Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The "thank you" Left Unspoken

Sometimes a person enters your life for a short amount of time, but leaves a lasting impression that continues to inspire you for the rest of your life.

My mother was a classically trained pianist and so many memories of my childhood are filled with the sound of her playing piano for hours on end. From an early age, she made it a point to teach me about classical music and composers. Though I often tried to combat these lessons, dismissing them as "boring", she would always argue that it's important to know at least a little bit about these composers because it's something I won't necessarily learn in school. I always had an interest in instruments, so naturally the piano fascinated me because it was the one instrument that was always at my disposal. My mom would try to teach me here and there, but I was too sensitive to be taught by here. She wasn't very patient and often got frustrated when I made too many errors or would rather play my own little songs instead of learning the basics. She also mentioned that I had great hands for playing piano as well as a good ear, but I was such a "stubborn pain in the ass". She was right (and I still am). What I'm getting at is that it was fairly obvious early on that if I was going to learn how to play an instrument, she most certainly wasn't going to be my teacher.

Growing up in Chicago, my mother had a handful of Czech friends that would come to visit from time to time. One of the ones I remember fondly was Otakar Sroubek, though I always knew him as "Otto". He was always a kind, soft-spoken man and my mother enjoyed being able to converse with someone who also immigrated Czechoslovakia at a similar time as her. I don't really remember the conversations, but I do remember feeling privileged and honored to have him as a teacher, even though it was for an extremely brief amount of time.

Otto was (at the time) the second chair violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and when my mother briefly mentioned how she wished I could learn an instrument, he immediately offered to give me violin lessons. For no charge whatsoever. Even as I write this, I can kick my six year old self in the ass for not following through with it. He tutored me for several weeks, but sometimes my friends would come knocking on the door asking me to come play and tears would follow when I had to decline because I was in the middle of a lesson. Eventually he explained to my mother that though I showed potential, he just couldn't go further with the lessons because I wasn't really expressing the interest in learning violin. Not to mention I also spent so much of the lesson crying.

Stupid Nina.

Otto continued to visit and always gave us tickets for performances when the CSO was playing more kid-friendly programs such as The Nutcracker or Peter and the Wolf, as well as some of the "boring" adult ones. Sometimes we were even able to talk to him afterwards."Ninotchka", he would always call me. I can still hear it. I always had a great time going and will always cherish those memories with my mom. Most kids went to see movies with their parents, but I was lucky enough to experience such beautiful music at an early age.

Once we moved to Michigan, Otto and his wife would still come to visit, but over the years the visits became  less frequent. After all, being a member of the CSO really doesn't allow for a whole lot of downtime. Years went by, we moved several times, addresses changed, phone numbers changed, and eventually him and my mother just lost track of one another, I suppose.

It was one random fall evening in 2008 that I was enjoying a night out at Czar's that something strange happened..

 Oddly enough a few months prior that random memories of Otto were surfacing and I found myself wondering how he's doing. I entertained the idea of tracking his address and sending him a letter mostly just to express the gratitude I had for his patience and kindness during those few music lessons so many years ago that I'm sure I didn't understand the full value of at the time. I also wanted to tell him how much he shaped my young mind in understanding and appreciating classical music as well as sparking the interest in possibly perusing music myself someday.

So that night at Czar's, while I was waiting for another drink, I noticed a stack of the new Michigan Shore magazines in the corner. I enjoyed flipping through these over the years (almost every job I had in SW Michigan had them on display) but hadn't seen a new issue in a while, so curiosity got the best of me. I was just about to put it down and order my drink when an article caught my eye and completely floored me. Right there in front of my eyes was an article all about Otto! One of those crazy instances in life where you feel like someone was reading your mind. I mean, what were the odds that a person I recently thought of who I hadn't seen in fifteen years would suddenly show up in a Michigan magazine?!

Suddenly I became that awkward girl crying at the bar.
I mean, it wasn't even closing time, guys.
Dare I say, "ain't nobody got time for that!".

Tears that came from complete joy and total bewilderment suddenly turned into tears of sadness and even greater appreciation for this man as I read through the article and learned about his remarkable life. At the end of the article, however, the tears turned to those of complete devastation when I read that at press time, Otakar had passed away.

I'm crying now as I write this.

If not learning violin all those years ago was one of my only regrets, not getting to properly thank him suddenly became another.

We take many things for granted in this life, and I've always felt that getting to know our elders and not only where they came from, but what they went through, is one of the biggest things that take a backseat. A human life is a phenomenal thing and when you add history to mix, well, there is simply nothing else more fascinating to me. Maybe it's the writer in me, but the amount of stories that never get told or just simply get lost throughout the years completely saddens me. When you read about a person like Otto and the obstacles he overcame to not only survive, but pursue his dreams, I become all the more honored to have had him in my life. His story and the short time I got to spend with him will live with me until I too close my eyes for good one day. And though I'll always be upset, to some degree, that I never got to personally reach out to him and say "thank you" as an adult, I do find peace in knowing that I'm sure many others did. His outstanding dedication to his talent and the way it shaped his life will continue to inspire and motivate me for the rest of mine.

Bravo, Otakar!

Somewhere within me lives your encore performance.

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