By Ashley Yarchin
St. Ann, Mo (KSDK) -- Music can tap into the brain quite unlike any other form of therapy. In fact, it wasn't long ago that former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords allowed us to watch her sing as a way to relearn language after she was shot during an assassination attempt. But there is an ailing woman in St. Ann, who also finds peace and harmony seemingly only at the piano.
It has been said that music is the best means we have of digesting time, and to meet Angelica Spurgeon is to know such wisdom is key. After all, in just one month, she'll celebrate her 90th birthday.
As she took her seat at the piano at St. Johns Center, she mentioned an injured leg from a fall she didn't remember. So, yes, over time the tempo has slowed. Bumps and bruises have been accompanied by memory loss and, in some joints, major arthritis. But to see her sit - hands set, brass strings ready - something else seems to take over.
"I started when I was seven years old to study classic and I still have it inside," Spurgeon explained. "I remember every moment of my piano playing. It was in my heart."
But for the woman who was once a little girl growing up in northern Italy, it never happened. Hitler and Mussolini moved in just as she was to be shipped off to Florence to study to become a concert pianist.
"I would've loved to and I argued with my father," she recalled. "But it was a bad time. It was a dangerous time, especially for a girl to travel alone."
She was forced to change her tune. Spurgeon soon met an American soldier and followed him back home to St. Louis. They had a son, and she started a new life - at one point working at Famous Barr, and later 'A Bird in the Hand,' always using her Italian expertise in fine home furnishings to work in shop display and home décor.
"My bay window faced her kitchen window and the first year I was there, putting up my Christmas tree, I happened to look up and see this lady going," said Pat Martens Balke as she pointed in one direction and then another as if to straighten the tree. She said that day - 20 years ago - is when she befriended the then-widow.
"Unfortunately she became ill and her life changed overnight. She was rushed to the hospital and never got to go back," Balke explained. "[But] the music is one of the things that saved her life because it was such a shock to her to wake up one day and find herself in a nursing home...it's put the sparkle back in her eye."
"If I stay two, three days without touching, I don't like it," Spurgeon said.
"When she's with the music, she's transported to another time and another place, when her life was so full of joy," said Balke.
"Oh, life was wonderful," added Spurgeon. "I would love to go back to that time."
So, if time is best digested with music, then the recipe here simply calls for 88 keys, 10 fingers, and a symphony seared long ago into one woman's soul.
"That's Angelica's gift, is that she models how to hold onto joy even when your life is turned upside down. To take the one gift you have, the one talent and keep using it," Balke said.