He says Bill, I believe this is killing me
As the smile ran away from his face
Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place
Piano Man by Billy Joel
Combine the spirit of a poet, a gift for musical composition, and a memorable voice and you get a classic song that resonates for generations. For me, Billy Joel is one of these artists; Piano Man is one of these songs. The lyric above describes a time of great sadness in the life of 2 generations of my family.
I recently took on the task of organizing several decades of photo prints and negatives. It was an emotional task that took a lot longer than I had anticipated; pausing to reflect on those moments captured on film.
Years ago, I acquired a number of old black and white family photos. I asked for them; I was always the primary photographer for the family and these meant so much to me. Some of them came out of old leather-bound albums, worn and a bit musty; the kind where the pics were fastened by small white photo corners, or even glued to the black card stock pages.
On one of these pages was a picture of my father as a young schoolboy that was of particular interest; I was sure I had seen the pose before. Little did I know that the pose was of me; some 30 years later.
The picture of Dad was taken in 1932, after the Great Depression of 1929; after bank foreclosure forced bankruptcy. His father was losing the family farm and his version of the American dream. Fred Sr. never really recovered from the loss, became immobilized by depression, was admitted for a long term stay in a state mental facility, abandoning his young family in the process. Fred Jr., my dad, was 8 years old; it was hard to find a picture of him smiling during these years.
My picture was taken at age 7, just a few months after the sudden and tragic death of my grandmother, our surrogate mother and live-in caretaker. For my family, this was not economic disaster; this was an emotional one. My mother was admitted to the hospital for therapy and shock treatments as she dealt with her own severe depression. My father was charged with caring for 3 young children just after losing both his mother and his wife. Our family was turned upside down, we were farmed out to neighbors and distant family. We were essentially abandoned in the process, and there was little to smile about for a very long time.
There was to be healing. There was redemption. But for a time, at least for my father and I, “the smiles ran away from our face.” A simple line in a classic song can evoke sweet and sorrowful memories. The stuff of life. The things that matter. Thank you, Billy Joel.