I didn’t expect this time travel. It was an ordinary day, less rainy than usual. I was driving along narrow, congested city center streets, keeping an eye on pedestrians who blithely step out. Noting the varieties of architecture and views as I ran errands. But then Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony #6 in B Minor” came on the radio station. A sudden intake of breath. Warmth spreading through my chest. A car behind me honked; I had forgotten to move forward when the light turned green. So mesmerizing was the music that it was far safer to pull over and park.
It was not just the glorious symphony, a favorite of mine. It was my father. Through decades and celestial space he strode into mind’s eye, then took his place at the conductor’s podium on stage, his black tuxedo “tails” swaying as he conducted the very Tchaikovsky I heard. The symphonic orchestra before him responded readily. The scene was vivid; I stared at the street but still saw Dad at work. Each measure of music was interpreted by informed insights and intuitive response as he elicited music from the many instruments that made that composition whole. I began to hum and whistle along. I have played that piece, under his direction and another’s. It is dignified yet bombastic, full of drama and yet sweetly moving, a masterpiece among many. Dad loved this composer and others of such persuasions as well as the precision and stateliness of say, Mozart and Bach.
But back to my cinematic experience: my father leaned into the stage, then to the left side, to the right. His large, long-fingered hands gestured, first to percussion, violins and violas with the left and then the right with the baton held towards and underscoring the cellos and basses, the brass. The woodwinds, yes, and the choreographic scene played on. His feet stayed rooted while torso was fluid, his grey-white head lowered or raised, large blue eyes skimming players as they created what was needed. He lifted and bent with the progression of music. Arms and hands curved into music-spun air; it was all pulled forward, held steady. The measures of Tchaikovsky swelled, diminished, were given fresh life under command of his baton–and full engagement of fine musicians. It was an intimate conversation between each, for the whole. For the music. And one could see he was eloquent, as well.
Or so it seemed as I imagined, no, saw Dad immersed in the unfolding, blessed, possessed, then released by complicated music. The piece came to a close. My desire to go on with mundane tasks faltered. About to start the car, I was stopped when Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, a programming favorite, came on. I flashed back to an interpretative dance I made up to this music as an eight or nine year old, then had the nerve to dance in a talent show. So taken with it was I was thrilled to be under the spell of such music, as well as wearing a costume Mom had created: my simple leotard embellished with fiery red and orange strips of chiffon that flew out from my waist and shoulders when I twirled, leapt, made like a wildly ecstatic firebird.
Two compositions, one after the other that he loved. I decided Dad might have something to say to me today, but I wasn’t sure what. I started the car, finished my errands, all the while very taken with my father’s presence. I finally headed home to think.
Watching him conduct was witnessing completed transformation by personal fulfillment: a man who half-changed into a dancer, a multilingual interpreter, a conduit of musical spirits. There was palpable strength in his movements, charged with a passion for the musical notation. There was delivery of vibrant energy to the players as well as audience. He was one of the most graceful conductors I have ever seen. My father seemed able to be utterly engaged by his body while his active mind wielded such clarity of focus. He wasn’t unusually tall. Perhaps 5’11” with head up, he was shorter than his own father and brother–and later, his sons. Yet he seemed taller, certainly when conducting. On stage he recalled an athlete’s grace although his sport was bringing forth music. And there was a charisma there that rose from deep within.
As a concert finished, he bowed in an easy manner, sending the musicians his respect as there arose rousing applause. Afterwards it was not so unlike the end of a successful sporting event: his clothing soaked with perspiration, his face pinkly glistening as he pulled from a pocket a white handkerchief to wipe down. Wavy hair fell over the broad forehead. I watched from a doorway back stage. He was still feeling adrenaline as he responded to appreciative concert goers, shook hands all around, smiled readily, bent close to talk and hear, an index finger bending the upper part of his ear toward a person.
Then he had more business to attend to. Sometimes I helped him gather and file music, take care of a misplaced instrument. But most often as a youth I remained close to the milling crowd’s edges (even if I’d played, too), observed a public man who was respected, appreciated, even loved. A duality of perception influenced my view of him: the public man others knew and the one his family knew somewhat differently.
His gregariousness always surprised me. He was far more introverted than extroverted by nature, I think, but understood how to separate the complementary aspects. As a family, we didn’t routinely spend a lot of time with him due to music-related obligations taking him out, away. More so whenever he coached our musical practice sessions. When there, he was often reading, studying music scores as he listened to the music and then replayed the whole record–or fell exhausted at last into an easy chair. I watched him sleep more often than he ever could know. When a kid, he sometimes asked if I’d walk along his supine spine to massage aching muscles (what a work-out he had when conducting).
He did like to tell anecdotes, enjoyed plain spoken humor and groan-worthy puns; read aloud from a book or magazine something that grabbed his attention. He also read the Bible to us; we all prayed together at dinner at least. But his interests also encompassed history, nature and camping, the sciences and mathematics, classical arts, games and puzzles of many sorts, and he liked to design things much like a mechanical drawer might, or practice cursive with fine leaded pencils (he had beautiful, very rapid and small handwriting)–to name a few. Later on, he watched tennis and basketball on the TV.
He encouraged and disciplined us (often just a serious, pointed look; he had strong eyes)–but I could tell his mind dabbled in other thoughts. He often seemed to be thinking something through, perhaps music, even life’s knotty parts. So generally, to be with my father I had to go where he was, share what he did. And I was glad to do it. It might require holding the ladder steady, getting another brush as he touched up house paint every year or helping him with yard work; cleaning the ivory and ebony keys of our baby grand piano; handing him tiny pliers and a pot of warm glue as he worked in his musical instrument repair shop, down in the quiet basement.
There are other things that bring forth my father though classical music was his first passion. I might hear pieces like George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and suddenly think of him–he loved many American composers, too. It might be an old musical I recall– “Oklahoma” or “Carousel”–that brings him to mind. It could be Benny Goodman, the late “King of Swing” jazz clarinetist. Dad also played many kinds of music over his lifetime, on a variety of instruments, and no matter what it was he seemed in heaven. He was a person able to do what he loved, by and large, though he might have thrived more in a university setting rather than our small Midwestern city. He had two Masters’ degrees yet he chose to develop and administer music education programs, teach children and young adults, and to conduct and perform (in trios and quartets, symphonies, etc.).
What may not have been more common knowledge was this rather refined man also greatly enjoyed cars (to tinker with as well as drive), motorcycles and motorbikes (he rode at least a couple over the years), camping, sailing (rarer but a gift of joy to him) and swimming in lakes, playing tennis, bicycling, creating outdoor games and playing–very competitively–a few card (bridge, a favorite) and many board games. He also loved to go on a spontaneous drive or a road trip across the country. So those things are what I also did as I could.
I’d go out to the back yard, a favorite place, and it would be a blue-shiny day with nothing much to do but climb the maple tree. Then I’d spot Dad bent over the innards of a car, tools perched atop it all. He liked foreign cars, Isettas and Fiats for two, but drove others, especially Chryslers. He had a creaky red Isseta “bubble car” that I was nuts about. The door opened up in the front and on it were the steering wheel and dashboard. It fit two best. It was a “toy” car before mini-cars were popular, at least in the U.S.
I’d stand by Dad, peer under the hood at the engine and battery and all the rest I tried to understand. He’d start talking to me about what was wrong, what he intended to do without looking up. Before long, he’d be gesturing at things, note what did what. I tried to keep track of it all; he was fond of quizzing us. He sent me to get what I considered very interesting tools from the garage or basement and learned what each could do. I’d fetch oil, perhaps, a wrench or more stained red or white rags. I liked strong smells emanating from cars, the grime and grease streaking his capable hands. The grey mechanic’s suit he wore for such projects: it had deep pockets, covered regular clothes, zipped all the way up. Quite a different father than the one who conducted and taught, played viola, judged music competitions and lectured at conferences. It was someone who knew how to decipher the mysterious mechanics of things, could repair broken items which he generally took on for the household, too (though my mother had a real knack). It was someone who used a different vocabulary: carburetor, serpentine belt, alternator, power steering fluid, radiator fan, compressor, starter. I contrasted these with treble, tenor and bass clefs, andante, sotto voce and allegro, pizzicato, coda, dotted half and sixteenth notes and so on.
One of the best moments was when he’d ask me to start the car, ease onto the gas pedal while he watched things happen, leaning on both hands at the sides of the car’s guts. I’d slip in like I was in charge finally, turn the key, just able to see over the steering wheel to raised hood. The engine roaring to life, then purring happily made us both giddy. He’d tell me to gun it or go easy. If he took it for a spin, I’d hop in and off we’d go around a few corners, his sensitive ear attuned to any odd ping or squeal, and he’d sigh, grunt or hem and haw, or even slap the steering wheel, saying, “For Pete’s sake, we finally got ‘er done!”
Once back home, the sun beat down on us as he tinkered a bit more and I’d sweep the dank old garage that held so many car stories and mice and spiders, then tidy up tools, softly singing. He’d turn to verify the tune I sang, often from musicals or a standard from big bands, then he’d look over top of his glasses and ask if I had practiced my cello and did I have homework. He’d eventually thank me for my help. I could have stayed out there the whole day but sooner or later we both had other things to do.
In retrospect I wonder if that was the Missourian boy that came out. Though he lived in town and his father was county superintendent of schools, their lives were simpler. They tended a vegetable and flower garden. Read to one another, enjoyed music. He played with sticks and old tires, whatever they found. He learned an instrument or two at a young age (as did his brothers), took to academics and skipped grades. But he liked to just sit awhile outside, listen to crickets, study the skies, make a good fire–and work on something with his hands.
Even more interesting to me was my father’s zest for motorbikes and motorcycles. I don’t recall which brands he preferred but they all impressed me with their bold rumbles, their speed, the daring they implied. Whenever he offered to take me for a spin I’d quickly tell Mom, hop on behind him before she could tell me “no” and off we’d go. He knew just what to do as we came to a fast stop or had to round sudden curves. I was never afraid. I hung on tight to his middle as wind tangled my hair and whined in my ears. I felt something special on a motorcycle, and it was fun when someone waved and called out, their surprise registered in a laugh. They became familiar with the sight of Lawrence Guenther on that crazy thing, riding to work even in a nice suit, briefcase strapped on the back.
The last time I rode with him (that Mom knew) was the day I had the accident. I was perhaps nine or ten. We’d been out and about on a humid but golden day and finally pulled into the driveway. The motor on the machine was exposed, in the middle of it and just beyond my knees. I knew to keep safe from the blazing heat but I was wearing summery shorts. When Dad parked it and put the stand down, I hopped off too fast, didn’t pay close enough attention. My exposed thigh just barely touched it. The pain was immediate and vicious and as I wept despite my desire to be tough, Dad examined the result. My thigh soon bore ridges of blisters that rose puffy and tender from reddened flesh.
My mother appeared in a hurry. The main thing was that she was scarlet-hot with anger over it, furious with my father for somehow allowing it, upset with me for not wearing longer pants at the very least. She did not like motorcycles, now even less so. Dad was quiet, felt sad for me I said it was my mistake, since it was. It hurt more than I imagined, took weeks for multiple blisters to heal up. I had those striped scars a long time. But the thing is I was secretly proud of them. I felt it had initiated me into a small, private circle my mother clearly didn’t understand: risk takers, wind riders, pioneers who ventured beyond a safer norm. I never regretted riding with him despite the burns, and later enjoyed motorcycles with my first husband. But we managed to sneak in a couple more short rides before my teens arrived. Then I was suddenly too big to just hang out with Dad as my own interests began to morph.
I was the very last of the gang; my older four siblings were all in college by the time I was thirteen. The aloneness felt sudden though it was spread over a few years; they were closer in age than I was to them.
I didn’t yet fully realize how fortunate I was to have those parents, of course. My father and I were not to stay what felt like close to one another as I grew up. Perhaps predictably in our culture we each crossed into proscribed domains where neither was as readily welcomed. He had issues with my being on the telephone so long, stepping around me on the floor with a frown and a word, nearly tripping on the stretchy cord. He had more serious issues with the length of my skirts during the mini-skirt era. We argued politics when I became a Make Love Not War hippie activist. I snapped at him as he tried with fraying patience to help me with the algebra and geometry that came so naturally to him. I did manage to keep my grade point high which was a relief to us both. I did know better than to challenge his authority–or Mom’s– too much, as it was a serious thing to honor one’s parents.
He had his work, I had mine. Our paths crossed more often publicly at school, during various performances. We still played a game of Scrabble now and again. He would play piano, get out the ratty standards song book and I would still sing. But he also didn’t know of the abuse I had experienced earlier for years, that I suffered more as time went on but could not say why. He’d have been filled with despair and rage if he had known of it all; it also would have been a monstrous scandal in the 1950s-60s to inform authorities, take legal action. And the predator had warned me to remain silent. I believed I had to protect my family and just deal with it–as countless others did in those times and sadly, still do. It eroded me, changed me in ways I never imagined it would
Thankfully there were more happy moments to experience with him. There was still hope in the male of the species because my father was a good man, so I carried on with dating, my head filled with romance and mystery that made syrupy poems. There were saving graces of writing, music, figure skating, theater productions–and my friends. There were church and family events. I sought the warmth in his eyes, kindness of his smile, and did at times find it there. But we moved in two paths that did not converge much or so well again as my life got more complicated. And he grew older. He regretted I did not finish college before getting married; his eyes told me he knew I did, too. And then I had my family, was long gone. He was a kindly grandfather, a great game player with them. And then he passed on when I was forty.
And yet. And yet. Those times, those years made so much difference to me. To be included (and in something other than music), to be welcomed into other activities, to be treated with appreciation and affection–this is the kind of beginning every child should be able to experience. There were so many joyous times growing up that they were a shocking contrast to many unexpected difficulties. Yet they provided a bulwark against storms to be weathered–and still do. Dad’s presence was no small part of the goodness and truth I counted on as beacons in my life, a basic sense of security even as things fell apart.
Just like that, we are given back moments that can illuminate us with something important. A certain song, the way my brothers move or laugh; the shape of my son’s hands, his physical and mechanical skills; all my children’s feel for music, their commitment to creative work. Or even a particular slant of light easing through a tiny window. Just like that, my father is present in my consciousness and daily life again.
I must have needed to remember how much he loved me.
Once he showed me photographs taken while on a European trip after I had left home for good. It was of sunlight filtering through a smudged, mullioned window of an ancient building; then of light streaming through bunched dark clouds, slipping onto a sliver of river. He turned to me and said, “See there, how the light falls through the grayness and reveals hidden shapes, how it gives more life to everything, the light that always comes.” And his tired, lined face shone with appreciation, faith and hope.
Yes, my father, I feel you watching over me. And like the glowing constellations you once pointed out to me, I will keep alive what light I am given or first must find. The creative spirit you encouraged in me, the care and time you shared as you could–these things are embedded in my soul. Your determination to lead a life of prayer and service taught me much, and this has bolstered my journey. I hear you, see you. Let us be well reconciled, at peace.
(I’d love to show you pictures of Dad in midlife and us together later on, but this is all I found handy for this post. Please forgive yellow coloration.)