“A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral fruit.” (Amy Gerstler)

Eating it meant you embraced tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.

When you get to be my age memories pop into your mind from nowhere and arrest your attention, sometimes with startling vividness.

This morning I stumbled onto the poem “Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956). Suddenly I was remembering a trip to Kansas City in 1973. I stayed with my mother’s brother and his wife, and we spent a day with my father’s father. The memory is confused. Sometime after my grandmother died (1973), my grandfather sold his home and moved to Abilene, TX, where his youngest child, my aunt, cared for him until he died (1977).

I was on my way to audition for the organ department at the University of Iowa to be accepted into the DMA program in organ. My maternal uncle took me to visit my paternal grandfather (my parents’ families had known each since long before my parents married), and the three of us went to my uncle’s church so I could play the organ for my grandfather.

Are you confused yet?

For some reason I played the Bach “Little” Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Major. It certainly was not one of the works with which I was planning to impress Professors Krapf and Disselhorst. It does, however, have a pedal solo, and I remember my uncle was so amazed that he made me stop in the middle of the Prelude and play it again. He had never seen such a thing. It’s really quite simple (the work isn’t called “little” for no reason).

Why? Why does reading a poem about fruit cocktail drag into my consciousness my uncle’s amazement at my playing a passage for pedals alone in the middle of a Bach organ work?

That trip to Kansas City was fraught with import, with meaning. I was beginning the process of giving up my old life to strike out on a new one (and I was not altogether certain I would be accepted). That meant quitting a job and selling our house and moving with my wife to a place neither of us had ever been. I was alone on my “audition” trip, and I already knew in some unconscious way that it also carried with it the distinct possibility that our marriage would end when I was immersed in my new life. That may, in fact, have been one of the reasons I wanted to strike out on this new path.

Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral

I had another (ulterior, I suppose one might say) reason for arranging my trip to be with my uncle. I won’t explain here because it is too painful for me and not fair to him, but I had a score to settle with my uncle. At the time I thought I could engage him in a way that I had needed to since I was in junior high school. It was not possible. I didn’t know how, and he would have rejected my attempt, I am sure. It could not be part of this memory-tale.

Somehow playing that pedal passage and astounding him was enough at that moment.

The next time I saw my uncle was at my paternal grandfather’s funeral. The Peck family was, of course, there to support and be with the Knight family. I remember clearly standing with my father and my mother’s brother beside my grandfather’s casket in that stilted and phony funeral home scene we all know so well and hearing my uncle say to my father, “Well, Glenn, now we are the older generation.” My father was 63 at the time, nine years younger than I am now.

Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.

Faded funeral fruit that meant you embraced tastelessness . . . and that when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth. Not until about 1985 did I confront in my mind the reasons I knew I needed to visit my uncle. Ten years after that I visited him in a nursing home where he was cared for as an Alzheimer’s patient, of which both he and my mother died.

The organ on which I auditioned.

The organ on which I auditioned.

Memories—vivid memories, important memories—do not necessarily equate with the “truth.” In fact, they might well help you spurn the truth.

The day I visited my uncle in the nursing home and his brother explained who I was by trying to bring up memories of childhood—“You know May, our sister—her son”—I had determined to confront my uncle, to bridge the enormous chasm between us.

Fortunately, I did not need to. Even I, the wounded party, the self-righteous actor in the drama in my head, could forgive a man in such dire and pitiable condition.

Self-righteousness, I think, is a more or less useless attitude. I think it actually comes from thinking of oneself as a victim—“how dare he do that to me, righteous as I am?”

Two days ago I was in the grips of what I thought was either the “hangover” from a massive seizure or a day-long series of tiny seizures. Intense dissociation mentally and dizziness physically. My neurologist made time in his busy schedule to see me early yesterday morning.

Blood work. Are your meds in balance? What else is going on in your life?

Retirement, separation anxiety, worry about taking care of yourself in old age. I want you to keep in contact by MyChart, but I’m also going to arrange for you to have regular talk therapy with one of the psychology faculty here at the medical school. At my age? I’ve been in therapy much of the time for fifty years!

You need to put these demons to rest. Anti-seizure meds can’t help depression.

“Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup” (2014), by Amy Gerstler (b. 1956)

Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.

A resident of Los Angeles, Amy Gerstler has taught at Antioch West and the University of California at Irvine’s graduate writing program. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars program at Bennington College in Vermont, and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for Bitter Angel (1990).

About This Poem
“A friend showed me a reproduction of a 1964 painting by James Rosenquist called Fruit Salad. The painting (you can Google it) is a close-up, bright, garish portrait of fruit cocktail. Seeing it released a flood of memories of the ’50s and ’60s for me, so I decided to try to make a picture of that time period via this popular food of my childhood.” —Amy Gerstler

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

The flood of 2008, Iowa City. Even the organ was destroyed.

Organs the old man has known. . . in which he tells not quite all.

The Baldwin Model 5, circa 1960

The Baldwin Model 5, circa 1960

I began my organ study practicing on the Baldwin Model 5 organ at the First Baptist Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. I still have the first instruction book I used, and the first date the teacher wrote in it is June 17, 1956.

When our family moved to Omaha, I became organist at Trinity Baptist Church (which no longer exists). That friendly little funky church gave me the opportunity to figure out that an organist has to pay attention to what’s going on, and it allowed me to discover for myself the differences in style among playing solo music, accompanying other musicians, and leading group singing.

Then I went to the University of Redlands where I earned my Bachelor of Music in organ performance—and, in the process came out as a gay man (yes, before Stonewall), made a few lasting friendships, got married, and began counseling because, well, the university could not cope with gay students, and (mainly) because I wanted someone, somewhere to know about my seizures. That also was the first time a counselor told me that if I just straightened out (pun intended) my sex life, those strange feelings of other-worldliness and dissociation, to say nothing of the high-pitched exploding white noise in my mind, would stop.

When I graduated, through a series of events and decisions I won’t bore you with here, I became organist at Christ Church Episcopal, Ontario, CA, my favorite and most fulfilling position so far. (The recording is a recent one, made after the organ was refurbished and given some much-needed additions of stops. It was, however, even when I was there, the gutsiest, most exciting organ – in America? Oh, let’s not be silly. But it was and is my favorite organ. Exactly what kind of organ it is you will have to ask Steuart Goodwin, its caretaker.)

The current denizen at Grace Church in Salem

The current denizen at Grace Church in Salem

Then I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa and played three recitals on the giant Cassavant tracker organ in Clapp Recital Hall as part of my PhD in organ literature. While I was in Iowa City, I was divorced and became a real gay boy.

Then I moved to Massachusetts in the fall of 1977 and became organist at the very staid Grace Episcopal Church in Salem. There I got sober and became chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. The church has a three-keyboard Schantz organ.

In January of 1994 I moved to Dallas to be with my late partner and to work on a second PhD, this one with an emphasis in creative writing. My unfinished dissertation is a (damned good) novel. But who needs two PhDs?  I was organist at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Farmers Branch until it closed. The lovely Allen digital organ is now in a Catholic Church in Rowlett, and I live alone but am involved with the love of my life.

And I have my very own pipe organ. It is the first organ Steuart Goodwin built—in 1970. The University of Redlands had it as a practice organ until about eight years ago when they wanted the room it was in for a faculty office. They offered it to Steuart, and I paid him to dismantle it there, drive it to Dallas, and rebuild it in my living room.

The University of Iowa Cassavant

The University of Iowa Cassavant

I have always fancied myself an organist. Whether or not I am good, great, mediocre, or lousy is up to someone else to decide. But one thing is certain. I’m getting old.

The little mechanical action, 5-stop organ that was never meant for church or concert hall suits me fine. The little old man and the little old organ playing little old music in private. What could be better? The recording is the “Lentement” from Cinq Versets pour Harmonium (Opus 21) by Charles Tournemire, published in 1949.


It’s just my style