Twilight tunes

ONE of my grandmothers was a storybook grandmother in the finest tradition. My other grand-mother was something else again. She played the cornet. Born near the end of the Civil War, she had studied trumpet and cornet at the New England Conservatory. I have often wondered how that came about in an era when women musicians were limited by custom and tradition to mastering such ladylike instruments as the piano, harp, violin, or viola. Brass was not for ladies, but this lady could perform ``Carnival of Venice'' with stunning virtuosity.

She lived in the brick farmhouse built by her father just outside of twin industrial cities in central Maine. An older sister owned the house when Grandmother came there to live as a single parent. The great-aunt maintained the farm as a haven for those members of the family who still called it ``home'' for regular summer visits.

Grandmother was the breadwinner, working in a photographer's studio that was owned by twin brothers named Stanley. After they invented a successful steam-driven automobile, they sold the photographic studio.

Grandmother subsequently bought the business from the new owners and became known, far and wide, as an award-winning portrait photographer.

She was an accomplished equestrienne and a crack pistol shot, but Grandmother never learned to drive. The ``electric'' passed the farm and was her customary means of traveling to and from work. She worked hard and had little patience with those who didn't. The times that I was privileged to spend the day at the studio with her, I was given small but useful jobs to do. Grandmother talked to me just the way she talked to her adult employees, so I was always eager to do my best to earn her matter-of-fact compliments.

Grandmother was at her best when she shared her recreation with me. When I was deemed old enough, she rented a pony for the summer and taught me how to care for it, how to ride, and to drive a carriage.

My mother never liked circuses, but Grandmother did, and going to the circus with Grandmother was an all-day affair. It began before daybreak on opening day with a hurried breakfast and a trip to the railroad yards to watch the unloading. After a breakfast interlude, we would go to the fairgrounds to watch the big top go up and wander around the back lot talking to the circus people. Next came a box lunch at Grandmother's second-floor studio on Main Street, a perfect place from which to watch the circus parade, to see and be seen by the performers, who always waved back to us.

We both could rejoice that this was a mere conditioning for savoring the abundant joys of the main event, the circus performance itself. Nothing would be stinted of the smorgasbord of pop-corn, peanuts, and crackerjack, balloons and other delights that were essential accents to seeing the sideshow, feeding the elephants, and reaching the heights of the thrilling enjoyment of three rings of laughter and wondrous spectacles, followed by the obligatory ``wild west show.''

We would often have two circuses to see during the summer, and so, before I was 10, I had a sophisticated perception of the qualitative differences among such fine three-ring shows as Hagen-back-Wallace, Sparks, and Sells-Floto.

Grandmother liked similar events, so we never missed a traveling Chautauqua with its lectures, magicians, musicians, and marionettes, or the State Fair, where we could watch harness races and pulling contests between oxen or draft horses hauling sledges loaded with great slabs of granite.

It was very exciting to be with Grandmother, even at events where I could be expected to be bored. Perhaps it was because of her wonderful ability to share her adulthood with a small boy as a companion and equal. A good example was her activity as a member of the Business and Professional Women's Club; she was a co-founder of the Maine chapter. Those ladies were great picnickers and Grandmother took me to a lot of the BPW alfresco gatherings. I wouldn't have missed one for all the world.

Because of all of the things that Grandmother stood for, and because finally I had daughters of my own who reflected her self-reliance and independence, I have very special feelings about the fact that women are entitled to every right enjoyed by men. Grandmother certainly proved this to a boy without a grandfather, long ago.

Not that she neglected the hearth-side. On those long summer evenings when the twilight lingered, reluctant to surrender to the recycling of another day, we had our concerts in the front parlor of the old brick farmhouse. If you were visiting or living there and could play an instrument, you had to take part. An aunt would play the piano, a great-uncle (president of the Massachusetts Bar) would play the flute, another aunt (a concert violinist) would play the viola, and Grandmother would play the cornet.

Somewhere, Grandmother dug up a conductor's baton and put it in my hand to conduct - vigorously. I was never excluded. I would wave the baton through every selection just like the band leader at the circus until it was time for Grandmother to play ``Carnival of Venice.'' Then I put down my baton, and like everyone else in that Victorian parlor, I just sat in the fading twilight and listened.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.