The Accordion and the Bridal Doll

Celebrating My Dad: Gene Gilbert

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I was born one month and 25 days after World War II began.  I was two years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  I don’t remember much until I was about four years old.  My father was an air raid warden and was responsible for turning off the streetlights on our block during an air raid. I remember sitting on my mother’s lap in awe, looking at the searchlights that blazed across the sky accompanied by the sounds of sirens.  She reassured me that all was well and I, in my childhood sense of wonder and curiosity, pondered the idea of what she meant.

My story begins in the first few years of my life while living in the Bronx; perhaps the only city in the United States to have the article, “the” before its name. We were a modest family and lived in what might be referred to as a tenement building.

My brother was not yet 2 years old and I was not quite six.  My childhood friend, Elaine who lived directly one floor above us had what I thought to be the most beautiful doll in existence and one that I agonized about not having.  It was a bridal doll, with bright blue eyes that blinked fluttering long eyelashes.  Her blonde, banana curls cascaded past her shoulders and her tiara and veil struck a chord in my heart that still remains.  Her white satin and lace gown bellowed out, carrying a chapel train and as a child, I was mesmerized by its beauty. In awe with her presence, it became my heart’s desire to own one exactly like the one she had.  Elaine sometimes allowed me to play with her, but only for a few moments as she was possessive, fearing I might injure her most precious possession.  I, on the other hand, had only one doll– a Didy Doll.  It was an infant doll that when you poured water from a tiny bottle into her mouth, it released water from the bottom, between its legs, as if it had just peed.  That was the only doll I ever had.  I desperately longed for that bridal doll. I talked about it, dreamed about it and envy filled my mind with each passing day until I was to turn eight years old.

With all my pleading, beseeching and begging, my father never relented. He felt no value in a doll, especially when he struggled to make a living while my mother stayed home to tend to the household, my colicky brother and me.  As a youngster, there was no way I could appreciate my parent’s struggle nor could I reconcile the fact that Elaine had what I wanted and I didn’t.  I grew angry and impudent toward my father, thinking that he didn’t love me as much as Elaine’s father loved her.  None of this was accurate, but to a child, narcissism and self-centeredness is quite normal, thus feeling my anger and resentment was justified. Compassion and empathy were not yet fully developed.

It was two and a half years after we had moved to Miami Beach that we visited Elaine’s family back in the Bronx. The excitement and anticipation of seeing Elaine’s bridal doll once more, filled my days and weeks before we arrived. I was just about to turn eight years old.

“Tomorrow is your birthday and I have a surprise for you”, my father said. “We are going to take the train to Macy’s. There is a surprise waiting for you there.”

I flew into euphoria thinking that he was going to buy me the doll for my birthday—after all, what else could it be?  My prayers were finally going to be answered.  I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep the entire night.  I fantasized holding her, combing her curls, dressing her and rummaged through at least what seemed like a hundred names to call her. I finally chose Margaret, after Margaret O’Brien, the young actress who starred in the 1949 movie, The Secret Garden.

We took the train to Penn Station making it easy to reach Macy’s on 34th St.  I was beside myself with joy.  My Dad took my hand and we crossed the street and entered the store through the revolving doors. I was breathless and my heart was beating like a drum. I saw her almost immediately, on the right side of the corridor on the wall alongside the counter.  All the bridal dolls were lined up in the showcase, each with different color hair and wedding gowns.  My hand slipped from my father as I ran towards the counter in front of the display.  He quickly grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the back of the store towards the elevators.

“No, no, daddy!  It’s there, over there. We just passed the dolls,” I shouted. “Let’s go back.  I see her! I see her!” That moment of despair has never been forgotten.  He pulled me towards the elevator as my tears ran down my cheeks. I cried relentlessly for two days.

“A doll isn’t going to matter in your life, Joni.  I am going to buy you something that has much more value; something that will bring you joy for the rest of your life.” What could bring me more joy than the doll I waited for, that now stood fading behind me on the shelf in the distance?

We exited on the 8th floor and my father, full of pride, anticipation and excitement, brought me to a showcase that exhibited an 80-base chartreuse green accordion.“This is what has value, Joni.  This will bring you much more pleasure than a doll.”

I thought I understood what it must have felt like when you died, for in that moment, I was crushed to death by my father with his dream; not mine.

Despite my disappointment and disbelief, I learned how to become a virtuoso accordionist, perhaps even beyond my father’s wildest expectations.  Even with that accomplishment, my resentment towards my father grew exponentially and unconsciously with each passing year. Inexplicably, music became my passion, but the bridal doll never left my heart.

Seventy-two years later, on my 80th birthday, my daughter, Erika bought me the original Macy’s bridal doll. It stands on my dresser exactly as it appeared in the showcase in Macy’s so many years ago.

Now the Best Part

My father was right!  As I grew into my teens, taking up the flute in junior high school and continued playing through senior high at his insistence, I learned to love classical music.  I actually played Chopin on the accordion, a seemingly impossible task, as most accordionists were known for Lady of Spain. I began studying the accordion soon after my trip to Macy’s.  Upon to my return to Miami Beach, my father would shlep the accordion every Thursday to the hotel he worked at in downtown Miami, while I rode the city bus from Miami Beach. I waited until he finished work at the Walgreens around the corner on Flagler St., having my favorite hot roast beef sandwich topped with hot gravy and mashed potatoes, something I would never consider today.  We walked at least a mile, while he carried the accordion to the building whose name I don’t recall.  It was across the street from the old Dade County Courthouse. I can still see him walking 10 paces ahead of me, switching the accordion from hand to hand until we arrived at my music lesson.  He carried the accordion up the stairs to where my teacher, who reeked of alcohol, waited to hear the lessons I had practiced two hours each day; one before my dad came home from work, and another with him sitting by my side, approving or disapproving of every note.

“No! Stop!” he would shout. “You’re rushing!  Take your time and give it more feeling.” He reminded me to stay in rhythm with the metronome, a device that produces an audible click or other sound at a regular interval that can be set by the user. I played it over and over until he was satisfied, while my friends were either roller skating in Flamingo Park, at a school dance or party.  I performed every year at our high school Homecoming Coronation Festival until I was a senior and was voted Homecoming Princess, a huge honor that saved me from performing my senior year.  Instead, I walked down the aisle in what looked like a bridal gown with a tiara donned veilless on my head.  My father shed tears as he and my mother watched me walk towards the stage.  His pride was palpable.

I began playing the accordion professionally when I was 11 years old. I entertained the senior citizens at the Edison Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.  I was featured on the Alec Gibson Show, on Channel 4, playing The Tennessee Waltz.  I was 13 years old when I was hired to provide the entertainment along with a baton twirler and a tap dancer on the Bahama Star, a cruise ship that sailed from the port of Miami every weekend to Nassau.  I was the youngest musician to ever be accepted into the Musician’s Union.  I would be booked in club dates when I was still a minor.  My father would sit at a table towards the back of the bar watching over me like a hen, while a drunk patron, who could barely stand would saunter over to me and request Melancholy Baby, then slip a twenty-dollar bill down the back of my strapless dress. Today, my father would be alleged with child abuse, but that was in the 50’s and never even considered as such.  In fact, my father was proud that I was earning more money in 4 hours than what he earned in a week.  He faithfully deposited the money in a bank account that was to be used to help support my college education. He never took a penny from my earnings and neither did I. It was strictly allocated for college along with his financial assistance.

Summer Band Camp

In the summer when I was thirteen years old, my father sent me to the University of Miami Summer Band Camp.  The objective was to develop my musical skills on the flute.  It was another disappointment.  My choice would have been to go to a non-musical camp.  Obedience was a cultural norm where and when I grew up.  As my proficiency grew with the flute, my anger blossomed.

My parents finally had the opportunity to take their first vacation alone.  They went to Mexico, missing the Awards Banquet where I received numerous awards for the progress I attained.  The following year, my father made the same choice to send me again.  This was unfortunate because I was more interested in boys than the flute.  This time they attended the Awards Banquet.  As the night progressed, my father became more and more agitated hearing the other campers’ names called to receive their awards, not mine. As the night progressed, it was clear I was not to receive an award, I saw my father’s face turning red while his fingers were tapping on the table.  I knew I was in trouble.  This year I had a boyfriend instead of any awards.  This did not sit well with my father.

Our 1954 Ford sedan had been packed earlier that day with our luggage and several watermelons along with my accordion.  We were to leave the following morning for Gloversville to visit my maternal grandparents. My father decided to go on a personal protest that included cancelling our scheduled trip and going to bed for the next four days.  My mother was furious with my father and for the first time shared her heartache and disappointment with me.  Never before had she confided in me about my father’s temperament and cranky disposition.  She fled to the beach crying all the way.  Luckily, we lived just a few blocks from the beach.  Trailing behind her, I felt guilty and blamed myself for this fiasco.  I told her I was going to write a letter to Fred McCall, the Musical Director of the program and let him know that my father was so angry that I didn’t receive any awards, he cancelled our summer trip to see my grandparents.  I added fictitiously that my mother was considering a divorce.  (Melodrama was an inherent trait of mine.)  After four days, he relented and we drove north as planned with the watermelons rotting in the heated car.  By the time we were on highway 301 heading north without air-conditioning, he calmed down and forgot about the episode. When we returned home a few weeks later, there were piles of large envelopes in our mailing room.  Each contained an award with a letter of apology from Mr. McCall.


Dear Joan,

It appears that when we were cleaning out the camp office, we came across these awards that were not seen in time for the Awards Banquet.  We sincerely apologize for this error and any inconvenience it may have caused. I hope you will enjoy all the awards you so deserved. You were an excellent camper and a very talented musician.  

Sincerely,

Fred McCall, Director of the University of Miami Summer Band Camp


My mother looked at me, and I at her with silent hysterics.  My father was never so happy.  What a lesson I learned for my future with the male gender.  Enough said!

When I was 17 years old, I was invited to audition for a music scholarship with Bertha Foster, the founding regent of the University of Miami School of Music in Coral Gables, Florida.  Of course, it was denied simply because of practicality. There was no place for an accordion, neither in the band or orchestra. However, the refrains of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and more, still lingers in my mind, all these years later.

Today, Listening to  classical radio on Pandora accompanies my daily walks.  Strange as it may seem, it was my father who installed the love of music and it was my father who gave me opportunities to grow into the woman I am today.  The accordion and my father were the stepping stones in building my self-esteem and self-confidence; more than any bridal doll could ever do.  My dad laid the foundation for my success in my work as a Psychotherapist, Inspirational Speaker and Author.

He taught me to believe in myself, be true to myself, and never give up.  He was responsible for my appreciation of music and most of all, the gift of self-love—and he didn’t even know the positive impact he made on my life. Thank you, Daddy, wherever you are.  You gave me life and a life that matters.

There is so much more I can share about my dad—his more than 101 platitudes that drove me up a wall in my youth and now I find myself using them in my work today.  “If you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.  Don’t lock the barn door after the horses escape. Make hay while the sun shines. You can’t steal second base with one foot on first. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink “. These are just a few that blazed through my brain over and over.

My Dad worked very hard. He was a hotel clerk in downtown Miami.  I was blessed to inherit his work ethic as well as his morning ritual of drinking hot water and lemon, although not as faithfully.  I acquired his impeccable organizational skills, although not without the help of technology that was not available to him. I recall with nostalgia, my dad seated proudly at his Yamaha organ, in a state of enchantment, watching his shoulders rise in rhythm, as his fingers glided across the keys playing one of his favorites, April Showers.  When I visited him, he insisted that I listen to him play the new songs he had practiced and wrote. They were all recorded on the organ, and when he passed, my brother and I inherited more than a thousand tape cassettes that he had recorded.  We disposed most, but each randomly took about a dozen as memorabilia.  Sadly, there are no longer cassette players to hear them. There was scarcely a time he would raise his voice or lift a hand to either my brother or I. I cherish his unyielding devotion to my mother and our family. We were blessed to have him as our father.

My Dad was also an inventor, a self-taught electrician and could fix anything. I did not inherit any of these traits. Most of all, my dad was a wonderful human being, despite his misunderstood behaviors.  He had the most beautiful soft green eyes, a heart of gold and a sensitive soul.  It is true that he assigned his unmet dreams to me, but his intentions were pure, even though I couldn’t understand them as a child. He wanted me to have what had been deprived in his youth.  As an adult and an octogenarian now, I can fully appreciate how he devoted his time, energy and money to enrich my life. The sacrifices he made for my benefit will never go without gratitude. His legacy is my good fortune. As I close my eyes each evening before I drift into slumber, I can see my father’s face.  “Thank you, Daddy”, I whisper.

My Dad passed away in 1997 and there is not a day that he’s not in my thoughts.  My only regret is that as he grew older, I wasn’t as present as I could have been.  My life took me far away from the most precious times we might have enjoyed.  So today on Father’s Day, I celebrate my father, his life, his generosity of spirit and his uncompromising love and devotion to me.


Joan E Childs, LCSW is a renowned psychotherapist, author and inspirational speaker. In private practice since 1978, she specializes in individual and couple’s therapy, grief therapy, EMDR, NLP, inner child work and codependency. Learn more about her services at https://joanechilds.com/services/

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