Bridging history with a Monday off
This week, I think of a little boy who practiced the piano in the dark. He crosses my mind from time to time anyway, but every February I focus.
This was not me, by the way. I am strongly attracted to pianos, always have been, but if you managed to come across me playing one (meaning that I didn’t see you first), you’d never mistake me for someone who once, you know, actually practiced.
I play around on the piano the way I sing in the shower. Some things are better done in private.
So I have tremendous respect for this aspect of the lives of musicians. Even with remarkable natural talent, the hours and hours of discipline it takes to produce beautiful music inspires me. My lawn could use some of that discipline, and so on.
But this was a little boy. He willingly rose before dawn to practice, and in an era and rural location where I imagine his only light was the kind we rely on during a severe windstorm. It must have been dark, and cold in the winter, and still he got up and practiced.
In his later years, he would look back on his childhood and refer to himself as a sort of “sissy,” but I suspect this was just self-deprecating humor and not a true assessment.
He was a small child, horribly near-sighted and not particularly interested in sports, but his classmates remembered him as well-liked and well-rounded.
He dreamed of being a concert pianist, though, and this is what fascinates me now. What happens to us, and to our dreams? Do they wither? Do they fester and turn malignant, making us bitter? Or do we fold them up and store them safely away, remnants of another life that didn’t quite happen?
How we handle what might have been tells an interesting story, I think.
Particularly in this boy’s case. He continued to play the piano, but he also faced the facts of life. He grew up, saw economic hardship many times, bounced from farm life to the big city and back again. He volunteered to serve his country in wartime, and he spent decades courting the woman who finally agreed to be his wife.
He was stubborn and temperamental and aggressively honest, turning that trait into a national battle against corruption. He achieved some recognition for this around retirement age, a nice way to wrap up a fairly unremarkable public life, and then against his better judgment he agreed to serve one final role, a shadow to a dying man.
And when Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945, Harry Truman became my favorite president.
I like them all, though, to varying degrees. From the time my parents gave me a couple of young-reader books on U.S. presidents, I’ve been a presidential nerd.
Nothing seduces me like a good biography, and if it’s about Millard Fillmore, sure, why not? He was born in a log cabin, he founded the University of Buffalo, he was an accidental president like Truman, he was the last Whig president…there’s material there. Some of it disagreeable, but then. These are human beings, the stuff of history.
There have been 44 presidents since 1789, making our highest elected office a working bridge to our short past.
It’s not hard to live through the administrations of a third or more of our presidents; I’ve been around for an even quarter of them so far, and as we all know I’m pretty young.
As is our country. This is my attraction, I think, and why every year when we have a holiday in February my mind turns to the history of these men who span our legacy. Mr. Truman was born during the Chester Arthur administration and died when I was a teenager, bridging radically different Americas in one lifetime.
Then there’s Oliver Wendell Holmes, who met John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy in his long life, imagine that.
But the winner has to be John Tyler, our 10th president, the first vice president to take office upon the death of his predecessor. Tyler was born at the beginning of George Washington’s first term and lived through the early years of Lincoln’s. He was the only president not officially mourned in our capitol (he’d sided with the Confederacy), and he was largely responsible for the annexation of Texas, but he has a richer legacy.
He fathered 15 children with two wives, more than any other president, including one at the age of 70. His son Lyon also had two marriages and children late in life.
Late enough that John Tyler, born in 1790, who became president in 1841, has two grandsons who are still alive here in 2012.
So take it from a presidential nerd. As nasty as this election season will probably be, there’s hope for us. In a way we’re still learning, and we are still so very young.