Born of a Brass Band
My earliest memory was standing on my father’s feet playing my wonderful horn. He had the big trombone and called me his second chair. Trombones make a tenor sound. The sound lies to the outside world, “Here I am. I shine. I spew, I rock the world.” How could a daughter ask for less? We would stand outside the baseball stadium waiting for the game to end. Chill air ending September and leading into fall bussed with crickets, peep frogs, katydids, and toads. My lips would buzz, my mouth would buzz, my teeth would hold the mouthpiece firmly so it wouldn’t fall off my chin. Dad would look down at me hopping with both feet and smiled with his eyes.The little boy next to me and equal in size to me would be known as the brother with another mother. Dad winked at him. Brother to the stomp, the sousaphone little boy next to me had a grin the size of the Washington Monument. In the spirit of the Fire House Five, we wiggled and blew notes that were adorable and blessedly underlay the large horns playing. We were blissfully awful.
In Washington DC, children would disappear in the crowd and get lost by the vendors selling everything the eye of a child would desire. A popcorn, hot dog, sodas, or clothes. Everything was shiny and loud. We stood as a family in the afternoon sun and Theo would move around with his bright orange bucket.
“Here you go, ladies, help us get these kids to college in fifteen more years. They will need the money for Juilliard. Come on folks you love the sound. Can you imagine all this at a dollar each and more to come? Hey, man, impress your friend their with feet holding the ground and you dancing the dance of the music. Can you hear that sousaphone? He’s not playing for my benefit, We work hard practicing for our performance. We have trumpets, horns, tubas, a drummer, and we are a family band straight from DC for your enjoyment. We got all the permits and call those cops over for a bit of a dance, they look bored. Here we go again, listen to the Blues got Me from Memphis to Here.
The trumpets would slide into the song and I’d watch dad for my cue. Three years old and in love with sound, in love with my parents blues, and thinking I was all grown up, when the world was waiting for me to get my feet where I was big enough to have them touch the ground.
Two hours later, we had scored as much cash as we were going to.
Dad called out, “There’s enough here for the rent, food and electric. Get these two shortstop musicians an ice cream and we’ll meet back at the rooms. Any one got a need for cash, come see me.” Dad had an account in Ma. She took the totals from him, crunched the numbers, slid the bills between her fingers and put them in the ledger. No worries were to be had if the ledger was filled with numbers.
Dinner was never late in our house. The rooms that we filled were in the basement of an old apartment house with rules about don’t complain and it’s all broken. After mom had taken the owner down for cash, he ended up hiring her as his secretary and letting them use the whole basement for our band. The owner left for Arizona leaving a bank account number for mom and agreeing to let her manage the whole building’s needs. She was one heck of a manager. If you looked in the dictionary about professional, you would see her picture.
We practiced at the end of the day, but before bedtime. Mom would answer the phone when it rang and the owner paid for the phone. We were allowed to build anything in the basement that resembled good carpenter work, and good plumbing work. Pretty soon the whole neighborhood called Mom when there was something broken. Out the door would go “Uncle Rufus,” bathroom and bass trombone. Small jobs would go to “Uncle Joe,” first trumpet and first to diagnose a problem with dry wall. Heating was tuba player Dad, cooling was french horn player Tad (he had his own place). All of us profited by the bonds we had forged as a band.
I was growing up. My feet had reached the floor and I had been delivered to the local public school. Music was fun beating on xylophones, recorders, triangles but we had a long way to go from kindergarten and head start class after school and bringing our brass to school. School was fun, I had learned to read before I went to first grade. Mom said to never tell anyone what I could do well or it would bring too much notice of us. Trouble was something we all avoided.
No drinking to be drunk under Mom’s rule. No drugs, but what were needed for health. A couple of the Uncles moaned about that one. Life was too harsh, they needed the mellow plant or bottle. I had no idea what a mellow plant was or what a mellow bottle was, I just thought they must be pretty. She told them to get megaphone instead. Everybody to bed on work nights by midnight. No practicing without a mute after eight o’clock. Most of the rules were for the “big bones” as Dad called them.
Our basement was a maze of rooms and laundry hung in the two bathrooms we had. We had two washers and two dryers, but that was for the whole building. All in all we were developing a nice cash cow. Should have had a bad thing happen, right? But no bad things came near us. I always puzzled about where the cow lived but eventually thought it was hiding in the refrigerator near the cold milk. Yeah, I was a kid that took the literal side of life seriously.
I went to school, as I said above. I found that repeating my lessons gave me a better chance of remembering them.
“One, two, go to school,
Three, four, don’t shut that door
Five, six, trim candle wicks
Seven, eight, don’t tempt the fates
Nine, Ten, do it over again.”
Dad said, “Hey shortie, come tell me your newest rhymes. Your poems sound like music to my ears. Maybe we’ll add a melody and a bass line for you.”
“Dad, I’m not short anymore. Look my feet touch the ground, I have school shoes, I can tie those shoes and count upside down.”
“I’d like to see that,” Mom said.
That was unusual, mom never had spare time.
“Look,” I laughed putting my forehead on the ground and my feet up against the wall. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one.” Then I fell over. We all giggled.
Mom swatted me with a newspaper sheath and I was ordered to my chores. Dad and mom started to laugh really hard. I liked to hear my parents laugh. Fairies laughed in the story books, elves laughed, trolls laughed but not as kindly. I was a lucky kid, I had books in my room and a room to myself.
My brother by another mother was Tad’s boy. He spent a lot of time with us because his mother needed to paint the town red all the time. Tad said that John didn’t need to see red lights or paint. I didn’t understand but John did. Mom told him not to talk about his mother, good or bad. She said he was lucky to have a mom and dad and a lot of kids didn’t.
I taught John to paint with his fingers. We had blue, green, yellow, brown and black paint. I liked swirls and he liked circles. We learned to add by counting the money jar to see if our chores had given us enough money to buy a treat or go to the movies. When he would go home, I would feel lonely. I knew Dad would make me feel better.
“Dad, I’m lonely.”
“Is that right, shortie?”
“I read all my books.”
“Oh? And so your head has so much knowledge it leaks out of your ears? Better take a shower then and jump into bed before your mom hears. You know you will be polishing the door knobs if you don’t. Make sure your ear leaks are clean too, don’t wanna mess up the pillows.”
Dad talked nonsense. I loved it. We read all of the Doctor Seuss books and then made up our own books in a black and white notebook that sold for 99 cents at the pharmacy. Mom was gone taking John home. She had to make sure he was safe. If Tad had felt bad and couldn’t cope, John would be right back to spend the night. Her heels clicked with power and authority. She could hold her own and everyone else. She wore the blue of night and the angels in her eyes and no one seemed to see her when she was protecting someone.
Some people thought my parents were strange people, thought we didn’t understand the rules about who we could mingle with. Our extended family was all sorts of people, had all sorts of causes, and we all got along because we listened. I didn’t know that there was even such a thing as race. None of us was the same color and we didn’t care. The brass instruments were different colors based on age and polish, and that seemed right. Life was comfy, warm and happy.