Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Past as a Present

Since this was intended as a "creativity" blog and I haven't been very creative recently, following my mother's death, there hasn't been anything to write about except I am very agitated about not being able to compose right now which I guess is a good sign. In the past, going a few months without feeling like writing made me question whether I was a composer or not.

Back in December, nearly finished with three of the pieces for violin and piano I'd been working on, I decided to take a break and write something else. Since it was Christmastime, a Christmas piece seemed logical, but that came to a halt on January 16th (and that after three days of inactivity) because of numerous distractions mostly related to the apartment and the constantly barking doberneighborman. I had decided it was time to move -- a hateful occupation of time that is sure to destroy the creative impulse as everything else falls before it.

The question was where? It would be a spring-time project.

In the past, most of my moves came toward the end of summer: in fact, the last move took place over the hottest week of the summer of 2001 and I refuse to get stuck with that again.

And not in winter: a former co-worker told me stories of moving into Central PA during the Blizzards of January 1996 -- she moved the weekend of the Flood, however, the one with the ice jam that took out the Walnut Street Bridge -- and I didn't want to risk scheduling movers only to tempt Mother Nature into coming up with something equally memorable in this otherwise unmemorable winter.

Since my mother's death in February, much of the time has been spent dealing with the grief and the changes one senses, even at my age, in losing one's mother. It has not been a weepy, mournful grief (trying to avoid those who've been weepy and mournful has helped) but a quiet, contemplative one that at times is sad and wistful, at others joyful and humorous, mostly depending on the memory of the moment or something I may have found as we clean through the stuff-congested house with its accumulation of not only my parents' lifetime but their parents as well.

A few weeks ago, a friend showed me a book he had just gotten back after loaning it out and I said I had to read it: it was called "When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!" by Teller, the shorter, quiet half of the master magicians Penn & Teller, a portrait of his dad (primarily) and the memories he discovered going through some of their stuff while, fortunately, both his parents were alive to tell him its significance. Through this "stuff" the son discovers aspects of his parents' lives he was unaware of before.

The cover shows a very wary Teller sitting in the midst of his dad's shop, a dusty broken victrola on his lap, his father emphatically expounding on the importance of some rusted contraption he's handing him. They're surrounded by tools, mops, jars full of nails, a porcelain pitcher, what looks like a stuffed raven but also paintings and what may be the cartoons Joe Teller had drawn in 1939 which become the focus of the book: these cartoons are The Discovery, something the son never even knew existed, and this leads to letters and reminiscences about the years his dad had gone tramping across the country (quite literally) before becoming an artist, meeting his future wife at an art school, then getting married just before World War II. After the war, Joe Teller settled into the world of commercial art, primarily as a "letter man" doing the wording for ads in the Philadelphia newspapers.

So far, I have not found a box of cartoons, but I did just find a box of india inks and paints, brushes and pen-nibs my dad used when he'd do the lettering for the ads he designed for "The Boston Store," one of the Greenberg stores in Harrisburg where he'd worked since graduating from high school (or perhaps even before) and had long been the manager. I found a card he had made for my mom's 60th birthday in which he wrote about how they met:

"It was the summer of '38 at Hershey Park when I saw 'Ginny' Hartman for the first time. I didn't know then that God had a plan for everyone's life from beginning to end, so on this special day I didn't know I was looking at the girl God had chosen for my life!

A few days later, in Pomeroy's Department Store, I saw the most beautiful, wholesome-looking girl I had ever seen. It was Ginny Hartman!! My heart 'pounded with excitement' on June 17, 1938 when I asked her for a date and she accepted. And on March 17, 1940, her name became Ginny Strawser."

As I remember the story, my dad, two years out of Hummelstown High School, was working at Greenberg's clothing store at 5th & Market in downtown Harrisburg. My mother, a '37 graduate of John Harris High School, was working at Pomeroy's at 4th & Market. The story goes that dad went back to Greenberg's, told a co-worker named Duke about the girl he'd just seen and wanted him to go back and find out her name: "she's wearing a white blouse and black skirt." When Duke got there, it turned out ALL the sales clerks wore white blouses and black skirts. It must've worked out okay, though: Duke's in the wedding photo as Best Man.

My dad was a natural-born musician, teaching himself to play the piano and eventually the Hammond organ. He couldn't read music but had perfect pitch and could play a thousand songs if you could hum a few bars. I found dozens of reel-to-reel tapes made in 1954 when my dad had a 15-minute radio show once a week, broadcast live from the Blue Mountain Hotel (now Felicita). I was 5 years old and thought everybody's dad had a radio show. Funny how I've just passed my 17th anniversary working at WITF-FM...

But I also knew somewhere there was a record. We have many recordings -- 45s, 78s and then the long-playing 33s. But this one was different: my dad made this recording and it was a song he wrote and sang while he was in San Diego during the War and sent to Mom back home. It was one of those things where servicemen could go to this studio and record greetings their loved ones back home could listen to -- think about it: they were on the verge of being shipped off to the Pacific Front -- but my dad wrote a song and performed it himself.

Last night, I found the record.

It was unmarked, just a blank label in a blank sleeve but I just knew it had to be that song. I haven't listened to it yet because I'm afraid one time may be the last time it would play or I'd break it. I want to wait till I can transfer it onto a CD just to make sure I can hear it again. It may not have been a box of cartoons, but it was a discovery all the same.

There was a story my mother told me shortly after Dad died in 1985. When he was in San Diego, he and a bunch of his Navy buddies were on a train that had an old piano on it. If there was a piano in a room, my dad wanted to play it, so he and his friends went over to the piano and he played while they all sang along to the popular songs of the day.

One of the passengers in that car was the wife of actor Raymond Massey who went up and complimented him, introducing herself and saying she had some "connections" (some guy named Crosby, I believe) if he'd be interested in playing in a band for Hollywood.

My dad, a Hollywood studio musician!

I wonder how different things would've been if he'd followed up on that. The war was over not long after that and the first thought in his mind was getting home to his family -- not just his wife but also his 4-year-old son, my older brother. He remembered the problems his parents had had, his father a trumpet player in numerous bands in the area and as family legend has it subbed in the Sousa band for part of a year. This became a bone of contention with my grandmother who didn't want to be stuck home with the kids while he travelled around playing music all over the place, so he gave it up.

My dad didn't "give it up," though. He stayed here in Harrisburg and became a well-known musician "on the side," maintaining his day job (one newspaper article about him when he was active in the Uptown Business Men's Association, described him as "shoe salesman to the poor") earning a kind of fame. True, it was not without its issues: if my folks went out on their anniversary, it was always a St. Patrick's Day party where Dad was playing the organ and Mom would sit there and listen to him. New Years Eve, she was always alone with the kids, ushering in the new year with a toast of homemade egg nog.

My parents built this house and we moved into it in March of 1960, around the time of their 20th wedding anniversary.

Now 47 years later, I will be moving into it myself. It's not a "new" place because I grew up here, though now it's "my" place even if it is still (and will always be to an extent) "their" place. It is not perfect -- there are aspects of "deferred maintenance" to contend with -- but it is a far cry from the cramped little apartments I have been renting all my life.

Once the piano is back in my old childhood bedroom, I can compose again. I won't have to worry about the sleeping (or fighting) schedules of upstairs neighbors, the noise of boom-boxes from the street, the loud music pounding through the walls from next door, the doberneighborman barking all day long as I'm trying to write. I can play the piano when I want and compose whenever I feel like it.

And I already have some pieces in mind to work on. But more of that, later.

Dr. Dick

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