It was 99 years ago this month that a remarkable child was born to a laborer’s family in rural New Jersey. The laborer had little formal education but many manual skills; the mother stopped being a teacher to raise six children that were to come; little Roger was the second born.
He was at heart an artist but, like so many others in the first half of the 20th century, was swept by circumstance and unquestioned social customs to follow the majority into marriage and fatherhood (or war) before he really knew what he was doing or what he wanted. Personal desire or creative autonomy were not available to good young men. Rather, find an eligible pretty girl and marry and make grandchildren…
It’s not what he really wanted. He preferred to listen to Beethoven, not crying babies. He would rather play his violin than sit behind an accountant’s desk in a big corporation to pay a mortgage. (photo right, Roger age 5 with sisters, 1917)
Led slowly astray from his true self he was nevertheless an honest and obedient son and husband who went to college, found the girl, my mother Betty, and fulfilled his parent roles responsibly. But these did not fit well. He was never a good-enough son or a fulfilling spouse or an intimate father. How does one learn these things without someone to emulate? His father was moody and harsh and his wife frustrated and demanding (not their fault, just the way they turned out.)
He persisted as long as he could to perform but as time went on felt he was losing hold of his dreams, his self, his balance. Eventually at 51 he gave it up in the fumes of monoxide in the family garage. Lost and isolated. No one at the time really understood, partly because he did not confide his truth to anyone. It is a very sad story that no longer is told since his parents and siblings and wife are gone as well; silence smooths over the storms of an anonymous life.
But Roger’s kids still remember; I remember it well and am the only one who still tells his story–my version of it. And I will be the last to tell it. One cannot recall what is not remembered and no one after me will remember, I’m sorry to say.
But that is the way of most of the world and it can’t be changed. One unknown person’s tragic drama is another’s indifferent ignorance. The rest is silence.
So for now, this day, his birthday on October 13, I pause in the midst of my own drama of ‘getting and spending’ to meditate, to lament, to give thoughtful thanks for passing along Beethoven to me…
PS: Roger’s favorite uncle John was killed in World War I. Read his biography here and his war story here.
By Richard Ammon
October 13, 2011