In the words of my father, this is not an entry I planned on making. My grandfather passed away this weekend. He had a wonderful life, and his passing was relatively fast, but I was still unprepared for the wave of grief that hit me. My mind has been so full of memories for the past few days…
I remember sitting at his feet as a little girl, watching as he blew perfect smoke rings from his fragrant pipe. He stopped smoking many years ago, at the behest of his daughter who was concerned for his health. But about two years ago, I think he recognized that one day, and maybe soon, he would die. His mobility was limited due to a stroke and general weakening of his body. His diet was restricted due to his diabetes (brought on, some say, by his intense love of ice cream…). He could do few of the things that used to bring him joy, like traveling the world and tending his beautiful garden. So he picked up that old pipe again, determined to have something that he could enjoy to the end. I visited last fall; seeing him pack the pipe, smelling the tobacco, and watching the smoke rings – less perfect now, but still there – brought me such joy. I’m sure he felt it, too.
It was from Granddad that I “got my voice.” I visited Ellis Island while on a high school trip to New York City, and found a station where you could research your family name. The elderly volunteer - obviously bored and tired of dealing with these southern high schoolers – entered my family name and talked me through the results in his light Scottish brogue: “Your family most like came from this part of England… the name was most likely given around the 1500s… your family was called ‘Bird’ either because of birdlike features or because of their beautiful singing voices.” Then, as an afterthought: “Do you sing?”
My boyfriend said, “Does she ever!” And the change that came over this man was incredible; all of a sudden he was interested! “Do ya’ really?!” He was so happy to finally see some connection from the past to the present. I thought about the line of Birds, and I knew Granddad was a strong singer, as is my father. It made perfect sense to me that this should be why we have our name. This story is part of the reason that I kept my family name for performing; what a perfect name for a soprano!
The few times I visited Granddad’s church, I remember looking forward to singing the hymns. We were the only family in that little Nebraska church that sang in four-part harmony! We would always sing the melody on the first verse, then pick our parts for the remaining verses. I can still feel that rush of energy down my back when the first few chords were manifested in our voices! It was usually Granddad’s bass, my dad and brother on the tenor line, me with my cousin and maybe aunt singing alto, and mom and Sally strongly carrying the melody. We never talked about it, but there was usually a look exchanged that said, “That was fun!”
Granddad loved music, especially classical, and I think he was happy to know that I was making it my career. He was able to see me perform several times and was always happy to get a cd of my latest recordings. I asked my mom the other night if he had heard about my Met news, and she assured me that he had. If I do get to sing there next year, I will be thinking of Granddad, imagining him up in the Family Circle, watching over me.