Note: This started out as an interview with my dad, Steve, before it accidentally turned into a David Sedaris-esque article. Whoops. We will be back to regularly scheduled programming next week. In the meantime, here’s an essay about growing up in Boonville.
“You’re a Litwiller? What instrument do you play?”
I often heard this question when I was growing up in Boonville. It was always said with a knowing wink from the asker, as though they already knew the answer. It never failed to piss me off, although the question was not entirely uncalled for. Dad was the band director in Boonville for over thirty years; where I went through the public school system, Mom was the librarian. It was like I was living in the modern version of the Music Man.
Boonville only has about eight thousand residents, and it felt like every single person knew who we were. It didn’t help that we all look so similar; I distinctly remember walking into a local bank my senior year of high school and the cashier pulling up my account without even checking my ID – “You just look like a Litwiller, honey, I know exactly who you are,” is something that is charming, creepy, and a phrase that I heard frequently.
I couldn’t escape my Litwiller-ness at school, but I didn’t try to avoid it either. In the third grade I gave a lecture to my entire elementary music class about the importance of a fermata, which surprisingly didn’t win me any friends. Later, in high school, I played clarinet in band, sang in choir, took piano lessons, and avoided sports like my life depended on it. By senior year I had picked up the ukulele and “released” an album that included non-politically correct gems like “Yeah, Well, I Hope You Get AIDS,” a song that will surely impede me from getting elected should I ever decide to run for office.
When I graduated and went to college to major in public communication, I would always mention my family in an attempt to sound interesting. Some people talk about their drunken escapades; I was bragging about the “family band” jam sessions we sometimes attempted, although inevitably I would play a wrong note and be so embarrassed I’d refuse to keep playing.
“Oh, you all play instruments?” someone at college would say, when I would share about my life back home. “That must be so fun!”
“It has its moments,” I’d admit, but privately I knew I was overselling the “cute family band” storyline. We are all talented – this is true. My mother is an accomplished violinist; my brother can play almost any instrument and play it well. Everyone can sing on pitch. But it wasn’t like we were the Partridge Family. Nobody was going on tour, or had been to Juilliard. Dad was a member of several bands,
including a German polka band called “The Sauerkraut Serenaders” and “Roadkill”, a clarinet quintet, but that was about it.
I started feeling more self-conscious and ashamed when I began playing open mics with friends. I was beginning to realize that we were not the only musical family that ever walked the planet. We could all play, sure, but we weren’t the best. I could play piano with both hands, but since quitting lessons I was starting to forget time signatures and how to keep a good beat. Was I a fraud? I wasn’t sure.
In late April of 2015, a week after I celebrated my twenty-first birthday, my grandfather, Chris, passed away in the house he shared with my grandmother in Boonville. We all knew it was coming. He had been sick from complications derived from a bout with polio in the ‘40s, and every day that year had been a struggle for both him and the rest of our family. My brother called to tell me he was dying while I was at a friend’s apartment in college. Then, because I couldn’t get home that night and wasn’t sure what else to do, I smoked two blunts on the porch and got gloriously high for the first time in my life.
I remember hazily thinking about my grandfather and how much he had given our family. As a kid, he had worked hard to give his younger siblings instruments and music lessons; as an adult, he had gone into debt to buy my dad his first horn. He loved hearing us play, and especially enjoyed the holidays, where clarinets, pianos, guitars, ukuleles, violins, hammer dulcimers (and on…and on…and on…) would all play slightly off-key versions of Christmas jingles. Grandpa had made sure his loved ones could play music, and it affected my dad so much he wanted to make a career out of it, subsequently met my mom in college orchestra, and created his own family of little neurotic musicians.
Now, generations later, we are still defined by our musical ability in Boonville. After
retirement, Dad still works with bands across Missouri and is a prominent figure in the world of band directors. Mom still plays violin; my brother is now a music teacher in Venezuela. We still play at Christmas gatherings, and we are all looking forward to the day when my nephews and cousins are able to join in. We aren’t Grammy winning artists or featured guests on the Today show, but it doesn’t matter. Us Litwillers are passionate about our lives in music, and we don’t have to be the best to make each other happy. And even though I sometimes hit sour notes on the piano or sing in the wrong key, nobody notices but myself.*
*Just kidding. Everybody in the family notices, and lets me know immediately if I play an E instead of an E Flat.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave a message below and I’ll be sure to read it. See you next week.