“You’re Ding-A-Ling!” the incredibly tall, youngish-looking man exclaimed.
An inauspicious introduction to a man whom I’d never met before. But that’s how the funerals of elderly musicians sometimes go. We were there at the wake for his father, a former, long-time member of our community band, who had died at 90.
We hadn’t seen G. in at least 15 years. His teeth had worn down so that he could no longer play his clarinet. Once he could no longer play his instruments – clarinet, saxophone – they say he lapsed into a depression, although he recovered and lived until 90.
The son looked remarkably like his father in his prime. He had his father’s sweet, gentle good nature. The same mischievous, but harmless, twinkle was in his eye. Apparently, I was a legend in the family. I told him my name and then he asked me what I instrument I played.
Once I told him, we were instantly back at the beginning of the Summer of my own life, when his father and others dubbed me “Ding-A-Ling” for the instrument which I played, the glockenspiel. They were all in the mid-Summer of life at the time. Now Winter had taken him, while I am in the Autumn of life, retired myself from the marching band section of our group due to arthritis (or it may be hip dysplasia).
I tried to make my get-away at these rather embarrassing reminders of youth. Twice, the funeral home director came to remind us that the American Legion guard needed to do their thing. But he wouldn’t let me go. He gushed (again, so much like his father) at meeting this family celebrity.
Seriously, I needed to get away, not just out the door but out the door and to the nearest piece of ground where I could dig a hole and hide in humiliation. The third time the funeral director came around, we were finally released to go. But not before he gave me a friendly hug that reminded me again of those warm, sweet, early days of my Summer life.
Tonight was the first of two funerals for musical friends. The other I’ll get to presently.
Recently, in the next-to-last episode of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary asked her arch-nemesis and sibling, Lady Edith, why she had returned to Downton to attend Mary’s wedding if they were so irreconcilable.
In one of the most moving pieces of television dialogue, Lady Edith replied that they were sisters and that one day they would be the only ones to remember their younger sister, Sybil (who died some seasons past). One day they’d be the only ones to remember their mother and father, and Carson, the Butler, and Michael and Matthew (Edith’s lover and Mary’s first husband, respectively). Presumably, she would have included Granny Violet in the list.
“All those who peopled our youth,” she said.
Since childhood, I’ve often shared those same reflections on the people in my life. My grandmother and grandmother, I realized, were in the Winter of their lives. Early winter, to be sure, but still Winter. I probably wouldn’t have the chance to speak to them as an adult, entering the Summer of my life. As it turned out, my grandfather lived to 89 and we were able to talk to him.
He outlived my father, who died in the very late Summer of his life, on the edge of Autumn. He and my mother had been talking about his retirement just the evening before. By the Summer of my life, those were in the Winter of theirs would be gone. At least some of them would. In fact, my mother’s brother only died last year at the age of 96. Mom is still around. Some people have long winters.
Still, other grandparents passed away, along with great-aunts and great-uncles, although none that I knew well, if at all.
My friends of Summer from the marching band, however, have lately been passing away just as I entered the Autumn of life. This George (whose funeral we were just at), who laughed merrily at the jests of Don. The same Don stood me in good stead as a Summer day father substitute. He’d had plenty of experience with daughters – five of them. It was always a pleasure to talk to him and listen to his historical stories of the band gone-by. Jack, always sober-minded but who had a wonderful smile. John, who seemed to have been designed for grandfatherhood, who chuckled at the antics of some of our more colorful band members.
Others, nearer to my age, have also passed on. They seem to have taken those sunny Summer days with them. Or maybe it’s the arthritis that’s robbed me of those sunny days. They cannot return now, except when remembering those who peopled my summers. Had this affliction not made marching impossible, perhaps I’d be the older musician peopling the summers of younger musicians.
The other funeral is tomorrow for a former member and director of one of the other bands with which we played. This is the sadder funeral, for this musician was afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease.
He didn’t march with our community band, as I recollect, although he played with it. He was the director of the church band. In its heyday, under his direction, it was quite an impressive group musically.
He was what they called a “musician’s director.” He understood what musicians liked to play (and not coincidentally what audiences most enjoyed hearing). All this he did within the keeping of this church’s precepts. He found plenty of religious music for us to play which was both enjoyable and reverent. Sometimes the church elders complained about playing jazz selections (“When the Saints Come Marching In”) but ultimately he satisfied them with a proper church service filled with the sacred.
The best thing about playing under him was the prayers before we began our rehearsals. He was not a pastor; just an ordinary man. Being such, his prayers on behalf of the band were humble. I liked his prayers better than many a sermon I’d heard from pious laity (although this church had one of the funniest and wittiest pastors – at the time – to ever lead a church in praising the Lord.
He looked out for his musicians, including his mallet player. I had the best bells and chimes, even an adequate though not great set of vibes. To this he added, for my contributions as a musician, the most beautiful-sounding xylophone ever to be carved out of rosewood. This xylophone pealed like a bell. The keys didn’t chunk or chink; they rang. It was such a joy to play this instrument. To this day, I miss it. I have this director – and God – to thank for that joy.
Due to his illness, he retired about 15 years ago or perhaps less. He was suffering from fatigue and couldn’t conduct an entire rehearsal without resting his arms. We left shortly after his retirement; my companion was not happy with the new replacement and neither were some of my other musical friends.
In any case, it wouldn’t have been the same without the former director. His Winter had come too early and it was too brief. We learned of his death during another rehearsal, which we were doing for Music in Our Schools Week at a school in New York State.
This middle school concert proved to be my Autumn to a young person’s Spring. Not being a professional, I didn’t presume to teach or correct him. Indeed, he told me he’d begun taking piano lessons at the age of 4. Instead, I did my best to show him what a joy it is to make music. I told him about my old high school band director, the Human Exclamation Point, and teased him just a little when he found himself playing after the band had ended. Hot dog! I had him laughing a lot, in fact.
Music is a joy. That was what I had learned in the Summer of my life, after an uncertain Spring filled with screaming piano teachers and mischievous brothers who locked our beagle-basset hound mix Stubby in the downstairs section of the house so he’d howl while I practiced, from musicians who’ve now been taken by Winter to an eternal Springtime.
RIP, George D. and Don A.