Sunday, January 20, 2008


When I was 15 we spent Easter Sunday at our cousins' house. It was boring, pretty much, considering that nobody in my dad's side of the family is really religious at all. But at the same time, even though my cousins only lived 45 minutes away we didn't see each other that often.

My grandpa was also there, my dad's dad. Kickin' it at 87, he had thin white hair, thick glasses and always wore a one-piece flying suit. My dad always talks about how similar we are, from our tastes for pineapple ice cream to our analytical thinking processes to our general tolerance of other people. He was the nicest, funniest old man (maybe even person) I've ever met, and I've met some good ones.

He sat on the couch with my mom, my sister Megan and me. "You ladies really love your music, don't you?" he said.

"Oh yes," my mom said. "Stephanie is getting really good at piano and playing clarinet in the school's marching band, and Megan's singing in the vocal ensemble at her school. Janet's learning clarinet as well."

"Well," my grandpa said, "I've got an old cornet that my friend gave to me awhile back. He played for a living. I've always wanted to learn, but I can barely play the phonograph, so I'll give it to you guys."

"Wow you guys!" my mom said. "A cornet! This will be great for Megan, because she has the lips for it."

I don't really know what my mom was thinking when she thought she could evaluate what kind of lips are suitable for playing brass. But soon it sat in Megan's room, all nice and ready to be played.

After a few weeks I hadn't even heard her try and play it. A musical instrument. In the house. That I didn't know how to play. I'd always wondered how brass worked.

So I downloaded a fingering chart from the Internet and when she was at a friend's house I "borrowed" the cornet and learned to play it fluently within two weeks. It's not that impressive because at that point I also knew piano, clarinet and bass guitar.

Of course my sister got all mad and then realized that it would be better off if I just had it, so she gave it to me. (That's also how I acquired my ukulele. Poor Megan.)

Only a month after we had acquired the cornet my grandpa went in for quadruple bypass surgery. Since he lived alone in a kind of remote area, the doctors suggested he stay with a family member during his recovery. Out of his four sons he chose my dad's family, because what can I say, we were the most awesome and least pretentious group of the choices. Plus he loved our dog.

It was summertime. I was too young to really get a job (although I occasionally worked archiving files for my mom's boss) and I was over swim team (over=tired of being the slowest one). So I spent my days practicing the cornet and making stuff. Maybe I could play trumpet in the band this year. (I did.) Maybe I could even join the jazz band! (I did!)

My grandpa said, "I really love hearing you play that thing. It reminds me of my son" (my uncle) "when he was a kid. He was a brilliant trumpet player and would have been first chair if the director hadn't put a piece of music in front of him and asked him to play it. He didn't know how to read music!"

That's so cool, I'd say. He then told me of another time when he flew a plane for a famous trumpet player Louis Armstrong. But when they got there, they had misplaced his trumpet, a golden trumpet presented to him by some really famous/royal person! Oh no! No fear, Louis told my grandpa. He pulled his mouthpiece out of his pocket and said This is all he needed to make the same wonderful sound.

We spent many a lovely summer afternoon sitting on the porch with the dog, sipping iced tea and eating sandwiches. I would make a sandwich for him and he would smile and say "Are you fattening me up for the kill?" One time he told me I'll be a beautiful wife someday. That was one of the nicest things I've ever had said to me. We became very good friends that summer.

Anyway, the time came when I graduated high school and dreamed of moving somewhere far away (but still within the state so I could get cheap tuition) to go to college. My grandpa said, "I hope you keep playing your music." I said I will, I'm going to be a music major. Even if my "career" has nothing to do with music. I'll keep playing.

A couple of months into my first semester, my grandpa had a stroke and died. He was 90 years old. My mom said it's okay, he was a really happy man and lived a very fulfilling life. It was still sad to me because he was my friend. My mom said they had a picture of me in his hospital room. My dad told me later (quite a bit later) that I was his favorite and he asked about me all the time. I guess I was making judgements about the fact that he was old, but I didn't think that our time together would really stand out to him. But I guess it did, and proves how much more alike we were than I realized. It was really special to me.


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