Ode to Eleanor

I don’t know if my grandmother was a singer all of her life, but she was a singer for all of my life. I remember an important part of her week was being in the church choir, even as she moved residences, and therefore moved from church to church. When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I would sometimes go to rehearsals with her, because I also loved to sing. I sang in high school, so I could read sheet music and follow along well enough.

Grandma was a lover of the arts, but especially music. I remember attending several musical and theatrical performances with her over the years, from a local musical at Leisure World put on by residents, to regional shows at the Olney Theater, to national touring shows at Lincoln Center. All four of her children studied piano, she almost always had music playing whenever she was home, and she even sang a duet with grandpa as a part of their 50 year wedding anniversary celebration. Many of us did a short performance of some sort as part of the celebration, but of course, grandma and grandpa stole the show with their wit and comfort being at the center of a room full of loving friends and family.

A love of music and singing was something I had in common with Grandma. I quickly learned, however, that I had more talent for all things movement, like sports and dance. My personal artistic pursuits sent me more in that direction, first as a modern dancer and choreographer, then a yogini and yoga instructor, then an aerial dancer and acrobat. I found that when I was on stage or auditioning, performance pressure negatively affected my singing. But when it came to movement, I was able to harness and focus performance stress into electricity and stage presence.

And yet, music still held an important place in my heart.

As my body started wearing out, and it became clear I was not going to be able to continue the highly physical pursuit of aerial acrobatics for much longer, I started taking private vocal lessons in the hope I could swap dance for music as I continued getting older. It was an interesting process, and actually more difficult than I expected. My vocal coach helped me work through what she called the “hole” in my range. She explained that almost everyone has a difficult time transitioning from the lower notes into the higher notes in their range, but for me, there were a few notes where I couldn’t make any sound at all. When I tried to make sound on those notes, I would get choked up inside. If I could relax the choke, I would feel weak, and only frustration or tears would come out. Getting some sound back in that area of my vocal range took some time, and was emotionally healing on many levels. It resolved whatever history I had to the times in my life when I felt I either had no say in a difficult situation, or when I could not voice my needs or discontent at a crucial time. Many times in my life I felt afraid to speak up, or somehow a situation would get worse for me when I did speak out. And all of that frustration, anger, fear and sadness literally got lodged in my throat, restricting my ability to sing freely.

To that regard, my grandmother was a bit of a hero to me. Not only was she a singer, but she was never afraid to speak up when she needed to. She could always find her voice. Whether it was standing up to injustices her children may have suffered at school, introducing herself and easily making new friends wherever she went, or carrying the conversation during phone calls with me at the height of the pandemic, when I had trouble finding things to talk about.

Back when I became a yoga teacher, I learned how to make the sound of OM. OM is usually translated as the universal sound, a vibrational quality that is at the heart of every living thing. Creating the sound can help you vibrate and recognize that part of you which is your soul. OM is usually described to have 4 parts: the initial “ah,” the longer sound of “o,” the “m,” and the silence that follows. I’ve heard it poetically described as the stages of life: the “ah” represents birth, “o” is the duration of one’s life, “m” represents death, and the silence is the afterlife. It’s during the silence after the OM when you are most likely to sense spirit – your own, or the God who guides you. It’s in the silence when you have the best opportunity to find peace.

My Grandmother has now stopped singing. She’s now stopped talking and making any noise at all. Now, at the completion of a very long, loving and joyful life, I do believe she is finding peace.

Grandma, thank you so much for everything you’ve taught me, both directly and indirectly, with and without words. I will miss you.

About the Author

Michelle Dortignac, founder of Unnata® Aerial Yoga, is an E-RYT 500 certified Yoga instructor of close to 25 years, while during a large portion of those years also being a professional aerial acrobatics performer. Her most influential Yoga teachers include Dharma Mittra, Alan Finger, Cyndi Lee and Susan Braham.

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