scion

As Father’s Day winds down, I keep coming back to one of my favorite stories about my dad.

My dad is an engineer. Often, this meant that when I was younger he would go on a lot of business trips for company projects, sometimes to domestic locales, but sometimes to more exotic places. And I remember a lot of trips where Mum and I (and sometimes later my little brother) would go to O’Hare to pick him up.

O’Hare is one of my favorite airports for a lot of reasons. One, I grew up in Chicago and it inevitably feels like home, an old friend that I’m always traveling back to see when I pass through. Two, it contains the Moving Walk, a place elevated to near-divinity by childhood fascination and awe that I still make every effort to take it when I can.

And three, because I was always coming back to people I missed in it.

This story is like many of my childhood airport reunion stories: we made welcome home signs with washable markers, drove to O’Hare, and waited for my dad’s flight to come in. What made it different this time was that there had been a delay–weather, perhaps– I was too young (maybe five or six) to know exactly what it was.

But apparently it was a big enough deal to bring down some reporters from Chicago’s local news stations to cover it and interview people. A reporter spoke with my mother briefly before my dad deplaned and made it over to us, and then came back for another round once we were all together.

My dad has always gotten us presents when he traveled. These days, it’s so ingrained in me that as an adult whenever I go places I wonder if I’ve bought enough gifts for my family. I collected necklaces and rings from Tel Aviv when I was older and Dad traveled farther abroad, but on this particular day I got what turned out to be my favorite gift, a grow-your-own-crystals kit.

I loved these things. I think I’d grown several sets with my parents at home already, smashed all manner of geodes, and I’d stare for ages at those fast-growing crystalline structures that balanced precariously like skyscrapers in their petri dishes. As Mum was being interviewed, Dad, right there in the middle of the concourse, unzipped his suitcase and pulled out a massive, new crystal set. I was elated.

Eventually, after talking with my mom and dad about airlines and delays, the reporter asked for my thoughts. I, ever-mindful that these, truly, were my fifteen minutes of fame, said something like, “Look at the great crystal rocks my dad got me!”

And I think it’s hard as a parent, wondering what things your child is going to immortalize, what gets through and what doesn’t. I applied to tons of universities, decided on his alma mater. He quietly hoped I’d transfer into engineering; I built race cars out of carbon fiber and became a mathematician instead. He got me and my little brother educational CD-ROMs like Treasure Mathstorm and Logical Journey of the Zoombinis; I was the kid who worked chores to afford her first GameBoy to play Pokemon Blue and then spent days on console-based JRPGs as a teen.

My dad traded in his two Porsches for two kids (happily, both children grew up to purchase fast cars of their own), he, in grad school, owned two Afghans named Sasha and Misha who required meticulous daily brushing (and later caused me no small amount of consternation as I wondered if I’d been named* after a beloved hound**), and he very nearly let the crab cakes my now-six-foot-four little brother and I shipped him as a Father’s Day gift sit out on by the front door overnight.

Once, he had a two-sided chalkboard in his parents’ house that he drew out transforms on, and when done with one side’s worth of material, he’d flip it over and lay back down on his bed to commit the fresh side to memory. He’s also one of the few people I know who has lived through the twin feelings of relief and frustration when your parents occasionally rescue you during your graduate years– relief and appreciation because thank god you have a working car and your family loves you, frustration because you’re old enough that you ought to have your life more in order and not rely on people who love you, damn it.

We chatted about the Near Crab Cake Fiasco a little before Father’s Day (the crab cakes, alas, had too much of the element of surprise going for them, but ultimately everything was fine), and one thing that came up was how much he’d been away for work when we were kids. “Sometimes I wonder if I did enough,” my PhD-having,  multiple patent-achieving, world-traveler father said. “Or was there enough.”

I am a doctoral student, preparing for exams deep into the summer, who wakes up at the crack of dawn every couple of days to write a magnificently weird coup de maître featuring magic rocks and crystals.

“You did just fine.” I said.

As a preteen, I used to get really mad that I’d used up five of my fifteen minutes of fame talking about a gift in O’Hare. In retrospect, I doubt the fifteen minutes thing is true anymore or if it is, that it even matters that much. It’s less scrambling to prolong your fame and more what you do when you’re pulled into the spotlight.

And somewhere, in the blurry 90’s archives of a local Chicago station, a starry-eyed kid clutches a deluxe Magic Rocks set to her chest, ignores all of the interviewing reporter’s questions, and just goes on and on about how excited she is that she and her parents are going to make these tonight, now that her dad’s finally home.

* Sasha is a diminutive of my given name.
** I am not actually named after Sasha, though Sasha was a very good dog.

cello

I have had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the cello.

Let me explain.

Back when I was a little kid, I had a single, relentless endgame: I would grow up to be a rock star. Period. Everything I did was geared to further this goal. I did all the stuff you were supposed to do, like informing your teacher in kindergarten of your life choice (she said that she hoped I’d send her tickets to my show, which I took very seriously as a five-year-old), listening to a lot of songs on the radio and analyzing them, and cultivating a rebel aesthetic. I even took dance classes (first ballet, but then I quit and just did jazz because ballet did not work with the punk aesthetic) so I’d know how to tear it up on stage.

It was about when I was eight that I figured out it would be good to actually learn an instrument or something, because while ace rock star carriage and dancing were important, I surely couldn’t rocket to stardom on leather cuffs and an impressive knowledge of pop stations alone.

Also, I liked electric guitars, and at that point I still thought an electric guitar meant you were literally playing electricity. That sounded very rock star. Another thing I liked about electric guitars was that they were loud. When you played, people paid attention.

My parents thought it was great that I liked music, so one day after a classical concert they took me to something called an instrument zoo.

An instrument zoo sounds even less interactive and more dangerous than an actual zoo (“no, you can’t touch this because if you break it and it’ll cost thousands of dollars!”), but in reality it was the opposite. There were different stations you could visit, and musicians let you try out a tester instrument, show you how to get the sound.

At first blush, this perhaps seems counter-intuitive. I’d wanted to be a rock star, not an orchestra musician–had something gotten lost in translation? But no, as my parents explained, the plan was threefold: Stage 1) I’d get my footing, learn to read music and play a classical instrument, Stage 2) I’d transition over to acoustic guitar when I was ready, and from there, Stage 3) move onto electric. There would even be amps, they promised.

And so I had a great time trying out instruments. Deep in my heart, I inexplicably wanted to play the flute. I don’t know why this was, other than the flute looked hard. And it actually was hard, because as much as I tried, I couldn’t get any sound to come out. I blew on that thing for at least five minutes until the instrument zoo flute-keeper looked at the giant flute line behind me, patted my shoulder, and recommended the oboe instead.

As it turned out, I was able to coax sound out of the oboe, but no, if I couldn’t have the flute I wanted nothing to do with the entire woodwind family. Initially I was curious about the violin (because my other giant childhood life plan was to become the world’s greatest consulting detective and as we all know, all the great ones played violin) but my parents were already talking about getting my little brother violin lessons, and thus an intense sibling rivalry killed that option.

But there was another member of the string family and strings, thank god, were fairly easy to make music with. So, I selected the cello as my Stage 1 Rock Star Career Instrument. My dad told me that cellos were great for holding a baseline in songs, and kept flicking through radio stations on the way home until he found one with a cello.

“Do you hear that?” He’d asked. “Right there, that’s a cello.”

I just heard the melody die off and then something low and grumbly fight through the static before the brass drowned it out.

An unexpected consequence of cello was that it taught me a lot about loss.

My parents arranged lessons for me with the same person who taught my brother violin. It was perhaps not surprising to find that cello often played second fiddle to other instruments, but having to play back-up to my six-year-old sibling during seven variations of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” really drove it home.

Eventually I worked through enough of the Suzuki books that I was starting to hit the interesting stuff, minuets and etudes, things that were no longer beginner small fry but actually sounded half-impressive. Around that time, my teacher announced that he was leaving for a music conservatory, and as I still held ever relentless to my dreams of being a rock star, my parents found a new teacher.

(My brother, of course, quit violin and I think at this point took up drumming for about a year.)

Ms. Sheila was the first adult who’d asked that I call her by her given name. I was ten and this was unthinkable. I certainly did not call my teachers Patrica or Susan at school, and I did not see why instruction in cello should be different. Ms. Sheila insisted, though, so I found a compromise: her first name was Sheila and that was what she wanted to hear, I needed a honorary prefix, and the rest is history.

Fun fact: I still have trouble with this, even as an adult: it is actually one of my 2016 resolutions to get comfortable calling my PhD advisor Paul. (He has been my advisor for over a year now.)

Under Ms. Sheila’s tutelage, I worked through the higher Suzuki books and perfected my form. In cello, your bow is supposed draw down on the strings in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge. You’re supposed to imagine a little house (or a woman with a baby stroller) on the corner of the fingerboard and pedestrian traffic on the bridge. You are driving the bow, which is a car in this metaphor, and you must not run over the bridge pedestrians or the little house. (Usually people bow too close to the fingerboard; I did it too close to the bridge, and Ms. Sheila always wondered why I kept endangering more imaginary cello-people that way. I said it was because I placed more value on the individual than the group, but really my form was just bad and I was eleven and felt like being contrary.)

Two or three years after I started as her student, our lessons were cancelled more and more frequently as Ms. Sheila went through cancer treatment. Then there was one last ride up the steep Haverhill hills to her house, where all my lessons had been, this time without my cello, where my mother and I said goodbye and she gave us a list of recommendations for a new teacher.

I was not a stranger to death at that point– my father’s parents had died when I was about four, and I’d gone with him through their house and their things. My first dog died when I was eight. But Ms. Sheila was the first person where there had been a certain formality and dignity to the loss.

It was a different changeover than losing my first teacher had been– perhaps he thought he would hear about me again later as an accomplished cellist, perhaps he just figured me for another kid whose parents were already looking to beef up her college applications.

This hurt.

Of all my cello teachers, Elena is my favorite.

I started taking cello lessons with her in a room of an old church whose graveyard had this fantastic stone arch that looked like it could be a pathway to the underworld. In the fall, I would just stare at it: the bright New England leaves crimson and gold against slashes of granite and damp moss.

Elena certainly did not start as my favorite, though. I was twelve or thirteen when we began lessons and had more or less begun to realize that this cello thing was a sham. I flipped out at my parents when I saw them letting my little brother play their acoustic guitars: that was mine, that was my goal, that was what you promised me, he quit, and look at how hard I’ve been practicing!

Stay a little longer on cello, they said. You’re so good at it. We’ll think about guitar next year.

A lot of people say that high school is the worst time of your life. I disagree. I had a comparatively easy high school experience compared to middle school. The details aren’t relevant, but the point is my sixth through eighth grade were a living hell. I entered high school with a chip on my shoulder, impressive drawing skills from lunches and recesses spent alone in the library, and an unshakeable distrust of people who did yoga.

All this time I was also trying to learn cello. Elena met me at one of the two angriest times in my life, and I think our first lesson together I barely even spoke to or looked at her as I played. In retrospect, I don’t think I was handling Ms. Sheila’s death particularly well, and school had made me doubt the intentions of anyone who was as friendly as Elena was. To top it off, I dreaded cello lessons because it reminded me of my rock star failure.

Still, it is a fact universally acknowledged that it’s hard to learn music if you don’t talk to your teacher.

As I kept coming back to that church with its rad arch, I talked more. My mother would also sit in on my lessons, and she and Elena became fast friends. I think I started calling Elena by her first name because I was feeling ~*rebellious*~ enough to drop the prefix, and it stuck.

And things got better. I was stoked when I learned my first gavotte, not only because I had always wanted to play a gavotte, but also because Elena was the first teacher who took me off the Suzuki books. I began playing real music. I was placed later and later at recitals, until I was the last student playing.

If you are unfamiliar with recitals, it is often the established thing that you have your younger or newer students playing first (often little kids are pretty ansty and not great at waiting, so if you get their performance out of the way, they can either chill or their parents can jet with them if they melt down mid-someone else’s sonata) and then progress to the older, more experienced musicians. To play last, to be the one who ends the night, is an honor.

Because cello necessitated pants, on recital nights I always had to wear this red cummerbund that my grandmother had made me to dress up my slacks. My parents brought me roses and flowers, told me that they were proud of me, and on those nights, when I bowed at the end of my concertos, I finally felt like I was doing something right. Like here I could just excel and all the people in the audience knew it. Things were melting down elsewhere, but for fifteen minutes in a slowly emptying room I had total mastery, cummerbund and all.

And it may not have been rock and roll, but it was close.

In high school, my parents tried to sell me on the idea of electric cello. They’d seen an experimental performance at the pops, and they’d fallen in love. “Look,” they’d said, “you could do this!”

I did not buy it. This was before I was fortunate enough to hear Geographer, a kickass band that does indeed feature an electric cello. My idea of a rock star lifestyle was picks, microphones, and electric chords. Treble clef. Sure, yeah, you could hook a cello up to an amp. So what? I wanted to rock out standing up. That was not something a cello could promise.

So I just forgot about it. My mother and Elena were great friends, I kept on taking cello lessons and opening up more. Another good thing about cello is that you get less afraid of making friends in a new high school after you’ve played Vivaldi to a room full of people older than you. I was surprised when Elena told me at the end of a lesson that she was so happy with today because it had been the most I’d ever talked to her in one sitting.

Eventually, I figured, hey, whatever, I’m a teenager, and all the rock stars have already gotten their guitars. The cool kids had already been chosen, alae iacta est, and maybe there were just some people who would never be ready for Stage 2: Acoustic Guitar.

This is something I have learned about art: it is a one-or-zero endeavor. You either devote yourself to it, or you don’t, but once you make the choice you don’t get to complain anymore. This is a tough lesson to learn. For a while, I’d kind of wanted to be the victim, the girl whose parents hadn’t let her play the guitar, whose stadium dreams had been squashed by bass clef.

But the thing about wanting something is that when you want it badly enough, people telling you no are never absolute. It’s just not yet, wait a bit, try again later, another way, or convince me. If I had really wanted to learn electric guitar, then why hadn’t I asked my parents to practice on their acoustics like my brother had? Why didn’t I write it on a piece of paper or in the ridiculous amounts of diaries I wrote at the time?

Before I went off to college and my family moved from the northeast back midwest, I had my last lesson with Elena. We’d been working on Saint-Saens’ The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals, which remains one of my favorite pieces. It is gloriously sad, magical, and breathless. It’s also a pretty good approximation for how quitting an instrument feels: the triumph of skill to hit the harmonics, and the knowledge that this is your swan song, that it’s over.

In college, I met a lot of people with acoustic and electric guitars and amps. They had started garage bands for a time, found drummers and vocalists, made a flash-in-the-pan go of it. I said I’d played cello but did not bring up the rest of the dream.

Because by then it had become a question I did not like finding the answer to, but there it was: had I not wanted it enough?

Last night, I went to a chamber music open mic night at a Chinese tea house.

I had not thought I would be kind of person who would go to chamber music nights, let alone ones at my local tea house, but a friend in my department had invited me. A cello player pizzicato’d and hit the high harmonics and the group I was with thought he was the coolest. I hadn’t played cello in eight years, but I still smiled when his bow hit the sheet music on someone else’s music stand because man, have I been there.

It’s easier now for me to hear the cello in these pieces, both at tea houses and on the radio. It’s the baseline, the steady undertone that carries you through. It may not get the harmony, but maybe you don’t always want that. The cello can be the saddest or most resilient instrument of all the strings, depending on how you play it. You just have a deeper voice than the others.

During my time away from cello, I have become the kind of person who trawls through indie sites for new songs, who wears headphones at least a few hours a day, and who has to have music playing to write or drive long distances. On one of my trips home, I asked my parents if they were disappointed that I’d stopped playing. They said no.

“You just didn’t have time,” my dad said, which was and wasn’t true. My mom said: “Honey, we never expected you to play cello forever.”

Had I gone through those ten years for nothing?

“What we wanted,” she said, “was for you to always have music in your life.”

It is August 2015 and I am visiting my best friend in Miami. I have not met her husband before, but she’s still at work and so I’m chilling with him at their house for the hour before she comes back. It is a sink or swim situation and things have become truly dire, so I do the thing that anyone does when they seek to ingratiate themselves with their best friend’s new spouse: tell them about your wacky childhood dreams.

“And you never learned to play guitar?” He says, like this is the worst ending ever.

“Well, no. I’m very good at air guitar, though,” I say, wondering how to explain middle school and siblings and also death in a two-minutes-or-less, new-acquaintance-friendly kind of way. “There was just a lot of cello, and Stage 2–”

“We have two guitars right here. Hold on.” He leaps up from the couch and their two dogs trail after him. “We’ll start right now.”

He shows me how to do a basic chord progression and I mess up a lot, because my fingers want to curl around the instrument’s neck differently, like a cello’s, even though it’s been almost seven years since I last practiced. It’s embarrassing and the guitar feels too huge, but it’s not bad. My best friend has said her husband should be a high school guidance counselor because he makes people feel at ease about doing stuff like this, and I can see it.

“Do you have a teacher?” I ask him.

“What, for guitar? Nah. You just look chords up on the internet and teach yourself.” He swaps his guitar for a tiny ukulele and we jam until my friend gets home. “They sell acoustics on Craigslist and other places for cheap. You can practice between studying and stuff. If you feel like getting one.”

“You know,” I say, “I should.”

christmas photos

Your family has just always had this tradition.

It has become a December ritual, like hanging garlands around staircase railings, your dad perennially wrestling globe lights around your house’s tiny boxwoods, and your mother trying to convince him that no, dear we really don’t need a eight-foot tree this year when a four foot one will do, but somehow ending up with a huge one anyway.

You and your family’s likenesses, from ages eight to eighteen, have been captured for time immemorial by the photo attendants at Sears and dear god, you gave them hell for it. Someone was always shutting their eyes, and your little brother never smiled enough past age seven.

(You always thought this was terribly unfair, since he never had to have braces and you did– for four years, too– and yet somehow you manage to whip up a metallic grin as he stares tight-lipped at a lens.)

The whole process of family photos was also mutually exhausting to your parents, but they did it anyway. Your dad kept them in his wallet and your mom sent them out with the Christmas cards. Your mom was a bit disappointed by your wardrobe during your teenage years, because “you looked so good in tights and your velvet dresses!” but you managed to outgrow both tights and velvet dresses in the same cataclysmic moment and have not worn them since.

As a bribe to please smile, damn it, your parents would take you and your brother out for dinner at a restaurant called Bugaboo Creek, conveniently located near the Sears where you’d make the ritual walk between bright red Craftsmans and patio furniture, then up the escalator to where the photographers hid out before it became the clothing section.

The moose was your favorite animal at the restaurant, mostly because it was a moose and you’d had a moose stuffed animal as a little kid and therefore felt a special kinship with it, and also because the moose was the most awesome talking animal head there.

Somehow your family has decided that this year it is you who must take the annual Christmas photo.

You’re not sure why. Your mom says it’s because you’re the best at taking pictures and you have the best phone. Also it was your idea to do Christmas plants as the theme.

Your dad–who, after years of camcording you and your brother (the first time you realized how strange your voice sounded out of your head) has more experience than you and took family photos the last three Christmases– is benignly silent. Your little brother has the newest phone in the house and spends more time on instagram than you but just smiles and shrugs.

So here you are, squinting at your cell phone camera. You are taking pictures separately this year, because your mom is holly, you’re amaryllis, your dad is poinsettia, and your brother is mistletoe and damned if you can fit all those plants into a single frame.

The lighting is too bright and your dad insists on having holly bowers in his poinsettia picture, despite the fact that your mom is holly and the dogs are trying to eat the berries.

You take pictures and tell your parents to smile.

A few days after you drive back to your apartment in another state, you and your mom have a phone call.

“You’re lucky, you know that?” She says. “You haven’t really experienced loss in your life.”

You remind her that your first dog died when you were eight. You’d stopped believing in god after that, but you don’t tell her this part. You also don’t say that sometimes losing someone close to you when they’re still alive hurts like a motherfucker, because you’re sure she knows this too and you don’t need advice, don’t want it.

You tell her instead that you remember your dad’s parents before they died.

“I wasn’t sure you did.” Her voice turns contemplative. “You were still young.”

And you hate it, that you were five or six, because you were still young and the clearest memory of them you have is in their attic after their death, going through things with your dad, just you and your dad because your kid brother was still an infant home with your mom.

Your dad had unearthed a metal bank shaped like a cash register and another shaped like a silver rocket. He’d said that these were toys from him, his brother, and his sister’s childhoods and would let you choose one and give the other to your brother when he got old enough for it.

You chose the cash register, because it was red and because you liked cash registers. And like a total asshole, a few months later you jammed it trying to put two nickels into its coin slot at once. It had worked with dimes and quarters, so why not, right?

As it turns out, you have never really forgiven yourself for wrecking the only thing you have from your dad’s parents.

As is customary, the family photo devolves into merry chaos.

Your mother made the hilarious decision to give your brother a kissing ball for his photo with his girlfriend of seven years, and in between takes he’s been singing “kissing ball, kiss my balls” in his loud tenor. His girlfriend smacks him but laughs, even though in half their pictures he is still not quite smiling right and has one eyebrow comically raised.

Somehow, your parents find a red fedora of your brother’s and everyone remains convinced it must feature in at least one photo. You don’t really like it, but considering you were the one who glued feathers into it so it would be a suitable hat for your Red Death costume one Halloween, you can’t really veto it.

Your dad is trying to be the poinsettia, but maybe the lighting’s wrong because the hat makes him look older than you know he is. You have him take it off, stop sitting on the floor between poinsettia plants, do something else instead.

Your mom actually wears it better, your brother tells her she looks good in his pimp hat, and you get the best picture of her in her holly garland boa, vogueing in a fuzzy, feathery red hat.

Your parents are getting older, and this year you are taking the Christmas photos. Your dad will stitch them together on his laptop into a four-way window of plants and people that will join the past four years of goofy family pictures you guys started taking since you graduated high school and your family decided it had had enough of torturing the photogs at Sears.

Those photos are still around, still in the box in the living room cataloguing your family over the years. They have gotten stranger, sure, but the ritual remains. There are even some of your family when it was just you, your mom, and your dad, before your brother was born. And there are some of your grandparents, people who appear unfailingly in a long string of pictures and then, one year, drop off.

So maybe this is the year that you bust out your mini-Craftsman, decide you’re half-good with tools by now, and figure out how to get two nickels unstuck. When you stop being so ashamed that you ruined the one nice thing you had to remember your grandparents by, and you start fixing it instead.

Because you’re old enough that you’re okay with being lucky.

You are telling your parents to ham it up for the formerly serious, always dramatic, annual Christmas photo. Your dad is a bit too hidden by his three massive poinsettias and inexplicable holly to actually be the poinsettia, your mom is trying to prevent the dogs from all dying by berry ingestion, your kid brother is crooning lewd things to this house of dorks, and you are lucky.