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Discernment. Online

'My mother's early years as an army wife had left an emotional scar. When I was in my infancy, my crib was often the top drawer of an old bureau in Southern rooming houses and hotels'

Book excerpt

Prologue: Letter
from Aunt Willa

In a just released book, LIONEL ROLFE describes the uncommon bond between two great women: pianist Yalta Menuhin and writer Willa Cather 

It must have been in the early 1950s in that paradoxical place of
seacoast, desert sun, and brush fires that is Southern California. No fires were burning in the primeval canyons just then, and no great rains were alling. It was simply one of those glorious Southern California summer unday mornings when the sun was everywhere in my parents' bedroom.

Usually on a Sunday morning, they got their privacy. But sometimes the family assembled in the master bedroom because it admirably served as a family room as well. Part of their room was an entrance to another room that had only one small window and a low ceiling. At night we used that attic as
a planetarium and imagined that the stars projected on the ceiling were real. Because the roof was low, in order to use the ceiling for the projector, you had to recline on large pillows on the wooden floor.

It was probably a mild morning, when summer veers into fall. It was not easy for the sun to shine through the windows, hung deep into the two-foot wide walls of the large two-story home where we lived in Long Beach, California.

It all felt very cozy. My parents, Benjamin and Yaltah, were lying in bed, and my brother Robby and I were nearby. My mother had brought out her shoe box full of letters from "Aunt Willa" -- Willa Cather, the great author. She read one of the letters which described me as a baby, in most complimentary terms, and laughed at the memories. At other points she cried as she read.

Aunt Willa, she explained, was the mother her own mother Marutha had never been. If not openly, certainly in her heart of hearts, my mother thought of her mother as a witch. As I watched her life unfold, it was plain to me that Yaltah Menuhin had good reason to feel the way she did. For the last decades of both their lives, mother and daughter had spoken only once, and that was after Yaltah's brother Yehudi had cajoled Marutha and Yaltah into a telephone call. After a valiant attempt, Yaltah hung up and never talked to her mother again.

My mother had been twenty when she married my father, then a young soldier in the Army who had went AWOL to marry her. Amidst a storm of publicity, aided in part by Yaltah's father's open hostility to the marriage, the couple eloped. Moshe Menuhin was if nothing else direct about what he thought, abrasive as that often was. He hated the young lieutenant and told the newspapers he was "worse than Hitler".

Ben Rolfe was not famous, but the woman he married, a pianist, was -- because she was the sister of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, regarded as the greatest musical prodigy of the 20th century. My mother had grown up without a real understanding of money, a characteristic she maintained even as she grew older and became much poorer.

Her early years as an army wife had left an emotional scar. When I was in my infancy, my crib was often the top drawer of an old bureau in Southern rooming houses and hotels.

Yaltah lived in dreary, cockroach infested places to be close to my father, who was stationed at Oak Ridge, Tennessee where work was proceeding on the atom bomb. Confronted with the salt-of-the-earth about whom she had only read, Yaltah turned to writing long letters to Willa, and Willa wrote back.

That summer morning as my mother read the letters it seemed to me as if Cather had been amazingly romantic. She talked about how the pictures my mother had sent her showed I must have been the most beautiful baby in the world. She also advised my mother, who must have been contemplating divorce, to stay with my father even in the face of intense scorn from her parents.

(Excerpt from Lionel Rolfe's The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather now available online and in fine bookstores).


Published on 15 September 2004

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