On January 19, 2014, Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY will be filled with music of celebration, reflection, and remembrance as Erin Freeman leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, and a community-wide chorus organized by Bessie Patterson in a celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Repertoire includes works by Still, Verdi, Mozart, Coleridge-Taylor, and more.
An obituary alternative – written with the bias, admiration, and love that only a granddaughter could hold.
(However, I’m pretty sure that many folks would agree that Cornelia Freeman holds a unique position in the history of grand dames.)
Cornelia Rickenbacker Freeman, known variously as Mrs. Robert E. Lee Freeman the Third, Mother, “Corny,” Aunt Cornelia, Great Grandmother, and to me, Grandmother, passed away peacefully on Thursday, November 7, 2013. She is survived by three smart, fair, and caring sons, three daughters-in-law whom she treated just as if they were her own children, 6 grandchildren (7 counting Eliza), 7 great- grandchildren (8 including Eliza’s child, who is on the way), and countless more distant relatives whom she made feel like immediate family. Several family members, including her witty daughter and her serious but kind husband, were fortunate to experience her presence before they passed. In addition, in the wake of her indomitable spirit, she leaves countless musicians for whom her support made the difference between a life without and a life with music.
“She lived a full life and touched many people” is a common sentiment heard at the loss of most centenarians. And, certainly this phrase rings true for Grandmother. But, the same would have been said of her as a teenager, when she won awards in music and writing and rode her horse King Tut to school. Or, as a piano student at Columbia College, where her experience was so positive that she continued to support the women at that school with scholarships and encouragement until her final days. As a young wife, during the depression, she learned to “reuse and recycle,” employing skills that could turn her into the official icon of the current day environmental movement. Unfortunately, she never embraced the “reduce” concept, keeping everything from straw wrappers to potato chip bags, from Vienna sausage containers to crushed up eggshells. (Yes – she had a purpose for all of these items, but that’s for a later and much longer writing project.) As a mother, she taught her children to work hard, save money and give, give, give. And, as a grandmother, she babysat, gave cooking lessons, taught us which fork to use and how to pass the salt and pepper (always together), and encouraged us to be ourselves.
Grandmother’s full time job was to uplift – her family, her friends, her musicians, and her community. She helped to found the South Carolina Philharmonic and gleefully attended concerts well into her hundreds. She sponsored a chamber music series at the University of South Carolina that allowed faculty to be adventurous music makers while raising money for student scholarships. She spent several years visiting the Brevard Music Center, and there’s even a practice cabin bearing the Freeman name. She was Vice President of the National Federation of Music Clubs, and joyfully administered their scholarship programs for several years. She attended as many classical music concerts as she could, reveling in the excitement and refinement of live performances. A few of the hundreds of musicians that benefitted from her generosity of spirit include concert cellist Zuill Bailey, Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim, and me.
For this she asked nothing in return. Although she seemed to enjoy being the belle of the ball (must be genetic), she did not want people beholden to her. When she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia College, her speech was short and elegant, completely outclassing the longwinded and self-aggrandizing thank you words one might hear from similar honorees. Her sponsorship of the USC chamber music concerts had no strings attached when it came to repertoire. And, for this particular musician, all she asked of me was to try not to burn my candle at both ends. Most of our conversations in the last ten years ended that way. I’m afraid I’m failing her on that point.
Grandmother traveled the world, watched Lawrence Welk, served canned Mandarin oranges, had a vivid imagination, and loved pretty shoes. She remembered every detail of every object and person in her life, and would gladly recount those details in her lilting southern voice to anyone who would listen. She read books, from the Bible to historical accounts of her hometown of Cameron, SC, took notes on scrap paper, and used as bookmarks any relevant news items that she cut out from the South Carolina State. In one person, she embodied the characters of Southern Belle, Farm Girl, Politician’s Wife, Strict Mother, Arts Patron, and Doting Grandmother. She encouraged me to wear pants to “the club;” she took me to see Rostropovich; she taught me how to make grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron; she warned me to clean between my toes; and she served Breyer’s ice cream and lemon pound cake on precious china that had a story attached. She flew out to California for my birth, attended my graduations, and read the Irish Blessing at my wedding.
When thinking of her passing, I am drawn to the final movement of the Brahms Requiem that has the following text: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” (Yes, it’s from Revelations, but I always think music first.) In Grandmother’s case, this couldn’t be more true. She lived her life on earth over the past 101 years in such a way that her work will live on in those she uplifted.