I would often follow my nose or simply kick a stone up the alley to 409 Wyatt Street, the home of my maternal grandparents – Edwin and Loverna Barber. I was often there after school or on Saturdays. The ranch house, just a block and a half from our home, was physically small but large in terms of creativity and affection. You would always find approval there.
I would enter through the car port door, say “Hi” to Bama (BAH-muh, my grandmother) and usually head straight to the basement workshops. There was the silk screen painting workshop, the tool bench where I made telegraph sets, the photography corner, and the roller skating area.
But if not going downstairs, to the right of the basement door, you entered the living room with its simple maple furniture, picture window and paneled walls.
At the far end of the living room, where the hallway led to the bedrooms, there was the in-the-wall bookcase that held the stereo equipment. This is where Bapa (BAH-puh, my grandfather) kept the classical music recordings. The collection of 33 1/3 LP records stood on end. A few of them were made of red vinyl which you could see through when held to the light of the picture window. Nearby were the reel-to-reel tapes for his beloved Wollensak recorder. They were recordings of other classical music, sermons, and a copy of the soundtrack he used when performing his “ventriloquist” act with Jerry the puppet for Sunday School kids.
It was common to enter the house and find Bapa working on some creation in the basement and Bama cleaning the house or ricing potatoes. Whatever the activity, you could count on the house being filled with the rich sound of classical music but most often, the waltz.
I heard more waltzes than any other type of classical music. What was it about three quarter time that thrilled him so? Was it that most waltzes sound like a celebration or that waltzes are rarely, if ever, in minor keys? Or was it because the waltz just naturally lifts a person’s spirits? What made them so engaging?
One spring afternoon I went for a regular visit at 409 Wyatt but upon entering the home I found Bapa in the living room in tears . . . sobbing. Having just turned ten this was very unsettling. I had seen Bapa cry before but they were always hallelujah tears . . . tears of joy and blessing usually expressed at church or when the grandchildren would gather at a reunion. But today he was openly weeping and running his hand nervously through his silver hair as he paced back and forth. What could be wrong?
He didn’t wait for me to ask. Upon seeing me, with his arms raised, he blurted out dramatically that General MacArthur had died. He’d just heard it on the radio. He continued to pace as he told me about this great man who led our military during two great wars. He had been a divisional commander when Bapa served in the Army in France during WWI. Maybe memories of that time of his life were fueling his emotion. He continued his uncharacteristic pacing with an occasional exhausting sigh of “Oh . . . oh, my!”
I kept reverent and watched. It went on. I had never experienced such an expression of grief. I had never seen such a display of love and loss at the passing of another person. It’s clear even to my youthful heart, because I know my grandfather so well, that great men have the capacity to move people.
Later that afternoon, as I tinkered quietly in the basement workshops, I heard the sounds of the waltz drifting down from the living room stereo. The volume was a little higher than normal. His grief had turned to a grateful reflection of a life well lived. Now, it was the grand and sweeping pomp of the waltz that allowed Bapa to celebrate the life of a man in whom he recognized greatness.
To this day, whenever I hear a waltz, I think of Bapa. Each one is the Waltz of the Barbers.