Josephine Singer


Throughout my childhood, I always admired my brother Charlie on almost all counts, but the sentiment was far from reciprocated. He criticized me often, ridiculing my weak points until he made me cry. I guess this kind of teasing was to be expected from a brother three years older than his only sibling, given the fact that our mother always preferred infants over any child old enough to need disciplining. She loved to charm babies and make them laugh, but discipline was a problem for her. Too often she left us feeling guilty, unworthy of her warm acceptance.

Mother had outside interests to which she gave priority. First she worked toward a Ph.D. at Radcliffe, then she was an activist in city politics. In my opinion she didn’t screen our caretakers properly. Some were kind-hearted, but I remember seeing one named Ruth spank Charlie hard with the flat side of a hairbrush, and for a while Mother trusted two ignorant teenagers from Nova Scotia who probably entertained each other more than they took care of us. Mother’s favorite pastime was lying flat on her back with a long biography or novel perched on her middle.

But she was also charismatic and delightful toward us during her version of “quality time.” She would play songs on the piano for Charlie and me to sing, and sometimes my father would join in if she played the old hymns he had learned as a child in Oklahoma—hymns like “Abide with Me” and “Rock of Ages.” Charlie and I adored our father—a kind, earnest man who never raised his voice and routinely expressed consternation by saying “Great Scot” while moving the wrinkles on his forehead.

We sailed through the Great Depression without hardship because my father was a corporation lawyer, a particularly useful profession at that time. But shortly afterwards, while still in his 50’s, he had to give up his law practice because of early Alzheimer’s. My mother, with skill and courage, became a social worker and was able to send me to Radcliffe even though I was not a good enough student to earn a scholarship. Charlie, of course, had his Harvard education financed by the G. I. Bill, which granted free tuition for veterans of World War II.

Truly, I have no idea how Charlie transformed himself into a kindly, almost spiritual sort of person. I think some people could almost feel his empathy reaching out to them. Several times, when I was troubled, I had a definite feeling of this sort. Once I remember, at his house on Dolliver’s Neck, he parked me in the seat of honor, where the acoustics from his excellent hi-fi were optimal. He knew he could cure my mood with music, although he didn’t inform me of his intention. The turning point came with those jubilant high trumpets in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. They are sufficient to crack through anyone’s shell of depression, especially when accompanied by a brother who was listening intently, as if to show me how to open my soul to the joy within the sound.

Where, or rather, when did this empathic ability of Charlie’s originate? Did someone teach it to him? Did it coincide with his confirmation as an Episcopalian? (He would never discuss his religion with our parents or me since he knew we would not sympathize.) I hope someone in the course of this “Fond Remembrance” will tell us how Charlie’s empathetic talent — I call it his spirituality — was awakened. I’m sure he used it consciously and deliberately, and my question is: how did he find out he had it?

I can’t stop reminiscing without patting myself on the back for steering Charlie toward organ building as a profession. When I was sixteen, I brought into the family an album (probably 78’s) of Albert Schweitzer playing Bach. I have no idea how I acquired this album. Was it given to me or did I buy it? Be that as it may, Charlie listened to these records over and over, as was his wont with music he loved. And he became troubled by the fact that Bach on American organs had — to his ears — an inferior sound to Bach on the European organ or organs Schweitzer played. Why?

Well, being Charlie, he found out why, and a few years later he apprenticed himself to the only organ builder in America who knew how to replicate the antique European Sound. Voila! I’m responsible for his career!! He even told me so himself laughing discreetly at the silliness of Fate.

Charles Fisk lectures at the Organ and Church Music conference at Greensboro College, 1980

Lectures at the Organ and Church Music conference at Greensboro College, 1980

Photo: Harold Andrews