CHAPTER 3 - FAMILY IS FOREVER
Family is Forever
Something new is something old.
Turn back time,
And you will see
You always were. You’ll always be.
Think of how strange it was to see your father crying for the first time. Think of how disoriented you felt when you first saw your mother truly hurting, her cheeks wet with tears or her eyes reddened with sorrow. Think of the first funeral you ever attended, family all around…pained faces long as they tried to process the situation. Most of the people you love and respect were probably there. They were much different that day, weren’t they? Picture it. See it. Do you remember? Were you speechless? How did you act? How did you respond? The first time the veil of perfection is pulled back from those we love is incredibly unnerving. To a child, a moment like this is poignant and sticks around in their consciousness for a long time. Depending on the level of intensity, a moment such as this can even change the trajectory of their life. At minimum, something like this takes away some of that priceless childhood innocence. For better or worse, this youthful virtue never completely leaves us, as we most often choose to see only the best and most beautiful faces of those we love. Children are incredibly resilient, aren’t they? They can compensate and recover so quickly, seemingly as if nothing happened. The unpleasant is repressed and regressed into the back of the mind. Wounds heal, scars form, and then back to utopia. There will always be moments barren of sunshine and roses in this fallen world, just as there will always be golden times that warm us like sitting under the summer sun.
Our childhood memories continually return to us, however distorted they may be. They return seemingly at random: sparked by a smell, a particular turn of phrase, or a familiar tune. Sometimes they return in a trickle, and at other times they overwhelm us like water released from a dam. People keep on living, because they must. It’s what people do. They learn from the past, and as they grow they try and hide this baser and uglier side of themselves from their loved ones, but even the best-built walls can still spring a leak. All it takes is a crack, and before you know it the foundation is compromised. After the foundation comes the floor. After the floor comes the walls. With the walls comes the ceiling. On top of it all falls the roof. Yes, the mighty collapse starts with just a crack. The trick is to make the most of opportunities for reconciliation. Acknowledge and repair. Fix the crack before it grows arms and legs that reach far beyond your line of site. Address the troubles in the basement before the walls come tumbling down. Do that, and your house can stand for generations.
The Ernst Family tree has a certain trait that has been passed down from branch to branch... a doggedness that gives them the ability to absorb, process, and keep moving forward. This perseverance isn’t particularly special or unique, but it’s an absolute necessity when your lineage also passes down the Gift. Not all receive it, but if you’re chosen…you had better be ready.
Meyer grew up in Vienna, Austria, the third of four children in a proud Austrian family. He had two older sisters and one younger brother that joined the family a bit later through adoption. Meyer’s family was upper middle-class and part of the resurgence and economic rebuilding of Vienna after the devastating effects of WWII bombing and occupation. Meyer lived on a fairly nice street surrounded by other nice families just like his. The usual roster of the well-off middle class lined the street: doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers, and business owners. All eager to get life back to normal, and excited to be in a Free Austria once more. Meyer’s family home was just a short 10-minute walk to the Violin Shop. Just up the street – two rights and a left, and you’d be right there at the front door.
Meyer’s Grandpa Louis still ran the Shop and took special pride in the beloved store. Grandpa lived in the upper floors above the Shop, and the family patriarch was as unique as the instruments he cared for and created. The Shop didn’t exactly make a killing, but it did well enough that Louis owned the building outright. Being the sole owner allowed Louis to treat the Shop more like a labor of love than a business and do things his way. The Violin Shop was a favorite of local musicians, many of which had trusted Louis Ernst with the upkeep and care of their most cherished instruments. Amateurs, professionals, and collectors all respected the Ernst family name, and Louis saw the guarding of this reputation as his sacred duty to uphold. The love of the Shop was passed down throughout the family, and as is the way with family businesses the world over, Meyer and his siblings all worked at the store in some capacity during their formative years.
The Shop held a special place in all of their hearts, but Meyer had fallen especially deep in love with everything about this magical place. Grandpa Louis was very generous with his time and answered all of Meyer’s questions patiently. He spoke about the instruments he created and restored like they were his own children. Grandpa seemed to have an endless memory of the inventory in his care. He knew precisely which violins sounded bold, and which sounded reserved – which were good for students, and which violins should only be played by a professional. Grandpa loved to help clients shop for their perfect instrument. He’d listen to them play and then suddenly say, “Do you hear it? That’s the one! It matches you perfectly!” Grandpa sold many violins this way. He let his clients take their time and explore until they found their match. Louis could sell anybody, anytime. He once sold a violin, bow, and new Pirastro strings to an oboe player. The oboe player had just stopped in to ask if the Shop carried any new oboe reeds, and two hours later he walked out with a new instrument to learn.
Master Luthier Louis Ernst showed Meyer how each part of his violins had been crafted by expert, weathered hands. There were times when Meyer would sit on an old wooden stool, quiet as a church mouse, as Grandpa crafted and measured and whittled and glued. There was usually classic orchestral or American jazz music playing on the record player in the background while Grandpa worked. When one of his favorite songs came on, Grandpa would close his eyes, take a deep breath, and soak it in for a moment. Meyer could still hear Duke Ellington playing “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” as Grandpa hummed along.
Meyer would laugh when Grandpa talked to his instruments on the worktable.
“Come, come my dear lady. That’s it. We’ll make you as good as new. Look, Look Meyer. She’s looking just as lovely as she did in 1885. Those Nazi Neanderthals tried to destroy her, but look my boy! She survived!”
Slowly but surely, minute by minute, hour-by-hour, Grandpa would labor. As he grew older, his movements grew less precise and the tremors in his hands grew more frustrating, but as was his way, he endured. Meyer stayed right by his side and the two Ernst’s would spend days together cracking up at silly jokes. Meyer was good at being gracious and feigning surprise while hearing a story for the thousandth time, but he could see that it made his Grandpa happy, and so he was happy.
Meyer’s family was comfortable. For a long time they never wanted for anything, as far as Meyer could tell. He heard about the days when he was a baby, days when Vienna was riddled with poverty and short of food. Things were getting better all the time. His father was a savvy businessman in Vienna, and his mother was a former schoolteacher who now stayed at home with the children. His parents always taught him to work hard for a living and to never accept mediocrity. Meyer saw his father, William, as a powerful man who was well respected within their community. He came to recognize over the years that his father was brilliant, primarily making his money off of cunning investments and real estate. His father shared his joy of music and had a massive collection of vinyl records ranging from Schubert to Count Basie.
William Ernst took big risks, and for the most part succeeded in winning those bets to the tune of large payoffs. One proviso with this way of conducting business, of course, is that you are bound to make enemies. C’est la vie, he always figured. That’s just the way it goes.
Meyer’s mother, Sophie, was a jewel of a woman who was tough as nails, and sweet as sugar. Sophie had grown up extremely poor and she was excellent at adapting to less than ideal situations. She was caring and fun and loved spending time with her children. She would make everyday an adventure. Picnics (indoors and out), crafting, puppets, baking, hiking, and trips to the museum were all things she shared with her children. She took great pride in showing them that the greatest joys in life come through experiences with the ones you love, and not through possessions.
Meyer remembered his parents having grand parties where friends and family would come to eat, sing, and dance. His parents were famous for these parties where no one would leave hungry (or thirsty for that matter). Guests would treat his parents like royalty at these get-togethers. Despite the milling crowd, you could always find Grandpa Louis sitting in the front room in his favorite chair taking in all of the action. Meyer remembered men and women going out of their way to get time alone with his father. They would shake hands and then whisper discreetly in his ear about one thing or another. Meyer thought his father must be very important indeed to have such attention.
His family loved music and had it in the house constantly. They especially loved great Austrian composers like Schubert and Haydn. All four children were required take music lessons and learn an instrument at an early age. Father said it was good for them to learn discipline, and Mother said that music “Brought joy like nothing else in the world.” She was right, of course. Music would be a constant companion to Meyer for all of his days.
His oldest sister, Bridgette, played the Clarinet. She was a natural and seemed to excel at everything she put her mind to. She could also play the piano, flute, and oboe. She was wonderful with intonation and loved reading music as much as she loved reading her books. Bridgette was kind and warm, but like oldest sisters around the world, she took special joy in giving marching orders to her siblings. Bridgette was a classic beauty, with flowing auburn locks that were a stunning contrast to her pale green eyes.
Margery, the younger of his sisters, played the Cello. Margery was a firecracker who never could practice for more than ten minutes without asking someone if her music sounded beautiful. Margery never had a passion for reading music, but she was talented nonetheless. She could hear a song coming from the record player or the radio and just play right along. She had a wonderful ear for music, and Meyer loved listening to her improvise and tell a story with her notes. Margery’s moods would swing wildly from ecstatic to stoic, as she took on life headfirst. As some might say, the highs were high, and the lows were low for dear Margery. Momma always said that Margery was the most like her father. She had zero interest in being a proper lady, and that was OK with Meyer. She was more fun that way.
Finally, there was Charlie. He came to the family later on, but he eventually fit right in. Charlie caught on quickly to the family’s love of music, but he was completely tone deaf. He tried the piano, but couldn’t sit still long enough to make it through a song. He tried the accordion, but that was worse. He would mimic Vienna’s famous strolling musicians and go from room to room playing unrecognizable folk tunes and making up words as he went. Mother would smile and say, “Keep trying darling, I adore your enthusiasm!” Charlie was always different, and for the longest time Meyer didn’t understand why. Bridgette would inform him that he would just “get it” one day when he was older.
Father was not so understanding of the roaming troubadour. Once when their Father was in an important business meeting in his study, Charlie busted in with his accordion and before he could get out any words their father stood up and screamed, “Not now, Charles! Leave that accordion here and leave us in peace!” The accordion was never seen again.
You see, when their father wanted something, he got it. William Ernst had a knack for finding the right opportunity and seizing it with an iron grip. He would work late into the evenings in his study smoking his cigars and sometimes drinking too much. There were many days that Father was just going to bed as the kids were leaving for school.
After the accordion incident, Mother had Charlie try the violin as a sort of last resort. He seemed to be catching on until he pretended his bow was a sword and broke it delivering the coup de grâce to the nightstand during a very dramatic reenactment of “The Three Musketeers” with Meyer. After that, Charlie never attempted an instrument again, and his parents simply gave up trying to push him in the musical direction. Instead they let Charlie do art, which he loved the most. He could sketch and paint and excel at anything he tried his artistic hand at.
For Meyer, it was always the violin. It was his first love. The violin just made sense to him and he could play for hours on end. He would write his own little tunes and play others that he heard on the radio. One of his favorite games was to sit by the radio and see how quickly he could pick up a tune by ear with his violin. Everything about the violin fascinated Meyer and he would often dream of creating one on his own.
As the years went by, Meyer was very happy. He got along with his siblings and adored his mother. His Father was strict, but he also wasn’t around too often, so for Meyer, he could deal with his Father’s sudden and swift changes in demeanor. Everything changed the day after Meyer’s 14th birthday.
November 8, 1963 – Vienna, Austria - Evening
That night, Meyer was sweeping up Grandpa’s workshop when he realized he needed to finish up so he wouldn’t be late for dinner. It was the time of year when the sun begins to set very early, and time had completely slipped past him. He was just finishing up the last of his cleaning when his father came in through the front door looking somber and defeated.
“Dad? Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, Meyer. Finish up your cleaning. I’ll be home in a little bit. Please do not follow me upstairs, I need a few moments alone with your Grandfather.”
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes, yes. Fine. Don’t worry about it, just something we need to discuss man to man.”
“Am I in trouble? Did I do something?”
“No!” his father answered with more force than he intended. “Meyer, just get your work done and run on home. I’ll be right behind you, OK?” His father managed a completely unconvincing smile and headed up the stairs.
Meyer stayed there perplexed for a few seconds, and he heard his father calling for Grandpa.
“Dad! Dad? It’s William.”
The voices trailed off and Meyer could tell by their steps they had moved into the living room. He knew he should just go home like his father said, but he couldn’t resist his curiosity. He set his cleaning rag down on the counter and tip-toed as quietly as he could up the stairs. As he got closer the voices seemed to get louder and more stressful. Something was wrong.
“Dad, I need your help, please!”
“I’m sorry son, how can I? You know of the risks! Helping you this way is not an option!”
“Dad, I am going to lose everything! My house, my business, my family!” William sounded desperate, he was begging. Meyer never heard him talk this way, not ever. “These people don’t screw around. Please, Dad, think of your grandchildren.”
“Son, there are repercussions. I can’t guarantee anyone’s safety! You know how this kind of thing can spin out of control.” Louis looked his son straight in the eyes. “I don’t want to see anyone hurt, but there is a certain way of things.”
Meyer stole a glance into the living room. Both men were very agitated and upset, but his father looked like he was losing control.
“Shut up and listen you stubborn old man! Just use it and help me! I have never asked, not once! Not in all my life. I didn’t ask when Margery was sick. I didn’t even ask when Mother was on her deathbed…because YOU! YOU are too cautious and too scared! Please for the love of God, help me!”
Grandpa had tears in his eyes now. He was mumbling now, grasping at words and finding none that fit.
“I...I...should have never told you. It's a mistake. It's a very bad idea, William. We can find another way, I'll...I'll sell the Shop!”
Meyer peeked around the corner, and then ducked back quickly. He wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. He wanted to help Grandpa and talk to his dad. What in the world was going on? How could his old Grandfather possible help his dad with these “bad people?” Back and forth they argued for another few minutes. Meyer heard many thing he didn’t understand. Why would anyone want to hurt his father? Why would they lose their house? Sell the shop? So many questions. Nothing was making sense. His dad and grandpa continued to debate back and forth. Things seemed to be droning on, but Meyer could not concentrate. Meyer quieted his thoughts and focused when he noticed there was a long silence in the living room.
Finally, he heard Grandpa Louis give in to his dad. “Alright, son. I’ll do what I can.”
William looked at his dad. Both men were exhausted. “Thank you, I know this isn’t easy. I appreciate this, I’ll never ask again.” he moved over to place his hand on his father’s shoulders. “You’ll ask as soon as you can?”
“Yes, son. Please go now.”
Without another word, William Ernst turned and headed back towards the stairs, and down to the shop. He was so preoccupied he had run out and forgot all about Meyer. Grandpa didn’t know he was there either. For some reason, Meyer stayed hidden just where he was, he stayed quiet and watched as Grandpa walked to the back of the house, to the room with all the really valuable stuff. Meyer wasn’t really allowed back there, but he was good at exploring when no one was watching. The next thing he saw would change his life forever.
Louis Ernst pulled a necklace over his head. There was a key that looked like something out of a pirate story. Louis stared at the key in his hand for a moment before heading back into the valuables room. He found exactly what he was looking for, even though he hadn’t been searching for it in a very long time. He didn’t look at the number on the outside, he knew what was inside. Louis walked back out into the living room with a small, leather-bound chest about the size of two violin cases. The old luthier slid the key into the lock and heard a click as it hit home.
Meyer was perplexed, and so he stayed hidden. He was positively glued to what he was seeing. He understood none of it, but he felt it was something special.
He watched as Grandpa opened the chest, and stared at it for what seemed like an hour. He had tears running down his face as he picked up the beautiful dark violin out of the case. He also pulled out an old book and set in on a table after glancing at a couple of pages. His hands were shaking badly as he rosined the old bow. Grandpa held the violin and bow in one hand, and closed the chest with the other. He walked slowly back to his chair, and sank into its familiar mold.The back of his wrist wiped the tears from his eyes, and he took a deep breath. Louis wanted what he had always wanted...to help. The decision was made, and so he played. He played a beautiful song that Meyer did not recognize. It was gorgeous, and soulful, and captivating. Grandpa played beautifully. He stopped. It was over. Grandpa stood up and walked back over to the chest and returned the violin and bow with a reluctance Meyer could sense across the room. Meyer was just about to speak up, when he heard a loud sound down below in the store. Someone was knocking on the door at this hour? Meyer panicked and crawled back into the kitchen. He hid behind a chair so he could still see what was going on in the living room.
“COME IN!” shouted Louis. He already knew who was knocking.
A man with salt and pepper hair entered and walked up the stairs. Not too fat, not too thin, not too short, and not too tall. This man was thoroughly average in his appearance, but yet he seemed different somehow. As the stranger passed the hiding place, Meyer noticed a brown suit and an old-fashioned pipe. Meyer could smell the sweet tobacco trailing behind the man and he stayed hidden. The stranger approached his Grandpa. Grandpa looked up from the book that he had removed from the case:
“It’s been a long while hasn’t it? How are you? You look well enough.” Grandpa looked relieved. Who was this guy?
“Hello, Louis. I am here.” The stranger had such an odd voice. It sounded as if the man was right next to Meyer, but he was all the way in the living room. He continued, “How I am is of no importance, and how I look is how I am. You on the other hand have aged quite a lot. You look as I expected, but you still play very beautifully.” The stranger smiled, but it didn’t feel like one. It felt fake, not like a friend, but like the way the principal smiles at you when you’ve been called in to the office.
“Yes yes, well I suppose you know why I did? Uh, played that is?”
“Hmmm...I could probably guess, but I won’t. Tell me. I need to hear it from you. Directly from you and only from you. Please take care to be clear.”
“I know. I will. OK, well here’s the thing…” Louis hesitated, sensing a chance to stop this. He failed. “I am having problems with my son…”
And so Meyer listened as his Grandfather tearfully explained to this stranger about his father’s troubles. He explained about all the things Meyer still didn’t understand. About money, debts, mistakes, and dangers. He talked about bad people and good people that he wanted to protect. The stranger nodded somberly along until Grandpa finished.
“Alright. I understand.” Said the stranger. “Please know that I will do what I can. Do you understand that there will be a price for my help? You understand that the balance must and will be paid?”
“I do. I understand the arrangement.” Louis did not look at the stranger as he replied.
“Very well, Louis. I shall do my best. I will try and provide some comfort to your family in the coming days.”
“Thank you. Goodbye, old friend.”
“I always enjoy our time together, Louis. I know it is a heavy burden that you bear. Thank you for playing for me again.”
And with that, the stranger leaned over to pat Grandpa on the shoulder. Grandpa could not look at him and just stared into the fireplace, his eyes glazed over.
Meyer turned and went to go hide downstairs in the shop before the stranger could spot him. He needed to get out of here. None of this felt right. He also felt terrible for snooping on stuff he obviously had no business knowing. No time to think about it now. Go! Go! Go! Quietly and swiftly he moved down the stairs. Once he reached the bottom he took a hard left and slid behind the counter, his back against the display case. He tried to listen over the sound of his heartbeat as the stranger’s footsteps descended the stairs. Meyer could hear him walking towards the door. Then nothing. He should be opening the door by now. Did I just miss the bell? Where is he? Why is it so quiet? Meyer got on the balls of his feet and slowly raised himself up so his eyes would be just at counter level. He gasped as directly in front of the counter the stranger was glaring at him. Deadpan eyes were drilling into him. They were looking for answers.
“Hey! Um, sorry, sir! Sorry! I didn’t mean to snoop, honest!” Meyer’s mind was searching for an explanation, “I clean here, it’s my shop. I mean, um the family shop. I didn’t hear anything. Nothing!”
The stranger smirked and raised his finger right up to Meyer’s lips. “Shhhhhh. Shhhhh. Breathe, child. I know all of these things. You don’t need to be afraid of me.” The stranger stared a few moments longer. Meyer felt paralyzed. He couldn’t move.
The stranger took a deep breath and moved to leave, but before he did he looked at Meyer once more with a tilted head and that same stupid grin.
“You’re an Ernst alright. I see it in you.” The stranger ran his eyes all over Meyer’s face. “We’ll have an opportunity to properly get to know each other in the coming days. For now, you need to keep this a secret. No one must know we talked tonight. No one must know that you were spying on our private conversations. Not now. Not ever. Your father and grandfather will be terribly angry with you if you ever say a word of what you heard tonight. Do you understand, child?”
Meyer just wanted this guy out of here, so he agreed. “Yeah, yeah. You got it, mister. Not a word!”
The stranger looked angry. He leaned in closer to Meyer’s face. His nose was almost touching Meyer’s nose. He glared at him and spoke slowly and deliberately. “Tell me you understand, child. If you don’t understand people may die before their time, and I certainly don’t want that.”
“What? Um...yeah...Alright, alright, I understand.” Meyer nodded for some added emphasis. He wanted this weirdo to leave as soon as possible.
The stranger continued to look Meyer straight in the eyes. He broke the stare and patted Meyer on the head like a puppy. “Excellent!” All of the sudden he appeared bright and cheery. “I so appreciate those that keep their word. Do not disappoint me, child. Now I must be going. Things to do, you know!” The stranger popped his pipe back in his mouth and turned to leave.
Meyer couldn’t help but continue stare at this stranger in the brown suit. He didn’t know much, but he knew this guy was trouble. Big trouble. The man was almost to the door now. He seemed to know exactly what Meyer was thinking. As he opened the door to leave, the stranger turned back to Meyer and smiled.