. 🙂

      1. And this is why I enjoy your blog. You are humble enough to accept the view of another without taking offense. You do take forever to reply though. Haha! Just kidding. (I do too sometimes.) Hope you have a great day!

        1. I used to be Johnny-on-the-spot with comments back when I was posting frequently (not unlike this).

          But I’ve intentionally chose to not let the blog rule my life as it once did as I pursue other interests.

          That said. I don’t want to suck. Nor make people feel as if I don’t appreciate them or care about what they say.

          I should be better. Obvs.

          1. No, trust me I don’t feel unappreciated. In fact, just the opposite. Really I was just giving you a hard time. Seriously though, I got to that same point with my blog too. I was finding that it was taking too much of my time, time that I needed to be spending on other things. When things in our life begin to get neglected, then it’s time to take a step back. Then we can write posts and visit with fellow bloggers when we have the time, and not feel obligated to drop everything else in order to do so. You’re a good man. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Life is too short.

  6. I love this! Fur Elise is my ‘go to’ piece of music whenever I find time to sit at the piano. I can only hope my children remember as you do. I had forgotten the story behind the musician. Thanks for the reminder of him and how not to let excuses stop us using our gifts. Perfect.

    1. Thank you very much for this nice, thoughtful comment. I appreciate it.

      You get it. Everyone responds to a piece of music or art or whatever in different ways. It’s kind of amazing.

      I go to a lot of concerts, so I end up seeing a lot of opening acts who I’m only hearing for the first time. Obviously, there’s no emotional connection attached to it.

      But then sometimes, you grow to love that band or artist, and you think about how they were right in front of you on stage, or how you chatted with them at their little merchandise table after the show, and none of it mattered at the time, but now it seems like a big deal.

      Always a matter of perspective.

      My mother played Fur Elise beautifully back when I had never known ANYTHING but really good, happy things.

      And there’s something very special about hearing it still. I love that you understand, and I hope your children do share similar feelings now or down the road.

      Thank you for taking time to comment. 🙂

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