New Orleans, USA, December 14, 2020
Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Writer
Nina Z. Temple, Artist
Flight of the Bumblebee
When I was around two years old, my parents decided to leave serious music for a while to go on tour with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, a traveling revue of musicians and dancers. My mother is a violinist, and my father is a composer and pianist. They’d met at the Curtis Institute of Music in the early 1950s where they’d been accepted as child prodigies.
While they toured for three years, they left me in Raritan, New Jersey with my father’s parents and his sister, Aunt Bernie, in a two-bedroom apartment above a grocery store. My nonno was the town butcher. At noon, he came up stepping out of bloody pants and shoes before Nonna let him eat a hot lunch. She had worked as a seamstress in the town’s woolen mill. Aunt Bernie was a teenager and two years younger than my mother, who was twenty when she gave birth to me. When my mother got pregnant on tour, she brought my little sister, Nina, to Nonna’s house, too.
Raritan was filled with immigrants from the same village in Central Italy. Our Nonna came to America when she was nine and spoke perfect English because she’d attended school through seventh grade. Nonno’s family was from a village in the Italian Alps. He had icy blue eyes, dark skin, and wavy thick hair he never lost. Born in this country, he played minor league baseball until my grandmother made him stop. “It’s a boy’s game,” she said, “sliding in dirt.”
Nonna wore tailored dresses, a girdle and stockings, and low-heeled pumps. I didn’t see her bare feet until she was old and sick. Aunt Bernie lived at home and was going to dental assistant school. She was cool and pretty with silky black hair and long, frosted fingernails. She took our grandmother to the beauty salon once a week for a style and set, and on the weekends, she’d take the train into New York City to hang out in the village.
At first, Nina spent most of the day in a crib in the middle of the kitchen floor. Ladies from town stopped by. Fusses were made, our cheeks pinched. They’d sit with our grandmother at the kitchen table for a cup of coffee and a few dry, hard Italian cookies, delicious when dunked.
Nonna kept the furniture waxed and the floors slippery-clean. Lace doilies floated under lamps and vases and framed photos. Dirty clothes got washed in the basement and hung outside on the clothesline to catch the smell of the sun. Cleanliness stabilized our grandmother: clean floors; clean windows; clean clothes; clean skin. She was left-handed and strong. Nina and I shared the tub for a nightly bath, and we learned to use a washcloth for our privates, to scrub behind our ears, under our arms, between every finger and toe.
The Pennsylvanians performed popular tunes like “In the Still of the Night,” “The Whiffenpoof Song,” “Lolly Too Dum Dey.” Our father arranged the charts, and our mother became a featured soloist. They traversed the country, hitting almost all fifty states. Our mother sent letters stuffed with newspaper clippings spritzed with her perfume. And corny picture postcards from Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Kansas City, Niagara Falls, signing them with Xs and Os and pink lipstick kisses. Our father drew bunny rabbits or smiling suns in the space left over.
Before bed, Nonna asked Nina and me to pray with her in front of a wedding photo of our parents, figuring us into God’s decision to bring them home safely. I dreamed of crashes and fires, their faces looking out the window of the tour bus screaming for help, and there was nothing I could do to get them out.
At Christmas time, Nonno would pick our parents up from the train station. My mother would burst through the door and sweep Nina into her arms, so I’d run to my father. I don’t remember him picking me up and holding me; emotionally charged moments with him never could find a comfortable place to land, but we tried. My mother would give Nina back to my grandmother, and I’d forget myself and run full force at her, let her gather me up, which felt desperate and wonderful.
In their luggage, they’d stashed souvenirs: a miniature bottle of Vermont maple syrup, Arizona arrowheads, poker chips from Harrah’s in Reno, a carved totem whistle from Montana, Ghirardelli chocolates, boiled Georgia peanuts, a snow globe with Chicago crammed inside. My mother saved matchbooks, enough to fill a mixing bowl. “They help me remember,” she said.
Her returns washed over me like a warm tide; her soft lily smell, her warm, dry hands, how she pushed the bangs off my forehead to see my eyes. My father was a bundle of restless energy. In his childhood home, he looked unsure, guilt-ridden at burdening his mother, while my mother looked happy, engaged but paused.
We’d sit down to dinner — lamb with mint jelly, roasted potatoes with rosemary, breaded artichoke hearts, pepper pudding called piera— and hear stories about missed cues, flubbed lines, the fans who waited at the stage door. I sat between my mother and Aunt Bernie, a tight fit. My father and his father anchored either end; Nonna kept Nina entertained in her highchair with green peas that sometimes found their way into her nose.
“Your daughter-in-law is Waring’s pet,” my father said. “She steals the show.”
“I believe that,” my grandfather said. He liked my mom. He’d walked her down the aisle on her wedding day because her Polish parents didn’t show up until the last minute. They didn’t like Italians.
My mother blushed. “No, Daddy, I don’t.”
“You’re not an ensemble player,” my father said, flustering her more. “There’s nowhere to hide you.”
“Not true,” she said, shaking off the comment like a chill. “They’re good musicians. I enjoy playing with them.”
“The two of us are in a different league,” he went on. “Fred is a meat and potatoes guy.”
“Not sure what’s wrong with that,” Nonno said. He scraped rosemary leaves off his potatoes with his knife. He had chronic stomach problems that often put him in the hospital. He’d crumple to the floor, in agony, and an ambulance would come to take him away.
“I write sophisticated arrangements,” our father continued, “that get rejected.”
“It’s a good living,” Nonno said. “Don’t rock the boat. You should be more grateful.” He pushed his chair out and stood up.
“Stop,” Nonna warned. “Don’t make a scene.” But our grandfather left, slamming the screen door.
Aunt Bernie touched my back protectively. “It’s okay,” she said. “Your nonno’s coming back,” but I knew he was. Where would he go? Nonna told him what to wear every day, gave him a list of things he needed to do. But he took his time coming home after work, stopping at the local tavern to let off steam with the other dutiful men in Raritan.
My father looked angry. “Keeping the girls is a problem?”
“That’s not what he meant,” Nonna said. “We love the girls. This is what la famiglia does.”
Our mother scraped the uneaten food from Nonno’s dish onto her own. “Soon we’ll be off the road and all back together.” She got up to wash dishes.
There were other arguments on that trip, about race and politics. Eisenhower was president and Nonno didn’t believe in desegregation, which enraged our father. Our mother treated Aunt Bernie with indifference. She didn’t have time to idolize Sal Mineo and Sandra Dee. Our aunt called our mother the Polish Princess. When our parents came home, our aunt slept on the sofa. The house in Raritan felt smaller with everyone home.
A flocked Christmas tree sat in the corner with spun clouds of fiberglass called “angel hair” that stuck to my fingers. Our parents stayed busy. Our father caught up with buddies from high school. Our mother took Aunt Bernie’s silver blue Corvair to shop for presents she wrapped in white butcher paper and tied with red satin ribbon.
Food was our poultice. While Nonna rolled out thin sheets of pasta, our mother hovered at her side. “Let me do it, Ma,” she said, “so I can get it under my fingers.” And Nonna let her work the dough.
Nonno brought home perfect cuts of meat: prime rib, Porterhouse steaks, butterflied pork chops.
“Salt and pepper is all they need,” Nonna said, pressing in the spices. “Maybe a little garlic and thyme.”
“We’re eating like kings,” my father said at another dinner. “Before we go back to cafeterias and Salisbury steak.”
“I’m fond of Salisbury steak,” my mother said.
On Christmas eve, we gathered in the darkened living room to watch Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians’ TV special. Mom held Nina in the basket of her lap. Off stage, she wore everyday pedal pushers and checkered shirts and hiked up her shiny, dark hair into a ponytail like mine. The TV light rendered them blue gray like a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus.
Our mom pressed the glass screen, pointing out friends. “Julie’s an ex-beauty queen and she’s really married to Ned, the tenor sax player, but she’s singing a love song with Andy, who’s gay.”
“He’s got me fooled,” Nonno said.
“Where is my son?” Nonna said, squinting at the fuzzy black & white.
“Here.” Our mother pressed her finger on Dad at the piano, playing. The camera cut to his hands on the keys, his gold wedding ring and a silver Timex watch.
Aunt Bernie held out her pale, lovely hands. “My brother and I have fingers that curl up on the ends.”
“Come on, pay attention now,” our mother said. She picked herself out of the string section, tapping her TV face with her unpolished nail. “Fred introduces me next.”
This glamorous, familiar woman got up from her chair and went to center stage, her violin under her arm. She wore a slim, strapless red dress, and black patent leather stilettos. Her hair was in a chignon, and long crystal earrings brushed her shoulders. She took one off and handed it to Fred. “Can you hold this until I’m done?”
“I’d be delighted,” Fred said, clipping it on his ear to make the audience laugh. “What are you wowing us with tonight?”
“Well, let’s see . . . how about “The Flight of the Bumblebee.””
Our father explained that Rimsky-Korsakov had written it as an interlude in his opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan,” a story of a swan changing into an insect so he can visit his estranged father.
“Fred dared me to finish in under two minutes,” our mother said, and we listened. Her frenetic, flawless playing sounded like a stunt. The studio audience applauded loudly.
Even with all of us accounted for, fed, safe, clean, and in the same room, it would take me years to understand how people could exist both on TV and in person. That, and why riders on Ferris wheels didn’t turn upside down and fall out when they got to the top.
Our parents left in the New Year. They’d injected novelty into the Raritan house with their troubadour tales, and then normal days returned, comfortable and constant. Nonna tended to us like we were her own precious property, and Aunt Bernie never seemed to tire of us clinging to her. She rubbed anisette on our permanent teeth cutting through gums. She let us borrow her powder puff and misted us with her White Shoulders perfume. When Nina learned to walk, she became my prized companion. Aunt Bernie let us jump on her lavender chenille bedspread, and play with the stuffed animals guys won her at fairs. The house stayed quiet, unless our aunt cranked up the hits on her record player. She taught Nina and me to do the Peppermint Twist. I enjoyed the company of music, because too much quiet amplified longing. My parents’ leavings filled me with dread and constant hope.
Nina remembers that I pushed her down the stairs. An accident? Or an experiment? I know that at night we slept on the pullout couch, and that I kept my arm around her like I’d seen my mother do with my father when I’d go into their room in the morning to see if they were up and ready for the next day.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt (New Orleans, USA) is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories and Now We Are Sixty. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Guernica, The Morning News and Virginia Quarterly Review, and she’s a frequent contributor to Narrative Magazine. She studied creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi with Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison. Pia’s essays have been cited as Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. Her work has been performed at Symphony Space and Word Theater. She is a recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and Queens, NY with her husband, Malcolm. Their son lives too far away in London. Pia can be found online here.
Nina Z. Temple’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout California as well as in museums and art fairs. In the 90s, her work showed extensively in West Berlin, Germany. She studied art at the University of Southern Mississippi, attending master classes with Elaine de Kooning, and was one of thirty-two undergraduates chosen nationwide to study abroad in Cortona, Italy, with the University of Georgia. Professionally, Nina ran two graphic design studios in Monterey, California and Annapolis, Maryland, where her work received many awards. She continues to work in group collaborations in support of the arts, conducting artist talks and workshops for young children, and teaching and lecturing at colleges and universities. She and her husband, Paul, have two children and three grandchildren who all reside in California. Nina can be found online here.
Their colorful collaboration, NOW WE ARE SIXTY, can be purchased here.