Although my parents were not unappreciative of music, I wouldn’t call them music lovers, as I would the parents of many of my friends. Sitting and listening to music, whether at home (in our den where the radio-record player was) or in a concert hall, was not something they did.
My father did have a penchant for Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert. He knew many of the old songs his parents must have listened to on their Victrola. Once in a while, casually, but perfectly in tune, he would insert a snippet from one into a conversation.
Give me some men who are stout-hearted men.
When I grow too old to dream.
Ah, sweet mystery of life.
On certain mornings my father would sashay down the circular staircase in our front hall merrily singing, “Every day is ladies day
Hearing him, my mother, in the kitchen, would smile and shake her head. Once, as my father descended singing Every day is ladies day with me, my mother went out into the hall. “You may look like Rudy Vallée, Nathan,” she said, “but you don’t sound like Rudy Vallée.”
“Looks are what count,” said my father, preening a bit.
“Oh!” exhaled my mother, and went back to the kitchen to finish fixing breakfast.
(I had no idea why some mornings my father sang that particular song, nor why it embarrassed my mother. It was twenty years before the penny dropped.)
While they weren’t music lovers as such, Martha and Nathan Reifler loved to dance. When they were courting, they were regulars at the Cotton Club, where they danced to Cab Calloway. After they married they sometimes spent the week-end at the Hotel Pierre in New York, and went dancing at the Copacabana.
Although there were no nightclubs in Poughkeepsie—at least, no respectable ones—there were still opportunities for them to dance. There was the Rotary Club Gala, the Vassar Hospital Fundraising Banquet, and the Republican Party Donor’s Ball (thanks to a check from my father) and the Democrats’ Donor’s Ball (thanks to a check from my mother), where they would join the County Executive and his wife, the president of Central Hudson Gas and Electric Company and his wife, a state court judge and his wife, a congressman and his wife, or perhaps even Senator Javits and his wife or Senator Lehman and his wife, on the dance floor.
Those were the evenings that my parents underwent a fairy tale transformation. My mother, whose style was generally tailored and discreet, would appear in an elegant dress—always one I had never seen before—of a rich silky blue or deep lustrous red, set off by a pearl necklace, a small, sparking brooch and shoes of silver or gold. My father, who usually wore suits of grey or sedate brown tweed, would be in dark blue and instead of his signature bow-tie would sport a Countess Mara necktie. If it was cold out, before leaving, my mother would slip on her grey mink stole. They clearly weren’t going out for dinner at the Goldbergs or to play bridge at the Rosens or for lobster at Nick Beni’s.
I saw my parents dance only once.
Usually, when they came home after an evening out, the reverberant thud with which our front door shut woke me for a moment; then I would go right back to sleep. One night though, only a minute or two after they had come home, a loud male voice filled the house—a single syllable, before it was quickly modulated. It was enough, however, to shock me wide awake. Curious, I left my bed, opened my bedroom door and stood listening. I heard the faint, but unmistakable, sounds that meant someone was twirling the dial on the the radio in the den, searching for a station—scraps of dialogue, of audience laughter, of an advertising jingle, alternating with jarring detonations of static.
From the little experience I’d had with the phenomenon of grownups agitatedly searching for a radio station, I deduced that something important had happened in the news: the President had died, a war had started, or Mickey Mantle had broken a leg.
In my bare feet I tip-toed to the stairs and quietly, slowly descended. By the time I reached the bottom the sought-for station evidently had been found and from the den, through the living room, out into the front hall came the music of Benny Goodman. (It could have been any of the big bands, but it was all Benny Goodman to me then.)
I could hear my parents moving around in the living room, and then my mother’s voice. “Now,” she said.
I approached the archway that separated the hall from the living room. Peeking around the corner I saw, in the dim light of only the lamp at the far end of the sofa, my mother and my father fox-trotting. They not only were dancing with grace and precision, but seemed to be performing, like a couple dancing in a Hollywood musical: the tall, handsome heartthrob and the beautiful raven-haired star.
“Now,” said my mother. Then she spun away from my father as far as she could without letting go of his hand, then spun back into his arms, the hem of her dress swirling up around her legs.
Abashed, I scurried on tiptoe upstairs and back to bed.