XCV. Tales from the Family Tree

December 10, 2012 — The genius of Mozart in part was his ability to listen and keep an open mind. How else could all that music that he put to page come through to him in such a short life? Suppose he had not bothered to listen to the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint, the dynamics coming into his head and just blown them off.

Suppose his parents had blocked him and the scene played out like this:

His Mom: Fulfy, stop doodling on that paper and attend to your schoolwork.

His Dad: Son, stop diddling around on that keyboard. Go out and play football with the other boys. And do watch where you step – the horses, you know ….

Fulfy: But, Papa, the game has not yet been invented.

Papa: Well, then, be the first. Humanity would acclaim you a genius.

Fortunately for humanity, his parents supported his proclivity and Fulfy didn’t invent football.

My uncle was a musician. As a boy he played the saxophone. One evening my grandparents went out, leaving the three teenage boys alone – my uncle, his brother (my father, younger by two years) and my aunt’s cousin. My grandmother and my aunt’s cousin’s mother (my aunt’s aunt) were Sunday school mates. Through this friendship my aunt met my uncle. This evening, my uncle proceeded to play the sax. He kept playing it. My father and my aunt’s cousin told him to stop but he persisted. So they locked him in a closet.

When their parents came home, the boys let him out. He was so angry he swung his fist at them. He missed and knocked a chunk out of the doorframe.

My brother took saxophone lessons for a time. I won’t say he played, because he didn’t. He hated it. One time he got so mad at it his face turned red and he unceremoniously blew into it. The blast emitting from the bell end sounded more like a tugboat pushing a barge upriver.

Another year when my uncle and my father were teenagers living in this same Tudor style house in the Philadelphia western suburbs, they decided to keep their Christmas tree up until Washington’s birthday. On that day they put in the fireplace to burn. The living room in their house was long, the fireplace at one end. Flames shot halfway across the living room.

Grandmother’s & Granddaddy’s House

My grandfather was one of five children, the boy sandwich-filling in the middle of four girls. Some of the sisters were crazy. So, when his two boys came along, it seems he often became one of them. I’ve heard stories of the spaghetti fights they had at the dining room dinner table, flinging the stuff at one another, it hitting the walls. My grandmother, ever the consummate lady, abided it somehow. That was before my time.

Daddy was a musician, too. He played the clarinet and the piano. He wanted his father to set him up with a band like Benny Goodman’s. Daddy even had the name, an abbreviation of his own – The Ward Carroll Band. Granddaddy said no. So, Daddy attended the Wharton School, became a certified public accountant and went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Daddy continued to play the piano, though, and composed music even into my childhood. He wrote a novel, too. He submitted it to a publisher but it was rejected. Fascinated with my publishing my writing, he told me about this novel only about a year before he died. He died in 2004. My sister found the novel and she has it. I have never seen it. I hope to read it before I die. Clearly, my sister, who has published novels and is the daughter of my father and stepmom, and I inherited our writing genius from Daddy. Daddy would call it genius because it was inherited from him.

Grandmother grew up in South Philadelphia and into adulthood attended Methodist Sunday School. She told us the story told her by an aunt or a family friend, who attended Sunday school with John Wanamaker: “That Johnny Wanamaker was really something with the girls.”

John Wanamaker loved music. In 1909 he purchased the world-renown pipe organ built in 1904 for the St. Louis World’s Fair and installed it in the Grand Court of his Philadelphia store. I have thrilled to listen to that organ many times. Once I even sat in the organist’s booth up in the Gallery and watched him play. Thankfully, Macy’s, present owners of that great department store, have restored the organ, now a National Historic Landmark, where you can go hear it played daily. Now through New Year’s Eve Day you can shop at Macy’s Philadelphia, hear the Wanamaker organ, see the light show and visit the Dickens Christmas Village: http://www.wanamakerorgan.com/xmas.php.

I fleetingly thought that if my granddaughters were here at Christmas, we could go to the Macy’s store and share in the experience their great-great grandmothers took me to enjoy. Well, maybe next year. Anyway, they’re busy. They erected their 16-foot live tree this year, began to decorate it, went to bed and it fell over.

I remember one Christmas Eve when I had gone to bed early so Santa could come. I lay there in the dark with my eyes open, listening. And then I heard it – the tinkling and jingling of the sleigh bells. I kept listening and they continued. This was Santa Claus and his eight reindeer pulling his sleigh full of toys, certainly. And they were quite nearby.

My father and uncle were always telling us funny family stories. We laughed a lot. Grandmother told us stories, too. They orally handed them down through the generations. I decided to write them down so that my offspring will know a little of their ancestors if they are so interested. I know little about my great grandparents. Only one, my great grandmother, was still living when I was born, and she died just before my brother was born, and I know nothing of generations beyond them.

“Tell me about our family history,” I’d ask my father and my uncle periodically.

“Be careful what you ask,” they’d say, laughing. “You might find out that someone was chased out of England.” And then they’d proceed, “The story goes that a stable hand fell in love with the lord of the manor’s daughter and the lord of the manor chased him out of England.” That fits with my experiences of being chased out of local stores here, and similar experiences of my close kin. That my 12-year-old granddaughter should get in trouble for writing in the margin of her social studies book “They could make this more interesting” comes as no surprise to me.

Well, children, it is time to turn the page. I have come to the end of my family stories for this day. I think I’ll do something different now and go dig up some nuts, find my nutcracker and listen to music, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, for instance, based on the novella, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” one the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann.

—Samantha Mozart