“If I died tomorrow,” my mother used to say, “your father would mourn for the rest of his life. But if they took away his violin, he’d be dead within a week.” She didn’t say this bitterly, or with animosity towards the violin with which my father earned his living, or the piano on which he composed whenever he had a free minute. She knew that as a woman she had no rivals. “With my music and you, I will be the happiest man on the planet,” he wrote while he was courting her. But my mother was right when she said that he wouldn’t be able to live without music.
In the family mythology, my father was considered 1. a saint, and 2. a happy man. The saint part I heard mostly from his mother, who would sigh and look towards heaven whenever she said his name. But both sides of the family were united in their admiration for how hard he worked and never complained nor lost his temper. Here again, my mother had a more nuanced view of the man she loved: “Yes, your father is very good. But he’s not a saint. Mostly he just doesn’t care enough to get involved in things that don’t have to do with music.”
This led directly to part 2 of the family myth, that my father was extremely happy. How many times did I hear my mother say to him, with a rueful smile, as she struggled with some domestic issue, “As long as you have your violin, nothing bothers you…” One of the things that did not bother my father, but did bother my mother, was his relative lack of ambition or, put another way, his contentment with the way things were.
“Tonight we’re doing Parsifal, with Solti, who is a genius. I can’t wait!” he would say as he was getting into his tailcoat. Never mind that he would have to make his way home on foot because the streetcars would have stopped running by the time the performance ended. Never mind that the next day there were classes to teach at the conservatory, plus symphony rehearsal, plus private students, plus another opera at night. All that mattered was that he would be playing four hours of Wagner under a superb conductor.
My mother worried about how long he could keep up this pace. If only, she thought, he were more aggressive, would put himself forward, would use his connections, he wouldn’t have to work so hard and would get more recognition. But recognition, which he fully enjoyed whenever it came his way, was far down the list of my father’s concerns. What he really cared about was playing and composing as best he could, all day, every day.
When we were living in Quito, Isaac Stern came to give a recital. At the end, as my father exulted over Stern’s gorgeous tone and his fabulous technique, my mother asked him if he didn’t find Stern’s virtuosity discouraging. “Discouraging!” my father said, “why would I think that? On the contrary, it makes me want to play all the more.”
All those years of watching my father find solace in the daily practice of his art imbued me with a sense of the connection between work—good work, that is–and happiness. My father, even my childish eyes could see, had both love and work. My mother had love, but lacked real work. I knew without a doubt that, despite his monstrous workload, my father was the happier of the two.
I wanted to be happy like my father, but I was not a man. I was consigned by fate to my mother’s domain, where love and its attendant concerns— rearing children, looking nice, thinking and talking about feelings—held sway. Later, as an adolescent, I remember coming home from school, wanting nothing more than to go into my room, close the door, and write in my diary, and seeing how desperate my mother was for me to sit down and confide in her. “So that’s what happens when you depend too much on people to make you happy,” I said to myself.
I have known few people with as deep a passion for their art as my father had. The gods did not bestow an equivalent gift on me. But when I sit down to write I call up the image of my father at the piano, and I try to enter into my work as humbly and wholeheartedly as he did, and on good days I get a taste of the joy that sustained him.
|My father and I. Fall, 1960|
I have this passion about the novel trilogy I'm writing. I had it about my previous life until I got sick. I had it about the homeschooling that filled many of those years and gave me precious time with my children.Without a passion, I don't function – but I'm glad I have a choice that is still working, because I've already lost physicist, astronaut, and mother.
Take good care of that passion, Alicia!
Thanks! I keep trying. Encouragement is nice – lately the body has been on the warpath, and I've had to be sneaky and slow to make any progress.I love your stories – you had a fascinating childhood and your recall of the details is so spot on.
I hope your body gets off the warpath soon, and onto the path of least resistance.
It sounds like your father was very talented and passionate about his music. There are probably very talented people out that who are much less passionate. And some passionate, yet not that talented people. Of those two, I wonder which are happier.
That is such a good question! I guess the significant variable in both cases is is ambition.