The anticipation had been as excruciating as the reality. My Grandfather, Ozzie, sat on his bed in New York City at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and wept. That morning, at the age of eighteen, he had been accepted and won a tuition scholarship to The Julliard School, the pre-eminent performing arts conservatory. It was like a dream come true, given his goal was to become a professional trombonist and join the New York Philharmonic or its equivalent. Ozzie had take up the trombone years before at the orphanage when a wealthy benefactor donated instruments and an auditorium to the “Home,” as it was often referred. From the moment Ozzie picked up the shiny brass horn and felt the almost tickling sensation as his lips buzzed into the mouthpiece, he felt sheer joy and utter peace. It was as if the only thing he had was his music. He would recall that his orchestra at the Home was so good that it attracted visiting professional musicians as guest conductors, including the famous John Philip Sousa. But when Ozzie was not playing, the reality of his life stung as if a bee was a lifelong guest attached.
At the age of 4 ½, Ozzie’s mother had died from the great influenza of 1918- 1919. His suffering over the loss of his mother was further exacerbated by the guilt he felt from having been the first in the family to come down with the flu. He survived, she did not. That pandemic coincided with the First World War, but actually killed more people globally than the war itself. With little money and three children, Ozzie’s father brought them to the Home, where he began to work as a tailor.
Ozzie had taken his Julliard acceptance letter to his father, but was crushed by his father’s response. His father did not view music as a sustainable profession and, regardless, he could not afford to support his son’s living expenses while at school. The administrators at the Home similarly refused to help. Ozzie remained confined to the Home and to the narrow boundaries of his father’s expectations.
Although he had already met his wife Ruth through friends at the Home, and one day she would carry their only child (my mother), Ozzie was devastated by the loss. His dream faded as his one big chance slipped away.
I knew I had no choice, on multiple levels. My decision to play the trombone, like my brother Peter before me, was, at least in part, intended to honor our grandfather. The year Ozzie learned of my new commitment, he came to Urbana with my grandmother and gave me his Holton trombone; his treasure from years long past.
In truth, while trombone seemed cool to me, the instrument that I cherished the most was the French horn. However, I never contemplated even trying to play it, given the horn’s multiple valves and my finger challenges. Not that the trombone was readily made for the likes of me either. The slide was too long for my shortened forearms so I needed an extra steel attachment. It provided me the extension I needed where my arm length failed me.
When Peter played, the tone from his instrument was melodic. When I played, as I have written previously, I sounded like a sick cow. Yet seeing my grandfather’s pride in both Peter and me encouraged me to stick with it. Looking back, my musician’s heart was always with French horn and my choice to abandon it without even trying it seems like nothing more than a failure of imagination and courage.
This past summer something occurred to me. Rather than my blog simply being a mechanism for me to educate others and perhaps in my wildest dreams inspire some, there was something more I could do with my site. To my delight, I have discovered that my being so direct and candid about my own life experience, both living with and parenting children with a genetic condition, has prompted countless others to share their stories. I decided to branch out beyond comments to my site or notes on its Facebook page. And so, the “Guest Flaunt” was born.
Recently, a talented musician named Tony Memmel wrote a special Flaunt for my site. Tony was born missing his left forearm and hand. I knew he had just performed at the Superdome the weekend before, so I was thrilled that he had taken the time to write. What I expected was an interesting post, but what I actually received was so much more. In the beginning Tony wrote, “Learning to play the guitar was a serious challenge for me and required a lot of time and patience. It ended up taking me eight years to come up with my current method of playing which is to re-create a cast out of duct tape that secures a guitar pick to the end of my arm each time I play….” I was stunned when I read this, and realized something instantly. Tony, with his “never say never” attitude figured out how to play the instrument he loved the most. His drive and determination reminded me of when I spent hours teaching myself how to tie my shoes, but that accomplishment took me the better part of a day. It did not escape me that learning to functionally play the guitar, given his difference, took Tony many years. Yet he persevered.
Inevitably, everyone’s life is filled with obstacles; some are imposed from the outside, like my grandfather not being able to attend Julliard, but some are self-imposed. When I chose the trombone, I believed there was no other physical option. I accepted the common perception that I was just limited. But I was mistaken. Could the French horn, or even another instrument been a possibility for me to play? Now I think so.
Just last year Ethan came home and announced that he was going to play the trombone. At that time I presumed that his choice was as inevitable for him as it was for me. And of course, I quickly shared the story of Julliard and my grandfather to increase his pride level. One day I will even give Ethan the antique Holton, which awaits him in my office closet at home. Or perhaps, with encouragement, he will try something new; something he assumes is out of reach. Even if it takes him years to learn, even if he fails, it is certainly worth a shot.