Mother was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1893, the daughter of Ernestine Craft Cobern, an accomplished pianist whose personal ambitions were diverted to her children. My grandfather was Camden McCormack Cobern, a Methodist minister and archaeologist. Ernestine listened enthralled to stories of his latest expeditions in the Middle East and was proud of the books he published describing his discoveries. She resolved that she, too, would be a writer some day.
As was the custom in those days, the family often gathered around the piano and sang. The sweet, soprano quality of Ernestine's voice was unmistakable. With her mother as teacher and accompanist, she progressed from simple songs in English to operatic areas in French, Italian, German, and Spanish gypsy ballads. She had little difficulty in mastering these multi-lingual lyrics.
After hearing the performance of a famous opera singer, Ernestine changed her mind about being a writer—this was the career she wanted above all. An audition was arranged with the star, who was amazed by the sixteen-year-old's upper range. "There's no doubt of your operatic potential, but you need training. You'll have to work very hard for a few years if you want to succeed."
Thus encouraged, Ernestine began the arduous climb that eventually led to the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. But meanwhile, another life-altering event occurred. Not long after her decision to become an opera singer, she met her future husband. At twenty-nine, David Beyer was chief safety inspector for the American Steel and Wire Company. From her sixteen-year-old perspective, Ernestine remarked to her parents that he was a very nice middle-aged gentleman.
In July of 1911, my grandmother wrote to her husband, who was preaching in another town:
Mr. Beyer came over last night and took me for a short ride. However, I had the church school lesson to write, so he and Ernestine went out for a long trip, and to her surprise, he proposed to her. She told me all about it. He said he would wait ten years if only at last he could have her. He began by saying that he could not sleep the night before and along about four o'clock he got up and wrote a little chant. Of course Ernestine wanted to see it and so she got out of the machine and read it by the light of the auto lamp. She read it to me and it is beautiful. She did not tell him anything definite—for it was so unexpected, she was stunned, but this morning she came to me with the shyest smile & said, “I could marry him. I know it is the real thing this time.” Well, and ah well, I am not sorry if she waits long enough to assure her own place. But she is ambitious -- she couldn't help being -- and I never want her to feel like the last rag on the tail of a kite -- it hurts one's pride and keeps it sore. A woman of brains is at a disadvantage, as is proved by all history & the tugging at the rope by intrigue etc, when plotting was all that was open to females of the species.
Ernestine told him she could never be content to be a housewife only and he said, “You will be free to pursue your singing. We will be chums climbing the ladder together.” She said today, I am going to work like everything—for three years! So that is the time she has set in her mind for her career. She says, “I thought I liked Chuck, but now I know the difference between comradeship and love.” They have corresponded for a year & seen each other only three times, but he said, “I have loved the eternal you first. I decided I would never marry until I should find my soul's ideal, and I found it through letters.” Romantic, isn't it? Yet he has had a great life. He was a Lieutenant in the Cuban war and has made his own way right along, and has gained a fine education and a good income by thirty years. I am so anxious for you to see him . . .
As both were occupied with furthering their careers, the couple saw little of each other for the next year but embarked on a lively correspondence. David fell in love with her letters. What innocent charm and humor must have flowed from Ernestine’s pen.
My mother and father were married the following year, on June 11, 1912. True to his promise, he continued to support her goal to become a singer. When he was offered the position of chief safety engineer for the newly formed Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in Boston, Ernestine went with him. She began studying with the best teachers available, and five years later an audition earned her a contract at the Metropolitan Opera Company. At the time of her debut on January 15, 1918, America was at war with Germany. Because the name Beyer had a Germanic sound, she was advised to adopt a stage name. This she did, choosing the simplest one she could find from a list of flowery names. As Maria Conde, she sang the role of Gilda in the opera Rigoletto, opposite Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor, who played the Duke.
The reviewers were lavish in their praise. "Maria Conde," declared the New York American, "took the public by surprise when she soared into tonal altitudes beyond the normal range of coloratura sopranos." The Evening Sun was likewise impressed. "If she can support it with physical stamina, hers will develop into the voice of a generation." (Decades later, the editor of Child Life would make a similar comment about her poetry.)
I was unaware until recently that Mother often toured in Europe. When my ex-husband died in 2003, second wife Aliceann sent me a photo montage Ed had assembled featuring his mother-in-law. Clearly, he was not only devoted to Ernestine but also proud of her two careers. This text was printed under her photograph:
Mme. Conde, a Coloratura Soprano, is a Former Member of the Metropolitan Opera Company and Has Recently Returned from Europe. Her Recital Tonight on the Transcript Station Will Be Her First Radio Appearance Since Returning to This Country.
Mme. Maria Conde will be the featured soloist to be heard this evening between 8 and 8 o’clock over Station WBET of the Boston Transcript. . . Mme. Conde, who is a coloratura soprano, formerly was connected with the Metropolitan Opera Company, in which she sang the leading roles of “Rigoletto” with the late tenor, Enrico Caruso.
In addition to individual recitals, Mme. Conde has appeared also in company with other distinguished artists and leading musical organizations of the country. Besides her musical attainments, she has acquired a reputation as a writer of verse for music.
Appearing on the program tonight with Mme. Conde will be Philip Dundon, baritone, and Cyril Saunders, violinist. The broadcast will mark Mme. Conde’s first radio appearance since returning from abroad.
Completing my ex-husband's montage, in a small circle below the picture of Maria Conde, was one I took of Mother in front of the hawthorn tree in our Westwood yard. She is looking at her first published book for children, Happy Animal Families.
My brother was six when I came along in August of 1921, followed by Janeth in 1924. My siblings and I shared an early memory of our mother's way of exercising her vocal chords. She practiced her scales in the bathroom, against a background of running water in the tub. Up and down, up and down, her lovely voice would trill. None of us would have dreamed of interrupting her. Catherine Minton, the nursemaid we had as children, reminisced during a visit many years later:
"I can see your mother just as plainly as if it was yesterday, so young, sitting at the piano and practicing her music after she sang at church. Your daddy would pace up and down in the hall while she practiced. He had a wonderful ear for music. Even though he couldn't sing himself he could always tell when something wasn't quite right. If Mother made one little mistake, Daddy would stop her and make her sing it over and over and over until he was satisfied. `Oh, Mrs. Beyer,' I would think to myself, `you're certainly putting all your heart and soul into that music.' I would be out in the kitchen keeping you amused, Bobbsy. You were just a little bit of a thing and you weren't allowed to be around when Mother was practicing her music. And when Mother was going to give a concert, how Daddy used to worry about her getting a cold. Well, he talked so much, sometimes I think he talked her into it.
"I remember the night I had a frightening experience. Your daddy had been in Pennsylvania on business, and your mother was supposed to meet him at the station. I went to Mass and hurried home so she could go meet him and every light in the house was on. Daddy never allowed lights on all over the house. Even in my room the light was on, so I knew something must be wrong, and the first thing I thought of was a burglar.
"I ran up the stairs, and there was your mother, lying on the carpet in the hall. I was so frightened. I thought the burglar must have hit her and maybe he was still in the house. I peeked in your rooms to make sure you children were all right, then I ran downstairs and got the nurse in the apartment below to come up with me. She looked at your mother, but there was no blood on her head. Then she sat up and told me she had felt faint and gone looking for me; that's why all the lights were on. Your daddy came home in a cab that night and Janeth was born a few weeks later."
We children were allowed to stay up late on nights when our mother sang on the radio. We were also permitted to attend her concerts at the Newton Center Women's Club. I must have been very
small when I first heard the sound of applause because I remember being alarmed and offended. Why were people making those spanking noises after my mother sang so prettily? Catherine Minton, sitting next to me, spoke gentle, soothing words, explaining that this was how people showed my mother that they liked her singing. The next time I heard applause at a concert, I turned around in my seat to tell everyone whose daughter I was.
Managed by impresario Aaron Richmond, Ernestine's career might have thrived for years if she hadn't frequently contracted a cold just before an important engagement. Was her subconscious mind trying to tell her something? Mother eventually concluded that the accident of possessing a voice had temporarily derailed her from her true profession—writing. Even before she achieved success, she commented, "I like writing better than singing because I can now enjoy a cold."
Ernestine's writing career was not without its frustrations and disappointments. As she wrote to my father when he was away on a business trips in the fall of 1928:
Your telegram was delivered this morning to yawning, nightied me. It is quite easy for me to believe you are having a lovely time at your conference. My imagination paints such wondrous rosy pictures that I am weak in the knees with left‑outedness! Such self‑discipline is good for the soul, but it is like all beneficial doses—nasty! and I screw up my mental nose mightily in the taking . . .
All my poems are coming back and back. Each time it is like a kick in the stomach! I know just how Dempsey felt when Tunney pummeled his bad eye. I wish it didn't affect me that way. I almost think I'll have to give it up, I get so blue. And I feel so lost, as if I had nothing to do. I lecture myself the way I used to Mother. In fact, I do it so much, perhaps lecturing should be my vocation. It is sad to think yourself a skylark, and find you are only a mud one! It is really the cruelest form of torture, and I can sympathize now with Mother's longing to be a writer and her battered hopes and ambitions. I do hope my children will not try to fly high.
I am like those winged ants you see. What good are their wings? They do not fly! But I suppose they think they will some day.
Isn't this a tale of woe! This is a glorious morning, not in the least a day to be blue, but I am so weary with child care. The children have fought every minute for the last few days. I told Dick I was going to wear a strap on my belt and treat them like wrangling dogs if they insisted on acting like them.
I remember the "strap on my belt" remark. I'm sure my eyes got very big.
My father's response:
Dear darlin girlie ‑
. . . About your verses—isn't it nice that you are in the same class as Josephine Peabody and a lot of others who have had to fight every inch of the way? Some of your latest verses are among the best you have ever written -- so don't get discouraged—just do like your birdie who sang because he must or bust! -- and sooner or later the public will stop to listen.
With a kiss on your sweet mouth and a tight hug from your old crazy‑about‑you hubby.
My mother saved the following letter from me, written when I was nine.
October 3, 1930
I haven't written to you yet and I thought I must write to you before you came home. Every night it is so cold we have to have a fire. I have been very good in school and the teacher says she wishes all the children were as good as I was. I don't mean to be boasting but I just wanted to tell you. I hope when you come home Agnis will have a good report for you. Has she told you about her arm. She had a little cut in her finger and while she was whashing Janeths sweater the dye ran into the cut. It made her get blood poison. Everybody was sorry about that of-course but I dont think they liked the ideia of having to do the dishes. I am learning to sew pretty well now and Ive sewed dimpy quite a few clothes. I can hardly wait till you come home though it will be funny to have you around. Good night. Your loving child, Barbara