My Father’s Violin
My father played his violin every evening, standing by the upright piano in our dining room. Hearing him play was my first memory, and I can no longer recall if I listened upstairs in my crib, or downstairs in the old wickerwork bassinet my mother wheeled from room to room in our tiny stone farmhouse. There was no face in this memory, only the music, andI had no name for that yet, either. I knew nothing of needles or thread, but I now realize he was stitching a world together note by note, his swooping bow writing memories in an elegant cursive, tying up neatly my earliest recollections with elaborate ribbons of bowed glissandos and pizzicato triplets.
I was a happy baby, my mother later recalled, giggling and cooing and pumping my little arms and legs, merrily conducting my father’s performance, he and I engaged in a duet of mutual love.
My second memory was of crying inconsolably when he traded in his beat-up ‘38 Chevrolet for a new ‘51 Chevrolet sedan. I had loved the older car, or to be precise, I had loved the cozy bed my mother fixed for me in the backseat for the long rides home from Phoenixville every Sunday night after visiting her family. It was always winter in these memories, it seems, and she would lay a woolen army blanket on the seat, plump a pillow for my head, then tuck me in securely. Enshrouded in a cocoon of warmth, I watched the wheeling bars of headlights pass across the inky firmament of the headliner and marveled at the glowing comets of streetlights zooming past the windows, while the soft purring euphony of the tires lulled me to sleep. The next morning I would awaken in my sunny bedroom as if I had been magically transported from a vanished ancient world of night to a wondrous universe fresh with sun and the sound of my mother softly singing in the kitchen.
I soon forgot the old car, and I slept just as soundly in the new one, which had a radio. Now, I fell asleep with the same entrancing lights wheeling by, but with a richer aural accompaniment. Over the baritone drone of the rushing road only a foot and scant inches beneath my prone body, my father’s voice sang along with the songs of his adolescence and young manhood, the prewar soundtrack of his life. I found a sustenance in those sounds, a reassurance that the world was balanced just right, and that I rested groggily at its delicate center, loved and comforted and protected. In those days of ineffectual car heaters, there was often a wisp of frost clinging to the back window, and in my warm, secure cocoon I felt that not only were the thin glass and the bravely-roaring heater repulsing the cold, but so was my father’s singing. And so the years passed until one evening I abruptly announced I was too big to be tucked in like a baby, and that part of my childhood ended.
But memories are as persistent as unwisely-fed stray cats, and a decade and a half later, while lying in the back of another old Chevy—a ‘50 model—I watched passing headlights pinwheel over the torn headliner, and thought of my father home in Pennsylvania, dreaming unimaginable dreams in the once—shared bedroom of our shared youths; the crib and bassinet, paled by dust and reinforced by optimistic spider-webs, sitting empty in the sad attic where memories go to den.
When I was four, my father and his mother—a one-room school teacher—began teaching me to read and write, using a child’s blackboard. I was an apt student, and before I turned five, I was well-set on the endless path of literature. At the age of six, my father taught me chess, insisting that I learn to transcribe our games. The modern algebraic system of notation wasn’t widely-used then, and I diligently registered each move, writing KKN-B3 or KB4 rather than the pithier Nf3 and g4. By the end of a long game, the letters and numerals sprawled down the page in a dense, nigh—indecipherable code that was legible only to us, the proud wizards of the chessboard. He put each score sheet in the corner china closet, and as the years went by, the pile grew until, for no particular reason, I stopped keeping score. Then, because of adolescence or indifference, about the age I was old enough to drive, the games ended, too. One day I noticed the pile of yellowed scores had disappeared, probably thrown away by my mother during one of her rare cleaning frenzies. In the ensuing years, we occasionally played, but the specialness was gone and neither of us kept score.
I started school in the early ’50s, less than ten years after the war in which my father had been a medic, a corporal in the huge entity of Patton’s Third Army. Like many soldiers, he rarely spoke of the war itself, only of the mud of France and the beauty of the Bavarian Alps. He had been at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berchtesgaden, and had brought home as a souvenir a triangular stone from the bombed fireplace. As I discovered later, he had also been at another of Hitler’s creations, a place where the iron heel of a lunatic philosophy had ground into the mire any considerations of beauty; a place given over to wholesale murder and mad scorekeepers documented the unholy tally with a precise Teutonic obsession; a place without hope.
But we kids knew nothing of such horrors; we were merely captivated by the war as adventure written large. We constantly drew fantastic battle scenes replete with realistic battleships, bombers, and submarines engaged in unlikely tableaus of mayhem. To use an anachronism, we conducted video games of massive destruction with only crayon and pencil on lined notebook paper.
The ’50s were the golden age of comics, and war comics were a sizable subgenre. For a time, my father returned from work each evening bearing a different copy of some gory blow ‘em up-for-God-and-Country comic, and I traced the images on shelving paper I could take to school in lieu of the banned comics.
For a period of several years, I assembled plastic kits of warplanes and destroyers, tanks and battleships, until my bedroom resembled England before the Normandy invasion. We had no bathtub, but our small, placid creek was perfect for launching my modest armada. I suspended the planes from my bedroom ceiling and lay watching them slowly spin in the breeze blowing through the screened windows, imagining them engaged in dogfights of astounding agility. But my imagination was simultaneously being tempered by smithies of a gentler persuasion, and soon enough it rejected the toys of war and turned to things of a less pugnacious nature.
I was a curious child, exploring our farm and the nearby woods mostly by myself or with one of the few neighborhood kids. I explored our house, too, from the dank basement to the airy attic. A great summer pleasure was sitting in the sauna-hot attic until sweat beaded my body and trickled down my face, stinging my eyes and salting my tongue, until I retreated to the chill basement, marveling at the floor by floor diminishment of the temperature—a drop of easily 60 degrees in August. I also visited the attic in more temperate seasons; my father kept a large trove of his childhood books there, as well as more recent paperbacks from the ’40s and ’50s. I loved to go up on rainy days to browse, feeling a vague guilt as I studied the lurid covers portraying gun molls with conical breasts that threatened to pierce their tight sweaters. I laid on Granny’s old love seat covered with faded lovely green damask that retained a faint odor of camphor, and listened to the rain whispering and thrumming above the rafters where the abandoned clay tunnels of the departed mud daubers seemed like tiny panpipes emitting a melodious susurrus. In the flat, even light from the small screened gable windows, I was a happily-marooned boy dreaming alone of an un-guessable future amid a repository of discarded pasts.
It was during one of these visits that I found an album of love letters from my soldier father to my home front mother. His fine, lovely cursive hand was crabbed by necessity on the onionskin military—issue paper, a word here and there blanked out by a hypersensitive censor toiling un-gloriously amid the groaning machinery of the vast wartime bureaucracy. War is nothing more than bureaucracy taken to a violent extreme, I recall him once saying, lifting his pipe-smokey head from the dog-eared copy of Plato’s Republic he so treasured. Whether it was a precept of Plato, or an adage inspired by his experiences, I never knew. Neither did I learn what my mother’s reply was to his promise in one of the letters to “rape you with your clothes on,” nor did I want to. Just reading it was unsettling enough.
The album didn’t solely consist of ancient billets-doux—there were black and white photographs of prewar Phoenixville, my father stiffly in his army dress uniform, my mother-to-be beaming in delight and clutching his arm with proprietal pride, the new wife of a new soldier soon off to another war to end all wars. He had also taken numerous shots designed to capture the scenic beauty of Europe, the chateaus of France, the castles of Germany, the transcendent grandeur of the Alps. However, their postcard loveliness scarcely hinted of the daily horrors being enacted in their shadows. As if to illustrate that very anomaly, there were a ghastly set of pictures taken during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, a particular horror in which my father had participated. These I examined with a shocked fascination, a stunned disbelief. It was as though the Angel of Death had dropped his scythe, lifted his dark robe, and flashed me, leering hideously.
I had been raised on a sheep farm, and the death of an occasional ewe from eating nightshade or being attacked by dogs was fairly common. I had even watched with queasy absorption the veterinarian disembowel the poisoned sheep, opening its stomach for evidence. We raised chickens, too, and I had often held a hen on the bloodstained chopping post while my uncle severed its head with a quick blow of his hatchet. I had held the shuddering carcass tightly, not letting it run wild as some people did, not because I wanted to tender an empty gesture of respect, but to prosaically prevent the wild flapping and headless careening from bruising the meat. Death was no stranger, it just hadn’t yet stopped for a human client.
What little I knew of human death was limited to glimpses of passing hearses towing their long slow train of mourners on their way to the quiet grassy places called cemeteries. There, amid marble and granite and sandstone statuary, inscrutable rites eased the deceased to eternal rest.When I was older, I accompanied my parents while they poked and dawdled in various graveyards, visiting various graves. I wandered as far as I dared, noting the offered flowers, the fading bouquets, and wasreassured that at least the deads’ memory was still valued and honored. Even so, death seemed a remote thing which I’d never experience, for why would I ever die?
But those photographs of those that had, the living skeletons whose tenuous souls were ready to steal away from their bodies as if in shame, and the already-dead stacked like the Devil’s own cordwood, ready to burn the sins of the world to ash, these were a rend in the human fabric, a terrifying glimpse into Hell itself, where flowers and pretty sentiments and even memory were consumed in a soulless, unthinkable oblivion. In years to come, whenever I saw a bulldozer, I was haunted by the memory of the anonymous operator wearing a gas mask while he pushed stacks of corpses into a trench. I never told anyone of my discovery—I felt faintly dirty, vaguely filthy, as I did when looking at the blatantly sexual covers of the “find ‘em-fuck ‘em-kill ‘em” Mickey Spillane-type crime novels. I couldn’t reconcile my father of Plato’s Republic with the father who would buy and read such obvious trash, nor could I conceive of him taking those pictures, witnessing those crimes, watching through a steady viewfinder a caterpillar tractor squishing reeking guts and crunching pipestem bones under its clanking treads, then returning to his pup tent and writing love letters to his wife. During that brief hour when I first discovered the existence of evil incarnate, the world seemed precariously balanced on an uncertain scale, liable to tilt permanently askew. If this were possible, I thought in fright, what wasn’t? From that day on, I regarded my father differently, as a person unknowable, a possessor of great secrets, a contradiction, even.
He played his violin less and less as the years passed, as though his artistic bent was being hammered straight upon the anvil of a prosaic smithy determined to retemper his sensitivity to a stronger disposition capable of withstanding the vexations of a coarsening age. I watched from the living room sofa as he valiantly attempted Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” stumbling at the difficult parts, crying, “Damn!,” and beginning anew. He’d get perhaps a bar or two further in the trying passage, then misfinger or misbow. “Son of a bitch!” he’d exclaim, then doggedly continue as if curses were part of a libretto he was composing as he gamely sawed away. There were other tunes, though, which he had mastered, slow pieces by his favorite violinist, Fritz Kreisler. These he played from memory, his eyes closed. Sometimes I would go outside in the dewy summer grass and listen to the music overarching the interstices between the pointillistic dots of lightning bugs and the deep basso grunts of bullfrogs from the nearby marsh. I liked standing in the deep twilight watching the swooping bats stitch the earth to the sky with a jagged basting, craning my neck until it hurt while observing the silent glitter of the stars as they crowded across the sky. Eventually, he’d stop playing and break the spell. When I came in, blinking in the light, he never asked why I had been outside, and I didn’t ask where he had been when he closed his eyes. We had both been temporarily transported into private universes of solitary joy which we knew could not be shared.
In every childhood there are moments so vivid they remain static in some kind of quantum foreverness, perhaps destined to endlessly repeat in an alternate universe, itself enmeshed in an Ouspenskyian karmic wheel of eternal recurrence. If that is the case, then my father is perpetually diving face down in the grass by our backyard burn pit as a carelessly discarded aerosol can explodes, and I’m sitting 100 feet away, afraid he has been killed. Luckily, his dive was only a survival reflex from the war years when he had shepherded his fragile existence through a world of steel and fire. He stood and smiled sheepishly, laughing it away, but I knew that he had been wounded somewhere inside, and that the blast had probed that tender, unhealed sore with an insensitive finger.
Later during the picnic, after he’d had more than a few beers, I overheard him telling a brother-in-law how a horribly-wounded soldier—his face shot away, blinded, legless, and unmanned—had begged him for a lethal shot of morphine, pleading and crying until my father wordlessly loaded the syringe and laid it on his chest, placing the man’s hand on it before he left for the night. The next morning, the man was gone, and a new patient in his place. He asked the night orderly where he was, and was told he had died from his wounds overnight. My father noticed me listening, and rather than shoo me away, changed the subject, and that elusive unknowable which had colored my world with its indelible dye—World War II—once again slipped away. I was left to ponder the unsettling possibility that my father had abetted a man’s suicide. Compared to the forest of corpses felled at Dachau, though, his crime, if it even was one, seemed inconsequential indeed, and I soon stopped thinking of it.
In 1963, America itself underwent a cultural invasion by the Beatles and other British groups, and my father’s safe and cozy world, a well-deserved reward for winning the war, shuddered—its balance imperiled. Already challenged by the Beats and the folksinging protesters, his generation began its long gradual slide into old age, irrelevance, and finally, death. As if to help it along, I decided to learn the guitar. My heart had recently been given to the folksingers, although I had still kept a tent pitched in the rock and roll camp, just in case. When Bob Dylan blew into town, combining both camps, I pestered my father for a guitar. He not only bought me a Martin classical, but he paid for weekly lessons, no small investment on his modest salary. I practiced sitting on the piano bench, my instruction book perched next to his sheet music of works he had never mastered. I’d obtained my driving license and a part-time job, and began buying my own music which I proudly placed on the piano. One evening when I was learning the tricky chords to “Michelle,” picking out the melody, he came over, picked up his violin, and started playing along.
“Hmm. Beautiful song,” he said, rosining his bow. “Who wrote it?”
“Lennon and McCartney,” I proudly answered, glad he was finally admitting the worth of my generation’s music.
“Who are they?” he asked, marking the title with the tip of his bow and squinting at the names of the mop-toppy composers.
“The Beatles!” I replied, in disbelief. I considered them almost a brand name that everybody should know, like Foamy shave cream or Oreo cookies.
“Hah!” he snorted, disdainfully. “Someday you’ll find out they pay someone to write their songs for them.”
But he played along, anyway, eyes wide-open.
Now that I was a musician, we talked of instruments. I learned that his violin and two others in the attic had been spoils of war, taken from a bombed-out estate in Germany. Inside the piano bench was a large leather-bound volume entitled Sturm und Drang, another cultural token from the same country which had perpetuated some of the worse crimes in the sordid history of the world. This dichotomy didn’t escape me, and it was troubling. Not so troubling, however, that I didn’t try to at least pick out the melodies, struggling with the many difficult keys of three or four or even five flats or sharps. If musical notation, like chess, is a universal language, I thought, then how could those fluent in it commit crimes antithetical to the serenity, beauty, and joy such notation recorded?
But I played the best I could, eyes open, and ignored the philosophical questions which raised their heads like fiddlehead ferns shaking their tiny fists in mute fury against the unfair gods.
As he aged, my father slowly retreated into himself; never an outgoing man, he became a semi-recluse. After he retired, his world narrowed to his downstairs reading chair before the unwatched television, his typing chair in his upstairs bedroom where he wrote to numerous pen pals he would never meet, and the front porch swing where he contemplated whatever old men think about as they approach the end. Because of arthritis, he stopped playing the violin; it sat gathering dust atop the unplayed piano. He took to playing chess on a portable computer, and became quite good. So good that I had trouble beating him on the rare occasions we played. But when senility established its first tentative beachhead, he reluctantly gave that up, too, although he still kept a setup chessboard in his bedroom. One day I realized that I was now older than he had been when we played “Michelle” together, and I felt the first cool touch of mortality upon my cheek. Is it indeed possible, I wondered in dismay, that I too might grow old and die? Still a child in my heart, I considered death the ultimate unfairness, an unbending parent sending me to eternity against my will.
My father, however, may very well have felt differently as he fell deeper into the grip of senility, a greedy monster eager to steal not only his life, but his memories as well. Perhaps, I cynically thought, they were only on loan and must be returned and redistributed. Maybe our lives consist of recycled events endlessly reapportioned by sheer chance, rearranged so that in another life the Jews will be slaughtering the Germans, the chickens doing the chopping, and our necks on the post.
But in such speculation lies madness, Lear upon the heath, Nietzsche crying before a puzzled horse, Hitler raging in his bunker.
His days became divided into the usual antipodes of his disease—the “good” days and the “bad.” Between those polar opposites were latitudes of incremental degrees—the hazy, ill-defined tropics where “normal” and “abnormal” uselessly contended, debating how many types of paranoias could dance inside his balded head.
One afternoon I stopped and he was in his bedroom, eyes closed, listening to big-band music on the radio. Surprised that any stations still played it, I at first feared he had died, so still and empty was his expression. Then I noticed his index finger keeping an almost unnoticeable time, tapping out the beat on the arm of his rocker. He hadn’t noticed me, and I backed away quietly, leaving him dancing with my mother to Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra in a ballroom where rumors of war hadn’t yet arrived, and insanity and evil hadn’t overwhelmed the world.
The last time I saw him alive, he was sitting in the living room, eyes closed. The television he could no longer watch because of macular degeneration was on, but I knew he wasn’t listening. I asked him if was all right, and he gruffly answered, “No!” His face appeared cut from stone, and his body much diminished. I glanced at the piano; the violin was gone. I started to say something foolish, utter a platitude intended more to comfort me than assuage the despair he was so obviously feeling, but I caught myself and turned away. I walked out, leaving him to the fate which had been hammered out long before I met him. He died two days later.
My mother called me at midnight, frantic with concern. “I can’t wake him,” she said, and I immediately knew what had happened—Death and his carriage had kindly stopped for my father. I drove up to their new, stairless home; the old farmhouse was now mine. I left my mother weeping on the sofa and entered his bedroom. He was lying on his back, eyes open, his right arm dangling to the floor. Balanced on his lips, glistening in the muted light of a bedside lamp, was a large bubble that neither swelled nor shrank. As I leaned over his body, my distorted reflection spread over the gossamer sphere, then vanished with a tiny poof heard only by God when I popped it with my finger, releasing his final exhalation back into the world he had just quit. His travails were ended at last.
I folded his cold arms across his chest, thinking, This is my father in death. This is how it ends. With two trembling fingers, I closed his eyelids, and was surprised when they remained shut. There’s nothing to see anymore, Dad, I thought. No more horrors to witness, no mirror reminding you that you’re growing old, growing older, dying. I lifted the sheet over his head and tucked him in for his ride to the funeral parlor, and then to the grave. He would take his secrets with him into immortality.
I looked about his small room, grasping for a peg on which to hang my sorrow, and saw his chessboard on a small table, a game in progress. Next to the board was a yellowed sheet of lined paper, the notation from a game we’d played 50 years earlier. Under the table was a storage box with hundreds of our games, each awkwardly transcribed in my childish printing. I turned back to my father—my still, lifeless father—and wept for him and for me and for the shadow which had fallen between our lives many years ago.
At the graveside, a seven-man honor guard of uniformed veterans each fired three shots from their rifles; the reports faded echoless across the vast sunny expanse of the stoneless cemetery. His life would be condensed to a bronze plaque set flush with the ground, a small flag placed at his head on Memorial and Veteran’s Day in small tribute. While a bugler played taps, I recalled my father playing his violin, his eyes closed in rapt concentration as his bow evoked another era when beauty trumped ugliness, and such affronts to man and God as Dachau hadn’t existed. I looked futilely to the sky for an omen—a circling hawk or an auspicious crow—but there was only the wind hazing before it white herds of grazing clouds. I looked down to his flag-draped coffin, and a tear escaped, trickling down my cheek, stinging my eyes and salting my tongue. The sergeant of the guard presented me with 21 expended cartridges and tenderly placed the folded triangular flag in my mother’s hands. Then he was lowered into the earth, his existence officially terminated. Later, there was a reception at my mother’s, at which I got drunk.
When my mother went through his things, she found a Bronze Star Medal, an honor he had never mentioned to her or me. What other secrets did he bear away? I wondered. Suddenly I remembered the hideously-wounded soldier who had begged for relief, and I knew that he hadn’t died from his wounds, nor committed a difficult-to-accomplish suicide with the syringe my father claimed to have left on his chest. No, my father had granted his petition, given him a reprieve from an extended life of suffering, and killed him with an overdose. Maybe for the rest of his life, my father saw the man’s ruined face every time he closed his eyes while playing the violin. Maybe the music was his petition to God for forgiveness. Maybe he even naively hoped the music of Bach and Shubert and Beethoven could suture the grievous lacerations inflicted upon civilization by their brutal countrymen.
I inherited the violin, but never learned to play it; I think he had used up all the pretty notes, anyway. It sits on my bookshelf next to an empty cartridge mounted on a walnut plaque. The chess notations are in a trunk. Someday I’ll replay a few with one of my grandchildren.
Actually, I prefer to drive down a dark country road in a ‘51 Chevy, Rosemary Clooney on the radio singing, “Try A Little Tenderness.” I’d pretend I’m half-asleep in the back seat listening to my father singing along, the tires providing harmony, and the passing headlights and streetlights and fiery stars blazing and wheeling benignantly, knowing with a child’s unshakeable conviction that we would never die.