The Last Waltz
 

Ella Wangerud Cvancara

© Copyright 2001 by Ella Wangerud Cvancara
Photo © 2001 by Alan M. Cvancara
Photo of Mandolin and sheet music.
My brother, Reidar Wangerud (1926-1989) was a lover of music. In writing about him, I felt compelled to describe his life in musical terms and his tenure on earth as a waltz. He waltzed fast. Of four siblings, he was the most adventuresome. A first generation American, he was proud of his Norwegian heritage, and lived his short life to the fullest.

"Hey everyone, ready to go?" "What we waiting for?" "Last one ready is a pantywaist!"

My brother, Reidar Wangerud, waltzed through life as though the ballroom were slicked and laid out for his pleasure. His dancing shoes were polished to a mirror shine, and his waltz reeled at allegro or presto. His tempo couldn't slow to half notes or whole notes, but sped along--16ths here, 32nds there, and accelerated in a crescendo to 64ths--like a violinist gone mad.

I, eleven years his junior, the fourth child and coda of the family, missed much of his development. Alone with old parents, I awaited the homecoming of older siblings, especially the one who lived in the fast lane.

"Where's Reidar? When's he coming home?"

I felt the rhythm of anticipation, heard the intonation, dared to hope I might dance as fast as he, the family rascal.

"Some day I'm going to move to Montana, too. I'm going to stay out all night, drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes, and come home in time for breakfast." My wishful self spun grand schemes.

Earliest music to my ears was the timbre of his voice as he narrated "Little LuLu" stories at my bedside. If I stayed awake long enough, I'd smell his after-shave lotion or the taint of cigarette smoke, and he would be there after I had given up on his return from a wide repertoire of rowdy activity. He'd pull a chair up to my bed.

"Tell me just one more and I promise I'll go to sleep," I'd beg. "Little LuLu" swirled, like a come-alive comic, as he whirled her likeness into my imagination.

At times, we'd slide onto the bench of the family piano. I'd page through "Favorites of the 40's," "Hits From the 50's." He became an Irish tenor as we sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." And b'gorra, we would swear he was right off the boat from Ireland. In the flip of a page, he'd switch into the Norwegian that he was and roll his "rrrr's" like he had grown up in Oslo, or arrived as part of a raiding party on a Viking ship. Our harmonies pelted the air with perfect thirds, fifths, that drowned out my piano renderings. In my child's mind, I knew he was a tenor equal to Bing Crosby.

Fortissimo! War came. Cymbals sliced the silence. Tympani roared like an earthquake. Uncle Sam pointed a finger and intoned, "We Want You!" Not yet twenty, my brother marched to a militant drummer, stomped on German soil, hid in trenches. Buddies blew to bits alongside him; he brought what was left--dog-tags--home to mothers. Sights of battle etched mental scars. Nightmares punctuated his darkness. Memories of his war-time youth lingered for years and subsided only when dolce music began again.

The carefree passages of peacetime returned. "Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats and Little Lambs Eat Ivy," which soldiers had sung during the war, rang out from radios with chipper meaning to replace "Over There," and "Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition." War bulletins were replaced with Arthur Godfrey and soaps like "One Man's Family" and "Ma Perkins." New blue Plymouths materialized to enhance once carless households. Families bought refrigerators. Real chocolate topped store-bought cookies. Ration coupons retired like a bad memory. Nylon and plastic sparkled onto the scene.

My brother breezed into my junior prom to which alumni were invited. Mellifluous music floated couples across the dance floor. I "Tennessee Waltzed" with my handsome, light-footed sibling. His graceful steps slid across the shiny floor as he guided me--a shy, embarrassed, teenager in my first floor-length dress. I knew this dance was something special--polished, refined, rhythmically accurate--unlike the fumble-stumbles and toe crunches of classmates.

His composition enriched as another verse began: "I take thee . . . ." On a sweat-hot August afternoon, he married to The Song of Ruth: ". . . for wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God . . . ." His new bride ducked rice down the steps of the Lutheran church to become the grace note of his motif, the appoggiatura. More than an ornament, she is the tie that binds his family together--conductress of measures, phrases, repeats, and endings.

His melody quickened. Accents, two children, hastened the chorus along; first a daughter--dainty, a zephyr swept through a ballad. A Tonka-toting son followed like the blare of a bass drum charging through a China shop.

Vocations and avocations evolved and revolved around my brother. Fish feared his presence, deer snorted and ran for cover when he pulled on orange to join the hunt. Golf balls knew no mercy as they ricocheted the green driven by his muscle. The lyrics of his life were light, bright--no discords were audible or admissible. His tune was upbeat, euphonious, musically correct.

Mid-life reunions reacquainted everyone. He parked his travel trailer in the middle of the old home town for a family gathering, which coincided with our town's all-school and centennial celebration. He donned his Frontiersman garb, laced knee-high foot wear, slapped on a fur-tailed hat, loaded his musket, shot off a few rounds like Davy Crocket of the wild frontier as he marched in the parade.

"Isn't that Reidar Wangerud?"

Onlookers exclaimed and pointed.

He pulled on bib overalls, farm boots, a scruffy cap to portray an old immigrant newly arrived in town with his mamma during the variety show at the town hall. He visited with invisible town people and entertained with his monologue.

"What do you call your new baby, then?" he asked his conversationalist in the strongest Norwegian accent.

"Stanton?" His voice rose to a screech. "Uff-da, where'd you get those funny names? Those aren't Norwegian names."

The family of "Stanton" roared in remembrance of an earlier, simpler time.

An encore reunion played out on the prairie of my father's homestead. My brother herded the family Chrysler over rutted roads, through poison ivy, and skirted rocks to park it beneath the Big Butte that overlooked the homestead so that family members could pose for photographs in front of the antique. We exaggerated, hunted down juneberries, climbed the Big Butte, and reminisced the afternoon away.

An old-time dance in town culminated the festivities.

"Save me a waltz," my brother threw the words at me through the prairie wind.

"Sure," I said as an afterthought, and continued to pack up picnic leftovers.

My feet still twitched at the sound of a catchy tune. I looked forward to the evening of old-time music.

But, there was to be no last waltz for my brother and me. The tensions, emotions, and weariness of the day, celebrated in exhaustive triplicate, overwhelmed me. I ended the evening early, only peered into the old dance hall before sensibly leaving for the night--my assurance of a waltz forgotten.

My brother arrived after I'd gone. His style was to be unmindful of the hour, eager to continue the dance--no matter the time, no matter the day. Perhaps he looked for the sister who, with little thought, promised him a waltz.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease, has no respect for dancers or music. Named for the famed baseball player whose name it bears, the disease creeps in unwanted, uninvited, unexpected. Like the thunderbolt of an opera, the intruder crippled and conquered my brother. His aria slowed, became discordant, slurred toward a finale. He unwound like a music box.

"I never even played baseball," he would tell those who sobered in the face of his debilitating disease.

At home, he navigated his automatic wheelchair from room to room, like a base runner in slow motion, unwilling to give up a last measure of independence. His sit-down dance became laborious, hesitant. Morendo. His tempo slid from andantino to largo, to retardondo; fortissimo softened to pianissimo; rests became more frequent, half rests became whole rests; whole rests stretched into bars. Then, during his 63rd score, he breathed his last. Silence overpowered . His waltz ended.

Too soon in life's scheme, the time came to say, "Farewell, my brother," as the words were uttered by his fellow Masons when they placed an evergreen twig on his coffin. In those words, I understood that he "brothered" many, not just me. Goodbyes were said with a mixture of sadness and gladness. Sadness for the end of the fast, happy strains; gladness for the cessation of the final, stumbling movements.

Reidar was buried as the north wind puffed warnings of upcoming winter. Taps wafted over the hillside preceded by a skiff of snow. Military personnel, remnants of wars past, folded and refolded America's flag in precise order with shaky fingers. I touched his coffin with my gloved hand one last time and whispered, "Farewell, my brother" into the frosted air.

In my mind, his presence still illuminates each gathering with gaiety, revelry, life. I'm sure he watches from the sidelines, listens for the fast tune, and laughs. The ballroom beckons for an encore and he swirls in response.

"Isn't that Reidar Wangerud?".

He taps his foot to the tempo of the music, presto, and he is once again with us.

"Hey everyone, ready to go?" "What we waiting for?" "Last one ready is a pantywaist!"

Ella Wangerud Cvancara is a poet as well as a short story writer. A graduate of The University of North Dakota, she holds bachelor's degrees in Business Administration and Business Education, and a master's degree in Business Education. After moving to Wyoming in 1992, she pursued creative writing with a vengeance. Her brother, who filled her head with "Little LuLu" stories, didn't live to see her become a published writer. "The Last Waltz" is her tribute to him.
 
 

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