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Returning to the magic

Dear Richard and I went to a concert at Chautauqua last week. For years, I had wanted to see Straight No Chaser, the highly acclaimed men’s a cappella group. During their past appearances, I’d always had a conflict. I wasn’t going to miss them again.

The nine guys in Straight No Chaser made for a fun evening. The leader explained that when they started, years ago at Indiana University, they had trouble explaining what a cappella singing was. “It’s just us, singing and creating all the percussion and background music with our voices, our mouths. No band, no instruments. Just us – straight. No chaser.” And that’s how their name originated.

We loved the concert, but for me, the better part of the evening was just being back at Chautauqua. It was a reunion of sights, sounds, and bumping into old friends.

It had been a few years since I’d been through the gate for any activity. Knee and back surgeries had slowed my frequent treks to a trickle, and then a stop. And yes, Covid took its toll on Chautauqua’s attendance and mine. But we both survived. The time was right to return.

After we walked in, suddenly everything around me was filled with memories. I realized just how many years I’d been involved with this magical place. It all seemed both familiar, and yet new. “Wait – that house used to be green, and they’ve added a Japanese maple.” And when we got near the amphitheater, “When did they install all these pretty pavers and bricks?” I wanted my perfect memories to stay perfectly frozen as they were. But, it doesn’t work that way.

I never thought about making perfect memories during my routine, mega-dozen road trips to Chautauqua and the long, long walks during many summers of writing classes. Whether attending lectures, concerts, plays or recitals, it never occurred to me that Chautauqua’s golden hours or days would change for me. That change began to wash over me as we took the bus from the gate to the amphitheater.

I told Dear Richard that I wanted to walk in – like I always had – and maybe we’d have to ride back. I had my cane and I thought I was ready. I wanted to stroll past the gardens, past the families supping on their porches or reading in their hammocks. I wanted it to be the way it had always been. But, a bit overwhelmed by the distance, I had to settle for quick glimpses from the bus window.

My old days and nights at Chautauqua were filled with parties, friends, laughter, ice cream cones, and boat rides. The beautiful flowers everywhere are the backdrop for rehearsing violins, babbling fountains or the pock, pock, pock of tennis balls.

The place completely fills all your senses. I was always totally immersed, feeling very fortunate to be there, in love with the experience. But I often felt I was the one who snuck in. Chautauquans seemed to possess special aptitudes, a unique slant on the world that perhaps I could learn by being there. The first time a government big-wig took my question during the Q & A at the amphitheatre lecture, I thought, I am getting this. And that same week, Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, seemed to be speaking only to me as he talked about writing memoir. My relationship with Chautauqua was growing.

So I embraced stretching my brain with new ideas. I delighted in meeting committed, artsy people whose worlds had nothing in common with mine – and yet were so intriguing. I listened to Marlene, the voice instructor, exclaiming over her summer opera proteges. I talked to Phil, the portrait artist, who explained why pastels were the right medium to portray children. I had to look within, and open my mind to absorb the exotic creativity around me. There was so much to revel in …the dance, the art exhibits, the classes. And yet, like so much we do, I took it for granted that I could always go, appreciating the value of its eclectic days, its world-class curriculum – that it would always be there. Although actually walking through my memories is a bit eclipsed for now, the next best thing suffices with Chautauqua’s bus system… that I never thought I would need.

Last week, on our 38-mile ride home, the feeling of immersion, happiness, and fulfillment returned – just like the old days. And I realized that I cannot allow a few personal challenges to stand in the way of treasured hours yet to come. More golden memories – straight ahead.

Marcy O’Brien lives in Warren, Pa with her husband, Richard, and Finian, their very sweet Maine Coon cat. Marcy can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com .

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