Days of Long Ago

Anton Dvorak: Beloved composer and matchmaker


in First Person • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


Dozens of young adults, most of them Scandinavian tourists, were happily chattering in the lobby of Eilat’s Hotel Snapir soon after sunset, after having spent another toasty day on the beach. The lobby was uncomfortably warm, maybe due to the heat that radiated from the tourists’ sunburned skins. Passing through the lobby, I opened the French doors at an exit that gave access to the hotel’s veranda, where I looked about for a vacant chair. There were two unclaimed Adirondack chairs at the far end of the veranda, and I settled myself into the one that faced the sea. The evening air was cool enough that I opted to put on the windbreaker jacket I had brought with me. This would be my last evening in Eilat, as I had booked a morning flight to Tel Aviv, and in four more days I would be departing Israel for my frigid hometown in the U.S.  Reclining in the chair, I half-dozed while reflecting on the day that had passed and pondering which restaurant I might patronize for dinner. Little did I suspect that my decision to occupy a chair on the veranda of the Hotel Snapir would prove to be fateful — in a most beneficent way.  

Eilat, located on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba, certainly did not attract tourists because of its pebbly, sorry little beach, but because of its appealing wintertime weather, dependably sunny and warm during the daytime yet cool at night, and because of the fabulous Coral Beach, a short bus ride away, which rewarded scuba divers and snorkelers with exhilarating views of marine life. I had greatly enjoyed several hours of solitude — just the fish and me — at Coral Beach earlier in the day. The Scandinavians, though, didn’t seem to be interested in marine life, nor did they seem to mind the rather spartan conditions on the hotel’s beach, where they sat for hours in a tight cluster, all stripped to a bare minimum of swim attire, baking contentedly under the desert sun. I was surprised that the town was, in 1972, hardly developed, with a resident population of only a few thousand souls, a half-dozen hotels, and several simple but overpriced restaurants.  

“Pardon me,” came a voice out of nowhere, asking sweetly, “Are you saving this chair?” It was the voice of a young female, who, standing a few feet away, was addressing me and pointing to the Adirondack chair close to mine. It was the only chair on the veranda that remained vacant. I looked up and was nearly unnerved by the sight (or was it a crepuscular illusion?): There stood a tall, slender, strikingly good-looking woman — no doubt one of the Scandinavians — who smiled pleasantly while awaiting my reply. “N-no, no,” I stammered, “no one is using that chair . . . it’s all yours.” I probably spoke in a voice like that of a high school nerd who was being invited to the prom by the head cheerleader. I probably blushed, too. The young woman had brought with her a transistor radio, from which emanated the sounds of symphonic music. Placing the radio on the broad armrest of the chair, she seated herself, covered her legs with a lap blanket, and closed her eyes. I recognized the music: It was Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” a piece that had enchanted me since childhood. I, too, closed my eyes and focused on the music that was wafting, ever so softly, from her chair to mine. We became linked — however ephemerally — by the music. 

There was a brief pause in the music as the symphony’s first movement came to an end, and then came the introductory theme of the second movement — which, to my mind, is the most evocative music ever composed. Now my mind drifted, as I knew it would, back in time, back to the seventh grade, to the Music Appreciation class taught by Mrs. Murray.  During that semester-long class, Mrs. Murray played only two pieces of music for us: Smetana’s “The Moldau” and Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” For the Dvorak piece, she taught us lyrics to accompany the principal theme of the second movement. We would listen to an orchestral recording of the second movement, and then, in unison, we would sing the lyrics. Ever since the seventh grade, my brain has, at random moments of the day, compulsively replayed that theme and those lyrics. 

After the end of the second movement, I became oblivious to the music that was being played on my neighbor’s radio, because I was fixated on the lyrics that I had learned in Mrs. Murray’s classroom.  Where had they originated? Who wrote them? I knew that the New World Symphony has proved to be hugely popular ever since its premiere in 1893, and I suspect that many people today could, if prompted, hum the theme from the second movement. But I haven’t needed any prompting, as my brain just plays the theme to suit itself, again and again, at random moments during the day. And, with the music, I hear words; my brain sings the words to me. What are those words? They are, of course, the lyrics that I learned from Mrs. Murray. And that has created a problem for me because it seems that no one else in the world has heard the words that I hear. 

I did learn that in 1922 someone named William Arms Fisher, a former student of Dvorak’s, wrote some maudlin lyrics that he adapted to the theme of the second movement, thereby concocting a faux spiritual to which he attached the title “Goin’ Home.” It has proved to be popular in the U.S., particularly at funerals. Fisher’s lyrics are memorable if only for their contrived, specious naivete:  

“Goin’ home, goin’ home, 

I’m a goin’ home, 

Quiet-like, some still day, 

I’m jes goin’ home, 

It’s not far, jes close by . . . etc., etc.” 

But the words that my brain has been singing to me ever since the seventh grade are different, very different, and I have cherished them (even though, with the passage of years, I may have misquoted a word or two of the original lyrics that we were taught by Mrs. Murray): 

“Long ago//Long ago 

When I was a child, 

There were eyes//Like the skies 

That looked on me and smiled: 

Then I heard//Many a word 

Soothe with gentle art 

All the fears//And the tears 

Of my childish heart. 

Years have gone//Years go on 

Like the tides that flow, 

But my mind//Keeps enshrined 

Days . . . of . . . long . . . ago . . . 

Days . . . of . . . long . . . ago . . .” 

I have inquired of many of my seventh-grade classmates, at reunions and by telephone, but no one else could recall having learned such lyrics in Mrs. Murray’s classroom. In fact, only a few could even remember having been exposed to the New World Symphony in her classroom. (Ironically, though, a couple of classmates said they were familiar with the lyrics of Fisher’s “Goin’ Home”!) I even contacted a well-known musicologist, who was not able to shed any light on the matter. Where, I have often asked myself, did I learn these lyrics if not in Mrs. Murray’s classroom and, more importantly, who should be given the credit for writing them? And why am I so consumed by them? 

I don’t know the answer to the first question. I could not have invented the lyrics myself, that’s for sure. But I’m confident of the answer to the second question: These lyrics, of uncertain provenance, are the stuff of real poetry — in contrast to Fisher’s lame jargon — and they blend harmoniously with Dvorak’s haunting melody, evoking in the listener an ineffable sentiment of profound nostalgia and melancholia. For me, the music and the words, which I hear every day, again and again, always bring me back to my seventh-grade music class, those days of long ago which are forever enshrined in my mind. And if only I could go back . . . then, maybe, Mrs. Murray would tell me who wrote these lyrics. I wonder if it could have been Mrs. Murray herself. Who knows? 

My reverie came to an end when the radio broadcast of Dvorak’s symphony came to an end. I opened my eyes to find that my neighbor, the comely young woman, had already pulled down her radio antenna and folded her blanket and was now standing and facing me. “I hope the music didn’t disturb you,” she said with a smile, “I should have asked your permission, but you had closed your eyes.” 

“Oh, no . . . don’t worry about that,” I sputtered, “I love that symphony . . . it’s my most favorite music.”  

“Mine, too. I just adore the second movement.” She smiled at me again, and her perfect teeth dazzled. “Well, I have to go now . . . time for dinner. You have a wonderful evening.” And, like a dream, she vanished. The link that had been created by Dvorak’s music was broken. Or was it? We both loved the New World Symphony, so we would always have that in common, even if we never saw one another again . . . wouldn’t we?  

The rest of my evening wasn’t so wonderful. I walked to a nearby restaurant, where I contented myself with a falafel for dinner. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was a perfect dork: Why couldn’t I have invited that sweet, luscious young lady to join me for dinner? Of course, she likely had already made dinner plans, but what had I to lose? On the other hand, what would have been the point? The next morning, I would be departing Eilat and going to Tel Aviv, and returning to the U.S. a few days after that, while she would be returning to Stockholm or Copenhagen or wherever. 

The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and walked to the Eilat Airport, less than a mile away. The airport consisted of a single runway and an oversized Quonset hut that served as a passenger terminal. I had come nearly to the end of my three-week holiday in Israel, with only four days in Tel Aviv remaining. I sat down on a bench inside the terminal and opened a book, awaiting the boarding call for my flight. Then I heard a female voice close by, a voice that seemed to be addressing me . . . wait . . . where had I heard that voice before?   

“Hi, how are you?” were the words I heard. I looked up and was astonished to see the young woman whom I had met on the hotel veranda. She was just as stunning in the bright light of morning as she had been in the shadows of evening. She inquired, “Are you waiting for a flight to Tel Aviv?”  

“Yes, I’ll be boarding soon.” 

“Oh, you’ll enjoy Tel Aviv. It’s a lot of fun. I’ll be returning there tomorrow myself.” She introduced herself as Dahlia and said she had come to the airport to buy a newspaper. The only newsstand in Eilat, she explained, was located at the airport. I couldn’t believe that this beautiful, engaging young woman, who had come to the airport for the sole purpose of purchasing a newspaper, would recall having spoken with me briefly the night before and would now be initiating another conversation. 

“So, your name is Dahlia? Isn’t that an unusual name in Sweden?”  

Smiling benignly, she held up her newspaper and pointed to the Hebrew print. “No, I’m Israeli. I’m sure that Swedish people don’t read Ha’aretz. Do you?”  

“Yes, but with some difficulty.” Just then I heard the announcement to board the airplane. There was no time to spare, so I abruptly asked the young woman if she would like to meet in Tel Aviv. She replied in the affirmative and wrote down her phone number.  

I flew to Tel Aviv in a state of rapture. I believe I could have flown there without the airplane. The next day I picked up Dahlia in a rental car and we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at an Arab restaurant in Old Jaffa. Dahlia then agreed to take leave from work and spend the next three days touring Israel with me. We drove up the coast, visiting Caesarea, Haifa and Akko. Throughout the trip, my brain played the theme from the second movement of Dvorak’s symphony in an endless loop. On the last day of my visit, I proposed marriage. Dahlia was a little shocked yet managed a wry smile, not agreeing to my proposal but urging me to go home and think about it. If, she said, after several weeks you are still of a mind to get married, come back to Israel and we will spend more time together. I did return after six weeks, for a 10-day visit, at the end of which I again proposed. This time Dahlia agreed, and 51 years later we are still married. We give full credit to Anton Dvorak, our favorite composer, for making it happen.•


Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, living in Bethesda, MD. Since retiring, he has – with his wife’s indulgence – enjoyed a long-deferred dalliance with creative writing. Several of his short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines and newspapers. Awards include First Prize in The Bethesda Magazine Short Story contest for 2022 and Runner-up Prize for the Preservation Foundation Short Story contest for 2000.