Helena Writes #32: On music in our family

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 32nd post, she anchors childhood memories of summer camp with her father’s love of music and poetry. Enjoy!

My Dad whistled

I sing. My sister wrote songs. My son and daughter have each performed.

My dad whistled.

Cheer was part of his nature. He whistled around the house and in the car, and sometimes he sang.

My father always had a car. I have pictures of him with his Model T Ford, maybe he was 21. By the time I was born we had a black ’49 Chevy. I can still see it parked in front of our house, on the asphalt-paving past the sidewalk of our street—Crown Street. 

Both my sister and I were born on Crown Street, in the mansion that was built by Carson C. Peck, business partner to the Woolworths—Peck Memorial Hospital a block down, across Troy Avenue toward Albany. Those street names are home. I have the bill for my mother’s hospital stay when I was born, ten days, $100, written in pencil, torn from a printed bill pad. I grew up in the house on Crown Street, until I was ten when we moved to Queens.

Light and shadow

We were one of the only families of all my friends that had a car. We weren’t rich; my father was a New York City teacher, and teacher’s salaries then were notoriously low. It took the teacher strikes to make them fairer, but that was years later. It was that technology was my father’s fascination. It was his medium. He taught Radio, when radios had tubes. We were the first on Crown Street to own a television set. He watched with fascination the development of computers when a computer was the size of a room.

And moving through space, exploration in a car, seemed natural to my father. First the Chevy, then the 1952 Forest-Green Dodge, took us all, my mother, my sister and me, on the road trips he planned. And to camp in the summers.

My mother didn’t drive; there weren’t many women drivers yet, not in Brooklyn. And men, including my father, used the expression, “Women drivers!” if one of his daughters’ sex pulled out in front of us.

My father had a repertoire of songs. He sang them in syllables—di-dee-di-dee-di-di-dum—Russia’s equivalent of “la-la-la-la-la.” Both my parents’ families came from the Russian Shtetles. I’ve heard the di-de-di-de-di sound in Russian folk songs. My father must have heard his own father’s singing, or his mother’s, grandparents I never met. “Di-dee-di-dee-dii!” A sound natural to him.

My mother sang in la-la-la-la’s, and other foreign-sounding tongues I think were original to her. Her voice was operatic, untrained, it soared, it was gorgeous. Her singing wasn’t in the car, she sang when she washed dishes, alone in the kitchen. The neighbors must have heard it. I doubt she cared. Or the strength of the music inside her pushed too hard and had to get out. Maybe the music that lived inside each of them was one of the things that drew my parents together.

My dad’s repertoire was American—“Red River Valley,” “Back Home in Indiana,” and tunes I can hear but don’t know the titles of—sung, di-dee-di—dee-di. “Back Home in Indiana,” whistled, my father steering along the Brooklyn streets. “Red River Valley,” along the highways on our way to Buck’s County, PA, the Adirondack mountains, or out to Long Island, to swim in Lake Ronkonkema, which he called Lake Ronkonke-mo.

My mother sat up front, next to my father. I sat in back with my sister, the two of us playing made-up games, school, store. My sister, an early writer, made up stories, chapter by chapter, and I hung on every word. Or we dozed against each other when night fell. Sometimes I’d lay with my head in my sister’s lap and she’d stroke my hair, me watching the light cast from street lamps, glide over the car’s rubber-matted floor, up the back of the front seat, along my father’s brown felt hat, its brim, the curved handles of his steel-rimmed glasses held on by his big listening ears, lighting my mother’s straight backed posture and by-then, gray curls, then sliding  out the window. Light and shadow, light and shadow, tires humming soothing, along the roads, jogging us over cracks and junctures. 

Then my father sang his melodies softly. Whistling was for daytime.  

Summer camp

My father’s whistling, his singing in the car, filled with his wife and children, was joyful. But when we came home, after a long summer away at camp, where my parents worked so that we children could be campers, there came a moment, as we crossed the George Washington Bridge, when a hush fell. That quiet came from my father. Then, his voice dropped in tone, and he spoke the lines of a poem—“This is my own, my native land,” was the last line. I must have sat in the front seat one year, maybe my parents had separated my sister and I who could get troublesome as the trip wore on in the summer heat. No air conditioning in a 1952 Dodge. I remember looking across at his face, he speaking the lines with a Scottish brogue. It was reverent. 

Another side to summer camp

A city teacher had summers off, and my father liked to work, and I realize now he must have needed to. That’s when we packed up the car and headed upstate. And that’s when I witnessed my father’s reverence again, his love of teaching. I watched him when I visited Boys’ Arts and Crafts, the long wooden summer plywood and clapboard cabin that smelled of fresh plaster castings and sulphur, to patina copper bas reliefs the boys pressed into molds. It was a wonderful, cool, musty fragrance of a place shut down all winter. There was also the perfume of fresh sawn wood, and shellac for the small boats and napkin holders he taught his boys to build.  I breathed in the smoke of the wood burning iron and the way he spoke to those campers. Pegboard lined the walls, with tools hung neatly, each one labeled, to be returned there when work was done. It was a place of order. Calm. A refuge for me, who didn’t like camp except for arts and crafts. But the girls had their own arts and crafts building. I came to be with my father.

My mother worked as Camp “Mother” for Girls’ Camp. It never occurred to me then that my sister and I could not have gone to a place like that, but for my parents’ employment there. We had a place to swim and do the things of summer we couldn’t have on the concrete streets of Brooklyn or Queens. My sister, a natural athlete, couldn’t have played the sports she loved and excelled at.

And, my sister, Jolene, was group savvy. Not me. I hated the politics of cliques. The meanness of children. The torment of being seen as “in” or “out.”  Yet I also grew close to my good friend Ellie in those summers, an outlier like me.

Yet I was a PC—a privileged camper. My parents were there. That was my coin, though I didn’t realize it then. 

And here is the part of going away to camp I also understand now, in my own adulthood. It was a time my parents could have some privacy. 

The guesthouse

My parents’ room in the guesthouse smelled like my mother’s powder and shampoo, and my father’s shaving soap. It smelled like home. I had status admittance there, to that adult place. It was enchanted time with my parents, away from the desert of my bunk life. My mother saved food for me, a peach, juicy, the way peaches were in childhood. My parents were relaxed, and I could feel their enjoyment of each other, the mystery of their intimacy.

The bridge

Now, after eight weeks of camp, we are on our way home. Crossing the George Washington Bridge, looking out over that vista of water. That hush falls over the four of us. From somewhere deep inside himself the words come, and my father recites, in that Scottish brogue, the words of Sir Walter Scott marking the summer’s end:

“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land!”

I still wonder at the mysterious lives of my parents, apart from the people I knew. Where did my father learn that poem by Sir Walter Scott? How often had it risen, prayer-like, from his soul?

My father, my mother, my sister: these are my own, my native land.   

My parents had music in them. They passed that music to all of us. There is music in our family.

What do you remember of music from or within your childhood? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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