Thoreau Thursday: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

In 1917, when Dad was 12 years old and in the sixth grade, his father ran away from home, leaving Dad and his mother to fend for themselves. She had never worked outside the home, and besides, there wasn’t much out there for an uneducated woman. So she did what many women of the times might have done. She took in boarders. The house was big enough, and there were plenty of immigrants leaving Ellis Island and looking for a place to live.

Dad quit school, and went to work. Apparently, there was employment to be had for an eager lad willing to work. During his teens, he had a varied career. He was a bank runner, carrying paperwork to and fro for the fledgling Chase Manhattan Bank. He worked as a switchman for the railroad. That was when he lost his two front teeth, which were knocked out by a lantern swung by the signalman during a fight. He was an apprentice to an oil burner repairman. He even played first base on a semi-professional minor league baseball team. He never made much money, but what he made was turned over to his mother to help.

Dad never forgave his father. Long after Dad was an adult, my grandfather got in touch with him, hoping for a reconciliation with his only child. Dad refused to have anything to do with him. My grandmother had died young, an exhausted woman, and Dad just couldn’t see past that.

My grandfather tried many times to come back into his son’s life, only to be rebuffed. My brother once visited him in a nursing home at the end of his life, but I never met him. He never had the opportunity to meet his daughter-in-law and to get to know his grandchildren. Indeed, he never really got to know his own son.

My grandfather didn’t leave for another woman. He wasn’t chasing skirts, the bottle, the cards or the ponies. He was chasing his dream. After years of leading a life of quiet desperation, he decided to sing his song. He left to join Vaudeville. Living out of a trunk, he traveled the country for a while with a troop of performers. Someone once told my brother that our grandfather had eventually had some success. And, indeed, an online search of the Internet Broadway Database revealed he had been a bit player in over 20 plays. He even had a small role in a movie.

The meaning of this quote seems clear. The implication is that one will live and die unhappy and unfulfilled if one does not let their song find voice. After having done so, I wonder if my grandfather would agree. I suspect not. The cost of self-expression proved way too high.


  1. Wow, that was a pretty amazing story! The moral at the end is kind of what comes to mind for me when I read that quote. It seems to me that there must be a way to strike a balance, to keep the ones you love, and find a way to sing.

  2. That was an amazing story. I think the hardest part is finding that balance, especially when you have a spouse and children who are depending on you.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, VV and Niqui. I agree, balance is what it's all about. Knowing just what that balance is... well, that's the hard part. In the case of my grandfather, I wonder if he ever considered the consequences of following his dream before taking off.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. This would be an excellent short story. Find the song!


Thoughts? I would love to hear from you.