As she pushed her small 93-year-old frame against the wind, holding on to her rain bonnet, she had no idea that this would be her last performance. In the lobby of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Rita Taravella Gerow greeted her family and guests before she began to play the well-tuned grand piano. Her daughter-in-law was to have another treatment, and this was to be a pleasant diversion for her.
As Mother’s fingers slid across the keyboard, heavenly melodies wafted through the open ceiling to the floors above. Selections practiced to perfection. People watched her on iPads, recording the event. My mind wandered, to bygone days, when Father (her beloved spouse of 65 years), seated beside her, carefully turned the yellowed pages of Gershwin, Joplin or Tchaikovsky.
“Is that red-haired lady with the big smile your mother? How old is she, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She is young at heart,” I would reply. Oh, yes, Mother made an impression on everyone she met. Sales ladies rushed to help her, piano pupils adored her and it was impossible to refuse her anything, because of her persuasive tactics, hinting at some fantastic reward. Rarely money. Something worth more than that! Cryptic adventures perhaps, or a hidden gourmet delicacy.
Mother began writing for the Tonawanda News with a column called Rita’s Roamings, then became the editor of Upstate News for Bell Telephone Co., where she had a long career. Her first talk show on Channel 29 was called “Chatting with Rita.” She taught creative writing at D’Youville College, won both Jessie Ketchum medals, performed at Courtyard Theater and in the Gilbert and Sullivan Co. in Tucson, Ariz. Never shy on stage, mother performed many piano concerts including “The Nutcracker Suite” for Gusto at the Gallery in the Albright-Knox.
Life at our home was always interesting. Most of my friends did not have guests like Hindu hypnotists, musicians, freelance writers and macrobiotic chefs. Sunday dinners were an event. They sometimes had a theme and always included mother leading us to the piano. Children and grandchildren gathered in the living room, some around the piano and some underneath it. My brothers and father would boisterously sing, “Stout Hearted Men” using stern baritone voices.
Mother had a way of making peanut butter and crackers taste like melon and prosciutto. She could read a cat’s mind, and she could breathe life into dead plants. I learned that part of the art of a joyful existence was the realization that I had choices. I could reach inside my mind, where anything was possible. Mom did that often.
Mother’s life was not without struggle, grief or loneliness. But she was a proud woman and did not burden others with her problems. In her later years, she would ask me if there was anything new she could do. Then she would answer her own question saying, “At my age, there is not much I haven’t already done.”
If I learned anything from Mother it was the joy of experiencing life itself in every form. From the smallest movement of a leaf rolling across the road powered by the wind, to the world’s most historic moments, and all that happened in between.
Dear Mother: I did take note of who you were, how you lived and the happiness you brought to others. Thank you for the road map. This gift is indeed a priceless legacy of love, and a way of life, indelibly etched in my mind and heart. I shall do my best to pass it on.