On Saturday, April 18, my grandfather Marshall Cheek Kidd passed away. He had just turned 97, and, for the first time, was really starting to feel his age. The life of the party was slowing down, both physically and mentally. It was hard to believe, but the man with the gift of gab suddenly had a hard time keeping up with conversation. A man known for his delightful aphorisms (“Giving up procrastination is very difficult,” “Big data allows us to make bigger mistakes with confidence,” “Politics, like religion, is not about logic and reason,” to give you a few) stopped sharing quips and just shared smiles, still just as grateful for each moment.
Gregarious by nature, Grandpa was always a sucker for social interaction, which made this global pandemic extra discouraging for him and those he loved.
“For your grandpa, social distancing is a punishment,” my Aunt Margie told me last week. Margie and my Uncle Steve (Marshall’s eldest son) went to see Marshall at his retirement home in Nashua, New Hampshire over the weekend, but they could only talk to him on the phone and interact with him from outside the building, separated by glass. It’s hard to know how much of this my grandpa understood. He couldn’t eat with his friends anymore. Meals were delivered to him. He couldn’t go out and about to see his plethora of friends and participate in lively discussions. Lockdown was enforced, as residents and employees were testing positive for COVID-19.
Grandpa would also test positive.
Listening to Benny Goodman, my grandfather’s favorite composer, I reflect on Marshall. Like Goodman, he was a clarinet player. I got to see him perform with a big band once during a visit to New Hampshire when I was in high school, and he was fantastic. Playing the clarinet was one of his great joys in life, and it was evident when you heard him.
He stayed with the music. At The Huntington – where he spent the last decade and a half of his life – he participated in the Monday sing-a-longs, his clarinet chops still there after all those years.
Grandpa once told me music was the secret to a long life. He was quite certain of this.
“I noticed this at my last high school reunion,” he said. “Most of us from band were still around.”
Although I didn’t have an appreciation for jazz in my adolescence, my grandpa was still able to establish a bond between us through music. He’d always ask what I was into and was almost always willing to listen.
During one visit I played him Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and asked him if he could play it on the clarinet.
“It’s actually pretty easy,” he said, smiling. “Can you play it on guitar? If not, you should try it. You’ll get it.”
His self-confidence and constant belief in me never failed to inspire. I came home from that trip and brought “Kashmir” to my guitar teacher. He taught it to me in one lesson, and I came to admire my grandfather even more. He always applied himself and always was a student of life. He couldn’t get enough. I would even share some of my college textbooks with him so we could learn together.
Grandpa’s thirst for knowledge was almost as contagious as his positive attitude, which constantly amazed his family. We’ve often joked about how many times he said, “This is the best day of my life.” How wonderful is that? It’s like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said, “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
Benny Goodman plays on, and I can see why Grandpa was so taken by his sound and why he picked up the clarinet in the first place. He was fortunate to be a part of such a remarkable era, and he didn’t take it for granted. One of the only regrets he shared with me was not being able to fight in World War II. He would’ve gone in a heartbeat, but they didn’t take him, so he stayed behind and studied engineering at Ohio State University. He went on to become an electrical engineer, working for RCA and General Electric. He enjoyed his career and was honored to play a part in creating the Lunar Excursion Module for the Apollo program.
Grandpa was always the first to tell you how good he had it. Even during hard times he could seek out the silver lining. I’ll always cherish that about him and aspire to follow in his footsteps that way, especially right now, when we could all use a little more positivity.
I can’t think of a better way to do that than with music, whether it’s performing, writing a song or putting it on and sharing a dance with my wife.
My grandpa once said, “If it weren’t for music, I would’ve been a disaster.” I know the feeling and will always be thankful for his encouraging words that helped instill the confidence I needed to stick with guitar. But, more than that, I will always be grateful for his love, his wisdom and his joyful spirit. Thank you, Grandpa.