This little boy is Menia. (Pronounced “men-ya.”) The name is short for Mendel. Even after he officially changed his name to Mikhail during the Russian Revolution, and thereafter became Mischa to his new friends and acquaintances — his family called him Menia for as long as any of them remained alive. Families tend to do that; they go on calling you what they used to call you.
I’m guessing this photograph was taken in 1909 or 1910, when Menia was seven or eight years old. He’s wearing a school uniform, so he couldn’t be much younger. That awful haircut was intended, I suppose, to prevent lice from spreading among the students. It was a feature of both little-boy photographs I have of him. Then his hair was allowed to grow. In the one teenage photograph he brought with him when he emigrated, he has real hair again.
When Menia — by then long since Mischa — learned from his doctor in 1985 that he had no more than a year to live, he began to write the story of his life on the typewriter. Unfortunately, he began rather late to get very far. After the chapter about his eleventh year, he was too weak or discouraged to type any more and stopped. So that’s all I have of his account of things. But he did write the cello had not been his choice. He would have preferred the violin — the instrument that leads in chamber music, and in orchestras, too. However, his older brother was already playing the violin, and his sister the piano. His father — my grandfather — may have been planning future piano trios for the family. So the cello it was. He does look dutiful in the photograph, doesn’t he?
Fortuitous though the selection of instrument may have been, he continued with it, although he enrolled at university as an engineering student. He even brought his cello with him when he came to America in 1922. Which was lucky, because he never did get his engineering degree. Of necessity, he became a professional cellist, and stayed one until I finished college. Then he moved from East Coast to West, obtained a realtor’s license and put the cello away in its case, to be taken out only on Sundays, for old time’s sake.
Menia, of course, was my father. I am reminded of the photo of him with the cello that looks a little too big for him because one of my grandsons, who is now seven and a half, is also taking cello lessons. In fact, perhaps you read in day before yesterday’s post about my trip to New York last Sunday to attend his performance of the seventeen pieces in Book One of the Suzuki method. Apparently, they make cellos for young students in a greater gradation of small sizes than they used to, because my grandson’s rented cello looks better suited to his present height than Menia’s did. When the concert was over, and I had sufficiently hugged him, I mentioned the photograph of his great-grandfather playing the cello at about his age, and promised I would have a copy of it made, just for him. Which is why you’re reading about Menia today.
Unlike his great-grandfather, my grandson chose the cello as his instrument, and seems to enjoy his lessons. He certainly enjoys the applause greeting his efforts from his younger sister (a violin student) and all the grownups who love him — and was very happy with day before yesterday’s enthusiastic reception from his friends and their parents who attended his Book One concert. I doubt that his own parents are contemplating a career in classical music for him. They think of it as something to enrich his life. But you never can tell. His cello kept the would-be engineer who was my father going for over thirty years.
I note from the photo that I have my father’s ears. I’m not sure anyone else in the family does. What else he may have passed along is not entirely clear. My grandson’s father and I both enjoy listening to classical music. But as to performance stick-to-itiveness, it may or may not be in the genes. I studied piano for ten years as a girl, and on several sporadic subsequent occasions, but I’m no pianist. I like to say I was badly taught, but that’s really no excuse. My older son, the young cellist’s father, chose to play trombone throughout middle school, high school and into college. But two trombones in their cases now repose in my basement, together with his school papers and various other mysterious boxes marked with his name. So he’s not playing anymore. As for Menia’s great-grandson — he of the recent Suzuki Book One triumph — we’ll just have to see.
There is no point to any of this, except perhaps to show you that despite day before yesterday’s post about lust, I’m mostly a grandma (even if not entirely), and family feeling (in contrast to other kinds of feeling) generally rules. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the photography shop and find out how much a duplicate of the Menia-with-cello photo will cost. I probably should also bring along a photo of my mother at age eight or nine to be copied for my granddaughter, the young cellist’s sister. It has nothing to do with cellos, or music or last Sunday’s concert. But you really can’t give one a present without giving the other a present, too. At least we all know that much.