“Red Hot” grandfather (not in the Mackenzie Phillips kind of way)


It’s funny how the pieces come together. The little stuff you’ve forgotten, or the big stuff you’ve never really thought about. I’m not sure which this is.

Until my sophomore year in college, I spent a lot of time onstage, and much of that time was spent singing. I performed in community theater musicals and in the church choir and even managed to squeeze my way into my high school’s semi-elite show choir. I’m pretty sure that last one happened because I’m a decent dancer and I was moderately strong, and the director was always in need of male dancers who could throw girls around. Every time I see photos from that era, I’m reminded of the lyrics to that Smiths song, “Shakespeare’s Sister”: “I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible”. Except in my case, it’s the reverse: back then, it was kind of awesome. Now, I grimace.


In those days, I was given solos fairly regularly, mostly because there was an unwritten rule that every child in any choir had to have a solo now and then. The other kids loved singing alone, but it made me nauseated: I didn’t have a soloist’s voice, and I hated performing by myself because — believe it or not — I never enjoyed being the center of attention. I still don’t. Apart from my obvious lack of talent, that’s why I stopped singing long ago. Acting, too.

But despite my fears and my shortage of star quality, I did all that musical stuff, and I was the only one in my family to do so. My adoptive family never showed a lick of interest in anything musical (and it’s just as well they didn’t, because none of them can sing a note).

When I met my biological family — at least my mom’s side — the theatre stuff was an obvious match, but there’s a musical side to that family, too, that I don’t think I ever fully processed.* I was reminded of that today when my sister posted a scan of my biological grandfather’s business card. He was a New Orleans jazz musician named Stuart Bergen, though it looks as if he preferred to be called “Red Hott”. The card features a little devil — presumably my grandfather — floating over a lake of fire and wailing on a trumpet. It encourages the recipient to “BE DIFFERENT” at her/his next event and book my grandfather’s band.

Now, even if I wanted to have a musical career, I know I don’t have enough talent for it — not nearly as much as my grandfather or my sister or my other bio-relatives. But I have a little, which is far more than anyone in my adoptive family can say. And in a correspondingly little way, my grandfather’s business card is one more instance of my biological family putting me in context, making me less of a black sheep, explaining things from my adolescence that, looking back, seem kind of weird and out of place.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I continue to be amazed by it all.

* For non-performing arts folks, the worlds of theatre and music may seem similar, but they are light years apart. You’ll have to trust me.

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