from Aunt Willa
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'
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.
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
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
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
(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
to the editor