One afternoon, a delivery truck pulled up with a huge
container for my father. I was terribly curious, but Dad shooed
us out of the way until the thing had been uncrated and the
deliveryman had left. I peeked from down the hallway.
Inside the cabinet, a hi-fi stereo with six dials and an automatic
turntable gleamed—a 1962 state-of-the-art surprise for Mom. It
was just like what I’d seen in TV commercials. Would I be
allowed to play it?
Dad talked about that stereo all the way through dinner. “Just
wait ’til you hear that beauty. It’s like having the orchestra right
there in the living room!”
I’d never seen so much grinning on his face before. It altered
As dinner came to a close, Dad announced his plan to listen to
Beethoven that evening, and to demonstrate for us the power of
the stereo—which garnered a groan from my brother, Don.
“Aw, Dad. Do I have to?” Don rolled his eyes.
Dad’s face fell, but I could see he wasn’t going to make Don
stick around. That’s when I realized Don slithered out of nearly
everything he didn’t like.
“C’mon Dad, it’s our sixth grade science fair tomorrow, and I’ve
still got stuff to do. I don’t have time to waste listening to
music by a guy who died a hundred years ago.” Don was already
standing, feet turned toward the door.
I sucked in my breath at his disrespect. I would have dropped
everything to be in the room with Dad’s grin, but Don didn’t
seem to notice Dad’s happiness. He didn’t even have a science
project, as far as I knew. He just wanted out, preferring to
spend his time in his room with his dirty fingernails—reading
mechanics magazines or taking apart old radios to see how they
worked. Dad jerked his head toward the door and let him go.
My brother Walt sat across from me at the table, watching Don’s
exit, his face like thunder, leg twitching to leave. Don had just
beaten him at his own game, and there was no way Dad would
let them both off the hook. Secretly, I was glad Walt was still at
the table. He was fourteen, and always had some smarty-pants
response to things that I wouldn’t dare say aloud. He was the
one who gave KK and me our first cigarette, wrote lyrics that
made no sense, and took time to play duets on the piano with
KK even though there was an eight-year difference between
And now he was busting to retreat to his room to listen to an
album by a brand̵-new artist named Bob Dylan. Walt leaned
toward me and said, “You gotta hear him, man, he’s like nothing
you’ve ever heard before.” Walt’s passion made me smile, and I
“Bah!” Dad spat out. “What do rock ’n’ rollers know about music?
Now, Mr. Beethoven—he was a real musician. You’ll see. You
three meet me in the living room after you’ve cleaned up the
I looked over at the huge pile of dirty pots and plates. Walt
would make some important excuse to retreat elsewhere for
fifteen minutes, and so cleanup was left to KK and me. I
thought of my book report that was due the next day—and I still
had all those spelling words to memorize. I’d have to stay up
late to finish everything. How long would this demonstration
* * *
KK, Walt, and I walked into the living room. Dad turned, and in
a grand gesture swept one hand, palm up, toward the stereo.
“Just look at this beauty. Your mother’s going to love it.” I knew
she would. I could just imagine the soulful voices of Marian
Anderson and Leontyne Price, warming the room like sunlight.
We gathered around, staring at the glistening knobs as Dad
fiddled with this one, then that, but the best part was that
automatic arm. I couldn’t believe my eyes when Dad pressed the
lever. It floated over and landed softly onto the record, like
“Are the speakers any good?” Walt asked, breaking the spell. “I
mean, does the music lose quality if you crank it up?” Dad
ignored him, and I plopped on the couch to wait for the music to
“Get off that couch.” Dad’s words were suddenly raw. “You’ve
got a job to do. The three of you spread out on the floor, in a
semicircle shape like an orchestra, and face me.”
My eyebrows scrunched together. I wanted the happy dad back,
but something had changed him. Was it my fault? I peeked over
at Walt, who lifted a shoulder in response to my unasked
We sat on the floor exactly as he said. “Now. We all know you
two are musicians,” Dad began, poking a finger in the air at
little KK, and then at Walt. It was true. The two of them
practiced on our great-grandmother’s big black piano for hours
every day—not because they were told to, but because they
liked to. How could I ever compete with prodigies?
But I was also a musician, wasn’t I? Why else would Mom ask
me to sing with her around the grand piano in the evenings?
Wasn’t I the one who always looked for a way to harmonize with
a melody? It wasn’t the piano or a violin, but I could pick out
the perfect harmony of a voice in my gut.
Dad’s voice boomed as his lecture continued. “Now, there’s a
message just waiting to be discovered in every piece of music,
but you can’t really understand the message, unless you pay
close attention. It’s like a secret language that you need to
decipher.” Walt rolled his eyes and looked over at me, shaking
his head. Dad didn’t seem to notice.
“You all know Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but what we’re
going to hear is the one that came right before it, written in the
summer of 1812 while our man Beethoven was trying to find a
cure for his progressive hearing loss. You’d think that he’d give
up, or that the music would at the very least be gloomy, but no!
He was so confident about his work, he produced this gem.”
Walt whispered, “He may have been a genius, but he was also
an arrogant asshole.” My eyes went wide at the forbidden word,
but I liked the power it had. I whispered it under my breath to
see what it felt like. My skin tingled.
Dad jerked his head at us. “Stop muttering. This is important.
No matter what you do in life, you have to have confidence, and
Beethoven had it in spades. Did you know that once, when he
was accosted by a nasty critic after a performance, instead of
boohooing about it, he responded, ‘What I shit is better than
anything you could ever think up.’ Now that’s confidence for you.
That’s Mr. Beethoven.”
Dad turned his back to us and lifted the top of the cabinet, as
he slipped the record out of its sleeve and placed it on the
turntable. “So tonight we’ll play the Eighth Symphony, and I will
be the conductor. I’ll tell you when to come in, so keep a sharp
eye out for me.”
“When to come in?” I asked.
“You heard me. You will play when I tell you to, and not a
moment before. Listen and watch.” He closed his eyes and lifted
a pencil, which appeared out of nowhere. Walt gawked at me as
we both realized this was Dad’s baton.
The music burst from the speakers and we jumped. Dad’s arm
shot out and he pointed down at Walt, whose smirk evaporated
in the blast of sound. Walt stared wild-eyed as Dad’s head
jerked to the pounding of the thunderous kettle drums, strands
of his hair tossed into the air.
Then all at once the music slowed and filled with mystery, which
drew me into Dad’s imagining, as I saw myself dancing alone on
a stage like Clara in The Nutcracker, leaping and spinning late
into Christmas Eve. Dad looked at me, eyebrows lifted as if he
were telling a secret, and put one finger from his free hand to
his lips as the music diminished.
I moved my imaginary bow slowly across my imaginary strings,
as if I really could soften the sound. The violins vibrated from
the speakers, building suspense, and Dad shook his free hand
as if shaking off water.
Then the music darkened, as a heartbreak of chords told of
tragedy, the sadness melting through my body. It was as if I
was striding up a grassy hill, returning home after a long
absence, and once there looked down at the valley below, my
homeland, only to see devastation scarring the land. French
horns brought to mind past battles and memories of loss. But
embedded in the sound of the woodwinds and strings was
defiance and resilience, as the music climbed to a tortuous
Beautiful and tragic. Slow and fast. Soft and loud. Each contrast
twisted together into one. I thought of stolen visions I spied as
I walked home from school: Dad’s stoic reflection in the garden,
his hand reaching up into the branches of the trees to pick fruit.
My thoughts moved to his sandpaper words, his cutting refusal
to attend anything I was involved in. Somehow all of this was
here in the music.
My father wasn’t this thing or that—he was all of it. The
nurturer. The neglectful. The frightening. The brilliant. The
longing for him to love me wove a pattern of exquisite beauty
with the harmony of the music, and it was this that kept me
rooted to the carpet at his feet.
Dad thrust out his arm, palm down, moving it slowly in a circular
pattern as if stirring a huge pot of notes, swirling and blending
them together. I was so mesmerized by his hand movement that
when Dad next stabbed his baton in the air above me, it took
me some time to respond. Did he know I was trying?
I soon discovered that Dad didn’t intend for me to be one single
musician, playing one specific instrument. When he pointed, I
had to play whatever came next, anything from oboe to kettle-
drums. And when I responded to his cue, his eyes would close
briefly and relax. His mind, just steps ahead, preparing for what
was yet to come.
Dad’s eyes flew open moments later, wide and expectant, like a
madman, reminding me of a photo I had recently seen of
Einstein, hair sticking out at angles. In that instant I thought of
my best friend Julie’s perfect father, with his grey suit and
combed hair, cracking jokes and asking how Julie’s day was.
Right now he’d be huddled over the kitchen table helping her
with her homework. What was it like to have a father like that?
Would her dad ever turn into Beethoven in the evening?
Vanya Erickson is a veteran writing and performing arts teacher who
has spent her life helping children stand up and be counted. She bears
witness to the transformative power of words on a daily basis. Her
work has appeared in Oxford Magazine, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine,
The Evening Street Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, The
Storyteller Magazine, and in the book, The Magic of Memoir.
by Vanya Erickson