On my trip to New York City to play Carnegie Hall, I was accompanied by a very dear friend, my college roommate. We celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of our friendship this year and I had a milestone birthday a couple of months back, while she will mark that same milestone later this year. We decided that this would be a great opportunity to take a trip together and have some fun.
Some months ago, as we were cementing our plans, she asked me, “O.k., so what’s the deal with the flute, anyway?” I’ve gotten the same question from a good number of other folks.
To sum it up succinctly: Playing the flute is the achievement of a lifelong dream.
When it was time to start band in the fourth grade, I wanted to play the flute. Well, that’s not quite right. I longed to play the flute. Yearned. Dreamed. I begged my mother to let me take up the flute.
The answer? “No.”
Why? Well, I could just tell you the rationale she gave me, but it really needs to be heard and understood in context, lest you think she was merely cruel.
My parents survived the Depression. They were both born and raised in South Dakota, so they experienced first-hand what it was like to live in “The Great Dust Bowl” that the prairie became during those years.
My maternal great-grandparents and grandparents were Norwegian immigrants. My great-grandfather came to the United States in about 1882, made his way to Dakota territory, and homesteaded: 160 acres and a mule. He erected a sod hut and began working the land. It was about seven years before he had enough money to bring his wife and daughter (my grandmother) to live with him. My grandmother used to talk about the trip to America and the experience of seeing her father at the age of eight after being separated from him for so long. Eventually, they built a modest home that never had electricity or running water, my grandmother met my grandfather and, after they married, they all worked that land together. During the Depression, they managed to hang onto the farm — barely. Many of their friends and neighbors were not as fortunate.
My father grew up in a little town not far away. He graduated from the eighth grade and then, one of eight children, had to go to work.
My mother graduated from high school in 1934 and dreamed of going to college. She used to talk about her efforts to secure the required funds, but there simply wasn’t any money to be had or borrowed. Instead she ended up working as a combination housekeeper, cook, and babysitter.
Hence, incredible pressure was put upon my sister and me to earn college degrees.1
Because of the extremely dire circumstances they survived as children and young adults, my parents, like so many members of what Tom Brokaw termed “The Greatest Generation” were, in my estimation, as well as that of many other Baby Boomers, completely dysfunctional regarding money. They lived in fear of losing everything and returning to their meager beginnings — and that fear drove their decision-making.
Tragically, they never really learned to enjoy what they worked so hard to earn — at least not in the ways most of us today define “enjoy,” i.e., by traveling or splurging on things we don’t need to survive, especially when it comes to technological gadgetry. Knowing the money was in the bank and the bank was insured brought them a brand of happiness and security that few of us relate to today.
And my parents’ generation did not discuss money, at least not with any specificity. When I was growing up, about the only time I heard anything about money or finances was when I asked for something — like a flute — and was told, “We can’t afford it.” I knew we weren’t poor, because we lived in a lovely home and never worried about the essentials of life. But I was certainly led to believe that the “extras” in life were out of reach.
It wasn’t until we took control of my mother’s affairs and sorted through all of her belongings that I developed a tangible appreciation of exactly what the Depression had done to her.
I discovered that, while not wealthy by anyone’s standard, the reality of my parents’ financial circumstances was diametrically opposed to their description of it. As I said above, I always knew they exaggerated, but on that day — which I will never forget — I achieved a new level of clarity about one simple, tragic fact: They literally, as the saying goes, “worked themselves into their graves”.
And then I found myself asking, “Why? What good did it do them?”
I can attest that they took nothing with them when they departed this world. Sadly, the only thing they managed to do was leave a few material things behind for my sister and me, and our children. I am grateful for those things, of course, prime among them being the home from which I type these words.
But after a few months of reflection and self-examination, I reached an inescapable conclusion: The cost was far too high. 2
I am not here to live my life for my children. I love them more than my own life, but my sole purpose is not to live for or through them. I am on my own path and they are on theirs. One of the positive results of my parents’ attitudes and my life experiences is this: I have made my own way and am assuring that my kids learn to do the same.
I am a living testament to the fact that it is truly never too late to pursue a dream.
Still . . . it isn’t easy when I experience an occasional reminder of the way things were when I was growing up. Holly Dunn had a hit song a few years back called “Daddy’s Hands.” I cannot bear to listen to that song because it makes me remember the way my own father’s hands looked when I was growing up. Lined with grease, no matter how hard he scrubbed them, the next day he would be back at work overhauling transmissions at the local Lincoln-Mercury dealership. He performed small jobs (brakes, tune-ups, etc.) at home in the evenings and on Saturdays.
It was my job to use one of my mother’s sewing needles to pull out pieces of metal that had broken off and lodged beneath his rough skin. It was also my job to coat the interior of his wedding ring — that he only wore on Sundays to church, for special occasions or on vacation — with clear fingernail polish because the chemicals to which he constantly exposed his hands caused him to be sensitive to the gold — and his finger would turn green. It wasn’t until he retired that it became no longer necessary, as his hands gradually became soft and his fingernails devoid of the perpetual line of black grease that had refused, for so many years, to budge. After he died, my mother asked me what belonging of his I would like to have. I had only one answer: “His wedding ring.” It reminds me of the work ethic that defined him.
As for my mother, she was the original “pack rat.” I call her the “Mrs. Winchester of Storage.” Like the owner of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, my mother kept the hammers swinging as she convinced my father to install yet another shelf, cupboard or cabinet and then proceeded to fill it with completely useless “stuff” that she couldn’t bear to part with because “it might come in handy some day.”
When she no longer remembered that she had a house or knew who we were, we were left to dispose of such rarefied treasures as the candle from my first birthday cake that I found in a kitchen cupboard (for the record, that party took place in late 1957), old Toni home permanent rods and even some solution (highly toxic, I’m sure), many varieties of curlers, the clips and barrettes we used in our hair when we were growing up, the retainer that had not been in my mouth since approximately 1971, my baby teeth that were still wrapped in gauze and lying in the top drawer of her dresser, used paper decorations from cakes eaten 40 years ago, several bags of used wrapping paper and bows . . . Believe it or not, she had even collected straws from various restaurants — washed them and stored them in a plastic McDonald’s Hamburglar cup, along with oodles of napkins and other paper goods.
As if that weren’t bad enough, she tucked away the receipt and operating instructions for every appliance she ever owned in her life, as well as every piece of furniture in the house. Every time she purchased anything, she wrote down not just the date of purchase, but the actual price she paid. So, for instance, in her closet, tags were strung on hangers with the original price crossed out and, in her handwriting, the sale price she paid noted. She did it not just with major purchases, but also with household supplies. For instance, soap, paper towels, laundry detergent, etc. all bore the notations — placed over the price tag in her handwriting. I can’t even imagine expending the time or energy for such record-keeping. But it was important to her, apparently.
So with that foundation, back to the issue of the flute . . .
One of my mother’s childhood dreams was to play the piano. But, of course, because of the family’s Depression-era financial struggles, she never did. Hence, one of the priorities when my sister became old enough to study was the purchase of a piano (which is sitting in my hallway right now) and lessons. I also studied from a very early age.
So you would have thought that, given my mother’s own thwarted musical ambition, she would have been more sympathetic when I came home and announced that, thank you very much but no, I do not want to play the clarinet just like my older sister. The flute was my instrument of choice.
Her declaration that “The clarinet was good enough for your sister and it’s good enough for you” seems completely illogical, doesn’t it? Her exact words were: “We’re not made out of money. We already bought one band instrument. We can’t afford to buy another one.”
It wouldn’t be the only time I would end up either compromising or foregoing altogether some goal or activity. For instance, when I was in high school, two incidents stand out vividly.
As freshmen, all of my friends were joining Rainbow Girls, a club that met on Friday nights. They had secret rituals and it sounded like a lot of fun, but they had to wear “formals” (long dresses) to meetings, plus pay membership dues, etc. Once again, I was told that my parents could not afford to buy me the dresses needed or pay the expenses. So I lied to my friends and told them that I wasn’t interested in joining, even going so far as to make fun of their rituals and dressing up. But I distinctly remember sitting home on Friday nights wishing I were with them.
And the one that hurt more was trying out and being selected for the drill team when a lot of kids in my school thought I wouldn’t make it. I dropped out when I realized that I would have to go home and ask for a uniform, shoes, gloves, and hair accessories. So I sat in the bleachers at the Grape Bowl and watched my friends perform at the football game half-times, knowing that I had the talent to be down there on the field with them, but I couldn’t join them because my mother would never appreciate how important it was to me.
It was the clarinet or nothing. Because I really wanted to be in band, I reluctantly settled. Frankly, I was a pretty good clarinet player for quite a few years. I could have continued with that instrument, but I used to sit in band rehearsals listening to the flutes during sectional practices, dreaming of being over there with them. I used to ask my friends in the flute section to let me hold or play their flutes, and one actually taught me the fingerings for a few notes and let me practice a bit on her flute during breaks. For the most part, though, I just had to dream from afar.
In 1974, my first year of college, I had a part-time job, so I decided that it was time to get the flute I had been dreaming about. I rented one and signed up for a woodwinds class. I couldn’t afford lessons and did not dare ask my mother to pay for any. But after just a few weeks, a classmate neglected to lock his car and my precious flute was stolen. I was devastated. That was the end of my dream.
Until March 7, 2004, anyway.
That’s the day that I bought a Yamaha beginner model flute — and settled a very old “score” with my parents (my mother, primarily).
Two days later, I took my first lesson.
Six weeks later, I upgraded to an intermediate model, open hole flute, and was already performing. That summer, I joined the Lodi Community Band and in September 2004, I became a member of the Stockton Concert Band.
Within 18 months, I purchased a professional model flute after shopping for it at the National Flute Association‘s annual convention in San Diego. I am still progressing, slowly but surely, with every lesson, every practice session, every band rehearsal, every article I read in the magazines devoted to the flute to which I subscribe, every recording made by great flute players like Sir James Galway and Jean-Pierre Rampal to which I listen, etc.
There are not enough years left in my life for me to reach the level of proficiency to which I aspire. There just aren’t enough hours in each day. But I work at it little by little and do the best I can with the time I have.
I took to the flute like a duck to water and I am convinced that, had my mother relented and purchased that instrument for me in the fourth grade, I would have gone “all the way” with it. There is no way to know, of course. But I think I would have loved it then almost as much as I love it now. I say “almost” because, having waited nearly 40 years to start seriously working toward my goal, there is certainly the “delayed gratification” factor.
But I started playing keys when I was very young and I have never given that up, so I can see no reason why I would have given up the flute along the way. I may not have gotten a degree in music and might still have ended up being a lawyer, but I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t be playing today, no matter what.
Ultimately, the “what ifs” are intriguing, but don’t matter. That wasn’t my path. I am on the path for which I was destined. The path to which I was, as I have explained in my discussions about the Wendland case, called.
I learned great “life lessons” from the events of my childhood, especially those that were informed by my parents’ attitudes and behavior about financial matters. Most of all, I learned to appreciate the enjoyment I get from playing the flute in a way that I never could have had I started playing in elementary school.
That I played my flute on stage at Carnegie Hall with the Delta Winds confirms that I am a living testament to the fact that it is truly never too late to pursue a dream.
Included in the Personal Stories of Change Blog Carnival: Edition 3 hosted by I Will Change Your Life.com.
- Although my father died during my third year of law school and did not see me graduate, he did attend and thoroughly enjoyed the moot court “Final Four” competition in which I competed, arguing a fictional case before three invited Supreme Court justices from Indiana, Montana, and New Mexico.
- The “cost” of various aspects and events in one’s life seems to be, unintentionally, a recurring theme in my writing . . . serendipity?