Songs of Childhood

I grew up with George Gershwin. As youngsters, my sisters and I danced to his moody music all jazzed up in Rhapsody in Blue. Unawares, the clarinet’s opening trill settled into my soul.
A barber, my father laughed at Mozart and Beethoven’s “long hair” music. He never let on that Gershwin’s brilliant Rhapsody piano concerto was classical. Dad’s vast and vivacious Big Band record collection offered my sisters and me vicarious entertainment and education.
Mom, justifiably, didn’t approve when Dad purchased another album instead of providing shoes for our growing feet. Unlike her mother, Mom wasn’t musically inclined. She avoided Granny’s piano and felt too shy to break into song while cooking and washing dishes.
Yet, thanks to Mom, at age nine I held my first hymnal in church and learned Fanny Crosby’s words to Phoebe Knapp’s melody of Blessed Assurance. And praise Wolcott Elementary School for my vocal music teacher who taught my class The Happy Wanderer by Florenz Sigismund.
About then, Dad drove to Detroit and brought home a beautiful violin. I still wonder why he lifted the instrument from its case and looked me in the eye with high hopes.
Perhaps it was that brief, melancholy violin solo in Rhapsody that charmed my father to risk money on my talent and devotion. I was learning to read sheet music in band class when some boys teased, “Look! Bet she’s got a machine gun in there!”
Remember Eliot Ness and The Untouchables? The series lasted long enough to ruin Dad’s dreams for his second daughter, the would-be violinist.
Years after that disappointment, one muggy summer night in our teens, my older sister Linda and I watched the 1945 black and white film portraying Gershwin’s short life. Titled Rhapsody in Blue, an orchestra performed the entire work, the defining and shining moment in Gershwin’s career when he improvised his iconic piano score.
In hindsight, the movie inspired my musical coming of age. In the midst of my infatuation with Motown, the Beatles, and Beach Boys, came my first night at the symphony in my own home. And I recognized the music, amazed at the number of musicians who played various parts and seamed the whole together flawlessly. 
Now in my senior years, I’ve enjoyed several Rhapsody in Blue performances in Detroit’s Orchestra Hall and elsewhere. Gershwin’s living genius never fails to sing the songs of my childhood. The finale’s giant steps march into the unknown with confidence.
Dear Reader, I’m growing old with George Gershwin. I’ve forgiven myself for letting go my father’s violin, for not embracing the gift he gave. After shaking with stage fright when performing my dulcimer for family and friends, I see wisdom in my writing life.   
Whenever I set the needle on Dad’s scratched Rhapsody vinyl and hear the clarinet sing, I know without a doubt my marching orders.
The written word is my instrument to practice and play. Blessed assurance! This is my story. This is my song. 
Val-deri, Val-dera,
Beneath God’s clear blue sky.

A Place Called Home

The Townsend Tunnel mid-October 
We drove north on what my family endears the Townsend Tunnel. It seemed overnight Jack Frost disrobed the oaks and maples.
“Just like that, another summer behind us,” I said. “It’s a long time before we see the green tunnel again.”
We focused on the bare and drizzly landscape, one of many signs leading us into the ice and snowy season. Surprisingly, the thought didn’t run a shiver through me.
Almost twenty-nine years driving and walking these washboard roads, I’ve become fond of them. I know where sinkholes wait, and what sleet means when driving up Townsend’s steep incline.
“Let’s buy cross-country skis,” I suggested.
“Well, of all Monet’s paintings at the DIA’s exhibit today, the winter scene was your favorite.”
He offered his wry smile. End of subject.
We met our carpenter in the garage, his hands scoring a plank of wood for a long overdue home improvement project.
“It’s cold in here,” I said. “Would you like a hot cup of tea or coffee? I’m putting the kettle on.”
He grinned. “Coffee, please. Two teaspoons sugar.”
Later, after I’d warmed up with a cup of Earl Gray, I stepped into the garage to see his progress.
“I just saw a mouse!” he exclaimed and pointed his pencil to the back door. “It ran through there, across the floor, and into the hole by the step.”
Another sign of winter.  Time to set traps.
“They’re coming in for shelter. Like Mel, our cat Mo is retired,” I explained.
“You guys like cats, don’t you?”
“Well, I prefer dogs, but, as you see, we need a mouser. However, Mel’s too attached to Mo to bring another cat into the house.“   
Since Mel’s retirement eleven months ago, he and our former neighborhood Alpha cat have become thicker than thieves. When they awaken from their siesta in the basement, Mel walks downhill to the henhouse. Mo follows. This of course will cease when the snow flies.
Winter’s tough on Mo. He’s in and out of the door throughout the day, impatient for his cozy sunny spots in the gardens. An uncanny timekeeper, he knows our dinner hour to the minute. Mel’s left many a steamy plate of spaghetti and bowl of chicken soup to feed our feline.
I’m spared this inconvenience. Mo will not eat from a dish I set before him. On the downside, our dear pet refuses to curl up at my feet on long, dark nights when the arctic wind blows down upon our abode.

Dear Reader, I envy friends who know the luxurious, warm company of a lap cat. Rather, I’ll recline my reading chair, throw my afghan over my feet, and view the frozen landscape outside my window.
And just like that, one day while sitting at my desk or standing at the kitchen sink, I’ll spy my first robin. Then walking down Townsend road, buds will appear on the trees. Another winter season will be behind us.
All this wonder in the place we call home.

Almost Forgotten Fruit

The Pawpaw fruit, largest of all tree fruit
Sixty years ago, in the understory of the Appalachian Mountains, my sisters and I played canning with our cousins. We pulled off the grainy flowers from plantain stems and stuffed them into Aunt Eloise’s dusty, old jars.
 Our Great-grandpa Hunt didn’t intend his shed to become our playhouse and shelter from rain and sun. A carpenter, he had built it for serious work. Drying hand-hewn wood, for instance.
By the time his great-grandkids came along, the outbuilding stood vacant. Toothless and suspendered, Great-grandpa Hunt observed our carefree, mechanized generation with bewilderment and disapproval.
Aunt Eloise, on the other hand, praised her new electric toaster. The novelty offered an option to her breakfast biscuits. And she was thankful for Great-grandpa’s woodshed that kept us kids from tracking dirt onto her spotless floors.
And I’m thankful, too. For it is the fragrance of wild pawpaw I remember most about Great-grandpa’s little shack in the timberline. The yellow mushy fruit lay smashed on a huge rock that was flat as a pancake and large enough to square dance.
I didn’t notice the black seeds, or that pawpaw trees grew by the side of the rock. I didn’t dare venture to touch the fruit for the risk of encountering a rattlesnake or copperhead.
As a youngster, I was unaware the Appalachian Mountains were among the oldest on Earth. I had no clue the tropical, wild fruit came from trees rooted near a spring below.
The delicious pawpaw, traditionally known as “the poor man’s banana”, is native to 26 states, including Michigan—praise God! And if you’re fond of chilled custard and mango as was our beloved George Washington, this is your dessert.
Furthermore, Lewis and Clark fed on pawpaw fruit during their expeditions while traveling our nation’s rivers. Come next September, I plan to branch out into Michigan’s streams with my kayak in search of the Asimina trilby.

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
And guess what Thomas Jefferson grew in Monticello’s orchards? My husband found pawpaw saplings for sale in the gift shop’s garden center this past month. There’s proof Jefferson shipped pawpaw seeds to his Parisian friends to impress them.
If Washington and Jefferson were alive today, I think they’d grieve over the agricultural and mountain knowledge we’ve forgotten. Most survival skills vanished with our grandparents’ generation.
Many modern Americans cannot identify the common Broadleaf plantain and don’t macerate its foliage for drawing out venom from insect bites and stings. I was one of their number twenty years ago. Then I stepped foot into Dryden’s Seven Ponds Nature Center.
You see, dear Reader, how childhood memories influence our lives. They guide our paths; reveal the steadfast goodness and beautiful food of God’s Creation. They won’t let us forget such significant things like the scent of the banana-mango pawpawthe largest fruit of all fruit trees native to the United States.
I’m prone to believe my great-grandfather’s stern face would soften if he saw our backyard’s puny pawpaw grove of three saplings. 
My tribute to his woodshed and our Appalachia.

Our Country's Founding Fathers

In the mist of mid-October, we climbed 57 steps leading to Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial. An old, sad memory recalled my childhood visit to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village Museum. There, I saw President Lincoln’s chair and learned the awful meaning of the word assassinated.  
            Also bearing their personal perception of America’s sixteenth president, tribes and tongues from around the globe gathered on the memorial’s stairway. My first visit to D.C, the place seemed foreign. It was the common language of children’s laughter I understood—a defining moment on the west end of the Reflecting Pool.
I scanned the long pond to the Washington Monument, the obelisk’s simplicity a pointed contrast to the Doric columns of Lincoln’s Memorial. I praised our country’s fathers who proposed the contemplative design and entered Lincoln’s temple with outer and inner eyes. I had waited a lifetime to honor the native Kentuckian, so I didn’t rush into his presence.
          Some have described the Lincoln sculpture “severe and serene.” To me, his posture seems restless, poised to rise and walk away from his hallowed hall.
Mel and I read his words inscribed on the walls and admired the frescoes above. Whether he would have approved or not, “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." 
Afterward, we walked down the steps and consumed a high-carb over-priced lunch before we strolled the Mall and WW II Memorial. We found Guam, my father’s battleground, in the structure representing Service, Sacrifice, Unity, Victory.
Later, with help from whomever we could hail, we found the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. What a gem! We stumbled upon the reinstalled Presidential Portrait collection, and expanded our founding fathers and presidential tour from monuments to paintings.

The gallery displayed our 44 past presidents in chronological order, a profound art and history lesson. Since my father was Warren G. Harding’s namesake, I was glad to find Harding’s likeness between Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. The 29th president, Harding was six of eight presidents to die in office.
My father was the last of eight children. Family legend says his sister, Golda Mae, named him.
Dear Reader, October 24 I celebrated Dad’s 95th birthday in the privacy of my heart and home.
Warren G. Harding O’Brien wasn’t a national giant like Washington and Lincoln. You won’t find his name carved in Washington, D.C. Yet, he fought for my freedom from tyranny before I was a glimmer in his eye. He provided food, clothing, and shelter for his family until his addiction divided us.

My father left no debt and his wallet behind. I find comfort in his miniature, laminated Honorable Discharge from the United States Marine Corps. I marvel at the worn Free Press clipping with Billy Graham’s advice: “A man of understanding holds his tongue.” Proverbs 11:12.
To his own grief and loss, not once did Dad speak the horrors of war. Twenty-two years after his passing, I’m learning the soldier’s awful meaning of the word loyalty.