I never heard my father talk about how he came to love classical music. It seemed a strange thing for a young man from a small town in southeast Arkansas to gravitate to. But gravitate he did, and it was one of the qualities that defined him for his whole life. When he died in 2012 he left behind what may be one of the most impressive collections of classical music ever assembled by an individual in the state. There were boxes of 78 RPM records left to him from the estate of a man he barely knew. There were cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes. There were VHS tapes of operas and symphony performances recorded from the PBS channel. But mostly there were CD’s. Hundreds of CD’s. Possibly more than a thousand. He kept it all in a hall closet in his house in Conway, neatly arranged in an assortment of boxes, many of them cataloged alphabetically.
When I was growing up my father kept his stereo system in a cherry wood cabinet in our living room. For years it was the nicest piece of furniture in the house. The cabinet held an assortment of receivers, turntables and tape decks. On Sunday afternoons, when other dads were doing yard work or playing golf, mine would sit on the sofa and listen to his classical records at a volume that somehow became unacceptable when I cranked up the Beatles to the same decibel level on my portable RCA. This was the time my father took for himself every week and we learned it was wise to tread softly.
The symphonies and operas I unconsciously absorbed on those Sunday afternoons stuck in my memory and fifty-five years later they’re still there. But despite the exposure I never developed an appreciation, and the same is true for my three brothers, so when my mother sold her house last August and we had to decide what to do with my father’s collection it was not as simple as dividing it four ways, because nobody really wanted it. A lifetime of work unappreciated by his progeny. How sad is that. There was even talk that it might end up in the landfill.
As it turned out, the decision on what to do with the 78’s took care of itself when we discovered that two decades spent in an uncooled storage building had warped most of the records in their sleeves. They now reside at the Conway city dump. It’s just as well because they apparently had no value anyway. Before he died my father had offered to donate the old records to the two universities in Conway, but neither of them had any interest.
My son-in-law took the reel-to-reel tapes and I was glad about that. The VHS recordings went into the trash because no one has a working VCR any more. A handful of cassette tapes went with them, for more or less the same reason. And that left the CD’s, all of which are now stored on a shelf in my basement, all 247 lbs. of them.
In 2009, on the anniversary of my 25th year of service to my benevolent employer, I received a catalog from which I could choose a gift to commemorate the happy occasion. Had they been available at the time I would have chosen a drone, but since they weren’t I picked a DVD player. I’m not sure why because already owned two of them. Maybe I expected that one would break. That never happened, and in the mean time Netflix made DVD players practically irrelevant anyway, so the new player languished in its box, unopened.
It remained in that box for nine years, until last week, when I tore off the gold wrapping paper and, on the workbench in my basement, I connected the player to a receiver and two speakers I had not used in almost as many years. My goal, to be achieved sometime before I leave this world, is to listen to every one of those CD’s at least once. I will play them as I putter around in the basement in retirement, which will begin in three months. I will play them loud enough to be heard over the roar of furnace flames in winter and the air-conditioning fan in the summer. Over the tromping feet on the floor above. Possibly over the high-pitched whine of woodworking tools. That’s a decision still to be made. Definitely over the whirring belt of our under-utilized treadmill.
I know the music on those CD’s will never mean as much to me as it did to my father, but that’s not the point. The point is just to do it, as a way of honoring a man that I miss every day. I think he would appreciate the gesture. And who knows, now that I’m older I might come to see classical music in a new light. But I know it won’t be “Sunday afternoon on the sofa in the living room” light. That level of absolute appreciation can only live in the heart of a true aficionado. Like my dad.