I'm finally getting over the covid shot, and beginning to come back to life...
This is a piece to match my Mother's Day piece (here
). This one's about my dad; and music is the focus as well. I hope it brings some inspiration...
Take care, and I'll finish catching up soon: I'm getting there. Be well and stay healthy and inspired always, mark
A Father's Tale
It was a Sunday...
hermitically sealed in silence as all late Sundays were in my parents' home...that drug-like moment when the week finally caught up and dropped them into a kind of 'sunday abyss', where they zoned out, fell into a fog, and---strangely---became rejuvenated and whole again. My mother was in bed, reading. I was visiting from grad school. And my father stood at the majestic bay window overlooking their modest but beautiful lawn; and there was a foot of snow everywhere, plunging the midwest into that magical, sleepy lull-land that every midwesterner knows, which was beautiful, peaceful, and all-giving.
As the sunset poured its golds and reds all over everything, my father woke with a jolt, looked around in a fog; then bounded to the stereo and put an opera
on the turntable. The Sunday spell was broken: The music burst forth, and---as often happens with opera---anguish, loss and yearning rushed out of the speakers and took over the whole house.
Those opening chords---the orchestra preparing for a major, wrenching aria---told me this was going to be one of Dad's harrowing
opera Sundays. I don't remember the opera, but I definitely knew the drill: A character just lost his lover, and was catapulted into unbearable turmoil; thus he came to the front of the stage to belt out a lament to the world. Why did my father choose this
aria, for a moment when most of us were in a stupor? Because he couldn't take the stupor anymore: He wanted to jump on a mountain and shout to the world.
he put on the recording, waited for the aria to begin, while positioning himself in the very center of that window: head down, eyes closed, tears beginning to flow down his cheeks (uh-oh: this was serious). I stood by the opposite wall so he wouldn't see me. And it began...
Now so you know: My father studied opera for several years. He also studied cantorial
music---the sacred music of Judaism. He was never ordained, mind you; rather, he learned it "on the job": I.e., he and his father (an immigrant from Russia) ran a tiny hole-in-the-wall synagogue on Chicago's north side, where Dad was Rabbi, Cantor and leader all-in-one. The parishioners were all immigrants, fiercely protective of their tradition; so if you made a mistake: Ohhhhhh boy: They'd tell God on you, and you didn't wanna be around then...So my father learned everything, and I mean everything...They called him a non-ordained, work-a-day cantor, and he was fine with that.
What stunned us about his cantorial feats was that he wasn't religious at all: He had serious doubts about God, he wasn't sure prayers actually reached any deity, and if there were
a god, he had serious arguments with him. (My mother gasped when he called god "him," because she was convinced that god was a she
, and---further---a card-carrying socialist. Which caused my father no end of confoundment, forcing him to ask god to forgive her---which she didn't want for the life of her. I personally loved it: It created a great dialogue---between two people who adored each other. And to hear mom declare, "why should God be male all the time? She gave birth to the universe
: Show me a guy who can do that!"---it was just the best...)
But Dad luuuuved his tradition. He adored it. He loved the sound of the prayers,the prayer shawls, the feel of the ancient texts, the ancient call of the prophets. So he treated the service like it was his child. Thus it was so touching to see this rational, legal-minded man (he was a part-time lawyer and businessman by day) sing those ancient words with such heart-rending passion and plea. He did it for others: That was his god, deep down.
Well one day---staying on topic---the cantor of Dad's new
synagogue---a huge one---asked Dad to take over because he was ill.
So every morning, Dad practiced the prayers--- over breakfast, the garden, while in the shower, even in bed
. (The latter didn't make Mom too happy: The notion of falling asleep to prayers to that god was more than she could take.) And on this
particular day, Dad sang the Aneinu
--one of the truly anguished prayers in the faith, filled with cries to the irremediable and incomprehensible. (Answer us, o Lord, answer us...Aneinu, elohei, aneinu...
) And when he sang it, he sang
it: He tore his heartstrings and made the walls quake with fear and trembling. It went beyond formal religion, and touched the core of being human. I was maybe 6, mind you, but was dumbstruck at what I heard.
More confounding: He sang this while shaving
(I kept thinking, 'Dad, put down the blade first!'
), and went on for some time. Then he stopped: the medicine cabinet shut---ka-chunk
---followed by the sounds of putting things away---clip, bang, boom
---then the sounds of towels being tossed on racks---swoosh, swish, swoosh
---and finally the door opening, releasing a billow of steam into the hall, while Dad emerged through the cloud (get this) in flowered boxer shorts and a pair of centuries' old slippers (!): not exactly how you'd picture someone who'd just grappled with the Prophets. And he raced to his bedroom because he was late.
Stopping at his door, he saw me staring: "Son: Are you ok? Why are you up?" (I was sick, and was supposed to be in bed.) Then he gazed at me as only a parent could, taking me in as he did every so often as if my whole life unfolded before his eyes and he was seeing my whole life...He walked to me tenderly, took my face in his hands, and kissed my head; and he whispered: "May god protect you always." It felt so sacred. Then he walked into his bedroom and shut the door.
Ten minutes later, Dad emerged in a suit and wearing his grandfather's prayer shawl---an old grand thing that oozed history, silvery silk and haunting beauty. He waved a kiss at me, told me to get back to bed, and left.
Some background on my dad...
* * *
It was a Sunday
, as I said; I was in my 20s, and that drastic aria had finally began: The tenor on the LP let loose. (Oh did he.) And my father---to my total shock---joined
the tenor, and, word-for-word, sang with
him. And, stunningly, Dad knew all the nuances, all the turns of the phrase, every word, and even the perfect Italian accent. He leapt into that aria as if he'd lost everything himself and was left on the shoals of life with nothing but the rawest, most heart-honest cries. I'd heard him sing positive
arias, mind you, but nothing ever this anguished. And he may not have had the training of that singer on the LP, but he had double that tenor's passion---at least as far as I was concerned: He threw his arms out, peered into eternity, and belted out his song so shatteringly, I burst into tears. I mean suddenly, unexpectedly: It hit me like a total surprise. I didn't mind crying, but I didn't want him to see
it, as he didn't know I was there
; and if he knew, he'd stop immediately and run to see if I were ok. So I stifled myself---deep gulp---and retreated behind a wall so my father wouldn't lose a beat, not a breath of his heart-rending song.
And let me add: Holding back sobs is a little like holding back a coughing fit: I gulped and choked like a child choking on a popsicle: It was a scene out of a slapstick comedy. Quickly, I stepped outside---in the freezing cold---so as not to disturb him: The fact that I stepped into a foot of snow and didn't have a coat, didn't cross my mind when I 'stepped' there. It did
cross my mind when I got
there. (Oh, did it.) I thought, "Is Dad's singing so important that I should turn to a lump of ice?" My answer was apparently "yes," because I didn't budge. You could hear him through the door; and, being a musician myself, there was no way I was gonna interrupt his amazing moment.
The fact was, he transformed that house---and that whole Sunday---into a transcendent cry to the cosmos. I mean stars shook. Even Mom, no great fan of opera, said: "That was your father
? Holy shit!" (She wasn't too concerned about four-letter-words, as you could see...)
The aria ended, and my father stood there wrung out, his voice depleted, dejected that the music ended, and looking like an abandoned child. I immediately went for the door...But Dad spotted me out the window: He ran to the door and opened it: "Good lord: What are you doing
out here? And without a coat? Are you crazy?"
My tears had now frozen to ice.
"Are you ok
?" he said. "Come in: You'll catch a cold!"
Without knowing it ahead of time, I ran to him, grabbed him, and started to cry: He'd moved me that much. (He was shocked.) "What's wrong?" he said.
"I was listening to you!"
"Me? You mean my singing?" he said.
I started to cry again.
did this to you? Really?"
"We're musicians, Dad. You understand......"
Then, in the most tender of gestures, he clutched me to his breast and whispered: "I didn't know I could make such an impression on my son...how about that..." He kissed my head, and then escorted me to the house and poured me some brandy. Then he sat down, and---becoming a "normal Dad" again---he talked about politics, family, comedy, sports, whatever. He lit his pipe---a warm, creamy tobacco whose fragrance hovered in the air like hot fudge engulfs a sundae---and we had a delightful, loving Sunday evening talk.
* * *
Years later, I visited my parents' house after they'd passed. I stood on the street and stared, unaware that there was a family in there who weren't too comfortable with my presence...
The owner bounded out, and shouted: "Who are
"I'm sorry," I said: "I was just looking. My father owned
this house...I didn't mean to scare you..."
The man lit up: "Owned: Are you the son of Daniel?"
"Yes!" I said.
He ran to me and shook my hand. "Do you want to come in?" he said: "I really should check your ID, but somehow I trust you..."
"No, no," I said, "I don't want to intrude...I just wanted to see the place...it's changed so much...it's changed so much...."
(Fact was, I couldn't bring myself to go in...)
I thanked him, and left. And I walked down what was once my childhood street, and got lost---as I always had---in the tangles and thickets of trees that filled the sides of the road...and made my way to the train station, where I boarded a train to go home. I've never gotten back there since...
But, in upsetting times like these, when the world seems to be shaking apart in so many ways, I thought a little tale---with my father, his music, and his love and devotion---might be a small balm for difficult times...these moments pop up for all of us; so I share another of mine...