I don’t remember ever hearing my maternal grandparents sing, and neither of them played a musical instrument. But they both loved music and their influence had everything to do with me becoming a musician. It started long before I was born, with a decision that takes my breath away when I consider how radically ambitious it was at the time.
It was the early 1930s, the height of the Great Depression, and Grandpa and Grandma decided their 6-year-old daughter (who would grow up to be my mom – and my first music teacher) should have music lessons. I have no idea how they managed it. Like millions of other early-20th-century immigrants, they’d come to this country with nothing but determination and a willingness to work hard. How they eked out money for music lessons, I’ll never know. But I do know how they came up with Mom’s first instrument. They bought it from the rag-and-bone man, one of the many peddlers who roamed Chicago’s streets and alleys scavenging cast-offs and reselling them. One day his cart yielded up a treasure: a three-quarter-size violin.
Years later, Mom made us laugh by telling how all the neighbor kids stood on the sidewalk that first summer yelling, “Squeeeeeak, squaaaaawk! Squeeeeeak, squaaaaawk!” while she practiced. She outlasted the teasing and when she outgrew the little violin, Grandpa and Grandma somehow produced a full-size instrument for her, along with more lessons.
In fact, neither of those violins would have been Mom’s first choice. “I really wanted to learn the piano,” she said. “But the violin was what I had.”
Eventually, she did get her chance at the piano. I don’t know how Grandpa and Grandma managed those lessons, either, or where the piano came from, but Mom wasted no time learning to play it. Some years later, she would teach her children to play the piano. And Grandpa and Grandma would always be a reliably proud audience for their musical performances.
One year, my sister Denise and I learned “Silent Night” in German. On Christmas Eve, I played while the two of us sang and Grandma and Grandpa beamed. I still have the sheet music, fastened inside the cover of an old piano book with an excess of tape that seemed to me, at age 8, just the right amount. The tape is yellow and brittle now but still holding on. I still have Mom’s violins, too.
My grandparents and my parents, like everyone’s, were far from perfect people. But they gave the gifts they could and made the best of the gifts they were given. And quite possibly, that’s the best music lesson I ever could have had.