My Grandfather’s Trunk

Spring 2012


I was back visiting my father in Oklahoma City in October. He was about to turn 92 and a car battery fire had incinerated much of the garage. Fortunately my father, and even his cars survived, but I had the task of cleaning through some of the debris that had collected in the aftermath. Positioned in the corner of the garage was an old trunk. You know, the kind that people used to use as they traveled either by train or ship and it was easily capable of storing personal items that one might need for an extended stay in one place or another. Not knowing what I would find, I gingerly opened it in the late Indian summer light that had begun to settle over my childhood home.

My father’s parents had come from Ireland on his mother’s side and South Dakota on his father’s side to settle in the Indian Territory in the late 1800s, prior to Oklahoma statehood. In fact, my great grand father had made one of the land runs, where a few hearty souls would stake claims in this land that could be harsh in the winter and boiling in the summer. Nevertheless, there was a promise of better days in the territorial towns that would crop up throughout the west.

My father’s mother came from a hearty stock that lived in dugouts nestled in the red clay country that some thirty years later would be ravaged by over toiling of the land depicted in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. As I prepared to look inside this trunk, I reflected on Kennedy’s words in October ‘63. It was one of his final speeches and was given as a commencement address at my alma mater, Amherst College to a graduating class, a decade before my arrival. He spoke of the entitlement that small private colleges were prone to foster. He encouraged those graduating students to utilize the education they had acquired to better the lives of those less privileged. I thought about how my father had risen from humble beginnings to a master of the courtroom in the heartland and how I had done little to earn the luxury of attending a school so steeped in Yankee tradition and privilege. It caused me to reflect on what things I might have achieved in the years that had passed since my departure from college to make the world a better place for my children and those that will come afterwards.

As I opened the trunk, I dusted off ash that somehow seeped into the interior fabric of the piece and what I found were simple things. The collection of day to day activity, accumulated over the lives of my grandparents, and yet they were part of their legacy that they had wanted passed down to my father and his children’s children. Here was a photo of a boating party, with men in their straw hats and women in their Victorian dresses, much like those Impressionistic paintings from the same era by Monet and Renoir. Though the photo was aged and curled at the edges, it clearly spoke to the magic of that particular day of relaxation from the labors of the week. It was my grandfather as a young man, so different from the weathered face that I remember from trips to see him in my own youth. His visage held the innocence of youth, emboldened by aspirations of a life ahead of him, which belied the world wars that were just around the corner.

There was also book of penmanship. You see, he was a teacher and he had hoped, from what my dad said, that this book would be embraced by the public school system and it would be in every classroom across the country. Although this never was to come to pass, I was in possession of this delicate treatise with my father’s name spelled out in beautiful cursive and elegant penmanship in a multitude of styles and shadings. There was even a picture of my father sitting at a school desk, demonstrating the proper posture to achieve the desired result.

Then there were the schoolbooks that had obviously been used in his class room curriculum. They had C.R. Foliart, Ocala, Florida, inscribed, where he had traveled with his family for a few years of teaching and administrating, before returning to Oklahoma. There were books of elementary history, English, science, as well as collected works of Victor Hugo and an early collection on the History of Civilization, as it was perceived in the late 19th century. Then there were more photos. Photos of friends, colleagues and relatives, most with no designation, which left me to wonder who these people were and what place they served in my life. There was a plague honoring my grandmother on her service in the local community. There were Christmas cards, graduation notices accumulated through the years, and stylized books from 1910 with selected photos that were given to family members and friends as a gift for the new year to come.

After a few hours of meticulously cleaning and looking at these items, it gave me pause. What will I leave for generations to come? What will be my place within my time? I then realized that it would mostly be my music. That is what we, as composers and lyricists, will leave future generations. I know that what we do at times seems an act of servitude depending on the conditions of employment. But in the larger sense, our craft and the magic that we bring to our profession is steeped in the joy of creating wonderful music and song. That is one aspect that makes me adamantly opposed to replacing a colleague’s work with my own, as has sometimes been the case in our profession, to either make an older work more contemporary or as a cost saving measure when it goes from one medium to another. So as you sit down to write today, know that what we do is gift that will be passed on. Write it the best you can and think that some rendering of it may be enjoyed by generations to come, found in some half hidden trunk down the road, or airing on some yet to be conceived transmission in the distant future, somewhere in time.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXVII, Number One, Spring 2012]