Personal reflections on a national treasure

My personality can best be summed up with an embarrassing (but sort of funny) story, which my family has retold often.

I won an award in high school for music performance. Senior awards night comes, and the audience is packed with classmates, teachers, families, even some friends from other towns. When my name is called, I walk out to center stage and the principal is there, holding out a bowl. It’s a silver bowl, filled with wrapped candies. He says, “Congratulations!” and shakes my hand, and then I take a candy and start to walk away. Suddenly, the auditorium is filled with laughter. I am baffled. I turn around; then he gives me the whole bowl! Turns out the bowl was the award. Not only was it silver, it was also inscribed with my name. Whoops.

I tell this because I’ve kept fairly quiet about my involvement in Mr. Glazer’s life, partially out of respect and discretion for him, but also because it’s a job, and it’s such a different life than the career I’ve been focusing on. I didn’t realize that all of this would happen- didn’t even realize he would die, honestly. “But he was 99!” people say. Sure, he was 99- and doing yoga twice a week, practicing six hours a day, and performing in other states! I, and many others, thought he was invincible. The other night at one of the many memorial services for him, I was sitting behind this row of older ladies whom I could hear gossiping about his house and his piano and whether the piano would fit through the door and to whom it was going. “I think that Kate person is there, cleaning it out,” one of them said. “I don’t know who Kate is, do you?” the other said. I giggled to myself but tried to not listen in to the rest of the conversation. When I relayed this story later, someone asked why I didn’t interrupt them and introduce myself- “aren’t you worried what people think?” This hadn’t occurred to me at all, but for the sake of clearing the air here- see above. And also, for the sake of full disclosure, I am still being paid to work for him- so it’s still my job. That being said, sometimes your boss is more like family, and because of that I’d like to share my own Frank Glazer story. I sat at his most recent memorial listening to beautiful, moving stories about his musical legacy, his good nature, his life lessons and his performances. And I realized, it’s possible that although I didn’t take lessons from him, and only page-turned a few times, I’ve spent more time with him in the past 15 years than a lot of other people. More time than I’ve spent with my own grandparents.

I also tell this story because it’s related, somewhat, to my work as a music therapist. I have worked with many clients in palliative care, in hospice, in illness. And their families. This has really been the first time I’ve experienced it all in my own life, and I’ve learned a lot. It took me awhile to process enough to be able to write about it, and I’m happy to report that the comforting words I use with clients gave me comfort, in the end, too. Life happens, death happens, it’s all wonderful and everything happens the way it happens. (this is VERY paraphrased, I would never say those exact words to a client, fyi….)

I started working for the Glazers when I was in high school. They were looking for someone to help organize their files, and I was recommended by a local pianist because of some combination of my musical interests and my somewhat OCD nature. (let’s just say I was indeed very good at organizing efficiently). It was my first job as a teenager; my parents told me to be polite and respectful. Well, polite and respectful led to a 10+ year job as a personal assistant – turned friend. In the beginning, I was just creating a filing system, alphabetizing things, prepping files. I think because I did this with efficiency, discretion, and respect; I think graduated to helping Mrs. Glazer prepare parties (the Glazers threw gorgeous pre and post concert parties, with gourmet dishes and fine china) and eventually prepping materials for Duncan Cumming, a student and friend of Frank’s who wrote his biography. I would go to their farm for an entire Saturday and work, with lunch in the middle, which I’d help Ruth prepare. Mr. Glazer would spend time with me in the morning, showing me what he wanted done and which items he wanted me to find; and then he’d go practice and I’d continue working.

There were multiple moments when it hit me that I was the LUCKIEST teenager on earth. Sometimes it was when I’d come across something magical like letters from the Gershwins, and I’d realize I was working for a national treasure. Other times it was because to a teenager, he seemed like the best boss ever. Around 2pm on my third day there, he came in to the barn where the files were and said, “Well, I’m about to take a break from practicing for a nap. You can take a nap in the guest room if you’d like.” Of course I said no- but he insisted I take a break, and next thing I knew he was sitting me down with a bowl of ice cream.

I went to college fairly close to home, and continued working for the Glazers. As Ruth got older, I helped read her letters and type responses. When she got quite sick, I helped change heating pads and even helped her shower a few times. I decided I didn’t want to be a nurse, but I kept my original instructions of ‘polite and respectful’ and just did my job. Ruth passed away in 2006, yet she never really left. Not only did her dresser stay set up the way she left it for the next 9 years, but her essence stayed in the house, too. She was a powerhouse of a woman. Right up to a very old age, she worked harder than anyone I knew, without ever complaining. She’d see a need and fill it, large or small. She connected people, marketed concerts, established nonprofits, and hosted parties in which twenty delicious foods would come out at the same time and the guests would think, “What fabulous catering company did you hire?” Little did they know it was the fabulous fur-dressed woman, casually laughing in a crowd of people.

Whenever I have a moment of frustration, or overwhelm; and it crosses my mind to give up or beg someone for help; I imagine Ruth- who wouldn’t mull over what needed to be done, she’d just do it.

The love between Frank and Ruth was a powerful force. It sustained even when they were countries apart, back in the times of telegram- certainly no skype chat. They were a PAIR. Both incredibly driven, successful, intelligent people who cared deeply about others and about each other. Not to mention good-looking! A few years after Ruth’s death, I had stopped in to visit during a break from grad school in New York. The freezer at their house was filled with breads, soups, and sweets. Apparently the neighborhood ladies had taken to dropping off goodies for the handsome widow, and he wasn’t having it. I asked him if he’d gone to any of the events at the Highlands and he said, “Oh, no, I don’t want to hang out with all those ‘old people’!” (mind you, he’s got twenty years on most of them). He shared over dinner a few years ago that he was feeling lonely, and I asked “what about all those bread ladies?” he said that he didn’t really have time to date, he had so much work to do at the piano, and he was ‘happy to wait for Ruth.’

Once I moved back from NYC, he requested that I continue working for him as no one else had the patience or understanding of the filing system. I was only able to go up a few times a month, and it seemed to be more about keeping him company than anything- but we did clear off the desk, time and again. Mr. Glazer had a difficult time throwing anything away; every thing had value to him. And every person had value to him- if someone wrote him a letter, he was intent on responding. He’d wake up in the middle of the night and sit down to respond to a backlog of fan letters and holiday cards from two years prior. (if you ever sent a letter to Mr. Glazer and hadn’t received a response, please know that your letter was treasured. I promise.) (Here, I’d also like to point out my own observation that in this regard, the small amount of sleeping, Mr. Glazer shared with a select few other greats- Tesla, da Vinci, Edison, Newton).

Although Duncan had long finished the book, he became the (unfortunate) recipient of a lot of the papers and articles that perhaps should have gone to the recycling bin. If Mr. Glazer found something in the AARP magazine or a music ed journal even slightly interesting, he’d set it aside to read later. The ‘to read’ stack would grow, and next time I was there we’d go through it again and once again everything would be re-added to the ‘to read’ pile. I had the bright idea to be sneaky once, tossing out a pile of outdated local papers. A phone call two days later reminded me that Mr. Glazer had a steel trap memory and actually did plan to read every single music, health, or war article. Lesson learned.

Another big reason to keep the local papers was to open to the obituaries, which he would first scan to see if he knew any of them, and then he’d calculate how much younger each person was than him at the time of their death. It sounds a bit morbid, but he wasn’t necessarily taking pleasure in his peers’ demise- I think he was just truly astonished that he’d lived so long. Like many of his life’s successes, he attributed this longevity to a combination of luck (in his good genes), a happy marriage, and following his great doctor’s instructions. I’d add to this the P words he was always stressing I should follow: patience, perseverance, and positivity.

After each afternoon of work, we’d go to dinner. Without Ruth there to whip up amazing meals, Frank went out to eat quite often. He had his own table at local restaurants and they were aware of his doctors’ instructions to eat low sodium, healthy meals. That being said, he also loved a good dessert- which is one of many reasons why we got along so well.

Over meals, he’d tell me stories about his life, the musicians he’d worked with, the people he’d met in his recent travels; and his goals- he wanted to take up ice skating around age 97, but was worried that if he fell on his wrist he’d lose his ability to perform. Which, according to him, was what had kept him alive after Ruth passed away.

Because I’d helped prepare materials for Duncan’s book and subsequently read parts of it over and over- I knew a lot of the stories already. I was happy to listen to them, but also took the opportunity to ask him more personal things that I felt a 100 year old would have great perspective on- and perspective, he had.

  • How did you live through wars and civil rights movements and end up being so open and accepting? Where do you think racism comes from?
  • How can you sustain a marriage through years of personal growth, time apart, and illness?
  • What’s the best way to make major life decisions like taking jobs, moving, having children?

Frank got me through the best and worst parts of my formative years. He changed my address in his rolodex every time I moved (Every. Single. Year.), stayed in touch while I lived in NYC (and visited his old neighborhood), met any of my serious romantic partners (advising me to compromise, but only if they will too), and introduced me to his doctors and friends who he thought might help with my career as a music therapist. He called me excitedly when he started working on a new piece that called for hitting the piano strings with a timpani stick. He showed genuine interest in the musical projects I was a part of, even rock music that I guarantee he’d have no interest in musically. He even put up with me when I was overwhelmed, frustrated at life, and uncomfortable being myself- patiently waiting for me to get over it.

Last March, we suddenly stopped going to places like Clementine and Henry & Marty for dinner. Candelight and steak entrees were replaced by never ending popcorn bowls and waitresses wearing flair. I didn’t mind, we could’ve eaten cabbage water and I’d be happy to visit. It did seem like an odd choice, though- until he cleared it up mid summer by pointing the logo and simply saying, “It’s the 99! This is my place for another seven months!” I was quietly hoping that if there is a restaurant called the 100, their menu is less salty, or his doctors were going to scold us.

Life lessons, sadly, often come posthumously. I suppose that’s something we could accept as a beautiful thing- that we’ll always be learning. And isn’t it nice when one can catch on to a little bit of it before it ends? At least the part about appreciating every moment. There are parts of my personality that I’m proud of and parts of it I’m working on- and parts of it that are both those things. A friend’s mom told me last summer that because my heart is SO big, I’ll probably experience it getting broken from time to time until I learn who to open and close it to. Boundaries are indeed fences and not walls. I tend to love unconditionally, without expectation. And I loved the Glazers. The other side there is that I’m not always fully confident in myself so I don’t quite recognize how others feel about me unless they state it clearly. I had no idea I was so important in Frank’s life until after he was gone and I realized I would be the one- the one to return the messages on his house phone, the one to pack up his memoirs and prepare them for archived collections, the one to talk to his attorney and do my best to honor his legacy by preserving his documents. I didn’t know. I’m honored to do it, and I hope he knows that- somewhere. It’s also been beautiful to get to know people whose letters I’ve been filing for years, and to have this very special human being in common. I’ve met wonderful friends this year, from Ruth’s grand-niece Anna who is my age and also a musician, her patient and caring father who is a wonderful writer, former students and teachers at Bates, and some strange coincidences- a former student of Frank’s from Rochester hadn’t received news of his death, and she sent a cheesecake to the house. Duncan and I put “100” candles on it and he played “happy birthday” on Frank’s piano the day after he would have turned 100. She and I have been exchanging letters since then, and she is a lovely person. When I was visiting a friend in Blue Hill in February, we stopped in a local wine shop and the owner ended up being a student and friend of George Sopkin, whom Frank played in a chamber group with for years. We had both spent similar times with our respective elder musician, and agreed that we were lucky because of it.

A few days before Frank died, I spent the night at the hospice with him. He was so uncomfortable, he didn’t sleep- the night was spent adjusting pillows, listening to recordings (moving choices- CDs by former students, his niece’s bluegrass band), and eating ice-cream J. Around 4am, he asked me to come closer. He said, “Kate, I couldn’t’ always tell you cared about me, though I knew it. Sometimes, if a person gets hurt, it causes them to not trust others or to lose themselves. You have to find a way to get through that, and let people in. Ruth and I love you like family.” I cried and said I didn’t want him to go- he said, very simply, “This is what happens.” The day he died, I was able to visit and tell him I loved him too and he returned with, “You finally said it! You’re growing up.”

A little internet search will tell you a lot about the Glazers’ contributions to music, to nonprofits, to the cities they lived in and colleges they taught at, to history. Their story is an incredible one, a legacy that lives on eternally. So too is their heart and spirit. Someone told me last week that because I know all about Frank’s papers that “his brain is in my brain”. First of all, I wish! I have the memory of a goldfish and I can barely make my way through his infamous five-finger exercises on the piano.

But also, it’s true. He’s in my brain, for good now, and for that I am grateful. I’ve worked with palliative care clients as a music therapist and it’s true, death is often more difficult for those left living. We can be thankful for the gifts of honesty and clarity that are bestowed upon us in death though, and carry them on. Brain in brain, heart in heart.