It was the summer between my 2nd and 3rd grade school years that the decision was made that I would leave my immediate family and go to live with my Aunt Molly and Uncle Arthur on the “other side of town.” Newly turned eight and in a very formative point in becoming Me I was devastated, as was – I would learn many years later – my father. I had not been consulted on all of this and all I was told by the decision-makers was that I was at “a difficult age”. As I pen this column I am 82 plus years old and I must confess nothing has really changed. I must still be at a “difficult age” and still not reconciled to that long ago twist of familial fate. I only mention it here as a bit of necessary background to the larger story. (And I am after all a teller of stories at this end of my life.)
My Aunt Molly was my Mom’s older and childless sister while Uncle Arthur was a talented concert-level violinist, musician and composer. An immigrant from England where he had once played before the king and queen, he was very “British” to the core. Together they set out to make of me a proper, well-mannered and educated young gentleman. And a Master of the violin. While life with the Knowles was formal and scheduled it was not without compensations for which I am ever-thankful. I regularly went to great museums, historic landmarks, steamship rides on the Hudson, visits to the aquarium, zoos, Broadway musicals, Operas and concerts of the Great performers of the time. Arthur would take me to the dressing rooms backstage where I would shake hands with people like Artur Rubenstein, Yehudi Menuhin and others whose names were seen mostly on posters and in The New York Times by others.
At “home” in the very English Knowles cottage with its formal garden of pink petunias through which one had to traverse to reach the front door, I would learn exactly (by measurement) how to set a formal table for dinner with lace tablecloth, shining silverware and folded napkins just right, and – of course – just how Ms. Emily Post told us we must behave before those who might honor us with their presence. Even afternoon Tea (always imported from Derbyshire) had its ritualized routine.
My upstairs bedroom was opposite the “Music Room” and I awoke and went to sleep to the sound of the classics. It was there Arthur’s String Quartet practiced on Wednesdays and where I performed (once in the morning, again after homework) outside of lesson-times. Over the headboard of my bed (hand-carved from English Cherry by Arthur’s brother) hung photos of the King and Queen keeping company with portraits of the two princesses which I could see on the opposite wall while I said my prayers. Uncle Arthur would “play me to sleep” most nights.
I was sharp enough to recognize that my uncle was not an inordinately happy man and that much of the time he seemed lost and far away in his thoughts. When my third grade school year was over and I went back to my own home for the summer I caught snatches of adult conversations and hushed phone calls between my Mom and her sister. Finally I was told Uncle Arthur was being treated for a “nervous breakdown” and had been advised to go away for a quiet rest. From those quiet whispered adult conversations I learned that my own attempts to learn how to whistle had offended Arthur’s “ear” for absolute pitch. The period of prescribed “rest” ended after a few (obviously disappointing) days and I heard a lot of tsk tsk tsks going around in our household.
On August 2, 1943 Arthur Knowles took his own life during the very brief absence from the home of my Aunt Molly. Evidence showed that he had carefully, even elaborately, prepared every detail needed to carry out his well-planned departure, right down to the brown paper bag which would spare his wife a glimpse of his face on the open door of the gas oven. The doorbell had been disconnected to eliminate the spark which would have passed when Molly found the door locked. His rimless eye glasses were neatly folded on the kitchen table. To the family’s knowledge he left no message. He was 57.
No one attempted to explain to me how this could have happened to me. I was ten years of age on that day, after which I would never again return to the “English” Cottage on Washington Avenue. To this day I detest the very perfume of petunias – especially pink ones.
Fifty years later while writing my personal history, I reached the chapter where I had to tell the “Uncle Arthur Story”; this story. In that painful process I was forced to exhume some of my most painful – even long-suppressed – memories and examine them carefully. It finally gave me the insight to lay feelings to rest and to render to this “reluctant interim-father and mentor” the thanks he deserved. And to forgive him. And myself.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you – especially my brother Veterans – or someone you know are even thinking about a “voluntary departure” PLEASE GET HELP. Call 1-800-273-TALK (You will be giving a gift to the hundreds who care about your presence here.)