Thursday, August 9, 2012


The roar of the chainsaw hurt my ears. It chewed through the wood relentlessly, chips flying into the air. I had to turn away, heart sick, unable to watch .

My father was an unhappy man. An only child, living out in the country, going to a one room school, he hadn't many friends and was a lonely boy. He was indulged by his doting mother, was well fed and well pampered. The few early photos we have are of a chubby boy with a petulant expression on his face, wearing knickers and a newsboy's hat in the early 1930's. He did well in school and attended the newly built high school in town, but because of his insular up bringing and innate reticence, he made few lasting friendships. Then commuting to college, driving into the city each day with his father, not having the dorm roommate experience, the after class activities, nor the social night life of a young man in college, his chances of cultivating friendships were impossible. He did not meet my mother until graduate school, and she was the only woman he dated. He still lived at home, commuting by train to New York City. He did  stint in the Navy  where he was stationed in the South and relegated to cleaning the big tanks in the bottom of the warships, since he did not seem skilled enough to do anything else. At that time, a degree in chemistry did not get one too far in the military. He was spared the horrors of war, albeit spending it lying on his back, scraping away, alone in the bowels of his ships. Again, this solitary existence precluded establishing any lasting friendships, if by then, he was even capable of doing so.
He married married my mother when they both were in their late twenties, which was ancient in those days. His mother disapproved of his choice: there was no woman in the world good enough for her "Books", the nickname she gave him because he  always had his head in a book. Mom told me about having dinner at his home in the country with his parents and their yappy little mutt. This obnoxious little dog seemed to channel my grandmother's hostility towards my mother and would spend the dinner hour under the table nipping at Mom's ankles and dodging as she tried surreptitiously to kick him.

With his parent's help, they bought a house in the suburbs, close to where my father had gotten a job as a chemist, and  a  good distance from his parents, for which my mother was very grateful. They had the four of us in short order, my brother and sister barely a year apart, then me and my little sister three years later, barely a year apart. Dad worked a lot and Mom stayed home with her babies, at one point with three of us in diapers. We lived in a small 3 bedroom house, which was fine when we were little, but by the time I was five, a larger house was in order.

Again, with his parent's help, a 5 bedroom home in a lovely wooded development was built and we moved in. I remember swinging on the wild grape vines (we called them monkey vines) and climbing huge mountains of dirt as other homes were built around us.

In those early years, things were quiet at home. We were put in Catholic school, and Mom got a teaching job in the same school so she could keep an eye on us and make sure that we were protected from the cruelty and physical abuse that unfortunately were part and parcel of a Catholic education. I remember school being fun once I got past kindergarten and the horror of Sister Christine, a middle aged nun who appeared to hate children and delighted in punishment. She used her ruler with whipsaw precision, but also was capable  using  words and her fierce cruelty, to cause a five year old girl to pee her pants almost on a daily basis out of sheer terror. I skated through, scared to death, unaware of the ramifications of having Mom teaching downstairs. I waited  in fear to bear the brunt of Sister Christine's brutality, but was, in my mind, somehow spared.

I do not remember a time when cocktails were not a part of my parents evening ritual. Dad came home and after changing out of his suit, went right to his bar set on the kitchen counter. He made Manhattans, Gimlets, Whiskey Sours and the occasional Old Fashioned for Mom and himself. There was no pattern to the days, he made whatever suited him. I liked the Gimlets best when given a sip, with their limey bitterness, hated whiskey and scotch, but loved the whiskey sours , which he made with a can of frozen lemonade and ice....a slushie before slushies were invented- but it was a slushie that warmed you as well as cooled you at the same time. They were more of a special occasion or weekend drink. Mom and Dad would sip their drinks while reading the Courier News and then watching the news on TV. The war in Vietnam was raging, but I was too young to understand it, just as I was too young to know why Mom objected to Dad's making yet another round of drinks before dinner, then drinking it alone. The clinking ice in the glass was a comforting sound then. With dinner came a can or two of beer, a smelly, nasty drink, and then the arguing began. Early on, I could not follow the pointed barbs and snipes of conversation, but as I grew I was able to see that all was not well in our unhappy household. The dinner table could be filled with laughter and silliness but it was more often a battleground. Those times I would keep my head down and sneak food to our dog, Daisy, just wanting it to be over.

When the after-dinner clean up was finished and we all escaped to our rooms was when the magic began. Dad was a gifted improvisational pianist and when the house quieted down, he would sit down at the piano and play. Moon River, The Shadow of Your Smile, Young at Heart, lovely ballads and jazz standards, blending into one another seamlessly with Dad's signature flourishes and complex chord changes. It was as if he was transported to another world and turned into an artist, a musician, a man of incredible gifts, his existence as a work-a-day chemist and father of four left in the stardust of his imaginative renderings on the family piano. He'd play us to sleep, and I imagine that that was probably the happiest time of the day for him, actually, the only time he was ever happy. If I crept out of my room and down the hall, I could hide behind the bathroom door and listen to him play his wonderful tunes, punctuated by his clinking glass.

As the years went by, he played less and less as arthritis stiffened his fingers prematurely. My sisters took piano lessons, but their plunking was particularly discordant when compared to Dad's graceful play. He would attempt some of his favorites, but was easily frustrated and no doubt horribly depressed by the loss of his finger's agility. After a while, the piano was silent, just sitting in the living room corner, ignored and forgotten, the room darkened and empty but for Dad and his clinking glass. I wonder, did he hear the tunes in his head? Did he think back on his music and shed a tear for what he had lost? His talent was extraordinary and so it's loss had to be devastating. I no longer wonder why he drank himself into a daze every night.

Dad lived in the house alone for almost 20 years after Mom died. He continued to drink, but nevermore in the living room. It came time to move him closer to my brother, to sell his home of 50 years, winnow through his possessions, and let another family build memories of their own in our home. A lot of the furniture was old and the worse for wear, our old bedrooms turned into impersonal guest rooms the day after we moved out. Dad chose what he wanted to bring to his new, last home.

I was down the hall in the den when I heard the chainsaw start up. I could not imagine what tree was being cut out front. I walked to the front door and saw with a sickening jolt, my brother and brother-in-law cutting up Dad's piano to throw into the dumpster. It was not playable, nor fixable and this was the only recourse left to consider. I think now, there had to have been some other option, one not so violent and so permanent, one that would not tear through my heart like that saw through our piano. I walked out of the house and up the street to Evergreen Drive. I turned right towards my childhood friend Joanie's old house and started to cry, inconsolable and alone.

The emptying and sale of Dad's house was a painful rite of passage, one where middle age had to be acknowledged, childhood gone forever. A lifetime of memories, packed up, divvied up, given away, thrown away, over and done. Dad now lives in his 2 bedroom apartment at a 'retirement' home, surrounded by his few chosen possessions, awaiting  the inevitable. I still wonder, do those songs flow through his memory like they do mine? Does he think back to his piano playing days and realize how good he really was? I hope so, and I hope that the memory of his music is a comfort to him now, as it is to me.