Today I listened, for the first time in too many years to count, to an album that can only be associated with my mother. She was in that nether world between living and dying. At the wheel of my little red (station) wagon, I’d pop that thing called a cassette into the tape player. The year was 1993, and this particular cassette (which I still have even if I have no device on which to listen to it) got me through the drive to and from the hospital.
Enter Apple Music. In a flash, an easy search, and the album was mine for the streaming. Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Special Guess Helen Merrill.
The beauty of an album is its cohesiveness—the segue from song to song. In the days before CD technology took over, fast forwarding to the song you most wanted to hear took a certain finesse, not always worth the effort. Call it comfort. Call it an excuse to let the tears flow after time spent touching, smiling (even making jokes), then planting a kiss on the cheek or forehead of my mother to remind her I had visited. But that trio of songs on Side A—You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to/My Funny Valentine/Here’s That Rainy Day—was all I needed.
Today it’s snowing, even if the mildness of our Northeast winter this year had us thinking/hoping we’d go right into spring after so much snow from just one blizzard disappeared unusually quickly. (Then again, it is February, the shortest month, the leap-year month, the one most riddled with metaphor, on the cusp of spring as it is.) The gift of looking outside through a picture window as my thoughts lure me inside is not something I take for granted. The snowfall is winding down, more like dust particles or what meteorologists call snow showers. One of things I always relish is the enveloping silence snow holds. And the way it clings to the bark of a tree. Until it’s gone.
She was a big fan of Billy Eckstine, which always suggested something to me re: her appreciation for voice. Sure, she had a thing for Sinatra, too, but Ol’ Blue Eyes encompasses something even bigger than his voice. An inscription at the beginning of David Lehman’s love song of sorts, Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, says it all:
May you live to be a hundred,
And may the last voice you hear be mine. – FS
I listen to his voice a lot, with an appreciation that has only grown over the years. If that LP with a winking Sinatra (Come Dance With Me!) or the one with a harlequin painting on the cover, one tear dropping from Sinatra’s eye (Only the Lonely) didn’t captivate me as a young girl, there was always a movie (A Hole in the Head) giving me “High Hopes.” Years later would come late nights in the East Hampton design shop that had me pinch-hitting for the friend/ partner my husband lost to AIDS, the open door and Sinatra on a summer night an invitation as good as it would get to get past window shopping.
But this isn’t about Sinatra per se, even if listening to him can still bring on the tears and the memories. It’s about chords that reach deep, simply by virtue of the music they make.
To my surprise, I did not get weepy at that trio of Billy Eckstine songs. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to time passed, and with it, the smoothing down of those jagged edges of memory. But maybe there’s something else at play as well. Yip Harburg, legendary lyricist who gave us “April in Paris” (not to mention all the songs in The Wizard of Oz) is credited with this quote in Lehman’s book:
Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song can make you feel a thought.
So here’s a thought: maybe music is my madeleine. And even if a song can fill me with a longing for something long gone, listening to it years later is as much a reflection on all that’s changed in my life as it is a reminder that, whatever visitations I get, there’s no real going home to a home no longer there.
Coda: Lo and behold, it turns out that music occupies a room of its own in our brains. My neurological music room is a full one, for sure, and a mixed bag that surprises even me with the moments of serendipity it conjures.