Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Essay on My father

March 2011

I had a discussion with a friend about my late father, who in my family was always called “Daddy.” This friend told me that he had been acquainted with Daddy when he (the friend) was a teenager. Daddy had a small audio and record store, and he used to go in there and hang around.  I told my friend that that would have been the time when Daddy was most deeply trapped in alcoholism, but my friend said he didn’t observe it. As we talked about Daddy I described how I hated his drinking, and how this sadness was an important part of my memory of him. But then, long after Daddy was gone, I reached the middle age that he was when he began drinking! And as I experienced the grievous “going downhill” that comes to every man I began at least to understand him better.  Now, I told my friend, while my Daddy’s alcoholism is still a memory I no longer despise him for it. I said I also remember that as a father he gave me some precious gifts…but then I stopped speaking; I could not adequately describe them. 

Then, the next day after that conversation, I was reading an essay, and it reminded me of an essay I read in high school that powerfully moved me.  It was “The Lantern Bearers” by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Among other wonders in that essay is the following:

There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life: the fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his return a stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognise him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and the days are moments…All life that is not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each [person?] so incommunicable…

Remembering these lines and how strongly they affected me, I had a sudden, clear and intense realization. This describes the gifts my father gave me.  He could hear that bird, and from him I learned to hear it.

So I want to write about Daddy because maybe it will clarify my complex feelings about him and of course about myself.  I want to figure out how to express in words what his gifts were. 

I wonder if any of this will resonate with my siblings. Who knows how we might differ on our evaluations of our father?  Especially my sister, who is much younger and whose experience of him as a daughter must have been different.  Do I judge him too harshly?  “Remember,” I will say to them in my defense, “I was the one who worked for him one-on-one, when he was at his lowest and most pathetic--and he tried every trick to try to get me to become his partner in the business, and I refused (for which I still feel guilty). I knew his (or our) future was not likely to be a good one.”

Of course, part of what makes this judgment of him painful is the certainty that everything we think about our parents, good and bad, we find in ourselves.  In fact it is easier to see in ourselves the defects we discern (and despise) in our parents than it is to see their virtues in ourselves.  And oh, God, this can be painful when we become parents ourselves!  How acutely we realize that the things our children will vividly remember about us may not be the things we would select.

Both our parents are long gone.  Daddy died 23 years ago, Mother 13.  Mother’s memory is special. Daddy was mostly not home when we were small: he was a “traveling man.”  Mother raised us, including discipline, language, ethics, culture (a good bit of Old South but no bigotry or class; we never heard the word “nigger” or “trash”).  I have recently moved back to near where Mother and Daddy lived for 30 years and Mother for 10 more. Routinely when people learn I was my mother’s son they always say “she was a wonderful lady,” and she was.

But Daddy is more complicated than that, and a more difficult memory.  A bright, vain, talented, charming man.  As a child I worshipped him, was ecstatic when he was home.  But I have no childhood memories of real one-on-one interaction with him.  We did family things and we had fun. But it was only when we boys became useful to him—able to go “on the road” with him and help him in his work—that we became persons for him.  But that was glorious!  Daddy was an “organ man” in the days when all organs were pipe organs.  He sold them, installed them, maintained them, played them—quite well, I believe.  We boys would take turns going on the road with him when school would allow.  We got to stay in motels!  We got to eat in restaurants every day!  He paid us a dollar every day! And he was a gentle boss and taught us a broad range of useful skills, though he was not patient.

Lurking in Daddy’s mental world were his parents, especially his father, who died when Daddy was 15.  Somehow this person was always present with Daddy.  Grandfather was apparently something of a celebrity preacher in the old Southern Presbyterian Church, an evangelist and quite a pulpiteer and Presence. I have met ancient ladies in south Georgia who, with a certain twinkle in the eye, remember him very well as a young minister. I imagine him having the same charm and intelligence as Daddy but also a greater substance, and charisma.  A tough father to live up to, especially since he died before Daddy got to be a man in his own right!  

Grandmother was apparently something of a spoiled southern gentlewoman.  This I gather from some family sources, though I remember her as an entirely satisfactory grandmother. As a relatively young widow with two teenagers she favored Daddy shamelessly over his older sister generating, I surmise, a young man with an immense sense of entitlement and certainty of success later in life.  He would take after his distinguished and admired and prematurely taken father!  He was president of his high school junior and senior classes!  He was voted Most Likely to Succeed. 

But he didn’t.  He didn’t finish college, I’m not sure why. He never Made it Big, as they used to say, either in his business or as a musician. His failure (as he saw it), was for him an acute source of shame, a loss of manhood.  Wasn’t Daddy in that generation, the generation growing up in the Depression, for whom “success” meant, simply, acquiring so much wealth you were secure? I remember him talking wistfully about how he wished he could be a “six-figure man”--and how he would rage when passed by a Cadillac (“Bastard thinks he owns the road!”).  And so he drank. On the road with him I would sadly (and angrily) observe how we would quit earlier and earlier in the day so we could get back to the motel and he could have his first vodka.

You know--this “failure” wasn’t for lack of hard work or ability.  Musicians seldom get rich, of course, and “organ men” were working in a field similar to the proverbial manufacture of buggy whips. With the relentless advance of electronic organs (oh how he hated them!) real pipe organs have become a rare niche market.  All the classical “electro-mechanical” American organ companies he worked for are now out of business including Aeolian-Skinner, arguably the greatest of all American organ builders.  With Aeolian-Skinner Daddy had a few years of real success.

But he was not a good businessman.  Daddy was an artist and an “idea man,” good at the big picture and the long view, deeply expert (and certain) about the music and esthetics and proper sound and acoustics of the organ and its proper installation.  But he was not one for the “details” of business   Maybe if he could have found a partner with an obsession to maintain accounts and time lines and cash flow they might have done well.  But none of us children fit that description, we are all like him! His oft-repeated dream of a “Wauchope & Sons” firm was no doubt a recipe for disaster, Big Thinkers trying to work together.  Also, I think, he was not an extrovert and I think at some very deep level not confident, thus not well equipped to deal with church Worship Committees and Ministers of Music.

And so I watched him slowly become more and more dependent on that first drink of the day, and its successors.  He was never mean or vicious, certainly never violent.  He never raised a hand to any of us in his life. 

But he could hear that caroler in the woods!  I mean literally too.  How vividly I remember, once, I was probably 18 and with him camping in the woods (camping is a big tradition in our family).  By evening he had as usual sunk into an alcoholic stupor, in a chair by the fire, me putting on wood and feeling alone and depressed. 

Then, in the dusk, back in trees, a wood thrush began singing.  This is the most beautiful birdsong in the South, a series of rich flutelike notes (as Peterson says, listen for ee-o-lay). Daddy’s head jerked up and I saw him listening, listening with an intense concentration.  Was I touched by this? Yes and no.  The horrible contrast between the deep noble spirit and the wretched self-hatred!  I was suddenly furious, outraged, and I jumped to my feet and began haranguing him and crying uncontrollably at the same time.  I told him how much we all loved him and none of his family thought he’s a failure and how could he waste himself the way he did? I probably hammered away at him for 15 minutes. All the time he just covered his face and hung his head.

So the memory of his drinking still hurts.  But still! Daddy’s love for that woodland caroler become expressed in gifts to his children. I can now describe three things Daddy gave me (and I believe all my siblings), in spite of all his failures (and especially those in his own mind).

The First Gift: how to be an enthusiast.  
Oh, haven’t all we children inherited this?  If I mention the woods and all its joys, shortwave radio, gourmet food, woodcraft, making tapes of classical music (I finally, with great difficulty have thrown them all out), can we not all remember the relish with which he swarmed all over these things?  There was not enough money around to become a true connoisseur of anything, of course, and these enthusiasms waxed and waned.  But what a lust he had for his enthusiasms, and how like him we all are!  Is this not a quest for The Caroler? Is this not a great gift? Though overdoing it can be too expensive or impractical, (Daddy once bought a fantastic new Buick, hydroglide, hardtop convertible with no prior discussion with mother and little money). For us children it can be a real irritation to our spouses.  But isn’t this infinitely preferable to an inclination to boredom? And none of us children are ever bored because we constantly (some might say incessantly) make our own entertainment.

The Second Gift: how to enjoy your work
Daddy gave me a deep conviction that if it is possible, one ought to do work one enjoys.  He loved his work, either as organist or “organ man,” even while hating that it did not translate into more money than it did.  I think all of us siblings learned from him to love what we do even if it is not exactly what we think we would like to do. It also means (and I think we may have gotten this more from our mother) that the work needs to be something constructive and compassionate—work that is, if you will, part of the solution to the human condition instead of part of the problem, pretentious as that sounds.  This also means that if the work is not innately compassionate (like my brothers’ teaching or my sister’s social science) we will attempt to do it in such a way that it still satisfies that need.

The Third Gift--a love of music.
Consider these four scenes:

1. It is Sunday morning and the service at Trinity Methodist Church, Atlanta, is over and Daddy cranks up the big Austin for the postlude and plays some showpiece (e.g. the “Toccata” from the Widor Organ Symphony).  We three boys are about 5 to 7, Barbara isn’t born yet.  We are allowed at last to jump up from the front pew where we have been trapped under the strict eye of our mother up in the choir, and to rush up to the organ console to watch Daddy work the three manuals and pistons and the pedals. It is a huge church with a soaring gothic ceiling and the organ is magnificent, roaring and dancing.
So--we are all musicians today, we can’t help it.

2. It is Christmas Eve and the family is gathered around the fireplace in the house in Florida. Barbara is very young, our ages about 2 to 12. It is a Daddy-enforced tradition (or at least we are still young enough that we will do anything he asks) that we listen to the Messiah, all 15 or so 78 rpm records: the Royal Phil., Huddersfield Chorus, William Warfield the bass (“Why do the nations so furiously rage together”)! And we all do love it so, because Daddy loves it so, and as the Huddersfield belts out “Wonderful! Counselor! Mighty God!” tears stream down Daddy’s cheeks in the firelight.  More than Fifty years ago and I can see it like yesterday.  And so a lump forms in my throat every time I hear “The Messiah.”

3. I am about 14 years old, in the coils of adolescence and not an aficionado of any particular kind of music.  I like the pop of the time (early rock) but only to the extent that peer pressure passes for a real preference.  Then one day I happen to hear an orchestra on the radio playing a piece of classical music and suddenly--how wonderful, how exciting, how brilliant it is!  It is a piece Daddy used to play (those 78’s again) and I remember it vividly (but have no idea what it is).  In fact it is the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony).  I’ve never looked back. Classical music is one of the most important sources of joy and soul in my life.

4. My brother Doug, a southern boy (but a cultured southern boy) from a little town in the southern Appalachians is graduating from the hallowed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and we are there to see his graduation recital.  The climax: a piece written by Doug for trombone (his instrument) and organ. Doug had wanted to put a dedication to his father in the program but some bureaucrat in the Institute had said it wasn’t done, so Doug just steps to the front of the stage and announces his dedication; Daddy dissolves in a flood of emotion and the audience enjoys it immensely.  It is surely one of the proudest moments of Daddy’s life.  Doug’s playing makes me cry to this day.

Amazing.  Three extraordinary gifts from a man I had gotten used to thinking of first as an alcoholic.  I think my memory of him will not now be the same.  And I should say that Daddy did eventually quit drinking and smoking and had about ten years of a better life, with some measure of peace, and taking great pleasure in his children as adults, and his grandchildren.  He also told me that I had made the right choice about the organ business.

Well.  Isn’t every relationship, especially our closest ones, a mixture of things we love about the other and things we dislike, maybe even hate?  Aren’t all relationships that last and deepen and become, almost, the greatest part of who we are, still this mixture? But we learn, or else, to cherish what we love and overlook what we dislike.  Hopefully while the Other One is still with us.

2 comments:

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this.

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  2. Very wonderful essay. I got a little misty.

    ReplyDelete