A recording studio in Altona North. March 2007
My memories of Dad’s music start when I’m about three. We live in a rented post-war, house with scant furnishings, yet somehow there’s a sense of abundance. Dad sits on a kitchen chair, playing a worn Paolo Soprano piano accordion (fisarmonica in Italian— it’s one of the first words I learn). The pearly inlay of the grille cover is deep emerald green. Dad’s foot taps like a metronome, his head turns to almost rest on the accordion bellows as he plays. I watch his right small hand travel up and down the keyboard; his left works the bass buttons. He flicks the treble switches and pushes the bellows in and out, in a seamless coordination.
Dad’s fingers and arms work magic. Music fills the house. It keeps a smile on my mother’s face.
My father has played piano accordion almost daily since he was 15, interrupted only by World War II. At nearly 88, he plays weekly sessions in nursing homes and community events, a fact he gleefully lauds over my two muso sons whose gigs can be frustratingly infrequent. These days, the Soprani he uses is sleek and finely crafted. It’s a long way from his first accordion. That one was a third standard size, a childhood gift from his father. He keeps it in a corner of his wardrobe, carefully wrapped in blankets to protect it and all the memories caught in its bellows.
I fear the day when Dad’s accordion will fall silent. Perhaps that’s why, in 2007, I cajole him into a recording studio. The dull lighting, booths and banks of mixing consoles disorient him. Dad’s music has never required technology.
‘Has your accordion got a jack?’ the sound engineer wants to know.
‘Who is Jack?’ Dad replies, puzzled.
The engineer laughs. He solves the problem by sitting Dad on a stool and building a lattice of microphones on stands around him.
Dad flexes his fingers to warm up. The middle finger of his left hand is permanently bent. An industrial accident at The Wiltshire File Company cut deeply into his tendons. In the 1950s, there was no microsurgery. Dad adjusted his life around the restriction, and in spite of it, his fingers on the keys are elegantly dexterous. Soon the strains of Lili Marlene, the World War II song made famous by Marlene Dietrich, fill the air.
The engineer stops what he’s doing and watches. When Dad finishes, the engineer says, ‘You’re pretty good.’
‘This was first song I learn. I learn for my wife, before we marry.’ Dad looks away, his eyes moist. The old German song seems an anomalous romantic choice for someone three times wounded while serving in an anti-Nazi resistance movement. Given its origins in the poem, The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch, it made sense that it became popular with combatants on both sides. ‘Few years ago, when she was sick, I play for her every day. One day, after her chemotherapy, I stop, so not to disturb her. She ask me, ‘Why you stop?’ So I play more.’ He adds in a whisper, ‘Now I play to her picture every day.’
A tangle of emotions catches in my throat.
The engineer’s question breaks the silence. ‘Do you read music?’
‘I play by ear.’ Dad flicks his earlobe. ‘I listen to song few times then I can play.’
I spend the session at the mixing desk, watching Dad in the recording booth, reflecting on the importance of his music to our family’s identity. It’s been the soundtrack to my entire life, tying together our past, present and future. When Dad records Lili Marlene for the CD, he struggles with his emotions and I ache for him.
A few hours later, he has a simple CD of twenty-six short tracks. Dad turns it over in his hands, as if it’s a wondrous object. ‘I will send copies to my sisters in Italy, but I think I can do better. We come back another day, yes?’
‘Anything you want, Dad.’
My mother is eleven years gone now. In the void left by her death, Dad moved next door to me. He still plays his beloved fisarmonica every day. He’s convinced he’s improving. Through his open window, the sweet music floats to my home, stirring my memories.
I am three again.
My mother is smiling.
© Lucia Nardo.