When I was in the fourth grade I started playing the bassoon. What better instrument for a shy, awkward girl who didn’t fit in but the bassoon? Even the sound of the word was dorky – b-ass-ooon… And in musical scores it’s the Italian fagotto, or “bundle of sticks”.
Hitting the pre-pubescent years, I had gangly arms and legs, with too much hair on all of them, braces on my teeth, and unruly eyebrows. Often the target of bullies, I would have been safer not drawing attention to myself. So why would I choose to play an instrument that was 4.5 feet tall and looked like a bedpost? Because the choice wasn’t mine – bassoons ran in the family. My favorite aunt was married to Alan Fox, who owned a bassoon factory in South Whitley, Indiana. His father, Hugo Fox, had been principal bassoonist for the Chicago symphony. Looking to improve his instrument, Hugo started making his own bassoons in a converted chicken coop in his backyard. By the time my uncle was an adult, it was a factory. In 1960, Alan gave up his career as a chemical engineer and took over the business, turning out top-notch bassoons and oboes that were sought after by musicians in major symphonies around the world.
I was four years old in 1964 when Auntie Pam married Alan Fox at her parents’ house on Hildreth Road in Bridgehampton. Early in the morning on the day of the wedding, a tragedy struck the family who lived directly across the street. Two of the three teenaged sons were hit and killed on the Lumber Lane Long Island Railroad crossing. Witnesses later said the crossroad warning bell was ringing and the train whistle was blowing, but the boys were going fast and couldn’t stop in time. One witness was the boys’ aunt, who ran to a neighbor’s house to call the police.
When the news reached my grandmother she didn’t know what to do: “How can we possibly hold a wedding at a time like this?” Then she crossed the street to offer her condolences. The boys’ mother, well-known for her heart of gold, hugged my grandmother, crying, and then said: “You go ahead with that wedding for Pam, don’t you worry about us.”
So the wedding went on. Men were in suits with skinny ties, ladies in white gloves and veiled Pillbox hats like Jacqueline Kennedy’s, eating finger sandwiches and shrimp cocktail and drinking punch. The rice was thrown as the happy newlyweds made their exit. But I was upset that Auntie Pam was leaving without me. I chased their car down Hildreth Road in my flower girl outfit, crying, as they made their honeymoon getaway in Uncle Alan’s Porsche. The grown-ups laughed, but it was my first heartbreak. I adored her.
Pam had been a tomboy, with two long thick braids and a no-nonsense attitude. She was an athlete, older and stronger than her little brother Peter, my father, who tended to be a crybaby. The Peter/Pam childhood stories were legendary: Pam pushing Peter off the garage roof in a wagon; Pam hitting Peter in the eye with an arrow shot from a bow; Peter (by accident or in retaliation?) bringing down an iron rake upon Pam’s head.
But Pam was wonderful with us, the perfect aunt. Married to the bassoon maker and living in Indiana, she came back to Bridgehampton every summer and devoted a lot of time to my brothers and me: games of catch and badminton in the backyard, 4-hand duets on my grandmother’s piano, and trips to Long Beach where she let us dive off her knees.
So there was no question, I would play the bassoon. Weekly lessons were arranged with Jean Smith, a wealthy music enthusiast who lived on Quimby Lane. Her house was a mansion; the enormous formal living room had velvet-covered antique sofas and four sets of French doors opening onto a huge covered porch. The sprawling lawn went right down to Sagg Pond, where Jean’s husband often sailed. But Jean didn’t care about mansions or furniture or sailboats. She emptied out that living room, leaving only her two grand pianos, and taught Dalcroze Eurhythmics classes to local children, often free-of-charge.
Jean owned a Fox bassoon and knew a lot of interesting people. One of those people was her teacher, a bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic. When I was 12 years old, Jean once took me along for a lesson at his house in Jamaica, Queens. We rode in Jean’s pale yellow Mercedes Benz. She had devised an elaborate system for pouring herself coffee from a thermos while driving on the Long Island Expressway, somehow always maintaining control at 70 mph with one hand on the wheel, never spilling a drop. After getting settled with her coffee she reached in her bag and pulled out cucumber sandwiches for the two of us.
Arriving in Queens, I felt nervous about meeting someone who played in the Philharmonic. The bassoonist’s wife met us at the door and greeted us warmly, speaking with a heavy Italian accent. She led us down the narrow basement stairs. Expecting the sort of music studio in which a professional musician would give private lessons, I was surprised to see that the finished basement was filled from floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, with only a tiny space carved out for two chairs and two music stands. A stocky, slightly disheveled older man was puffing away on his bassoon. He stopped playing and motioned us over, apologizing for the cramped quarters. The boxes contained his daughter’s wedding presents, he explained. The marriage had lasted only a short time and all the gifts had to be sent back. He seemed depressed and upset about his daughter’s short-lived marriage, waving his hand at the boxes and sighing.
Jean’s lesson began and I tried to pay attention, but my mind kept wandering back to the wedding gifts. What could have happened, I wondered, to make a marriage end so quickly that the bride had to return all the gifts? Then it was my turn to play. I’d chosen a piece that I thought best showed my abilities – mostly in the lower register – and gave it my best shot. When I finished playing I was eager to hear what the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic thought about my technique. He waited a moment, seemingly in thought, and then asked me: “You help your mother around the house?” “Yes,” I said, a little thrown by the question. Maybe he was going to connect it to bassoon playing somehow? Comparing the physical exercise of housecleaning to the abdominal breathing he had demonstrated earlier with his pudgy, round belly? But he just sighed again and said, “You’re a good girl.” And that was it. The lesson was over.
My debut performance was at the Bridgehampton School Spring Concert. The curtain came up and I started to make the long trek to my seat when, at center stage, the bottom third of my bassoon (called, fittingly, the butt) fell off and hit the floor with a loud thud. I froze. People in the audience started laughing. Jean was seated near the front and caught my eye. She gave me an encouraging nod as if to say, “So you’re carrying the most embarrassing instrument in the orchestra and part of it has just fallen onto the floor. So what? You’re cool. Pick it up, re-attach it, and carry on with your head held high!”
When I went off to Potsdam College I left my bassoon at home, under the bed. I came home for Christmas break looking for it after deciding I wanted my bassoon at school after all. It turned out that the professor who auditioned me for the Crane Chorus recognized my last name – he had been Pam’s teacher at Crane – and he encouraged me to keep playing. But my bassoon was gone. Dad had sold it to a local music teacher while I was away, not telling anyone what he had done. Mom found out when the buyer showed up at the door to “make a payment for the bassoon.” Dad’s drinking had cost him his job as the Bridgehampton postmaster, and he needed the money.
Years later, the bassoon ended up in the hands of a girl who happened to be in the same class as my daughter in school. They were in the orchestra together – my daughter playing viola and Katie playing bassoon. My bassoon. It irked me to see it, but what could I do? Storm the stage and demand my bassoon back? Besides, Katie was a sweet girl, very shy and awkward. She didn’t quite fit in.