Sometimes a smell or a sound can transport you to another time and place. This morning, listening to Bryn Terfel’s wonderful version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” I was instantly back by my grandmother’s piano in Hackensack, New Jersey at Christmas, with my grandfather’s warm tenor underpinning the wide (wildly) ranging voices of his family. Each year we would open presents in the cozy sunroom, with its black and white checkerboard tile and Christmas tree adorned with ornaments from my mother and uncle’s childhood. We ate a turkey dinner in the dining room full of beautiful furniture and an old cuckoo clock. And toward the end of the day’s festivities, we sang carols. I am sure the presents rated high when I was little, but it is the joyful carol singing that remains the lasting memory for me.
My grandmother played—and practiced—the piano regularly, always with my grandfather as a devoted audience. As a young woman, she left her family in Canada and went to Philadelphia. She met my grandfather while she was playing the piano and he was pursuing a singing career. Always disciplined, he had given himself a set period of time in which to “make it.” When he did not make his deadline he became a stockbroker. I think he was probably one of the best because he was a true people-person. He was genuinely interested in his clients and viewed them as charges to care for, rather than a source of income.
Still, I wonder what would have happened if he’d tried longer to realize his dream. One of our favorite keepsakes, brought out from time to time, is a program from a play that listed as cast members my grandfather and Archie Leach—soon to be known as Cary Grant. The wider world missed out on his lovely voice, but his family did not. My mother would drive my grandparents to their summer house, and my grandfather would sing softly to my sister and me in the back seat favorite songs like “Oh Susannah.” Bryn Terfel’s voice reminds me of my grandfather’s, and makes me happy and sad at the same time.