It always amuses me to listen in on people debating whether or not ghosts exist. For me, there’s no debate. I have one.
When I was 27 I didn’t believe in life after death. The proof just wasn’t there for me. In that same year, on the recommendation of a friend, I visited a psychic (Frank Andrews) for the first time. I had a problem. I was temporarily homeless, spending nights in an upstairs guest room at my parents’. I’d never used this room before, but after I went to college my old bedroom had been taken over by my dad as a study. I didn’t sleep well from the beginning in this unfamiliar room. I would start to fall asleep, and then strange things would happen: sounds like something rolling across a wood floor (the room was completely carpeted) or once I had the sensation my head was in someone’s lap who was stroking my head. Another time, I felt my toes being yanked sharply, as if someone was impatiently demanding my attention. I was frightened, and didn’t know where to turn for help. A friend suggested I see this psychic.
Towards the end of the reading, and without my prompting, he mentioned there was a spirit around me. “It’s male, and you knew him. Don’t worry,” the psychic said, “he’s protective.”
I returned to the guest room without fear, and was able to identify, from clues in the room, exactly who my ghost was. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t see it right away.
My grandfather was not someone I remembered much of. We didn’t see him that often. I recall his knees and his fancy cane. I recall the circus he sent us tickets to. I recall his house in New York City. He died when I was eight.
But here in this room were his furniture, his books, his portrait, and a bas-relief of his family crest. My parents had stashed all these things up in this guest room to keep them out of harm’s way (we were five rowdy children and a couple of dogs).
The question remained: why me? Why was he trying to make contact with me? I stood and addressed the room: “I know who you are now. I’ll try not to be afraid anymore, if you find some way to communicate with me that doesn’t frighten me as you’ve been doing. I’m open to knowing what it is you want from me.”
Thus began a relationship between a family phantom and myself, which has endured, off and on, until the present.
My grandfather was a composer and music publisher. He was also, according to the New York Times, one of the wealthiest young bachelors in New York, and very social, belonging to a host of exclusive clubs plus the Freemasons. Thus his output as a composer (mostly songs and choral music) was relatively small. It reduced to a trickle after he served in World War I, married my grandmother in Paris, and returned to a life of hob-knobbing and carousing, dividing his time among his three homes. Soon after they were married, my grandparents got the son-and-heir thing over with by producing my father and then turning him over to the household staff and a string of governesses.
My father, too, wanted to be a composer when he was in his twenties. Like his father, he too retreated from composing after serving in World War II. Instead he became a professor of law at Columbia and raised a family. I became the next generation of composer in the family in my mid-twenties, when I landed a recording deal with RCA as a singer-songwriter. My first album, House of Pain, came out in 1974. I had composed most of the songs for my second (Beat Around the Bush) when I had my first encounter with Grandpa’s ghost.
I mention my musical provenance because, not long after I opened myself to communicating with him, I began to receive fragments of music in my dreams. I would be on my way to waking, in that twilight between states of consciousness, when a phrase or snatch of melody would come, along with an urgency: memorize this so you can recreate it when you wake up. The figure would repeat and repeat until I had it down. Upon waking, I would go directly to the piano and pick out the notes, transferring all to music notation paper and then building a song on them. It was a bit like taking dictation, except that once I started fashioning the song it became my own.
Sometimes instead of music I would be shown a story for the basis of a song. For example, right before waking I witnessed a scene unfolding between a pre-adolescent girl and her new stepfather in his study. I even got his name; she called him Mr. Sloane. (The resulting song can be downloaded from my website sarahkernochan.com.) It was a feverish time, as if I was on speed. Sleep became work from which I would awake to more work, the borders dissolving between conscious and unconscious. I knew where these directives were coming from. I had opened the door, after all. But the increasing force of creative imperative started to frighten me. I felt like I was being blown around in a gale.
I was also feeling more than a little crazy. There was no one to talk to. My shrink admitted she didn’t believe in ghosts and kept trying to link these episodes to my early life, especially to my relationship with my father. And I was totally reluctant to talk to my dad, because my dream-time interlocutor was his deceased father, or so I believed. Dad was also an avowed atheist who often said that death was the end, period, and nothing followed.
I called the psychic, Frank Andrews. “You told me I have a spirit around me, a man whom I knew when he was alive. I’ve figured out he’s my grandfather, and I need some advice now.” Frank said, “Don’t tell me any more. Come back to see me, and bring a picture of him.”
Great. The only way to get a picture of Grandpa was to ask my father for one.
“Why?” My father looked at me skeptically when I asked him for a photo of his dad. I couldn’t very well tell him I was in communication with his father’s ghost. And I’d never before shown any interest in my grandfather. Maybe because Dad didn’t talk about him much.
Dad still resented both parents. They had fobbed him off on nannies from the time he was born. Once they even left him for months with a strange couple in Italy while they blithely toured Europe. They were emotionally restrained; my grandmother wouldn’t greet him or give him a kiss whenever he came home from school because she was afraid he’d become a mamma’s boy. They stuck him in St. Marks boarding school when he was only 12. He was passionate about music, and Grandpa provided him with the piano and teachers but never gave him a word of encouragement when he started to compose seriously. Dad once said, “Why did they have me if they didn’t want to be around me?” He became estranged from his mother, finally, when he was in his twenties and mentioned that he was going to an analyst. His mother hit the roof. “You can’t do this to our family! People will think you’re crazy!” They had a falling out; possibly he pointed out that he had to go to a shrink because of his parents’ utter failure to be parents.
So he wasn’t that happy to dig up a picture of his father for me. I told him lamely that I was just, um, interested in Grandpa, without giving a reason. Dad gave me what I wanted, and off I went to Frank Andrews, the psychic, for a second visit.
I started to give Frank the photo when he stopped me: “Don’t tell me anything, and put the photo face down.”
He started off by describing the man in the photo without having seen him. I still have my notes from this session: “Sloping forehead, hair receding on either side, used to be thicker.” He got that right, judging from the headshot I’d brought. But I had no way to corroborate the rest: “Beautiful hands, long tapering fingers, with a big puff of Venus [the part under the thumb]. He has a Mercury forehead – all mind, too fast a thinker. Used to having his own way but easy to work with if you’re doing it his way.”
Frank looked up. “I see him darting, pacing, agitated around you. Impatient. You’ll get signs, like things falling off the wall, or he’ll steal things. Do you know his birthdate?” I didn’t. “I’m getting that he was a Sagittarius, Gemini rising. Healthwise, his heart was his weak spot. I’m surprised he got married because he was an independent sort. He was buried with a ring. Another ring of his will appear in due time. Did he have an east coast retreat, in the Cape Cod area?” That much I could confirm. We had gone as a family to Grandpa’s beach house in Martha’s Vineyard after he died, a trip I remembered very well because we got trapped in a major hurricane. “You should go there,” said Frank. “Something’s there for you.” Oh yeah, I wondered, whatever happened to that house?
At length I blurted out my problem: that I was being bombarded by music before waking and I didn’t know what it was for. My recording career was over and I wasn’t performing anymore. I’d stopped writing songs – until now.
Frank said, “When he was alive, he was working on a long piece like an operetta, which he never completed. He wants you to complete a similar type of piece, kind of like Weil’s Seven Deadly Sins. And then he might go.”
“Might?” I look at these notes now, and I have to laugh at the “might” part. Because he did go…but then he came back. He goes and he comes back, still to this day.
It’s 36 years later and I’m still stunned how accurate Frank’s reading was. Some of it I could corroborate when I got home afterwards and got my Dad to talk a little about his father. I found out Grandpa’s birth date. Yes, he was a Sagittarius. No birth time was recorded so the Gemini rising wasn’t verifiable, but he certainly sounded, from Dad’s description, like a quick-witted, impatient, dominating man. As for the physical characteristics, you can see for yourself from this photo of Dad with his parents:
Grandpa did get married later in life, age 35, after a lot of clubbing and partying. And he did die of a heart attack – in the Martha’s Vineyard house, in fact, while he was getting dressed to go out for yet another night of carousing with his rich WASP mates.
Some other details given by Frank took longer to confirm. I’ll write about the ring later. But things like Grandpa’s hands: Frank had described pretty much what my dad’s hands looked like, so I figured he got them from his dad. None of the other pictures I ever saw showed my grandfather’s hands. It wasn’t until 2008, a year after my dad died, that I finally saw them. We had just sold Dad’s house, and my brother and I were clearing out the attic when we came upon a decrepit oil portrait of Grandpa. He was seated in front of his piano. A cigarette dangled between his beautiful, very long and slim tapering fingers. They looked like a cast of Chopin’s hands I once saw in a Paris museum: made for playing music. And there was a handsome ring on his pinkie.
And the house on Martha’s Vineyard? There was something there for me after all. But I didn’t get it until ten months ago. I was finally able to buy the house next door.
The only person privy to my haunting was my friend Vivian, who had sent me to the psychic in the first place, and who had no trouble believing my story. She had long claimed to be, God love her, a white witch. So anything of a paranormal nature gave her a boner, so to speak.
“What about the ring?” Vivian pestered me without cease. “He said there’s a ring for you somewhere!”
The road to that information led once again back to the parents. I still quailed at the thought of telling my dad what was behind my sudden interest in his father. Consider what was in the balance: either the ghost did exist or I was psychologically in deep trouble. I wasn’t even sure myself. But my mother could be relied upon to give me tons of slack; within the family, she was known to be fantastically gullible.
When I finished telling her, Mom was silent. Her face carried an expression I’d never seen before. Then she related her own story – or rather, it was her father’s story. He had told it to her in strict confidence. But this seemed like the appropriate occasion to bring it to light.
At this point I should insert the title “The Other Grandfather.”
My mother's background was similar to my father's, both raised in old-money wealth. Born in 1920, she grew up on a huge estate in Chicago. She and her four siblings were raised by a string of governesses (there was high turnover). Her mother had zero interest in mothering. Once, when Grandma didn’t want to deal with Mom coming home from boarding school for the holidays, she had her daughter delivered to a hospital to have both her tonsils and appendix removed. Her children marinated in constant uncertainty; you never knew where you stood with her. She seemed only intermittently engaged by their presence; she had an air of absence.
Mom’s father was physically absent much of the time, first serving in World War I, then serving as Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then running the European Red Cross during World War II, then serving as Truman’s Under Secretary of Commerce. My mother had a hardcore case of hero worship - and who can blame her. I chiefly remembered him for his ubiquitous glass of whiskey, his chain of unfiltered Camels, and his rumbling cough (he died of emphysema eight years before this conversation took place).
His own mother (hope I’m not confusing you here) died when he was a young man. He had been very close to her. He missed talking to her. Around the time he fell in love with my grandmother, he was working very hard and late into the nights. One night his attention strayed from the page he was writing on; it was the wee hours, and he was exhausted, starting to lose focus. And then his right hand, with its pencil paused on the paper, started to move. Of its own accord, as if separate from him, it started writing. He watched his hand in dazed fascination as the words formed, in a script that was all too familiar to him. The handwriting was not his own, but his mother’s. She was talking to him.
He became hooked on nightly bouts of “automatic writing," communicating with his mother. She comforted his feelings of loss. She encouraged him in his ambitions. When he asked for advice, she gave wise counsel, just as she always had when she was alive...until the night when he asked her about a fascinating girl who had beguiled his heart. He wanted to propose to her. What did dear Mater think of her?
His mother replied that it would not be a good match. Contrary to his own nature, the girl was irresponsible and spoiled. Ultimately he would not be happy.
He was shocked by her reply. It was not what he wanted to hear. In that moment, he realized what he was doing, that he was in thrall to a dead person whose power over him increased with every night he sought her company. What he had allowed to happen was utter madness. That very night, he broke it off. Not with his fiancée, but with his mother. Never again did he petition the “other side” for comfort, love, or sustenance. For that he would go to his wife.
Mom’s implication, in telling this story, was that in the end her father didn’t get much of comfort, love or sustenance from that corner. The marriage indeed disappointed him, and became part of the reason for his long absences. (After his death she, who had never learned to economize, blew through his entire fortune.)
It occurs to me as I write this that I got the ghost from one grandfather, and the receptivity from the other.
My mother had held this secret for a long time. Who would believe it anyway? This account came from a man who was the opposite of fanciful, a wielder of facts and figures: in short, a man of the world and not the beyond. Mom believed him because he was her father whose every word was golden.
Thus she had no problem believing I was being contacted by a family member who happened to be deceased. If I was crazy, that would mean her dad was crazy, an impossible thought to entertain.
So when I asked Mom if there was an old ring passed down to us, her response was immediate. She gave me the key to a safe deposit box.
The attendant in the small local bank brought me a long metal box and withdrew discreetly. I turned the key in the lock, lifted the lid, and beheld the family bling.
I went into shock, recoiling.
I’m not into diamonds, or any faceted jewels. They trumpet their presence, they glare, they garish (garish really should be a verb). Usually anyone who can afford to wear jewels is too old to be calling attention to their decrepit selves. For example, the diamond collar I unwrapped first must have held up somebody’s wattles in the previous century. I pawed through more gaudy stuff, pendants, brooches, thinking it all very ugly and unseemly. I deplore the conspicuous display of wealth. It’s an attitude I got straight from my parents, so it’s worth the digression here to explain.
My Dad was deeply embarrassed by his parents’ affluence. He remembered riding with them to his first day of boarding school in a chauffeured towncar, at the height of the Depression, even though he’d begged them to take the train. His parents didn’t seem to realize that wealth made other people feel bad: resentful, envious, diminished, denied. They were, after all, Republicans.
Almost as bad as their being wealthy, they were indolent. His father didn’t even bother with a college degree, or read anything beyond lurid murder mysteries; he didn’t even compose music much after the war. Instead he played the market a little, ran a vanity music-publishing company, but mostly frequented half a dozen private clubs in New York and three more if you count Tuxedo Park and Martha’s Vineyard.
In reaction to his parents’ lifestyle, Dad made it his mission to pursue the opposite route. He refused any money from them, and threw himself into his studies, earning first a Harvard BA and then a law degree from Columbia. A beloved professor, he taught tirelessly at Columbia Law for the next five decades.
Mom and Dad were both compulsively thrifty. World War II rationing shaped their sense of economy forever. We bought cheap, or we did without. Eventually my father’s teaching career seemed assured. By now they had four children; it was time to buy a house. They bought a piece of land in the ‘burbs and started building a modest house befitting Dad’s income. And then Grandpa died.
Dad, being the only child of an only child, inherited the fraction that remained after his father’s lifetime of hobknobbing. He sold two of the houses but kept the Martha’s Vineyard cottage for rentals. The money he stuck in a bank and then tried to ignore it. We still lived within his income. We kids had no idea we were anything but middle-class. We did get a slightly bigger house out of Grandpa’s bequeathal (a good thing because a fifth child was in the future); and one time we got to go to Europe.
So for me, staring into this safe deposit box was like looking into a bygone, very unreal world that I didn’t feel remotely related to. Mom and Dad weren’t party people. On the rare occasions they did dress up, other than her engagement ring I never saw my mother wear anything but costume jewelry. Not only that, they were Democrats. Socialism good! Excess bad! No wonder my parents hid this shit away and never talked about it. The contents of this box were…Republican. I couldn’t help a shiver of revulsion.
To be fair, Grandpa and Grandma weren’t so into the bling either. Most of the pieces in the safe deposit box came from the generation before: the Belle Epoque. You never see Dad’s parents wearing jewelry in the photos that survive. However, Grandpa clearly liked small, understated pinkie rings. There were five or six of them, and fairly alike, so maybe he bought Grandma a few that matched his. At any rate, I was looking for a ring, and these didn’t call to me.
But the last one did. The center stone was a cat’s eye, a stone I’d never seen before: pale green, cloudy like a moonstone, with a vertical vein like a cat’s iris that shifted as you moved the ring, similar to a portrait whose eyes follow you.
Too large for my pinkie, it fit nicely on my middle finger. It was totally cool, and very inconspicuous – except for two tiny diamonds that flanked the cat’s eye. As I’ve said, I don’t like diamonds. But they could be removed.
Or so I thought.
I left the bank with Grandpa’s ring in hand, the circle of warm gold warming my palm. I felt myself aligned to his spirit now. He’d made me a gift, which I accepted, and in doing so I accepted his presence as my protector. The ring could have been made of brass and paste for all I cared; I felt there was love in it.
When I showed the ring to Mom, she didn’t remember ever seeing it. Then again, she hadn’t been in that safety deposit box since Grandpa died seventeen years ago. I asked if I could appropriate it for the time being. (Meaning, indefinitely. Otherwise known as: forever.) She said that the plan had always been to let each of us children pick one piece from the box when we got married. Two of my three brothers were married already and had each taken something for their wives. Didn’t I want to wait?
Was she kidding? I’d told her a hundred times I was never getting married. A legally binding state-sponsored commitment was anti-romance, and besides it got in the way if you wanted to jump ship. Which was kind of a pattern with me. So no, there was no point in waiting for that happy day that would never come.
In short order, the ring became mine. Next there was the matter of those two pesky diamonds. I wanted to swap them out for a pair of cat’s eyes that would match the center stone. My friend Vivian offered to escort me to the Diamond Exchange in New York, a completely foreign territory where I didn’t speak a word of gemstone. Since Vivian was Jewish and grew up in the garment industry, she was the perfect translator.
And that was how we came to be wandering around the warren of dismal shops in the Exchange, looking for someone who sold cat’s eyes. Nobody did. When we were about to give up, somebody suggested we try a little cubbyhole at the end of a corridor, saying that the owner sold offbeat stones but often wasn’t there. We knocked. No response. We turned to go and almost ran into a narrow little Indian man who had his key out to open the shop’s door. Yes, he had cat’s eyes.
Once inside, he examined Grandpa’s ring, puzzled why I wanted to get rid of two perfectly nice diamonds. They’re not to my taste, I said. He offered to remove the diamonds and put in two cat’s eyes as an even trade. I assumed he was getting the better end of the deal but I didn’t care.
He rooted around a cardboard box until he found the right size of gem, carefully opening a folded tissue on his desk so I could examine my choices. There were about ten of them. Most of the stones were milky and too small to show the hypnotic shifting band of light that characterizes cat’s eyes. But there were two, and two only, of the same green clarity as the center stone: two with the bright vein gliding over the surface.
“I like these two guys.” They were so small I couldn’t pick them up with my fingers, so the man separated them from the others with his little spatula. He gave me a loop so I could see them magnified. Then I was certain: “They’re perfect.”
“Good.” He held a small manila envelope ready as he slipped his spatula under the pair of gems. He lifted them carefully to transfer them to the envelope. As we all watched, the stones sprang up from the blade and disappeared.
The jeweler ordered Vivian and me not to move. He grabbed a pen flashlight and dropped onto all fours, scouring the floor for the two cat’s eye gems that had vanished from his spatula.
Vivian whispered to me, “Your grandfather doesn’t want you to change the ring.”
“I don’t care what he wants,” I muttered back. “I have better taste than he does.”
I had in mind what the psychic had told me: that Grandpa, when he was alive, was accustomed to having his own way and was easy to work with if you followed along. I thought, well, I’m headstrong, too. I figured that with a ghost, it was the same as with children and pets: you had to establish who’s in charge at the beginning of the relationship; otherwise they will become unruly and scorn your wishes.
The jeweler continued his search of every nook and cranny of his office, even asking us to remove our sandals and brush our skirts. Finally he gave up, looking both desperate and mystified. “It’s very strange. I saw them fall…Maybe you can leave your number, in case they turn up.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll pick out another pair.”
I had him open the tissue to look at the remaining gems, and selected two that matched. They weren’t anywhere near as nice as the missing ones, but I was determined to get this done and show Grandpa who was boss. The jeweler took no chances this time, placing the envelope a millimeter away from the stones and quickly sweeping them inside.
A week later, the ring was ready. I returned with Vivian. We knocked; the jeweler opened the door. His brow was furrowed; he looked thoroughly flummoxed now. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “After you left last time, I took apart everything in the office looking for those stones. I couldn’t understand how they could have disappeared so completely. They were a financial loss to me. Finally I had to let the cleaning crew in to vacuum. Then, just now, a minute before you arrived, I happened to look down at my feet. And there they were – in plain sight, in the middle of the floor.”
He opened his palm, displaying the two missing gems. Then he gave me a look of nervous suspicion. “This isn’t one of those rings, is it?”
“Yup.” I knew what he meant: an heirloom with spooks included. I imagine that jewelers once in a while experience weird stuff when they handle pieces that carry a paranormal attachment. Curses, tragedy, or just mischief.
I knew I could have insisted that he remove the inferior stones to replace them with the original pair I’d chosen, but the jeweler was clearly anxious to be rid of my ring. I didn’t want to tempt more trouble either. I emerged on the street with the band of gold on my middle finger. The diamonds were history, and in their place two nondescript cloudy cat’s eyes flanked the center stone. I’d won.
I wear the ring to this day. It’s discreet, rarely attracting notice, the way I like it. A secret in plain view.
In time I would get used to my grandfather’s attempts at imposing his will on me. His favorite signals of displeasure were breaking glass and making things jump. Or sometimes he would just be reminding me that he was here, that I wasn’t alone.
But right now I’d let him have his way with one thing: I would write the music he was pressing upon me. The sooner I completed what it was he wanted me to do, the sooner he would stop plaguing my sleep, funneling melodies and images. He might even go away.
We talk nowadays about the cyberspace “cloud.” Back when this ghost story takes place, there were no personal computers. But you could say that there I was, in a half-asleep state, downloading music from the Cloud.
The songs came in fragments. I would be aware that these were assignments, to be developed and finished when I was awake. Sometimes I would be afraid of forgetting the material. The musical phrase or a lyric would obligingly repeat and repeat until I’d committed it to memory. Then I was free to wake up, whereupon I’d start work right away, notating the music or jotting the lyrics, eventually building a song around them.
My grandpa’s music, which was written before World War I, had a heavily romantic feel flavored by chromaticism (he idolized Sibelius, a fellow Freemason; they both wrote ceremonial music for the brotherhood, which my grandfather also published). For the most part he wrote art songs for piano and voice, and choral music.
But the music I was channeling from the Cloud didn’t sound like his. It wasn’t that much like mine either. The songs I’d recorded on my two albums for RCA were, loosely speaking, pop songs. While I wrote them initially on the piano, they were meant to be played with electric bass, drums, etc. This new material didn’t fit anywhere. (To see what I mean, you can download one of them, Sleeparound Town, from my website sarahkernochan.com.)
The other weird thing was, they were all in the voices of pre-adolescent kids. Four of them so far.
It was the fifth song that pushed me to the edge. It was the fevered stream of consciousness of a kid sitting through a Protestant Sunday service while remembering the horror movie he’d seen at the Saturday matinee. I received the music in a hopeless jumble, because the horror movie music was threaded together with the church music. The kid identifies with the persecuted monster, a reviled misfit, which he then confuses with the persecuted Christ.
The kid feels like he’s going crazy. And so was I, being stuck inside his psyche. The words to the song came out in a rush after waking, but the music was fiendishly difficult to write. Snippets of hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Turn Back O Man,” or the priest’s call and response, collided with scary Theremin howls. The piano part was beyond my abilities as a pianist, so I had to write out every note slowly, and then write a second keyboard part, which was supposed to be a church organ. Then there was the solo kid, backed by another four voices, kids in the church choir. It took me days to write the score for Creature From the Last Off-ramp.
I was still living at my parents’, though I’d moved my piano and rudimentary two-track recording equipment into an outbuilding a few steps away from their house. The only way I could hear what I’d written was to play or sing each part, bouncing back and forth between the two tracks as I recorded, until all the voices and keyboard parts were layered.
At the end of all that effort, I was crushed. The playback didn’t sound like what I’d heard in my head. I was also making a ferocious racket, banging away on the piano deep into the night, trying to master what I’d written. I got pissed-off calls from my father to for God’s sake go to bed. I could tell that he (a composer, too, remember) thought the music was nerve-flayingly awful. My exhausted appearance didn’t inspire confidence, either. I had a wild-eyed, hypomanic aspect, and I stank of psychosis.
It was too humiliating to see my mom and dad trade anxious glances; they were clearly wondering if I was on drugs or irretrievably wigging out. So I called a halt to the whole enterprise.
No more, Grandpa.
I was done as a medium to his message. I didn’t want to write any more music. What was the point? No one wanted to record, publish, or even listen to a collection of art songs from some 12-year-olds’ point of view.
I was angry and felt used. I’d taken to talking to my grandfather out loud. I told him to back off and leave me alone.
Things calmed down, then. The mad shoveling of song material into my dream state stopped. I titled the score Songs of Puberty and put it away. I would not return to composing for a long while.
Nevertheless, he didn’t leave me alone.
“You need to change the bulb,” he said. The floor lamp across the room was flickering.
“Just ignore it,” I said. The light blinked a few more times, then stopped.
My guest was an actor. Greek lineage, Mediterranean good looks, my type. I forget who drummed him up for me. He had taken the last train from Grand Central to Connecticut, where I was living in a detached studio on my parents’ property, so we both knew he was there to spend the night, even though I had only met him on the phone earlier in the day.
We were drinking a bottle of brandy from my grandfather’s liquor collection, one of the things Grandpa had bequeathed to his son, my dad. The champagnes and wines had long since turned to dreck, but there was still a lot of fine booze from the 30’s and 40’s stored in our garage. For example, there were cases of fantastic bourbon in brown bottles labeled “For Medicinal Purposes Only” – issued by the government during Prohibition.
At this time, I was helping myself to the stash. Drinking was one way of dramatizing my heartache. The love of my life (or, my life up until age 27) had fallen for someone else. I’d tried hard to get him back without success. I wrote a mocking song about him for my second album, and that certainly didn’t work either. I was alone with my anguish. One of the reasons I’d moved back to my parents’, besides to save money, was to lick my wounds in solitude and also to write a lot of songs about heartache.
But sometimes I got horny. Here in the quiet, safe ‘burbs, there were no suitable sex objects I could espy besides delivery boys. (I tried one. He did not deliver.) My friends in the city kept a lookout for me and passed on recommendations. One friend even opened up her little black book and asked me if I wanted Warren Beatty or Michael. J. Pollard. Without saying which one I chose (duh), the result was a new rule: do not date actors.
Actors seem out of phase. They can be right before your eyes but you’re aware of a second image slightly overlapping the other, an image of the character they’re playing. There’s an uncertainty about whom you’re dealing with. Sometimes you feel like you’re there to help them with their lines.
Desperate times demand stupid moves, and so here I sat with an actor on my couch. And now another lamp, on the table beside him, started flickering. “What is it with your light bulbs?” he asked.
Instead of answering him, I addressed the room: “Okay, I know you’re here. You can stop annoying us.”
The actor looked at me with a touch of fear. I was talking to somebody who wasn’t there. Maybe I was delusional. Maybe he had made a mistake by coming. Tough luck, the trains had stopped running.
Whatever the case, I seemed to have an uncanny ability to make bulbs stop flickering, because table lamp was back to normal.
I knew what was really going on: Grandpa didn’t like this guy. My actor didn’t know that he’d just gotten a bad review.
It wasn’t the first or the last occasion that my grandfather would meddle in my sorry affairs. He would make his point by doing something creepy, thus conveying his opinion that these were not appropriate men for me. I agreed with him. No one would ever measure up to the one who broke my heart. I was exploring my freedom to self-destruct. And Grandpa was in the way.
Delaying the inevitable, when I would lead the actor from couch to mattress, I offered to read his Tarot cards. I’d just begun learning how to predict the future and I needed the practice. I asked the actor if he had any questions. Without hesitating, he wanted to know, “Will I become a famous actor?”
I know it was a bit cruel, but I told him what the cards unequivocally said: “No.”
From my point of view, Grandpa had already put a damper on the evening. From the actor’s point of view, after my Tarot reading, the evening was beyond damp: it had drowned.
About 30 years after I put him on the morning train back to New York, I searched for the actor’s credits on Imdb. Minor roles, mostly in TV, petered out around 1997. Guess he didn’t make it.
It’s good to know when it’s better not to know.
I will state at this point that I have never seen a ghost. I neither saw nor heard my grandfather. I think it would have terrified me. That was our deal, from the beginning: that he would do nothing to frighten me in the course of our contacts. Communicating in in that foyer between dreaming and waking was far more productive. When it came to an occasional glass shattering or a door opening by itself, these manifestations were actually kind of welcome. They proved to myself, and to any witnesses present, that I was not making it all up.
But others saw him. One friend who really did see dead people – she became a professional medium a few years later – reported seeing a man with a moustache behind me, and that he stuck his tongue out at her. This would be entirely in character. My grandfather apparently had a juvenile sense of humor; he loved bawdy limericks and potty jokes. One time when my dad visited him in the hospital, the nurse knocked on the door and Grandpa yelled, “Who goes there? Friend or enema?”
Another time he was sighted was in Martha’s Vineyard, six years ago. I was in charge of renting out Grandpa’s old beachfront cottage, the house where he died in 1958. A tenant and his family were in residence for the month of July. Midway through their stay, the father approached me to ask if there was by any chance a ghost in the house.
“Maybe,” I answered evasively. I was surprised because no renters had ever reported any paranormal activity.
He told me about two incidents. In the first, his wife had been alone in the house, puttering about the ground floor, when she plainly heard someone coughing upstairs. She called her son’s name but, upon glancing out the window, realized he was outside on the lawn. By now throughly creeped out, she went outside, grabbed her son and made him go upstairs to look around. There was no one there.
The second incident, which prompted her husband to speak to me, concerned their twentysomething daughter. One evening she was bringing some groceries into the service entrance when she encountered a tall gentleman with a moustache who politely escorted her to the stairs and waited as she opened the door and went inside. His presence was so benign, his demeanor so very nice, that it wasn’t until she put down her bags on the kitchen table that she realized what had happened and freaked out. By then, of course, he had vanished.
I was kind of jealous, to be honest. It felt like he was cheating on me. He was mine. What was he doing, popping in on some complete strangers? Well, I guess he was still the sociable sort he’d been in his lifetime.
The other thing that bothered me was that his behavior, as reported, had been typical run-of-the-mill ghost stuff. There are plenty of reputedly haunted houses on Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquidick, enough so that there are “ghost tours” for the tourists during the summer. Now and then there are sightings of whaling captains’ widows and tavern owners and the like, always associated with a certain place they’re attached to.
But, in spite of the title of this story, in my mind grandpa was a spirit, not a ghost. What’s the difference? I think of ghosts as being the after-image of a human life that has not fully retracted from the mortal world. They cling to place, and often pursue the habitual routines of their former existence. Sometimes they are unaware they can leave. Sometimes they have unfinished business. But they associate with a specific locale or an object.
Spirit, on the other hand, is an elastic filament from the departed soul which can extend from its natural dimension into our dimension, kind of on a visiting basis. Like angels – except with more personality traits, such as a preference for dirty limericks. Grandpa wasn’t stuck to one place. He could turn up anywhere I went (except Morocco, where I really could have used him, but that’s another story).
I have a photograph of my grandfather standing behind my dad, and that’s the way I sometimes picture Grandpa: looming behind me, keeping me company, an advisor, protector, and sometimes a pain in the ass. I can’t see him, but I know he’s got my back.
A Personal Remembrance of John Lennon:
I hadn’t planned on writing another blog today, but someone made me aware that it’s the 21st anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I’d like to share a personal story about John that relates to the ghost tale I’ve been telling over the past 10 posts. Those who have been following this saga will remember that in 1974 I visited a psychic named Frank Andrews when I was 27 (see Part 1 and Part 2). I was being troubled by a paranormal presence in my parents’ house, and Frank helped me learn more about the ghost’s identity.
It was in this same year that I was dating singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, off and on. John Lennon was in his “Lost Weekend” period, and also producing Harry’s “Pussycats” album. I’d met John before when he first arrived in New York, so I knew him already. John and Harry were stoned to the eyeballs whenever I saw them. The L.A. recording sessions were apparently like a zoo with the cages open.
They both came to New York to mix the record, checking into a two-bedroom suite at the Pierre Hotel. In order to do the work, John was trying to get a handle on his over-indulgence, and even Harry went on a fast (which he ended after 24 hours by ordering up a double Brandy Alexander). John was also trying to get back with Yoko. He was on his best, subdued behavior when she came over to the Pierre and the four of us sat down to a room-service dinner.
John and Yoko seemed rather tentative around each other, so I tried to fill a silence by telling a story that took place only a few nights before. I’d been eating at a sushi bar next to an exquisite young Japanese woman who struck up a conversation with me. For some reason she confided in me that she was Mayor John Lindsay’s mistress. True or not, her descriptions of their rendez-vous made for very entertaining conversation.
At one point the woman suddenly remarked, “Sometimes I am psychic, and I have a feeling that you will be famous.”
I responded: “That’s funny, because a professional psychic just said the same thing to me.”
“Oh yes,” she said, with a weird confidence. “You mean Frank.”
How could she have known that? I wondered to Harry, John, and Yoko.
Yoko interrupted to demand the name of the psychic. She wanted to see him. Immediately.
So I put her in touch with Frank. Yoko went to see him alone; John was too afraid to go (he went later, though). The next time we all had dinner, she reported that Frank had impressed her hugely. But the one prediction he made that struck her the most was a cryptic statement about John: “He sleeps in blood.”
She and John had discussed the meaning of Frank’s words, and both decided he was seeing something from the past, not the future: the blood referred to the miscarriages Yoko had suffered when they were together and trying for a baby.
The image returned to me six years later, when I heard that John had been shot and killed. I pictured him the way Frank must have seen him: lying in his own blood, as if asleep.
‘Night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
At the end of my period of “channeling” music from my dead grandfather, I turned away from the five-song cycle (“Songs of Puberty”) I had composed with his help, and turned to a new project. I considered my career as a singer-songwriter to be over, and an opportunity had come along to pursue my long-held ambition to be novelist.
I don’t want to dwell on the subject of my book “Dry Hustle”; suffice it to say that I spent part of 1976 traveling with a pair of women who were con artists. They specialized in preying on males, raising the men’s hope of sexual favors and then absconding with their money. I go into greater detail in my author video:
This adventure went against everything I’d been raised to respect. I could legitimately call it research, but the fact remains that I did participate in behavior that was immoral, illegal, and ungrammatical. I readily absorbed lessons for lying and psychological manipulation; I was thrilled to be in the world of criminals; I adopted their patterns of speech, employing lots of double negatives: “I don’t got no morals.”
I ignored the cries coming from my lacerated conscience, making myself deaf through routine applications of Irish coffee. This is one of the evilest drinks ever: an over-the-counter speedball. The coffee makes you manic, the third-rate whiskey makes you morose, and the Reddi-Whip is the final insult. In case the whiskey won out over the coffee and I blacked out, I carried a concealed tape recorder in my purse and taped our encounters with our “marks” so I could replay it the next day and thus remember what the hell I did.
On one such morning, following a blackout, I woke to find myself in a Las Vegas hotel bedroom which I shared with one of the con women. Her bed was empty. And sitting in a corner armchair, silently observing me, was a strange man.
My blood froze. Then the phone beside me rang.
The guy continued to stare at me as I picked up the receiver. It was my roommate. “Happy birthday,” she crowed. (It was not my birthday.) “I picked him out for you as a present. You need to get laid. He’s the drummer in Elvis’ band,” she added before hanging up.
Ah, a musician. Somehow that made him okay, because otherwise he looked like a drug dealer. My curiosity aroused, I surreptitiously reached into my purse and turned on the tape recorder. Thus I have it on record that he was not Elvis’ drummer. Later I learned he was not a drug dealer either. He was a drug runner.
I liked him, though. He was surprisingly witty and courteous. I told myself he would make a good character in my novel, my excuse for deliberately courting disaster in those days. He was consistent with my ongoing romance with the criminal underworld.
Months after my “research” period, I holed up in a cheap apartment off the Pacific Coast Highway to continue writing my novel and drinking Irish coffee. I suppose I can blame the Four Roses for contacting the drug runner, who lived south of L.A., and inviting him over. So he made an excuse to his wife and drove up.
He seemed sort of wobbly when he showed up, but his wit was intact and I still liked him. So we got horizontal for a while. The tape recorder in my purse beside the bed was on, of course. But even without the tape I can well remember his face inches from mine as he told me he shot and killed a guy in Mexico once, for being a snitch. When I looked horrified, he explained, as if it was normal, “That’s the only thing you can do with a snitch. ‘Cause he’s just gonna snitch again.”
I did not feel very secure after his confession. I was relieved when he excused himself to go into the bathroom so I could be alone to consider my situation. I told myself: Now you’ve really gone and done it. You’re alone with a murderer. You don’t got no more sense than a turnip.
I was about to throw on some clothes to escape, when he emerged from the bathroom. He could barely walk. Instantly I knew he’d shot up in there. Make that a murderer and a junkie. As he made his way back in my general direction, he lost his balance and fell to the carpet.
He was trying to struggle to his feet when there was a wrenching sound from the wall heater. The entire metal cover burst off the heater and was hurled at him, slamming him hard on the shoulder.
As I said, Grandpa did not approve of some of my boyfriends.
The last thing the junkie heard before his eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out on the carpet was me yelling at my grandfather.
It’s not that uncommon for folks to use a bit of psychoactive help to meet deadlines. Nowadays it’s Adderall. In my Dad’s day, it was a Judy Garland cycle of bennies and barbs (benzedrine and barbiturates) that got him through law school. He may not have believed in God but throughout his life he worshipped at the altar of prescription drugs.
Maybe that’s how I inherited my little problem, though, unlike my father, I didn’t draw the line at illicit drugs.
And my deadlines in 1976 were punishing. From the time I began work on my novel “Dry Hustle,” fortune shot me like a cannonball into the career heavens. Before I was half done writing the book I had a deal with a mini-major Hollywood studio to write the script plus direct the film adaptation. In order to meet the schedule I had to finish the book in four months, complete the screenplay in the next three, then shoot the movie and deliver in time to coincide with the hardcover publication.
Simply drinking Irish coffee didn’t work anymore. I’d never been able to afford cocaine, which was a good thing, but there was a coke dealer living a few doors down from my rented crib on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, so I took to running over now and then for a freebie. Eventually I became non grata, so I talked my gynecologist into a prescription for diet pills. Pretty soon I was climbing the walls: awkward if you’ve got a typewriter.
I did make the book deadline. The novel reads now as if it was written in a white heat, but the reckless, breathless drive of the prose matches the subject matter of life on the lam. I turned to the script assignment, intending to fly through it on wings of amphetamine. However a script, unlike a novel, is a mechanical piece of business. The writer assigns shots and locations, action and effects, along with the drama. The prose is all punchy directions – sort of barked – while somehow keeping the flow. It didn’t help that I had no idea how to write a script. I’d never even read one.
Halfway through my script struggles, I realized that I was failing. My panic, magnified by drugs, was agitating the air around me to such an extent that my pet rabbit started thumping.
Suddenly the phone receiver jumped in its cradle. I knew my dead grandfather was weighing in: Hello! Pull over! Get out of the car, keep your hands to your sides and do not reach for your drugs.
My poor bunny was now tearing around in crazed circles on the shag carpet as if she sensed a thunderhead moving in.
This wasn’t about a screenplay deadline anymore. I felt I might leave my body any second – and never be able to get back in.
I found my rabbit a nice home, packed up my typewriter and battered pages, checked into a hotel in West Hollywood, and, incommunicado, went clean. I totally gave up drugs and alcohol and also watching soaps.
For the first week I passed my days eating a lot of very large salads. By the time you were done munching to the bottom of the bowl it was the next mealtime. I did no writing. I think I was terrified that not only would I be unable to write without chemicals but also my true quivering self would be exposed to all. I would have to give up my fake flamboyant personality, revealing a shy rabbit self that wouldn’t survive long in the open.
I felt like I was looking, in fact, at the end of me. And yet if I turned back and went the other way, I was going to be dead in the classic sense.
During the second week of my recovery, the script deadline came and went. I made the naïve mistake of telling the studio the truth, that I needed a rest. When you are a wunderkind, never tell your investors that you’re shit out of wunder.
I spent a lot of time reading in bed. I don’t know what made me buy a paperback about Bridey Murphy, except that I like spooky stuff. Bridey Murphy was a famously controversial case of an American woman in the 50’s, who under hypnosis described in detail a past life in 19th century Ireland. The question was left open at the end whether her story proved that reincarnation was possible.
By the time I got done reading the book I was tired enough for sleep. As I put the book aside, I felt the mattress move underneath me, rippling.
Quickly, before I could react, the ripples became strong undulations driving me toward the head of the bed. With every wave, my head was forced harder against the wood frame until something had to give. A final convulsion pushed me through the barrier and I was released. The movement stopped, and I found myself panting with relief on the bedspread, in exactly the same position as before.
Ever since my contact with my grandfather and things paranormal had begun, I privately worried that there was some psychoactive agent to blame, even when I’d only ingested something mild like coffee or beer. Or maybe I'd been just dreaming.
But here I was, wide awake and cleansed, full only of salad; I couldn’t dismiss what happened as a hallucination; the physical sensation, the propulsion, had been too strong. And what did it mean?
Suddenly I realized what the sensation really was. I’d been in the contracting and rippling birth canal, being pushed head first through the bone cervix. I’d been reading about reincarnation, and then I was reborn.
And so I was, from that time forward. But first had to come the shuttering of the past life. I turned in a 200-page script. The studio head refused to read it until I cut 70 pages. I was exhausted, and I could tell he’d lost interest in the project and in me, so I simply counted out 70 pages in the middle of the script, ripped them out and handed it back.
I began my next life with a whimper, back at my parents’ place, in the mud of March, contemplating the debris of my might-have-been film career. Humility is not fun, especially without a menu of harmful substances helping your slide into the much funner state of self-pity. There was nothing to do but wait for my book to come out in May.
Things were eerily quiet. I found myself staring at my abandoned piano. I asked Grandpa, why do you bother with me, anyway? And the music you made me write: what was all that for?
I shouldn’t even be talking to him, I thought. That was all in the madness of a previous lifetime.
Soon April arrived, and I got a call from my agent. “Do you have anything for a musical?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, some songs or whatever. I met a couple of young guys who are just starting a new division for Joe Papp at the New York Public Theater. They’re looking for material for musicals.”
“I have five songs. But they’re for kids.”
“They might respond to that. Joe’s got a hit show on Broadway right now with ‘Runaways.’ That’s an all-kids cast. Let me get you a meeting.”
I hung up and opened the piano lid.
Note to all readers: this is my last post before the holidays. But I leave you with a little music of Grandpa’s. This is a recording of a song he wrote in 1922, which I only recently discovered. It’s a children’s song. Of course.
The lyrics are anonymous, from an old book of children's verse:
Little Wanderchild there
On the cliff by the sea,
In the soft summer air,
Little Wanderchild there
Looks around everywhere,
And thus pondereth she:
Little Wander child there
On the cliff by the sea.
Little Wanderchild thought
She could sail to the sky
If a sea bird she caught,
Little Wanderchild thought,
Or a broad white sail bought
From a ship moving by:
Little Wanderchild thought
She could sail to the sky.
Little Wanderchild stands
On the cliff all alone,
She has folded her hands,
And mutely she stands;
For, to far sunny lands
All the vessels have gone,
And still Wanderchild stands
On the tall cliff alone.
THE FOOLISH VIRGINS
Catchy title, no? Makes you want to read on? It's the title of a cantata written by my grandfather. Here is an excerpt. You may appreciate his way with melody in this radio broadcast of 1913. Unfortunately the hilarity of the title overwhelms the music, which could be called, um, wet.
(The libretto is based on Matthew 12:1 - 13, The Parable of the Ten Virgins as told by Jesus.)
I presented myself to the New York Public Theater for my meeting with Joe Papp. I was to perform my five-song cycle “Songs of Puberty” in its entirety. I could sing and accompany myself on piano for the first four songs, but because the fifth involved two keyboards and a four-member chorus I home-recorded everything but the lead vocal and brought the tape along on my portable audio-cassette player.
Thus I sat with the tape recorder on my lap and sang 25 minutes of music non-stop. Joe listened with an air of puckish amusement, which could be read any number of ways. I’d seen that expression before in auditions for club owners, prospective managers, music publishers: it meant I was cute, but bizarre (one music reviewer called me “weird and willowy.”) It also meant: without a future. I drew more encouragement from Joe’s wife Gail Merrifield who grinned openly during the first four songs.
It was the finale, “Creature From the Last Offramp,” that terrified me. This was the phantasmagoria channeled to me in a semi-dream state by my deceased grandfather’s spirit – a wild melange of church and horror movie music with a torrent of lyrics (to believe me, click here). And I’d never played it for anyone before.
When I finished, I was sheathed in flop sweat.
Joe and Gail looked stunned. They glanced at each other wordlessly.
Joe inquired if I could write more material in “that vein.” I stammered yes, self-programmed to hide self-doubt. He then asked me to come up with enough new stuff to convince him there was a whole show, and to present the result in a workshop performance. Since I’d directed a documentary film, he assumed I could direct the workshop.
I left the meeting in a stupor. This was my first contact with non-profit theater. I was not a theatergoer. Apparently this was a world where bizarre was celebrated, and nobody expected to make any money from your art. As Dot sings in “Sunday in the Park With George”: “All it has to be is good.”
Of course! I realized. I totally belonged in the theater. By now I was on my fourth career (after filmmaker, recording artist, and novelist) and still looking for a home. Theater used everything I could do: write words, compose music, and direct. So that’s why Grandpa had me write those songs: to create a wonderful show that would achieve a greater success than he had in his lifetime. It was worth all the craziness I’d endured to receive the material. What a great guy.
I didn’t want his help now. No more purloining music from the spirit plane. I could see my way clear to what the show would be. The five characters who narrated the five songs were already distinct. The title of the show would be “Sleeparound Town” (the name of the first song). Five different children would go to sleep and meet in a place called Sleeparound Town, and go through the changes of puberty together.
Here is the demo I made of the title song:
…In my dream I sing and windows open wide
Pillowcases breathe up and down
Warming to my song the blankets curl away
From the shores of Sleeparound Town…
A month ago, as I was gathering material to write this story, I unearthed my grandfather’s sheet music, which was among my father’s effects after he died in 2007. I was astounded to find Grandpa wrote a song called “City of Sleep.” The lyrics were from a Kipling verse, describing the “town” where we go when we dream:
…Know ye the way to the Merciful Town
That is hard by the Sea of Dreams
Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,
And the sick may forget to weep?
But we – pity us! Oh, pity us! –
We wakeful – ah, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Grandpa in WWI Dad in WWII
My Dad and I shared a love of music and smut.
It was August 1977 when I returned home from a tour promoting my raunchy novel “Dry Hustle.” I immediately launched into composing material for the NY Public Theater workshop of “Sleeparound Town: Songs of Puberty.” At the same time my father came back early and alone from a sabbatical in Paris while my mother and sister stayed on.
So for a month we lived in close quarters: I in a detached studio, and he in the house where I’d grown up. I could hear him practicing his flute, and he could hear me raging away on the piano. I could tell he enjoyed rattling around his house in solitude because he stopped wearing anything but underwear. (There was a heat wave.) He also applied himself to a favorite hobby, writing dirty limericks. Here is my favorite, composed much later after he retired from teaching law:
Directions for sex may be found
In any old phone book around.
You connect with a dame
Who is ready and game
And then you press ENTER and POUND!
Sometimes we would get together for dinner when I would cook for us (he dressed for the occasion). I used the opportunity to pump him for information about Grandpa, though it involved delicate footwork. By now I knew that my mother had told Dad that his father’s ghost was making regular visits to me, but he considered her to be mildly bonkers and me to be habitually overwrought. I did catch him checking me covertly now and then to see if any more screws had worked themselves loose.
I kept my questions to personal history and avoided the paranormal. Dad and I were enjoying our time together, and any mention of ghosts would have ruined everything. The Holy Ghost would have been enough to set him off on an atheistic rant. I wondered privately if his big problem with God was “Our Father.” Merely the word “father” triggered such aversion that he couldn’t get beyond it. Since he perceived his own father as distant, negligent, frivolous and lazy, why sign up for an even bigger dose of bad parenting in God the Father?
One night at dinner, I remarked about the coincidence that both he and his father had given up seriously composing music after returning from wars in Europe. Neither of them had seen combat but worked in liaison and operations. What happened over there, to make them turn them away from a vocation they loved?
“I can’t speak for my dad,” he said. “I just remember after coming back I felt very depressed and lost and I had no confidence in myself. That’s when I went into psychoanalysis.” (It had been thirty years since the war ended and my father was still going to an analyst five times a week.) “I didn’t think I could succeed at composing. I’m sure I got that from my father. He never offered one word of praise for my music.” He told me about a time when he was a teenager, when he wrote a minuet for string quartet. A friend of his father’s, a cellist, liked it so much that he arranged for some professional musicians to play it as a surprise at his dad’s birthday party. The guests applauded enthusiastically and then demanded the quartet to play it a second time. Afterwards they clustered around my father, congratulating him and calling him ‘another Mozart’ – and through it all his dad said nothing.
“But then he never had much to say about my music and never asked to hear it.”
“Do you think he might’ve been threatened by you? He wasn’t writing music anymore, and you were showing him up.”
“I don’t really care. Actually he never showed much interest in anything I did.”
Dad set his jaw grimly. I could tell the subject was closed, he’d had enough.
Then I felt the most extraordinary pressure build up around me, as if I was being crowded out by an intentional force. The words were pushed up my throat, making me open my mouth to say something so invasive and presumptuous that I knew it might drive a permanent wedge between us. I blurted:
“He wants me to tell you that he’s sorry.”
I was miserable, seeing Dad’s expression change. Not only was he angry at me, but also I’d confirmed his fear: his daughter was certifiably delusional.
“It’s a bit late for that,” he snapped.
As he got up and left the table, I wanted to beg him, “Please don’t blame me! Grandpa made me say it!” But that would hardly have helped my case.
We avoided each other for a few days.
And then one day he suddenly crossed the lawn and tapped on my door. He had something in his hand to show me. It was a music manuscript. He’d just completed a song, with piano, vocal and lyrics. It was the first song he’d written since he’d come back from the war: a despondent and anxious young man, for whom music was out of the question.
The Ballad of Patty Pease
As a footnote to the previous post, my dad's claim that his father never praised his music was not strictly true. One song, which Dad improvised at the age of 15, not only earned the old man's plaudits but also Grandpa would ask Dad to play it (and replay it) frequently for guests.
Dad was 15 in 1934 when his father purchased the summer cottage in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard that has remained in our family up until last September. Edgartown is a tiny village on a boat-filled harbor where once the whaling industry held sway. In 1934, because there were very few streets Edgartown had only one streetwalker, and everyone knew her name. To listen to Dad's tribute to the misfortunate Patty Pease, click here. (You may find it very hard to listen to, as it was a home recording on a hopelessly scratched platter of some kind. Also, none of Dad's adolescent friends who sing the song can carry a tune. They are pretending to be drunk, and my father is playing the piano. All the same you can enjoy the lyrics below.)
The Ballad of Patty Pease
You hump with ease
With Patty Pease
She aims to please,
Does Patty Pease
A long, long time ago,
As everyone should know
Her soul was white as snow –
Oh Patty Pease
Then one soft summer night
The stars were shining bright
A frigate hove in sight –
Oh Patty Pease
A handsome sailor boy,
The Vineyard’s pride and joy,
Came off the ship. Ahoy!
For Patty Pease!
And up the street he came
A-looking for a dame
To play his little game –
Oh Patty Pease
To Patty’s Pa he said,
“Has Patty gone to bed?
I’m looking for a thrill.”
“No-o! She’s ‘way aloft
Up in the hay loft.
Go find her if you will.”
The sailor had his way,
And up there in the hay
Was a red letter day
For Patty Pease
Her father didn’t “keer”
Enough to interfere
With Patty’s black career –
Oh Patty Pease
Still, he had an awful fright
When fourteen men walked in one night.
But Patty took it,
She’s all right!
Now if you want a treat
Go down South Water Street,
Then you’ll be sure to meet
With Patty Pease.
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