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Terez Mertes


January 21, 2010 at 7:45 PM

Years ago, at the beginning of my violin obsession, I purchased a copy of The Art of the Violin and my father-in-law Walt, who’d just arrived for one of his regular visits, sat and watched the whole thing with me. It was a new facet of this man I’d known for fifteen years. He loved the old masters. Not a concert-goer, he nonetheless held an appreciation for the art and its artists. It was the only video—documentary or movie alike—I’ve ever seen him sit through, all the times he’s come to visit.

Yo-Yo Ma, performer extraordinaire, even by Walt’s standards, has come to San Francisco, performing a series of concerts. Back in August when I was buying tickets for me and my sister, who was planning a visit around a few of the concerts, my son begged me to take him as well. “Yo-Yo Ma is the only musician I really, really want to hear,” he said, nearly in tears. A quandary: my sister and I had made it a getaway weekend, just the two of us, staying in a hotel for two nights. My week-long fret with finding the right solution culminated with a decision to take my son to a Thursday night performance, the night I’d pick my sister up from San Francisco International airport. A win-win situation, an eagerly anticipated night.

But life got in the way. Or, better put, death did.

Walt died in his sleep last Thursday morning, following a recent diagnosis of a fast-growing brain tumor that was slowly but inexorably robbing him of his motor facilities. My husband, son and I headed south to Los Angeles upon hearing the news, in order to be with family and make arrangements. We returned late Sunday, the date of the actual service (to be brief and secular) pending.

Tonight, Thursday, is the Yo-Yo Ma concert. Today, Thursday, is the service, 375 miles away.


My son made his choice with a conviction that makes me see the growing man in his ten-year-old body. He’s taking his grandfather’s loss hard. He’s at that impressionable age, discovering the curiously seductive slide into grief. How there’s great pain but, paradoxically, something wildly romantic about it, not unlike the high drama that hangs over wartime events and movies, eras that greatly interest my son. While we were in Los Angeles last weekend, my sister-in-law gave him a framed army photo of Walt, taken many years ago, during a military exercise. He’d been in a M.A.S.H. unit during the Korean War. My son’s attachment to this photo, to this memory of his grandfather is palpable. He insisted on joining my husband at the service, never mind that it would be a long drive, the service short with no fanfare, and that he’d miss the Yo-Yo Ma concert. The choice was clear in his mind.

Today, at noon, Walt’s remains will be laid to rest. I will be here, finishing up the day’s work early, before heading to San Francisco. I will pick my sister up at the airport as planned and I will hear Yo-Yo Ma in concert, as planned. A pang cuts through me at the magnitude of the choice I’ve made. I could have skipped the Yo-Yo concert tonight as well, hightailing it out of Southern California right after the thirty-minute service, and if I’d been late to pick up my sister, she would have understood. And yet, after eighteen years of acquaintance, I knew Walt. He was a good man, a punster pragmatist who eschewed sentimentality. Funeral services, to him, were for those who needed that sort of thing, which he didn’t. He focused on enjoying the present, not the past. He revered music, particularly Broadway show tunes and classical music (in that order). I sense the choice I made—as well as the choice my son made—were both right, ones that would have him nodding in approval.

This, then, is how I will honor the passing of my father-in-law. I will cease work at noon, the time of his service. I will pull out my violin and play a simple, soulful tune. I’ll wipe the tears that will leak out, chuckle at the memory of his good jokes (amid the sea of bad ones—he freely admitted that believed in “quantity over quality” here). A few hours later I’ll get into my car, drive to San Francisco, to Davies Symphony Hall, to hear a master performer. I’ll do it for myself, my son, and to honor the man who played such an important role in our family’s life.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 21, 2010 at 8:11 PM

Oh, Honey, I'm so sorry for your loss.  You wrote such a nice tribute to what sounds like a really neat guy.

Have a safe drive.  Enjoy the concert.  Bring tissue. 

(I sent a link of this to my favorite Francophile in the SFS.  I hope you don't mind.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 21, 2010 at 8:19 PM

It's hard to improve on what Anne said.  One of life's terrible aspects is dealing with the passing of those wonderful folks who have such an important place in our lives and missing what they brought to us.  Please pass on to your family the condolences of all of your buddies and fans whose thoughts and prayers are with you during this sad time. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 21, 2010 at 10:12 PM

Thanks so much, Anne and Tom. Your comments mean a lot to me. I'll be heading out shortly - and yes, Kleenex is a necessity. The weird thing is that I will be trying out the center terrace seats for the first time, all weekend long. (Hey. $30 tickets that, for this season, were knocked down to $15, in honor of MTT's 15 years with the SFS. How else could I afford 3 performances in a week?) So, if I get teary, the audience will have a nice view. (Reminder to self not to blow nose in loud, honking manner, at inappropriate time.)

Anne - tell your F.F. that I'll be watching him very closely. As in very close.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 21, 2010 at 10:18 PM

Oh, and for the record, I played "Simple Gifts" for my noon tribute. A rainy, overcast, pensive day here. Playing the music, offering it up, was everything I wanted it to be. Nice when that happens.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 22, 2010 at 4:06 AM

So so sorry to hear this... Yes you both have good choices. After all great musicians as Yo-yo Ma are the best in the world to connect people with the closest of heaven we know, with our souls and I also believe the souls of the dead...  If you think of someone directly on their grave or anywhere else with sincere thoughs, it's the same.  The concerned person will know it (if there is still something after life of course. That I can't know)

Good luck and hope you'll find strengh to go through this,


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 22, 2010 at 11:17 AM

 I'm so sorry for your loss.  I appreciate your writing this description of a way of memorializing someone that is kind of outside the box.  I love how you wrote that both you and your son made the right decision, I agree.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 22, 2010 at 2:53 PM

Anne-Marie, you were right - listening to Yo-Yo last night - and the whole concert - was a sublime way to connect to the infinite, the divine. Very, very soothing, the whole evening. Thanks for your comments, and Karen, thanks for your comments, too. Nice to come home to.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 22, 2010 at 11:43 PM

Terez - This is so beautifully written.   Deepest condolences and thank you for sharing.

From Don Sullivan
Posted on January 23, 2010 at 4:08 AM

I am so sorry for your loss.  Simple Gifts sounds like the perfect piece as a memorial to your father-in-law. From your description it fits him. Simple Gifts is simplistic and yet filled with beauty. You will all be in my thoughts and prayers.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 23, 2010 at 6:07 AM

 Sam - how lovely to see you posting here, and thanks for your kind words. Don, I so appreciate what you had to say, too, and glad you agree with my choice of pieces to play. It really did feel like the right thing to play in so many ways. Left me feeling so peaceful. Thanks for your kind thoughts.

From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on January 23, 2010 at 5:26 PM

:-( / :-)    well done, all of you...    hard, deep week, but good lasting living and tributes!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 26, 2010 at 3:46 AM

 Gabriel - great to see you posting! Thanks so much for chiming in here.

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