During those tedious but obligatory idle moments – such as brushing my teeth, filling the gas tank, or at the barber – my thoughts often stray to my relatives. It’s usually my cousins who come first to mind, starting with the older ones. There were the twins, Nancy and Patsy, who lived on a farm, and Peggy and Carolyn, who lived in Denver. Both families had pianos in their living room, and at family gatherings the girls would sing. To my young ears, they were better than the Andrews Sisters. The piano on the farm had a funny sound, which I now know means it wasn’t tuned very often.
Most family gatherings involved some kind of performance by the kids. Cousin Michael played Tommy Dorsey tunes on the trombone and I and my two brothers did a version of barber shop quartet – lacking a fourth member and any sense of harmony. Dad himself sometimes sat down at the piano to play a few bars of Tiger Rag, which was the full extent of his piano repertoire. His mother was a piano teacher. She also had a piano as the centerpiece of her living room, and I remember listening to her scolding her hapless students. So her son’s failure to become an accomplished pianist was no doubt a serious disappointment for our grandmother, one of many. The greatest disappointment was surely his choice of a farm girl as a wife. And though that farm girl went on to become a nurse and an urbane, loving mother, Grandma clung to higher aspirations for her son.
So back to the cousins – at the fiftieth anniversary party of our other grandparents – the farm folks – all the grandchildren were expected to perform. My own contribution was a recital of Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant. It was a favourite poem of our granddad, and it was only years later that I realised this was a rather morbid tribute to an 80-year old. Little cousin Kenny sang “Six little ducks that I once knew”. He went on to study at the Julliard and build a harpsichord. He’s now a data processor for banks.
Uncle Andy (Carolyn and Peggy’s dad) became the patriarch after the farmer grandparents were gone. Andy’s authority was assumed by all, being the oldest of the eight siblings and having been a diplomat and a high official in the federal government. He led us in singing the doxology before meals, and shared his worldly experience with all, willy-nilly. The aunts and uncles have now all joined their parents in the sweet bye and bye.
Cousin Nancy is no longer with us, and Patsy’s singing days are behind her. We saw Peggy and Carolyn at the family reunion this year, proud grandmothers themselves, with their own long records of accomplishments and yes, some disappointments. We haven’t seen cousin Michael for a few years now, last we heard he was tucked away up a Colorado canyon with a well-stocked survival larder.
The other two members of our barbershop quartet are happily retired, Jim from a career as a pilot instructor, and Jack as a quondam stockbroker, furniture refinisher, county health consultant, and I don’t remember what else. But Jack continues the side activity which he has maintained throughout his adult life – writing articles, books, poetry and reflections. And he’s pretty good. He must have inherited the knack from his farm girl Mom, who herself wrote a radio play once performed on The Shadow.