By the time I was born, my grandfather Albert was already 63 years old—an old man, I thought at the time. But he didn’t act all that old. In fact, my earliest memories of my grandfather were after he retired from farming in 1954. He and my grandma had moved to a house in Fergus Falls; but in the summer, especially during harvest, he would drive out to the farm to check on the crops. I can remember him driving slowly into the farmyard, his hat tipped back on his head, honking at us kids if we were playing outside.
However, the biggest treat was if Grandpa decided to sit down at the piano and pound out a tune or two for us. When my grandpa was eight years old, his mother, Marit, died, leaving his two older sisters, Lena and Ella (18 and 20 years old at the time) in charge of raising him. It was Ella who taught my grandpa Albert how to chord on the piano, the basis for his lifelong talent of “playing by ear.”
If the mood struck him, or if we grandchildren begged enough, Grandpa would sit down and play “Mockingbird Hill” or “Sugar in the Morning” or “I’m Going to be a Cowboy” loud enough to shake the rafters. He’d sing along—and we would too: “I’m going to be a cowboy, when I get big like my dad! I’ll be bronco buster and ride o’er the plains like mad. Oh, give me a home in the saddle, along the western plains. I’ll be the grandest cowpoke that ever rode the range!”
Grandpa at the Piano
My dad wasn’t a piano player; he was a singer. He had a song for every occasion, especially when we were in the car and he was trying to keep six antsy kids from killing each other. He’d sing songs from way before our time—songs he’d learned when he went the University of Minnesota Ag School down in St. Paul. Our favorite was “Bessie the Heifer” (it was an agriculture school, after all). And we’d sing along with gusto: “Bessie the Heifer, the queen of all the cows, she gave more milk than any other cow! In the morning she’d give pasteurized, at night she’d give homogenized . . .” You get the picture.
The second man in my life, my dad, is now 91 years old and living in a nursing home, but I have always had a favorite picture of him. It was taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s, I think—and he looked kind of like a movie star, I always thought. It’s nice to think your dad looks like a movie star.
So those were the first two men in my life. My Grandpa Albert died in 1970, but I just saw my dad today in Room 162 at the nursing home. He doesn’t feel like singing any more. But all the tunes that run through my head are because they put music in me as a child. What a gift!