Music and My Father

Gabrielle Bellot on Growing Up Between the Silence and the Sound

By  Gabrielle Bellot

When I was younger, before the silence came, my father blasted classical music and, on occasion, jazz through our mountain home. In my room, downstairs, or even outside near his jeep where the German Shepherds slept, I would hear the flutes, cellos, violins, saxophones, pianos, and booming-twinkling percussion of his vast collection of CDs, all of which he stored, in loose alphabetical order, in a tall glass case with dark shelves. Bach, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Debussy, Ravel, The Oscar Peterson Trio: the composers and players who loomed largest, today, from the Baroque up to the mid-20th century—the music right around the date of his own birth—filled our home when he was not reading labs at the hospital or teaching medical students across the island at Ross University, which he drove to each morning at gusting careening speeds around corners that were stony cliff on one side and drops into bamboo-flecked valleys or foaming sea on the other.

If we crossed paths in our house, he would stop for a moment to conduct the music in front me, humming and smiling with his eyes closed, and would commend the horns or strings, as well as the crispness of a particular recording. As a kid, he seemed silly in these moments. Later, I missed seeing him like that, because I realized that he, too, had briefly returned to youthful cheer, body floating on melody like a coconut in a river, or like the best of jazz poetry, where word and sound become seamless. A diabetic in occasional denial—he reverted, always, to the “see-food” diet abroad, seeing sugary foods and eating them—the music provided a guiltless sweetness. The music was love.

He had always loved music. When he was younger, he earned the nickname B-Flat Bellot; at one point, he played jazz. In secondary school, he had dreams of studying abroad, but the only way he could afford to do so was with a scholarship. My father set his sights high: a coveted, competitive island scholarship, given to the best of the best. The odds were against him. As a result, he got the scholarship and headed to Jamaica, then, later, to New York and Ohio. He became a pathologist, and soon many a Dominican would know him as Dr. Bellot even if they had never before seen his face, but all the while the orchestras kept playing inside him, as they would for the composer protagonist of Alejo Carpentier’s mythic, romanticist novel of music, The Lost Steps, in which Carpentier’s composer leaves New York for South America, in search of music and instruments supposedly untouched by the currents of Western civilization he imagines to be rotting away at his own artistry—a quest partly stereotypical fantasy, yet also, in a way, a beautiful search for a music he has never heard, steps he has never danced.

Whistling was his private signal. When my mother inevitably interrupted him, argued, or lambasted him yet again for packing cash visibly in a checked piece of luggage or forgetting his wallet, he would whistle for a few seconds. Sometimes he looked away while blowing. The tunes varied, but all through my life I heard him whistle in-between altercations, as well as whenever he got nervous. Even his coping mechanism, appositely, involved melody.

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“It’s cold, my first of New York’s seemingly unending winters. I feel far away and alone.”

 

In Cincinnati, where he lived with my mum before they both moved back to their birth-home in Dominica, his brown skin became a threat. One day, he told me later, a woman backed a car into the driveway. I H8 NIGS, the license plate read. She moved the car forward, then back, for a long time, so my father could see it. Growing up in Dominica, the idea that he, mixed brown man, was a threat by virtue of his skin was absurd; in America, people reminded him, he was a nigger. The license plate had been aimed at my mother, too, who was fair-skinned but mixed, as well. It didn’t matter that they were both doctors, he medical, she of philosophy; they were not white, so the neighborhood, which was predominantly white, was suspicious. Another time, a white cop pulled him over for no clear offense, until he realized, as he later told me, his offense had been that his complexion had aroused suspicion behind the seat of that automobile; it was the first time he had felt that primal terror of the police many Americans of color learn from youth.

He had chased the American Dream, in part, but he missed the beauty of Dominica, missed especially the sea, which he loved to bathe in, and the rich, calm mountain air. The racism around him was another heart-sign: Go, now.

But he had the music.

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*

In literature, silence is as important as music—more important, I would argue. Silence, after all, is the dominant music of reading—the kind of unique Cagean silence that is never purely silent, invested with whatever background noises live around us as we turn pages and tap or swipe screens and cursors. It is the silence of sitting by the beach and forgetting, for a long moment, the waves and wind exist, in reality or in Woolf’s novel. It is the silence of tree ferns that drape over a river, both knowing and not knowing the gurgling water is there. It is the sound of lamps on a night when the crotons and flamboyant branches are still, the sound of the grass yellowing in a crumbling graveyard near the elastic chaos of a small island town.

Silence is the music of reading.

*

The music came from tall, fuzzy-faced black speakers encased in wood that he had gotten, with pride, from the United States. They stood in silence when unused like brooding, carved gods. Despite my father’s adoration of the speakers, my mother would castigate him for not cleaning them, showing him, in furious incomprehension, the tumbleweeds of dust and translucent spider corpses that had accumulated behind the speakers. As a tween and teenager, I tended to anthropomorphize everything, feeling sorry for the items in my drawers I no longer used or for something when I dropped it, and I imagined his speakers as still denizens of our home, my father’s trophy pets.

I learnt to ignore the extraordinary emanations from his speakers, but one day, while tossing mangoes for the dogs to fetch and devour, I heard deep drums pounding almost like an action movie’s soundtrack. I went inside. It was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, he said, beaming. I was surprised at how contemporary it sounded. Rite of Spring, which became—on some days—my favorite piece of music, was my gateway drug into a new world: my father’s.

He began to loan me CDs, which I listened to on a laptop, and on some days he called me in to sit by him and listen to an entire piece play. He would ask if I had heard this or that composition. Just as I had inherited his love of the Impressionists in art, I found myself gravitating to the 19th and early 20th century, like him. In rare moments, I even, with pride, introduced him to pieces he had avoided, usually more Modernist or experimental works, like the tortured mad genius of Scriabin’s Prometheus and, my favorite of Scriabin’s, Op 8 No. 12, a short piano number that has always seemed like a perfect evocation of the sudden emotional highs and lows of lonely, depressed brilliance.


I was my father’s child, and in those moments, that meant something more special. We shared something. Our sharing only went so far—he pooh-poohed the metal, techno, hip-hop, lounge, ambient, industrial, and dancehall I also listened to—but we were bonded by something. My mother, who did not share my father’s adoration of classical music, sometimes commented, in a tone of quiet frustration, that we were leaving her out. Growing up, I had always felt closer to my mum; her new sense of isolation upset me. I asked her to listen to Dad’s CDs with me, and she smiled in pride at my newfound ability to explicate music history to her, but she still seemed hurt, as if Dad and I had joined an exclusive club. It was symptomatic, I learnt later, of a larger emotional distance between my parents, one living in one world, the other in another, with little happy go-between.

Then the speakers began to fall silent.

At first, it made sense. Fresh technology for playing music allured him almost as much as the music itself, and he leapt at exploring the sonic potential of then-new disc-shaped MP3 players and the acoustics of various headphones. (He always favored Bose.) Online, he scoured forums and review pages that weighed the pros and cons of his dream devices. The flutes and horns still filled our home, but with less regularity. Instead, you might hear a tinny, mini rendition from his headphones, which he put over his ears while he read lives of composers and the airport novels by Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, et al he would still be rereading many years later. So loud was the music in his ears that he could not hear if we shouted, and he would look with a start if we slipped around his white wicker chair on the verandah into his line of sight.

When he switched to his faithful, if short-lived, Zune, he began to sleep with the music in his ears. He would fall asleep many nights with earphones pressed tightly into his ear canal, orchestras blasting silently beneath the carpets of his dreams. “Someone should do a study to see if this is healthy,” he joked many times before brushing aside the idea that anything was wrong.

 

“Yet anyone who has lived in a quiet house where people want to speak, want sound, knows how uncomfortable its silence can be, even for solitudinous introverts like me and my parents.”

 

Soon, he wasn’t blasting his music at all. The house was quiet, still, even uncomfortable. You could feel it, as if something in the house and its inhabitants had changed. The new silence was a thick, tangible thing, like the drone of rainfall in a tropical depression.

For Poe as much for Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, Wharton, and Bowen, a home was a living, symbiotic space, reflecting in its claustrophobia, mustiness, excesses, and degradation the inner lives of its owners; the quietude of our house made me feel awkward, made me feel my only-child aloneness more acutely. I began, too, to sense in it the glacial air that characterized my parents’ distant relationship. In the new silence I heard and felt new things. My father’s aloneness, his trepidation, his turning inward. It was as if a baroque eruption of love, a grand absurd cathedral welded from melody, had been scaled down by force—not sunken, as for Debussy, but miniaturized, until it would bother no one.

Of course, I’m projecting, in part. Yet anyone who has lived in a quiet house where people want to speak, want sound, knows how uncomfortable its silence can be, even for solitudinous introverts like me and my parents.

It was one of those small things that, over time, comes to seem big.

Later, when I had left our home for good after coming out, a hurricane, full of vociferous rage, destroyed our island, and my parents, who survived only by hiding in a closet, found themselves grateful for the silence after it finally left.

*

Now my father sits in a new silence. Like the red scars and jagged lines from a schoolteacher or parent hitting somewhere hard, the house after the hurricane is a huddled, injured thing, battered but not, like in a cliché, beaten. Yet the house remains quiet. Months after the hurricane there is still no hot water or electricity, except when they can run the generator, which, by some blind blessing, was not broken and flung into the valley by the hurricane’s swirling cyclopean rage.

The silence is partly because my father has begun to fade. He has a diabetic ulcer on his foot, I learn from my mum across a sea’s distance, and must be nursed every two days and can scarcely walk and may not be able to walk normally again and has also had a near-death scare and still more things I cannot put into words just yet, even when I believe I have learnt to share anything. Like Carpentier, he has lost his steps. It is bad enough to be hit by a hurricane; to be ill and elderly in a broken house is a quieter, more dissonant composition. The horror seems hollow to me, the pain a dull, dense, sea-floor weight. I am, like him, silent for a time, because I do not have words. I call him.

Yet on the phone, for the brief time we have reception enough to speak, he sounds like his old, young-at-heart self, the father who smilingly brushes things aside and whistles. He reduces his travails to a cut on his foot, to things that will pass. He alchemizes the fade of an afternoon into a brief warm glow. Makes it all seem okay. I’m reminded how incredibly resilient Dominicans can be. I am scared, yet I am also, in his brief presence on a call across a sea, calmed. Somehow, he has quelled the storm-music inside me, calling forth something better, brighter, more Ravelesque. I wonder, as I’ve wondered before, if all his talk is optimism, naiveté, charming schoolboyish bluster, a chiaroscuro half-truth lit by shadows. Or the truth. I can never fully tell. All I know is I feel better, in the moment.

Minutes later, I am back to being afraid and uncertain and surrounded by my own silence, like the house.

Silence, Cage knew, was an unpredictable music in of itself, never truly silent, but all I think of now is that the silence is indeed a cage, heavy, rolling without a sound on spectral circus wheels when I walk. It’s cold, my first of New York’s seemingly unending winters. I feel far away and alone. I know I, his distant daughter, have it easy compared to him, despite the blue empty quietude around me. I try to write.

I write because I am scared and do not know what else to do in the moment.

*

Sometimes, we write not to find the ending, but to find our way to a middle-place, where we can avoid thinking of endings, for a bit.

I imagine he still has the music even if all his devices fail, still conducts like Beethoven, knowing the music without hearing it, hearing it even in the silence, in the sadness, in the sea-foam he may never see or hear again but still dreams of, and I marvel at his strength, wishing I knew how to cry less and dream more and conduct my own indigo music better.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, Huffington Post, The Toast, Lambda Literary, The Normal School, Small Axe, VIDA, Autostraddle, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and other places. She is working on her first novel.





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