Families are strange things. My last two living aunts on my father’s side of the family have passed away in the last month. I was never really close to them for various reasons. But I had a very interesting chat with my mother the other week that surfaced a few memories and some contrasts.
As I hear more family stories, I’m amazed at the thread of music that keeps surfacing. My dad’s older sister, as it turns out, was an extremely accomplished pianist. Mom was really impressed with her sight-reading ability. Not just easy stuff, but more involved classical pieces. She used to accompany my grandfather, who I just learned was an excellent violinist. Never heard about this stuff when I was a kid.
My earliest memory of my aunt was visiting her sprawling ranch home in a well-to-do Rochester suburb. I was instructed to sit in the chair. And not move. There was a Hammond organ right next to the chair. I remember the keys, not just black and white like a piano, but switches of many different colors. Wasn’t I dying, at age six, to be allowed to slide over to the bench and play it? That wasn’t going to happen–I think my dad and aunt must have noticed the drool collecting at the corner of my young lip. Stay put.
Funny thing is, I don’t remember my aunt ever playing the organ or piano. It’s possible she did at some family gathering here or there, but it just wasn’t memorable enough to stick. My memory was of a lady with a starched white blouse, a house that had no dust, and an organ that didn’t get played. And where little kids, even a polite and well-behaved nephew, were unwanted guests.
I don’t know that my other aunt–my father’s sister-in-law–was musical. But emotionally, she was just the opposite. I remember her laughing, smiling, and giving us nephews and nieces very slobbery kisses. I didn’t like the smooches, but I endured them. This aunt lived out of town, so we saw less of her. The family whispers were “alcoholic,” which was a strange accusation, given the amount of drinking I saw going on at homes of various relatives.
I will say that my musician aunt softened up a bit as the years went by. She went through a difficult divorce, and there was estrangement among her sons. It still exists to this day, for only one of them attended her memorial service–the one who planned it. There was a time when she lived with my parents in a considerably smaller and more cluttered home. She bore these events, as far as I could see, with dignity. My mother felt very sorry for her, I think, and she also thought her sister-in-law had changed quite a bit as she navigated these troubles.
I don’t know why or how I landed so far from my aunt on the family tree. My hammer dulcimer gets a good bit of attention when I play it in church. I’ve never felt the need to keep little kids away from it. To the contrary, I insist they try it. I tell them how to sit, I balance it on their knees and its monopod. I show them how to play a “drum roll” with the hammers and let them bounce lightly in their hands and on the strings. That’s what music should be. Share the fun and the joy of it. Cast the net of participation as far as one can fling it. Get up out of your chair and take a risk.
Is it always tuneful or musical? Of course not. But does it matter?
My father’s generation is nearly gone on my family tree. My older brother and I were discussing this earlier this year. Most of the cousins are now in their 60’s. In age, I think I’m 15th out of 18. I’ll likely outlast most of them. There are time when I feel very far afield from them. Geographically, certainly: my nearest cousins are in Chicago. In my approach to life, certainly. While I often hear echoes of my father in my voice, especially when I speak with the young miss or to my wife, I feel as if I’ve blown very far from the garden in which I grew up. The other day, my wife and I were talking about making huge breaks from our families of origin. Bittersweet things, like not knowing the good things about parents, cousins, aunt, uncles, and such. Good things too, like finding faith, or rejecting addiction, or adopting a child, or intentionally living a sacramental life as a family.
Isn’t it interesting these family thoughts come up as the holiday season commences? It makes me redouble my effort to care for and love my wife and daughter. No doubt my own flaws will be discussed in family gatherings in the decades after I’ve grown old or died. But mostly, I hope, my daughter will remember the fun and crazy and loving and holy things. And the message that life is to be lived, not feared. That fits the Advent season, doesn’t it?