Last summer, near a stone water tower on a hilltop amid the scent of wild rosemary, thyme, and scrub oak, I had to sit down when my eyes flooded with tears. I was returning from a long walk near our house in the south of France, and was caught at unawares when I heard my daughter’s voice, carried on a breeze out of the hamlet. How far that voice has come, I thought.
In 2004, on a whim, when the dollar was strong against the Euro, we bought a 700year-old stone house in a tiny French hamlet in wine country. It had a bit of plumbing and electricity, but it was a bona fide—even deeded—ruín. Before we could sleep there on the very first day of our tenure, we went to the hardware store to buy a rake, a push broom, a mop, a bucket, and some French industrial type disinfectant. If the store had sold children’s hard hats, we might have purchased those, too. Our toes stubbed against rocks, newly fallen from the walls, nearly every morning when we climbed out of our sleeping bags. Our three kids were six, nine, and ten years old.
In 2007, we lived there from June until December while my wife went to cooking school. But when we arrived in June, the contractor, whom we had hired to do the big work, was profoundly behind schedule. The house was still open to the elements: few windows were in place; wires dangled from every wall; there were ladders where staircases were supposed to be. In short, it was still a hardhat area. We had no choice but to move in.
Admittedly, this whole “France thing” was self-imposed. In fact, we had even justified doing it because we thought the challenges would be good character building for all of us. School in the USA had been going almost too well for our two oldest children. On the other hand, school hadn’t been going well for our youngest, and we thought a change might come as a relief: barely a day went by, it seemed, without a phone call or a chat at pick-up time regarding her behavior. Hardly a morning went by without a tantrum about attendance.
But we knew her as a wonderful and bright kid: a voracious and hyper-observant reader and a lover of music and art, and so creative that we didn’t worry about her thinking outside the box, we spent our energies teaching her that there was a box. Nights, she kept awake singing to herself in the crib, and later, in her bed. She was a quick study of math and science, with a remarkable eye for discerning patterns in the world—except for when it came to social situations. And, first and foremost for her, school was a social situation. She felt ungrounded and anxious there, and so, she acted out.
The constant disruption from work on the French house continued through the summer and dragged on into the fall. Our youngest daughter expressed her stress in the way she always had. One evening in August, I poured myself a small glass of Muscat wine and set it on the windowsill. Before I had a single sip, an old piece of mortar tumbled from between the header boards above the deep window, shattering my wine glass and frazzling my spirits. When, soon after, a new tantrum erupted, my wife gave me permission to go for a walk.
On an ancient dirt and rubble road, I walked up and away, until the whole hamlet was behind me, appearing as a single clay-tiled mass of roofs crowned with chimneys. And then, next to the chateau d’eau—the water tower—I made a startling discovery. The chimney of our house, located in the very center of the hamlet, acted like a megaphone. It occurred to me that the tantrums over the previous months—and there had been many—had been audible to the whole community. Everyone had been privy to the challenges we faced, or, rather, we did not have the privacy we thought. I sprinted back to the house.
We were mortified. In this cluster of homes, our houses shared common walls. We had thought that the three-foot thickness of stone between each house protected our neighbors from our trials. And now, even though no one—not the hamlet matriarch, nor the young couple, nor the singular teen, nor the man on the moped, nor the octogenarian bachelor brothers, had ever looked askance when we all met at the bread truck in the morning, we felt judged.
The tantrums and the acting out, both at school and at home, did not go away upon our return to the United States, and they affected our American community, too. Our youngest daughter’s grades remained admirable, but the phone calls from school, and the reactions of some of her peers were unsettling, and not just for us. Sometimes, she bit kids.
In the spring of her 8th grade, her guidance counselor suggested that she enter the middle school talent show. She did, but until she needed a ride on the very night of the performance, she didn’t tell us about it. There were a few classical acts, a magic show, a dance routine or two, and several pop songs. Her performance was One Small Voice, from Sesame Street. She had asked a sixth-grader to accompany her on piano. They won.
I had taken the last available seat in the audience, next to the veteran high school chorus teacher. “Does she take lessons?” she asked. “No,” I said. “But most nights, sometime after midnight, we hear her singing and we have to go in and tell her to go back to sleep.” The chorus teacher smiled and nodded. She knew this kind of kid.
From that moment on, music emerged as key to our youngest child’s identity. As a freshman, she joined chorus and became integral to the theater group. Fast forward to one day in her junior year: the phone rang. It was from the school. We held our breath. My wife answered.
Her new chorus teacher introduced herself. It was all good news. “You have a remarkable daughter,” she said.
Then came last summer. I took a break from repairing the tiles on the roof. As I struck out for a walk, the children in the hamlet, offspring of the young couple from 2007, were waiting for my daughter. With my poor French, I explained that she had just woken up. They should give her a little time. More than an hour later, as I followed the old dirt road back to the hamlet, I heard her.
The song of our youngest daughter was spilling out of our chimney and down into the streets. By time I reached the place where the road becomes paved, she had switched from an aria to a French folk song. At the corner of our little rue, I met one of the neighbors. He, too, seemed lost in thought. “C’est ta fille qui chante?” he asked: It is your daughter singing? Inside, in the salon, four children from the hamlet were standing around the keyboard. My daughter was teaching them songs.
Fast forward to the present, her senior year. She shares the directorship of the co-ed a cappella group: she is a teacher apprentice in two sections of chorus; and in one section of theory. She is the secretary of the school council. She is taking an independent study in conducting with the orchestra teacher. She has been hired by a community church to direct their choir; she gives voice lessons; and, she’ll be singing at graduation. I could go on, but what is most important is that she has a win-win relationship with school and community… in two countries, even.
Music has become her anchor, keel, and rudder in navigating the world. Her studies of other subjects both deepen and serve as accouterments to her understanding of it. Just the other day, she came home to explain that they had been exploring sound waves, frequency, and resonance in physics. She set a crystal wine glass on the kitchen counter, and ran her finger along the rim to find the pitch. “I’m going to try to break it,” she said.