She tricks the eye. He is not prepared,
grace of shoulders aligned so strong,
feet of light that skim the earth
and her face, it is not what he recalls.
How it curves inside incandescent air
or is it her shine, this child soon
in flight beyond his scope of knowing?
It happens like this amid slogging
and leaping through his life, the falls
into capricious and unwise ways.
All the silt and slivers of rust mixing
with moonstone, wildflowers and luck before
he can right himself, sort what means what.
He fears he’s not made all good, done right.
Yet she still comes along. Forebears him.
When do daughters know they are
loved well or enough, he wonders,
then leans close to discern meanings
of expressions, spaces between words.
Once she was that fragile and wholly divine
he could hardly stand to hold her.
Now he peers into the well of his heart
to find her like sun glossing the waters,
like his own dreaming and her mother’s prophecy.
She comes into summer on a wind
from the west. Her fairy dress shivers
and her eyes are birds that must sing
and her trust is dispersed too easily
and he cannot watch all this changing
as she glides here and there, farther away.
But he will not cast off. Not now, nor any tomorrow.
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.)
Beneath the print of Diego Rivera’s “The Flower Seller” and behind the African drum stands my cello, safe and silent. It is now enclosed in a hard storage case that my father gave me in 1984. If I had only had that case before the move to Tennessee, when a moving company delivered my cello in pieces to our newly purchased home. They had failed to properly pack the cloth case and fragile body within, but it was I who had exposed it to danger by not taking better care from the start. Or so it felt.
I took in the wreckage swiftly. The graceful neck broken from its body. The once smooth back jaggedly split in three places. Graceful curves of the front of the cello nearly collapsed under a failing sound post. The perfect bridge which held the strings in place now just gone. My own flesh and bones recoiled. I left the house and family to take in gulps of open October air, too warm in a strange land. Devastation trailed me. I wept the tears of one who had lost her beloved, bitter sobs slowing to moans. My children were held back by my husband as I lay on a porch.
What was left of my cello was sealed away in its soft case, pressed into a dark corner of a walk-in closet behind a box of shoes and purses. The maiming of my cello felt like an omen of worse to come but there was little time to worry. Within the day I was immersed in mothering and adjusting to our new community. I pushed away the lingering sorrow. A task I dreaded was telephoning my father, giving him the bad news.
My cello was his gift to me when I was twelve years old. I had studied music–a little piano and violin, a little harp–since I was old enough to hold an instrument for long and would go on to study classical voice. Making music was as much a part of daily life as hands being held around the table at dinner with a prayer offered or seven of us managing a fast shower in the crush of early morning hours.
I had begun more public playing in fourth grade music classes, the third of my parents’ three daughters to profess a desire to play cello. My two brothers sampled wind instruments as well as violin and viola. Since Dad administered and developed the public music education program as well as conducted, we often had him as a teacher both at school and home. I aspired to great heights–to play like my eldest sister (my other sister changed to flute and bassoon) at the least, or like the famed Jacqueline Du Pre, if at all feasible. So I devoted myself to it as best I could. The tedium of practice, the pressures of perfecting skills could be tough but I loved my instrument. Apparently by sixth grade my father felt I had made enough progress to graduate from the school’s rather mediocre cello, as he took me aside one spring when he got home.
“There’s a widow woman in Bat City who says her husband made stringed instrument and also collected them. She wants me to take a look at them. There are a few cellos. Some might be decent. Do you want to go with me?”
The next morning we wedged in our trip between his piano tuning appointments. I was as excited about spending a few hours alone with my father as I was about looking for a cello. I wasn’t certain I would actually take one home but secretly thought I might. A quiet man unless espousing on his favorite topics–including music, history, Scripture, science and math, and perhaps oddly cars and motorcycles–he said little on the way over. The air fairly hummed with our separate thoughts. I glanced at him a few times, noted a smile visiting his barely lined face. He bought, sold and repaired stringed instruments; he harbored a profound appreciation for craftsmanship. I suspected he felt like a treasure hunter.
The large, dusty attic of the woman’s house was half-full of instruments. I learned she had requested that my father appraise them before she sold them. I poked through worn books, a collection of porcelain dolls, a stack of yellowing Life magazines, waiting for the adults to stop talking business. One by one, the instruments were examined by Dad, his touch intuiting and testing, wavy black and silver hair shifting a bit over his forehead as he leaned in closer. He then pulled a bow across a few violas and violins and shook his head. He tried another bunch of bows, too, peering down their length, loosening horsehair on each. He was checking for any deviations; I had watched him in his home workshop doing the same work there.
I quietly made my way to the five cellos and plucked the strings gingerly. My hand rested on the one I was most curious to try.
“Find anything?” Dad asked. Anticipation seemed to color his large blue eyes bluer as he moved closer and stirred up a tiny swirl of dust.
I shrugged. He looked over the cellos of deep red and rich brown woods and then stopped at the one that was tinged a slight yellowish-green. Lifted it from its resting position. The one that had drawn me to it.
“That’s the one I wanted to try,” I said shyly.
“Well, time to see what it does.”
A high-backed chair was found and I sat upon it with suitable cello bow in hand, the instrument settled between my knees. I drew the bow steadily across the C strong, then the G, D, A strings. The muted tones drifted through the rafters. I adjusted the pegs until it was tuned. Played a scale, then, encouraged by my father’s nod, a short exercise. The notes rang out more robustly, as though released from a long sleep. The sound rang out, warm and bright. With a sudden determination to make this cello mine, I played an adagio only learned a week before, the strings letting go a resonant timbre, the notes clear, sure.
“It’s a little homely, but I think it has a strong voice, don’t you?”
I studied his face, unwilling to make assumptions, but he smiled reassuringly and then–the giveaway–winked. I could not imagine that we had enough money to buy this instrument. He wrote a check then and there for one hundred fifty-dollars, a fortune in my thinking. They finished their business while I stood with hand about the fine neck, twirling it now and then on the point of the endpin, light from a small window bouncing off its smooth wood.
“It sure is an odd color…I’m not yet sure what that is…but he was an excellent craftsman. In fact, that cello is remarkable for the cost.”
“Thank you, Dad,” I said as we backed out of the driveway, waving to the older woman. He patted my knee and off we drove.
All this I recalled in Tennessee one day as I settled by the first wood stove fire in early November. It was barely cold enough, but the habits of a northern life lingered. The sunset behind the west woods of our acre dissolved in a thunderous, restless rain that stirred up treetops and longings. I had resolved to call my father, had planned what I would say. It had taken a month to develop the courage and my heart was jumpy. I dialed the number.
“Lawrence Guenther here.”
“Well, hello. Did you want to talk to you mother? All okay?””
“Yes, no, I mean, I want to talk with you about something.” My breath caught in my chest and any composure was futile. “It’s so terrible, what happened. My cello was broken when we moved. It’s all in pieces and I don’t think it can be salvaged. It’s just lost, Dad, gone just like that!”
There was a moment of dreadful silence between us before he answered. “How about if we come down to Tennessee and take a look at it?”
More tears took my words until I pushed on. “Yes, please come, Dad.”
I was thirty-four years old. I had not seriously played my cello since I was eighteen. Unforeseen events–assaults, drug abuse, failed marriage and a second one with dear children–had altered my life course radically over the years. I hadn’t done a lot of things I had planned like finish degrees or becoming a performer. A scrabbling, zigzag course had taken me far from the passionate center of my self: music. The truth was, I had been afraid my father would be angry at such carelessness–or worse, offer simple condolences and suggest I get on with my non-musical, pedestrian living.
When my parents arrived he took one look at it and shook his head in disbelief. He caught himself and sighed. I stepped away and chatted with my mother, waited from his pronouncement. At the end of their visit, they took with them what was left of my cello. Never once did my father say it wasn’t worth the effort and cost it would take to mend it. My insurance company would reimburse some of the cost but I knew it would take more than allotted. I tried not to think of it. He was a fine string repairman after forty years of such work, but I hadn’t known him to fix one that ruined.
After about two months he called to tell me he had shipped my cello to me–in a new hard case. He didn’t assure me it played well, only saying it was playable.
“You’ll see,” he said.
The day it arrived I was alone in the house. I opened the box and its new hard case, afraid of what I would see: a badly scarred instrument not worth the wood it was made of, a cello deeply changed and without its telling voice. I ran my hands over the shattered but now healed places, each rupture sealed almost imperceptibly. It felt strong to my touch and glowed, refreshed, even more than it had. It was all of one piece in my hands. More or less.
I rosined my new bow–Dad had given me one that was far better than I needed–and inserted the endpin, pulled up a chair in the living room and nestled the cello against the bony spot on my chest, between my thighs. The strings were surprisingly in tune; I drew the bow across them with verve, as if to challenge them to talk back to me. The first notes lurched into the stillness and I tried again, drawing horsehair against taut metal strings until sound billowed bit by bit. I ran through some scales, warmed up with an exercise or two. Then I played the opening measures of “Allegra Appasionato” by Saint-Saens. Then, emboldened by notes issuing from awakening strings, gave over to Faure’s moving “Elegy.”
Time ceased. Every fiber of my flesh and portion of my being were transported. It had not forgotten the sound of its own singing. My father had brought my cello back to life. I was excited to share the news with my family when they came home.
But I was right about the sense of there being an omen. The stay in that small town in Tennessee could be enchanting but it finally too trying, the weather too often dangerous, the kudzu and snakes and insects so insistent. As Northerners in a yet Confederate South, there was a loneliness that dogged us. We left after less than two years, cello and five kids and husband and all.
Twenty years later I took my cello in for refurbishment. The shop was in an exclusive part of the city and the proprietor was pleasant but unimpressed with my instrument.
Uncertain whether he would have time, he inquired about my musical background, I admitted I am a sometime-musician if that, certainly more a has-been than a will-be. It was a little embarrassing. I knew he worked with some of the best musicians and their instruments. But there must have been something in my eyes because he reconsidered.
“It’s always good to make music, no matter the age or circumstance. I’ll see what I can do.”
When I picked it up later and handed him a good sized check, I lingered a moment. It seemed to have lost its greenish-yellow hue. That didn’t seem possible so I didn’t remark on it.
“This is costing me a lot more than what it cost my father to buy it in 1962,” I said with a half-smile.
“Well, I can tell you the bow far exceeds the value of your cello–it’s a truly fine bow– but it sounds pretty good and it’s yours. So play it, you must play it to keep it alive.” As he showed me out he offered a real smile, his bright critical eyes warming.
But something inside me knew I was unlikely to draw from it the music I had before and left with sadness tinging my relief to have it back again. I was writing, I was working every day at my job. I was not really making music.
It has been over fifty years since my father gave me my instrument. He has long exited this atmosphere. Sometimes I wonder why I have kept my cello so long. Other times I wonder why I can bear to leave it so silent, untouched. It has a past that, though short of being illustrious, is not so unremarkable to me. It has played under the open sky and on velvet curtained stages. It has competed and won and has been attendant to the hurt of defeat. My cello endured all kinds of lovely and ghastly weather as I lugged it from one event to another. A lot of sweat. It was for years almost my closet companion, led me into a life shaped by discipline and challenge, a devotion to beauty that can be heard and felt. To moments where epiphanies awaited. Without my cello, I would have been far less courageous, found less relief and hope.
And yet I do not play it now, not truly. I have fewer excuses since being retired from counseling with greater solitude. But it has gotten harder to pull the bow (it yet bears a minuscule sticker with my father’s initials, LWG) across the strings and elicit sounds I am happy to hear. Every now and then, though, when the apartment has the sort of stillness that begs for the sweeping alto of my cello, I take it out. Play fumbling and coaxing until it sings a small song. It harbors that voice, brings to life something good and lustrous that has always been there. Something I had the gift of sharing just ten or twelve years with other young musicians. But more so, God, and my deepest self. So whenever we try to speak with one another, my cello and me–oh all that reunites us still.
(Note: This is a revision of my previously published creative nonfiction piece bearing the same title. It first appeared in VoiceCatcher, an anthology, copyright 2006. I retain the rights to this work.)
The space did not trumpet “welcome”: small, cramped, dimly lit by a standard flex-armed light that swung from the wall and smelling of special glues and polishes. A basement cubbyhole down the back stairs, past the laundry area and a cobwebby fruit cellar that housed home canned treats, beyond the furnace and stacks of storage boxes.
The designated spot where an unobtrusive magic happened was called the workshop. Just one door away from a modest recreation room (where I enjoyed birthday gatherings and impromptu dance fests), it was a favorite haunt of mine.
Dad seemed to reside there part-time. That is, after he played in (as well as being assistant conductor) the symphony, taught music theory and history, after he conducted high school orchestra and a summer city band, tuned pianos, administrated the public schools’ music department and judged music competitions all over the Midwest. And gave private violin and viola lessons in our living room. But other than the work that occurred there, too, it seemed a place to find solitude, step away from demands of a busy career and our active crew of five kids.
And how I loved to steal away with him, unobtrusive as a cat, first approaching the open doorway, then stepping into the room. Finally standing still and alert, waiting for him to acknowledge me, sometimes with only a nod.
One end of our rec room increasingly was overtaken with an abundance of instruments. Musicians and parents of aspiring musicians brought to him their unhappy cellos, basses, violins and violas. But he also worked on woodwind and brass instruments. He adjusted clarinet, bassoon or oboe reeds to improve sound with sand paper, trimmer and nail file. It was exacting work. He replaced pads for the fingering keys and fixed finicky mechanical action. He seemed to know a great deal about all groups of instruments except perhaps percussion (to my disappointment as I adored rhythm). Dad had played many instruments over the decades so his firsthand experience was invaluable.
What exactly he did to instruments was a mystery to me as a child. That is, I paid attention to his methods, tools and fixatives. And rows of jars and drawers stocked with parts like ivory or mother of pearl, metal-wound strings and small cushiony pads, the long horsehair strands hung from hangers for bows. But even if individual actions made sense to my mind and eye, the auditory results did not. How did that squawking saxophone once again become a gleaming, efficient instrument trhough which a serenade escaped as soon as mouthpiece was placed between his lips? How did the cracked violin body recover enough to offer swells of melody that wound through the basement and up the stairwell?
Every piece he touched was handled with care. His hands were large, long-fingered, graceful. I saw them as powerful yet gentle; they never did anything that disrespected or damaged objects or people. Oh, he made mistakes and each time took it personally, causing him distress. But he started again and made it right, the re-hairing of a viola bow, making slick a sticky trombone slide, a new bridge of a cello placed just so between the f-holes (from which all the glorious notes emerged). The bridges looked almost like fanciful people to me; it awed me that they held up all the strings, helped produce so many vibrating sounds. I played cello so cheered on each cello victory.
It was an enchantment to be close, to watch him. When smaller, I stood on a wooden box a foot or so from him, beyond his elbows and hands. Any diversion might cause something to fall, to be affixed to a wrong spot. He would explain key issues as if I would grasp his instruction; he was always teaching. Mostly we were quiet together, the radio emitting soothing strains of classical music. He asked, at times for my help, which pleased me. A pair of needle-nosed pliers, a tiny screwdriver, a dark brown glass bottle labelled in his tidy printing that, when uncapped, unleashed such pungent scent. He seldom looked up but I watched his face, where stillness mixed with frowns and barest smiles. When he was happy with a result, he would show me the part or whole instrument, pronounce it good.
In spring and summer the humidity was cloying, the room dense with warmth. In winter, the damp and cold seeped through the basement walls. He feared for the instruments so there was a dehumidifier kept running most of the year. A space heater hummed by our feet in cold times; a rotating fan atop a file cabinet in summer cleared the air.
There were papers folded on shelves and stuffed in folders. He had forms for orders, forms for payment by the phone in the rec room. When older I would sometimes file them alphabetically. I answered the phone and took messages, or asked him a question for a customer or student. It was satisfying to be good use to him. It was clear he was swamped, both in the workshop and otherwise. When he got home each day he’d collapse in the easy chair by the baby grand piano and fall asleep immediately. His face went slack and the wavy, nearly white hair fell forward onto his forehead as his chin dipped to his chest. He was getting older too fast–this I felt despite being a late baby with parents who were always older than my friends’. I worried about him, even as a child, despite his success.
“What’s so attractive about the workshop?” my mother teased. “It’s smelly and uncomfortable, isn’t it?”
I am sure she thought of it that way but I found it cozy. Secure. Happy. She intimated she thought he spent too much time working on those instruments. If he wasn’t gone, he was often there.
I ran down the stairs in the evening for a few minutes if he was home, sometimes on week-ends. After watching and hearing him talk instrument repair, I might feel restless but not want to leave. Dad would offer me a block of wood, various jars of nails and a lighter hammer. I’d find glue, some other cast-off like a piece of old leather, a rusty hinge, a tiny chip of mother of pearl from the bow “frogs” he fixed.
“Don’t hit things too hard. Tap, tap. That way we both can work.”
I lined up nails and positioned them just so, making them into teeth that needed pulling or repairing with oil or paste or splinters of cane from old woodwind reeds. Other times I would make designs on the grainy surfaces with tiny and larger nails. Bits of string or discarded horse hair from bows, the pearly shell piece could make textured patterns as they were wound or affixed about the nailheads. He’d indicate his progress, I would share mine. There was always something to make or some small way to assist him, but at some point, I would step off the box.
“Leaving so soon?” he asked without turning.
“Yeah, I’m going outside.”
He would turn and smile at me, his large blue eyes radiant in the shadows.
“Don’t climb the tree too fast, you don’t want to damage those hands!” he called after me.
I’d laugh but knew what he meant. He hoped for me a lifetime of cello playing along with other creative pursuits.
My father was not like many others in the mid-twentieth century. He pushed and rooted for me and my siblings. Strict regarding our behavior, given to frequent criticism to encourage excellence and then keep us humble, he also never discouraged me from pursuing what I cared about. Rarely if ever did he tell me I should be in the kitchen or doing housework rather than addressing my education or creative and athletic passions. He desired that his children appreciate culture, learning, the natural world. It seemed there was nothing that didn’t evoke fascination for him; he was powered by a devout love of family, knowledge and God.
But his time for just being with his children seemed limited. I had figured out how to infiltrate his world, whether he sat hunched at the dining room table, fingertips to forehead as he studied a musical score or tuning up his beloved, cranky foreign cars or rattling, rumbling motorbike with greasy, often-nicked hands. Whatever he was doing, I would check it out, too, and he never forbade my presence unless I was shirking my own work.
There were other repairs that happened in the workshop. He loved games and made a few, like the large ring toss with painted plywood bulls-eye, hooks with various points noted and old Mason jar rubber rings. He repaired most of what malfunctioned in our house (though my mother was quite handy as well), from toasters and radios to toys and shoes. His hands had to be busy much of the time.
As I grew up I didn’t fill my father’s ears with my worries or crises. Perhaps I should have, but I knew he had lots on his daily agenda and that the demands of caring for the family were plenty. I saw creative work as a musician and conductor required much concentration and practice. My mother supported his dreams and accomplishments as she ran the household and taught elementary children at times. He lived in that unique world shaped by classical music from morning until night. A man of study and meditation yet someone who thrived on action as well–let’s face it, he was not always easy to reach. I confess I felt the public had him more than did we, as his warm aura drew people to him everywhere.
That presence was a enlivening glow that I could enter into, as well. Dad and I shared music; we all did. I loved to sing old-fashioned big band standards as he accompanied me on the piano, play cello and violin duets. I would help him sort music for the summer city band concerts and set up the stage. I’d work on the yard with him. But I liked best to hang out with him as he tinkered and worked. To read on the couch as he was reading; to sit at the dining room table as we listened to music, my naming the composer as he named piece and its movements. I enjoyed thrilling motorbike rides with him and stretched out on the driveway near him as he changed the oil in the car. He loved word games and many crossword puzzles and Scrabble games were played. Croquet and other yard games–well, he made it tough to beat him, but it was good fun. And, too, there were the stars. He knew about the celestial world, and pointed out constellations in the ebony dark of our fragrant back yard. My list could go on. My parents didn’t just talk about doing things, we did them (sometimes like it or not, but that was rare).
That workshop, though. That is a central room in the architecture of my childhood and youth. There I had him to myself alittle while, outside the frantic pace of life, the fray and din of people coming and going and the music that claimed us all.
I took my minor and major worries there and they slipped away in a short time. Unbeknownst to him, perhaps, I even took my broken heart and laid it at the side of the workbench as he assessed and repaired each cracked and ornery instrument. My aching or sadness or confusion felt as temporal matters. The precision he gave to his goal, the urgent need to do the right thing, restorative acts–these imbued the space. And me. I experienced, too, the delight as one thing was repaired, another gave way to more probing and problem solving. It was full of experiences where the equations of his industriousness seemed alchemical and sensible all at once. And I was blessed to be privy to this meaningful way of doing things.
I believed he could fix anything, even me, but didn’t quite know what to tell him so simply stood within the cast of his spirit. The human light that is magnified by unshakeable faith in God was his. He would not let me down, because he loved me. Even though there were important parts about my life that he understood too late, he still held powerful sway over my daily living. He contributed to my survival of disastrous events and to my success as a human, even as a counselor. Just by welcoming me, showing me how to get things done, being steadfast and kind.
Things can be fixed and made better: this is what I saw to be true in my father’s workshop. They can be thought irreparably damaged. Yet with time, anything can happen. The right resources and optimistic plans and steady action: with a careful hand these can make right what has been skewed, marred and turned upside down. It takes faith and some well planned risks to make strong what has been undermined. There are always unseen factors. Clues uncovered along the way to reveal the whole story.
He improvised, create his own parts when nothing else worked. He believed there was a way to improve anything. It just took more thoughtfulness, more persistence. Muteness of an instrument did not mean its end. And even when it at long last sang once more, its voice could be coaxed into a richer, truer, finer thing. It is easy to see how I was taught that no matter what sort of problem occurred, we have both free will and creative minds, an ability to adapt to or improve what turns up in life.
My father’s workshop was home to many things, to instruments and broken goods and children who basked in his quiet love. he worked there long after his official retirement age, well into his late seventies. It is all part of my own living and doing, this story about trust. Years later I remembered all this, that I could take my life into my hands, make it whole again, encourage it to sing its own good song. Devotion to what matters most develops a powerhouse of hopeful energy.
Look within and discover that restorative impulse, unearth the legends that carry you forward. Then I hope you will allow others into your circle to reap the rewards.