Without His Fingers

The day was hot and humid, typical of a Philly summer. Bernie and John couldn’t wait for their ocean swim. They always took a dip before a concert, no matter what the weather. It was their ritual, a way to release tension and diffuse the jitters that accompanied a performance.  But with sweat already clinging to their shirts, they were even more eager than usual.

The concert would be held at the Metropolitan Opera House or perhaps the Academy of Music on Broad and Locust at 8 p.m. that evening.  So it must have been around noon, after a morning practice, when they felt as ready as they’d ever be, that they hopped a bus for Atlantic City, arriving an hour or two later.

I can see them during the ride, jibing each other, laughing, joking. And I hear Bernie asking John to pinch him, still in disbelief that he was a violinist in The Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps that night, Leopold Stokowski was conducting, the innovator who encouraged “free bowing” and was helping to create a unique, Philadelphia sound. The New York Times had just praised the Orchestra as possessing “uncommon excellence,” and Stokowski had no small part in its evolution. Would the program include Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor? I like to think so, like to believe that Bernie was anticipating playing one of his favorite pieces, the last great work of the Romantic composer, with its immediate entrance of the soloist, who, if Bernie worked hard enough, he would surely one day be.

In Atlantic City, the sand must have felt good under their feet. Soon, hard shoes and stiff tuxes would bind them, but now they were as free as their bows, imbibing the sea air, running toward the waves, admiring the female bathers. It was 1923, early in the decade, and they, too, were in their early twenties, embodiments of the period’s youthful exuberance. They dove into the surf, perhaps hearing in the rush of water the concerto’s frenetic, final coda.

After an hour or so, Bernie swam back to shore. Time to go. Their towels were where they left them, in a heap. In the water, he and John had drifted apart, one doing a fast crawl, the other lazily floating. Bernie must have been drying himself off, looking casually to the placid blue surface for his friend. There had been a light current, a bit of an undertow, but nothing out of the ordinary. He spotted a curly blond head that he at first thought was John, but no. He glanced toward the dressing stalls, their established meeting place, but John wasn’t there either. Bernie returned to the water’s edge, getting his feet and then legs wet again. With his hand blocking the sun, he gazed more carefully now, out, far out, and up and down the coast. And then, the first inkling that something was wrong. His stomach must have tightened, his breathing grown rapid. Time passed, and then the real panic set in.  Rushing to a lifeguard. Shouting down the beach, questioning everyone he saw. Thirty minutes, sixty. Longer.

That night, the string section was surely a little off. Someone had to fill in for the missing player, and if Bernie played at all, it must have been out of key. The search continued for weeks, but John was never found, drowning listed as the official cause of death. Soon thereafter, one of Bernie’s fingers began to ache.

Bernie, Bernard Greenberg, was my great uncle, and before I tell the rest of that story, here are a few things you might want to know: Bernie grew up lower-middle class in the Logan area of Philadelphia, the second child of four in a secular Jewish family. His parents owned two delicatessens in Strawberry Mansion. He was a happy, loving kid, known for being a prankster, often dangerously so. Once, pretending he was Zorro, he carved a Z into my aunt’s arm with a pocketknife, and that was tame in comparison to some of his other antics. My grandmother Rosella, married to Oscar Kahn, brother of noted architect Louis, was his sister. The family was close and Bernie, despite his mischievous nature, was a favored member. He was handsome and athletic, known for his nasty English, both on a ball and in speech. And then, of course, there was the music, the combination of passion and talent, charged with that ineffable something that separated him from the crowd. His pranks were infamous, but everyone knew that his violin would make him famous.

His left ring finger was the first to suffer. Why that one, I don’t know, maybe because Bernie never had the chance to marry, even though, before he got sick, he had a girl in mind. Soon all of his fingers turned cold, went white, then blue. For a while he could play through the soreness, but soon the pain became unbearable. One, then another and another, until he was forced to quit the orchestra and seek medical help.

The family thought his symptoms were related to the shock of losing his friend. And maybe in part they were. But on what I can only envision as a gray winter’s day, with snow beginning to fall, Bernie was diagnosed with Beurger’s disease, a circulatory disorder where the body essentially attacks its own blood vessels. All organs can be involved but the limbs and digits are especially affected. Pathologist and namesake, Leo Beurger, first identified the disease in 1908, and Bernie was one of the first patients to undergo Beurger’s trial and error treatments at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York.

I could describe in graphic detail his twenty-two years in and out of hospitals, the freezing and boiling baths, the nerve surgeries, the eventual amputations. I could tell you of the constant agony, of pain so excruciating that my uncle became addicted to morphine. And I could, and should, tell you that cigarette smoking was related to the disease, and that, despite being told that he would lose his toes as well as his fingers if he didn’t quit, Bernie continued to smoke. That was before the tobacco industry even knew enough to lie about how addictive their products were. I could tell you about this nightmare. Yes, I could tell about when the music stopped. But I’d rather tell you about when it began again, when spring finally returned.

By the time I came into consciousness, the disease had burned itself out.  I wasn’t there when Bernie swore there were bats flying in his hospital room or when he stood over my parent’s bed, begging my father, a physician, for a fix. By my time, Bernie was in his forties, living with my great-grandmother in L.A. He had gone cold turkey off all drugs and was a frequent visitor in our home. The only remnants of his illness were his constantly perspiring forehead, and of course, the mangled stubs where his shapely, violinist fingers used to be. I grew up with those stubs and thought nothing of them. It took others’ reactions to make me understand that they could be disturbing. Nor did it strike me odd at all when, after taking a year of piano lessons with a mediocre instructor, Bernie became my teacher.

I don’t recall how the deal was struck, but I’ll never forget those sessions. I was young, only nine when they started and seventeen at the end. Bernie was patient, but also demanding. He wouldn’t tolerate a sluggish trill, too heavy of a pedal. Every note was to be defined, every passage a delicate balance of restraint and force. Often, it was too much for me. Sometimes I’d run out the room, screaming and crying.  I’d tell him I hated him. But there were other times, when we were in a groove, when his stubs would sway over me like a conductor’s baton, and the music came to life. All those scales, those repetitions until I thought I’d go mad, suddenly paid off, and my hands flew over the keyboard, smooth and clear. At those moments, I cared for nothing else. My mother might call us to dinner, and I’d shoo her away. We were in a world of our own, one that, without his fingers, my uncle had made possible.

Soon, word spread. “Ona’s pretty good at the piano. Who’s her teacher?” “Bernie, her Uncle Bernie.”

 “But he doesn’t have…”

That must have often been the reaction. But it didn’t prevent anyone from pursuing him as a teacher. First to sign up was a friend of mine down the street, and then another around the corner. As his fingers had once fallen, one by one, his list of students, for violin as well as piano, grew, until he had more than he could handle. It was the autumn of his life, but he was in high demand.

Now he was Bernard Green, music teacher. He’d dropped the “berg” to make his Jewish identity less certain, although the Yiddish obscenities that peppered his talk were a bit of a giveaway. He lived, as did we, in an area where vague and sometimes overt anti-Semitic sentiment was common. The change was purely a business decision, and it may have contributed to him getting his foot (minus his toes) in the door. He frightened some initially, more with his expectations than his deformity, but everyone recognized his gift. He breathed music, and the air entered our lungs, traveled to our brains, and sent a special message to our fingers.

A few other things about Bernie:

He had a cockatoo that stood on his head and ordered him, by name, to wake up.

He was an animal whisperer before the term was known.

His room was crowded with National Geographics and smelled like Old Spice.

He repeatedly dropped cigarette ashes into our Steinway.

He feared my Beatlemania.

He pretended to hate my mother’s meatloaf.

He drank up my father’s scotch.

He could have done stand-up comedy.

It is lately, as I approach the age when he died, that I think not only about what Bernie might have been, but what he was. To say that he overcame adversity is an understatement. Like many artists, he created beauty out of anguish. But also, in his quiet way, he transformed lives. When children asked him in horror what had happened to him, he would say that he didn’t listen to his mother when she told him not to play in the street. When adults stared, he smiled back. Without his fingers, he touched everyone he met. Still, I like to think of him that summer day back in ‘23, before the drowning, with John alive, and all possibility before him, running toward the waves, with his hands outstretched, reaching for the horizon.

Ona Russell is an educator, mediator and widely published writer whose story, “The (O)ther Kahn,”  was published in Philadelphia Stories and included in the first Best of Philadelphia Stories anthology.  She has just completed her third historical mystery, which will be out next year.