In teaching a mini-course on Joyce Carol Oates’ book The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, I gave my students the assignment of writing about a “first love” in response to their reading of Oates’ chapter on two of her first loves as a reader—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Frost’s poem “After Apple Picking.”
As I read about a childhood gift from her grandmother, the 1946 “beautifully illustrated copy . . . with its handsome cloth cover embossed with bizarre creatures and the perpetually astonished-looking Alice in their midst . . . the great treasure of my childhood,” I realized that this very same edition graces my bookshelves, and that this Alice and the companion Through the Looking Glass were a gift to my own mother in her childhood. Opening the cover I find a child’s handwriting, “To Dodie from Joan.” Later my mother had written her name in a more grown-up cursive hand: Dodie Walton. So much of my love of books, from early trips to the library to later conversations and sharing poems, comes from my mother, and these books exemplify that connection for me.
As a writer, I tend to think first of books when it comes to the things that influenced me, but I tried to give my students the latitude of writing about whatever “first love”—song, work of art, IMAX theater production—inspired them.
And then I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years, how hearing a song called “The Trumpeter’s Lullaby” had made me want to learn to play the trumpet. In second or third grade my class at Jefferson Elementary was taken to hear the Arkansas Symphony, and when the trumpet player performed that song I was transported. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. From then on I thought that I would like to learn to play, and though I suffered through piano lessons and found, as well, that I did not have the knack for guitar or banjo, I did at least know how to read music when, in ninth grade, I entered a new school, joined the band, and took up the trumpet.
At first we rented a clunky silver-ish trumpet from a music store, where we met the jazz musician Sonny Land (Sonny is a story for another day), but once I proved my dedication to the instrument, my parents bought me a gleaming golden horn that I cleaned and polished and generally did right by. Oddly, although I may have learned “The Trumpeter’s Lullaby,” I don’t recall it being an important piece for me to play: I had fallen in love with the sound of it, with what happened to me as I listened to it—a sense of calm, transcendence, sweetness—and somehow didn’t need to play the song, it having done its work on me already. Even as an adult when I no longer played, I kept the trumpet, sleeping in its leather case with blue velvet interior, for sentimental reasons. A year or so ago, when my grandson decided to take up the trumpet, I knew it would have a new home with him.
Perhaps he’ll learn the lullaby—which, when I looked it up, I was surprised to discover was a relatively new composition, written by Leroy Anderson in 1949 and premiering with the Boston Pops in 1950, fewer than twenty years before I first heard it, and which you can listen to here, played by Wynton Marsalis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORW7suyvPNk
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