Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the Wings of Song

I remember him vaguely from when I was a girl of about seven.  Uncle Jack was delighted to see us kids, and would kiss my cheek with his thin, wet lips, and bump my jaw with the point of his chin and my cheekbone with his prominent Portuguese nose. I dutifully received his unpleasant kisses. He was short and gray-haired, and he played the tiple.  I thought he was ancient, and I guess he was.  You see, he wasn't just my Uncle Jack, he was actually my grandmother's Uncle Jack. That makes him my great-great-uncle, a whole generation ahead of my grandmother, and when you're seven, that's old.

Uncle Jack was married to Aunt Pinky.  I don't remember her at all, but I wish I did because everyone should have someone named Pinky in their lives. She and Uncle Jack divorced, although they remained good friends. They had a daughter named Avis, Auntie Avis to me. She was a spinster, but that never stopped Auntie Avis from being larger than life all by herself.  She had a glorious career for a woman of her day and was devoted to taking care of her mom after her parents divorced late in life. She treated her cousin's grand kids as her own, and we were the richer for it. She taught us the waltz in Grandma's living room and how to dive in the four foot deep pool at Tammy's house. And although she sang, she never played.

Uncle Jack was never without his tiple in his hands. His second wife, Betty, played, too. They were professionals, paid for playing the concert ukulele and the tiple all across the state after he retired. What sheer joy they got from playing, singing, and doing a jig to songs like Tiptoe Through the Tulips and Tiny Bubbles.  His living room audience of family at Grandma's house listened for hours, as delighted as he.

That's how Dad got started.  Dad bought a tiple of his own shortly after he was married, graduating from the uke he played in high school. We had kazoos when we were kids so we could play along. And Dad taught us all of Uncle Jack's World War II songs he sang in his own living room growing up:  My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, A Tisket A Tasket, Three Blind Mice, and I've Been Working On the Railroad. He taught us the newer stuff from his childhood, too: The Mickey Mouse Club Song, and It's Howdy Doody Time.

When Dad came to visit last summer, he learned that his own grandson had inherited a love of the strings. Adrian's loves was guitar strings, but he became smitten with Dad's tales of his high school ukulele.  Just a few weeks ago, Dad came to visit again, and this time he brought his tiple with him.  It was love at first sight for Adrian.  They played duets on the guitar and tiple, and harmonized to Rainbows and You Are My Sunshine. They shopped for a ukulele, and almost bought one, but Dad held off.  He secretly called his sister, Auntie Lynne, who ended up with all of Auntie Avis's things when she died a few years ago. Among those things were Uncle Jack's and Betty's instruments.

As soon as his plane returned him to Boston, Dad made a trip down to Auntie Lynne, and returned home with two tiples and a ukulele, earmarked for Adrian by his Grandpa and great-Auntie Lynne. And a week after we sent Dad home, we opened a box with the past suspended in pink styrofoam and faded memories.

The tiple looked as ancient as I remember Uncle Jack being, so we did some research. It's a Martin, and was hand-crafted in Nazareth Pennsylvania is 1924.  The uke is a Stratford and probably from the 1960s. We haven't had them appraised yet, but they are already worth their strings in four generations of joy and song. 

And it doesn't look good for Adrian, the fifth generation.  He hasn't a chance against such love of music, his talent, or this long a legacy. Only more time and distance will tell when and where these heirlooms will finish making their musical mark on our family.

But I do know it began with Uncle Jack, who was born in Portugal 113 years ago in 1898, who sailed to a new continent on a steamer as a toddler, and who soared posthumously through more than a century of time on the wings of song into the heart of his great-great-great-nephew.

One of the first songs Adrian decided to tackle on his new, old ukulele?  A song from his own childhood — Disney again — from The Jungle Book, I Wanna Be Like You.

And you are, Adrian.  You are.

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