Summer 1999

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The Cardinal Sings Again

A Memoir of Upstate New York and Northern Pennsylvania


John T. Bassett

The Glen Springs, the American Nauheim, was a sedate, international resort hotel and sanitarium, built on a hill overlooking the village of Watkins Glen and Seneca Lake, New York. It flourished from 1898 to 1939. Natural Springs on its grounds provided mineral water for its guests, without charge. Resident physicians treated patients suffering from heart disease, cancer, and lesser ailments.

For Tom, the hotel was a kind of castle, an enormous, sprawling, old gray plaster palace with several arms of connecting buildings: a kind of magical place where everyone seemed happy, and were gracious to each other and to him, son of the resident musicians. They lived in its shadow on the low side of the hilly property in an old, gray, unpainted house. In the winter the steam heat that came from the hotel heated the downstairs, but not the two bedrooms upstairs where his two sisters slept. Being the eldest child, and a male, Tom was finally given the extra small bedroom downstairs, with steam heat. In the summer the kitchen roof leaked whenever it rained. Each summer they placed more and more pots and pans and bowls and even wash tubs on the floor. His father would not ask the hotel to repair the roof, and since he was a proud, sensitive violinist, it never occurred to him to repair the roof himself.

On one particular summer's night in the early 1930s, the promenade at the Glen Springs Hotel had begun.

His father, slender, his black, curly hair brushed straight back, dressed in a black suit, his violin held across his left arm, the bow dangling from his fingers, bowing slightly to left and right to smiles, greetings and small ripples of applause, led the way through the vast main lounge to the music garden-court. His mother followed, a slight figure dressed in a long silky blue gown, her soft brown hair parted at the side of her forehead, her blue, oval-shaped eyes acknowledging demurely the applause. She was the perfect piano accompanist for his father—so patient with him and uncritical. The came Tom, their eldest child, dressed in a black jacket, black knee-length trousers, new black shoes, his hair cut and parted in the middle.

He walked slowly and carefully behind them, overwhelmed by the introduction into a night world of light and sophistication, into an evening of careless yet elegant ease. The guests were smiling at him, too, clapping their hands gently and nodding in approval. Many were laboring over giant woodcut puzzles. The lounge was blue with cigar and cigarette smoke. They entered the music garden-court. Tom sat down on a wicker bench behind them. His mother played a few notes to warm up. His father retuned his violin. They whispered and examined their sheet music. His father was nervous. Then they began to play. Tom sat very still and looked through the open archway into the lounge. The voices in there were low and constant between numbers. His father was not in good form this night. His violin was not singing. The music coming out of it was thin and jumpy.

A female guest appeared. She looked old and thin. Her hair was silvery white, and her eyes were sad. She came up to Tom and held out her hand. He knew what to do: he put out his hand and grasped her fingers gently. She smiled a little and looked intently at him. "I know who you are. You're Tom and I understand you play the piano. "

"Yes ma'am, I do."

"Do you like the violin as well?"

"No, Ma'am," he replied, "I don't"

"It's our secret then," she said, smiling.

Tom was horrified that he had told her. She waved at his parents and said "hello," and then leaned closer to him.

"I'm lonely," she said, "would you like to help me with a big new puzzle right over there?" She pointed to a large card table outside the music garden-court.

"Well," he started-then glanced at his mother and saw she was smiling in approval-"all right. " She took his hand and led him to the table which was covered with the wood pieces of a large puzzle. "Do you like to work puzzles?" she asked, as they sat down on opposite sides of the table.

"Yes, I do," he said.

"Good. You can be of help to me then, and also keep me company for just a little while—won't you?"

Tom looked at her and saw only her eyes. They were large and dark and sad. "Yes," he said, "I'll help you with this puzzle. " They picked through the heavy pieces, and Tom listened to the music, and looked around at the lounge and the guests gathered around the tables, smoking, playing cards, talking, laughing. He was very excited, but knew he must be polite and not talk too much. He was proud of his good manners. He wanted the lady guest to approve of him. She gave him another long look.

"Do you love music?"

"Yes, ma'am, I do."

"Are you made to practice every day?"

"No ma'am."

"What else do you enjoy, beside music?"

"Um," he thought carefully, "I love birds, I like to swim and hike, and I love to visit my grandmother in Pennsylvania."

"How lucky for you-how lucky for her," she said, almost to herself. "Do you visit her often?"

"Yes, every summer. I help her, too. Grandma is a cripple and has to walk with crutches, so I gather the eggs and bring her whatever she needs."

"I had a grandson once; you remind me of him." She lowered her head and produced a handkerchief and blew her nose. Tom pretended to look for pieces to the puzzle, but the display of emotion upset him, and he glanced behind him into the music garden-court. His father suddenly peered out and saw him and motioned for him to return.

"I'm—I'm sorry, Mrs ___"

"Goldman," she said, sniffing quietly.

"I must return to my parents. I enjoyed working on the puzzle."

"Good night, Tom," she said, "I hope I'll see you again. "

Tom walked back to the bench and sat down. The music droned on. He became bored, then sleepy. An hour later the little concert was over. They left by a side door. It was a perfect summer night. They walked slowly down the path to their cottage nearby. His father was ready to play some more.

"What do you say, Middy?" he fairly shouted. "Shall we play some more Kreisler?"

"If you'd like," she murmured.

"Mother," Tom broke in, "who was that lady that talked to me?"

"Mrs. Goldman."

"She looked sad and lonely. She asked me to help with her puzzle."

"That was nice—did you like her?"

"Yes—will I ever see her again?"

"Perhaps. She lives in New York City. We don't see her very often. "

"She said she had a grandson-where is he?"

"She brought him here a year ago for treatment of an illness, leukemia, I think it was, but he died. "

Tom glanced back at the great rambling structure, brightly lit from the top floor to the basement, and heard women's voices, then laughter. He looked down on the broad lawns bathed in the glow of the veranda flood lights. Several rabbits were feeding and sitting up, quietly alert, content with their tranquil evening, courtesy of the Glen Springs Hotel.

* * *

Over Easter vacation, Tom and his sister, Alta, wangled an invitation from their Aunt Esther who lived in New York City. They rode a Greyhound bus for seven hours and arrived safely in the heart of Manhattan. Trips to the Statue of Liberty, Chinatown, and the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus filled their few precious days with her. The day before they returned home, they paid a call on an old friend of the Glen Springs Hotel, an old lady Tom had met a few summers earlier.

"I called Mrs. Goldman yesterday, as your mom and dad requested, and she said she'd love to see you," their aunt said. They left the subway and walked to Park Avenue. They found her hotel and were admitted by a doorman wearing a long black coat and white gloves. Then a slow elevator ride up several floors and out on a deep pile carpet and down a dark hallway to her suite. Aunt Esther knocked on the door, and Mrs. Goldman's maid let them in. "Please follow me," she said. "Mrs. Goldman is in her bedroom."

They filed into her bedroom and saw her lying deep under white hotel blankets. She lay on a high twin bed facing the wall just beyond it. The wall was covered with paintings. Aunt Esther excused herself from the room because she had the sniffles. Mrs. Goldman lay flat on her back. Her arms were buried beneath the blankets. She turned her head to look at them. Tom had an uneasy feeling she was very ill.

"Hello Tom. Do you remember helping me work a puzzle some time ago?"

"Yes, Mrs. Goldman, I do. It is nice to see you again."

"And is this your sister? Her name?"

"This is Alta. " His sister was unable to speak.

"It is so thoughtful of you to come to see me. I hope you are enjoying your visit to New York. I am not well, I'm afraid. How you two remind me of the good times we had at the Springs. Of course, Mr. Goldman is gone now, but — ." There was a long silence. Tom looked at his sister. He could see that she was frightened. "I remember the Springs with so much affection. Your father and his violin-he was so young and handsome, and he played the violin with so much feeling." There was no expression in her face, which was very pale, but her eyes were opened wide, and she stared hard at them.

"You are so fortunate to live there by the Springs, you know. You have the beauty of music in your home, and you have the world of nature all about you. It is all there for you. I hope you appreciate what a wonderful life you have." His sister nodded. "Yes ma'am," Tom said, "we do." He had hoped she would smile at them He became worried that she might cry. Tom sensed it was time for them to leave. He brought his aunt back in from the other room. Mrs. Goldman put her hand under her pillow and brought it out again. There were coins in her hand. "Here, miss," she said, offering the money to their aunt. "I want to treat you, yes, the three of you, to a sundae at Schrafts—do you know it? It's just around the corner." His aunt thanked her and held her handkerchief to her nose. His sister thanked her and said goodby. Tom was last. He was turning away when she put out her hand again. He took it carefully.

"Tom, I'm so glad you came. Will you be sure and give your father my best wishes?"

He could hardly bear to look into her eyes. "Yes, ma'am, I will. " She sighed, withdrew her hand, and turned back and closed her eyes.

The sundaes were unbelievably rich, indescribably good.

"Did you enjoy your visit with Mrs. Goldman?" Aunt Esther asked them.

"No," Tom said, "she was sick and lonely. I know she misses the Glen Springs, and her grandson, and Dad and his violin." They left Schrafts and walked down a cold, gray avenue. Tom began running for no reason. His aunt ran after him and stopped him. "What are you doing?" she said.

"I like to run."

"Not here," she said, "you'll get lost. Now, don't you ever do that to me again. "

They were both out of breath. It had suddenly become dark, and the sidewalk was full of people walking very fast. Tom stopped and looked at her.

"Is it true, Aunt Esther, what I heard?"

"What did you hear, Tom?"

"I heard Mom And Dad talking about the Glen Springs. Mom was crying and they didn't see me. Dad was drinking and real upset. He said we'd have to move out by summer. What happened?"

"Tom, there's a war coming in Europe. The hotel isn't able to draw the European trade it used to. So it is losing and will eventually close. And now they can't afford to have your mom and dad play music every night. Your dad will just have to find another job soon, somewhere else. Come on, let's find the subway and go home."

* * *

In May, the flame-red cardinals with their powerful, throbbing songs heralding the dawn of a new day, the orioles with their hanging, swaying nests, the soft bluebirds, nervous robins, and mourning doves, had arrived, along with the rest, to enjoy the season among the hills and woods surrounding his village as guests, but guests of a much larger, more beneficent realm than a mere hotel. Guests who were invited to find mates, to make love, to produce offspring, to sing the live long day, and for whom the board was free for the taking, and the rent.

In June, Tom sat on the front walk watching ants run across the concrete. He heard a song passing overhead: he knew it was a bluebird. He heard another song. He stood up and walked to the side lawn. Nancy was singing at her piano with the windows open. He felt a peculiar longing in his throat. Should he go up to her? Then he heard a rumble. It sounded deep and seemed to roll across the valley below to the far hills, and then faintly come back again. With the appearance of dark clouds and the ominous sound of thunder across the hills, summer had dramatically arrived. The birds hushed. Everything green grew darker. The ants seemed to crawl slower. Above the elm trees, the Glen Springs Hotel loomed up, massive and forbidding. Then, very gradually, rain began to fall. Tom got a little wet, but when the first big flash of lightning shot down, he skittered inside the back door and into his room. He jumped up on the bed and lay back with his head on his arms.

Finally, the songs had ended. There was no violin singing with the piano playing second fiddle. There was only his room and two windows. And there was Tom, lying on his bed and waiting-waiting for the storm to pass, trembling and turning to the wall to shut out the blazing light, covering his ears to dull the explosive sounds of the thunder claps, but most of all-waiting for the cardinal, waiting for it to sing again.

1996, John T. Bassett

This selection was taken from Chapter 9 of The Cardinal Sings Again: A Memoir of Upstate New York and Nnia.orthern Pennsylva

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