Two Sketches from Family Memoir

December 28, 2017

My mother’s relatives on Long Island still had a pianola or player piano in their house, and all the relatives and I were standing in front of it, in the living room, not far from the front door. A tube of paper and a metal cylinder sprouted tines that looked like small animal teeth. One of my mother’s cousins (don’t remember which one, it was a large family) started the player and it was pure magic, that rickety metallic sound and the older relatives immediately singing along! “A Bicycle Built for Two” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Despite the compromised tone of the player piano you heard the melody, the most needed element for a sing-along. Having come from the World’s Fair and with all the frenzied progress assaulting one’s senses, and all the high-rise projects going up all over the city, and spaceships, and everything made from plastic injection molds, hearing this player piano and the crooning of older simpler tunes was a pleasant and balmy nostalgia, a parasol stroll down the tree-flowered lane into the Past, like Rod Serling’s great and most personal teleplay and story, “Walking Distance.” For better or worse you sensed that, two-thirds of the way through the crazy 20th Century, a huge gulf yawned between the 1960s and the century’s early years when my grandma and her siblings were kids like me. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” compared with the current number 1 chart topper, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction).” The player piano was pretty much the last vestige of familial solidarity. In the early days it had been the hearth fire with reading and conversation, and maybe later a piano. Then during the gaslight period, a piano in the parlor or drawing room, which in many cases was replaced by a Victrola and then a radio as the family gathered for news broadcasts or their favorite serialized shows. And finally there was television—one television with black and white images and then later color—which provided some of the largest collective experiences of our nation . . . no more.


During his time in the merchant marine my grandfather had made it a point to ride a roller coaster in every port he visited, if there was one to ride: the higher, wilder, and crazier the roller coaster the better. According to family lore, he would ride the coaster once, get off and drink a beer, and then ride again, get off and drink another beer and then ride again, and so on. If he really liked the roller coaster, he would ride it an absurd number of times. Supposedly his favorite one was in Boston, which one night he’d ridden a total of 17 times! And that would have also meant 16 or 17 beers! Most likely he’d stopped after 10 or 12 beers, bearing in mind that he was the ship’s captain . . . were the roller coasters as good in other countries? As safe? I don’t think it would have mattered to him.


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