Lay, Mad Patriarch, Lay Down; Finally Take Your Rest

Do you see those two boys up there?

I’m so proud of those two boys, and the men they have become. They are smart; they are thoughtful, and kind. They are the sort of men who tell the women they love, “you go for it; you do what you feel called to do. You will be great; don’t let anything stop you.”

And to top it off, they’re musicians!

The older one — destined, in our minds, for MIT and a career as a bio-medical engineer — picked up a guitar at 15 and became a virtuoso over a single summer, leaving robotics in his wake. Eventually, he attended a prestigious conservatory, studying classical composition in a doomed quest to write scores for video games. He fell in love, settled down in a job that has nothing to do with music (but still satisfies, because it involves endless challenges) and he educates himself — in calculus, economics, philosophy and accounting — like the hungry little autodidact he is.

And he has music as his release and gift and joy, for the rest of his life.

The younger one never wanted to be anything but a “a father” and a musician; at age 6 was banging out “Luck, Be a Lady Tonight” on the piano while his teacher was trying to get him to practice a concertina. He studied opera at a very good music school — even as an undergrad he was earning money on weekends, singing as a classicist — but he graduated declaring that what he’d always really wanted to be was a bluesman and songwriter.

Give him a couple of days with a new instrument, and he can play it — he won’t be a virtuoso, but he’ll be more than serviceable — so, last Christmas, we gave him a beautiful “pre-owned” accordion, which he cannot play. We gave it to him because we know that when he needs an accordion, he will pick it up and quickly figure it out.

I am really proud of my sons, because they are really good people; that’s the main thing — the primary thing. And much of that is due to the fact that they have been lucky enough to have a great dad to learn from.

But it makes me happier than I can say that they are musicians, and that for the rest of their lives, music will be a part of what has formed them, and a companion and consolation — a ready Louisville Slugger to use against all the wounding curveballs life can throw. The heart of a musician, like the heart of a fine artist, or a dancer, can afford to be deeper and wider than most, because it has access to the ready defibrillator that is the divine spark. Art co-creates with the Creator.

My kids have big, large, open hearts.

And tonight, I ask you to rejoice with me a little bit, because that younger kid — the one I used to call “Buster”, because he really was one — will be performing at his first paid gig as a blues/pop singer and songwriter. It’s a small gig in a small pub, and his band is small, too. I expect they will — like the Blues Bothers — drink up their earnings, in beer. But tonight my son is getting to be what he always wanted to be — a working musician, trying to make a go of it in a hard world that likes to smack us down.

Rejoice with me! A long time ago, living under the tyranny of a mad patriarch, I had to surrender my own solace, and turn down a scholarship to study music, because the patriarch — a brilliant man who also could play any instrument — would not permit it. He was scary powerful in our tribe, and having no champion, and no sense of myself, I surrendered.

The Mad Patriarch had been forbidden the chance to study music by his own father, and it was a constant grief and source of embarrassment to him. He did not know how to make it anything else, for his children.

Once, at an Army base, he was tinkling away and another fellow sat beside him and started singing. For a little while there was one of those perfect meetings of mind and heart that occur between musicians caught in a moment. Taking a break, my mad patriarch said to the singer, “you sound a lot like Tony Martin.” The singer said, “I am Tony Martin; and you’re a great accompanist.”

But he’d never studied; he was uneducated in music, and so the “great accompanist” — who never really wanted to be anything but a musician — excused himself in embarrassment. In his head, in his poor tortured mind, he could never be a “real” musician; in a world demanding credentials, he lacked the one he wanted most. He couldn’t play for a professional — not even a second-tier one, like Martin — because he had never studied. Like a velveteen rabbit, he could never, he thought, be real. And so he ran away.

He spent the rest of his life running. Another brilliant autodidact who could teach himself anything — he could draw mechanical diagrams and design buildings; he could recite Robert’s Rules of Order word-for-word, and run union meetings like a member of Parliament — he was always running, because there was no peace. And what he couldn’t have, no one else could have, either. No music, no peace; no education, no peace; no sense of boundaries, no peace. No safety, no peace.

I’ve never tried to live vicariously through my children. My own losses and deficiencies are my own, and I cannot make up for them or live them out through anyone else. That’s true of all of us, and so it goes. I know who I am, now, and I know that God is Good; the rest of it can fall aside, or tumble into a breeze and disperse, for all I care. My heart cannot be as deep or wide as it might have been. So it goes.

Tonight, though, as I get ready to watch my confident and engaging son put it out there, and make himself vulnerable to the ayes or naes of perfect strangers, I cannot help thinking of the Mad Patriarch, and the drum-tight enclosure of his own diminished heart, which kept him running, and afraid, and determinedly alone, and I will offer up two prayers: one for the hopeful young musician, willing to be brave and open and see where a thing will or will not go, and another for the haunted old musician who could never rest easy with the word, and therefore could never rest easy with anything, or anyone, and who left so much destruction in his tortured wake.

Lay down, Mad Patriarch. It took several other lifetimes, but a bit of your DNA is sparking, tonight — striking all the way back, and owning itself with an arc toward Eternity.

Lay down, and finally take your rest.

How did it go?
In a word, incredible. Wow, what a night!

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  • Calvin’s Ghost

    Touching. Thank you.

  • Michael_Rittenhouse

    This betrays a marvelous relationship.

  • kmk1916

    Thank you.

  • joannemcportland

    This is so wonderful. Thank you for not allowing the music in your soul to be stifled, and for being your sons’ perfect accompanist. The living and the dead jam tonight, because you got ‘em the gig.

  • tonyv

    Wow, that was so, so nice. I think a lot us have walked the same path as the Mad Patriarch…not in music perhaps but in another endeavor that could have provided a song to a dispirited soul. Regardless, it need not end there, for the song can be sung by another! All the best to your son.
    Regards from Canada.

  • Maggie Goff

    So beautiful. Thank you. (tears)

  • Manny

    Your children sound great. God bless them.

  • CSmith

    A heart full moment, watching your child achieve a dream

  • pianogirl88

    I wish I could have heard last night’s performance….I’m sure it would have brought back some truly wonderful memories for me!

  • leelu

    Thank you. I needed that.

  • vsm

    What an incredibly moving piece, Elizabeth. Yes, we know that God is good. We also know that He wastes nothing. He has even brought good out of the pain caused by the Mad Patriarch, which has led you to the hard-won wisdom that you so generously share with the rest of us. Thank you, and blessings on you and your family.

  • marcopolonian

    kudos for your poignant and hearfelt post…just got back from a first trip to Austin TX with my gal…lots of “pro” quality musicians [blues/country/folk/jazz etc. out there working for a bit more than tips... just sayin'

    I'm a singer, sometimes, and folks often comment on my gift [i.e., for the greater glory, etc.]. but the compliment embarrasses me because I then wonder if I chickened out by taking a road often travelled and failed to use all of God’s generous gifts. after all, it’s “not about me.”

    Your apt “music…the ready defibrillator that is the divine spark” is nifty.

    my problem is once I turn on the divine spark it’s real hard to turn it off — that’s how much I love singing but got to do other things too.

    Blessings and peace for your family and the Mad Patriarch….

  • Line

    Thank you :)

  • Maury

    Thank you for that and congratulations to a proud parent!. The story makes me sad because I share that deal in some ways. I will leave it at that. I have 2 daughters that I am also so proud of. All the past has helped me. I am grateful to the great and glorious God every day!

  • ladybird

    This was a beautiful essay.It is so heart-felt that I cried for your dad. It’s also moving and so relevant for today’s parents. Your dad is so proud of you and blesses you and your boys each and every day. He did the best he could with what his culture forced and supported. You changed that. What a triumph for your soul.
    Thank you for sharing your moment of joy, Elizabeth. I will keep you and your family in my prayers this evening.

  • Susan Gilbert

    A long time ago (1980′s) one of America’s premiere animators made the movie “American Pop” ( I think you would greatly appreciate it, it totally enchanted me. The storyline closely parallels yours; music will out, regardless.

  • Lorraine

    I rejoice with you in the celebration of your son’s musical achievements. No matter what age your kids are (adults), it’s still important to be there for them at times to be the ‘cheerleader’ mom cheering on their successes. Although your own heart strings may have been silenced in the absence of a once upon a time dream, the melody of love plays on in your heart for them, your family. Whether one was a patriarch or a matriarch does not matter. Christ transcends all. Now, music fills your soul in the absence of any personal accomplishment you never realized. You are filled with the gift of writing and I celebrate that with you as well.

  • Jenny

    Congrats to Buster on his paying gig! I miss the old Buster stories.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    The beautiful thing about grace and love is that sometimes it works backward. You have been very brave and loving and open to God for your children’s sake, and that is what “softens the curse.”

  • Elisabeth McDonald

    Thank you for sharing such a personal story. “I am what I am”, and what you is, is a gifted writer, woman of faith and spiritual visionary with the admin skills to make it happen. You’re deep, like your boys are in their music. Your instrument is your pen, though… My husband’s father just died, another Mad Patriarch who left a lot of destruction in his wake, as well. My husband is still grieving the lost father/son relationship he always wanted. And, because our only son has autism, he will not be able to give that gift of closeness to his only son, either. A tremendously sad loss for such a giving and talented man. His relationship with his father was a tortured one wrought from obsessive control and fear on his father’s part. Say a prayer that my husband will also find peace with the beautiful man he has become, and I will remember yours today and at the upcoming funeral as we put this complicated, difficult father to final rest. A large part of the beauty in my husband’s soul came from the suffering and loss from not having a father who could make peace with his own demons long enough to prevent himself from passing on those same demons to his sons.

  • Jacob

    “My heart cannot be as deep or wide as it might have been. So it goes.” Wow, that line really hit me. No use beating yourself up for what you might have been, right? What a fine line between accepting the limitations on your ability to love (whether resulting from fate or from your own character-forming decisions of the past) and the call to move beyond who you are. Or who you think you are!

  • gogo

    Your story is so similar to mine. I too, had a “Mad Patriarch” , and subsequently married another “Patriarch”. God’s spirit lifted up the music in your soul, as well as the song in your sons’ hearts. Fear can be paralyzing– you are an inspiration. I only wish that I could undo the harm that I have done to my children, by way of repeating the same mistakes, that I copied from my parents, who, while they were both academically well educated, and financially secure, were rigid in the rules,while not truly living in the freeing experience of God’s love. Your family is blessed to have you, as am I to read your thoughts.
    Thank you.

  • Pink Lady

    How wonderful how you changed the “family pattern” and your boys are having a richer life, God really does bring good out of bad; I don’t think there is any music more American than the Blues, Buster can’t go wrong covering John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters

  • TeaPot562

    Thanks for donating “autodidact” to my active vocabulary. Some people do have the knack of teaching themselves. I grew up as one of eight – our mother taught piano on an elementary basis, but good enough to allow me to memorize a bit of Chopin, a bit of Grieg (child’s piano version) and a few pages of Schumann’s piano concerto.
    Mother has gone to her reward some 26 years ago. All 8 of us play piano; we all sing; several of us play accompaniment with Church groups on Sunday morning at our local parishes. Music once learned, for playing and/or singing, never leaves one’s soul. We thank God for this gift.

  • bobster

    I’ll prolly get shouted down for this, but I think a failing of our culture for centuries has been been how the worth of a thing is measured by what sort of economic return you can get out of it.
    Things are worth learning and doing to the extent that they explore God’s creation. Then we usually pollute the thing by trying to turn it into a job/make a living at it. Do that and you’ve been co-opted.

  • Jenny

    How exactly are you to eat while exploring God’s creation but not getting paid?