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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Friday, September 03, 2010

I've Had a Waltz in My Head for Years

Thoughts on a song my father used to whistle.

No. This photo is not of my father. Nor is that bearded man a relative. But he wrote something 140 years ago, and a portion of it has been lodged in my brain for decades.

I've written of my mother’s fondness of music, her years in the church choir and lark-like hours at her treasured piano. My father liked music, too, especially hymns, but he was not particularly musical himself with one exception. He was a fine whistler.

In all the years of working outdoors with him on the property, I do not recall him whistling, not when we surveyed the boundary lines, cleared the land, built the barn, spanned the creek , dug the well—I don’t recall him whistling during any of those long tasks. Perhaps he did, and I just couldn’t hear it. Song whistling doesn’t carry well outdoors.

But when we finally had a roof on the house and the sheetrock on the walls, back in the days before there was carpet or curtains or any soft surface to dampen the resonance of the empty halls and rooms, Dad whistled his heart out while he worked. It was perfect-pitch concert whistling with trills and glissades up and down at least two full octaves. The empty unpainted rooms were a wonderful concert hall.

I am a whistler, too, especially when I find myself in a room or hallway with great resonance, but my skill and range falls short of the man’s from whom I inherited the ability and inclination.

I have noticed that my whistling is perhaps the truest expression of my inner peace and joy. I often whistle down the hall at school—many times I don’t even know I’m doing it. I whistle in the school kitchen (a room with great resonance) when I’m getting a cup of coffee, and people come in and say things like “Someone’s in a good mood.” Then I realize I’m whistling, and without exception, it does reflect my spirit at the time. I’m not sure it has much to do with moods, because I’m pretty even-tempered and not prone to mood swings, but I am prone to feeling the weight of burdens—both personal and professional—and whenever that load is lightened or when I have turned it over to God… I am far more likely to whistle songs without even knowing I’m doing it.

But on my best whistling day, with limber lips and full range, I cannot hold a candle to Dad’s whistling (and I suppose if I did hold a candle to it, the candle would go out—forgive my poor choice of idiom.)

Often, when Dad and I were working together in the empty echoing main level of our house in progress, he would be whistling a waltz. I did not know its name, but he would whistle it all day, faint and fluid, until each sweeping, watercolor note was painted on my mind. Of all the songs Dad whistled in my presence, this is the one I distinctly remember. To this day, decades later, I whistled it myself, always mindful that it was the waltz Dad whistled in those empty rooms.

I also remember wondering how my father could possibly know a piece of classical music so well. It was not a song on any album in our home; he did not listen to NPR on the radio; and not one of the many dimensions I knew of my father placed him in a concert hall listening to such music. I wondered how that tune had gotten in his head. It was etched in my mind from hearing Dad whistle it, but where had he learned it?

About thirty-five years after the house was done, as I was writing these chapters, I tried to whistle it to my brother Dave to see if he remembered it. He remembered the melody but not the name of the song. He suggested it might be the tune Mom’s music box played. She had a pot-metal music box a little larger than a tuna can with a shallow dish inside and a lid with a painted cameo-like-thing on top. In it, Mom kept rings and bobby pins—and the little things that turned up in her hand at bedtime.  It played a pretty song but hasn't worked since way before we moved from Roseville to the house. I have that old music box. Maybe it can be fixed, and maybe it does play the waltz. Dave has an uncanny memory for such things.

Another time I asked my sister Kathy if she had ever heard Dad whistling the waltz. She hadn’t, but she reminded me that Mom and Dad had taken ballroom dance classes before we kids came along. I knew they were excellent dancers, and had seen the remnants of that set-aside pastime whenever they ice skated together. There is no way for me to know for sure, but I have concluded—and the thought gives me great pleasure—that that waltz is the one Dad and Mom had learned to waltz to, that they heard it played on a scratchy record in whatever room they and their friends took those classes together. That not only the notes, but the count and steps and rhythm and the feel of Mom’s hand and soft back were in Dad’s mind as he whistled that song during those days of endless progress on the house.

Through the years the waltz has flitted in and out of my memory like a welcome ghost.

A few weeks ago, I was watching a movie with my daughters, and I heard Dad’s Waltz in the background of a scene. I sat up in my seat, and said, “That’s it! That’s the song Dad used to whistle.” The girls had not noticed the song. It was background. They were engrossed in the plot and dialogue. My comment was a complete non-sequitur. I had never shared with them any of these thoughts. And in truth—even for me—it was a strange thing to say out loud because it had been nearly a year since the song had been in my thoughts. Back in the fall of 2009, when we were painting the rooms and re-carpeting the house for its sale, I had written about it. So to hear it in this movie, was a great surprise. I watched the credits carefully to the very end where all music used in the film is listed…and jotted down the name of the waltz: Léo Delibes Waltz from Coppelia.

I know a fair amount of classical music from college and personal listening, but I must admit I did not recall the name Léo Delibes or the title of this waltz that has been in my head for all these years.
Now with the help of Youtube, I’ll share it with you. Beautiful as it may sound performed by an orchestra, I can tell you that it is most beautifully performed by a happy whistler doing trim work in an empty, unfinished house that will someday be his family's home.

The part Dad whistled is the first main theme heard in the first 45 seconds with the ending that comes after minute 1:15. (He simplified the boisterous part in between).

Here is a man playing it on a ukulele, which is surprisingly enchanting if you close your eyes. Here is a man playing it on an accordion—sort of the street café version. If there were ever a musical score for the screenplay of The Settling Years, it would have to include some subtle, simple echo of this song.


Blogger Nancy said...

OKAY, this is scary.... "I have noticed that my whistling is perhaps the truest expression of my inner peace and joy." I could have written this post almost word for word except for the tune that was whistled. My dad usually whistled hymns and of course, that's what I do too. Sometimes, it's humming and that drives my husband CRAZY! I've said this before...are YOU sure we aren't related? Blessings to you my friend.

29/9/10 9:22 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Good to hear from you.
I recall from previous conversations that our fathers were a lot alike.
It was so cool the day I heard that waltz and could look it up and know the name.
Thanks for dropping by. It's been a while!

1/10/10 9:27 PM  

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